1. Carpe Diem?
The Rays team is going to look different next year. On the one hand the owners have announced that the payroll is going to drop by over $20 million. On the other big names Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Pat Burrell and Rafael Soriano are all in the final year of their contracts, even for a team with as much young talent as the Rays that is a lot of output to replace, with little or no money available. This might then be the Rays best chance for a while to get back to the post-season. Having said that, I'd never count out Andrew Friedman or the Rays minor league system completely, but it must be noted the odds start to lengthen for them next year.
2. Didn't you predict they'd win over 90 games and the wild card last year?
Yes, that's actually one of my accurate predictions.
3. So what went wrong?
A few players had bad years. Offensively a couple of surprise big years actually allowed the team to score more runs than in 2008 (803 to 774), but defensively 83 more runs were allowed. Dionner Navarro had an awful season, posting a 52 OPS+ and lost his job to Gregg Zaun who was brought in from the Orioles to provide some stability at the catching spot. He was joined by B.J Upton (who struggled with a year long recovery from surgery for a wrist injury) and Pat Burrell in disappointing. Ben Zobrist and Jason Bartlett had amazing years that allowed the offense to continue to be productive. On the pitching side, Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine combined for 38 awful starts (ERA+ of 76 and 67 respectively). In the bullpen most of the relievers were pretty solid, but Grant Balfour slipped badly after an incredible year in 2008. When the presumptive closers Percival and Isringhausen combined for less then twenty Innings the balance of the bullpen was disturbed, Howell eventually ended up closing and with Balfour struggling the middle relief that was very strong in 2008 struggled in 2009. There were other concerns too, Maddon was said to be disappointed with the fielding last year after challenging his team to win multiple gold gloves in spring training. Maddon has also laid a heavy emphasis on base running this spring, particularly in going first to third, feeling that such an athletic team did not take the extra base enough last year.
4. Who are the hitters?
The final spots are still a little up in the air, and injuries are making some decisions difficult. At catcher there will be Shoppach and Navarro, although the latter has been hurt in the spring he looks like he should make opening day. The infield is set: Pena-Zobrist-Bartlett-Longoria. In the outfield Crawford will be in left and Upton in centre, rightfield will probably be a platoon of Joyce and Kapler, with Burrell at DH. The hitters would round out with Sean Rodriguez and Willy Aybar on the bench. However, Joyce and Aybar are both questionable to start the season, which could open up a spot for Hank Blalock. Blalock has had an excellent camp, and earned rave reviews from his coaches. There have even been rumours in the Tampa press that he was under serious consideration for the DH slot, not surprisingly perhaps given Burrell's great struggles last year. If Aybar cannot start the season Blalock will likely get his place on the roster and cover the infield corners - he had his first start at third base yesterday. If Joyce cannot go then Reid Brignac might get the call with Rodriguez covering the outfield. There are all sorts of possibilities for Joe Maddon to consider with two players as flexible as Zobrist and Rodriguez and Maddon does like to experiment - he's even had Pat Burrell back playing in the outfield this spring. There is more depth here too this year, with Blalock and Rodriguez on the bench and Jennings and Ruggiano in Durham. If a regular picks up an injury or goes into a long term the team has options to replace them. Last years offense scored the most runs in team history, I think this year they score more again.
5. And the pitchers?
The rotation starts as last year with James Shields and Matt Garza. Behind them are Jeff Neimann and David Price with Wade Davis having won a spring training 'battle' with Sonnanstine for the fifth spot.
Shields is in his prime years now, and has eaten up 200 Innings each of the last three years. He slipped back a little last year, with his ERA over 4 and his K/BB slipping down noticeably to 3.21 from 4.00 the year before. The knock on Shields is always that he's not a true ace, but, Doc is the only other AL starter over the last three years to have posted a WAR above 4 each year, and in all of baseball only Doc, Haren and Sabathia have thrown more Innings over the same period. The guy's got some game. Garza is just 26, prodigiously skilled, but troubled sometimes by his control, he should be on track for another year of 200 Innings and an ERA somewhere under 4. Neimann and Price are both entering their second full season after being highly touted prospects.
Neimann had a rough start to the year and then got considerably stronger as the year wore on and his control improved. There's more on Price below, Wade Davis is another top prospect (the Rays don't seem to have normal prospects) who had a successful debut last year, he's just 24 but looks ready to be successful against major league hitting. I really like this rotation, particularly if Price and Neimann take up where they left off in the second half last year.
