Boy I can tell you that it was a beautiful day in Clearwater, Florida today for at least one team. But the atmosphere was electric and the Tampa Bay Rays kept looking in the stands during Batting Practice smiling and waving to some of the Tropicana Field faithful who came up to Bright House Networks Field to see the boys on their first trip back to the home county. Most of the team’s starters did not make the trip up, but a few of them were greeted and applauded all the same. Ex-Phillie Pat Burrell made sure that he and Elvis, his English Bulldog/Security Guard made the rounds in the Phillies locker room before the game.
But to Burrell’s amazement and his astonishment, the loud clap and screaming for him as he came up for his first at bat simply took his breath away. That was a very classy move by the Philly fans, and I loved the he was given the accolades he deserved today. Something I also found amazing was the changes at the old ballpark since I was there last Spring. When I sat in the Tiki Terrace last year, millions of kids could stroll down and snag foul balls and B P fly balls then scamper up to a player and get them signed. This year it would take a wristband and a bright red stamp on your ticket to get you even into this section.
I took my little spot at about 10:45 am right on the rail near the Bullpen door and got two quick balls, but I gave them both to people beyond the netting near the Tiki Bar. I get about 5 balls a game at the Trop., and I seem to always give two away minimum, so why mess with tradition in some else’s ballpark. I also got to chat with a few people on the Rays about some thing that were going on in the franchise. Usual Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey were traveling together to the game today and did not get there in time to see Mitch Talbot warm-up. But Bullpen catcher Scott Cursi and Assistant Pitching Coach/ TV Announcer Brian Anderson got everything under control and there did not even seem like there was a missing cog in the works.
Before I talk about the game, let me tell you that there was an amazing breeze that seems to keep you from sweating or even consider a hint of sweat. I was an amazing breeze coming out if the south and was blowing an easy 10-15 mph during most of the game. Now I am not complaining about it, it kept me nice and cool the entire game and provided a great conversation point later in the day. But before I start I have to say that I had a fantastic time chatting with a Bachelor Party that was attending today’s game. Their ” Down Goes Frazier” T-shirts were amazing, and the guys even talked to a few Rays fans during the game. Except for the odd Pina Colada or Margarita, these guys were having the time of their lives. So I wanted to thank them for being so cool and really making my day feel better after looking at the scoreboard.
The Philadelphia Phillies sent pitcher Kyle Kendricks to the mound today to stake his claim on their fifth rotation spot for 2009. You might remember that in 2007, he was the subject of an incredible practical joke thought up by the devious mind of pitcher Brett Myers. They had poor Kendricks convinced he was being traded to a Japanese team in exchange for a player named Kobayashi Iwamura. When the practical joke finally fell to it conclusion, you could hear Meyers yelling, “You got traded for a Hot Dog eater!” If you have not seen it, be sure to check it out on www.Youtube.com. I still check it out when I am in a bad mood. The funny part is both the media and the Phillies front office played along with it until someone could not help but laugh out loud and the gig was up. Classic Spring Training fun!
So, Kendricks took the mound and had a bit of a rough time in the first inning. Justin Ruggiano, who was playing center field today got on the board in the first inning on a error by Phillie Miguel Cairo at second base. Ruggiano then tried to steal second, and Phillie catcher Ronny Paulino cut him down for the second out of the inning. A few pitches later, second baseman ( for the day) Willy Aybar hit a ball that one-hopped to the wall in center field for a double. With Aybar is scoring position, Pat Burrell came up for the first time today to an explosive ovation and proceeded to pop out to Cairo to end the inning. The Rays sent minor league prospect Mitch Talbot to the mound. Talbot, who was making his second appearance of the spring, is still in the running for the Rays fifth rotation spot.
But after the first inning against the Phillies normal starters, he might have hurt his chances a bit because of the wind. Talbot has a very heavy sinker ball that usually produces some great fly ball outs. But in today’s game, those pitches were added by the up force of the wind and made for an interesting afternoon. Jimmy Rollins came up first today and hit a soft floater that was heading for the third base foul line before falling in between left fielder Ray Sadler and Ray Olmedo. Shane Victorino then came up and stroked a nice ball down the third baseline that Gabe Kapler could not get back into the infield in time to catch the speedy Rollins from scoring. This was an interesting point because Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel wants to use Victorino in the second slot in the lineup. One of the main characteristics of this spot in the lineup is hitting to the opposite field to help get the man in front of him into scoring position. He did a prefect job today of that in his first at bat.
But that was not the end of the inning. After Raul Ibanez hit a nice long fly to Ruggiano to left-center, the fun was only about to begin for the Phillies. Ryan Howard then came up and hit a 2-run shot into the chair area of the Rays Bullpen for a 3-0 Phillies lead. The opposite field homer was never in doubt once it left his bat. John Mayberry Junior then came up and slapped another ball 5 rows above me in the Tiki Terrace to add another run in the inning. But that was not the end of all the fun yet either. After Greg Dobbs hit a nice fly ball to Kapler in right, Miguel Cairo came up. Cairo was brought into camp to fight for a utility position, and might get added playing time until Chase Utley comes back into the Phillie lineup. Cairo hit a long towering ball that cleared the Tiki Bar for another homer, and staked the Phillies to a 5-0 lead.
Kendricks came out again in the second inning and got Chris Richard to hit a foul pop-up that took third baseman Jason Donald into the stands, but he held on for the first out of the inning. Morgan Ensberg, who is trying to get some exposure hit a grounder to Howard at first and he took care of it unassisted for the second out. The Sadler came up and hit a monster into the Phillies Bullpen to give the Rays their first run of the game. Shawn Riggans then hit into a 4-3 to end the inning with the score 5-1 Phillies. Talbot might be guilty of not making the correct adjustments during the innings, and because of it, got hit around pretty good. Talbot did come out with a better mindset in the bottom of the second inning, and he sent down the Phillies 1-2-3 to finish the inning with no more damage.
In the third inning, Kendricks started the inning by giving up a infield single to Olmedo on a ball hit to Cairo. Olmedo then tried to advance on a hard hit ball by Kapler that was caught by Rollins, and got doubled up on the play to produce two quick outs. Ruggiano then came up and hit a nice dropping ball to center field that eluded Mayberry and ended up with a triple on the play. Kendricks was then replaced by reliever Drew Naylor, who got Aybar to hit a grounder to Cairo, who threw to first to get out of the inning. Rays Manager Joe Maddon let Talbot take the mound for the third inning and he got Ibanez first with a sharp fly to Sadler in right for the first out. Howard then came out and beat out a throw from deep shortstop by Olmedo for an infield single. The Talbot produced two straight ground ball outs from both Mayberry and Dobbs to end his pitching day.
In the fourth inning, the Rays again has Naylor on the mound and Burrell put a slicing ball down the third baseline to the corner for a lead-off double. But Burrell got not help this inning as Chris Richards flew out to Ibanez, Ensberg popped out to Howard, and Sadler was caught looking for a called third strike to end the Rays rally. Rays reliever Lance Cormier then came on to replace Talbot and Cairo quickly took advantage of him for a double down the right field line. Donald then hit a nice looper to center that scored Cairo. Cormier then hit Paulino with a pitch, and Rollins put down a nice bunt that Cormier picked up the threw to Richards for the second out. Victorino then struck out, and Ibanez hit a grounder to second to get Cormier out of the inning with no problems.
Naylor still remained on the mound for the fifth inning and the first batter, Shawn Riggans hit a sharp liner to Cairo, but he held onto the ball for the first out. Olmedo then hit a single to center field. Naylor tried to pick off Olmedo, but the ball went off Howards glove and he went into second base on the error. Olmedo then stole third base and put himself in scoring position. Ruugiano then produced his second hit of the day to drive in Olmedo for the Rays second run. Adam Kennedy and pinch-hitter Fernando Perez quickly produced the last two outs to get Naylor out if the inning with only one run scored on him. Cormier again came out and got the Phillies 1-2-3 to finish off the 5th inning. At that point, it was the Phillies leading 6-2
The Phillies then sent out non-roster invitee Mike Koplove for the sixth inning. Richards got a walk to lead off the inning, and after a fly out to center field, Sadler hit into a 6-4-3 double play to make quick work of the Rays in the inning. The Rays countered with sending reliever J P Howell out and he quickly got Donald to hit a grounder to Ensberg at third who threw him out easily at first base. Howell then tried to sneak a curveball by Paulino, who hit the ball beyond the Tiki Terrace for a solo home run. Ozzie Chavez then struck out to end the inning for the Phillies.
The seventh inning saw reliever Scott Eyre come out and get a quick out from catcher Michel Hernandez. Olmedo then came up and hit a soft grounder to third base that Donald could not handle in time to get the quick runner. Elliot Johnson them got a quick out and give the Rays little hope in the inning. But Jon Weber hit a double down the left field line and scored Olmedo to bring the Rays within 4 runs. Kennedy popped out to third base to end the rally for the Rays. The Rays then sent prospect Dewon Day to the mound and Eric Bruntlett got a quick single off him to lead-off the inning. Bruntlett then stole second base and got into scoring position for the Phillies. Geoff Jenkins and Andy Tracy both struck out to give the Rays hope with two outs. But Mayberry hit a broken bat single that scored Bruntlett and put the Phillies up 8-3 in the game.
In the 8th inning, the Phillies brought on reliever Clay Condrey. He quickly got Perez to strike out looking, then got Chris Nowak to hit a grounder to third that was easily handled by Donald for an out at first. Ried Brignac then hit a soft grounder to second that was thrown to first to end the Rays inning. Dewon Day stayed on the mound for the Rays after a single by Pablo Ozuna, Donald hit a long fly ball to Nowak in center for the first out. Then Phill
ies catcher Lou Marson hit a sharp grounder to Brignac, who quickly got the throw off to first base. Chavez then hit another sharply hit grounder to Brignac that handcuffed him and the Phillies quickly had two men on base. Bruntlett then hit a low liner to center field that scored Ozuna. Jenkins then hit a fly ball down the left field line that Sadler took his eye off and it fell to the ground for an error, but both Chavez and Bruntlett scored on the play. Tracy then hit an RBI single that scored Jenkins and gave the Phillies a 12-3 lead.
Jake Woods came out for the Phillies in the top of the ninth inning and made quick work of Sadler getting him to hit a high fly ball to center field. Hernandez then hit a hard ball deep and over Bruntlett’s head for a double to start a Rays rally in the inning. Olmedo then struck out to give the Rays only one more out in the game. With the end in sight, Woods left a breaking ball over the plate and Johnson crushed it for a 2-run homer into the Rays Bullpen. But the Rays rally ended as quickly as it began as Weber struck out to end the game and begin the celebration in the Phillies dugout. It was their first win in the Grapefruit League this spring, and it came against the team they had beaten just a few months ago for the World Series title.
I was trying to find our MLBlogger Phillies Phollower before the game, but I got mobbed by a few fellow Rays fans that I knew from the “Maddon’s Maniacs” group at Tropicana Field. Yes, I did hear a few cowbells in the stands, but it was not the loud and vocal group that usually owns the Trop during the season. I know I was not hassled for bring mine in, but I only hit it during the home runs and scoring chances by the Rays and did not abuse the musical instrument.
But I did have to explain the origins of the cowbell and why we use them in games. People know the reasoning that our Owner, Stuart Sternberg is a devote SNL fan, and loves that Christopher Walken skit where he wants “more cowbell”. That is the primary reason, but there are secondary reason that make total sense too. An additional great one is that it tends to frustrate and drive the Boston and New York fans in the Trop. nuts. They can not finish their chants or even do their New York “name roll call” during the game without being interrupted by the blanky blank cowbells. And third, it give the Rays fans a audible image. I am sorry, I really can not see over 25,000 fans blowing on kazoo’s making more noise than those pesky Latin percussion cowbells.
