So here we are on the day of the 2009 MLB Draft, and the Tampa Bay Rays for only the third time in their history are picking in the lower levels of the draft board today. People forget that this is not the first time the Rays have actually picked near the bottom of the First Round of the Draft. Sure we have had our share of non-winning seasons, but prior to our first professional game in Tropicana Field as the Rays, we had a few lower level (pick 29-32) draft picks.
The Rays did have some lower picks prior to our first ever game against the Detroit Tigers on March 31, 1998. How many people remember that we picked 29th in 1996 when the Rays selected their first amateur player in the draft, outfielder Paul Wilder. The Rays actually did get a bit snake bitten in that years draft. Marc Topkins of the St. Petersburg Times wrote about Wilder in 2005, “Wilder was a big man who was supposed to be capable of doing big things. But the attention that came with being the Rays first first-round pick in 1996 far exceeded the production. Wilder couldn’t stay healthy, never made it out of Class A and was released in 2002.”
Be he was not the latest pick the Rays ever had in the Amateur Draft. That honor will go to former Alabama native pitcher Jason Standridge who was selected with the 31st pick in 1997. Unlike Wilder, Standridge did make it to the major leagues with the Rays and made his major league debut on July 29, 2001 when Standridge came on in relief for 1/3rd of an inning during a 2-0 loss to the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. He did end up pitching in 21 games for the Rays before leaving the team In 2009, Standridge was assigned to the Florida Marlins minor league camp on March 19th, but is not currently on the roster of their Triple-A affiliate, the New Orleans Zephrs.
But the late First Rounds selections that the Rays have gained from trades with other teams actually worked out great for the Rays. Russ Johnson, who the Rays obtained in a trade with Houston was the 30th pick of the 1994 draft. Johnson ended up a valuable utility player for the Rays, basically a clone of Ben Zobrist from 2000-2002 for the team. Johnson last played in 2007 for the New York Yankees for 22 games.
Pitcher Nick Bierbrodt, who was acquired by the Rays from the Arizona Diamondbacks was the 30th selection of the 1996 draft. He ended up pitching for the Rays at the major league level only in 2001. Most people who follow the Rays know that he started to have some control problems and he was sent down to the Class-A Charleston Riverdogs for some mechanical work. While down with the Riverdogs, Bierbrodt and some friends went to a local drive-in for some late night food and he was shot in the chest and right arm by a man on a bicycle in the drive-through line. He did rehabilitate from the injuries suffered in the encounter, and last pitched for the Texas Rangers in 2004.
And the last traded player in the later part of the first round to play for the Rays is current reliever J P Howell, who was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 2004 draft. Howell has developed from a leftie starter to one of the most proficient members of the Rays Bullpen in 2008, and is continuing that tradition in 2009. He currently is the youngest member of the Rays Bullpen and 14 of his last 16 outing have been scoreless. He is currently riding a streak of 12 straight appearances with a strikeout in 2009. And his 2.17 ERA is second only to Lance Cormier on the Rays Bullpen staff.
But picking that low in the first round of the player’s draft can have its advantages. Some teams might be scared away from certain agents representing clients, and some players might be leaning towards maybe attending college for a few seasons before finally deciding to play professionally in the major leagues. For that reason, sometimes the lower section of the First Round can bring about bargains and also can make some of the better athletes fall towards the Rays pick at 30th today.
Some of the players that are being picked by the Rays in mock drafts vary, but the team has said it is going to focus on either a catcher, or the best athlete available at the pick. So the team will be able to do a lot of checking and double checking before they make their section about two hours after the draft starts in Secaucus, New Jersey today. After their pick at 30th, the Rays have to wait until the 78th pick of the draft to again select a player unless a trade can be worked out during the draft. Rays Scouting Director RJ Harrison has a bevy of 16 possible names that might fall into the Rays lap at the 30th pick.
“We have a pretty good target group,” he said to the St. Petersburg Times. “You hope like heck (the other teams) leave us a couple of the names toward the top of our list.” Baseball America most recently projected them to take Bonita (Calif.) High shortstop Jiovanni Mier. Catchers Tommy Joseph (Horizon, Ariz., High) and Tony Sanchez (Boston College) and Midway (Texas) outfielder Todd Glaesmann have also been suggested. But several mock drafts conducted online have the Rays looking for other options at this spot. MYMLBDraft.com has the Rays selecting Wil Meyers, a 6’3″ catcher/3B out of Wesleyan Christian Academy with their first pick.
