2010 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 84 – 78 (3rd AL East)
2008: 97 – 65
2007: 66 – 96
2006: 61 – 101
2005: 67 – 95

Runs Scored: 803 (5th AL)
Runs Allowed: 754 (7th AL)

Season Recap:

Optimism reigned supreme on the heels of an amazing run into to the World Series.  I warned you, however, that while the team looked good there were reasons to suspect that the Rays might under-perform.  The Rays were good, but couldn’t catch any breaks on the road and, as such, couldn’t keep up with the Yankees or Red Sox when the race got going.

The Rays were never really out of it despite a 9 – 14 April, and after a fantastic June (19 – 7) were in the thick of the race.  Unfortunately, the Yankees blew the doors open in July and August while the Rays suddenly got flat.  Scott Kazmir, unhealthy and unproductive was sent to Anaheim.  Carlos Pena, leading the AL in homers at the time, broke his wrist.  Troy Percival was injured and eventually hung up the spikes.  When September came calling, the Rays were far enough out to throw in the towel – and they did, fading from 13 over .500 to just six over at the end.

Pitching:

In 2008, backed by a sure-handed and mobile defense, the pitching over delivered.  In 2009, the defense slipped and a few holes were discovered in the rotation.  Matt Garza became the ace and James Shields – usually dependable – gave up 239 hits in 220 innings, 29 of them homers.  Scott Kazmir made just 20 starts and finished with an ERA just shy of 6.00…  Andy Sonnestine, as warned, was eminently hittable, finishing with a 6.77 ERA and earning the Anti-Cy – the pitcher costing his team the most runs with his below average pitching.

Two good things came out of the experimenting required by Joe Maddon.  Rookie David Price showed flashes, winning 10 games, and Jeff Niemann was even better, making 30 starts, winning 13 games, and showing good control and command.

In the bullpen, Troy Percival made just 14 appearances, eventually having to be replaced by J.P. Howell at the back end of the bullpen.  However, Maddon used a committee as required, as Randy Choate (5), Grant Balfour (4), Joe Nelson (3), and four others wound up with saves.

Looking ahead, the Rays should have a decent enough rotation.  Shields should bounce back some, Garza is back, Niemann returns, Price will get 30+ starts, and rookie Wade Davis should pick up 20 – 25 starts.  If Davis is even 10 runs below average, he’s saving the team 25 runs over last season.  15 more starts of David Price will be worth another 30 runs.  I like the rotation to be at least 50 runs better than in 2009.

The bullpen adds closer Rafael Soriano from Atlanta and returns the core of what has been a very dependable bullpen – Howell, Choate, Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.  I like the bullpen to be at least 15 runs better than in 2009 as well.

Catching:

Dioner Navarro is back – hopefully lighter than last year, as his bat slipped mightily in 2009.  He’s essentially a league average backstop – right on the average against the run, has a decent reputation with handling the pitchers but isn’t as mobile as you would like.  Kelly Shoppach was signed from Cleveland to back up Navarro – and he is good enough to take up the slack if Navarro slips some more.

Infield:

In 2008, the infield defense was a big reason that the Rays won the AL East.  However, Carlos Pena showed signed that he might not be as mobile as he had been as a gold glove caliber first baseman.  Additionally, his batting average fell to .227, though he did continue to get on base and knock out homers.  Pena has had an up and down career and, nearing 32, his prime seasons are nearly over.

Akinori Iwamura went down to a horrible knee injury, but returns to play for Pittsburgh.  The reason Iwamura was allowed to move was the remarkable season of Ben Zobrist, who fielded his position very well and broke out with 27 homers and a .407 OBP.

Jason Bartlett hit better than expected – finishing at .320 with a .490 slugging percentage – but ankle injuries affected his range and he went from someone worth of a gold glove to someone challenging Derek Jeter for the worst range at short.  One hopes he finds his old mobility, but if he produces 103 runs of offense, nobody will notice.

Evan Longoria remains the best third baseman in baseball – he looks like the new Mike Schmidt.  A 40 homer season wouldn’t be out of the question, as he finished with 33 homers in 2009 and had 44 doubles, too.

Backing this unit up is Willie Aybar, who can play third and first and hit well enough.  Reid Brignac is a prospect who appears to have hitting skills but hasn’t shown range in the field.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford returns in left field, as good a fielder as there is out in left and a very productive hitter.  Crawford is known for his 60 stolen bases, but he added 51 extra base hits while hitting .305.

B.J. Upton will be the wild card of 2010.  Battling shoulder and leg injuries, Upton’s range numbers in the outfield were problematic and he finished at .241 and didn’t slug .400.  For a while, Upton was at the top of the lineup and getting in the way.  If he bounces back and shows the form he displayed in the 2008 World Series, the Rays will get 30 extra runs of offense and 20 extra runs of defense.  If not, the Rays may not be able to compete.

Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross shared right field (with Ben Zobrist, until he moved to second base).  Both are acceptable in the field, but don’t add much to the offense.  Matt Joyce, formerly of Detroit, may get the nod in 2010.  He’s got young legs and potential at the plate – 30 homer power though he might not make it if he doesn’t curb the strikeouts.  Desmond Jennings, a prospect at Durham, might sneak in and take over as well.

Backing these guys up are Zobrist and Aybar, as well as DH (and disappointment) Pat Burrell.  Burrell’s 14 – 64 – .221 season meant that the Rays will give former Ranger Hank Blalock a shot at the DH role in 2010.

Prospects:

Looking at AAA Durham, you see people who have already gotten a shot…  Justin Ruggiano has some power and speed but is a bit old as a prospect.  Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce are already Rays.  Among the pitchers, Wade Davis is going to make the roster after going 10 – 8 for the Bulls with a 3.40 ERA and a 140/60 K/BB ratio in 158.2 innings.  Jeremy Hellickson will likely start at Durham in 2010, but was 6 – 1 in nine starts at the end of the season last year with 70 Ks in 57.1 innings.  Hellickson is the ace in waiting for now.

Hellickson had 11 starts for AA Montgomery, winning three of four decisions with 62 Ks, 14 BBs, and only 41 hits allowed in 56.2 innings.  Only reliever Paul Phillips looked ready for AAA.  Aneury Rodriguez is young (22) and pitched okay for the Biscuits but could stand to improve his control.  The best hitter in AA was Desmond Jennings, who finished at .316 with 37 steals (caught just five times), earning a nod to Durham where he hit .325 there with 15 more steals.  Jennings could take over in centerfield if Upton gets hurt.

A+ Charlotte has a few pitchers to watch in AA next year to see if they can continue to command the strike zone in Jeremy Hall, Alexander Cobb, and Darin Downs.  All three had good ERAs, good strikeout and walk numbers, and winning records.

Bowling Green (A) featured Matt Moore, a live-armed kid who fanned 176 but walked 70 in 123 innings.  Josh Satow was the closer, getting 20 saves, strikeing out 65 and walking just 15 in 63 innings.  Andy Finch and I saw Tim Beckham and Kyeong Kang when touring the midwest last summer.  Beckham has the air of stardom and is still a teen.  Kang looks to have a little power, hit .307 and had a .390 OBP.

The Rays have a young roster, and they have PROSPECTS.

Outlook:

I like the Rays to be very competitive.  Unlike 2009, where I thought the team might take a step back from the World Series peak, I see reasons for optimism.  I think the starters, absent Sonnestine and Kazmir’s poor performances, will show improvement.  I like B.J. Upton’s chances of having a breakout season.  And, I’m optimistic that the Rays can close games better than in 2009.  Working against that is the fact that I think Zobrist may slip, Pena might age, and Bartlett may have peaked as a hitter.

I think the Rays will score a few more runs – maybe 810 – but allow a lot less, possibly as few as 680 runs.  If so, the Rays will win 95 games.  Working against this is the strength of the division, which includes what should be an improving Baltimore club.  So, despite what the system tells me, my hunch is that they might fall a few wins short of 95, and it might mean barely missing the playoffs.  Still, the system says 95 and that’s what I am putting on my board.

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2009 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Tampa Bay Rays
2008: 97-65 (1st AL East, League Champions)
Runs Scored: 774
Runs Allowed: 671

What a ride!  A team that had never before approached .500 made a series of impressive moves, getting younger and more talented, adding a key veteran as necessary, and getting skilled guidance from a manager who looks like a science teacher and believes in winning.

At the outset, many people predicted that they would be improved.  A few people, including me, thought they would be above .500 and possibly competitive – and the Rays went further than that.  They held down the high powered offenses of the AL East, held off Boston not only for the division crown but also for a trip to the World Series, and look to be a team that might be among the best teams in the AL for the foreseeable future.

Looking Back on 2008

To anyone who really studied what the Rays did, you really have to start with the defense.  In 2007, there were a TON of holes.  You had two outfielders who couldn’t find their way to the ball in Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes.  You had weak play at second and short, especially Brendan Harris – who really is better than he played in 2007, but wasn’t very good that year.  The bullpen was atrocious and a few starters were not long term solutions but just warm bodies, which meant that there were too many people on base.  Batters would walk or the ball would find holes or even leave the park.  The 2007 Rays allowed more than 900 runs.

The trade of Harris and Young to Minnesota for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza immediately improved the team by 70 runs.  Bartlett is an amazing shortstop, acrobatic and sure.  Garza is a legitimate starter – an upgrade over Casey Fossum.  Getting Evan Longoria to the big leagues and moving Akinori Iwamura to second put a tremendous defender at the hot corner, and Iwamura was solid at second.  Not especially rangy, but good on the double play and not prone to errors.

