With about four weeks left of Spring Training, I'll be previewing each MLB team, two at a time. Monday through Thursday I'll cover two teams per day, leading all the way up to the Phillies and Braves, a few days before Opening Night.
To kick it off, the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays and the San Diego Padres.
Tampa Bay Rays – AL East
Last Year: Won American League
Notable Additions: IF Adam Kennedy, OF Pat Burrell, OF Gabe Kapler, OF Matt Joyce, RP Joe Nelson, RP Lance Cormier, RP Brian Shouse, RP Jason Isringhausen
Notable Subtractions: IF/OF Eric Hinske, OF Rocco Baldelli, OF Cliff Floyd, SP Edwin Jackson, RP Trever Miller
Underrated addition: Matt Joyce
He'll be missed: Cliff Floyd
Joyce could be a part of the Rays outfield for awhile and they cashed in on great value with Edwin Jackson. Floyd was a clubhouse presence that the Rays could use.
Biggest Key to Success: The Rotation
The lynchpin of the Tampa Bay Rays success in 2008 was their starting rotation. James Shields all the way down to Edwin Jackson. Now, Jackson is gone and phenom David Price is holding up the back-end of the rotation.
If he is indeed the fifth starter, that’s a rotation stocked full of talent and now thanks to last year, some experience.
Scott Kazmir didn’t have the full-consistently healthy, completely dominate season that so many people think he can have, but he was still pretty good. James Shields meanwhile established himself as the ace due to his leadership and consistency from night to night.
Andy Sonnanstine was the quiet member of the group, just doing his job, and Matt Garza was the new addition, who proved to be just as talented as the Twins thought he was.
Can guys like Sonnanstine and Garza build off those career years or at least maintain them? Can Scott Kazmir stay healthy for an entire year, and if not, do they have someone to hold down the fort? Is David Price ready to be a starter?
If the Rays’ starting pitching comes to play like it did last year, there is no question about it; they’ll be in the mix.
Biggest Concern: The Closer’s Spot
Troy Percival did something to that Tampa Bay bullpen that was much needed in 2008. He provided stability at the back end. Dan Wheeler stepped in and at times, others did as well, when Percival got hurt.
But if Percival can’t hold up over the long-term, who will be the consistent go-to option that they can rely on?
David Price is in the rotation now and while Dan Wheeler showed he could do it, he’s much more valuable as a set-up man. If someone like Jeff Niemann, a starter in the minors, can step up and be a part of the back-end, this concern could be answered.
The Rays need some credit for going out though and getting some insurance with the little room they had to operate. By picking up Jason Isrinhausen, a proven closer who’s looking to regain his health and former success, they’ve got themselves one more arm to fall back on.
He could be the first option to close if he makes the team and Percival winds up back on the DL.
However if, and it’s a big if, Percival can remain healthy over the long-haul, then all these worries can be put to rest and everything will fall into place.
Biggest Change: The Mystique is Gone
It’s not the addition of Pat Burrell or the switch of David Price into the rotation.
No, it’s the initiation of the Rays into what we call Major League Baseball. You see, before last year, they were just a basement-dweller that people constantly doubted. Now, they are in the club.
They are no longer overlooked or underappreciated. Teams and players know who they are and expect them to come in, night-in and night-out and compete.
Not just that, teams are going to play them harder considering Tampa is team that is supposed to be better. Tampa Bay won the American League last year, teams are chasing them. They can no longer sneak up on anyone; teams are going to get up to play the Tamp Bay Rays.
That isn’t so much an indictment on the Rays as it is the competition around them. That cliché about them being the hunted not the hunter is ever-so-true.
The same can be said about some of their young players, Evan Longoria especially. Can Longoria maintain his production over the long-haul of a 162-game season?
Sure, he was up in mid-April, played into the post-season and played well. But he also got hurt, missed some time, and he didn’t technically play a full season. That and now people know who he is and just how dangerous he can be.
I go back to a sequence against the Cleveland Indians in which Longoria was fed a high fastball twice in a row. He hooked both of them just foul but they were deep enough to be gone. Rafael Betancourt could have just been pitching stupid, but he could have been ignorant and unaware of just how good Longoria is, because Evan did not miss the third pitch.
