Five Questions: Tampa Bay Rays

1. Does the Longoria era begin March 31?

The Rays have been a model for mediocrity since their inception. But ignore the putrid records for now and focus on the third base position. Since 1998 the team has used 38 starters at third. Some of the names are flat-out embarrassing (Alex S. Gonzalez at third, really?); some inspire no words you care to see here (Geoff Blum, Chris Truby, Nick Green); and a few, for Rays fans, inspire a bit of nostalgia (who doesn’t remember Vinny Castilla essentially robbing the Rays of a few million, or Aubrey Huff being the “franchise player”?).

You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re at, and with that out of the way it seems like the team is ready to unleash the poster child for the new ideals of the organization. Sure, he actually asked a team official after being drafted which season was the last time the Rays made the playoffs, but he also hit .299/.402/.520 between a pitcher’s park in Double-A Montgomery and a hitter’s park in Triple-A Durham while playing a solid third. “He” is Evan Longoria, the third overall selection in the 2006 draft, and someone the team fell in love with so much that they scrapped a deal with Tim Lincecum to take Longoria after the Colorado Rockies passed on him.

Longoria is going to be very, very good one day, but the question this spring has been whether he’ll begin the season with the team or in the minors for “seasoning.” A similar tactic to gain an extra year of team control was used by the Milwaukee Brewers with Ryan Braun. The Brewers last year finished within a few games of the playoffs, and the murmurs are out there: Would they’ve made the playoffs with Braun starting since Day One? On the other end of the spectrum were the Kansas City Royals. Undoubtedly K.C.’s approach to Alex Gordon—starting him at third on opening day—was more justifiable to fans, but it leaves organizations with a perfect copout in the future with these situations. After all, do you really want the franchise’s next big thing to bust rather than spend a month in the minors?

If Longoria’s imminent takeover of the third base position is delayed, look for some combination of former top Dodger prospects Willy Aybar and Joel Guzman to play third, though as of this writing nothing is set in stone.

2. Is Andrew Friedman the new Billy Beane?

Perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic—Friedman likely won’t have a book written about his approach on market efficiency anytime soon—but you have to admire the job the first-time general manager has done with some of the lowest payrolls even for the Rays’ meager history. Friedman has managed to combine talented prospects with a few steady veterans and some breakout candidates to the extent that PECOTA sees the Rays winning 88 games while only “paying” around $2 million per victory.

A former Tulane outfielder who found his playing days over after wrist and shoulder injuries, Friedman took over as the Rays’ Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations (a.k.a. general manager) in late 2005 after mainstay Chuck LaMar was canned along with most of the rest of the old front office. Despite not yet being 30 years old, Friedman was promoted from his job as the Rays’ Director of Baseball Development. Not too shabby for a guy who just years prior had been an analyst for Bear Stearns.

In 2006 it was Ty Wigginton, Greg Norton and Ruddy Lugo, three free agent/waiver pickups that made impacts far larger than expected. Last year Brendan Harris, Scott Dohmann, Al Reyes, Akinori Iwamura and, of course, Carlos Pena impressed with above-average performances. Can Friedman keep this run of turning lead into gold going? Eric Hinske, Scott Munter and John Rodriguez seemingly have the best shot of “breaking out.”

However, without a doubt Friedman’s reputation will lay heavily on his now signature move: trading Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan. A risky move without a doubt, the Rays asserted that Delmon’s attitude issues had grown old, and they used the 21-year-old to effectively fill two holes while landing a decent young relief prospect.

3. How’s the leather?

Last year, the Rays were among the worst defensive teams in the league. Bartlett—one of the finest defensive shortstops in the league—along with the realignment of Iwamura should make the middle-infield defense a position of strength. Thus far in the spring some murmurs are popping up that the Rays finally have weapons on defense similar to what the Blue Jays have with the so-rangy-they-belong-in-a-circus-act-wonder-twins of John McDonald and Aaron Hill. But Tampa’s guys should have more success at the plate than the Jays pair could coax out.

4. Now batting, your right fielder, … ?

In August of 2006 the Rays had Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Jonny Gomes, Josh Hamilton, Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes in the organization; a year and a half later only Crawford and Gomes figure to play any type of role in the Rays season. Baldelli is still around, but a mysterious mitochondria disease has all but ended his playing career and begun the glorious chants of “Win one for Rocco!” Of course, remember that Hamilton had barely been reinstated by Major League Baseball prior to injuring his knee and being taken in the Rule 5 draft, Dukes had a laundry list of issues, and Delmon essentially segregated the clubhouse into “Delmon” and “everyone else” in terms of the locker room hierarchy.

Obviously this has left a bit of a hole in right, with Gomes and another injury attractor, Cliff Floyd, being the only two “starting” options. However both were supposed to platoon at designated hitter while Baldelli took most of the field reps. So where does the team go from here? Apparently Hinske is an option, as are non-roster invitees Jon Weber and John Rodriguez. It seems the team is being proactive about the situation, offering Kenny Lofton a contract (which he declined) before they must settle on a career Triple-A player without great success in Weber or limited success in Rodriguez. Some other names being tossed around include St. Louis right fielder Skip Schumaker, Anaheim outfielders Juan Rivera and Reggie Willits, and Indians outfielder David Dellucci.

5. You mean the Rays have to pitch too?

To state the obvious: If Scott Kazmir’s injury requires missing a long stretch, this whole season is a bust. It appears that Kazmir will miss the first time through the rotation, leaving James Shields, Matt Garza, Andrew Sonnanstine, Jason Hammel and Edwin Jackson as the opening day rotation, the latter two of whom really don’t belong on a major league team. Jeff Niemann is a stone’s throw from getting a chance to start every fifth day.

The bullpen is likely average with the additions of closer Troy Percival and Trever Miller to go with a resurgent Dan Wheeler, older Al Reyes, and the rather unfortunately locked-in Gary Glover. Grant Balfour, Juan Salas, Calvin Medlock and groundball flamethrower Scott Munter will be stored in Durham while Scott Dohmann and J.P. Howell figure to get the last bullpen spots.

At least the so-called “bum factor” is relatively low without the likes of Casey Fossum, Jon Switzer and Tim Corcoran. Really that’s reason enough to be optimistic about the Rays—not to mention the new hats which are, to quote the players, ‘fresh,” a word that can also be applied the atmosphere and clubhouse in St. Pete for the first time in ages.

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