I just want to take a second to let local Rays fans know that the Team USA squad that will be reporting to Clearwater, Florida on Monday morning have opened the first practice to the public at Bright House Networks Field at 11:30 am. So if you have nothing planned, and might want to take in some sun and maybe get some autographs or just come cheer for Team USA team before they leave for Toronto. So come on down to the field and show your spirit on Monday. I am thinking of coming on down and seeing Rays reliever J P Howell, who told me he will definitely be here on Monday. Also, the Rays will be without the services of Willy Aybar starting tonight since he will be leaving to report to the camp of the Dominican Republic squad.
The Team USA will face its first test against Team Canada on March 7, 2009 in the Rogers Centre, in Toronto. The Dominican Republic team will face the Netherlands team on the same day, but in Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But they will not be the first teams to take the field for the 2009 World Baseball Classic. That honor will fall to the squads from China and Japan, who take the field on March 5, 2009 in the Tokyo Dome, in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo credtis today go to: RRCollections and Eric Mencher of the Philadelphia Inquier.
I remember a line that Rich Herrera, the Rays Radio pre-game and post-game host used to say about winning. “Your wife looks better, the kids are smarter, and life just feels great.” After watching today’s game I have a few more to add to that list. When you are winning, the cocoa butter smells like ambrosia and the long drive home flies by and you seem to be driving on air. Okay, I might be embellishing it all a bit, but the first win the the spring can make you believe again. It is not like I have been down in the dumps or sitting with the local winos complaining about lack of hitting and spotty pitching. Okay, I have been sitting with the winos, only because they are friends of Rays Manager Joe Maddon from his “Thanks-mas” celebrations.
But the real key to today’s game was the change in traffic priorities that saw almost everyone into the parking lots and at least going towards the gates by the first pitch. The Rays did some fast work to upgrade and facilitate the need for a speedy coming and going to the ballpark. Me, I have not left yet. I am sitting in the shade here at the Charlotte Sports Park trying to decide if I want to eat dinner down here before taking the drive back to reality. Because it is Friday, and nearing beer-thirty, I am hesitant to hit the lonesome highway yet. I might just wait for a few of the Rays players and ask them what is their choice for fine dinning aka bar food with a gorgeous server in the Port Charlotte area. That is right people, I am not in the mood for the dollar value menu today, I want some hot wings and I want them now!
But let’s forget about my stomach and talked a bit about the game today against the Boston Red Sox. It is the first time since Game 7 of the ALCS that these two teams have squared off. Missing were most of the Red Sox starting staff, who were back at their training complex doing workouts and maybe a little shopping. But it was the first time for all of us in the Rays Republic to try and get used to the fact that Rocco Baldelli was wearing the Red jersey today. I guess I will be used to it about the time they also use the green jersey for St. Patrick’s Day. Rocco did come on over and was very cordial to the Rays faithful and chatted with former manager Joe Maddon during Batting Practice today. He looks rested, cheery and ready to rumble this season.
But Bowden did have bad case of the nerves also and Rays lead-off hitter Fernando Perez took his pitch up the middle to also give the Rays a baserunner to lead off the ballgame. Perez then stole second base on Bowden and after an apparent off throw to try and pick Perez off second, he advanced to third base on the bad throw. All this time Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett was standing at the plate, and he eventually hit a nice flutter ball towards Angel Chavez and third who had no play at the plate and threw to first to record the first out of the inning. Evan Longoria got the second out of the inning and D H Pat Burrell came up and hit a sharp grounder towards Chavez that he knocked down, but could not control in time to get Burrell. Willy Aybar the came up and stroked a single to right field to put men on first and second for the Rays. Dioner Navarro then came up and hit a sharp ball to second that was handled and quickly thrown to first to end the inning with the Rays up 1-0.
Niemann came out again for the second inning and got the Red Sox to go down 1-2-3, with two strikeouts in the inning. The Rays quickly got going again as Ben Zobrist lead off the second inning with a walk. He was quickly erased from the basepaths on a 6-4-3 double play ball hit off the bat of Gabe Gross. With two outs in the inning, it looked like Bowden might have survived and would leave the game with a nice line for the day. But Elliott Johnson had other plans as he Hit a double into left field that seemed to confuse Jason Bay. The Red Sox outfielder seemed to have lost the ball in the sun and it one-hopped to the left field wall. Perez then came up and walked to give the Rays two men on base with two outs in the inning. Bartlett again came up and hit another nice looper over Bay’s head to score both Johnson and Perez and put the Rays up 3-0. Boston then made a pitching change and Bowden was done for the day.
Enrique Gonzalez came on for the Red Sox and still needed only one out to get out of the inning. He did not fair any better than Bowden as he left up a breaking ball and Longoria smacked the ball into the boardwalk area above left field for a 5-0 Rays lead. Gonzalez finally got Burrell to fly out to Ellsbury to end the inning. The Rays sent Brian Shouse out to face Boston in the top of the third inning. In the inning, Shouse gave up only one hit, to former Rays player Nick Green before settling down and getting out of the inning with no other problems. Quickly Navarro and Zobrist got on base for the Rays Gross then hit a single to center field to load the bases for the team. Johnson then came up and hit a hard grounder to center that scored both Navarro and Zobrist. Johnson ended up on second base advancing on the throw home and was in scoring position for Perez. He then hit a nice ball to the left field wall and tried to advance for a triple, but Bay got the ball into Green who gunned him down at third for the first out of the inning. Bartlett then came up and hit a single to left, but was stranded on base after Longoria and Burrell got quick outs.
At that point, the Rays were up 10-0 on the Red Sox. Jason Childers came on in relief for the Rays and got Youkilis to strikeout before giving up a towering foul ball down the right field line to Baldelli. He ended up walking Rocco and gave Boston a baserunner. But Bay hit a ball to Bartlett, who scooped it over to Johnson to start a 6-4-3 double play and get out of the inning. The Red Sox brought on Devern Hansack to face the Rays and the team went down 1-2-3 for the first time today. Hansack got two strikeouts in the inning.
The top of the fifth inning saw Rays 2008 Rule-5 draft pick Derek Rodriguez come on to pitch. Rodriguez did not have a lot of major league experience, and it showed as the Boston hitters took advantage of him quickly. Non-roster invitees Brad Wilkerson and Dusty Brown got on base quickly, with Brown putting ball over right fielder Gross’s head. Then Green came up and hit a soft fly ball to center field that Perez could not get to before it fell to the grass . That scored Wilkerson and put the Red Sox finally on the board in the game. Chavez then got on base and Ellsbury hit a ball to rookie Tim Beckham at short that he could not handle to start a double play.
Beckham was given his first error as a Rays even before he took his first at bat for the team. Jed Lowrie then hit a sacrifice fly to center that scored Brown and tacked another run on the board for the Red Sox. Youkilis then came up and hit a hard fly ball to center, but the runners did not advance on the play. Baldelli then came up and stroked a single and was replaced by pinch-runner Lars Anderson. Baldelli ended up scoring Green on the play and picked up his first RBI as a Red Sox. Bay then came out and got a quick out for the Red Sox before James Houser came on to pitch for the Rays. Houser got Wilkerson to commit on a bad pitch and the inning ended with the score Rays 10-4. In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Red Sox got the Rays to go down 1-2-3 for the second consecutive inning.
The sixth inning saw Mark Wagner get on base with a lead-off walk, but the Red Sox did not take advantage of the situation as Houser closed down the team on three straight batters. Boston sent non-roster invitee Charlie Zink to the mound for the bottom of the sixth inning. Zink, a knuckleballer had the Rays guessing and quickly outs from Justin Ruggiano, Reid Brignac and Morgan Ensberg to again post a 1-2-3 inning against the Rays. The Rays sent Lance Cormier to the hill in the seventh inning and he got a quick strikeout from Zack Daeges. Then he got Chris Carter to hit a pop up to Ray Olmedo at third base. Anderson then came up and quickly was deposed of to end the inning.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Rays took advantage of Zink to get a walk by Rays catcher John Jaso. Then Chris Richards came up and hit a towering homer out to right field that struck the murals on the side of the Rays offices for a two-run home run. Tim Beckham then came up and got an infield single in his first at bat as a Ray. Jon Weber then struck out, and Ray Sadler got the honor of getting plucked by Zink with a pitch. If you are ever going to be hit by a pitch, being hit by a knuckleballer might be the best gig in baseball. But the Rays could not capitalize with two men on base as Olmedo and Ruggiano both flied out to center to end the inning.
Jason Comier then came on to face Boston in the eighth inning and Got Daeges to strikeout before also getting Chris Ambres to commit to an out. With two outs in the inning, Wagner hit a nice ball into the center field gap over Ruggiano’s head for a double. But he ended up stranded on second after a strikeout by Ivan Ochoa ended the inning. Boston sent a reliever named Green to the mound to start the bottom of the eight. You can tell this is Spring Training when a player is not even listed on the traveling roster and he gets to pitch in a game. Green got the Rays out quickly in the inning to again post a 1-2-3 inning for Boston pitching. With Neal Frontz now on the mound for the Rays, he got Ochoa, Gil Velazquez and minor league player Johnathan Van Every to go down to end the game for the Red Sox.
All in all it was a great day for baseball in Florida as the sun was extremely hot, around 79 degrees at first pitch, and a breeze did not hit the stadium until the fourth inning. It would have been a great day to come out to the ballpark and sit in the grass berm and suntan, or just relax ans watch some baseball. In the game, the Rays aw that Niemann is not going to make their decision easy as to what to do with the tall former pitcher from Rice University. Niemann was not perfect, but he did bounce back and showed some great off-speed pitches today to get some critical strikes on batters.
Johnson and Perez got long looks by the Rays coaching staff today. Both players also made their decisions a bit more difficult by going an identical 2-3, with 2 runs and 2 RBI for the Rays. The only difference in their box scores is a walk in the second inning by Perez. Johnson is hitting a robust .429 in the first three games of spring and might be making a name for himself this time around for a roster spot. The Rays also had another pair who went 2-3 on the Day. Willy Aybar and Jason Bartlett also were busy on the basepaths today, with Bartlett also getting 3 early RBI’s in the game.
The only real disappointment for the Rays might be in the performance of Derek Rodriguez. But considering that this was his first real exposure to major league hitting, his one innings might not be as bad as the line score shows for him today. He did give up 3 hits and 4 runs, to post a 13.50 ERA this spring, but he got great experience today by facing a great hitting team that will help him in his pitching development. During the day, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations, Andrew Friedman spoke about Rodriguez and basically said that he cost the team only $50,000, and to get a look at a guy for six weeks and maybe hold onto him all year, that is a small price to pay.
Tomorrow’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Networks field in Clearwater, Florida will be shown on MLB.TV. If you have purchased the MLB.TV package, come on over and see one of the best looking ballparks in the minor leagues. I love the way this ballpark is set up, and I always have a great time when I come out here for a game.
I will be in left field at the game tomorrow, and hope I can make some type of catch in the game. But you can never expect things in baseball so here are the tentative pitching match ups for both teams: Starting for the Phillies tomorrow will be Kyle Kendricks ( RH ), who will be followed by Drew Taylor ( RH ), Clay Condrey ( RH ), Scott Eyre ( LH ) and then Brad Lidge ( RH ). The Rays will counter with Mitch Talbot ( RH ), J P Howell ( LH ), Dewon Day ( RH ), Jason Hammel ( RH ), Randy Choate ( LH ).
Photo credits for today’s blog go to: www.stpetersburgtimes.com, RRCollections.
Okay, now that we are getting near the end of my review of the American League East teams for 2009, you do not have to fret. I am not doing any other division in baseball this spring. The Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays area the only two left on my list to ponder for 2009. I will not have my Rays blog review up until maybe Sunday afternoon or evening. It will depend on how good a time I have at the game on Saturday, so be sure to peek real hard at the seat to the left of the Bullpen gate and you just might see me on that little screen of yours.
