Five Questions: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

This is not your old brother’s Devil Rays. The 2006 season was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era for the only franchise that has never made a playoff appearance. The new ownership group promised changes. They promised an increase in payroll and improvements to the Trop. They even announced that a new name and colors will debut in 2008. However, after a season filled with a slew of injuries and mediocre pitching, the end result was much the same as the previous eight seasons, including 101 losses and their seventh last-place finish.

So what does the front office do for an encore? Do they trade any of their surplus of young position prospects to shore up a weak pitching staff? Nah. Do they jump into the free agent market and bring in a dependable pitcher or two for the rotation or the bullpen? Nope. In fact, this incarnation of the Rays has gone in the other direction. By trading a number of veteran players during the 2006 season, the 2007 Opening Day payroll will be approximately $28 million or $15 million less than the 2006 payroll. At least the Marlins won a couple of titles before each of their sell-offs. But the end result could end up the same for the Rays. In trimming the payroll, the team was able to acquire a number of top prospects, and now the minor league system is considered the best in baseball. Will this make a difference in 2007? Probably not, but the team will use this season to evaluate the talent in place and determine which pieces are a part of the Rays now bright future.

Here are five questions for 2007. The answers to these questions will go a long way to determine if the Rays will be ready to make a jump forward in 2008.

1. How good can Carl Crawford be?

The Rays outfield is already one of the best in baseball. All three Opening Day starters, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young, are under 26 and possess that rare combination of speed, power and defensive abilities. While some look at Young and see a future Hall of Famer, Crawford is the one that has already etched a place as one of the most exciting players in baseball. Only 25, Crawford already has four full seasons under his belt and he continues to get better. In each of his four seasons, Crawford has improved his batting average, OPS and home runs. He is arguably the fastest player in baseball and defensively, Crawford is as good as any left fielder in baseball.

So how good can Crawford be? He has already shown that he can be a .300 hitter (.305 in 2006, .301 in 2005). He has already led the American League in stolen bases three times, and he made an All-Star appearance in 2004. For speedsters like Crawford, we would normally expect more of the same, with slight improvements in certain categories. But he isn’t like most baseball speedsters. First of all, with all that speed we forget that he is 6’ 2”, 220 pounds. He is a big kid—but can he hit like a big kid?

For all the great stat lines he has produced, he has yet to add much power to his game. Can Crawford develop into a power hitter and become a true five-tool player? While his 2006 total of 18 home runs is a decent number for a speedster like Crawford, he has shown signs that he could improve. In one stretch during the 2006 campaign, he hit 11 home runs in a 30-game stretch. He also played the entire 2006 season with tendinitis in his wrists. Add to that, Crawford is potentially still two or three seasons from his statistical peak. Manager Joe Maddon has recognized this, and Crawford is likely to hit third in the lineup, despite other choices such as Baldelli and Young, both of whom could be natural #3 hitters.

Dropping down in the order will cost Crawford some stolen bases this year. The feeling here is that he will probably end up in the low 40s, still an impressive number for a #3 hitter. But if Crawford’s wrists are healthy, and all indications are that they are, look for Crawford to dramatically improve on his home run totals. 30 home runs are not out of the question for 2006 and would go a long way to adding consistency to the Rays lineup. Defensively, this could be the first year that he brings home the gold glove and despite an All-Star snub in 2006, Crawford should become a regular fixture in the midseason classic.

How good can Carl Crawford be? Nobody knows, but it is sure going to be fun finding out.

2. Will the Rays trade one of their talented young outfielders?

This offseason featured constant rumors of the Rays trading one of their outfielders for pitching help. The Rays may already have the best young outfield in baseball yet some think Elijah Dukes could end up being the best of the bunch. In addition, B. J. “Don’t Call Me Melvin” Upton, who apparently forgets where the first baseman is on his throws from the infield, leads many to think he is destined for center field.

Both Upton and Dukes have a good shot to be on the Opening Day roster, bucking Major League tradition of keeping top prospects in the minors until an everyday position opens up. Dukes is likely to be the fourth outfielder and should see playing time at all three outfield spots and designated hitter. Upton is being groomed into a Chone Figgins-like super-utility player and will see playing time at third base, shortstop, second base and center field. The hope is that the new arrangement will take pressure off of him defensively and allow him to reestablish himself as an offensive force.