The Rays and Longoria are going through a change bigger than adding Pat Burrell or losing a veteran like Cliff Floyd. They are changing from the team that teams outside the division don’t take seriously, to the team that everyone takes seriously.
Team MVP: B.J. Upton, CF
Let’s not be fooled by anything there. Evan Longoria is great, Carlos Pena is the heart of the order, Carl Crawford and Akinori Iwamura are the guys at the top and Pat Burrell will be a nice addition.
But the best all-around player on this team is Bossman Junior.
Upton has a surgery to get healed-up from but after that I’d expect to see the B.J. Upton we saw in the postseason. Not necessarily the slugging home runs center fielder, but the guy who won games with his clutch hits.
Not to mention, he steals bases and plays superb defense. B.J. Upton is my Team MVP.
On the Rise: Dioner Navarro, C
It’s easy to get overlooked in a lineup that has the talent the Rays lineup has, especially now with the addition of Burrell. Navarro and to a lesser-extent Jason Bartlett are going to be key guys at the bottom of the lineup, that’s a no doubter.
But let’s not forget the importance Navarro brings to the pitching game as well.
Navarro is a key-cog in this Rays machine, both with the stick and behind the mask. He’s a talent that can’t be forgotten about and his stock is only going up from here.
I have a hard time with the Tampa Bay Rays and trying to project what they are going to do in 2009. Do I want to jump on the bandwagon a year late or not jump on the bandwagon at all and look like a fool?
Are the Rays a one-year wonder or does the movement by the Red Sox and Yankees turn the tables?
I really have no clue when it comes down to it, so I’m going to evaluate the talent and go from there when it comes to the Rays and go off what I know.
Here is what I know about the Rays. They have one of the best rotations in the entire game of baseball. Their lineup to me looks pretty dangerous at the top and one through nine, they aren’t bad at all.
Their bullpen is a question to me, just because I don’t know if their back end is healthy, but with talent like J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and additions like Jason Isringhausen, Brian Shouse and Joe Nelson, something has to pan out there.
I’m not sure if Matt Joyce has the right field job from the get-go, especially if he’s hurt, but I’m going to assume that he’s talented enough to eventually grab it and maintain it. Joyce, to me, is the answer to the one position player question that I would have for the Rays. Until then, Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler should be fine fill-ins.
Their manager is probably one of, if not the best in the game right now, in my opinion. If there is anyone who can navigate any situation thrown at him, it’s Joe Maddon. Can he get his players to play like the hunted instead of the hunters now? I think he can.
So with that, I like the Rays, and I like them to make the playoffs, but only as a Wild Card this year.
Prediction: Win the AL Wild Card
San Diego Padres – NL West
Last Year: Finished Fifth in NL West
Notable Additions: C Henry Blanco, IF Chris Burke, IF David Eckstein, OF Cliff Floyd, OF Emil Brown, RP Mark Worrell
Notable Subtractions: C Michael Barrett, IF Khalil Greene, RP Trevor Hoffman, P Matt Bush
Underrated addition: Cliff Floyd
He’ll be missed: Trevor Hoffman
Floyd will bring a veteran work-ethic to a young group that won’t win a lot of games and keep them motivated. Hoffman is an icon that cannot be replaced in terms of stature.
Keys to Success: Everything
As delicately as I can put this, the Padres need help.
But they do have some positives to build on.
If they don’t trade him, Jake Peavy is one of the best pitchers in the entire game. Pair him with a healthy Chris Young and they give lots of teams fits.
They’ve got young hitters like Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Kouzmanoff to build around, guys who don’t seem to be fazed by the complications that PETCO Park gives to hitters.
There is talent on this team, but there probably isn’t a collective unit that is solidified at this point in time, which presents problems.
Biggest Concern: Everything Else
Kevin Correia and Cha Seung Baek aren’t exactly old, but I think the book is out on both of them. They are decent pitchers who can give you some work, but sooner or later, this team is going to move on to some of its youngsters.
However if that isn’t the case, and they find themselves winning more ball games, I’d be looking in both Baek and Correira’s directions.
You know what you get in Jake Peavy and while you aren’t sure what Chris Young is going to do this year, a healthy Young is always better than a hurt Young.
That leaves it up to Correia and Baek if they can maintain rotation spots.