With that said, it is time now for me to review the team that I truly think will be the top squad in the American League East this season. I am not trying to divert or even blow any smoke here, but I truly think that if the Boston Red Sox can maintain their rotation and do not have a few odd injuries during the season to a few of their bats, it will be a long 2009 for everyone in baseball. The Red Sox have been the top dog for the last few seasons in the American League East before the Rays had to force them out of the playoffs in 2008 in seven games. I have to admit that the Red Sox did show a mountain of determination after the Rays took it to them in Fenway Park in Games 3 and 4 of the American League Championship Series.
The fact that it came down to the last few innings in St. Petersburg, Florida to even crown the divisional champs is a testament to the fortitude and the tenacity of the Red Sox last year. They did try and go out and improve parts of the club that they deemed weak to their divisional foes in 2008. But some of the planned additions did not sign with them and put a crimp in their off season plans. But the team did finally find a few odd pieces to fill those question makers and those players could be the play makers they will need to again succeed in 2009.
So without further ado, lets get into the Red Sox starting rotation for 2009. The Red Sox will again give the ball to Josh Beckett on Opening Day against the Rays in Fenway Park on April 6, 2009. He will try and improve on his 12-10 record. Beckett did have bouts during 2008 of a bit of control issues because of an arm injury. Reports have said that he is feeling great this spring and should be ready to again be the ace of the Red Sox staff. On top of his off season last year Beckett only tossed 174 innings, which is his lowest totals since his Florida Marlin days. But he is still one of the guys that Boston will count on in the clutch, and that is just the way he likes it. Beckett is also one of those pitchers who can mix up his pitches from a variety of delivery points and types. At last count, he had one of the best 12-6 breaking curves in the league.
Manning the second slot in the rotation will be leftie Jon Lester, who posted a 16-6 record and 210 innings in 2008. Lester, a survivor both on and off the field, is also know to throw about four different pitches in a game. His fastball gets some amazing tailing action, with a last second sinking at the plate. His cutter is very tight and can bend the knees of right-handers watching it at the plate. But his curveball is the mystery pitch that can beat you on the corners. Lester will be counted on more in 2009 to get some of those hard victories against divisional foes that used to escape the Red Sox.
Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka , who posted a 18-3 record with a 2.93 ERA has made a name for himself since coming over from Japan. It has been confirmed that he throws a total of six different pitches during games. Besides the usual fastball and curveball, he has been known to include a splitter, cutter, changeup and slider to hitters. His cutter usually comes in around 88 mph and he will use it to either side of the plate. His splitter makes a very unusual shift as it nears the plate and can fool hitters. But he is also got great movement on his fastball, which is thrown in the 90-95 mph range.
The fourth member of this rotation should be recent signee Brad Penny. He signed with the Red Sox in the off season, and should provide some additional experience and leadership to this squad. Penny did not pitch much in 2008 after injuries, and his spot might be based on his development back into shape and form for the Red Sox. He was a All-Star in both 2006 and 2007, and if he can regain his pitching form, he will be a great addition to this staff. Penny is a big, ugly dude on the mound, and I mean that in a good way. One of his signature pitches is his 12-6 curveball. Also a weapon in his arsenal is his mouth. Penny has been known to smack talk a bit with opponents, which is accompanied by his nice off-speed splitter.
I think the fifth slot in this rotation might come down to what Red Sox Manager Terry Francona wants to do this year. He will again have the services of knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, but at what extent will he use him since he doesn’t have a great knuckleball catcher anymore. Current starter Jason Varitek has been vocal about not wanting to catch Wakefield, and back-up catcher Josh Bard might again get this duty in his second tour with the Red Sox. Wakefield, who went 10-11 in 31 starts last season could be put in the Bullpen, but with his 56-67 mph flutterball he can mess with hitter’s rhythms like no other pitcher in the American League at times.
Another option for the Red Sox will not be available until maybe the middle of the season. When the Red Sox signed former Brave John Smoltz, they knew he would not be available for Opening Day in 2009. But with the recent pitching woes about the middle to the
end of the season, it will give the team another option to use instead of bringing up someone from Pawtucket. Smoltz still has some gas in his tank, and with his experience and off speed pitches, he could be one of the best pickups by the Red Sox by playoff time. Smoltz uses a sweeping action on his slider that seems to miss bats, and has always been know to have a dominating 95 mph heater in reserve. Smoltz may of had some health and injury troubles, but he can be counted on for great outings almost every time.
Another player who might even make the Red Sox team as a long reliever is Clay Bucholz. How many teams can boast that they have a guy in their system who came up and threw a no-hitter while basically a minor leaguer. Bucholz did that in 2007, and still is highly regarded in the Red Sox system. This might be his year to make a move and finally get a set spot in the roster in April. This starting lineup is on paper the best in the American League East, but its health will be the tell tale sign of what it can accomplish in 2009. If they do not have multiple injuries like the New York Yankees did in 2008, they could be the cream of the crop in 2009.
And even when the starter leave the game, the Red Sox Bullpen actually got better in 2009. They added a few extra pieces to further cement a lineup that would be the envy of any team in the league. Hideki Okajima will again be in the Bullpen for the Red Sox. He will again bring his deceptive splitter that seems to drop right out of sight before hitting the plate. His fastball became more recognizable in 2008, and he might have to adjust or go to a four-seam fastball to again fool hitters. Also in the Bullpen again in 2009 will be Manny Delcarmen. He throws a 95 mph fastball that also seems to dip and miss bats in the zone. Delcarmen also throws an overhand curveball that can fall like a classic “drop” ball that was popular over 40 years ago.
Justin Masterson might be another guy who could push Bucholz out of a roster spot because of his ability to either start or work out of the Bullpen. He basically throws two pitches, a fastball and a slider, which both tend to dip a lot. Combine that with his funky delivery and you got the making of a pitcher who can sweep the plate from both side with both pitches. Also coming out of the Bullpen in 2009 will be Javier Lopez. He is a sidearming leftie who can fool hitters with his gimmick delivery. He basically throws a fastball and curve, but mixes in a changeup for good measures.
Someone who might come in and make the roster as a reliever in 2009 is Japanese import Junici Tazawa. I am currently not sure where the Red Sox will use him in 2009, but he will be on the 40-man roster for sure. Tazawa set off an Japanese frenzy earlier in the year when he decided to bypass a career in the Japanese League and came straight to the United States to play for the Red Sox. He is only 22 years old, and signed a 3-year deal worth $ 6 million. He throws a 95 mph fastball, 12-6 curveball, a slider and a forkball. Before he signed with Boston, he had won the MVP award at the National Corporate Baseball Tournament for Nippon Oil. It was their first title in 13 years . Not to be outdone was the addition of former L A Dodger closer Takashi Saito. He will be mostly used as a setup man for the Red Sox. He is mostly a breaking ball pitcher. He constantly throws curves and sliders with amazing control and command. Saito uses these pitches either on the plate, or just off it to tease hitters. He could be a great tool to bring in before the ninth inning to get hitters off balance before Jonathan Papelbon comes into the game. Papelbon is finding a great niche for himself as a closer in this league. Combine his explosive fastball with his sweeping slider and you get a guy who can give you multiple looks coming out of the Bullpen to win the game. He has even named his own pitch, a slutter, which is a variation of the slider and cutter. But combine that with his antics while warming up and you get a guy who loves the pressure and can perform in the clutch with the best of them. That now gives the Red sox three Japanese pitchers on their staff.
That will bring us to the guy who will catch this pitching staff. After a long off season hiatus, Jason Varitek finally signed with the Red Sox and will again be the main guy behind the plate. He calls an excellent game behind the dish, but can be a liability at the plate. His hitting needs to improve for the Red Sox to have a dominant bat near the bottom of the lineup. As stated above Josh Bard will probably get the honor to try and catch and block Wakefield in 2009. Bard is also a good signal caller, but he is also a bit weak with his bat. This might be one of the weakest position from an offensive standpoint, but defensively it is on par with the league.
Starting in the middle of the infield we will have 2008 American League Most Valuable Player Dustin Pedroia again back manning second base. The third year player made a name for himself in 2008 by being the clutch hitter and offensive dynamo the Red Sox needed to keep pace with the Rays in the A L East race. One of the biggest question marks of the spring will be who mans the shortstop position on Opening Day. Last season Julio Lugo fell into slumps ( .268 average ) and an injury situation that made him basically a non factor at the position. He has come out and said he wants the position and will be given an opportunity to again win it in Spring Training. But because of the size of his contract, you have to believe that the Red Sox will give him multiple chances until a change has to be made. If he fails, the Red Sox have a experienced fielder in Jed Lowrie who took over for Lugo in 2008. Lowrie posted a .258 average, but was a better defensive player for the Red Sox last season.
On the corners the Red Sox will have Kevin Youkilis manning first base. Youkilis became a offensive threat in 2008 and will again try and improve on his .312 average with 29 homers ans 115 RBI’s. But he is just as good at the defensive front at first base and is con
sidered one of the American League’s best at the position. In 2008 he had only 4 errors in 923 chances. Only Carlos Pena of the Rays had a better mark in 2008. On the other side of the diamond will be Mike Lowell, who will be trying to come back off a serious hip injury in 2009. Lowell has been one of the offensive leaders in recent years for Boston, but in 2008, his injuries took a toll with a slight decrease at the plate. He only hit .274 last season with 17 homers ans 73 RBI’s, but is looking to increase those numbers. Along with Youkilis and Pedroia, Lowell makes one of the better hitting infields in the American League.
In the outfield things should be pretty set both in left field and center for the Red Sox. After sending Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers at last season’s trade deadline, the Red Sox acquired a great fielder and hitter in former Pirate Jason Bay. He will begin his first full season in Fenway Park , but already has a good read on the Green Monster and should improve even more in 2009. His .286, with 31homers and 101 RBI’s should again be an offensive weapon for the team. Patrolling center field will be Jacoby Ellsbury. Again in 2009, he should be the Red Sox lead-off hitter and continue his climb to become one of the best lead-off men in Red Sox history. His .280 average with 50 stolen bases shows that he can be a menace on the base paths as well as hit.
In right field, J D Drew might be the man to beat, but injury situations in the past might prove to be his downfall. Even though he hit .280, with 19 homers and 64 RBI’s, his hitting was streaky during 2008. When healthy is is a monster force out in right field, but is only average with arm strength and speed to the ball. With the short porch in right field, he can sometimes be a liability for short pop ups and shots down the line. Former Ray, Rocco Baldelli might provide the needed back-up because of his speed and hitting. Baldelli can also play center field and is quick to the ball and has a cannon arm. He is feeling fantastic after finding out his illness has changed and his fatigue and stamina will be a big question this spring. If he is truly healthy, he will be a great addition to the Red Sox roster.
Rounding out the roster will be Designated hitter David Ortiz. He will be late getting back to Spring Training after appearing for the Dominican Republic team during the World Baseball classic. Ortiz when healthy can be one of the best power hitter in the game. But questions will rise fast about his wrist again in 2009 if he gets off to a slow start. As Ortiz goes, so does the Boston offense. When he is playing great, they team has the ability to beat anyone, but when he is missing from the lineup it is a huge spot to fill. His 2009 season should be better than his sub par 2008, but only if he remains healthy.
So there you have the review of the Boston Red Sox. the team will again have a forceful starting rotation and a Bullpen that is considered one of the strongest top to bottom in the majors. For the Red Sox to drive towards the American League East title, they will have to maintain a great level of health and prevent injuries in 2009. As I stated before, if Boston has an injury situation like the 2008 Yankees, they might be fighting for third place in September. But all indications are that they will be fighting deep into September to try and regain the top spot in the A L East.
For them to again get to that top spot, they will have to win the yearly series against two team that have owned them late in the year in 2008. The will again have to be dominant against the Rays and the Blue Jays to try and post at least 95 wins in 2009. I think that total is achievable, but only if the injury bug and the Bullpen stays focused and strong. 2009 will be a fight for another A L East title. No one is guaranteed that even if they finish second in this division they will get a playoff spot . For that reason, the Red Sox will want to secure the top spot and guarantee their post season goals for 2009.
photo credits foir today’s blog go to: wwwsawxblog.com, rnolan1087@Flickr.com, sdowen@Flickr.com, keithallison@Flickr.com, news.yahoo.com, dubjo@Flickr.com, dbadair@Flickr.com.
