SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Tampa Bay Rays, Third Head Of The Monster

Every day, from March 1st through March 30th, we will be posting a new team preview for the upcoming MLB season, written up by our excellent network of baseball bloggers. Follow this section for daily updates as you prepare yourself for the summer ahead. Team previews will be posted in ascending order of Las Vegas World Series odds.

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SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Tampa Bay Rays, Third Head Of The Monster

By Steve Slowinski, Ricky Zanker, Tommy Rancel, Andy Hellickstone, FreeZorilla, R.J. Anderson, and Erik Hahmann of DRays Bay

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Introduction

Recently, every time I think about the 2010 Rays, a rather odd phrase keeps popping into my head. It's not a phrase you're likely to hear cast about in the clubhouse or used in any newspaper column, but it's one that strikes me as remarkably descriptive and fitting. That phrase? Ichi-go ichi-e.

For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese, "Ichi-go ichi-e" is a phrase commonly used in the martial arts and in tea ceremonies. It translates generally to "One Chance, One Moment," reminding everyone that this one moment in time is entirely unique. Look around you right now. You only have the chance to be living this exact moment in time once; are you living that moment in a way you want? Ignore the past, ignore the future - all that matters is this one moment that you are living right now. Immerse in the moment and become lost in the present.

As you may or may not know, this is a seminal year for the Rays. With contracts expiring for Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Pat Burrell, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler, there is going to be a very high turnover going into the 2011 season. Not that the turnover is going to harm the Rays' competitiveness necessarily - with a large influx of prospects like Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings ready to go, the Rays look to be just as strong in 2011 - but this is the last season that we Rays fans can expect to see the familiar nucleus intact. This is the last season to win with Crawford and Pena aboard and the Rays need to make the most of it.

Recognizing the high turnover coming up in 2011, the Rays' front office decided to go all in this past off-season. Instead of shedding payroll by trading Crawford and/or Bartlett like many were expecting, the Rays instead went out and traded for a $7 million closer in Rafael Soriano. They brought back Gabe Kapler, almost got Milton Bradley, filled the hole at catcher by trading for Kelly Shoppach, and signed low-cost, high-upside guys like Joaquin Benoit. The Rays' payroll is now the highest it has ever been and the roster is stocked to the gills with talent and depth.

All of these moves have sent a very clear message to Rays' fans: the time is NOW. Ichi-go ichi-e. No holds barred. Boston and New York both have stacked rosters as well, but most projection systems have placed the Rays within a win or two of them both, well within striking distance. Sure, it will take some luck for the Rays to be able to make the playoffs, but luck is one thing that the Yankees and Red Sox cannot buy. The Rays have put themselves in the best position they can for a playoff push and now we just have to see how it all unfolds.

So there it is. The Rays are going to be underrated by everyone going into this season because of their finish last year and the fact that they didn't have a showy off-season, but the truth of the matter is that this team has a deep roster that has the potential to compete with the likes of Boston and New York all season long. Don't dare count us out or you may find yourselves sitting at home come October.

One chance, one moment. Ichi-go ichi-e.

Position Players

Evan Longoria

It seems like Longoria has been the new face of the franchise every since he got called up mid-April 2008. He plays well on all sides of the ball with a lively bat, Gold Glove defense, excellent baseball instincts, and the potential to improve on all fronts.

Carl Crawford

For a team that is cutting payroll post-2010, it seems impossible for them to retain fan favorite Carl Crawford, who will enter his first year of free agency after this season. It is hard to say how much he will improve on his 2009 season with saw his highest on-base percentage, walks, and stolen base totals of his career. But it is safe to assume his Gold Glove-caliber defense and .300 will be there.

Carlos Pena

Another player that is heading to free agency after the season, Carlos Pena has been the powerhouse in the lineup since he broke out in 2007. Depending on how well the season goes, the Rays would be lucky to get him back on a hometown discount. Which would be great, not because of his on-field skills, but for his "spiritual" clubhouse leadership.

Jason Bartlett

The man who was the face of the defensive revolution starting in 2008, Bartlett had his breakout season in 2009 with 14 home runs, three more than he had in his previous four seasons in the Majors.

Ben Zobrist

Compare the newly acquired Zobrist in 2006 with the Zobrist of 2009, and one could see the transformation from a slap hitting shortstop to a power-hitting utility player, or Zorilla for short. The question marks for him is where will he play (second or right) primarily and whether can he adjust to opposing pitchers who had a year to learn his strengths and weaknesses.

