Breaking News: The Rays Are Sellers, and Looking Towards 2010

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They’ve done it. I asked them to. I suggested it. But I didn’t expect them to do it. But they did it. I can’t believe they actually did it.

Scott Kazmir in mid wind-up against the Oaklan...
Image via Wikipedia

The Tampa Bay Rays have traded Scott Kazmir.

My logic at the beginning of the season was as sound then as it is now – the Rays are a pitching deep team who need help in other areas of the field, and Kazmir’s value will never be as high as it is right now. To be sure, the Rays waited for Kazmir to suffer through a bad season and some injuries before trading him, which probably hurt his value, but they traded him nonetheless, and the post-Scott Kazmir Era begins now in Tampa.

Before evaluating whether the Rays got quality return for Kazmir, we should determine whether or not the Rays are as pitching deep now as I thought they were when I initially proposed the trade. Back in March, the Rays were coming off of a season in which Andy Sonnanstine pitched a full season of solid ball at the major league level, Jamie Shields and Matt Garza both looked like potential aces, Jeff Niemann and J.P. Howell both looked ready to join the rotation, Wade Davis and Mitch Talbot dominated Triple-A, and David Price looked like the Next Great Major League Starter. The question wasn’t whether the Rays should trade Kazmir, but whether they should trade another one of these guys as well.

Truth be told, 2009 has not been kind to this crew. Sonnanstine absolutely struggled in his second year as a starter, and got himself demoted after posting a 6.61 ERA in 15 starts. His peripherals look straightened out in Triple-A, but he still has a 4.40 ERA down there. Is he the next Dave Bush?

Jamie Shields has had the type of season that Rays fans would love if not for the inconvenient fact that he was simply better last season. After posting a 4.00 K/BB ratio in 2008, that number has dropped to 2.91. He has given up almost as many homeruns as he did last season, and we still have a month to go. And after firing three complete games and two shutouts in 2008, he has yet to go the distance in 2009. Matt Garza has had almost the exact same season, except that his K/BB has gotten slightly better. His ERA has gone up slightly, he’s giving up more homeruns, and he is 7-9 so far after finishing 2008 at 11-9.

David Price

Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

David Price has done exactly what we should have expected him to do – had a tough first full year after looking to possess all the promise in the world. He struggled early with his control, but has been fantastic in spurts. Sometimes it feels like you can literally watch him learn to pitch before your very eyes. His 4.63 ERA disguises his abundant talent, but this just hasn’t been the year for him to explode onto the scene.

Another factor that is new to the mix in 2009 is Jeremy Hellickson, a 22 year old righty drafted in the fourth round of the 2005 draft by the Rays. After dominating Single-A and Double-A in 2008 (162K/20BB in 152.0 innings), Hellickson has been great again at AA/AAA in 2009 (123/29 in 107.0). A deep pitching corps just got deeper.

As for the rest, it is a mixed bag. Jeff Niemann appears to be the Andy Sonnanstine of 2009 – very solid as a first-time full-time starter, but with numbers that indicate he could go either up or down next season. J.P Howell looked to move out of the pen and into the rotation this year, but instead moved out of middle relief and became the closer this year. And last year’s Triple-A duo Talbot and Davis have had mixed results – Talbot has only had ten starts this season and at 29 years old probably has the window closing on him, while Davis has essentially treaded water for the season in Triple-A, keeping his ERA low and his peripherals high in hopes of making the team next season.

So, essentially, the Rays’ front office saw a potent front four rotation for next season comprised of Shields, Garza, Price, and Niemann, and then a competition for the fifth spot between Sonnanstine, Davis, Hellickson, and maybe Talbot, and knew that they were paying Kazmir way too much money to not know what to expect from him for next season. Combine that with the fact that despite being 12 games over .500, they were irretrievable out of the division race behind the Yankees and the Red Sox, and this deal became a no-brainer.

Which is what I’ve been saying all season.

In return for Kazmir, the Angels sent Tampa two prospects, left-handed pitcher Alex Torres, infielder Matt Sweeney, plus a player to be named. I will freely admit that, while I wanted the Rays to trade Kazmir, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Matt Sweeney plays third base, a position currently occupied by last year’s Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria, and Alex Torres looks like a dandy prospect, but is yet another pitcher. My thought was that the Rays should be turning their pitching into talent at other positions, but this seems to turn pitching into talent at positions that are already occupied.