But then you have other sites like MVN.com have the team selecting left-handed pitcher Andrew Oliver out of Oklahoma State University with that first selection. That pick looks more like the site is thinking of the best athlete available for the team at that point in the draft selection process. But then again, the site MLBDraftSite.com has the Rays selecting another player entirely from any of the players listed above. They have the team taking A J Pollack, a Outfielder/2B out of the University of Notre Dame with the first pick. This site also goes so far as to pick the second selection (78th) as Robbie Shields, a shortstop out of Florida Southern College. This pick is a bit unusual as the Rays picked a shortstop, Tim Beckham with the top selection in 2008.
but let’s let one more website make a guess at the possible Rays selection at about 10:15 pm on Tuesday night. ProspectInsider.com might be the closest so far to the Rays wish list as they have the team taking Tommy Joseph out of Horizon Arizona HS with the first pick. This is also one of the players that the Rays have circled in their books that could still be available at their section spot. the spot is purely speculation until maybe five minutes before you select because you can see the type of players who might have slipped a bit because of injury concerns or maybe functionality for the teams above the R
But I am going to try this speculation thing out for the first time in the MLB draft. I actually have three guys who are staying in my brain right now as possibly falling to 30th and right into the Rays laps. The first is Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez who is from South Florida, but his availability will depend on if the Boston Red Sox want to take the local B C catcher, or maybe float down a bit and take someone in another round. But Sanchez has some great comparisons to his catching style that might entice either club. He plays a lot like Kelly Shoppach, who the Red Sox were grooming for years before he got away and is a success with the Cleveland Indians.
But there is another catcher, even if he is a High Schooler who might be wetting the Rays whistle right now. He might not even fall this far, but it might be based on what the Red Sox do with the 28th pick if this catcher is even still on the board when the Rays name is called. California prep catcher Matt Stassi has been labeled as a clone of the rockies current catcher Chris Ianetta. He is a great hitting catcher who has a fluid swing and his demeanor behind the plate is impressive . He would be a great addition to any team that selects him. But I am not sure if he will fit the Rays bill at 30th. I still have questions on his stamina and his ability to control a pitching staff, but those skills can be learned also on the job.
I am going to go out on a limb and agree with the Baseball America pick of Wil Meyers for the Rays at the 30th pick of the First Round. The North Carolina High Schooler might have one of the truest swings in the draft at his current level. But along with his possible catching skills he could also be converted into an outfielder or maybe even a future corner infielder for the Rays. He is a solid runner who has some speed and should be sitting there pretty for the Rays to select him. The one thing that might separate him from the other two catchers is his versatility to maybe adjust to another position based on his speed and ability beyond just behind the plate. Because he is such a great athlete, he might just be the perfect fit for the young aggressive Rays.
The biggest advantage the Rays have this year is the fact they are noting going to have to pay the huge signing bonuses out that they have in the past to their First Rounders. Meyers will still get a good lion’s share of some bonus money, but it will not be like the money given to David Price in 2007, or Beckham in 2008. This should help the Rays financially be able to maybe entice some other great players down in the later rounds of this years draft. This picking of a player who might or might not be there with the 30th pick is like a Las Vegas Roulette table. But I am putting my money on the Carolina Blue and holding my breath that the team selects Wil Meyers tonight.
You have heard all the hype and the high brow accolades being thrown his way recently on countless Fantasy shows. And the country is just getting to know the awesome offensive and defensive abilities of a player Tampa Bay Rays fans have been watching develop since 2006. He might not have seemed to have such ‘ambidextrous” promise when he was traded to the Rays from the Houston Astros on July 12, 2006 along with current Rays Triple-A pitcher Mitch Talbot for Aubrey Huff, but his numbers and playing time has risen just like his persona to an almost cult like status at Tropicana Field.
Such a player might not even be a glint in a manager’s eye come All-Star time.
He was originally brought in to be an insurance policy for Julio Lugo, who was a streaky shortstop for the Rays at that time, and because former First Rounder, B J Upton, who was going to be the Rays heir apparent to the shortstop position was considering other options within the Rays future concept. He ended up garnishing a utility role on the Rays from 2006-2008. But it was after he came back from a broken left thumb sustained in Spring Training in 2008 that Rays Manager Joe Maddon finally sensed he might have found a special athlete and key component to his lineup in the young “Super Utility” player.
