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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.