With five young talented outfielders, many believe the Rays have to make a trade, but there are several reasons why that hasn’t happened yet. Both Dukes and Upton are unknown commodities and if traded now, the Rays would risk receiving less than full value due to Upton’s defensive struggles and Dukes’ character issues. Until either or both players emerge as consistent offensive forces, the Rays are unlikely to move either one anytime soon.

Also complicating matters is Baldelli’s health. After a promising first two seasons, he tore an ACL in his knee playing whiffle ball, which somehow also led to Tommy John surgery on his elbow that cost him the entire 2005 season. He also missed the beginning of 2006 with a sore hamstring. Baldelli is making J. D. Drew look like a beacon of health. He struggled in his return before hitting .323 with 11 home runs the final two months of the season. Maddon will continue to give Baldelli plenty of days off in 2007, a sign that the team is still concerned about his fragile nature.

The Rays are also unlikely to find a team willing to pay the high price for Crawford or Baldelli. Not only are they two of the better outfielders in baseball, they are both young and cheap. With all the money that was thrown about to mediocre talent this off-season, the value of Crawford and Baldelli went through the roof. Both players have been signed to long term deals at relatively cheap prices. Crawford has four years left at $7 million per season and Baldelli is locked in for five more seasons at $5 million per year.

A situation that the Rays currently face in the outfield is exactly what a low-payroll team strives for. They have three talented players that are all under the control of the franchise until at least 2010 (The Rays control Young until 2012). Whether or not the Rays trade one or more of these players will depend more upon on the development of the pitching staff than on the players themselves. By the end of 2007, the front office will have a better sense of how many holes remain to be filled in the rotation and the bullpen. Until then, look for the Rays to hold on to their outfield talent.

3. Can Jeff Niemann be the #2 starter the Rays desperately need?

Mets fans may want to skip the next couple of sentences or risk Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The previous regime made one trade worth remembering when they fleeced the New York Mets for Scott Kazmir, giving up a starting pitcher (Victor Zambrano) that would go on to win 10 games for the Mets in two-and-a-half seasons. Kazmir has been nothing but remarkable for the Rays since arriving from the Mets farm system and has developed into the ace that the Mets never thought he could be.

As good as Kazmir is, the rest of the rotation is just as mediocre. The 2007 rotation will open the season with Jae Seo, Casey Fossum, James Shields and either Edwin Jackson or J. P. Howell joining Kid K. Not exactly the 1971 Orioles. Seo will be 30 years old and is probably as good as he will get. Shields enters his second season and is never going to win 20 in the show, but he could be a serviceable back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Fossum, the only pitcher in baseball without a fastball, is coming off his second shoulder surgery, and it will be interesting to see if his pitches will even register on radar guns. He will be a free agent at the end of 2007 and somebody will soft-toss the Rays a prospect or two for the services of a lefthander down the stretch. Jackson and Howell are the leading candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation and both have similar histories, as once promising prospects that are in danger of falling off the face of baseball.

The rotation should have a much different look by the all-star break. Several of the current starters will be pitching for their futures because the team has two pitchers at Triple-A Durham that are knocking on the door. The first is the big right-hander Jeff Niemann. When the Rays selected Niemann with the fourth pick of the 2004 draft, he was already considered to have major league stuff. Like many “can’t-miss” pitchers, that path met a roadblock in the form of an arm injury. Fortunately for Niemann and the Rays, the injury was not serious. He still only has 22 professional starts, but he was dominating in his return at Double-A in 2006. Niemann will start the 2007 season in Triple-A, but if all goes well, he won’t be there long. Look for him to get about 10 starts in Durham before making his major league debut in late May or early June.

Mitch Talbot won’t be far behind. Talbot was acquired, along with Ben Zobrist, from the Astros for Aubrey Huff before the trading deadline. While he had shown some promising signs in the Astros system, he turned it up a notch after the trade, possibly sensing that the road to the majors was clearer in the Rays organization. His 10 starts at Double-A included a 1.90 ERA and two complete game shutouts during the playoffs that featured 24 strikeouts and two walks. Talbot, like Niemann, will begin the season at Triple-A but could become a permanent fixture in the Rays rotation by the All-Star break.

