The Current Mindset of the Rays

rays It’s hard to believe that in this decade, Tampa Bay major sports franchises have been to the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup Finals.  Not bad for a city that has, at other times, been synonymous with horrendous teams (the Buccaneers before this decade, and the Rays before last season).

What have the Tampa Bay Rays shown us in 2009?  They have shown us that they are, indeed, a very good baseball team.  More importantly, they’ve shown remarkable depth – as we watch the New York Mets crash and burn because three of their biggest stars haven’t been healthy in 2009, it is impressive to see a younger and inexperienced team play eight games above .500 despite a myriad of injuries and underachievement.

Willy Aybar
Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

Surely the disappointing pitching of Scott Kazmir (6.69 ERA), Andy Sonnanstine (6.61), and David Price (5.60 ERA, 33 BB and 11 HR in 53.0 innings pitched) would be enough to undo a team with less depth.  The Rays, however, have seen Jeff Niemann (3.81 ERA) emerge as a full time quality starter, and seen James Shields and Matt Garza develop as the new duo at the top of the rotation.

Had the Rays been mediocre this season, one could certainly have pointed to the injuries that have forced Jason Bartlett to miss 20 games, or Carlos Pena’s .217 batting average, or B.J. Upton’s continued two season funk as the explanation.  But Evan Longoria has continued to impress, Carl Crawford is playing better than ever, and Ben Zobrist, of all people, has emerged as a major league star, while Gabe Gross has finally come through on some of the potential I’ve been touting for so long (it is annoying).  Meanwhile, Wily Aybar and his 116 OPS+ may be one of the truly under-heralded players of the year so far.

Unfortunately for the Rays, this isn’t 2008, and this isn’t the AL Central.  Despite having a record that would lead three divisions, and would be half a game behind the NL wild card leader, the Rays find themselves 7.5 games behind the Yankees and 5.0 games behind the Red Sox.  It is beginning to look like the Rays are a very good team in a great division.  It is a sad truth, one which went one sabbatical in 2008 and came back refreshed and dominant as ever in 2009.

Scott Kazmir in mid wind-up against the Oaklan...

Image via Wikipedia

So what are the Rays to do?  Fortunately, they are a good, young, and (most importantly) inexpensive team, which means it is not fire-sale time.  In fact, it could be time to build for next year by taking advantage of this year’s replaceable parts.  If the Rays are not going to be in the playoffs – which it certainly appears is the case, though the season is far from over – they owe it to themselves to be better prepared for next season.  And here’s how:

Take advantage of this year’s contenders. While it is less demonstratively true than it was last year at this time, the Rays are still loaded with pitching talent.  Thus, I renew my call to trade struggling ace Scott Kazmir.  I said at the beginning of the season that he would likely never again be as valuable as trade bait as he was before the 2009 season, and now we are getting to the point where the Rays may never again be able to bluff about him being past whatever issues he was having.  If the Rays could throw Kazmir into the mix for some contending team, then they could possibly add a prospect who might be capable of contributing as soon as next season.

Sack Pat Burrell.  I don’t think they can trade this guy – I’m not sure what the market is for a guy who is hitting .226 with a .700 OPS, can’t be trusted to play in the field, and is in the first year of a big contract.  But I do know this – Burrell is the Rays third oldest hitter behind Gabe Kapler and Joe Dillon, and every time Joe Maddon inserts Burrell into the lineup he’s taking away playing time from some young player who could be both developing their talent and contributing to the club in a way that Burrell does not.

By the way, props to the Phillies for discarding a guy who was on their World Series team, who was their former number one overall draft pick, and who was climbing the all time franchise leader-boards in order to sign a guy who is five years older and doesn’t have the same monster-mash pedigree.  All Raul Ibanez has done with the Phillies this year is put up career numbers, stabilize left field from a defensive standpoint, and establish himself as the leading contender for the National League MVPOTAP (Most Valuable Player Other Than Pujols) Award.

Pretend to contend, and make a killer move. This is probably the most intriguing of the choices – what if the Rays paraded themselves around town as a team that was looking to make a strong roster move in order to shore up its chances at the post-season, with an eye towards next season.  Acquiring a guy for the second half of the season would (in theory anyway) give them an inside track to re-signing the guy when his contract is up.  What if Brandon Phillips or Josh Willingham were available for a relative paucity of minor league talent?

Andy Sonnanstine
Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

Demote Andy Sonnanstine. I don’t know what Sonnanstine’s issue in 2009 has been, and I don’t care.  The Rays need to find themselves a pitching guru – is Greg Maddux available?  Curt Schilling?  Bob Tewksbury? – and send Sonnanstine to pitch on whichever of their minor league teams is closest to whichever guy will work with him.  Sonnanstine is a control-style pitcher who, with tutoring, could be an effective pitcher, and without tutoring could be the next Brian Lawrence or Dave Bush.  Let Sonnanstine take some time to figure out what is bothering him, and get ready for next season.

At the end of the day, the Tampa Bay Rays do not have to be one of these teams that every ten years or so puts together a surprising season, like Kansas City, Baltimore, Cincinnati, or Florida.  Tampa Bay could be a legitimately decent franchise that plays around .500 ball every season, and from time to time things click and they are in the playoff mix – like the Astros, Phillies, Padres, and Mariners.  They certainly play in a big enough market in the Tampa/St. Pete area to make it happen.  What we are seeing right now is likely the beginning of that.

But if this franchise is going to operate on that level, then there needs to be a new mindset (which the Rays have, apparently, begun to adopt).  Bad teams scrap themselves when they are out of it in July and wait until next year, but decent teams, though still out of it by August, make themselves better through both player development and smart front office moves year round, knowing that next year could be their special year.  That is where I think the Rays are now.

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