The front office opened the chequebook this winter to sign closer Rafael Soriano to a one year deal. Soriano is a strikeout machine, but has had a significant amount of injury in his career, for the Rays though he should be a risk worth taking after a strong and injury free season last year. This move frees up J.P Howell to move back into the high leverage spots in the late innings as the primary setup man, but he has hurt his shoulder and will miss at least the first month. The roles in the bullpen gets a little upset now as Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler will move into doing the primary setup work with Randy Choate as the primary situational lefty. Sonnanstine, Joaquin Benoit and Dale Thayer are likely to fill the remaining spots. If this group was to remain injury free all year, I'd fancy their chances to get the job done, but with Soriano's injury history and Howell already having shoulder trouble they look like they're short at least one quality arm.
I wonder if AA is dangling Scott Downs in front of them?
6. Can they pick it?
Yes, they can. Fangraphs UZR figures have the Rays just behind the vaunted Mariners in team defense last year. Of the regulars only Pena and Bartlett score in negative figures and for the latter that's the first negative score of his career. On the positive side Longoria, Crawford, Zobrist and Upton all score in the double figures. This is in short by these numbers an excellent overall defensive club.
7. That David Price was just a big bust huh?
After an outstanding career at Vanderbilt, being drafted first overall and then dominating in the 2008 playoffs David Price has quickly become almost a forgotten man as the baseball world has gone Strasburg crazy. The main reason of course was a 2009 season that looks, on the surface at least, to have been rather pedestrian. After being kept down in AAA to start the year, Price was brought up in May and started 23 games, posting a 102 ERA+, an ERA of 4.42 and a 10-7 record. He changed as a pitcher over those four months though, he came up throwing a lot of sliders and whilst he was striking people out he was walking far too many for comfort. As the season went on he cut back on the sliders, went to his heater more and started to feature his curve. The result was his control improved and he started to get a lot more groundballs at the expense of fewer strikeouts - and became more successful.
K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA
June 6.51 5.86 37.8 4.23
July 7.71 3.86 37.2 6.94
Aug 6.32 2.01 44.9 3.73
Sept 5.59 2.92 44.1 3.89
If Price can build on what he did in the second half last season he should soon be realizing his potential and be one of the leagues premier starters.
8. Anything left on the farm ?
Don't expect this farm system to go quietly into the good night just because they've graduated a few players in the last few years - they have three top picks in the top 50 next year and a number of top prospects still in the system. Desmond Jennings is the Rays undisputed top prospect - and that's a title that means something. He's 23, a five tool centerfielder and has been described as a walk conscious Carl Crawford. The only real knock on him is his injury history - missing significant time in 2008 with a back problem. He'll almost certainly be starting somewhere in the Rays outfield next year, but this year there's a lot of other good outfielders around in case of an injury on the big club and he'll likely be beating up on minor league pitching for most of the year. Jeremy Hellickson is the systems top pitcher, and he's in Durham, knocking at the door. He throws 92, with a very good changeup and is noted for his exceptional command. He split time at AA and AAA last year, posting an ERA well below three in both. Alex Torres who came over for Scott Kazmir, and is ironically a small lefty, will be in AA and could move up quickly. 2008 first round pick Tim Beckham struggled with the glove last year and there was growing concern that he was getting too big to stay at short - he showed up this spring having lost 15 lbs though.
The Rays' farm obviously isn't as strong as it was but they still had 7 players in BA's recent top 100 list, there is more talent on the way.
9. What can we expect from BJ Upton?
No idea. Really, his numbers have been declining rapidly over the last couple of years. In 2007 he had a .300/.384/.508 season at just 22 and seemed destined to take the game by storm. Then in 2008 he played most of the year with a torn labrum and ended up having surgery on it, he mainained an excellent OBP, but his power disappeared. In 2009 his numbers cratered, his OPS was just .686 as his OBP dropped 70 points. He lost his power up the middle and the other way, in 2007/8 he could hit the ball hard to all parts of the field. It's impossible to tell how much of his decline last year was related to the recovery from surgery. If the power loss was surgery related and he has his all field power back in 2010, he could get back to posting numbers something like he did in 2007, and if you believe in WAR that could be worth a couple of wins for the Rays.
10. How are they going to do?
This looks to me like the best all around team the Rays have had. I don't think they can beat New York over a full season, but I see no reason why they can't be neck and neck with the Red Sox in September.