B.J. Upton

It has been easy to tolerate Upton's offense for the past two seasons since he makes that up in center and on the base paths. If there was a move of the off season for the Rays, it might have been for new hitting coach Derek Shelton, who they hope can fix Upton at the plate.

Pat Burrell

The transition from the NL East to the AL East was difficult for Burrell. Even he says he felt a different vibe in Tampa Bay than he did in Philly. Any continuation of last season's lackluster offense will have the Rays looking for him to move out of the lineup quickly as they need those runs that should be expected from the DH spot.

Dioner Navarro/Kelly Shoppach

This would be a great catching tandem if Navarro would carry his weight on offense. It took him 50 starts and about two and half months for him to get just FOUR walks. That is just one of the many reasons why the Rays traded for Kelly Shoppach from the Indians. How Joe Maddon is going to share their time is anyone's guess, but the better catcher will get the most playing time as the Maddon looks to maximize his lineup.

Bench

Looking at the Rays' bench, we see that is loaded from the four spots in the Majors and into the minor leagues. Matt Joyce, Reid Brignac, and Sean Rodriguez are looking for playing time between second and right field. Everyone's favorite bench player Willy Aybar should be healthy for opening day. Gabe Kapler preps to hit left-handed pitching. This isn't including newly acquired Hank Blalock, who will provide depth for the corner infield and DH spot.

Rotation

For the third straight season, the Tampa Bay Rays' rotation will be anchored by James Shields. At age 28, Shields is the elder statesmen and unquestioned ace of the staff. Since his first full season of major league ball in 2007, Shields has averaged 12 wins and 216 innings in each of the last three seasons.

He took a minor step back in 2009 with an ERA of 4.14 and a 4.02 fielding independent pitching (FIP), but crossed the 4 wins above replacement level (WAR) threshold for the third time in a row. With Scott Kazmir in Los Angeles, Shields goes in to 2010 with a chance to top several of the franchise's all-time marks including: innings, starts and wins.

While Shields is the ace right now, nobody has better stuff in the Ray rotation that Matt Garza. Acquired from the Twins in the famous Delmon Young swap, Garza has already cemented his legacy in Tampa Bay. Garza started the 2009 season fresh of his 2008 ALCS MVP performance and went over 200 innings for the first time in his career (203). He also posted a strikeout per nine innings (K/9) (8.38) that lived up to his electric stuff.

Garza works with a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, but his best pitch was his devastating slider. That pitch induced a swing and a miss 20.3% of the time in 2009. If you judge him by his win-loss record, you are missing out. All signs point to Garza having a fantastic season in 2010 and possibly overtaking Shields as the team's number one starter.

In a pitching rich organization like the Rays, former first round draft pick, Jeff Niemann got lost in the shuffle. Niemann, once seen as a potential staff ace, found himself battling for the team's fifth starter spot in spring of 2009. The 27-year-old righty won the job and turned in a surprise performance for Tampa Bay.

Niemann led the Rays in wins (13) and ERA (3.94) in 2009. It was Niemann, and not the highly-touted, David Price, who made a strong bid for American League Rookie of the Year. While some expect Niemann to regress a bit in 2010, he is a solid back-of-the-rotation option for the Rays.

David Price was supposed to have the season that Jeff Niemann did. Price started the season in the minor leagues, but became a fixture in the Rays rotation at the end of May. After bursting on the scene in the 2008 playoffs as a relief pitcher, Price struggled to get settled as a major league starter.

In his first 11 starts, Price struck out over a batter per inning, but had a walks per nine innings (BB/9) of nearly six. Price settled down and showed great maturity during the second half and his numbers reflected as much.

Price took some velocity off his mid-90s fastball in order for more control. In his final 12 starts, his K/9 dropped to 5.75, but his walks also dropped down to 2.5. In addition to the better control, Price found a two-seam fastball and increased his ground ball percentage (GB%) to over 42% over the final two months of the season. Like Garza, Price has the stuff to become a legit number one or two starter for the Rays.

Rounding out the Rays rotation are Wade Davis and Andy Sonnastine. Davis is a top prospect in the Rays organization and made his debut in September 2009. It took only three starts for the world to see Davis' talents as he threw a complete game four-hit shutout against the Orioles. With a big frame, a big fastball and a big curve ball, Davis is just another top-of-the-rotation talent pitching for the Rays.

Andy Sonnanstine is quite the opposite of Davis. Never a top prospect, Sonnanstine is a control artist whose stuff rarely touches 90 mph. In 2008, Sonnanstine was arguably the second-best starter on the AL championship team. However, in 2009 "Sonny" was rocked right out of the Rays rotation.