What this did, of course, by strengthening the infield defense (Strengthen? It was air tight!) was give the Rays pitchers confidence that no matter where the ball was put in play, it was going to be turned into an out.  So, pitchers just needed to throw strikes.  If they did that, they would strike a few more people out and the fielders would turn batted balls into outs.  Stress free pitching.

When it was all over, the Rays pitchers were near the top of the league in strikeouts.  They cut the walks down – they allowed fewer free passes than the league average.  The high strikeout count meant fewer balls in play, but even there it didn’t matter because no team in the American League was even CLOSE to the efficiency of the Rays defense.  Nobody turned more balls in play into outs than Tampa.  And, those that got on base were removed by double plays at a well above league average rate.  Oh, and the catching was above average against the run, and with hardly anyone on base anyway, nobody allowed fewer stolen bases than Tampa.

Oh yeah.  The offense wasn’t horrible either.  About as good as the Yankees last year.

One other quick thing before we talk about the specifics – the pitching staff was remarkably healthy.  Scott Kazmir was out a little early in the year, but after that you had four guys make at least 30 starts and Kazmir had 27 starts.  Troy Percival injured his hamstring at the end of the season, but the rest of the staff was pretty stable.  And that didn’t hurt either.

Tell me about that offense

Looking up and down the lineup, what you see are no superstars, but no weak sisters either.  The average hitter can be expected to put about 4.7 runs per 27 outs on the scoreboard, no regular on the Rays was below that.

Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena serve as the power bookends.  Pena dropped a bit from 2007’s peak season numbers, but still hit 32 homers and knocked in 102.  He strikes out a lot (166 times), but he draws walks.  Longoria, for a rookie, hit like Mike Lowell in his early years – good power, RBIs, and a decent .272 batting average.  Had he played a full season of games, he would have cleared 30 – 100 himself.  In between, Iwamura and Bartlett weren’t huge run producers, but slapped the ball around enough to contribute.  Backup Willy Aybar had a decent season – mid range power, a few walks, and above league average production in 300-plus at bats.

In the outfield, B. J. Upton’s power numbers were down – he and Carl Crawford had similar power numbers – but both contributed offensively.  In Upton’s case, he’s still young and the Up(ton) side is scary high.  A collection of helpers played in right and the designated hitter role, all being productive when called upon.  Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Gross, and Eric Hinske all contributed – giving the Rays a variety of options for the daily scorecard.

Behind the plate, Dioner Navarro just missed .300 by a couple of hits – and had a number of game changing hits.  His backup, Shawn Riggans, was one of only two players with at least 80 at bats who was a below average run producer (Johnny Gomes was the other).  However, neither was WAY below average – they just didn’t have big seasons in about 150 at bats.

Defensively:

I discussed the net results before – but here are the details.  Longoria had a positive range factor of 6.3 – meaning he made six plays more than the average third basemen for every 800 balls in play.  He also started 26 double plays while making only 12 errors, which means that he helped save his pitchers some 15 runs over the course of the season.  Iwamura was average in terms of range, but well above average in his double play ratio (109 DPs, only 7 errors), so he helped save another three or four runs.  Bartlett’s range is slightly better than Longoria’s (6.5); he was saving his team twelve runs.  Despite all three fielders making more plays than expected, Pena continued with his solid defensive play, making an above average number of plays after taking out the assists of his fielders.

Crawford and Upton were better than average fielders, each saving his team more than 10 runs with above average range.  Hinske was great in right, not so good in left, but the net was okay.  Gabe Gross came over and gave the team seven above average fielders behind the pitcher on a day-to-day basis.  Johnny Gomes and Hinske were the only regulars to show below average defensive numbers.  Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist were decent fielding options.

Dioner Navarro was a pretty good catcher, though slightly mistake prone and not necessarily very mobile.  Riggans is a solid number two, and even better than Navarro against the run.

Now Pitching…

Knowing how good the defense was, you have to look at the pitchers a bit differently.  Both James Shields and Scott Kazmir are good pitchers – but they are not GREAT pitchers.  They had a lot of help.  Matt Garza was actually slightly below average once you remove the help of his defenders, and both Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnestine were below average.

The average ERA in the AL last year was 4.34.  For Tampa Bay, the team finished at 3.82.  However, by my count, the team’s defense was 109 runs better than the average AL squad.  That means that, on the whole, the Rays pitching was actually slightly WORSE than average.

