Five questions: Tampa Bay Rays

Who is the fifth starter?

Probably Jason Hammel. Jeff Niemann seems more likely to be in the long-term plans than Hammel, which is exactly why he’ll be shipped to the bullpen. Niemann has a past of injury concerns mixed with long warm-up times, which combined makes for someone who should probably become comfortable pitching in a non-starting capacity.

Niemann is the sexier pick, but as mentioned has his own set of issues. Hammel was the Rays’ long-relief man and spot starter last season, filling in for Scott Kazmir early in the season. He did a serviceable job, if not an outstanding one. A comparison to Edwin Jackson seems apt, minus the golden arm and hype, as the Rays will hopefully see Hammel put together a few starts and gain trade value.

Either way, David Price will be in the rotation before long, and unlike most people, the Rays seem to realize how valuable Andrew Sonnanstine is. With James Shields, Scott Kazmir, and Matt Garza entrenched, there won’t be too many holes to fill for the next few years, whatever that means for Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Jeremy Hellickson, and the dozen other pitching prospects of note in the system is to be determined.

Can the team maintain heath?

That is a horrible question because there is absolutely no one who knows the answer. Last year, Kazmir, Garza, B.J. Upton, Troy Percival, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Willy Aybar, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena, Dioner Navarro, and Cliff Floyd missed time with injuries. In fact, using the handy DL list tool, we can figure the number of days missed:
{exp:list_maker}Kazmir, 43 days
Garza, 16
Upton, 34
Percival, 52
Crawford, 47
Longoria, 29
Aybar, 49
Bartlett, 21
Pena, 23
Navarro, 18
Floyd, 33{/exp:list_maker}

Coincidentally, the sum of those DL stints is 365 days.

Whether the idea that youth equals health (or diapers = crossed out medical cross in Joe Maddon’s math book) is going to withstand as true is going to be an interesting development. It sure didn’t last year.

Can they make a move at the deadline?

Probably not, at least not if it increases payroll.

Owner Stuart Sternberg basically said as much just this week and in the process almost wrote a raise in payroll for next season as well. The magic number here is $60 million. After 2010, nearly $30 million will roll off the books as the contracts of Carl Crawford, Pat Burrell, and Carlos Pena expire. The latter two are unlikely to be retained due to age-related declines. Crawford is an interesting case though. A look at his career win values suggests his best years were a few scores ago. Last year, Crawford suffered a batting average on balls in play lower than usual; whether that rebounds or not will determine his offensive game, and his defensive levels were likely unsustainable on a year-to-year basis.

What does all of that mean?

Well, if the Rays can send one of their expandable assets with a relatively high price tag—hello Dan Wheeler—for a piece, then so be it. Otherwise, it might have to be young player for young player. Of course, with a team so young and loaded around the diamond, this might not be as big an issue as you would expect and a lot can change if the area responds to the Rays like it did to the Buccaneers and Lightning championship runs.

Who is the non-roster invitee of note this year?

Andrew Friedman has a tendency of finding at least one useful contributor from the non-roster types. Ty Wigginton, Carlos Pena, and Eric Hinske pop to mind. This year the two players most likely to contribute are both former St. Louis Cardinals; reliever Jason Isringhausen and “infielder” Adam Kennedy. Infielder is in quotes because Kennedy has actually taken reps in the outfield during spring games. This is not an uncommon practice for non-starting infielders. For instance, Elliot Johnson and Ben Zobrist have both played the outfield despite being middle infielders by trait.

Isringhausen is in the running for a bullpen spot, but reportedly will exercise his veteran right to become a free agent if asked to take an assignment to Triple-A Durham. Given that Isringhausen didn’t sign until a few weeks ago, it seems unlikely that he will find a guaranteed gig anywhere barring a mass exodus of relievers to Japan. Depending on what the Rays do with Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann, there does not seem to be a spot for Isringhausen.

Meanwhile, Kennedy is in the running for the final bench spot alongside Matt Joyce.

How great was last year?

The 2008 season made all the losing, jokes, and frustration worth it.

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