Monday, November 27, 2006

Looking Ahead: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

2006 W-L Record: 61-101
2006 pW-pL Record: 65-97
Runs Scored: 689 (14th of 14 -- dead last)
Runs Allowed: 856 (12th of 14)
Free Agents: Travis Lee

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Ty Wigginton?
2B -- Jorge Cantu
SS -- Ben Zobrist?
3B -- B.J. Upton
LF -- Carl Crawford
CF -- Rocco Baldelli
RF -- Delmon Young/Elijah Dukes
C -- Dioner Navarro
DH -- Jonny Gomes

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Scott Kazmir
Jamie Shields
Tim Corcoran
Jae Seo
Jason Hammel/Casey Fossum

2007 Proj. Closer: Juan Salas?

There is some reason for optimism in Tampa Bay and most of it centers around the offense. The Rays are getting a pretty good bunch of players arriving from the minors in the next couple years. The trouble will be finding someplace for them all to play.
Let's start with the mainstays: Carl Crawford, left fielder. Crawford isn't your average left fielder; his skill set reads more like that of a center fielder -- stolen bases, triples, speed -- but he still makes it work. His high batting average and skill set often cause him to get overrated, but you could do a lot worse than have Crawford out there. He's a career 292/326/434 hitter, and while that's not exactly inspiring, he is still just 25 years old and appears to be developing more power (his HR have increased every year of his career).

Rocco Baldelli mans center field. Baldelli came up in center field and made a splash with a colorful name and good defense, despite hitting 289/329/451 -- not exactly the numbers of your ideal Sports Illustrated cover model. But Baldelli was playing for a bad team, so he got the glory. He only did moderately better in 2005, and his glory was mostly dissipated by an injury that took away his 2005 season and limited his 2006 work. Still, the Rays signed him up to a 3-year, $9 million contract extension, starting with the 2006 season. It's probably a bargain, but it comes with bizarre club options for 2009-2011 totalling $27 million. The Rays are basically gambling an entire 3-year contract on Baldelli's performance in 2007-8. What's more likely is that they made the years optional so that Baldelli could be traded more easily in the future. And from the rumblings I'm hearing, that just might happen.
Either way, the Rays are set with Crawford and Baldelli for 2007, unless either man gets traded. That leaves a couple dozen players to fight over the right field spot.
Jonny Gomes will probably return to playing DH, which is for the best. Gomes had a splashy debut in 2005, hitting 282/372/534. Then he took an odd step back in 2006, hitting 216/325/431. The odd part is the amazing 66-point drop in his batting average. He was able to slightly compensateby doubling his walk rate (from 39 to 61 in comparable plate appearances), but his OBP was still below-average. The Rays would certainly like to see the reliable power source that Gomes was in 2005, but if they don't, at least they've got several guys who could replace him.
Let's start with Delmon Young. Young ravaged the minor leagues, reaching the majors this past season at age 20 and essentially staking out right field for himself. Young has a lot of tools and he makes them work, hitting 328/349/492 in 29 big-league games. Considering this performance, it's tough to see the Rays moving Young out of right field, unless it's to DH. The only real significant obstacle standing between Delmon and superstardom is his temper; he threw a bat an umpire in Triple-A (which was caught on camera) and missed 50 games.