A spot on the All-Star team honoring such a player would be akin to the NBA’s “Sixth Man” awards.
Before the 2009 season, Zobrist had always been listed among the infielders on the Rays 40-man roster, but beginning in April 2009, he was listed on the outfield section of the teams 40-man roster for the first time in his career. He had grown into that hybrid role so well he was now going to be roaming any of eight positions in the field for the team, and with his emergence with a bat, Maddon was toiling daily on where to put the budding star.
So, because of his new found glory on the field the Rays were in a pickle about where his new natural position might be for the team. Maddon basically decided to leave him as a hybrid player who will play any position needed, and Zobrist has responded beyond even Maddon’s expectations.
Shouldn’t a valuable member of a team as the 10th man be included on the All-Star ballot no matter what is position?
All he did that last portion of 2008 is give us all a sweet taste of what he would do in 2009. He only went to the plate 198 times in that season, but he posted 50-hits and 12 homer runs. More impressive was the fact he also hit two Grand Slams in that short period to send the switch-hitters stock skyward among utility players. His Slugging Percentage of .505 was remarkable for a player who did not play every day. But what he seemed to lack at that time in offensive number he made up for in defensive skills. He played four different positions for the Rays in 2008, participating in 190 total chances in the field and only committing 7 errors. What is more remarkable is that all 7 errors were at his old position, shortstop. At the other three positions for the Rays, he was flawless in 2008.
Shouldn’t both defense and offensively superior players be included on the All-Star team in a new ballot position?
So as 2009 came around, the Rays and Zobrist were retooling the young player into a hybrid player that could be inserted anywhere in the line-up at anytime to either produce offensively, or be a competent backstop to end defensive laxes late in a game. So far the defensive numbers have been consistent for the budding star as he has posted only two errors in 135 chances this season. That comes out to two in the infield to go along with his two outfield assists so far in 2009. His play in the outfield has been a breath of fresh air to the Rays fans, and his bat has been a godsend to the offense that has struggled at times this season getting key runs in close games.
His offensive numbers have proven he is a needed member of this offense and he is extremely gifted at both sides of the plate. He is currently tied for third on the team with go-ahead or tying runs with Carlos Pena in 2009 with 9 runs. You might not have seen his 2009 numbers on the MLB Leader board this season based on the fact he is still under the numbers of at bats needed to qualify for the big board, but his numbers are consistent with the leaders in a lot of categories in 2009. His current average of .296 might not grab your attention, but he is currently tied for second place with Nick Swisher of the Yankees for home runs by a switch-hitter, and he is not even a starter.
A Hybrid player is among the Big Boys in Hitting, can you say…Impressive!
He is currently tied for third among the big boys in RBI (33 ), just behind the Yankees Mark Teixeira (50) and Indians slugger Victor Martinez (41). He is in a three-way tie with 33 RBI with everyday players Swisher, New York Met Carlos Beltran and Dodger infielder Orlando Hudson. Every player mentioned on this list so far has a good chance to be on the 2009 All-Star roster, but Zobrist.
In his last 5 games he has homered three time, including his new Rays team record fourth Grand Slam of his career. He has joined Swisher as the only player to hit a Grand Slam from each side of the plate in the same season. In his last 24 games he is hitting .338, with 6 homers, 3 triples and 19 walks.
Defensive Gold Gloves never go to Utility players, maybe an All-Star nod?
His .662 Slugging Percentage would lead the would lead the American League and be third in the majors behind Cardinal Albert Pujols and Philly Raul Ibanez but he is 11 plate appearances short of qualifying his OPS of 1.070 would only be bettered by Red Sox Kevin Youkilis in the American League. As a pinch-hitter this season he leads the major leagues in RBI with 9 and is tied with the Phillies Matt Stairs with 3 home runs. To put a final exclamation point on his 2008-2009 season, he has 23 homers in 340 plate appearances or 14.78 At Bats per Home Run, which is an astronomical number.
Shouldn’t the utility player also get an All-Star spot?
So here is my problem fans. As the 2009 All-Star balloting is starting its stretch run we know that a utility player like Zobrist might not have a chance to make the final list. He has played in too many positions to qualify for the ballot in even one spot. For that reason we have a simple problem, MLB needs to make a decision if all his votes will be counted as a whole instead of as his Write-In position.