After starting the season 6-7 with a 6.61 ERA in 15 games, Sonnanstine found himself not only out of the rotation, but out of the major leagues. He returned briefly in September, but was hit hard in his two starts and was then moved to the bullpen. He finds himself in a battle with Davis, which is deemed as a wide-open competition. (Update: Davis has won, and Sonnanstine is off to the bullpen.)

As a group, the Rays boast one of the most talented rotations top to bottom. I didn't even mention top pitching prospect, Jeremy Hellickson, who is already knocking on the major league's door. With no innings restrictions on any of their starters, the Rays will try and become the first team with five 200+ inning starters since 1980.

Bullpen

The 2010 Tampa Bay Rays bullpen comes into the year with fewer question marks than at any time in the history of the franchise. The trade for Rafael Soriano, and subsequent one-year contract, are part of the reason to think there will be more stability, and I'm sure you will hear it plenty of times from road broadcast teams and other out-of-touch, cliché-ridden points of view. The truth is, the Rays have three different guys that could close for two-thirds of the teams in the Majors. Let's take a look at some projections:

Pitcher

 ERA

 IP

 K/9

 BB/9

 K/BB

 HR/9

 AVG

 WHIP

 FIP

Rafael Soriano

  3.00

   65.0

  9.74

  3.14

  3.10

  0.97

  0.214

   1.12

  3.48

Grant Balfour

  3.55

   65.0

  9.88

  4.25

  2.33

  0.78

  0.222

   1.27

  3.55

J.P. Howell

  3.83

   69.7

  9.13

  3.70

  2.47

  0.99

  0.246

   1.30

  3.84

Winston Abreu

  4.01

   37.0

  8.51

  3.65

  2.33

  1.09

  0.255

   1.32

  4.11

Dan Wheeler

  3.67

   59.7

  7.49

  2.66

  2.81

  1.31

  0.244

   1.17

  4.31

Dale Thayer

  4.31

   48.0

  4.50

  2.06

  2.18

  1.03

  0.281

   1.24

  4.38

Randy Choate

  4.20

   45.0

  6.60

  3.60

  1.83

  1.00

  0.272

   1.38

  4.38

Joaquin Benoit

  4.22

   39.5

  8.20

  4.33

  1.89

  1.14

  0.260

   1.42

  4.47

R.J. Swindle

  5.35

   38.7

  6.91

  3.88

  1.78

  1.09

  0.290

   1.47

  4.53

Lance Cormier

  4.54

   68.0

  5.29

  3.57

  1.48

  0.97

  0.297

   1.47

  4.62

Jeff Bennett

  4.62

   58.5

  5.69

  4.38

  1.30

  0.85

  0.294

   1.55

  4.62

Total

  4.06

  594.0

  7.53

  3.56

  2.17

  1.01

   0.26

   1.33

  4.17

Lg. Avg.

  3.78

   50.7

  7.74

  3.79

  2.04

  0.89

  0.256

   1.38

  4.15

7 Man Total

  3.83

  411.8

  8.11

  3.58

  2.31

  1.01

  0.249

   1.30

  4.05

These various numbers represent the average of the projections systems (Bill James, Chone & Marcel) for each relief candidate and are sorted by FIP. I have highlighted the seven guys that I think will start the season in the Rays' pen in blue. I have compared each reliever's average projection to the league average for all relievers with 20 or more innings pitched in 2009.

I have highlighted each statistic that is better than the league average in green and in red for those that are worse than league average. "7 Man Total" refers to the total for each of the seven guys that are highlighted in blue that I peg to make the team out of the gate.

As noted previously, Soriano, Balfour, and Howell (particularly the first two) are lights-out, stud relievers that should be used as relief aces in high-leverage situations. The projections actually like Winston Abreu 4th best of our options, due to strong strikeout rates and acceptable walk rates. He profiles to be somewhat of a J.P. Howell clone, except right-handed. The rest of our relievers project to be worse than league average.

Dan Wheeler comes in as our 5th best option. He's close to league average in the strikeout department and quite good at limiting walks, but he really has trouble keeping the ball in the yard. Thayer and Choate have the same projected FIP, but they get there in different ways, though Choate should only be used against lefties, someone needs to fill that niche and he did quite well there last year.

