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These guys are for real.

And they're about to become really damn annoying. Ever since Andrew Friedman took over this organisation has been run as if it's a baseball team looking to improve, compete and contend rather than just collect talent and content to surround it with scrubs. For the first time this winter they took the plunge and started trading away some of their prospects to strengthen the team and to sign others to long term deals. They aren't ready to take on the big boys yet, but this is a team gearing up for what could be a long and serious run of contending in the AL East. They might have been a joke in the past but if you're a Jays fan you shouldn't be laughing when you look at Tampa today.

Last years team was a half-way house, while they scored a decent amount of runs they didn't have the pitching or defence to match the offence. The bullpen and the infield defence were simply not of a decent major league standard and doomed the team to another fifth place finish. This years team is an entirely different animal. There are competent defenders in the infield, and a properly constructed bullpen.

Catching will be Dioner Navarro the former Yankee prospect, Navarro was highly thought of a few years ago, he was ranked #30 by Baseball Prospectus in their 2004 top prospects list. He has never really impressed in a big league career that has struggled to get started, but he showed some distinct signs of life with a .294/.344/.492 line in August and September of last year. As a hitter he struggles a little with heat but hits off-speed pitches very well. The Rays pitchers have been very complimentary about the improvements he made in his game calling last year and at 24 he might be emerging as a decent catcher. There's a camp battle going on for the backup slot with Shawn Riggans, Josh Paul, Mike DeFelice amd Hector Gimenez, it's hard to tell at this stage who will make the cut, but DeFilice is hitting very well in the Spring and earning great reviews from teammates for his 'clubhouse presence'.

Around the infield Carlos Pena will be at first, Aki Mania! at second, Jason Bartlett at short and, at some point, uber-prospect Evan Longoria will be at third. Pena was one of the great stories of last year, after starting his big league career in 2001, he came to Rays camp as a non-roster invitee after having been cut by a plethora of other teams and seemingly on his last chance for a major league job. Finally, at 29, he became the player scouts and statistical analysts had expected him to become. He hit .282/.411/.627 to win the Silver Slugger award, was third in the AL in OPS and second in Home Runs. The question obviously is can he do it again, and the answer is up in the air. I wouldn't expect another monster season like last years, but if he can become a 30 Home Run, 100 RBI sort of player, which seems eminently possible, the Rays will be nicely set at first for the next few years. Aki Iwamura, who became something of a cult hero with Rays fans last year, will be moving from his familiar position at the hot corner to second base to make way for Longoria. Aki had a mixed debut to the big leagues, the power he showed in Japan didn't appear, but he did demonstrate a patient hitting approach (he was amongst the league leaders in hitting for a while at the start of the season) and sound fundamental defense. He apparently hasn't played second base since High School though, so it will be interesting how he handles the intricacies of the position, particularly around the bag on double plays. Look for him to again post an OBP of around .350 and maybe find a little more of the pop he was noted for in Japan. The shortstop position was little short of a disaster for the Rays last year. Brendan Harris, Josh Wilson, Ben Zobrist, Jorge Velandia and Joel Guzman all saw time there. None of them to any great effect (although Harris posted a 106 OPS+) and defensively they were horrible, Chris Dial rated them as -24 DRS collectively. Stepping in to clean up this mess is Jason Bartlett, who came over from the Twins with Matt Garza. Bartlett is no great shakes with the bat, although he gets on base at a decent clip, but he will flash some leather. Dial ranked him as the third best shortstop in the AL last year, behind The Minister of Defence and Bobby Crosby, and the best of those with over 1000 IP. Shoring up their most important defensive position should do wonders for Tampa's fielding this year and subsequently the confidence of their young pitchers. Evan Longoria should see the huge majority of at-bats at third base, but he won't be there on opening day. Leaving him down in AAA for six weeks or so would but the Rays another year of his services, and on a team that won't be contending this year that seems the obvious move. It's inconceivable that he spends much time in Durham though, he's ready. He hits for average, has huge power potential and shows great patience at the plate. He's all set to go all Ryan Braun on the AL this year. Oh and he has a sweet swing.