I know I have made out over 1,700 ballots that put him in the outfield position, but I also know of people who have given him the nod as an infielder. Since he is such a hybrid player, maybe he should have all his votes counted not withstanding what position they come in as on the ballots.
Steve Nesius / AP
This is a huge change of policy for the head honchos at MLB, and might spark a change to maybe add another position to the ballot. I mean why would you not want to reward the 10th man on your roster the way the NBA celebrates its “sixth man” awards. That one guy who can do it all, and doesn’t complain and produces at the plate should be the same honor as another player on the turf.
But so far there is not “grass roots” or even written acknowledgement that a change should occur. I proposing right now that the MLB take into consideration the fact that this 10th man is as vital to the league’s success as the other nine guys on the lineup card. It might be a defensive change, or a change based on the late inning hitting match-ups with pitchers, but this hybrid position is expanding every year. Shouldn’t they also get a change to celebrate at the All-Star break with the rest of the league?
Could we see a change on future All-Star ballots MLB? Just let us know……
I am hoping that Maddon uses Zobrist this year as an example of what that 10th man can do for an All-Star roster. We are playing in the National League park, and a bench player such as the hybrid could be a huge plus for either team’s roster. It might be a gamble right now of “too little, too late,” but I am making the campaign promise that I am going to try and get some sort of result out of this.
Every team has a guy of this caliber who sit on the bench waiting and hoping to change the outcome of a contest. Why not reward that kind of player?
The utility player/hybrid has changed the way we have played baseball. It was usually just a guy on the bench who could hit, but now it has transformed into a player who can take on multiple roles for his team. This position deserves a spot on the All-Star roster. Every team has one. The Red Sox have Jed Lowrie who would fit into this category perfectly with Zobrist. It might be too late for 2009, but with consideration and thought, it could make an appearance in 2010 if we, the fans really want it to be on the ballot.
Sure it will take away an additional spot on the roster right now reserved for a bench player, but why would you sit a usual starter and bring him off the bench when you could have a utility/hybrid player selected by the fans to come off the bench in any situation and be completely comfortable in the spot. Madness I tell you, progress is madness. Now where did I put my straitjacket?
You have to think sometimes that the new item out in the Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen has to be an hourglass. You know that simple time measuring device that is simply turned over the minute you want to restart the clock and readjust time. And with the recent problems in the Rays Bullpen, who do you even attempt to point the blame at when the ERA is bouncing up and down like a EKG chart.
I mean how can the most improved part of the Rays defensive alignment go so north and south in such a short time. To begin with, in April you knew that this was not the same unit that dominated the American League in 2008. You saw that in the type of spring a few of the guys who held it together for the Rays had coming into the season. Grant Balfour, one of the most improved Rays in 2008 went through the spring with an uncharacteristic 5.63 ERA in only 9 appearances.
In a total of only 8 innings he gave up 12 hits and 6 runs , but he did get 9 strikeouts. Can it really be true that in this 2009 season it might be feast or fathom for the Aussie? So far in 2009, he has not always looked like his old self, but he has shown improvements recently before his recent outing again put his name in the whispers of the fans.
On Saturday, Balfour gave up his first homer to a left-hander when Mark Teixeira took him yard during his one inning of work. He also set-up the run scored by Jorge Posada before he left after a pitching change. But then on May 30th, against the Minnesota Twins, Balfour was on fire as he threw 2.2 innings and dominated his 7 hitters he faced in that appearance.
It was the longest he has been on the mound since July 20, 2004 when he faced 3 innings of work against the Detroit Tigers when he was with the Twins. Balfour is also currently tied for 4th in the AL with only 15.4 percent of his inherited runners scoring on him. But is this the same Balfour this season that lead all MLB relievers last season with a 12.65 strikeouts per 9 innings ratio, which also ranked 9th best all-time among AL relievers. I mean last year he struck out 36.6 percent of the batter he faced, and his .143 opponents batting average was the best in the game.
Could a pitcher change that much in such a short period of time? Well, if you have watched the radar gun in the Trop. during his 2009 appearances, this question might be easy to answer. He has consistently been a few clicks below his former self, but was this done as a camouflage for his high and hard fastball by throwing some a bit under his usual blazing speed, or is there something else going on here.
