The story of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays over the last three years has been all about run prevention. In 2007, the last of their wilderness years, they allowed more runs than any team in baseball (944, 5.83 per game) and lost 96 games. That offseason they traded defensively challenged right-fielder Delmon Young for right-hander Matt Garza and slick fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett, and moved Akinori Iwamura to second base to make room for rookie Evan Longoria. Those moves, along with the mid-season acquisition of strong defensive right fielder Gabe Ross, upgraded their defense from the worst in baseball in 2007 (according to defensive efficiency) to the best in 2008, and filled a big hole in their rotation in the process. The result was that in 2008 the newly re-named Rays allowed the third fewest runs in baseball (671, 4.14 per game) and won 97 games and the American League pennant. Last year, some correction set in as the Rays fell just below the major league average by allowing 754 runs (one more than the Yankees) or 4.65 per game and finished third in the division with 84 wins.
The good news for the Rays is that, while all that was going on, their offense has developed into one of the most potent in baseball, ranking sixth in the majors with 4.96 runs scored per game last year, and there are reasons to expect a better performance from their starting rotation this year.
In 2009, Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine combined to make 38 starts for the Rays in which they posted a cumulative 6.32 ERA. This year, Kazmir is an LA Angel (and back on the DL) and Sonnanstine is being limited to long relief. Their places in the rotation have been taken by David Price, the top overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft, and Wade Davis, a third-round pick from 2004 who pitched well in a September call-up last year. I’m among those who believe that Price and Davis, both of whom are 24 this season, could be the top two arms in the Tampa rotation before long.
Price made 23 starts for the big club last year, and though he had his struggles, seven of his last 12 starts were quality, including two against the Yankees, and he went 7-3 with a 3.58 ERA over those dozen outings. There’s no doubting Price’s wicked left-handed stuff, which mixes mid-to-high 90s fastballs with sweeping curves some 20 miles per hour slower and changups and sliders, the latter being his best pitch, that split the difference.
Adding Price and Davis to Garza (26), James Shields (28), and 6-foot-9 sophomore Jeff Niemann (27) gives the Rays a strong, five-deep rotation that has the potential to compete with those of the Yankees and Red Sox despite the relative lack of star power. At the same time, Price and Davis, and to a lesser degree Niemann’s ability to follow up his strong rookie showing, are the keys to the Rays’ 2010 season.
The bullpen is largely unchanged. Rafael Soriano was acquired from the Braves after he surprised Atlanta by accepting arbitration. He’ll close, but last year’s dominant closer, lefty J.P. Howell, whose emergence as a dominant reliever in 2008 was one of the key developments for the pennant-winning Rays, is on the disabled list with a shoulder strain, and given Soriano’s history, it’s a long shot that he’ll still be healthy when Howell finally is.
The lineup is largely the same, as well. Iwamura is gone, ultimately for Soriano, but he missed most of 2009 due to a torn ACL. Kelly Shoppach was brought over from the Indians to prop up Dioner Navarro’s bat behind the plate, but for now he’s only sharing the catching duties. Gross is also gone, mercifully. For all of his fine glove work, Gross hit .235/.330/.396 as a Ray despite being platooned. Whether or not the Rays have sufficiently upgraded from Gross, however, remains to be seen. Sean Rodriguez, the most advanced prospect received from the Angels for Kazmir, tore up the Grapefruit League and won some sort of second base/right field job share with Zobrist. Rodriguez is a .281/.380/.501 career hitter in the minors, but he’s not much in the field at either position and, at 25, is at the put-up-or-shut-up part of his development curve. He has also started just one of the Rays first three games, with Reid Brignac (at second) and Gabe Kapler (in right field against lefty Brian Matusz), starting the other two.