Benoit comes in projected to be basically replacement level, though he's expected to get quite a few strikeouts at the expense of a high walk rate. Swindle is competition for the LOOGY-role that should be won by Choate. Lance Cormier is a groundball machine that doesn't strike anybody out, but by walking few, being close to league average in homers allowed, and being able to go multiple innings, he provides a nice arm for low-leverage and mop-up. Bennett will basically be a replacement-level farmhand that can come up in the event of an injury. He should only be used in low-leverage.

The Rays have three very good relief aces that should be able to shorten games and put out fires on command. Relievers are volatile creatures that can have great years at the drop of the hat and bad years can be just as unpredictable. With that in mind, I like the construction of the pen as it's headed by the big three and has multiple guys that are between league average and replacement level that could come out of nowhere to have a lights out season. I'm very high on the current relief corps, but with potential for injuries and flameouts, I would still like to see another guy brought in on the cheap to compete for a roster spot. I think someone like Jarrod Washburn or John Smoltz could go a long way in making this good bullpen into a great one.

In The System

The farm system of the Tampa Bay Rays is unquestionably one of the top five in baseball, not a small feat for a team that has graduated Evan Longoria, David Price, and Jeff Niemann over the past two seasons. An abundance of homegrown pitching talent continues to be the strength of the Rays' system, but the top overall prospect is centerfielder Desmond Jennings.

Jennings is a prototypical leadoff hitter with strong on-base skills, elite speed, and tremendous defensive range. After overcoming injuries in 2008, Jennings blew past AA Montgomery in 2009 with a slash line of .316/.395/.486 along with 8 home runs and 35 steals in just over 100 games. A late-season promotion to AAA Durham did little to slow him down as he increased his OPS to .910 in 137 plate appearances. It takes an exceptional athlete to move B.J. Upton out of centerfield and into right, but that appears to be the likely scenario in 2011.

Durham also featured two top pitching prospects in 2009 in 6-foot-5 Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson. The 24-year-old Davis logged over 200 innings pitched in AAA over 2008-09 posting ERA's of 2.72 and 3.40 while striking out 9.34 and 7.94 per nine innings. After earning a late-season promotion to the Rays, the right-hander made six starts striking out 8.92 per nine, walking 3.22 and allowing just half a home run per nine innings. He features a 92 mile-per-hour fastball with a plus curveball complemented by a slider and changeup.

The 22-year-old Hellickson has continued to make his doubters look like fools during his ascension through the minor leagues. Hellickson has extraordinary command for his age with a low 90's fastball, plus change, and curve ball. The right-hander split the year between AA and AAA, posting ERA's of 2.38 and 2.51. His command is easily seen in his AAA K/9 of 10.99 and BB/9 of 2.35. There have been some concerns expressed regarding his durability, but if he maintains good health he should make an excellent #2 or 3 in the near future.

Left-handed Alex Torres, acquired as part of the Scott Kazmir trade will be worth keeping an eye on in AA Montgomery. The diminutive 22 year-old has excellent stuff but will need to iron out his command. He will be joined by two pitchers coming off very impressive 2009 campaigns, lefty David Newmann and Alex Cobb. Also be sure to keep tabs on Aneury Rodriguez, acquired prior to 2009 for Jason Hammel. He will likely begin the year as a repeat in AA, but he had a very strong 2nd half and is young for his level.

Class A+ Charlotte Stone Crabs will feature three impressive young pitchers headlined by 20-year old southpaw Matt Moore whose K/9 of 12.9 led all of the minor leagues in 2009. Moore will be joined by Nick Barnese and Joseph Cruz.

Expanded efforts by the front office into Latin America are beginning to pay dividends in the form of the hot buzz organizational prospect this year Alex Colome of the Dominican Republic. The 21-year-old right-hander will head up the A Bowling Green rotation which also will feature impressive 2008 2nd round pick Kyle Lobstein.

There is considerably less to be excited about amongst the positional players in the system outside of Jennings. Shortstop Reid Brignac who bats left-handed, repeated AAA last season. His on-base skills haven't shown improvement, but he provides decent pop at a premium position along with an excellent glove. 2008 first-round draft pick Tim Beckham had an erratic season with the glove at shortstop and faced criticism that his increasing size might force him off the position. Beckham, though undisciplined at the plate, showed decent potential with an OPS of .717 as a 18-year-old SS in A ball. Beckham showed up this Spring 15 pounds lighter and management is raving about his improved defense.

The 2009 draft wasn't the Rays' finest moment as they failed to sign either of their top two picks in Lavon Washington and Kenny Diekroeger. Picking in the lower half of the draft for the first time, the Rays seemed to be targeting players whose stocks took hits due to injury concerns with each of their top four picks.