It is understandable that a pitcher, especially a reliever can impose some tricky maneuvers to try and disguise either a flaw in his arsenal, or even try to hide a change in his delivery. Could Balfour be toying with some new angles and pitch placements and just be getting beat right now? Both could be happening, but they are beginning to happen at the wrong time for the Rays and their Bullpen.
Right now as the team is close to the .500 mark and about to reel in a few of the big fish in front of them in the A L East division, they need all hands on deck to eliminate any chance of defeat in the late innings. So far in 2009, the Bullpen has been a bit inconsistent at the wrong times.
And Balfour is not the only culprit that has been manhandled so far in 2009. One of the brightest emerging stars and most surprising pitchers in the Rays Bullpen last season was J P Howell. He was trying to make that difficult transition from being a starting pitcher to a reliever, and in essence fell right into a perfect flow in the transformation.
And his last 7 appearances this season made you think more and more of his 2008 glory. He has gone 7.1 innings with only 2-hits, 2-walks and 12 strikeouts to post a 0.00 ERA. He was beginning to show the same promise in 2009 that he used to dominate and establish himself in 2008. I mean the guy has been a iron man for the Rays this year appearing in 29 game so far this season. Is this number deceiving in that he has pitched great, but been the victim on the mound too much in 2009? Or could it be hiding another fact that his inherited runners are scoring on him.
Howell is also currently second in the AL in strikeouts by a reliever with 36 this season. So why is it that I picked these two guys to chat about if their numbers are so consistent for the Rays. Well, mainly it has seemed in the last two years, as these two guys go, so does the team. So when during Sunday’s game both of them suffered a bit of a one-game meltdown defensively, it brought about a certain element of worry.
Balfour threw only 19 pitches in the game on Sunday, but he also let the Yankees bully him for 2-hits and a walk to basically take the Rays out if the game. I am not going to throw him totally under the bus here, but he did have the steering wheel at the time of the accident. And that sort of pitching brainfart can not happen against a divisional foe who we are chasing to secure another divisional title.
This is the one team you do not want to give scoring chances to in the AL right now. I mean they are only a few runs behind the Rays as a run producing machine right now, and to give them any daylight is almost suicide right now.
Balfour came out to relieve Joe Nelson in the bottom of the eighth inning with a fresh slate, but he allowed 3 out of the 4 hitters to face him get on base. So Howell was brought on to clean up the mess with one out in the inning, and Balfour left Howell with Yankees on every base and a slim 2-run Rays lead. Howell did not make matters any better after he got a 1-1- count on Robinson Cano, he threw three straight balls to walk a run in and give the Yankees a chance by trimming the lead to 1-run.
It was at that moment that someone else actually committed the final blow to the Rays chances by not thinking quickly and clearly to prevent another run. Willy Aybar, who was again at third base as Evan Longoria rested his hamstring took a grounder at third base beyond the bag and sort of hesitated enough to lose the force out at home, and had to throw to first for the sure out in the inning.
It was only the second out, so Teixeira stepped on the plate to tie the game at 3-all. In review, it was shown that Aybar would have gotten Teixeira at home if he elected to go that direction instead of trying to get Posada at first base. He was also too far away from third base to even try and complete a double play to end the inning.
Hideki Matsui then hit another fielder’s choice to second base that got Posada for the second out if the inning, but it also scored Alex Rodriguez with the eventual game-winner. But the damage could have been worse as Howell walked Nick Swisher on 4 straight pitches to again put two men o
n for the Yankees. But he did get Melky Cabrera to strikeout for the last out if the inning and stem the bleeding.
But the damage was already done as the Yankees now had the lead 4-3. Howell threw 15 pitches in his 2/3rds of an inning, with only 6 going for strikes. Some people might say I am nitpicking right now into the recent loss to the Yankees, and I might agree with you. I am trying to find a reason for a loss to a divisional foe that might come back and kick us in the butt in September or October.
You bet your life I am trying to sort out if there is a problem with the match-up system right now that other teams might have finally figured out for the Rays. Matching up hitters to pitchers has been a new fangled invention for only, what 20 years or so and has seemed to work at times, but also blew up in a managers’ face too. Well, this one might have been more of an example of reading the charts more than you were trusting your pitchers.
