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.

Cards Getting Healthier; David Price is Back!

Rick Ankiel made it back to the lineup on Sunday, sending Tyler Green back to AAA Memphis. Colby Rasmus was so good in his callup that Ankiel is going to move to right field for the time being. This coming weekend, Ryan Ludwick returns. This, coupled with the hopes that Chris Carpenter could stay healthy is the type of thing that baseball writers will look at and wonder if this means that the Cards will win the NL Central.

X-Rays show a broken bone in Brandon Phillips’ thumb, but the Reds second sacker hopes that he will not require a DL stint and will be able to play when the swelling goes down. His teammate, Joey Votto, remains day-to-day with dizziness tied to an inner ear infection. Saturday, Votto hit a pair of homers. Yesterday, he sat.

Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta’s hamstring injury is bad enough to require a DL stint. Yorvit Torrealba gets the starts while AAA Catcher Paul Phillips gets the call to the big leagues. Phillips can play a little, but at 32 isn’t really a long-term prospect. You Royals fans may remember Phillips in any of four stints with the parent club between 2004 and 2007.

Yankees reliever Brian Bruney remains sidelined with elbow pain, but tests have shown no damage. He’s day-to-day and slightly nervous. Joba Chamberlain won’t miss his next start after getting drilled with a liner in the first inning of his last start.

Welcome to the majors (again), David Price, who gets the start on Monday for the Rays.

Meanwhile, the Rays had both middle infielders dinged up on Sunday. Jason Bartlett injured his shin and ankle in a collision at second base with Dan Uggla and will sit a day. Akinori Iwamura injured his knee when Chris Coghlan barrelled into him to break up a double play. Aki gets an MRI and possibly a DL stint.

Coghlan’s slide was hard – Aki had stepped to the inside of the bag after taking the throw from pitcher Dan Wheeler, so Coghlan leaned over and into him right as Aki planted his left foot – didn’t look bad and he looked like he felt bad about it right away. What was amazing about the play, however, was that John Baker saw what had happened and never stopped running around third base. Don’t the umps usually call time when this happens? They didn’t, and Jason Bartlett alertly took the ball out of Aki’s hand, threw home, and nailed Baker at the plate for a rather odd 1-4-6-2 DP.

K-Rod’s back feels much better. Could be pitching by mid-week. Apparently, he’s a big fan of the muscle relaxors and pain killers.

A fun play yesterday… Indian Grady Sizemore tripled, but the throw from right field got past third base. So, Sizemore headed home. Reds Left Fielder Johnny Gomes had raced in to back up third (way alert), saved the ball before it got to the dugout, and fired home. Sizemore juked right and dove over the reach of the catcher but was ruled out.

However, the third baseman Adam Rosales was sort of still in the baseline, and because he pulled his leg out of Sizemore’s way (not sure that Sizemore would have hit him either way), the third base umpire ruled that Sizemore was entitled to home because of interference. Dusty Baker argued – but to be honest, the home plate umpire was on the wrong side of the play at the plate anyway – Sizemore had eluded the tag.

So, the right result, the wrong call, and all you get to see is Baker getting angry and Gomes getting nothing for a really alert and smart play. Baker, by the way, looks like he’s lost a little weight.

Anyway – the run tied the score, but the Reds won in extra innings.

One last Reds note – Homer Bailey was awful in his start and was dispatched back to AAA. Granted, it’s tough to stick in the majors when you only get one start, but Bailey has a 7.01 ERA in 18 MLB starts and hitters like him to the tune of a .311 average. Cincy called up catching prospect Wilkin Castillo, a mobile Dominican who might have a chance to stick in the bigs if he gets a chance. He looks like a Miguel Olivo type.

Rehab assignments? Rick VandenHurk (Marlins) off to Jupiter; Chad Bradford (Rays) off to Charlotte.

Marcus Thames is back in AAA for the Tigers, and the Giants chose to call up some catching reinforcements, bringing up Eli Whiteside. He’s a defensive wizard, I guess, because he can’t hit. Off to AAA Fresno? Pat Misch, who was allowing hitters to bat .375 against him. His days as a prospect are likely over.