The Tampa Bay Rays come away from a 2008 season that not even Nostradamus could have predicted.
The Rays finished first in the American League East under the Phil Jackson-like mystique of Joe Maddon, and eventually won the AL Pennant. The offense had been bolstered by Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria, and the defense had improved much over the previous three years.
However, it was the pitching staff that was the story behind the turnaround.
Tampa Bay starting pitching was beginning to come around in 2007, with breakout performances by Scott Kazmir and James Shields. However, starting depth was something that had plagued the franchise year in and year out.
The Rays saw breakout performances in Matt Garza (acquired from the Twins), Edwin Jackson (acquired from the Dodgers), and home-grown talent Andy Sonnanstine to make Tampa Bay one of, if not the best, young pitching staffs in the league.
Jackson, however, was traded to Detroit for outfielder Matt Joyce following a brilliant late-season performance by prospect David Price, who some see as the best pitching prospect in baseball.
The 2009 season holds several questions for the Tampa; most of which accompany any pitching staff with youth.
While Boston and New York have reloaded and retooled, Tampa's starting pitching cannot only replicate what they did last year, they must build on that success; far from asking too much for a staff without a starter over the age of 28.
The unquestioned ace of the staff, Shields produced arguably a better season in '08 than his breakout performance the year before. His strikeouts dipped dramatically from 184 to 160, which some see as a cause for concern. His walk totals remained the same, however his ERA dropped from 3.85 to 3.56, including a 2.88 ERA in the postseason. Shields' wins have increased every year for the past three years, while his walks remain the same.
His secret to his success has been a much improved ground-ball-per-fly-ball ratio. His GB/FB increased from 1.08 in 2007 to 1.24 in 2008. The main reason behind the ridiculous increase was an eight percent increase in his use of the cut fastball.
Shields will continue his success into the 2009 season and, in all probability, reach 15-20 wins with an improved Rays offense. His ERA should continue to drop to the 3.25 range. His strikeouts should see a bit of a climb, but only to about 170. His overall numbers, and his consistent approach will cement him to one of the elite starting pitching.
The crown jewel of the Delmon Young trade with Minnesota, Matt Garza took huge leaps last year.
Known for his immaturity in Minnesota, Garza continued that much into the season highlighted with a fight with catcher Dionner Navarro. He finally blossomed midway into the season, and his statistics reflect that.
Garza went 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP.
Not bad numbers.
However, his peripheral numbers suggest that he could be in for a rude awakening.
He posted a 6.24 K/9 mark, which is decent, but his 2.88 BB/9 raises some alarms. The real cause for concern is his 1.04 ground-ball-per-fly-ball ratio. Along with that, he only posted a .93 HR/9 clip, indicating luck was much on his side.
With all that said, Garza threw his fastball at a ridiculous rate (72.2 percent of the time), which is somewhat normal for young pitchers. He also got better as the season went along, posting a 3.96 ERA before the break and a 3.38 ERA with two shutouts after.
If Garza can mix in is plus slider, curve, and improving change up, his fly ball numbers will go down. However, if he continues to rely on his fastball at an alarming rate, his ERA will climb to the 4.00-4.20 range.
Scott Kazmir, the unquestioned ace coming into the 2008 season, had a very streaky season, which was highlighted by a strained elbow at the beginning of spring training.
His numbers were not bad, going 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP. "Kid K" posted his usual high strikeout rate (9.81 K/9) with an unusual 4.14 BB/9. His HR/9 mark also skyrocketed to 1.36 as he posted a ridiculously low .63 GB/FB rate
All of this can be attributed to a six percent increase in the use of his fastball, while a nine percent decrease in his using his slider to avoid arm troubles
If Kazmir can stay away from the injury bug, he will surely rise to the level he was at when he led the AL in strikeouts in '07.
However, his participation in the World Baseball Classic will be something to watch with your fingers crossed.
Sonnanstine went 13-9 with a decent 4.38 ERA.
He doesn't have great stuff like the rest of the rotation, but he gets by with pinpoint control, as showed by his 1.73 BB/9, and by mixing his pitches in all counts and situations.
One of the more consistent pitchers in the game, Sonnanstine should see a slight dip in his ERA, maybe down to the 4.00 range.
The Rays' top prospect coming into the 2008 season, David Price cruised through the minors and the Rays showed an uncharacteristic willing to push the prospect after drafting him 1st overall in the 2007 amateur draft.
Price will, in all probability, begin the season as the Rays' fifth starter after starring out of the bullpen in the '08 postseason.
Price will be limited, to say the least, in the majors, much to the chagrin of prospective fantasy owners.
In '08 Price threw his fastball 68.5 percent, his slider 30.2 percent, and his change up only 1.3 percent of the time. Expect his slider percent to go down and his change up percent to go way up over the course of the season as he will throw that to right hand hitters. Also it would be shocking to see him go over 150 innings pitched.
Dark Horse Candidates
Davis was largely dominant in his AAA stint in '08, putting up a 2.72 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP, a 9.34 K/9 , and a .207 opponent average. He will be more of a sixth starter to spell Price, but watch his career 4.67 BB/9.
Acquired with Ben Zobrist for Aubrey Huff in 2006, Talbot had a good season last year at Durham with a 3.86 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP, and a spectacular 1.95 BB/9. He has also showed he can keep the ball in the park.
Standing at 6'9", Niemann has fallen a bit as a prospect since he was drafted 4th overall, but he still has good lines: a 3.59 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP, and a 8.6 K/9.