Some one said to me on Twitter last night, “You go with your hot guys”, and the more I thought of that last night I began to agree with it. Nelson was looking good, and maybe the idea of using Randy Choate instead of Howell last night would have made a bit more sense. Not only because Choate has three saves this season and has only had to face 4 batters to earn them, but he has a bit of familiarity with the Yankees system having pitched here.
I might be important that he spent the first 7 years of his career in pinstripes, and even if some of the hitters were new to him, he did know the hitting styles of some of the Yankee long time guys, which is always a plus. So did the Rays match-up system doom them yesterday? I am not sure if I can give a definitive answer to that because the Balfour appearance might have been the only real question to the loss.
We can pint to Aybar’s mistake, but if Balfour had dominated the Yankee lineup, we would never have gotten to that situation in the game. The Rays have lived and died by Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s match-up system both this season and in 2008. But you have to agree that the system might have been flawed a bit last night in not using your hot reliever Choate or even extending Nelson a few more hitters into the eighth inning.
Of course this is truly speculation that either pitcher could have made a huge difference. But I guess I was in a New York frame of mind today. You know, the Yankee bloggers and newspaper reporters love to dish and bury the team at any moment based on their own observations during a contest. I might be guilty of the same today, but with a twist.
I hate to admit it, but I am seeing a trend in this year’s Bullpen that is going to spell more trouble in 2009. This is not the same unit as 2008 based on Balfour’s 5.68 ERA or Dan Wheeler’s 5.50 ERA. The Rays might be beginning to tread a bit of water right now with their late inning guys, but confidence and stamina will be the key right now.
The team got an unexpected rest during their last series at home, and it might have relaxed the guys a little too much this early in the season. The Rays Bullpen in 2009 has gone a combined 6-7, with 15 saves, but has a modest combined ERA of 3.89 this year over 171 innings. The Rays have surrendered 35 runs in the eighth inning this season, which is a great indicator of bad thing happening on the mound.
Combined with the 28 given up in the ninth inning, the Rays have surrendered 63 runs in only those two frames this year. That is not playoff quality Bullpen effort right now, but there is still ample time to fix the problem. Or maybe to consider just tossing the match-up idea away for a bit and letting your Bullpen gets its legs back under it and thrive again before it is too late……..just a thought.
Steve Nesius / AP
About a week ago I was trying to trade for B J Upton on my MLBlogs Fantasy team on ESPN’s site. I had a rough feeling from what I had heard and seen lately out of his batting appearances he was about to break out of his hitting funk and take some extreme measures to boost his average over .200 for the season. I am not going to mention my trading partner in this transaction, because after he reads this he might know I would have given up almost anyone on my staff not named Crawford to get Upton.
I have known this guy since he came the first time at 17 in a September call-up for the Rays. He has always been honest and forthright with people and the media, and I respect him for that. So when I saw him right after he finished his BP and he said to another hitter on the team he was “seeing beach balls up there”, I had to do anything to get him on my roster. I might have given up one category for good this season in swapping Angels closer Brian Fuentes for him, but I know I have a chance to lead in all 5 offensive categories with his addition to the roster.
As a matter of fact, since his induction into my roster he has been on a tear at the plate. Upton is currently riding a 8-game hitting streak and is hitting even his fly out for power. Let’s take the first pitch he saw on Tuesday night game when he drilled a ball towards the 370 marker in right-centerfield that was caught by David DeJesus a few feet from the wall. For a short period of time now people have seen that he is more relaxed and controlled at the plate, but when he gets on base, he is getting more attention than even in 2008 for the damage he can do at any moment in the game.
That is one of the reason I was glad that Rays Manager Joe Maddon stuck with Upton as his lead-off guy for so long until his bat woke up and he is now inching upward with his average. He can be a classic lead-off guy, but that also is another hard position to learn because sometimes you have to do what you do not want to do at the plate to promote the team concept. Some times I think this was hard for Upton early on since he did moist of his damage from the second spot in the lineup in 2008.
Ask guys like Derek Jeter or Johnny Damon, or maybe new Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, that spot in the lineup not only get more appearances at the plate throughout the year, but is also within the crosshairs nightly for your performance. It might have taken Upton longer to feel “normal” in that part of the lineup because of the extra responsibilities and extreme confidence it takes to succeed in that pressure cooker spot. But people also forget the guy never got a true Spring Training like the rest of the team as he was rehabbing that shoulder of his this spring.