They did end up with a few interesting above-slot guys in rounds three and four in center fielder Todd Glaessman (broken ankle) and catcher Luke Bailey (Tommy John Surgery). The good news for 2010 is the Rays will have seven of the top 131 picks (17, 31, 42, 66, 79, 98, 131) thanks to compensatory picks for Gregg Zaun, Washington, and Diekroeger. The Rays know continued success in the future will depend on organic growth from within, so expect them to continue to invest resources heavily in the farm system.

Miscellaneous

Before the Rays opened the 2007 season in New York, I wrote about the Yankees' stadium. The Yankees are great rivals. Their history allows for mocking and dramatization like few others - Boston is also in this boat, seriously, great division from a literature standpoint - and on this occasion I wrote something like, "The Rays mustn't allow the ghosts to stress them out ..." Because, you know, it's Yankee Stadium. It's opening day. Ken Burns makes documentaries about these things. The ghosts were probably too hung over to care, plus the Yankees' talent made the Rays' lineup look inadequate so they needed little help from their floating alumni.

Maybe the Rays did play worse because Juan Salas was aware that Babe Ruth once hit some home runs on the grass' grandfather. Or maybe they just weren't good. The larger point here is that people will find things to attribute success (or lack thereof) to. Chemistry is a long-standing goat. Frankly, the entire argument around chemistry is so monotonous and cloned that I'm going to skip that part and summarize it as such: if you think it plays a role, that's fine, but at least acknowledge that it probably plays a marginal role, rather than a marquee role - the same should be said about the majority of managerial decisions.

Ignoring the fact that every key player who racked up a full season in both 2007 and 2008 actually played worse in 2008 - despite great chemistry - let's focus on the ideology behind the chemistry scene. Psychological egoism suggests that human being always act in the way in which is deemed the best act in their self-interest. Even charitable donations have roots in self-interest. Not many folks want a selfish tag thrown upon them, which means that, yes, being a good teammate also involves being the very antithesis of what supposedly makes a teammate bad.

Ignoring the concentric-circles aspect of player-to-player relationships, let's focus on something that really irks me: the concept that every baseball player is incompetent and incapable of making his own decisions. For instance, take Matt Bush's presence in a minor league clubhouse. Pretend that Bush is a horrible human being, one with blasphemous moral and ethical views, and one who belongs on a desert island. Not a single player on the same roster should follow Bush. Not if they have their best interests in mind. And if their best interest involves following Bush to go tip cows or whatever, then no amount of ‘veteran leadership' or ‘experience' is going to help them.

Analysts who use quantitative analysis are often accused of forgetting that the players are human, yet they aren't the only ones who, at times, treat the most basic human qualities as ghosts.

Conclusion

In the world of gambling you must avoid favoritism whenever possible. It's very easy to look at the over/under numbers for one's most beloved team and want to wager optimistically on the former, but that lack of good judgment usually leaves the bettor downtrodden, with pockets emptied inside out. Such may be the case for the Rays and their supporters in 2010.

Vegas has set the line for the Rays' win total at 89.5 for this season, making it one of the more interesting bets on the board. Only three teams have a higher line this season: The Yankees (94.5), Red Sox (94), and Phillies (92), two of which just happen to play in the same division as the Rays. The highest total in the American League after the Rays is 84 for the Angels, a full five and a half win difference. That doesn't seem quite fair, does it? If the Rays played in the AL Central or West their line of 89.5 wins would undoubtedly be even higher due to not having to play the double headed dragon of NY and Boston 36 times a year. But that's life in the AL East.

The public may feel that the Rays' true-talent level falls in the 93-95 win range, which would make taking the over on 89.5 seem almost too easy. Let's look at the money line of the over/unders. The line for the Rays winning OVER 89.5 games is +105, meaning if you'd have to bet $100 to win $105, while the line on the Rays winning UNDER 89.5 games is -130, meaning you'd have to bet $130 to win $100. It looks like Vegas is almost begging you to take the over, which one could see as a mini red flag. But, if you feel the Rays are truly a 90+ win team then betting on the over seems like a good deal. However, take some precaution before you put any money down. Last year the over/under for the Rays' win total was 87.5, and I think a majority of people would have bet their mortgage and first born child on the over.

With the additions the Rays made this off season, and the fact that their core group of young players has another year of experience under their belts, winning more than 89 games seems like an attainable goal. With Vegas trying to steer the public betting train toward the over, it might be time to jump on board.

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