Of course after yesterday Spring Opener where the Tampa Bay Rays only managed to get 4 hits in the entire game, I was looking for the Rays offense to maybe finally kick back into gear. Little did I know before the game that Rays Manager Joe Maddon had decided to leave a few guys at home working out at the Rays complex down in Port Charlotte, Florida. Among those left at home was Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. I do not know the reasoning for the two guys to be left off the travel squad, but with a big game today against the Boston Red Sox, I am expecting it was done to have them fresh and ready for Friday’s game.
So when the Rays did come north to play the New York Yankees today at George Steinbrenner Field, I was not sure what kind of infield might be taking the turf for this first test of the year against our division rival. The crowd had it usual over indulgence of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez jerseys, but the smattering of the Rays blue and white jerseys could be seen in the stands. This is a huge departure on some spring training game where the New York faithful will sell out the contest before they even go on sale to the general public. So it was a great sight to see some of the away teams jerseys and hear the odd cowbell or two.
Before the game I saw a very interesting treat as ex-Yankee center fielder Bernie Williams came out to throw the ceremonial first pitch of the game. I can tell you he still looks like he could play in the outfield for the Yankees, and I bet he can still hit the cover off the ball. His pitch was a nice crisp little fastball to just past the right side of the plate. The man can still play, and I still wonder why he is not in a Yankee jersey this spring? By the way the first inning strted out for the pinstripes, he might as well pitched the first inning for them today.
The Rays decided to give a few of their recently signed veterans a chance to display their skills today. Rays minor league player Chris Richards got the start at first base instead of Willy Aybar today. But Aybar did play, taking the Designated Hitter spot today. Adam Kennedy a recent signee got a chance to take the field at second base and hit in the lead off spot for the Rays today. Also making his Rays debut was Morgan Ensberg at third base for Evan Longoria. Ensberg hit a single in the 6th inning today off Dasmasco Marte. Both players might not be on the Opening Day roster, but Maddon decided that for them to find a team , they need to show their stuff. Since the game was being broadcast on MLB.TV, it was a great way for other teams to be able to scout the two veterans without sending people to the park.
The Rays could have taken full advantage of some wild Yankee starting pitching in the first inning, but they could not capitalize and ended up letting Yankee starter Phil Hughes actually look pretty good in his outing without capitalizing on scoring chances during his wild moments in the first inning today. Hughes, who is trying to come back after a injury-filled 2008, did not help his cause to make the team as a starter or as a long reliever in the Bullpen. Hughes did not self implode, but he did hit 2 out of the first 3 Rays batters he faced today before finally calming down a bit and ended up throwing 2 perfect frames for the Yankees. Hughes threw around 33 pitches today, and after his first three batters actually looked more calm and collected on the mound.
The Rays countered today with another great starting pitching performance from Rays prospect Wade Davis. He actually man-handled the Yankees in the first inning sending them down 1-2-3, with the third out on a 94 mph fastball to new Yankee Mark Teixeira. Davis then came out in the bottom of the second and again came out with fire to get Alex Rodriguez to a 1-2 count before getting him to strike out to start the inning. Davis did not back down after that and then took Robinson Cano out with another 94 mph fastball to end up striking out 3 of the first 5 batters he faced today.
Then in the top of the third inning, Yankee left-hand reliever Phil Coke came in and threw two innings of ball and also blanked the Rays, but did give up the first hit of the afternoon to Ben Zobrist, who hit a single in the fourth inning. For his efforts, Coke ended up with the victory for the Yankees.
The Rays sent out reliever Chad Orvella to start the inning. Orvella missed most of 2008 with a shoulder injury and was trying to make an impression on the Rays coaching staff to try and cement a Bullpen position for 2009. His first pitch of the spring came back to bite him as Jorge Posada deposited the ball beyond the right field picnic deck for an early 1-0 Yankee lead. For his efforts, Orvella ended up taking the loss today after throwing only one inning. To his credit, he then buckled down after the homer and got the next three batters, which included Johnny Damon who was his only strikeout of the game.
For the bottom of the fourth inning, the Rays sent out Winston Abreu, who is trying to make the major league roster. Abreu did not fair well as he gave up three hits and a run during his two innings of work today. The Yankees counter in the fifth inning with reliever Brian Bruney who pitched a shutout fifth inning for the team. In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Yankees tacked on a run when consecutive doubles were given up by Abreu to Xavier Nady and Posada. With the Rays now down by two, they needed to find some offense in the top of the sixth inning. Last years Yankee Bullpen lefty specialist Damasco Marte then came in and gave up another hit for a single to Morgan Ensberg, who was playing third today for Evan Longoria. the Rays could not capitalize on this again today and the Yankees again dodged a bullet.
The Rays sent reliever Julio DePaula to the mound in the bottom of the sixth and the young Rays pitcher shut down the Yankees in his only inning of the game. Then in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Yankees non-roster invitee J.B. Cox, ended up having the worst outing for the Yankees today. He ended up throwing only 1 inning today, but gave up 3 hits and the lone Rays run in the seventh inning. Cox gave up a single to Elliot Johnson, who then scored on a Jon Weber hit that eluded the glove of shortstop Eduardo Nunez to put the Rays with in one run at 2-1. Rays non-roster invitee Ray Sadler then got another single and the Rays looked to be starting a small rally. But they fell short and settled for the 2-1 lead with two innings left to play in the game.
But when Rays minor League prospect Calvin Medlock took the mound, he ended up giving up three hits in his one inning of work, and also gave the Rays a slimmer chance at victory. Medlock gave up a three-run shot to Shelly Duncan to put the game out of reach 5-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning. Duncan knocked in Angel Berroa and Doug Bernier, who had both singled in the inning. The Rays then tried to mount a rally again in the top of the eighth inning, but Mark Melancon shut them down with one strikeout in the inning. the Rays sent minor league reliever Dale Thayer to the mound in the bottom of the eighth inning, and he also shut down the Yankees offense, which now had mostly minor league and non-roster invitees in the game. The Rays again tried to mount an attack, but were put down quickly by reliever Johnathan Albalardejo to end the game.
So the Rays ended up leaving Tampa with an 0-2 start to the 2009 Grapefruit League season. What was so remarkable in this game is that only one walk was issued by either team in the contest. That lone walk was given up by Phil Hughes in the second inning to Chris Richards. Even with the 0-2 start, the Rays have a few positives to take away from this loss. They can see that Wade Davis has been working on his third pitch, a change-up, and used it with great success today against one of the American League best off-speed hitting teams. Also of note is the fact that the Rays only struck out 5 times today, with not a single hitter whiffing twice for the team.
Rays catcher Shawn Riggans got the start again for the Rays and looked to have good command of the pitchers and called a good game behind the plate. This might be his year to fully show he can be a great play-calling back-up catcher in the major leagues. 10, 693 fans hit the stands today to witness the game against the Rays. I am not getting worried about the lack of hitting or even scoring by the Rays in their first two games. A few pretty odd moments happen in today’s game. Elliot Johnson scored the Rays first run of the spring, and was stared down a bit by Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli. You might remember in early 2008, it was Johnson who took out Cervelli with a shoulder high shove as the Yankee catcher was blocking the plate. Johnson ended up scoring on the play, but the action put Cervelli out for a few months and drew the anger of Yankees Manager Joe Giardi at the time. Also interesting is the re-emergence of Former Rays basher Shelly Duncan, who originally released by the team last season. Duncan came out today and did not taunt or even whisper towards the Rays bench. This might be a sign that Duncan has put the 2008 incident behind him and plans on making his statements on the field this season.
The team heads home tonight with a 1:05 pm start tomorrow against another American League East foes, the Boston Red Sox. The visitor’s will send pitcher Michael Bowden to the mound. Bowden only threw 5 innings for the team on August 30, 2008 against the Chicago White Sox. It might be a guy that the Rays can get to early and score some runs. The Rays will start right-hander Jeff Neimann as he tries to make his impression to get that fifth spot in the rotation, or a spot in the Rays Bullpen this season. Neimann needs to make an impression for the Rays to want to keep him in 2009, since he is out of minor league options, and would not make it through waivers if the Rays tried to send him to the minor leagues. Additional Rays pitchers scheduled to appear in tomorrow’s contest will be Jason Childers ( RH ), Jason Cromer ( RH ), James Houser ( LH ), 2008 Rule-5 draftee Derek Rodriguez ( RH ) will see his first Rays action, and Brian Shouse ( LH ).
To give some of the Rays fans notice for the Saturday game against the Phillies in Clearwater, the team has tenativly penciled in Rays prospect Mitch Talbot to get the start, with J P Howell ( LH ), Dewon Day ( RH ), Neal Frontz ( RH ), and Lance Cromier ( RH ) getting their second chances this spring to make lasting impressions on the coaching staff.
Photo credits for today’s blog go to: www.theStPetersburgTimes.com , and RRcollections.
For years this team used to call Tropicana Field “Yankee Stadium South” when they into town for a series. But in the last few years, the Tampa Bay Rays have begun to take back their home stadium row by row until in 2008 you could hear both teams loud and proud in the stadium. So if you have not guessed by now, the third part of my review installment is on the” Evil Empire, the Bronx Bombers,” or simply “The Pinstripes” . Yes, it is time to try and review that team that everyone either loves or hates………the New York Yankees.
Part of that move back into greatness was to fully open the checkbook and get some of the players needed to dominate for years again. With some of the team aging, the Yankees needed to get the young stars who were about to either come out with a bang, or were currently the cream of the crop. After all was said and done, almost a half a billion dollars changed hands for a handful of budding superstars that could again take the pinstripes back to the playoff for the next 5 years. The three high priced free agents the team fought after did not come cheaply for the Yankees. With each player they had to trade and bid for their services again and again. But the Yankee mindset is not to lose at negotiations, and in the end, they got their players.
If you begin to write a review for 2009 for the Yankees, you have to start with their newly revised rotation. Now, who can argue that Carsten Charles Sabathia was the crown jewel of the Yankees’ off season pitching makeover. The man came with a price tag as big as his trousers, but he also came with the statistics to back it up. He will be the experienced ace of the Yankees revamped pitching staff, and might end up being the best investment the team has done in years. Sabathia is not just a power pitcher, but also an innings eater. His 253 innings in 2008 is not as impressive as his 251 strikeouts in those innings. To provide such a statistic that you have almost a strikeout an inning, and you pitched over 250+ innings is remarkable in any league. Sabathia throws three pitches effectively, and uses his change up, which breaks straight to fool hitters because of his great arm action.
Coming in at the number 2 slot for the Yankees is former Toronto pitcher A J Burnett. He also came to the Yankees after a bit of a battle, but decided to finally become a Yankee. His familiarity with the American League East hitters will be a premium for him in 2009. Because of his knowledge in the division, Burnett will already have a pitching style in place to combat each teams hitters. This will make his adjustment to the Yankees a bit easier. But Burnett also posted some great numbers in 2008. He pitched in 221 innings and struck out 231 batters last year. Burnett is mostly a power thrower, but his hard curve is his magic strike pitch. After an injury to his fingernail last year, he began to play more with his change-up, and got the pitch to sink and tail more throughout the season.
Coming back from an injury can bring with it loads of expectations and pressure. But Chien-Ming Wang has dealt with the pressure pretty well the last few season in New York. His injury, which caused him to miss the entire second half of the season played heavily on the Yankees failure to secure a playoff berth. Wang had been a consistent member of the pitching staff, but only was able to piece together 15 starts before his injury shelved him for the year. One of the greatest thing about Wang’s pitching style is that he relies on his sinkerball. His 2-seamer bores in on right-handers and sinks past lefties. His slider is average, but if thrown correctly can be a knee bender. He began to throw a splitter in 2008, and at times it looked like Jorge Posada was having difficulty with it. The pitch had a really late bite on the plate and made it a bit difficult in the last 3 feet to judge correctly all the time.