On most teams, Young would be a sure thing for the right fielder's job, but the Rays have several young outfielders pushing toward the majors. The biggest threat is Elijah Dukes. Dukes will be 23 next year and has already murdered Triple-A Durham (293/401/488 last year). Dukes has a great deal of talent and will soon force his way into the lineup somewhere. Unfortunately, he shares Delmon Young's problem of anger management. Unlike Young, whose outburst was a relatively isolated incident, Dukes is already halfway towards attaining full Albert Belle status, with even a domestic violence arrest in his past. The Rays may not want to deal with a younger version of Milton Bradley, but if he keeps hitting like this, they will have no choice.
That should give the D-Rays more than enough outfielders (at least until they trade someone), but then there's the troubling situation of B.J. Upton. Upton proved he was ready to hit in the majors a couple years ago, but hadn't gotten there to stay because of defensive issues. The Rays finally gave in and promoted Upton to the big club to play as a third baseman (he had been embarassing himself in the minors as a shortstop). Upton was still a butcher at third, but that's less harmful than a butcher at shortstop. The much more troubling issue is the regression in his offense. Upton started the year in Triple-A and posted the disappointing line of 269/374/394. That's a step down from his previous performance (303/392/490 in '05), especially in the power department, as his homers and doubles dropped precipitously. This could be written off as the effects of spending three years stagnated in Triple-A, but Upton hit even worse in the majors (240/297/287) with not a hint of power.
There's really no positive way to spin this. It could be just a bad year, but there aren't any obvious indicators of that. The D-Rays will stick with Upton and likely start the year with him on the squad. But after they figure out where to pay him (shortstop? third? second? outfield?), they also need to deal with whatever was plaguing him last year.
If Upton does end up in the infield, that creates a crowded situation there, as well. The competition isn't as stiff as it is in the outfield, but there are still some important decisions to be made, with several young prospects naturally waiting in the wings.
If Upton does play third, that likely means that Ty Wigginton will play first. With the departure of Travis Lee to free agency (thank God), the D-Rays would be well-advised to replace him with someone who's actually, you know, better. Wigginton lucked into a fine 2006 (275/330/498), but that just doesn't square with his career line of 265/325/446. He's not going to kill you, but he'd be better served as a temporary solution. The only other clear option is Wes Bankston, who split 2006 between Double-A and Triple-A with mediocre offense.

But the Rays have a trump card in Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura. Apparently, they weren't impressed with the prospect of playing Wigginton everyday and would like to shift Upton. He would need to move if they actually sign Iwamura, since the Japanese player has a solid defensive reputation. The Rays won the bidding process and now just need to sign him.
I'm very skeptical that the Rays would make such a financial commitment to a player who's not filling a vital hole -- especially since that money could be better spent elsewhere, and without further crowding the lineup. It will be an especially big mess if Iwamura doesn't work out. But I'll at least wait to see the final contract figures (if they do sign him) before passing a sweeping judgment.

The middle infield picture is muddy, especially if Upton is in the mix somewhere. The only definite is Jorge Cantu. Cantu is a reliable power source, and an equally reliable source of strikeouts and dismal defense. If he can simply hold his own defensively and keep swatting home runs, he could have some value as a poor man's Jose Valentin.
The favorite for the shortstop job is Ben Zobrist. The Rays wisely nabbed Zobrist from the Houston Astros, where he had been getting on base like a madman all through their minor league system. Zobrist has no power, but very well be an asset as a leadoff man if he can keep hitting .300 and drawing lots of walks. He hasn't yet succeeded in the majors, so I may be a bit premature here, but he's a pretty good option for a low-budget team.
Behind Zobrist, the Rays have Reid Brignac. Brignac has only played 28 games above Class A but has hit quite well for his position. He's still a year or two away from the majors and may not end up as a shortstop, but he's some insurance. If the Rays do go with Zobrist, they don't have to commit to anything long-term.

Behind the plate, the Rays have still more decisions to make. Former Dodger Dioner Navarro, nabbed in a steal of a trade this past summer, should start off the season as the Rays' regular. Navarro has a solid prospect pedigree and has shown off well with the Dodgers, although his Tampa Bay debut was dismal (244/316/342). Still, he's young, cheap, and major-league ready, and the Rays have learned not to take that for granted.
Even though Navarro should have the starting catcher's job sealed up, look for some pressure from Shawn Riggans. Young Riggans showed off great hitting in the minors, but health problems had prevented him from capitalizing on his success. Riggans finally broke through in 2006, hitting a fine 293/341/444 in Durham before breaking through to the big club. He's no sure thing, especially considering he's already 26, but he's a nice emergency starter in case Navarro doesn't work out.

We really can't be too optimistic -- this is a team that finished last in the AL in offense by a long shot last year, so there's a long way to go before they're even average. But there is more reason for hope now than ever; the D-Rays have never really had this much homegrown talent.
But as you can see, the problem with the Devil Ray offense isn't that they lack good players -- it's that they just can't fit them all in a 9-man lineup. That's mainly because the previous administration was able to hoard top-level draft picks without making serious long-term plans for them. Hopefully, this will be changing -- as evidenced by the new regime's willingness to trade popular players Baldelli and Crawford. It's nice to have this much talent, but the only point in developing excess players is to use them as either emergency backups or trade bait. Considering the quality of the players in question, a backup role isn't really applicable. So if used right, some of these guys can be traded to bring back some well-needed pitching.

