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AL East Preview: Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays

It's hard not to sort of like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays . Even though they play in Florida, a terrible state (or, it would be if not for Key West, Spring Training, and the Glades) they ripped off the Mets in the Kazmir trade, and, truth be told, they never should have happened, they are scrappy and always seem to play the Red Sox and Yankees tight. Also, it doesn't hurt that they've got one of my 3 or 4 favorite MLB players, the pride of Woonsocket, RI, Rocco Baldelli. Finally, they are at least trying to improve -- it seems like after some time in the wilderness, they have started to move towards running a quality small market team, namely, by looking for bargains and by stockpiling young talent. Unfortunately, last season was a setback - it was actually their worst since 2002; they lost 101 games, mostly due to a total inability to get on base and a lousy pitching staff (Kazmir excepted). Could this be the first winning season in the Rays' history?

Projected Typical Lineup : (I'm not giving a lot of time to batting order, and BA/OBP/SLG stats in parentheses are 2007 ZIPS projections)

Vs. RHP
LF  -  Carl Crawford (.306/.344/.464)
3B  -  Akinori Iwamura (.288/.350/.453)
CF  -  Rocco Baldelli (.299/.342/.476)
DH  -  Johnny Gomes (.247/.345/.457)
RF  -  Delmon Young (.288/.321/.451)
2B  -  Jorge Cantu (.267/.305/.461)
1B  -  Ty Wigginton (.265/.331/.476)
C   -  Dioner Navarro (.249/.323/.341)
SS  -  Ben Zobrist (.269/.353/.372)
Vs. LHP
CF  -  R. Baldelli
LF  -  C. Crawford
RF  -  D. Young
DH  -  J. Gomes
2B  -  J. Cantu
1B  -  T. Wigginton
3B  -  A. Iwamura
C   -  D. Navarro
SS  -  B. Zobrist
Bench:
B.J. Upton (.258/.340/.371)
E. Dukes (.262/.340/.439)
B. Harris (.251/.312/.414)
G. Norton (.245/.323/.398)
S. Riggans (.260/.304/.379)

The Rays figure to give lots of at bats to Upton at various positions, but it's not clear he will field enough to play SS or hit enough to play 3B or the OF. If he hits well, he could split time with Iwamura, who could also play second (and Cantu could move to first either replacing or splitting time with Wigginton). Dukes is a bit of a wild card, and how much time he'll see will probably depend on how Gomes and Young perform, as well as how he does (both on the field and off). In addition, we may well see SS prospect Evan Longoria (.264/.313/.437) as the first 2006 draftee to make the show.

All in all, this isn't a bad lineup, assuming the Rays stay healthy, but they really need to improve their on-base ability. According to ZIPS, no one looks set to get on base much more than 35% of the time. Crawford is a fantastic hitter but hasn't developed the power many thought he would (of course, there is still plenty of time, as many hitters don't develop power fully until their late 20s). Baldelli returned from injuries to put together a very good half-season last year, and (in my biased opinion) is primed for bit things this year. Neither Crawford nor Baldelli are great on-base men, but they should improve in this area, and this year could be a big step forward. Baldelli plays a good centerfield, hits line drives, runs well, and has plenty of still-developing power -- he is a complete centerfielder, no doubt. Their projections for the season look pretty similar (except that Baldelli's counting stats are a bit depressed due to injury projection). Iwamura should be interesting to see, most Japanese players don't carry over their power to MLB fully but he be a good enough hitter and fielder to be an above-average player. Gomes and Cantu both put up big years in '05 before disappointing last year, partly because of injury. Young looks to be primed for a big season, while Wigginton is a prime candidate for regression. Navarro and Zobrist have a lot to prove, but Zobrist, at least looks like he'll be decent, and Tampa really could use a strong left-side defensively between Iwamura and Zobrist. Overall, if the Rays can show a bit more patience and Gomes and Cantu can rebound as power hitters, this is a good, balanced offense.

Projected Rotation

parentheses again from ZIPS. Ryu's projections are from Chicago, so....

