Reflections on the Rays
- Updated: February 18, 2009
In pre-season of 2008, I picked the Tampa Bay Rays to make some noise in the American League, to win 25 more games than they had the year before, to top the Seattle Mariners by 18 games, and to make a run at the wild card in the American League. And if you managed to meet me and talk baseball for more than five minutes in the last year, you know this. In case you haven’t, here’s the proof.
Obviously, having gone against the grain and paid off in 2008, the pressure is on in 2009 to put up or shut up. But the 2009 Tampa Bay Rays are a tough team to evaluate in reality they probably overachieved in 2008. Indeed, their Pythagorean Projection had them slated to win five fewer games, their offense was incredibly weak, and their pitching arguably over-achieved (Grant Balfour and Edwin Jackson, this means you).
Looking at the Rays going into 2009, part of me sees the 1991 Atlanta Braves – a team of destiny primed for a decade of dominance behind three future Hall of Fame pitchers and an ingenious front office. At the same time, another part of me sees the 2003 Chicago Cubs – a good team that had a good run but is foolishly relying on young pitchers who have already been pushed too hard and a variety of players who quite clearly overachieved in what will be their only year in the sun. Nevertheless, it is heartening to know that this team for whom everything seemed to go right in 2008 has several areas in which to improve in 2009. Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Carlos Pena all had down years compared to the year before. Star in the making, Evan Longoria missed almost all of September with an injury. Scott Kazmir missed time and had his worst year out of the last three. And Troy Percival was rather bad in the closer role.
Given the potential to improve, the acquisition of Pat Burrell, and the alarming number of excellent arms ready to contribute, there is no reason to think the Tampa Bay Rays won’t be right back in the thick of the playoff race in 2009. But given the level of competition in the AL East, nothing is ever for certain.
The logic here is quite simple, right? Last year the Rays and Phillies faced off in the World Series, and the team that had Pat Burrell won the Series. So, now that the Rays have Pat-the-Bat, it should be enough to push them over the edge, right?
All kidding aside, Burrell should be an excellent addition to this young team. To the extent that “veteran leadership” ever means anything (and the jury is still out, in my opinion), Burrell certainly has plenty of it. And this isn’t Cliff Floyd veteran leadership either – Burrell is actually a valuable asset. Plus, this guy knows how to take a walk, a skill that this young team has not mastered.
Given the fact that Burrell will be solely playing offense, he is potentially all upside.
Not much needs to be said here – the Rays chances to get back to the playoffs depend on these guys.
The Rays have a classic infield for the modern era of baseball. The corner players, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria, manage well with the glove but contribute primarily at the plate. The up-the-middle guys, Jason Bartlet and Akinora Iwamura, are defense first guys who don’t kill you on offense. A full season of Bartlet (he played only 128 games in 2008) may propel the pitching staff to even greater heights than they have already achieved.
B.J. Upton’s defensive contributions alone made him – in my humble opinion – Tampa’s MVP in 2008. If he can get his 2009 offense up to its 2007 level again, he’ll be one of the top players in the American League.
If Upton was the team’s MVP in 2008, Carl Crawford is the most valuable player in Tampa’s franchise history. Unfortunately, that says more about the Rays history than it does Crawford’s skills. He had a miserable 2008; he should be looking like this era’s Rickey Henderson right now, and instead he looked like a Juan Pierre clone last year. Imagine what the Rays can do if he gets back into form (remember, he’s only 27).
Tampa’s outfield is suddenly clogged, and the Rays find themselves in a SABRmetric dilemma. On the one hand, they have Justin Ruggiano, who stole 20 bases in 23 attempts in 66 Triple-A games last season. A starting role for him in right field would only make the Rays that much more dangerous on the base paths. On the other hand, the Rays quietly acquired Tampa native Matt Joyce from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson in the offseason. With a minor league OBP 76 points higher than his batting average, this is a guy who can take walks, but seems a couple of years away from being able to put .280 on the board.
Whatever happens, it won’t involve Rocco Baldelli, who was acquired by the Boston Red Sox. Kind of hilarious, since the Legend of Rocco Baldelli is almost purely a New England phenomenon. Serious, is there any chance Tampa fans will even notice he’s gone?
Sports commentators have two choices when it comes to assertions – say what you truly believe, or say something you kinda think but definitely want to be on the record about if it ever actually happens. What I am about to say falls squarely into the latter category: The Tampa Bay Rays should trade Scott Kazmir while his stock is high.
Right now, the Kazmir for Victor Zambrano trade goes down as one of the greatest trades of the 21st Century (for the Rays). Nevertheless, there are three reasons the Rays should cut bait here. First, Kazmir is generally regarded as one of the best starting pitchers in the American League despite quietly having a down year (23 homeruns in 152.1 innings, 127 ERA+ down from 142 two years ago, 27 starts after leading the league in 2007). As with many hard throwing youngsters, there is a chance that Kazmir’s stock will never again be as high as it is right now.
But there is a larger point here – the Rays are tremendously loaded with pitching talent. After Kazmir, the Rays feature the exciting trio of James Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine. Additionally, their bullpen featured David Price, J.P. Howell, and Jason Hammel, all starting caliber guys for whom there just wasn’t room in 2008. Throw in minor league stars Mitch Talbot (24 years old), Jeff Niemann (25), and Jeremy Hellickson (21), and the Rays have no fewer than nine guys with whom to fill five rotation positions in 2009. Kazmir could be traded right now for some very good return, and the Rays might not even notice he was gone.
I am officially on the record.