The top 3 pitchers in the staff have the experience starting games in the New York atmosphere either as a Yankee or a opponent. that will come in handy in 2009 when the new Yankee Stadium is opened and the roar of the crowd will seem to be a bit more focus towards the mound area. Joba Chamberlain did an effective job as one of the Yankees set-up men in 2007-2008. After two seasons of setting up for Mariano Rivera, he will take his spot in the rotation in 2009. Chamberlain appeared in 42 games last season, including 12 starts. The one question mark in my mind here is if the reliever can quickly adapt back to starting a game after two seasons in the Bullpen. Starting games has a different mentality than relieving, and will Chamberlain be able to make that transition smoothly before the season starts.
I think that he can become a great starter for the Yankees, but I will wait until the end of Spring Training to anoint him to the fourth spot. He seems to have the goods on the mound to transition without a hitch. In the last few years, he has used his fastball, which hits 95 mph and above to set up people for his unbelievable slider. Chamberlain has already been given a bit of a legend status as a pitcher even before he has effectively led the Yankees to the playoff promised land. Chamberlain used to use his change-up and curveball in the minors, but because of the dominance of his first two pitches, they are throw-in pitches to keep hitters honest at the plate.
Now we come to the fifth spot in the rotation. This player could also wind up in the fourth slot if Yankee Manager Joe Girardi wants to use him there. But in the fifth slot, he will face the opponents least experienced pitcher, which could play into a great Yankees mental game as they could dominate from the first pitch of the game. Yankee great Andy Pettitte is considered one of the great lefties to ever grace the mound. His 14-14 record last season is no indication of the magic he still can provide on the mound. He still tossed over 200 innings last year, and still has one of the best pick-off moves in the major leagues. Pettitte still relies heavily on his cutter, which resembles a slider and is effective in breaking bat when coming in on right-handers. His fastball is pretty straight, but his command of it can catch the corners at anytime. One of the pitches he has in his arsenal that if it is going great, he is almost unhittable is his curveball. It can take a nasty dip fast into the ground if it is popping at the right time for him that night.
The Yankees might have the luxury of keeping up Phil Hughes in 2009 as a long reliever and also an insurance policy if something should happen to a starter this season. Hughes, who will be throwing today against the Rays in Tampa, struggled with injuries himself last year. This might be the make it or break it year for Hughes, and a good Spring Training showing might get him a slot in the Bullpen as the long reliever for the team. The Bullpen will be the place where a majority of the Yankees game will be won or lost in 2009. Last season they were not the most effective Bullpen in the American League, and that might have cost them dearly before they got the ball to Rivera in the ninth inning.
Coming back in 2009 will be Damaso Marte, who has established himself as the Yankee leftie specialist in 2008, will be counted on more this season. Marte has always been a fastball/slider kind of pitcher and should see more action in 2009 with Chamberlain going to the rotation. Both David Robertson and Dan Giese will get chances early on to cement a spot in the Bullpen. Both pitchers throw mostly fastballs and curves, with Robertson having more velocity and a change-up to mix things up at times. Left-hander Phil Coke might be the guy to take Marte’s spot as the left-handed specialist in 2009. Coke throws a nice mid 90’s fastball and a slider that break heavy into the plate. Humberto Sanchez, who came back strong in 2008 after Tommy John’s surgery in 2007, should get a chance to again to sit in the Yankees Bullpen. Sanchez throws a nice moving fastball in the 90’s and has an effective 12-6 break curveball.
Jose Veras also might have a shot at making the Bullpen after a great 2008. Veras is a tall pitcher and uses his leverage to produce really good strikeout numbers as a professional. He also has a nice split-finger pitcher that tends to dip below bats. But his downfall might be that he is a high WHIP pitcher. Edwar Ramirez is another guy who might make a decision difficult for the Bullpen slots. Ramirez is basically only a two pitch guy, but he will occasionally mix in a tight slider to right-handers.
Jonathan Albaladejo is another right-hander who throws a great moving fastball and two breaking pitches. He has been great at mixing up his pitches, which includes a powerful boring fastball, and a slow bending curveball. His slider is his second breaking pitch, but in 2008, it stayed up in the strike zone too much. But the one guy who will not have to ever worry about a roster spot is closer Rivera. Even if he is approaching 40, the man is still one of the most effective closers in the game today. Was is more amazing is that he has basically thrown only the cutter in and out for most of his career. 85-90 percent of the time, you know you will see some sort of cutter to the plate. He does have a four-seam fastball that he uses up and in to right-handers. Simply put, if the game is on the line, you want this guy on the mound.
The Yankees outfield has taken a huge turn since the end of 2008. Left field will still be the home of trade deadline acquisition Xavier Nady who hit a solid .305 average with 25 homers and 97 RBI in 2008. This will be his first full season in the American League, and he is out to establish himself early on for his defense and throwing ability. Nady will occasionally share his position with Hideki Matsui, who had a wild injury plagued year and is looking to rebound in both the field and at Designated Hitter for the Yankees. Matsui had a down year with only 9 homers and 45 RBI last season. This year he reports to camp in shape and ready to play. Johnny Damon, who hit for a .303 average with 17 homers and 71 RBIs might be the man on the go this year.
Damon is actually expected to play at several positions during the season, which will include both first base and the outfield. But in center field, the Yankees will be holding their biggest battle for a spot in 2009. Melky Cabrera, who hit for .249 with 8 homers and 37 RBIs will be pushed heavily for his spot. Cabrera is trying to make the decision between him and Brett Gardner more difficult this spring. Gardner, who took over for a bit after Cabrera was sent to the minors, came on to hit only .228 in his 42 games up with the Yankees last season. These two players will be fighting it out as they are the only two who might be able to cover the massive outfield grasses of Yankee Stadium. There is a chance that Nick Swisher might be given a chance to take over right field for the Yankees since they signed Mark Teixeira to play first base. I think both him and Damon will get ample shots at manning the right corner in the new stadium this year. The outfield looks competitive with the rest of the American League East, but it is not the best athletic or most powerful in the division in 2009. They will get their licks in and might surprise you with their arm strength at times. But that might not stop the run happy teams in this division who tend to run on even good flamethrowers.
Coming into the infield, let start with the middle of the diamond. As we all know, Derek Jeter will again be manning the shortstop position for the Yankees. Last season he did not have a typical Jeter season, only hitting .300 average, with 11 homers and 69 RBI’s. Jeter’s defense has also slipped a notch in the last few years, but is still the cream of the crop in turning the double play and getting base runners out at second base on steal attempts. He is till considered the heart and soul of this team. And how he responds this year might be a good indicator of the Yankee mindset.There is talk of maybe seeking a younger shortstop in 2010 and Jeter maybe moving over to second base to make that position more solid for the team. But in the present time, Robinson Cano will be the man at second base for the Yankees, Cano hit .271 for the year with 14 homers and 72 RBIs. With the Yankee infield having such high expectations by fans, Cano seemed to take a small step back in 2008. It will be key to see him rebound this season and again post good number to even be considered for the spot in 2010.
On the corners is where the Yankees will store their power in 2009. Third Baseman Alex Rodriguez will see 162 games of critical opinions and cat calls, but should still put up monster numbers in 2009. Last season he did not produce as expected, but still hit .305 with 35 homers and 103 RBI’s. He is considered one of the sports best players, but will also be feeling the heat in 2009 after his steroid allegations and confession. The first few months should be a good barometer of how the pressure and the voices from the cheap seats bother Rodriguez. He might get out of the gate a bit slow, but as things die down, he will again dominate the right side of the infield both at the plate and on the field.
Coming into the Yankee fold after signing a huge off season contract is former Angel Mark Teixeira. He comes to the Bronx with the expectations of the team finally having another power alternative to Rodriguez. Texieira, who hit .302, with 35 homers and 103 RBI’s is considered one of the best first baseman in the game. As good as he is at the plate, Texieira has just as good reputation manning his defensive position. Texieira also bring into the Yankees fold the option of being a switch-hitter. This is something that the team has lack a lot of in the past few seasons.
But he is not the only switch hitter brought in for 2009. Nick Swisher will also see time at first base and maybe Designated Hitter. Swisher needs to improve on his average, which was only .219 last season, but he does have better than average power, and can be a pest on the base paths. In the area of catching, the Yankees hope that Jorge Posada’s shoulder is fully healed and he can get back to his 2007 form behind the plate. Another hot spot in 2008 was the absence of Posada behind the plate after he went down with a shoulder injury. He is getting up in age, and a move might be made in the next few years to get him time at D H or maybe first base, he has to cement the position for the Yankees in 2009. The team still has Jose Molina back in 2009, and with another year under his belt with the team, Molina’s biggest concern is to get better at bats and produce when he is in the game for the Yankees.
So there you have the possible members of the 2009 New York Yankees. Not only are they trying to reverse the trend of missing the playoffs for the first time last season, they will have to impress the fans in their new stadium. Add the pressure of the usual expectations and the increased vocal noise towards Rodriguez, this team will need to mesh fast and stay tight the entire year. A pretty injury-less season could be the key for this team. Even though their outfield and their Bullpen are not huge strengths this season. the infield corners and the starting pitching might be the difference this year. As I have stated all off season long, the American League East will be a war in 2009. With each team playing 18 times against each other in the season, the winner of the yearly series will probably have the hand-up for the division title. I can see this Yankees team win a minimum of 92 games if their starting pitching stay intact. It is now up to the Yankees to again either prove or fail in becoming one of the premier teams in the American League.
Today was the Opening Day for the Tampa Bay Rays at their new ballpark in Port Charlotte, Florida. There was the usually sightings of the owner Stuart Sternberg in his yellow polo shirt, and also a short glimpse at former owner Vince Namoli with his wife and her sister in the grandstands. Funny thing was, Namoli was wearing an older style Rays cap that still echoed the times of green and black in the teams ” TB” with the rays flying under it. Guess it is true what they say that some people love to keep the past in their present.
What was also amazing about today was the pre-game ceremonies and the traffic jams trying to even get into the stadium. When the game started, the stands were not looking like a sold-out crowd, but you could see the glint of windshields still coming into the parking lots for the 1:05 game. I truly hope that something can be done before the Friday afternoon match up between the Boston Red Sox and the Rays here at Charlotte Sports Park. I will be in no mood to argue with a sweaty, drunk Boston fan about staying in a traffic jam for the first 4 innings of the game. In all reality, you know that the team saw that situation, and with all due course, they will get in contact with local law enforcement and see what changes can be made to make it a more fluid drive both in and out of the ball park from today until the end of Spring Training.
As I strolled around the stadium, there was an air of newness and fascination with the huge murals on the side of the team’s offices and the boardwalk’s kids area was full of smiling and laughing kids trying to tackle Raymond to the ground. I walked around the entire outfield section of the stadium and chatted with fans who had not been down to this complex yet this year and found it to be a better trip down than expected. But some did complain about the traffic within a mile of the stadium as early as 10 am today. Again, this issue came up, but it will be resolved, trust me.
I wandered down to the visitor’s dugout and yelled for former Rays Jonny Gomes. He came on over and we chatted for a bit about his off season workout where he seems to slim down a bit, and about his bachelor party out in California before he got married in the off season. He was miling and telling me he might have a real shot at playing every day. He just has to show the gusto and the power that kept him in the Rays uniform for so long. About this time I thought it might be a great idea if I wandered over to the Tiki bar and got my first drink of the young season. I am not a big drinker at the ball park, but with a new year and a new location for games………..It was time to christen the gullet with a frosty beverage. I had brought my laptop and logged on to see Mark Newman beginning his “Live Blog” on MLBlogs.com.
I wrote a paragraph or two and then closed it up as the team was being introduced and I knew the National Anthem would be soon. I already had to smack my first fan as a guy was sleeping on his bar stool during the Anthem, and it was my duty to wake him up so more fans would not kill him. The Rays even made a replica American League Pennant flag to raise up the flagpole in the stadium before the 6,028 fans who came out for the game. I sat out in the Tiki Bar watching former Astros pitcher Carlos Hernandez pitch a perfect first two innings. This was the first time in three years he had faced live hitters, and he did a fantastic job. Carl Crawford came up in the bottom of the first and got the Rays first hit at the new stadium on a single to left field.