One thing the Rays have never suffered from is a bad outfield. With Carl Crawford, B.J Upton, Cliff Floyd and Jonny Gomes there this year, that isn't something that will change - offensively at least. Carl Crawford is 26, he's ten hits away from 1000 and a two-time all star. He also keeps getting just a little better every year, his home run numbers dropped last year, but his doubles increased dramatically. Since he's been a regular for the Rays he's played in 150 games every year except last year and his OPS+ numbers have inched up every year (81, 105, 111, 111, 117). Crawford tends to be a little overrated, mainly I think because of his fantasy-god status, but he's still one the games better outfielders and moving into his prime years could get even better over the next few years. In Centrefield B.J Upton will look to follow up on an excellent campaign in 2007, when he hit .300/.386/.508 and hit 24 Home Runs in 474 at bats. His glove work by all accounts wasn't too shabby either, if not at elite levels. Another good power year is on the cards this year, if he plays all year a 30+ Home Run season would be quite likely. If he can keep his average near to .300, a challenge for a guy who strikes out so much (as Baseball Prospectus notes), he'll be one of the leagues better all around centrefielders. The Rays and those who follow them are certainly high on Upton, there has been talk of a 30/30 season, a gold glove and the St Petersburg Times recently rated him the Rays best player. The plan in left was to have Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli and Jonny Gomes form a three headed leftfield/DH combination. Baldelli's unfortunate health situation, his career is being threatened by a rare chronic fatigue syndrome, have forced a change of plan and have had the Rays chasing Kenny Lofton and inquiring after Coco Crisp and Reggie Willits. Gomes and Floyd are best suited to platoon (Floyd against righties, Gomes against lefties) and probably playing at DH at least as much as in the field, to save Floyd's knees and keep Gomes away from having to try and catch baseballs. Until another players is acquired it appears old friend Erik Hinske will join the mix. Madden likes the prospect of having Hinske's bat around and has been making nice noises about his abilities in the field. In case you thought all the Rays wacky ways were behind them, they've been trying Gomes out in centerfield in the Spring, that's something I'd pay to watch. For now expect to see Gomes mainly in left, Floyd at DH with Hinske spelling them a game or two a week, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a trade before opening day. The Angels would be an obvious target given the struggles they are having with their rotation at present.

The Rays have never had a rotation anywhere near as strong as this years version. Lets not forget it's only 2004 when Mark Hendrickson was their ace, even last year it was Kazmir and Shields and not a lot else. The front three is set as Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza. That's a group that will stand comparison with any in the game. Behind them Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson look likely to hold down the fort until the next wave of top pitching prospects is ready. Theres nothing much to say about Kazmir that isn't already well known, the former Mets farmhand has smoothly moved into his expected role as a legitimate ace, with a decent defence behind him he should be a serious Cy Young contender this year and for years ahead. The worry about Kazmir has always been that due to his size he'll succumb to injury, after standing up well to a 200 Inning workload last year he will be missing his Opening Day start and likely the first couple of weeks of the season with a sore elbow. James Shields, newly signed to a rather bizarre 7 year contract, came of age last year when he put up stellar numbers: 215 IP, 3.85 ERA, 184 K, 36 BB. He has a top-drawer changeup, 93 MPH heat and a decent curevball, but most impressive is his approach - he loves to challenge hitters and with his control will rarely surrender the free pass. If he can get away from a tendency to throw his change too much could be even better this year.