Shoppach and Rodriguez could be nice boosts to the lineup but just as easily could be non-factors (Shoppach ht just .214/.335/.399 in 327 plate appearances for the Indians last year). More compelling are potential rebounds from B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell, both of whom slugged below .375 last year while combining for a .314 on-base percentage. Burrell hit .262/.386/.504 in his last four years as a Phillie, but at 33 there’s some concern that he’s suffered an early collapse. Upton is just 25, has massive power potential, and had an OBP above .380 in both 2007 and 2008, but his rebound was supposed to come last year after shoulder surgery limited him to nine regular season homers and a .401 slugging percentage in ’08. It didn’t.
If Burrell and Upton are rebound candidates, Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist are candidates for correction of a different sort. A career .276/.337/.362 hitter over his first 449 major league games, Bartell came out of nowhere to hit .320/.389/.490 last year at the age of 29. Zobrist had struggled to establish himself with the Rays for three years before busting out last year with a .297/.405/.543 performance at the age of 28. There’s more hope of Zobrist, a career .318/.429/.459 hitter in the minors, repeating his new level of production, but both hitters have to be viewed with some suspicion.
Finally, some are looking for big years from Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña, both of whom will be free agents this fall. That’s certainly likely, but I wonder how much improvement they could really experience when last year Peña led the AL in home runs (tied with Mark Teixeira) and Crawford enjoyed a nice age-27 rebound from what was a dismal and injury-plagued 2008 regular season performance. Certainly the continued maturation of Evan Longoria seems likely to to boost the Rays’ run production, and there’s potential for truly impressive attack here, but a lot has to fall their way for it to happen.
Which brings us back around to Price and Davis, who will start the first two games of this weekend’s series against the Yankees. In my eyes, this season is on them. If the Rays are going to return to the playoffs, they’re going to do it on the strength of their starting rotation and breakout performances from those two young arms. I’m a believer long-term, but for 2010, I still see the Rays as the best third-place team in baseball.
Tampa Bay Rays
2009 Record: 84-78 (.519)
2009 Pythagorean Record: 86-76 (.531)
Manager: Joe Maddon
General Manager: Andrew Friedman
Home Ballpark: Tropicana Field
Bill James Park Indexes (2007-2009):
LH Avg-100, LH HR-91
RH Avg-95, RH HR-96
Who’s Replacing Whom:
- Sean Rodriguez replaces Gabe Gross and Akinori Iwamura
- Kelly Shoppach replaces Michel Hernandez, Gregg Zaun and some of Dioner Navarro’s playing time
- Wade Davis replaces Scott Kazmir and some of Andy Sonnanstine’s starts
- David Price takes over the remainder of Andy Sonnanstine’s starts
- Mike Ekstrom replaces Joe Nelson
- Andy Sonnanstine replaces Brian Shouse, Russ Springer, Chad Bradford and others in the bullpen
1B – Carlos Peña (L)
2B – Ben Zobrist (S)
SS – Jason Bartlett (R)
3B – Even Longoria (R)
C – Dioner Navarro (S)
RF – Sean Rodriguez (R)
CF – B.J. Upton (R)
LF – Carl Crawford (L)
DH – Pat Burrell (R)
R – Kelly Shoppach (C)
S – Willy Aybar (IF)
R – Gabe Kapler (OF)
L – Reid Brignac (SS)
R – James Shields
R – Matt Garza
R – Jeff Niemann
L – David Price
R – Wade Davis
R – Rafael Soriano
R – Dan Wheeler
L – Randy Choate
R – Grant Balfour
R – Lance Cormier
R – Mike Ekstrom
R – Andy Sonnanstine
R – Jason Bartlett (SS)
L – Carl Crawford (LF)
S – Ben Zobrist (2B/RF)
R – Evan Longoria (3B)
L – Carlos Peña (1B)
R – B.J. Upton (CF)
R – Pat Burrell (DH)
R – Sean Rodriguez (RF/2B)
S – Dioner Navarro/R – Kelly Shoppach (C)
OF – Matthew Joyce (strained right elbow)
LHP – J.P. Howell (strained left shoulder)