2008 MLB Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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2008 MLB Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Manager: Joe Maddon

Arrivals: SS Jason Bartlett, OF Cliff Floyd, SP Matt Garza, 1B Eric Hinske, RP Trever Miller, RP Troy Percival, OF John Rodriguez

Departures: RP Shawn Camp, RP Tim Corcoran, OF Elijiah Dukes, IF Brendan Harris, DH Greg Norton*, SP Jae Seo, OF Delmon Young

Offseason grade: B

 

Starting rotation

What could be 2008's most interesting rotaiton isn't located in Boston.

Not in New York City.

Not in Seattle, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, or Chicago.

It's in Tampa Bay.

Now, before you stop reading this article because you think I'm an idiot, hear me out.

The Rays have built the most exciting group of young pitchers through smart trades and excellent scouting.

In 2004, the [Devil] Rays depantsed Jim Duquette and the Mets when they sent the second coming of Ernie Broglio to New York for one Scott Kazmir. 

Yeah, sorry to open old wounds, Mets fans. How great would Kazmir look alongside Santana right about now?

The left-handed Kazmir, 24, is the undisputed ace of this Rays rotation. Over the last three years, Kazmir has not seen his ERA finish above 3.80 while pitching in baseball's best offensive division. 

In his second full big-league season, Kazmir even made the All Star game in Pittsburgh.

He's had some arm problems in spring training that will prevent him from starting Opening Day, but if those can get cleared up, he should turn in another excellent season for the Rays.

James Shields is the oldest member of Tampa Bay's rotation at 26 years old. Let's put it this way: the oldest pitcher in the Rays' rotation was all of six years old when Randy Johnson made him MLB debut with the Expos.

Shields looked very good last year, going 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA. If he can improve in his second full MLB season, Shields will end the year as one of the better No. 2 starters in the league. 

Matt Garza was brought over from the Twins in exchange for Delmon Young, whose time with the Rays will always be remembered not for his immense talent, but for this moment.

Trading Young (and Elijiah Dukes, for that matter) not only rid the Rays of a bad apple, but also brought in a hell of a pitcher in Garza.

Despite bringing up such pitchers as Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, Garza may have been the most hyped pitching prospect the Twins have had in the last ten years. He started 15 games for Minnesota last year and posted an ERA of 3.78;an impressive stat for someone who was only 23 at the time.

Garza never was given the opportunity to pitch a full season with Minnesota but should settle in with Tampa Bay as their No. 3 starter for all of 2008. Don't be surprised if he pitches extremely well to complete a formidable trio at the top of this rotation.

For now, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnastine will round out the Rays' rotation.

Jackson has always been a highly-touted prospect, but he's never been able to locate well at the big league level. Over 161 innings last year, Jackson walked 88 batters while striking out 128.

2007 was Jackson's first real opportunity to be a full-time starting pitcher at the MLB level, however, as he had only started 15 games over four seasons with the Dodgers and Rays before last year.

If Jackson can locate better, his walks, ERA (5.76 in 2007), and losses (15) will go down while his strikeouts (128) and wins (five) will go up. He's always had the stuff to be a dominant pitcher, but it's all about throwing strikes.

Andy Sonnanstine was hit hard in his rookie season in 2007, going 6-10 with a 5.85 ERA over 22 starts. 

Control hasn't been the issue for Sonnanstine, as he walked just 26 in 132.2 innings last year and only has walked 75 batters over 495.2 career innings in the minors.

If Sonnanstine can figure out how to pitch at the MLB level like he figured out how to pitch in the minors, he could be a nice little surprise for the Rays.

That's easier said than done, though.

If Jackson and/or Sonnanstine fail, it's not like the Rays don't have two top-20 pitching prospects sitting in their farm system. 

Wade Davis (No. 17 in Baseball America's preseason top 100) is just 22 and has a career minor-league ERA of 1.24 in 82 starts in Tampa Bay's farm system. 

In stops last year at Vero Beach and Montgomery, Davis struck out 169 batters while only walking 51.

Granted, he put those numbers up at A and AA, but look for his success to continue at AAA Durham. If he puts up good stats there, don't be surprised if Davis gets called up sooner rather than later in 2008.

David Price (No. 10 in Baseball America's preseason top 100) was the No.1 overall pick out of Vanderbilt last year and already has rocketed his way onto Tampa Bays 40-man roster. 