For all the talk of the Rays young talent, it is still absent from the pitching staff. The Rays will never contend until they find pitchers to complement Kazmir in the rotation. Niemann is on track to be the other top-of-the-rotation guy that the team desperately needs and by the All-Star break the Rays rotation could feature five guys under the age of 26.

4. What will the infield look like when the dust settles?

This is more a question for 2008, but depends a lot on what we see during 2007. We already touched on the plight of B. J. Upton. He is still holding out hope that he can be a major league shortstop, but at this point it seems more likely that his future is at second base or center field. Ben Zobrist, who came over with Talbot in the Huff deal, is the everyday shortstop. He is solid defensively but will never be much of an offensive force with little power or speed. Zobrist is probably just keeping the position warm until something better comes along. That is probably 2006 California League MVP Reid Brignac. The Rays shortstop of the future could arrive in 2008. At third base the Rays will debut their newest acquisition, Japanese import Akinori Iwamura.

A power hitter in Japan’s smaller ballparks with a gold glove, he is more likely to be a gap hitter in the States. With his size (5’ 9”) his best position may be second base. An eventual move, would free open a spot for 2006 first round pick Evan Longoria, whose first professional campaign was so impressive, he is already a top-10 prospect in baseball. He is on a fast track to the majors but at what position? He can play second base and shortstop, but he appears destined for third base. Moving Iwamura to second base would force the Rays to move Jorge Cantu. Cantu, who is below-average defensively, at best, hit .286-28-117 in 2005. His 2006 campaign got off to a bad start with a foot injury and he never appeared to rediscover his stroke. At only 25, Cantu needs a strong 2007 to show that his future is with the Rays. Even with a rebound season, other options at second base mean Cantu could be trade bait, or a potential answer at first base. None of this answers the question of what to do with Joel Guzman if he can ever discover the power in his 6’6”, 245-pound frame that many have hoped for since he was the Dodgers’ top prospect.

With Cantu, Upton, Zobrist and Iwamura set to receive considerable playing time in 2007, their performances this season will help to determine where they will be playing in 2008, whether it will be in their current spot, a different position or a different franchise.

5. Will the Rays find any relief in 2007?

The Rays bullpen was atrocious in 2006. Part of the problem was the inability of the starting pitchers to work deep into games, over-taxing an under-talented group of relievers. Another problem was injuries as the team was forced to work several players at closer during the season. So what did the team do to fix the bullpen heading into 2007? Nothing. The only significant addition to the corps is Al Reyes who, as a non-roster invitee, is returning from Tommy John surgery. Starter-turned-closer Seth McClung finished the 2006 season as the closer, but was mediocre at best. He was the favorite to begin the upcoming season in the same role, but his struggles this spring leaves the position wide open. The favorite may now be Reyes, but the team will be careful with his surgically repaired arm and give save opportunities to others. There are some young talented relievers in the bullpen, such as Ruddy Lugo, Chad Orvella, Brian Stokes and Juan Salas, but they are inexperienced and inconsistent at best.

If there is any hope for the Rays to emerge from the Dark Ages that have plagued this franchise since its inception, the bullpen needs to improve and it needs to improve sooner rather than later. This group of relievers has ability, but they are unlikely to ever be much better than an average major league bullpen. In the AL East, with all the good hitters, that won’t be good enough to compete and eventually changes need to be made, either through free agency or by trading one or more of their young position players.

Conclusion

The front office will give this group the 2007 season to show that they belong in the major leagues. Their growth will go a long way to determining whether the Rays can make a step forward in 2007 and start to become the competitive franchise that some are predicting. There is a lot of young talent on this team and there is a lot of talent in the minor leagues that is on the way, but until the team can develop some consistency in the rotation and the bullpen, the Rays will continue to lose 90+ games. The new ownership group has yet to open their pocketbooks despite promises to the contrary. That should change following the 2007 season and the team’s performance on the field will go a long way to determining what additions will be made. In the end, with the same core of pitchers, the 2007 version of the Rays will look much like every previous version, but this isn’t your older brother’s Devil Rays. There is a plan in place and it appears to be working.

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