This is the ugly part, and the part that isn't likely to get much better in 2007. The team is finally getting some good pitching prospects into the upper minors -- which is cause for celebration in this organization -- but we should reserve our praise for when they actually reach the majors. There's reason to think that they will start to arrive in 2007 -- and some already have -- but there's little reason to expect the Tampa Bay pitching staff to approach the average this year or next.

Scott Kazmir has already established himself as a top-notch young pitcher and will be the Rays' ace for the near future. It won't take him long to break all the records for a Tampa Bay starting pitcher (if he already hasn't), and the only real concern the D-Rays have is keeping him healthy.
Behind Kazmir is a steep drop-off to the incoming prospects and outgoing placeholders. The Rays' rotation has exemplified the replacement level for years now, with borderline pitchers like Rob Bell and Doug Waechter carrying the banner proudly. Luckily, both Bell and Waechter are gone, and the Rays have replaced them with people who are better, some of whom actually with the chance to improve!
The Rays' #2 will likely be Jamie Shields. Shields has had mixed success in the minors, but the 25-year-old's strikeout rates have always been above-average. He posted a 4.84 ERA in 21 big-league starts last year. And yes, that does make him the second-best starter on the team.

Behind him is Jae Seo, a 5th starter stretched into #3 duty. There's also Tim Corcoran, whom they haven't yet realized is just the latest Bell/Waechter/Mark Hendrickson incarnation. They have, however, figured out all those things about Casey Fossum, who will be lucky to make the rotation at all.
Jason Hammel promises to be a bright spot. This 24-year-old has made some good showings in the minors and made it to the big club last year. He's not a star nor is he a sure thing, but he's an improvement over Fossum and Seth McClung.
There are some other pitchers in the system that bear watching (such as Andy Sonnanstine), but they won't likely make an impact on the rotation next year.

The Tampa Bay bullpen is the term for all of the pitchers not in the starting rotation. In the past, the Rays have actually managed to put together some decent bullpens, although I'm not optimistic about their future in that regard.
I note Juan Salas as the team's closer for the simple reason that they don't have anyone else and haven't publicly stated yet who will fill the role next season. Salas seems -- at least to me -- like a good choice. Salas has pitched quite well with killer strikeout rates as a reliever in the minors and has experience closing. He's also been stingy with the walk and the home run and, at age 25, the Rays might just have a sure-fire homegrown closer on their hands. Let's hope they don't repeat last year's mistake and start out the season with Dan Miceli in the role.

Beyond Salas, there aren't a lot of rookies ready to make it to the big-league bullpen, which is sad, considering that the bar has been set so low. The Rays tried to slog through 2006 with 30-year-old replacement players filling out the 'pen (Brian Meadows, Tyler Walker), and it worked about as well as you'd guess. They did get a good season from 26-year-old Ruddy Lugo (3.81 ERA), but his BB:K ratio isn't exactly promising (37:48 in 85 innings). If the Tampa Bay bullpen is anything but one of the worst in baseball next year it will either be through the ascension of young players like Salas or divine intervention.

Offseason Game Plan:
There's not a lot the Rays can -- or should -- do this off-season. As I've said, their problem isn't so much a lack of personnel rather than a glut, especially in the outfield. The only free agents the Devil Rays can afford are so bad as to be nothing but a waste of space blocking a better, younger player.

What the Rays should look into is trading either Crawford or Baldelli. My first impression is that they should trade whomever will return good pitching talent (that the Rays will control for some years). Crawford is the better of the two, but he's also amazingly overrated, and so might bring back much more than he actually merits. He's also, as a left fielder, easily replaced from within. Baldelli is the worse player, but he does play a more valuable defensive position (and well), and isn't getting paid as much as Crawford. I don't know -- I think the Rays should just shop both men and take the best deal they can get.
There isn't a lot the Rays can do with their pitching staff but pray. They weren't the worst-pitching team in baseball last year, so they've at least got something to build on. If they do look to the free agent market, target low-risk guys like Bruce Chen who could come in and eat innings and, if you're lucky, be about average. But limit your liability -- and don't jeopardize the future. That above all should be your mantra.

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