That's pretty impressive for a guy who hasn't thrown an inning of professional ball. Price went 11-1 with a 2.63 ERA for Vandy in 2007 and had a ridiculous K/BB ratio of 6.26. His WHIP was 0.95 and he averaged 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

Say what you will, but those are damn good stats for any level. Price should make his pro debut at least at AA, but don't be surprised to see him with the big league club some time in 2008.

Heck, the Rays even have another good pitching prospect in Jeff Niemann (No. 99 in Baseball America's preseason top 100.

While the 6'9", 260-lb Niemann may not have quite the ceiling of Davis or Price, he's still a decent enough prospect who could see some time with the big league club in 2008.

I really like the direction this Rays rotation is heading in. They have tremendous depth in the minors and a number of good, young pitchers already on their ways to MLB stardom.

So, do you believe me now? Watch out for this Tampa Bay rotation in 2008.

Starting rotation grade: B (easily could end season as an A-, though)

 

Bullpen

Remember Troy Percival? If you do, you'll remember him as the once-dominant Angels closer who seemed to fall off the face of the earth in 2005. 

Well, he was back in the majors last year and did pretty well in 34 games for the Cardinals, posting an ERA of 1.80.

If healthy, he apparently is still a good enough closer to save 85% of his games. However, Percival will be 39 in August, so an injury-free season seems unlikely.

Al Reyes is a halfway decent replacement if Percival does go down with an injury. Reyes saved 26/30 games for the Rays last year but saw his ERA climb to 4.90.

He'll be counted on to be a primary late-inning setup man option out of the Tampa Bay bullpen. I'm not sold on Reyes doing anything special, but then again, he did have a lot of success in 2005 (his last season in the majors before 2007) as a middle reliever for the Cardinals, throwing 62.2 innings with a 2.15 ERA. 

Juan Salas had the best 2007 of the rest of Tampa Bay's relievers. Salas appeared in 34 games last year for Tampa Bay and put up a very good ERA of 3.72. 

Salas is an interesting case. He originally entered Tampa Bay's farm system as a thid baseman/outfielder in 1999 and started pitching only in 2004. He was dominant between Montgomery and Durham in 2006, throwing 64 innings with a 0.70 ERA.

However, Salas has been plagued by a couple of issues. First, he was suspended 50 games in 2007 after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Second, Salas isn't even in America right now due to visa problems.

So, despite his impressive track record (which, to be honest, looks suspicious because of the PED suspension), he'll probably start the year in the minors. So much for that. 

Dan Wheeler, a once-solid reliever for Houston, really struggled last year between the Astros and Rays, compiling a 5.30 ERA over 74.2 innings.

A return in preformance to Wheeler's 2004-06 numbers would be a huge boost for this bullpen. However, that's another big "if."

Gary Glover pitched in the majors for the first time since 2005 and was mediocre out of Tampa Bay's bullpen, throwing 77.1 innings with a 4.89 ERA.

Glover is a serviceable long reliever or mop-up man, but shouldn't be counted on to be anything more than that.

Trever Miller was brought back to Tampa Bay after spending two seasons in Houston pitching out of the Astros' bullpen. Miller actually had a pretty decent track record with Tampa Bay, posting ERAs of 3.12 and 4.06 with the Rays in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

Miller was good again in 2006, throwing 50.2 innings with a 3.02 ERA. However, Miller's ERA ballooned to 4.86 in 46.1 innings last year for Houston.

Like Wheeler, Miller has a decent track record over the last five or so years but struggled in 2007. And, like Wheeler, a return to Miller's 2004-06 performance would be a real boost to this bullpen.

Outside a surprisingly dominant August, Scott Dohmann struggled after joining Tampa Bay in July of 2007. While his season ERA was a solid 3.23, his month-by-month ERAs show that was somewhat of a mirage. Over 7.1 innings in July, Dohmann's ERA was 4.91 and in 11 innings in September, his ERA was 5.73.

Sandwiched between those two was the month of August, in which Dohmann threw 14.1 innings and had a miniscule ERA of 0.63.  

If he throws a full season in the majors, expect Dohmann's ERA to settle somewhere in the 4.50 range.

Now that Tampa Bay has built an excellent group of young starters, it's time for them to address the bullpen. It's something that certainly needs to be fixed if the organization doesn't want to waste the talent of Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Price, Davis, etc.