Hernandez might be one of those guys who comes into the spring with something to prove, and ends up with a job in a rotation. He will get more shots to put even more positive things into Rays Manager Joe Maddons mind about keeping this guy on the roster. The next Rays pitcher to take the mound is also trying to keep firmly on Maddons mind for a shot with the team either as a starter or as a long reliever. Jason Hammel had a great third inning getting two strikeouts and a fly out. In the 4th inning, Hammel got into trouble when he gave up three straight singles. on one of those singles up the middle to Jay Bruce, the Rays center fielder Fernando Perez quickly got the ball back into catcher Shawn Riggans and they caught Joey Votto at the plate to prevent the Reds from scoring on the play.
In the fifth inning the Rays sent reliever Randy Choate to the mound to replace Hammel. Choate got into trouble fast and finally put the Red on the board when one of his breaking pitches did not drop and hung in the zone. Jerry Hairston Jr then took the pitch to left center field for a grand slam and gave the Reds an early 4-0 lead. In the beginning of the inning, the Rays also inserted Chris Novak at third base. This led to the fifth run by the Red after Novak committed an error at third. I kind of lost track of the innings since I was logging on and off of MLBlogs.com and leaving a few notes here and there for Mark and the other bloggers writing in on the first day of baseball again.
Anyways, I looked up and it was already the seventh inning and the Rays had sent J P Howell out to replace Lance Cormier, who had a good 6th inning only giving up a single hit to the Reds. Howell was being used today because next week he will be reporting to the Team USA training facility in Clearwater, Florida to begin preparations for the 2009 World Baseball classic. Howell completed his one inning without incident and then gave the ball to Neal Frontz, who finished off a perfect 8th inning for the Rays. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Justin Ruggiano hit a beautiful double to right center, but the Rays could not capitalize on it as Jon Weber popped out to end the inning. Then Mitch Talbot came on in the ninth inning for the Rays. Talbot is another guy who is fighting for a chance to take the fifth rotation spot for 2009. He did not do anything to help his cause as he ended up giving up a 2-run shot to Red second baseman Adam Rosales to put the game totally out of reach at 7-0. Rays prospect Chris Richards tried to start a rally by doubling in the bottom of the ninth, but the Rays could not ca
ptalize and were shut out today in the game.
The Rays did not seem to be in tune today as they only got three total hits during the game. Besides the single by Crawford and the Double by Ruggiano, the only other two Rays to hit safely today were minor league first baseman Chris Richards and Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett, who also was in the lead-off spot for today’s contest. This might be an interesting experiment by Maddon since his usual lead-off man is currently with Team Japan awaiting the start of the WBC. With Akinora Iwamura out until defending WBC champ Japan is ousted out of the tourney, or wins for the second time, he can be imaginative with his lineup cards and try a few different variations. What did seem absent today was the usual Rays bat patience as they racked up 9 strikeouts on the day and only got 2 walks in the ball game.
Being bat savvy at the plate was one of the key components to the Rays getting to the playoffs in 2008. It is only the first game, so I might be a bit tight on the guys right now. Willy Aybar also got time at first base today before leaving next week to play for the Dominican Republic team in the WBC. Earlier in the off season he was not on the WBC roster for the Dominican Republic, but because both St Louis Cardinal Albert Pujols and the Rays Carlos Pena were taken off the roster because of either their injury time on the Disabled list in 2008, or in Pena’s case, an off season surgery to repair an abdominal tear.
The Rays will travel to George Steinbrenner Field tomorrow for an afternoon contest. Rays Triple-A pitcher Wade Davis will get the start for the Rays. The Yankees will counter with Phil Hughes on the mound for the 1:05 start.
Photo credits for this blog are: www.tampatribune.com and RRCollections.
In this segment of the review of the 2009 American League teams I am going to be chatting about the Toronto Blue Jays. Our neighbor to the north has been one of the franchises i have been longing to visit for some time. More for the fact of staying in the hotel that actually has its hotel room window overlooking the turf in Rogers Centre. I must remind everyone again that these comments being made are my opinion and I am in no way trying to bury any actual facts or rumors within its content. But with that in mind, if I have heard any ramblings or even murmurs from within the whispers of the Internet, I will bring them to you in the review.
The Toronto Blue Jays started out the 2008 season on a high note, The team began to make a run starting in April by winning 4 out of their first 6 games, including a weekend sweep of the Boston Red Sox at home. But all the thrill turned just as fast into pain as the team ended that month going win less in 8 out of the last 9 contests in April. But in May the club posted a 20-10 record and looked to going upward in the American League East. The squad held onto the number three spot late into the season before the New York Yankees pull themselves out of the cellar and began their march towards the top.
The Blue Jays tried to stay in the A L East race with the Yankees, but a 15-9 record in September was not enough to catch the Bronx Bombers. Toronto ended the year in 4th place in the American League East with a record of 86-76. The Blue Jays did get some great pitching throughout the season, but it was not enough to pull them closer to the eventual A L East crown. The team did however did perform well against divisional foes, winning 36 games during the season. They split the yearly series with the Yankees at 9-9, and were held off by Boston 8-11 and Tampa Bay 7-11 during the years divisional series.
The Blue Jay will only be bring into camp two starters from the 2008 staff that posted at least 12 games last season. One member of that rotation is the 2008 American League Cy Young candidate, Roy Halladay. He posted a 20-11 record in 2008 with 206 strikeouts. It is actually a good thing when you have one of your returning starters being one of the best pitchers in the American League. The other returning starter is young Jesse Litsch, who went 13-9 with a high 3.58 ERA in his rookie season. In 2008, Litsch began throwing a four-seam fastball that lead to some of his late season success on the mound. After these two, the rotation might be a bit muddy until the middle of the Spring Training games.
The team had a bevy of good pitchers come up in 2008 who showed the talent and ability to get the job done at the major league level. David Purcey came up on July 23rd and made 12 starts for the team. He is suspected that Purcey might battle for the number 3 slot in the rotation this season. With starting pitcher Shawn Marcum out for the season with Tommy John’s surgery on his elbow. Dustin McGowan, who is also sidelined for the Jays was originally not expected to be back from his right shoulder surgery until at least May. But recent developments might even push that date back a month or two.
The rest of the rotation might be a bit of a piece-by-piece audition under fire for a few of the Toronto Triple-A candidates. A lot of that pressure will be pushed onto Craig Jannsen’s shoulder to come back from his shoulder injury in 2008 and pitch effectively for the Jays. With Jannsen hopefully manning the 4th slot in the rotation, the last piece might come from a group of four candidates. the first three have limited experience at the major league level, but Scott Richmond ( 1-3 ) and former Oriole Brian Burres ( 7-10 ) seem to have the early lead in taking the fifth spot. There is another candidate that just might work out for the Blue Jays and provide not only some veteran experience, but some much needed pitching skill in minor league signee Matt Clements.
It is not known yet what state Clements skills will be, but the team brought him in on a minor league contract, so the cost would be minimal to see if the ex-starter still has some gas in his tank. Clements has said that his velocity is up to about 89, which is where it was before his torn labrum took him out of the Red Sox rotation in 2006. The main question with Clements is if his mechanics have been sorted out and if he can be counted on for the entire season for the Jays. Another option available to the Jays might be in their off season signing of former Detroit leftie Mike Maroth. He also might be an interesting person to keep an eye on since he currently has a left knee situation, but has told the team he would like to try and pitch through it until the team can at least get McGowan back in the rotation. Maroth is two year removed from the major leagues, and is considered a long shot to make the team’s rotation.
One area that will not be a huge worry for the Jays in 2009 will be their Bullpen. Even with the recent news that reliever Scott Downs might be down after suffering a ‘twinge” the other day while throwing. Downs has previously had a Tommy John’s surgery and the team is taking precautions to rule out another injury to that region of his elbow. But on the good news side of the street is the re-emergence of closer B J Ryan, who is ready for the season. The Jay are hoping for a repeat of the 2006 edition of Ryan this year, but they will keep a close eye on him after some spotty control issues in late 2008. The Blue Jays also secured some pieces of the relief pie earlier in the year with the signings of Brian Tallett, Jason Frasor and Brandon League.
All three members will again be counted on to provide middle inning support for the team until they can give the ball to Ryan again in the 9th inning. Tallet went 51 appearances and struck out 47 last year. He held right handed batters to a .227 average last year. Tallet has seemed to found his niche with the Jays as a middle reliever. Jason Frasor is another one of the Jay relievers who seems to have found a way to confuse right handers at the plate. They hit only .174 against him in 49 appearances in 2008. Frasor has been known to throw a 12-6 slider at around 80-86 mph. the pitch is very deceptive and has given him a great weapon on the mound.
League is the fire baller of the bunch, which is added by his low angle delivery and can throw to 100 mph with movement on the bal
l. League made only 31 appearances in 2008, but he struck out 23 in 33 innings of work. The last member of the Bullpen might be Jeremy Accardo. It was Accrado who stepped in most nights in the closer role for the Jays while Ryan was rehabbing his injury. Accardo went 4-6 in save opportunities in 2008, and will move back into the set-up man role for the team in 2009.
The Blue Jay infield is a bit of an enigma. Lyle Overbay is a solid first baseman and can be dangerous at the plate. But his lack of power might have been the reason for the Jays to sign former Oriole Kevin Millar to a minor league contract. Millar will probably be on the Jays Opening Day roster because of his right handed power and ability to play multiple positions on the field. His clubhouse demeanor might also be a welcome addition to the Jays team because he is known for his low key positive attitude and enthusiasm for the game.
The Jays do have some power on the other corner of the infield in the form of third baseman Scott Rolen. He is not the bold power hitter he was years ago, but he is a solid defensive corner man who hit .262 and 11 homers for the team in 2008. At second base, the team is hoping that Aaron Hill can overcome that scary collision in 2008 to regain his confidence and position. the Jays need a fresh and restored Hill, who only played 55 games for the team before he suffered a concussion in a routine play in Oakland in which former Jays shortstop David Eckstein accidently slammed his elbow into the side of Hill’s head. The injury that day took him out of the lineup for the rest of the year.
Hill is proclaiming he is ready for the year, and with shortstop Marco Scutaro will be a part of one of the better double play combination in the American League. Scutaro is a contact hitter who has little bouts of power and hit .267, with 60 RBI’s in 2008. He is a decent run provider, and has good speed on the base paths. The infield of the Toronto Blue Jays were their weak spot in 2008. Not in the defensive department, but at the plate. The infield doesn’t have the power they have had in recent years, and that might also be a cause for concern early in 2009. But the Jays do have experience behind the plate. After letting go of long time catcher Gregg Zaun in the off season, the job now falls to Rod Barajas. Again we have a guy who hit only .249 last season, with 11 homers and 49 RBI’s.
The outfield of the Toronto team is considered by many to be the weakest outfield in the American League. This is not based on talent or ability, but on their collective batting averages and power numbers in 2008.. Starting out in center field will be Vernon Wells, who by his own admission struggled in 2008 and did not post the type of numbers he expected out of himself. But Wells did manage to hit .300 with 20 homers and 78 RBI’s. Recently Wells suffered a hamstring injury during a Spring Training workout, but the injury might keep him out of the lineup for the first month in 2009. If you might remember, Well suffered a Grade 2 strain on his left hamstring against the Orioles on July 9, 2008. The injury might actually be some of the scar tissue tearing from the last injury, which he recently suffered on the same leg. Wells is hoping that the injury will heal fast so he can make up for the number he posted during the 2008 season.