Matt Garza newly arrived from the Twins, where he was noticably unhappy, adds a new solidity to the rotation. He's been tipped as a potential all star and had a great short year in 2007. He throws mid-90's heat and compliments it with a hard slider, there's still room for improvement as he struggles against lefties a little and could do with improving his curve or change. Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson need to show something this year if they're hoping to be long term starters with the Rays. Sonnanstine pitched 130 Innings last year, he had a rather horrid 5.85 ERA but his peripherals were much stronger (97 K/26 BB), he doesn't have as much stuff as the frontline starters but he doesn't hurt himself with walks and his strange delivery seems to give right handed hitters problems. Edwin Jackson is one of those pitching prospects seemingly designed to break fans hearts, he has stuff coming out of his ears, he pumps fastballs in at over 95 and works in a good slider and curve, but he has never seemed to get close to mastering his trouble with walks and has a tendency to go to pieces when he gets in trouble. Jason Hammell will likely join the rotation for the first week or two while Kazmir gets his arm sorted out. Hammell has a mid 90's fastball and a better than average curve, but his fastball tends to stay straight (a little like Billy Koch) and he has trouble with piling on the walks when he has runners on base.

Tampa's Bullpen has been a perennial joke, but they seem to have taken some trouble this year to put it together properly, rather than just collecting a random selection of AAAA arms and trusting to luck. Troy Percival will close. After not pitching for a year he had an excellent time with St Louis in 2007, 40IP, 1.80 ERA, 36K, 10BB. He's unlikely to be that good again, but if he can keep his arm healthy he can clearly still pitch, and he should be able to be a decent closer - even if he doesn't reach the heights he has in the past. Behind Percival the Rays will have Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler from the right side and old friend Trever Miller doing LOOGY duty. Reyes who has closed before, is an uncomplicated power pitcher, he throws lots of strikes particularly early in the count and has a great sinker to go with his fastball. Wheeler might have the best stuff in the 'pen and works primarily off his strong slider, he struggled last year but has had some great years in the past and a bounce-back to his previous form seems on the cards. Miller also struggled last year, but Joe Madden will probably value even an indifferent LOOGY to none at all, which was the situation he was in for much of last year. Curveball specialist J.P Howell will join the pen after losing out on a battle for a rotation spot and is likely to be joined by Gary Glover and Scott Dohman for the middle and long relief duties. This group is light years ahead of last years crew which mainly consisted of Reyes (92 OPS+), Gary Glover (92 OPS+), Brain Stokes (64 OPS+), Shawn Camp (63 OPS+) and Juan Salas (122 OPS+).

If Tampa's pitching sounds pretty good now, and it is, it's going to get a whole lot better. Probably as soon as next year. Let's have a look at the three guys who are making Andy Sonnanstine an odds on favourite to be in long relief next year.
David Price.
Age: 22 Height: 6'6" Weight: 225 Sickels Grade: A Video
The first overall pick in last Junes draft out of Vanderbilt. Price is a big hard throwing lefty. His fastball sits at 92 and can get up to 95. He throws a strong slider to go along with his heat and a decent changeup. In 114 IP in 2007 he had a 2.76 ERA with 164 K and just 29 BB. Price seems to be about the perfect prospect along with the great numbers, Scouts love his delivery and he has earned rave reviews for his intelligence and work ethic. He'll start this year, probably, at Vero Beach but has expressed a desire to be in the Bigs by the All Star break, even if that's unlikely now he's set to miss a few weeks, it seems sure he'll be up in September and almost certain he'll be a rotation cornerstone come next year. The video of his highlights at Vanderbilt is fun, he gets pumped up out there.
Jacob McGee
Age: 21 Height: 6'4" Weight: 200 Sickels Grade: A Video
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 draft out of High School in Nevada. Another hard throwing lefty McGee can get his fastball up to 96 and sits at 90 - 94, he also has an outstanding curve and a developing changeup. Threw 140 Innings in 2007 with a 3.15 ERA, 175 K and 52 BB. He finished last year at AA, and is expect to start there this year, he could be in the Majors as soon as next year of he continues to progress this year. McGee is often talked of as a future closer.
Wade Davis
Age: 22 Height: 6'5" Weight: 200 Sickels Grade: B+ Video
Drafted in the third round in 2004 out of High School in Florida, he was expected to go in the second round, but some teams backed off him thinking he was set on attending Florida University. Davis is a classic big right handed strikeout/power pitcher, he has a hard fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can get as high as 98 and an excellent curveball. last year he split time, equally, between High A and AA pitching 158.1 Innings with a 2.51 ERA, 169K and 51BB. Baseball Prospectus reports that 'some in the organization think he's their best, better even than...David Price'. He's been on the same timetable as McGee, so he should start the year in AA and be moved along to AAA later in the year.