Pitcher Innings Runs Allowed Modified Runs Allowed RA/9 MRA/9
Scott Kazmir 152.33 61 73 3.60 4.31
James Shields 215 94 112 3.93 4.69
Matt Garza 184.67 83 99 4.05 4.82
Andy Sonnestine 193.33 105 125 4.89 5.82
Edwin Jackson 183.33 91 108 4.47 5.30

Looking at it this way, only the top two starters were better than league average (and Shields only barely), Garza was at league average (slightly below, actually), and Jackson and Sonnestine will be fighting for a job once David Price is moved into the rotation.

The bullpen had a couple of great performances from Grant Balfour and J.P Howell – but the rest were average to below average performances.  (Okay, Dan Wheeler was above average, too.)   The good news was that, with five guys logging more innings than any Rays staff before, the bullpen wasn’t usually exposed.  And, they got help from the defense behind them.  The weakest reliever in a key role was Troy Percival.  Balfour’s season, even after taking the defense into consideration, was truly remarkable.  Less than a hit allowed every HALF inning, 82 strikouts in 58.1 innings, only three homers allowed.  One of the greatest seasons by a middle reliever/set up man ever.  By the way, moving Price to the closer role in the playoffs was a necessity – the rest of the bullpen after Balfour and Howell weren’t all that good anyway.

Forecasting 2009:

Last year, the Rays scored 774 runs and allowed just 671.  So, to remain at 90+ wins, they have to keep things the same – outscore their opponents by 100 runs. 

The only real change on offense will be replacing Cliff Floyd and Johnny Gomes with Pat Burrell at the DH position.  Burrell is a consistent hitter and if he can stay involved in games (and not have to play the field), that could be worth 10 or 15 more runs.  The rest of the offense (and defense) is relatively unchanged.  While the players might be a little better, the only ones who have a chance to be REALLY improved are B. J. Upton and Evan Longoria.  Upton is coming off of shoulder surgery in November, so he might not be ready on opening day.   Longoria could step up, too, but his replacement (Willie Aybar) had a good season last year anyway – so it might only net to about five runs.  Longoria might have a sophomore slump for a short period of time and have to get his bearings.  If he doesn’t, though, he could have a Matt Williams type season.  Maybe a peak Troy Glaus season.  If so, that’s a ten to fifteen run increase.  Since so many bench players had solid seasons, it’s not unreasonable to think that one or two of them might not have a good run in 150 at bats – so that would negate that benefit.  I think the Rays MIGHT get to 800 runs, but more realistically, they’ll be not too far off from where they are now.

Defensively, the team will remain solid if everyone remains healthy and Pat Burrell isn’t asked to play the field.  If so, life is good and the pitchers will benefit.  If not – especially if the lost player is Bartlett or Iwamura, or even Upton, that means trouble – ten to fifteen runs of trouble.  The one real opportunity for immediate improvement is the addition of David Price to the rotation.  Price will certainly be an upgrade on Edwin Jackson or Andy Sonnestine, so that could make up for 20 runs of potential decline in other areas.  Howell, Wheeler, and Balfour were so good last year that they really can’t be expected to turn in the same seasons, and if Percival really is the closer, this could be a problem because the defense hid the fact that he really wasn’t all that good.  Jason Isringhausen got a non-roster invite to spring training, and I hope he isn’t pressed into closer duty.

Throw in the fact that the Rays were actually a little bit over their heads last year (the Blue Jays had essentially the same differential in runs scored and runs allowed, but finished with an unlucky 86 wins), and one wonders if the Rays might actually decline a little bit.  A slow start or small slump, and the team struggles with expectations – next thing you know it’s 85 – 77 and not 95 – 67.  My best guess is that the team will win 92 games and be right in the thick of the playoff hunt.  If Las Vegas odds makers have the Rays winning 92, though, I’m playing the under.

Down on the Farm…

Justin Ruggiano was the best outfielder and hitter at AAA Durham, hitting 11 homers with 20 steals – a good combination of speed and power – in just half a season.  However, he doesn’t walk much (22 in about 280 plate appearances).  Still, he’s as good as Gabe Gross, just as mobile in the field, though learning at the plate.  Mitch Talbot might get a shot as a starter or long reliever after going 13 – 9 for the Bulls, with good K/W data and few homers allowed.  Jeremy Cummings and Dale Thayer had good years, but are too old to be considered as prospects.

The best player at AA Montgomery (the Biscuits!) was David Price, and he’s not going to be heading back unless it’s a rehab assignment.  Chris Nowak might be a future third base prospect, but not in Tampa Bay.  Cesar Valdez led Visalia (A+) posting a 10 – 3 record with good control.  Jeremy Hellickson ripped through Vero Beach (A+), going 7 – 1 in 14 starts, with 83 Ks against only 5 walks (!) in nearly 77 innings.  He was quickly moved to Montgomery and held his own.  Hellickson will be on the major league team if he keeps at this rate – though probably not until 2010.