Five questions: Tampa Bay Rays

What wacky lineups will Joe Maddon produce?

As of this writing, the projected 25-man roster features Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, Sean Rodriguez and Willy Aybar. With the exception of Aybar, the quartet shares a common positional genesis at shortstop, so it should be no surprise that versatility is in high supply.

Zobrist has 130 major league appearances at shortstop, 99 at second base and 89 in the outfield (he actually appeared at every position except catcher and pitcher last season). Upton has more than 350 starts in center field, but also 63 appearances at third base, 48 at second and 16 at short. When Jason Bartlett suffered an injury last season, Upton actually took grounders at shortstop just in case. Aybar is being restricted to third and first base this season, but has taken reps at short and second for the Rays and Rodriguez is essentially the new Zobrist.

Having four players with the capability to play, well, everywhere provides a ridiculous amount of flexibility for Maddon. Factor in that the Rays have a number of platoon-heavy hitters and things are going to be in constant flux. If Hank Blalock somehow makes the roster, there’s a chance the Rays could produce this lineup versus righties (career wOBA versus righties):

C Dioner Navarro (.334)
1B Carlos Pena (.382)
2B Ben Zobrist (.335)
3B Evan Longoria (.377)
SS Jason Bartlett (.310)
LF Carl Crawford (.345)
CF B.J. Upton (.332)
RF Matt Joyce (.357; small sample size)
DH Hank Blalock (.362)

And then this one to face southpaws (career wOBA versus lefties):

C Kelly Shoppach (.419)
1B Carlos Pena (.333)
2B Sean Rodriguez (.289; small sample size)
3B Evan Longoria (.364)
SS Jason Bartlett (.372)
LF Carl Crawford (.307)
CF B.J. Upton (.343)
RF Ben Zobrist (.366)
DH Pat Burrell (.389)

That’s four changes and without taking Aybar and his switch-hitting ability or Gabe Kapler and his .363 wOBA versus lefties into account. That’s also assuming the southpaw hitting Reid Brignac isn’t around and, well, you get the point. This club is deeper and more complex than a painting by M.C. Escher. Maddon is no stranger to mixing and matching either. During his four years with the Rays, he’s used 125, 100, 100 and 93 different lineups.

How many innings for Rafael Soriano?

Team owner Stuart Sternberg and the acquisition of Soriano have produced some quality quotations. Before the offseason began, Sternberg said something to the ilk of, “There aren’t any $7 million closers coming here.” To which Andrew Friedman, who runs the baseball operations, said, “Hey, about that.” Now the Rays did not pursue or acquire Soriano because he’s a closer, but more because he’s a good pitcher. Nevertheless, Sternberg said the Rays intend to have a little fun with their shiny bullpen toy, which raises the question: How thin is the line between an efficient workload and abusing the arm? Fingernail thin when that arm is under contract for only one season and that one season is the most important in team history.

The 30-year-old Soriano posted a career high in appearances and innings last season, which suggests that the Braves’ Frank Wren and Bobby Cox intended to stretch the boundaries as well. Throughout Soriano’s career, he’s been death to righties (.520 OPS against) and an irritating annoyance to lefties (.707 OPS), which means calling upon him to face batters of either hand is no issue.

Soriano figures to rack up something like 30-35 saves in 2010. Of those with at least 30 saves in 2009, only Jonathan Broxton and Fernando Rodney pitched at least twice as many innings as they had saves. Brian Fuentes was the low man, with 1.1 innings per save, and the average of the group was 1.7. Expect Soriano’s innings per save ratio to be higher than Troy Percival’s in 2008 (1.6) but lower than J.P. Howell’s in 2009 (3.9).

The risk the Rays run is that Soriano’s arm will give out. He has a history of arm injuries and one caused him to miss most of 2008. Under Maddon’s watch the Rays have never had a reliever top 90 innings (Howell came awfully close in 2008 though, literally outs away). How Maddon balances Soriano’s duties as the Rays’ harbinger of finality will be something to watch for, if only to see what the Rays’ definition of fun is.

Will the Rays trade Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena?

The last time the Rays dealt with relevant players nearing the end of their contracts, they chose against the draft picks and took the security of choosing the prospects. Such efforts netted them a mixed bag of results.

In 2006, they dealt relievers Danys Baez and Lance Carter to the Dodgers for starting prospects Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany. (Jackson was later traded for Matt Joyce.) A few months later they finished the job, moving first baseman Aubrey Huff and cash to Houston for (then) shortstop Zobrist and starter Mitch Talbot. (Talbot was recently traded for Shoppach.)

Friedman also spun two deals with the Dodgers. First, he shipped starter/giant Mark Hendrickson, catcher Toby Hall and cash for starter/arsonist Jae-Weong Seo, catcher Dioner Navarro and outfielder Justin Ruggiano. Then, as the trade deadline came into view, he dealt shortstop Julio Lugo for outfielder Sergio Pedroza and infielder Joel Guzman.

Throughout the years, the Rays have demonstrated a high level of success in player scouting, whether it be domestic or international, prospect or amateur. The clash between team preference (seemingly taking the controlled variable, i.e. the prospects, rather than rolling the dice) and the reality of their contender status is compelling, if not ultimately won by the chance at a championship. The problem is that the Rays must rely not upon their scouts’ eyes and notes, but first upon Elias’ algorithm to correctly identify Crawford and Pena as being worthy of Type-A status. Neither, surprisingly, is a lock. Evidently being the best defensive left fielder in baseball for many years running just isn’t worth as much to the Elias’ system as it should be.