In left field, the Jay will send out a platoon of Adam Lind and Travis Snider. Both might get a chance to swap positions during the season, with one of the two probably manning the Designated hitter spot for the Jays during the year. Lind posted a .282 average with 40 RBI’s last season Snider, who batted .301 in his 14 games in 2008 should provide some insurance and some more power numbers for the 2009 edition of the Blue Jays outfield. But the gem of the outfield has to be right fielder Alex Rios. He only hit .291 with 15 homers and 79 RBI’s, but his power number have gotten steadily better in the last few years, and his strong arm keeps runners at bay on the base paths.
The overall outlook for the Toronto Blue Jays might not be great if you notice that not one returning starter hit 20 home runs, and their leading RBI guy ( Rios) had only 79 for the year. This might be the year that a few of the Jays players come out and prove their worth to their club and Jays Manager Cito Gaston. The team will depend on young players and starters to try and go beyond their current potentials to have banner years for the team. With their rotation in a state of flux, the main thing might be to get some long inning starts out of their young staff and then put it in the hands of the Bullpen to secure the games for the Jays.
I think we might have to forecast a long summer for the Toronto team. If their hitting and their pitching picks up, they could go above the 75 win plateau. that might be a backslide from the 86 wins in 2008, but with a rotation with so many questions at this time. I do not see them making a threat like they did in 2008 for third place, and maybe not even fourth place in the division. Also not out of the question might be the trading of Halladay sometime late in the summer to another team. I hope this does not happen and they begin to dismantle this team piece by piece. Toronto has a great bunch of players who will sweat and bleed for their manager this season. I am not sure it will be enough to post over 75 wins, but you can bet they will do everything in their power to secure a winning season.
Here we go again. Another year and another set of reviews and expectations for the American League East division foes. I have decided to write a small review myself on each of the division foes, with the Tampa Bay Rays being critiqued last. This series will not be the way I feel the division will pan out, or even portray any judgments by me as to the order of the teams at the end of the season. This blog will be my opinion, and the reviews will be based as I see the division with no interaction from the talking heads of ESPN or any other news organization.
It is for that reasoning that the American League East will be extremely entertaining in 2009. The possibility of the Orioles makes this division more exciting. And that is what I see happening in 2009. This squad might not have the solid cores of the projected top 3, but they have the talent ,and the relief pitching to steal wins here and there and jumble up the standing before it is all over in September.
But the Orioles did not falter in the off season, they made sure that two of their cornerstones know they have futures in the Oriole Orange. Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis know they are wanted in Charm City. And that motivation and confidence can do wonders in 2009. Bringing in the lunch pail workers like Ty Wiggington and Ryan Freel will bring back some of that dust and dirty on their uniforms they have been lacking the last few years. Grit and guts can win games for you in a competitive setting. This might have the look of a rebuilding team, but are currently more in the mold of the 2007 Rays, when the talent was beginning to play at the major league level.
I think they are just restructuring this team around some solid core ballplayers with an eye on some covert destruction during the season on their foes. This team is being fashioned to be one that might just sneak up on you and put 5 runs on the board fast, then try and hold that lead for the victory. Do I think that they will avoid their 12th straight losing season this year? Maybe not, but they will also be closer to th2 .500 mark than for the last few seasons. The Orioles will be counting on Jeremy Guthrie at the front of their rotation, then it tails off a bit with mystery. To say that this team was not open to change in the off season would be a joke.
The only member of the rotation basically guaranteed a job for 2009 was Guthrie, who was 10-12 last season. Koji Uehara came over from Japan as the first Japanese player signed by the Orioles, and he should make the Orioles Opening Day roster. Uehara is an 8-time Japanese All-Star, but how much does he still have in the tank will be the question early on in the year. More importantly, can be adjust to the American style fast and be a productive member of the rotation. Several Japanese pitchers have come over to the United States and not adjusted well to the pace and style of the game.
On of the key questions this Spring might be the off season trade of pitcher Garrett Olson to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for leftie Rich Hill. It might end up being the one move made in the off season that could make or break the team in the middle of the rotation. Hill doesn’t come here with established positive numbers in the majors, but the potential of this young pitcher has pure upside to it right now for the Orioles. The team also signed tall leftie journeyman Mark Hendrickson as basically a swing man. He could post up in any of the four other open rotation spots and eat up innings for the team. Radhames Liz had a interesting first season in the majors and is going to get a shot at the rotation, and former closer, Danys Baez has been vocal about taking a shot at going back to the rotation this year. Baez might be the biggest question mark right now because of his large contract and he will be pitching for the first time in 2 years after Tommy John’s surgery.
The Oriole Bullpen is not weak, but they will not have the dominating relievers Chad Bradford and Lance Cormier who were with the team during their 2008 surge to the top of the division. This brings out the fact that the Bullpen needs to be tweaked in 2009. The arms are still there that finished 2008, but Brian Burres is expected to see more time at long relief, and closer George Sherrill might have a bigger upside in the Bullpen this season. Since coming over from Seattle, Sherrill has been an effective stopgap for the Orioles and can be just as productive, if not more in 2009. His 2008 All-Star appearance late in the game shows that pressure and great hitters do not phase him at all.
But the Orioles will also have reliever Chris Ray back in 2009 after Tommy John’s surgery. His fastball and command will be welcomed back with open arms. This give Sherrill a great set-up man in the 8th inning and should solidify the Bullpen a bit in the season. But the trio of Jim Johnson, Jamie Walker and Dennis Sarfate will have to improve during the year to give the Orioles a steady Bullpen. All three are at that crossroads where if the team is to be successful, they will shoulder a lot of that responsibility in the late innings.
The Orioles infield will be dominated by All-Star Brian Roberts, but some additions might make the usually porous Orioles middle defense more of a roadblock in 2009. Cesar Izturis, comes to the team as a free agent and will be manning the shortstop hole for the next two years for the Orioles. This tandem have both been to the All-Star game, and might give the team a better up-the-middle defense than they have seen in quite a while. A good bit of work might be needed on timing during the spring, but both men should prove to bring more double play opportunities and advantages to the Orioles. Roberts will be the man with the power in this duo, but Izturis is not an easy out and is very skillful on the base paths. Roberts set an AL record last season by hitting 51 doubles as a switch hitter.
On the corners the Orioles will be manned by veterans Melvin Mora and Aubrey Huff. Over at third, Mora began a monster second half after getting a cortisone shot for his aching right shoulder. With the time off this off season to heal, he should come into camp ready to throw and man the hot corner. Huff is coming off both his first Silver Slugger award, and the Edgar Martinez award as the best D H in the game last year. Huff might be counted on for even more production in 2009. His move from D H is first base will not be an easy one for him, but has played the position before this season. His defense is not stellar at first, but it is better than his reputation. His work ethic in the spring will set the tone for what should be expected out of him at first in 2009.
Behind the plate seems to be basically a position where the starter on Opening Day might not be there for long. Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller have been brought in to battle for the top spot until uber-prospect Matt Wieters makes his move to the majors. It has been suggested that Wieters will start out in Triple-A, but should be in the lineup during the summer. Both Zaun and Moeller have signed minor league deals, but both might survive waivers if sent down and should be a valuable insurance policy for the Orioles if something should happen to Wieters. Both catchers have average skills with the bat, but they both call great games behind the plate, which should help bring out early season confidence to the pitching staff.
In the outfield, the Orioles will return one of the top throwers in the majors in right field. Nick Markakis gunned down 17 runners in 2008, top the majors in outfield assists. He also proved he could dominate with his bat as he set personal bests in 6 offensive categories last year. His power stroke got better as the year went on last year, and should develop more in 2009. He will be a fixture in the Orioles outfield for a long time. Another guy who might have cemented himself into center field is Adam Jones. He was acquired in 2008 in the Erik Bedard trade with the Seattle Mariners. And except for some time off with an injury, proved to be a major upgrade in center.
Jones is one of those guys who has great 5-tool potential, and is got a lot better last season. 2008 was the first season that Jones got more than 100 major league at bats, and he rewarded the Orioles with being a constant base stealing threat and produced a .270 average. His speed and positioning make him one of the young guns to watch in 2009. With another year under his belt at the major league level, Jones should push towards the top pf his game to maybe become one of the best center fielders in the next few seasons. In left, the Orioles will call on Luke Scott, who they got from Houston in the Miguel Tejada trade. Scott had mixed reviews in 2008, but his bat will not be a concern for the team. His 23 homers last season shows he has the power, and with extra reps in left, he will become a more fluid fielder.
The bench players on the Orioles will be an huge upgrade in 2009. Wiggington might see most of his at bats at D H , but he can also be used on the corner position, and almost anywhere else on the field. When he was with Tampa Bay, he was the team’s third catching option in case of an emergency. Versatility and a solid bat with a good rate of contact will get Wiggington a lot of playing time this year. Ryan Freel is one of those guys that seems modeled after former Mets/Phillies dirt devil Lenny Dystra. He is always going at full speed and plays the game at a high rate of speed. He is also a great addition because of his ability to play almost anywhere on the field. Freel can play all the outfield positions, and also in the infield at three positions. Rounding out the bench should be Lou Montanez, Donnie Murphy and Oscar Salazar. All three are capable of great things in 2009 with another year under their belts. Salazar made a great impression in this years Winter Leagues and should see more playing time this season.
So there you have the basic breakdown of the Baltimore Orioles. This team has the potential to beat anyone on a given day. The biggest key to their 2009 success will be the adoption of the Orioles game plan by their pitching staff. The team signed two experienced catchers to work with the staff before prospect Matt Wieters makes his way behind the plate for the Orioles. This transition should go smooth for them, with either catcher being a great back-up and mentor to Wieters. With only one position sewn up before Spring Training, it will be interesting how the team’s rotation comes together before the beginning of the season.
On the field the Orioles again have the potential to maybe rise to the occasion again in 2009 and put some fear in the top tier of the division. But I do not feel they have the horses yet to stay up there for the entire year. There are prospects in the system who are only a few steps away who might help make that move possible beyond 2009. But as I have learned in 2008, it sometimes is more about the chemistry and the attitude of the team than their obvious strong spots. The Orioles will have a long road ahead of them, but the 2009 season might not garner the success they envisioned during the first days of Spring Training.
But the potential is there for a great season. The only real question is to see how high they will rise to the occasion and become a force, or just a spoiler in 2009. I do not see them contending this year, but they will get their licks in against their division foes and make it more difficult for anyone to dominate in 2009. The end result will be the focus and the dominance of the Orioles starting pitching. If the starters can go long into the games and keep the lead or even post this team to within 1 run, it might be an interesting summer in The Ballpark at Camden Yards.
Photo credits for today’s blog: www.Baltimoresun.com ( Doug Kapustin), JLeggett( 2 ) and Philromans@ Flickr.com.
Every Spring rosters usually take a hit and people either go their seperate ways, or are traded, or sometimes they just seem to fade into the background for awhile. With the Rays securing the American League Championship in 2008, you would think that roster change might come at a minimum to keep the same players who got the team to the World Series. But as I scan the roster coming into Spring Training, I notice that a few of the big names that showed a vetran persence on the team are gone.
For better or worse, these players either decided to take their gloves and play elsewhere, or the Tampa Bay Rays decided they did not need these players anymore and let them go play in someone else’s sand box. Some of the players seemed to be on the Rays radar late into this year’s off season, but for one reason or another, they needed up with other teams this spring. Out of the 30 players who were present with me the day we took the 2008 Team Photo in May, only 19 are still on the team’s roster.
That means that almost 40 percent of the roster that sweated blood and churned towards the World Series are currently playing somewhere else in 2009. Is this a usual turnover for a Championship team? Or is this just a sign of the way that baseball will be from now on? Is it worth our times to even try and get to know these guys if they are simply “rentals” that the teams can flush out of their system at will, without regard to their fan base value to the franchise.
I understand the trading of starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to the Detroit Tigers. The Rays had taken the rightie as far as they could without maybe costing another player a shot at the big leagues. Jackson has gotten better every year since he was converted to a pitcher, and I think on the verge of turning the corner and becoming a valuable piece of the Rays rotation. But he did not have any minor league options left, and was also blocking the way for pitchers such as Wade Davis, Mitch Talbot and David Price from coming up and also proving their worth to the Rays.