He did not make the Opening Day roster, instead he was stuck in the Tampa Bay area hitting in the Trop and working on getting himself in great shape to start when the team came off their first road trip of the year. Because of this lack of timing and basic game experience that you get in a new position in the spring, he was behind the Rays bell curve early on. But he did not fret or even sulk, but instead went out there every day and took his hacks until it began to all come together for him. Everyone in the Tampa Bay area seemed to have an opinion on the guy when he was struggling. That is right he was struggling, not slumping.
There is a huge difference in those two words. When you slump, you on-field performance also suffers and you seem to just be behind a few steps in the game at all times. But when you are struggling, like Upton was, you still have the ultimate defensive nature and the rest of your game is intact, it is just one facet of your game that is suffering. Son now that we got that out of the way, why was he suffering. Well, a common occurence in shoulder surgery guys is the struggle to “let go” to swing with everything you got because of fear of scar tissue or even re-injuring yourself right away. But with time the confidence and the sense of your body responding correctly with every swing can make those fears ease with time.
So how did I know that I needed to get Upton on my MLBlogs Fantasy team? Well, I guess it is the sense I got chatting with him about things and that smile, even if the tobacco was in the way gave me a sense of urgency to get him on my squad. I might have given up a good player in Fuentes to get him, but I was willing to part with even Jake Peavy or even Ryan Braun for him. Of course the aspect of him playing for my team did factor highly in the motives, but even if I was a fan of another team, his up-side is amazing when he is clicking on all cylinders.
Any team would want him for his base running abilities and his skill in the outfield, but the power that should emerge in his game soon will be the true prize. People have always projected him as a 30 (Homers)-30 ( steals) guy, and he just might begin to fulfill that projection this season. Since his outburst in the post season in 2008, a huge amount of pressure has been thrust on the guy to be the man for the Rays. Maybe now he is ready to take that title on and with Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford transform the 1-4 hitters of the Rays into the 2009 edition of the Rays infamous “Hit Show.”
Maybe for the first time in Rays franchise history we got the “Hit Show” without the fanfare and the huge salaries. Maybe this group of four hitters can transform the record book for not only the Rays, but the American League in 2009. The Rays have scored a total of 312 runs, but the Yankees are closing in on them fast with 300 runs as of today. But in that time, even if he has struggled, Upton has been involved in a total of scoring 34 runs, which is fourth best on the team right now. Upton, even while struggling has been a force for the Rays.
He has a .219 average right now for the Rays, but considering he has been badgered and beaten down by catcalls and media and fan message boards asking for his removal from the top spot, he has performed to the best of his abilities, and now we will see the fruits of his labors again. But while he as struggled at the plate, his walk totals have been consistent and remain a second advantage of his game.
His 28 walks is second on the team behind Pena’s 41 so far in 2009. He is second on the team , and fourth in the Americ
an League in steals with 17 this season. His ability to read pitchers is getting better, but he is still guilty of the occasional base running gaffe due to the Rays aggressive nature on the base paths.
Upton has been caught stealing three times in 2009 to lead the team again. And for most of 2008, he lead the major leagues in caught stealing for most of the season. It is his aggressive nature that also get the wrath of fans, but if he did not test the boundaries and stress the opponents pitching staffs’ Crawford would not get so many juicy fastballs to hit into the outfield. He is a quiet guy who is among the best at what he does, and really doesn’t get the credit for his success at times. He is only hitting .219 this year, but his Slugging Percentage is .325, which shows he is getting wood on the ball almost a third of the time.
So let’s get to what Upton has done lately to end this blog. In yesterday’s game he hit a 8th inning 2-run blast to secure the win for the Rays. Combined with Weds. nights game, it is the first time in 2009 that he has recorded multiple RBI in consecutive games. That is right, in the Rays first 49 game with Upton, he has not recorded back-to-back multiple RBI games.
During his current 8-game hitting streak he has gone 11 for 28, for a .328 average ans has driven his batting average from .189 to .218 in that span. He also went 9 for 20 for a .450 average on the recent homestand. And to put some bright spots on the upcoming four game stand with the Yankees, Upton has hit 8 homers against the New York boys, the most against any team.
But if you want to still think he is not the answer for the Rays at the top of the order, please bear in mind that Crawford doesn’t want it, and Jason Bartlett is thriving in his current spot in the lineup. It is still his to lose, and based on the current level of hitting, base stealing and consistent walk totals, Upton might just get comfortable in that position finally. You have to think that his batting spree actually started during that dismal Cleveland series on May 15th and 16th when he ended a 28-game, 120 at-bat homer drought to begin the season. Considering the power the fans saw in last season’s playoff run, they expected homers left and right to begin the year.