The flip side to the Type-A status dilemma is that Pena very well could accept arbitration if offered. He loves the area and the team. Plus, with a first base market that includes Lance Berkman, Derek Lee, and oh yeah, Albert Pujols, the chance of Pena breaking the bank in free agency seems less certain than before. Agent Scott Boras’ tumultuous offseason with Johnny Damon could certainly fuel the flame of Pena sticking with the Rays.

That’s not to say the Rays haven’t been stocking up on first basemen like suntan lotion this offseason. The 2008 cult hero Dan Johnson and former prospect Ryan Shealy are in the system, as is the aforementioned Blalock. There’s also Matthew Sweeney, a poor-fielding third baseman with offensive potential whom they acquired in the Scott Kazmir trade. And the Rays signed Cuban outfielder/first baseman Leslie Anderson to a contract worth nearly $4 million.

The most comforting news for fans of the team who share a passion for amateur talent is that the club will hold six of the top 90 selections this June, including compensatory picks for failure to sign their first- and second-round selections in 2009 and a supplementary selection for the loss of Gregg Zaun. So whether Crawford and Pena stay or leave via trade or free agency, the Rays will be making a ton of early selections over the next two Junes which, along with the rise of arms like Matthew Moore and Alexander Colome, should keep the Rays’ farm system amongst the best in baseball, even with the graduation of guys like …

Will Desmond Jennings see the majors this year?

The short answer: Probably not until September.

The long answer: Jennings is the undisputed top prospect for the Rays. He’s a 23-year-old center fielder who bats right-handed, throws right-handed, and possesses five tools. Last year, Jennings played in 132 minor league games across Double- and Triple-A and combined for a batting line of .318/.401/.488 with 11 homers, 31 doubles and 52 steals in 577 plate appearances.

Many will tell you that Jennings is the typical Rays prospect. That’s a quick way to say the player is hyper-athletic with huge upside and likely has dark skin. Jennings is all of that. Some would say he’s a walk-conscious version of Carl Crawford, or a hybrid of B.J. Upton and Crawford. The Rays chose Jennings out of an Alabama Juco in the 10th round of the 2006 draft, the same draft that produced Longoria.

The problem—and literally, it might be the only problem—with Jennings has been health. He missed most of 2008 with a strained back and his spring training experience ended prematurely with a sprained wrist. The other problem, and this isn’t so much with Jennings or so much a problem, is that the Rays have incredible outfield depth in the majors already. Crawford, Upton, Kapler and Joyce form a solid foursome, with Zobrist and Rodriguez being able to take reps there as well. There’s also future poet laureate Fernando Perez and Jaime Cevallos’ newest patient Ruggiano roaming around Durham, just itching for a crack at St. Petersburg.

Will James Shields ever be appreciated?

Minus the 2008 playoffs and the now infamous “Big Game” nickname controversy, Shields has avoided the spotlight like his favorite meal is blood. Yet, over the last three seasons, Shields has a lower xFIP than John Lackey, Chad Billingsley, Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee, Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Verlander, Andy Pettitte, Gil Meche, Scott Kazmir, Scott Baker, Mark Buehrle and John Danks. He’s thrown more innings than everyone in baseball except CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay and Dan Haren over that period as well.

So, why doesn’t the guy get more love? It’s hard to say. Nothing about Shields’ approach is spectacular. His velocity doesn’t win him radar gun groupies, his change-up is fantastic but he’s taken to using it less and less as the opposing hitters expect it more and more, and his mellow persona doesn’t allow for much in the way of imagination. He’s just James Shields. He’s just the guy who never reached top prospect status and appeared in 2006 under the name of Jamie. He’s just the guy who took the win in Tampa Bay’s first playoff game and lays claim to the only positive World Series decision in franchise history.

He’s just James Shields, the old chew toy on a staff of young guns. He’s just James Shields, and that means he’s just on the wrong end of some bad luck. He’s never won 15 games in a single season (which would be a Rays record) despite being just fantastic throughout most of his career. His run support per game started has dwindled (from 3.8 to 3.7 to 3.3) despite the Rays’ offense setting a franchise record for runs per game in 2009.

He’s the dude with the chin hair who wears number 33 and warms to the violent sounds of Du Hast. He’s the dude who hasn’t missed a start due to fatigue or injury since 2006, and missed a start in 2008 only because he tried being James Braddock. He’s one of only two long-term investments on the Rays, alongside that Longoria guy, and he’s under contract through 2014 for an average salary of roughly $7 million despite the Rays buying out a pair of free agency years. Consider this: Shields won’t make more than $8 million in a single season until 2013. Former teammate Edwin Jackson will make nearly $8.5 million next season. Here’s the kicker. Jackson’s career best season (as judged by xFIP) would be Shields’ worst.

Shields is probably going to pitch pretty well in 2010. He’ll probably do it without much fanfare or attention either, which is fine, that’s just who he is.

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Well-done, R.J. If I could have another question it would be “Will Upton become what many think his true talent is?” I know that no one question is necessarily more important than others, and that all questions are part of a complex context of issues. But if forced to decide on the single most important question about the Rays in 2010, I would say Upton is the key as the difference between what he was in 2009 and what I think he can be is so vast.

    In my view, taking into account his hitting, defense and base-running, he is an impact player, at least equal to Longoria. If he approaches that level, this is the team to beat in the AL East.

  2. Matt Klaassen said...

    “Without much fanfare?” Dude got nicknamed “Big Game James” before his team ever made the playoffs…

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