Truth be told, neither of these guys is going to get a look from the Rays until 2011, by which time the Rays may need to replace Pat Burrell at DH or Carlos Pena at first base, so maybe Sweeney’s (potential) arrival will be just in time. And you can never have enough pitching – who knows how long it will be before Garza or Shields becomes the next ready-to-move big name in Tampa. Nevertheless, this isn’t exactly the “help now” move I was hoping the Rays would make.

I guess it could have been worse – they could have ended up with Brandon Wood.

Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Program

On August 31, 2009, major league baseball teams are either in it, or out of it. As major league teams prepare to make their September call-ups, they are either calling guys up for a little help down the stretch, or calling guys up to get a look at who will be on the team the following season.

The bad news for the Rays is, they are out of it. The good news for the Rays is, of all the teams that are out of it, they are by far the best, and they are far better than some teams that are still in it (we’re looking at you, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and, yes, Detroit Tigers). But such is the life of an AL East team that doesn’t play in New York or Boston.

The Rays have lots to build on for next season, but also lots of question marks. For example, is Ben Zobrist for real? One could fathom Ben Zobrist becoming a minor household name by building upon the success he’s had this season, but one could also imagine him becoming obscure Tampa Bay Rays trivia ten years from now. Zobrist gives you lots of reasons to not believe his success – he has a radical home/road OPS split (1028/872), he has slumped in the second half of the season (.835 OPS in the second half after a 1012 in the first half), and at the age of 28, he’s never put up numbers before that match his first half performance.

B.J. Upton
Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

Another question is this: will B.J. Upton ever become a major league star? Like Zobrist, Upton is better at home and has slumped in the second half of the season, but Upton wasn’t having an All Star season before the second half. Next year Upton will be 25 years old, and if he isn’t going to put up the numbers he put up as a 22 year old, or even manage to perform at a league average level, the Rays may need to move on. He is still a top notch defender, but there are other good centerfielders who can also hit their weight.

Gabe Gross completes the trinity of second half slumpers for the Rays. I’ve been a Gabe Gross fan since he was with the Brewers, but even I can be a realist. This guy is a corner outfielder, and there aren’t many lineups in baseball that succeed with corner outfielders who have a league average OPS. Gross will be 30 years old next year – he is either going to pull a Raul Ibanez, or he is going to become a “veteran” whose “leadership” in the “clubhouse” is “invaluable,” meaning, “we don’t play this guy a lot, but it is nice to have him around.”

Fact is, next year’s lineup will probably be a crowded one, and guys who can’t get the bat on the ball consistently may be on their way out. Next year’s outfield will likely be composed of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Rightfielder-in-Waiting Matt Joyce, while the infield will be made up of Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena once again. This means that Gross, Zobrist, and Burrell will be fighting for playing time at the DH position

And while that may be bad news for Gross and Burrell, it is good news for the Tampa Bay Rays.

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6 Comments

  1. CJ

    September 1, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Talbot is only 26 and has been plagued with an injury. Look at his stats for his rehab assignment in GCL.

  2. Asher

    September 1, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Yeah, where did I get 29 from? Still, his window would appear to be getting kinda close to closing, at least with this team. Maybe a less pitching rich team than the Rays could use him next year.

  3. CJ

    September 1, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    I believe the Rays should have traded him a few years ago to an NL team. On a different team with mild success, he could have been starting the last 3 or so years. He had 3 rehab starts at GCL a month ago that were great. Then he took another 25 days off. Pitched 2 shutout inning yesterday with 5K’s. Although…it is GCL. I look for him to raise his trade value, and since he is out of options, either be put in the bullpen or traded.

  4. Asher

    September 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Well, the Rays only just got him a few years ago in the Aubrey Huff/Ben Zobrist trade. That was 2006, and I don’t think the Rays could have anticipated being this pitching rich, so holding him made sense. I agree that he is starter-ready in the National League; in San Diego or St. Louis he could be a 200 inning guy right now, and could have for a couple of years now.

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