If not, look for an infusion of young talent at the pitching side to match the hitting side. Rapid growth would be needed not just from Chase Headley and Nick Hundley, but from the likes of Josh Greer and Wade LeBlanc.
Greer and LeBlanc are young pitching prospects that both saw time with the Padres last year. Making four and five starts respectively, Greer looked better than his left-handed teammate, pitching to a 2-1 record with a 2.67 ERA.
They’ve got a lot of holes plugged with chewing gum, to put it lightly but effectively.
David Eckstein might be a name many are familiar with, but his best days are behind him. Luis Rodriguez, Scott Hairston, pitchers like Baek, they are all okay.
It’s a team full of okay and that’s all I can really give them. They’ve got holes in their lineup, holes in the rotation and while Heath Bell should be okay moving to closer, you have to wonder if that patented Padres’ pen will be able to continue the chain.
If the Padres are going to win, not just the young pitching, but youngsters like Headley and Hundley need to grow on the offensive side. And usually when you are counting on youngsters to show you something they haven’t exactly shown you yet, you are in some trouble.
They’ve cut down on their payroll because of the economy. The new ownership probably won’t mean a huge turnaround immediately, so for now, in 2009, the Padres will see a lot of changes go through, but probably achieve similar results from 2008.
Biggest Change: The Closer is Gone
The closer is of course none other than Trevor Hoffman, the longtime Padre. Hoffman and San Diego have finally parted ways, in a sort of mysterious way too. The break-up wasn’t pretty and each side seems like they parted on bad terms.
Hoffman is with the Brewers now, after it appears the Padres pulled an offer for him off the table when it was believed they were attempting to cut costs and save money.
The change isn’t so much the fact that they don’t have a replacement, but the fact that along with Jake Peavy, Trevor Hoffman was the face of the franchise and probably the go-to guy many thought of when they thought of the San Diego Padres.
The change is not seeing Hoffman come in to close the game for the Padres in the ninth inning. For a team that probably won’t do too much winning, that won’t make it any easier.
Team MVP: Jake Peavy, SP
The one bright spot for the Padres fans this offseason is probably the fact that they held onto Jake Peavy.
That is unless of course you wanted to see him traded for a nice big haul, or maybe you believed that big haul wasn’t out there and you’d rather keep him.
Whatever the reason is or isn’t, Peavy is one of the best pitchers in the National League, therefore he’s the best player on his team. The former Cy Young winner might not win a lot of games due to the talent around him, but he’s going to keep his team in most of them.
That is of course, if he’s even with the team for the entire year. We’ll assume he stays from start to finish though.
On the Rise: Jody Gerut, CF
It wouldn’t be right if I passed up an opportunity to talk about Jody Gerut. He figures to be the main guy in center field, playing against right-handed pitchers for sure and from the looks of it, be the everyday starting center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Gerut gives you a little bit of everything, in defense, hitting, some power, some speed, and a good arm. He doesn’t do one thing great, but he does all of them pretty good and that’s with a bad knee injury.
Adrian Gonzalez and Brian Giles are the men in the middle, but Jody Gerut is the man atop the lineup that you can’t forget about. Now that his comeback year is under his belt and he now has a starting spot in-hand, he can show that his rookie year was no flash in the pan.
He may be older, but he’s shown that he can be a dependable major league player.
There are some things to like, or even love, about San Diego and the team they are fielding.
Hey, I love Jake Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez, who doesn’t? Brian Giles may be getting older, but he can still rake. Kevin Kouzmanoff is starting to come into his own. Jody Gerut and Chris Young will be nice players if they remain healthy.
You got some young guys like Chase Headley that could make them better than they are.
But is anyone really convinced players like Luis Rodriguez, Kevin Correia, Chris Britton, and a shell of David Eckstein’s former self are going to help the Padres achieve anything higher than fourth place? Especially with some of the talent by the divisions’ best teams.
I really like the Padres, if there was a team in the NL that I would pick as my favorite, it would be them. So it isn’t easy for me to say this. But I think they finish dead last in the NL West and if things go bad, they could be fighting to not be the worst team in baseball.
Prediction: Finish Last in the NL West
On deck for Tuesday, Mar. 10: Texas and Cincinnati