The Rays got a great player in exchange for Jackson in young outfielder Matt Joyce. The kid saw his first real action in the majors last year, and also put on a nice show against the Rays at home as a possible interview for the futre right fielder job with the team. It was a positive trade made because of need and provided a chance for both players to make a roster and stick somewhere for a long time.
But then you have players like Gary Glover, Al Reyes and Scott Dohmann who started the year out on the Rays roster and finally worked their ways out of Tamp Bay by not being effective as relief pitchers. All three had the goods in 2007, but in 2008 the expectations and the results did not mesh well and they had to be jettisoned out of the organization because it was time to expect more from our pitching staff. When they left, players like Chad Bradford came in and were effective, which made their removal from the roster more in tune with building a better relieving corp.
Building by subtraction has been a major way that the Rays have improved over the past few seasons. But some of those changes did come at a cost, maybe in fan support, or even in eating a salary of a player to be able to go uot and get a veteran to provide increased productivity for the squad. Cliff Floyd came in to Tampa Bay wanting to be both a positive role model for players like B J Upton and Carl Crawford. He wanted his persona to rise above the clubhouse and lead by example, and to be able to promote the team concept Rays Manager Joe Maddon needed to the young troops.
He was a great part of the resurgence of the team after the All-Star break. The team had been stuck in the muck of a 7-game losing streak at the break, and Floyd decided to push his brand of enthusiasm and confidence on the young team, and they responded perfectly. Floyds option was not picked up by the Rays at the end of 2008, and he took his bat and went on to sign with the San Diego Padres for this year. But he was not the only Rays trying to preach to the young team. Fan Favorites Jonny Gomes and Rocco Baldelli also found themselves on the outside after doing everything in their powers to show their desires to be with this team. But both players had negatives that ultimately cost them their shots with the team.
Gomes, who had been a bigger than life character on the Rays bench now for a few seasons did not produce at the plate in the beginning of the year and was primarily a bench player in 2008. His productivity got so bad that the team sent him to the minors to get his confidence back, but Gomes came back and was not as effective as the team needed him to be in 2008. By the end of the year, he was reduced to being basically a dugout energetic cheerleader. Gomes did not like the role totally, but he did put everything he had to keep the bench alive and try and be a plus to the team. Gomes is gone onto the National League where he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds, who really need a big bat in their outfield this season. Gomes might again get a chance to pop a few out of the ball park, but it will have to now be in a uniform of red and white, not the Rays blue.
Rocco Baldelli has fought his illness for almost the entire season when in Seattle he was brought back off the disabled list by the team and he responded superbly down the stretch for the Rays. Being used primarily as a occasional right fielder and Designated Hitter, Baldelli again found his stroke and made a mark with the team. But his big option numbers for 2009 might have doomed him since the team did not want to carry such a large contract for a part-time player. Later in the off season, it was discovered that Baldelli’s initial diagnosis might have been wrong, and new medication was prescribed, but he was already out of the Rays fold and was securing a future with his childhood dream team.
As a kid, Baldelli dreamed of playing in Fenway Park as a member of the Boston Red Sox. Baldelli initially signed as a fourth outfielder for the team, but with J D Drew having back spasms so early in the spring, it might be the shot he needs to again man a position every day for awhile. Some of the off season subtractions by the Rays were expected, and some might have been a surprise to some people. When Trever Miller s
aved the game against the Minnesota Twins in late September to secure the Rays first postseason berth, you would think the leftie would be here until he ended his career.
But Miller was the first ex-Rays to find employment signing early in the off season with the St. Louis Cardinals for two years. Miller had come back to the Rays after stints in Atlanta and Houston and was happy to be back in the bay area where he has an off season home. But Miller saw a change in the philosophy of the Rays reliever corps during the season ans knew that his time back here with the team was about to be over. Youth was destined to be the future of the Rays Bullpen, but Miller was not in those plans. But some players that were missing when the Rays took the field for the first time in Port Charlotte, Florida did seem to be forgotten by the Rays for what they did in 2008.
Eric Hinske had played on the Boston Red Sox team in 2007 and was looking again for a chance to be a part of a winner with the young Rays. He knew the squad had all the making of a champion, but might be a year away when he signed in 2008. Hinske came at a reduced salary that was attractive to the Rays and he responded to put up some great numbers for the team and might have been expecting the Rays to come to him early in the off season for another year or two with the team. the team did not come hunting for him and Hinske also packed his bats and went over to the National League finally signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the 2009 season.
Everyone of these players had a part in the success of the Rays in 2008. Some might have fallen on dark times by losing their mechanics or even maybe dipping their confidence in themselves and their pitching beyond empty. But the 2008 roster has to be proud of what they accomplished. They were a part of the first winning team in franchise history. They were members of a team that is considered one of the best “worst to first” teams in Major League Baseball history.
Even if they pitched, hit, or even stole bases for the Rays, each of these players now gone from the Rays roster provided key ingredients in their 2008 success. When a team make such roster moves it is considered for the future or to be competitive now. The Rays have reached that mountain top, the story now is to see if the stumble or fall, or rise even higher into the blue Florida sky. With either pathway, the Rays will have these players to thank for their efforts and sweat in 2008. How often is it that the past is swept away fast and the future pasted up there for all to see instantly.
I do not know about you, but I am just sitting here watching the guys toss the ball in the new stadium wondering what extent the addition and subtraction of this roster from May 2008 will have on this 2009 squad. Hopefully some new blood will rise from the minors and take the reins this year. But you never know, maybe an old dog still has a few tricks up his pitching arm and will again prove to be one of the best in the land at the end of the game. Only a few more days and we will find out first hand as the game begin for real again.
Photo credits for today’s blog are Associated Press Photo Corps and RRCollections.
Everyone in America knew that this blog was coming. Everyone who follows my blog and baseball on MLBlogs knows that my team is itching to defend their American League Pennant. We know that 2009 will be the year where the Tampa Bay Rays will be between the crosshairs with everyone gunning to put us out of our misery every night. And you want to know something, that is fine with me. I am that kind of guy. Bring it on, I think this team reloaded pretty good in the off season. We did not spend almost a half a billion dollars, but with millions we did invest in players went to needs, and that is the name of the game.
Most pre-season blogs and predictions have this as a two-team race in 2009. That is fine, they thought the same in 2008, and did not even acknowledge the Rays were a good team until almost the end of August. Everyone spent millions of words and letters chatting on the fall of the team. That the team was propped up by other teams getting caught off guard and the Rays just manipulated the system. Really? manipulated a system where New York and Boston were destined to win it all, but one sat at home in October for the first time in many years.
Can you really think that I was going to post a blog putting a Boston or new york team up in front of us even before the first game? Seriously people, I am not saying we are winning 162 games, or maybe not even 100, but I do think this team is for real and the race will be close until the last breathe of summer. And why do I think that with the multitudes of Yankees fans breathing down my neck chatting about their outstanding pitching. Well, Yankees fans, pitching only gets you so far, and do you really think that entire top5 will be on the mound the entire year? Seriously here, I can see C C Sabathia dominating the A L East, But A J Burnett might get his 15 wins, or he might be sitting in the dugout after a weird injury.
You guys have not even thought about if Joba Chamberlain is going to be 100 percent effective in the rotation. Once you begin playing with a guy running him in and out of a rotation, you can do more damage than good to the poor guy. If you have a solid 5 without him, let him stay as a set-up guy. Who is it going to hurt Mariano Rivera? I am not going to throw any predictions out this year at all in the A L East war, but I will throw out a few challenges to teams. The first challenge is to the Yankees pitching staff. Since you have already been deemed the pitching staff of the century by experts, will it be a downfall if the staff doesn’t get 100 wins?
With that in mind, has the Yankee’s new stars sent flowers to A Rod yet thanking him for taking all of the Spring Training pressure off them so they can pitch like normal guys while the media froths over A Rod. Can you seriously think that the cousin/bad trainer/steroid situation will end in April? It will be a wild time in the Trop and other cities in 2009 as the fans show either their support or voice some loud chants about this entire situation. Want to make a bet on what is said?
Also, people have dominated the off season with Yankee talk about the pitching upgrades. Did they do anything beside secure a good first baseman this past off season. Where is the offensive dynamo beside Mark Teixeria? Did the Yankees upgrade by getting Nick Swisher, or just plug in someone for a year in right field until something better comes along. And will Jose Posada come back as a stronger Yankee hitter, or be seeing more time at D H. Question are everywhere about the Yankees, but then again, even when they had a Championship team people had questions about weak spots.
Besides on the mound, is this really a strong Yankee team? They had better hope so, or the crowd will be on them soon. The A L East will get a fast idea on if the aggressive will dominate early in the season. The entire month of April will be spent mostly in divisional battles. This is where Boston took that early lead in 2008 before the Rays rose up and past them. So again in 2009, will the pattern remain the same, or will another team push towards the top and stay there.
Boston also did not weaken itself in the off season. They added Brad Penny and John Smoltz to their pitching staffs, with Smoltz maybe providing a cushion in the second half of the season. This staff is the best in the A L East on paper. They have the experience and the stamina to out pace most teams in the division. But there are questions on their staff. They bulked up on set-up and relievers in the off season, but did the rotation really get that much better. I mean is Tim Wakefield still your best number 5 pitcher? Or will someone else step up and take that spot from him and make a decision even tougher about the Bullpen members.
I see the Boston pitching as another area where 2009 could make or break them early. Josh Beckett is a great pitcher, but until he get a few starts in we might not know if that lingering injury in 2008 is gone or might pop back up and take him down in 2009. Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka are just going to come out ans reload after a great 2008. The 2 and 3 spot in this rotation might be the best Boston has seen in a long, long time. But let’s take a short look at the Bullpen. They have upgraded themselves, but with mostly National League pitchers. People forget that the National League is known for finesse and off speed pitches, while the American League is a power pitchers paradise.
But bright spot in Boston with no signs of disaster yet is their returning offense. The only blimp on the radar might be David Ortiz. Will the big guy be able to respond and get back into his former form and boost the offense in 2009? He is my biggest question mark on the entire Boston roster. Will we see the dominating Ortiz, or a shadow of himself like after his wrist began to hurt in 2008. You know that Boston wanted to upgrade somehow in that area, but with his contract it might have been bad at this moment. But can you see changes if he gets into a rut and stumbles out of the gate? Will the team make that change and maybe upset the stadium masses, or will any injury make that decision for them?
Can the upgrades in the Boston relief corps be enough to keep them in the game, or will the A L bat them around for a bit until they settle in and pitch effectively. Questions ,questions. I am not trying to incite a riot online with these question marks. I am only trying to show that the A L
East will be a war that will have to be fought nightly this year. I really do not see Toronto or even Baltimore laying down at all this year. The Rays resurgence has shown small market clubs that anything is possible. One of these two bottom dwellers from the past two years might even rise up and bite one of the top three more than once in 2009.
It is not impossible for the eventual A L East division winner to have a .500 record against their division rivals. I think it is a bit out of this world to think that, but it is possible. No one picked the Rays to even get into the playoffs, much less make it to the World Series. Boston and New York will not lay down for anyone in 2009. This division will be a sign that money and talent can battle each other and the best team will win no matter what the payroll. The Rays payroll might be upwards of $ 60 million plus in 2009, but that is pale in comparison to the millions dealt out just for pitching help by both divisional rivals.
So will the money win out in 2009, or will the confident and determined show up again on top? We have a few days until we again get it started and go to the plate for real. I have a feeling this spring will also be highly charged as all three teams want to prove some thing even before the season to their rivals. This might be one of the best Spring Trainings to watch in Florida for a long time. All three will be gunning to win, and wanting to put pressure on the others to either step up or shut up before even April. Now the real question might be, Is you team going to be talking or walking come October 1st?
Photo credits for today’s blog: Associated Press Photo Corps, ESPN.com, RRCollections.