The future is bright here, very bright. For this year though, well the offense should be better thanks to Longoria, the infield defense is better, Garza will make the rotation better and they actually have some semblance a bullpen. This is a great improvement on last years team, but they're still some way from the divisions elite. Until, that is, the next round of pitching prospects arrive over the next couple of years, then they'll be ready to contend . This will be Tampa's first 80 win team. 80-82.
2008 Tampa Bay Rays Preview | 6 comments | Create New Account
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Mike Green - Tuesday, March 25 2008 @ 11:12 PM EDT (#181486) #
Good summary, Gwyn. 

The Rays are 7 deep in starters, with Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Jackson, Hammel, Niemann and Howell, and it wouldn't be a shock if one of the kids displaces them by July. Kazmir opens the season on the DL, and Longoria in the minors, so it will be interesting whether the Rays can hold their own in April. With Zobrist also on the DL, it looks like Eliott Johnson will win the utility infielder job.

Thomas - Wednesday, March 26 2008 @ 09:00 AM EDT (#181497) #
Very nice preview.

Agreed. The D-Rays are for real and this is bad news for everyone else in the AL East. Things will be very interesting in 2010.
Chuck - Wednesday, March 26 2008 @ 02:48 PM EDT (#181509) #

While it's difficult not to be bullish about an organization with such outstanding young talent, this is the time when the opinion of an iconoclast like Don Malcom (of Big Bad Baseball Annual fame) needs to be heard, to balance matters.

Malcolm would predictably temper his enthusiasm of the 2008 Rays, citing the shortage of predictable veteran talent and the endless capacity of young talent to disappoint. While Malcolm would typically enjoy playing gadfly to the over-educated BP boys, causing him to perhaps overstate opinions that were contrary to theirs, his cautionary tone is worth heeding, if even just a little.

There is every chance that the Rays are about to go all 2001 Twins on everyone. But there's also a chance that some hearts will be broken along the way as well. I'm not saying that they will, just that such an eventuality cannot be dismissed.

Mike Green - Wednesday, March 26 2008 @ 03:10 PM EDT (#181510) #
I have the Rays marked down for 85 wins, and mostly it has nothing to do with the kids.  If the kids come through like they can, this team can win the division.  If they disappoint, the Rays will win 78-80.  The key questions for this year are not whether Wade Davis, Jacob McGee or David Price will turn out to be great, but whether Edwin Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine and Matt Garza can be a little better than average as a whole (I think that they will) and whether Dioner Navarro can be a good catcher (who knows?).

What is not widely appreciated is that the Rays have quite a collection of prime age talent, and relatively few holes.  Iwamura seems to have made a good adjustment to second base, and that was the big question mark that I had. 

Mick Doherty - Wednesday, March 26 2008 @ 03:32 PM EDT (#181512) #

Carl Crawford is 26, he's ten hits away from 1000 and a two-time All-Star

I think Crawford is great, don't get me wrong, but the first name I thought of when I read that line was "Gregg Jefferies" ... so I checked, and at age 26, sure enough, Jefferies had 959 hits (and might have reached 1000 if not for the '94 strike) and was a two-time All-Star. He was out of baseball at 32 with fewer than 1600 career hits, so let's not buy Carl a ticket to Cooperstown just yet!

Mike Green - Wednesday, March 26 2008 @ 03:39 PM EDT (#181514) #
Carl Crawford doesn't remind me physically of Lou Brock, but in terms of offensive skills, they are pretty similar. Brock was famous for his World Series performances in the 60s, but was actually a better offensive performer in his early-mid 30s in the 1970s. 
2008 Tampa Bay Rays Preview | 6 comments | Create New Account
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