Scott Kazmir - 179 IP, 3.57 ERA, 176 H, 176/75 K/BB
Jamie Shields - 184 IP, 4.70, 211 H, 136/46 K/BB
Jae-Weong Seo - 141 IP, 5.43, 167 H, 80/50 K/BB
Jae Kuk Ryu - 148 IP, 4.80, 160 H, 90/46 K/BB
Casey Fossum - 146 IP, 5.31, 169 H, 127/65 K/BB
Jason Hammel - 177 IP, 4.98, 194 H, 126/65 K/BB

Others who will possibly contend for starting roles are Tim Corcoran, Edwin Jackson, J.P. Howell, and possibly others.

This is not a very good group. Besides Kazmir, who, if he can stay healthy could be the best pitcher in the AL East (just check out his optimistic projection!), no one is really above average. Shields, Seo, and Ryu are control types - Shields certainly looks like a competent innings eater, but not what you want from your second-best starter. Seo has put up some nice numbers with the Mets for 2 of 3 seasons before bombing with LA last year after being traded for Duaner Sanchez. The Rays traded for him and he alternately teased and disappointed, but his peripherals don't look encouraging going forward and he walks a bit of a fine line. Ryu was another nice cheap trade by the Rays, but he is another marginal 5th starter type. Any of these three would be a decent back-end starter, but it looks like they are going to make up the bulk of Tampa's rotation, which is not a good thing. Fossum and Hammel look very similar in their projections, and the news is not good, but both have some potential, although Fossum's train looks to have past. Jackson is another pickup from LA and will probably be in AAA most of the year, as will Howell, while Corcoran will likely make some starts for the Rays as well.

Overall, this rotation looks like they will be the worst in the AL East, and if not for Kazmir, they'd probably be the worst in the AL. They don't have the upside that the O's have, and don't have the major-league talent of Boston, New York, or Toronto. In short, they look like they are going to have a tough time of it. Again. As tough as it is, they may want to trade some of their young offensive talent for pitching, no doubt that Baldelli would fetch a pretty penny, and Crawford even more than that. Young, Upton, and Dukes have value as well, and they can't all play every day.

Bullpen

The Rays bullpen was horrible last year. By horrible, I mean that they led in 121 games out of 162, and lost half of them (60). That is not good. I'm using rate stats for bullpen projections, since the innings, ERA, and counting stats projections don't really mean anything.

S. McClung (closer) (6.41 K/9, 4.95 BB/9, 1.30 K/BB)
D. Micelli (8.99 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 2.45 K/BB)
S. Camp (6.19 K/9, 2.44 BB/9, 2.54 K/BB)
C. Orvella (7.88 K/9, 3.88 BB/9, 2.03 K/BB)
J. Switzer (5.42 K/9, 4.38 BB/9, 1.24 K/BB)
R. Lugo (5.51 K/9, 4.05 BB/9, 1.36 K/BB)
S. Mori (9.0 K/9, 4.98 BB/9, 1.71 K/BB)

McClung is the designated closer for the start of the season and he has the fastball for it, but his control really needs work. Mori projects to have control problems too, and is coming off injury, but could also be an effective late-inning pitcher. Miceli and Orvella should be okay, but certainly nothing special, while the others look like a mess. Ryu and Jackson, who will compete for starting roles, could also contribute significantly in the bullpen.

All Together Now

I really would like to think that the Rays are going to significantly improve this year, and I don't think they'll lose 100 again, but while they have their winningest season ever (71 wins or more), I don't think it'll be by very much. The offense looks nice, but discipline is a lingering problem, and the rotation looks a little better but the ceiling is low, particularly for the AL East. The bullpen doesn't look particularly good. To maximize their success, the Rays absolutely HAVE to give up on having the likes of Damon Hollins/Alex Sanchez/Joey Gathright at the top of the lineup. They should lead with at least two, and possibly 3 of Baldelli/Crawford/Iwamura, as those are the only guys who will get on base. If Zobrist shows a knack for getting on base, he could be another choice for the top of the lineup, but plate discipline in light-hitting middle infielders doesn't always translate to MLB (as Russ Adams fans can attest) and Zobrist hasn't shown much yet to think it will be so with him.