Bullpen grade: D

 

Lineup

Tampa Bay has built a very solid lineup around one of the best pure athletes in the game in Carl Crawford.

Crawford, 26, has already played in two All-Star games (2004 & 2007), has 990 hits and a .296 batting average over six seasons, and has stolen 277 bases in his career. 

Wherever Crawford hits in the Rays lineup, he's going to turn in another excellent season.

BJ Upton finally came into his own last year, hitting .300 with 24 home runs, 82 RBI, and 22 steals in 474 at-bats with the Rays. Upton had struggled in 2005 and 2006, years in which he wasn't given a great opportunity to play.

Over a full season, Upton could easily put up .300/30/100 stats with 30 steals, too. He's not even 24 yet and has a whole lot of room to grow.

Evan Longoria should get his first shot at the big leagues in 2008 as Tampa Bay's starting third baseman. Longoria, Tampa Bay's first-round selection in the 2006 MLB draft, has blown through the Rays' farm system, reaching as high as AAA last year.

Over just two seasons, Longoria is a career .304 hitter (OBP of .388) with 44 home runs in the minors. 

If given a full season, don't be surprised if Longoria contends for and wins the AL Rookie of the Year. He's an exceptional talent who will have a lot of success with this organization sooner rather than later.

Akinori Iwamura put up very good stats after coming over from Japan last year, hitting .285 over 491 at-bats. Another solid season out of Iwamura would be an extra boost to the depth of the Rays' lineup.

I'd be shocked if Carlos Pena hits .282 with 46 home runs and 124 RBI again. Still, even if Pena experiences a significant drop in production down to around .270/30/100, he'll be an excellent piece in this lineup.

If Rocco Baldelli continues to have mysterious health issues (seriously, even Mark Prior doesn't have problems with his mitochondria), Cliff Floyd and Johnny Gomes will split time in right field and DH.

Floyd still is a solid hitter at age 35 but is also somewhat injury-prone. If healthy, he could hit about 20 home runs with a .280 average and 80 RBI, but don't expect him to stay off the DL for the entire season.

Gomes has struggled since he surprisingly hit .282 with 21 home runs in 2005, seeing his average dip to .214 in 2006 and then to .244 in 2007.  

If Gomes can keep his average around .250 and hit 20+ home runs, he'll be a decent piece towards the back of the lineup.

Jason Bartlett isn't all that bad of a hitter to have at the very back of Tampa Bay's lineup. Bartlett had an OBP of .339 and stole 23 bases for Minnesota last year and shouldn't hurt the Rays lineup a whole lot.

Dioner Navarro was once regarded as a top catching prospect but hasn't played well enough to justify it. In his first seaons of being a regular starter, Navarro played in 119 games and hit just .227 with nine home runs and 44 RBI for the Rays last year.

He's still just 24, though, so improvement off those stats isn't out of the question.

Between Crawford, Upton, Longoria, and Pena, this Rays lineup isn't all that bad. Guys like Floyd, Iwamura, and Gomes are all solid pieces to fill in a few of the remaining spots, too. While this lineup isn't that of the Red Sox, Yankees, or Blue Jays, it's still pretty solid and should support Tampa Bay's starting rotation this year.

Lineup grade: B-

 

Bench

Ben Zobrist, Willy Aybar, and Joel Guzman can play all over the infield and are viable backup options in case something happens to one of Tampa Bay's infielders.

If Baldelli somehow ends up staying healthy, Johnny Gomes or Cliff Floyd would be excellent pinch-hitting options for tight spots late in games. 

Justin Ruggiano would be Tampa Bay's only reserve outfielder if Baldelli is injured, but Crawford and Upton are durable and if Floyd or Gomes was to be injured, the other could take over in right and a guy like Aybar or Guzman could DH.

Bench grade: C+

 

If I had to pick two teams that really had things going in the right direction, it'd be the Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays. 

If everything goes to plan, the Rays will have a new stadium in 2012. While it's a long way off and a lot can happen, I wouldn't be all that shocked if this franchise finally reaches the playoffs sometime before it opens.

Seriously. Don't write this organization off because of the horrendous first decade of its existence. It's moving in the right direction and should ultimately challenge the Yankees and Red Sox in the East. 

 

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