But Upton is again secure in his “Rays skin”. He is more relaxed and hitting the ball with power again for the Rays. And that is bad news for the rest of the league, because when this kid gets hot, even the water cooler turns to steam. So am I upset I would have given up the farm for Upton? No, but I can tell you that with 4 members of the Rays on my Fantasy roster, the leading run producing team in the major leagues is just getting started. And with Upton at the top of that lineup, the sky is the limit this season.
As Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and Rays Manager Joe Maddon sit in the conference room of the third floor of Tropicana Field today for the pre-draft Media lunch, they just seem to stare at the huge clock on the wall as it tick-tocks along. Both are in that room to try and put some future logic into the transactions and roster tweaks to make this team take that next step once they hit the .500 plateau again this season. Decisions must be made, either for the good or bad of the team to be able to contend later this year for their second shot at playoff gold. And each of the decision they will have to make will effect this team in some way.
Neither man wants to make these decisions. It would be so much easier if the rosters could expand to 30 players right now instead September 1st. Staying within that 25-man limit when you have 9 players currently sitting around the training table seeking some sort of medical treatment or advice.. With the influx of these untimely injuries, and some lingering mechanical situations with some of the Rays players’,the season is slowly slipping away from them.
The first problem that might be coming fast on the horizon actually might have fixed itself a bit when both Jeff Niemann and Andy Sonnanstine had great outing this week to take some pressure off the coaching staff and Friedman to make a decision on the two hurlers. Sonnanstine still might be the guy on the bubble, but if he holds to the form he is showing now, the decision might be a closely guarded secret of the third floor. Just like Spring Training in 2009, Niemann is the guy who has pulled ahead of his rival with a dramatic game last night that surely set him up for a long term “tryout”, or at least until the Trade Deadline in August.
Niemann put up a 2-hit complete game shutout up last night against the Kansas City Royals that easily the best pitching performance of his career. He hit the 100 pitch plateau with a swinging strike by the Royals Bill Butler. What is more amazing is the fact that Niemann has now had 1-walk or less in every game since May 18th. A total of 3 walks in 4 games is a great indicator that he might just have found his rhythm with the Rays finally. This is the kind of pitcher the team envisioned in that last week of Spring Training. He might have taken a few games to warm-up, but he is getting hotter and hotter with every start.
Steve Nesius / AP
This might be the worst decision they will have to make in 2009. Both pitchers have to be sweating bullets knowing they have given their all for the Rays this season. But with Rays veteran starter Scott Kazmir maybe only a month away from manning the hill for the Rays, it is more believable that one of these two guys will take the fall when Kazmir is reinstated. For all the heat the Rays took for even sending rookie pitcher David Price down ( I agreed with it) they are now going to face that same volume of voices if they even attempt to pop him back to Durham until September. It is considered a non-issue by most of the people in the blue seats that Price is an extreme up-grade to either of these hurlers right now.
So it might take the clever mind and crafty talents of Friedman to find a good trade partner to take some of the stress off both the duo and the Rays organization by maybe seeing if the San Diego Padres still have a need or want for either of the two come All-Star break time. You have to consider by that juncture in time, the Jake Peavy situation out west might have more clarity, and they also might have a better understanding of what pieces they have in their system that could entice the Rays. I do not know why, but it seems more logical for the pair to be considered by a National League team than anywhere in the American League. So this is going to be high on the agenda of both men here in the near future.
Both pitchers have had their share of pitfalls and triumphs in 2009. But right now you have to give the edge to the Tall Texan based on his past 4 starts and his upside right now for the Rays. It really is a different animal to see the ball coming in from a downward angle of a 6 foot 9 inches pitcher. Sonnanstine did not win the race on height (6′ 3″), but this decision might have more basis on pure pitching performance than heart and want right now.
Right now a few facts are starting to point to Niemann as the guy who might end up having a leg up on the decision making process. So far the Rays won 6 of the last 8 of Niemann’s starts and are 6-4 when he takes the mound. This is the best record of any of the five starters for the Rays right now. Right now, after last nights brilliant performance, Niemann has the most wins on the Rays staff. Over his last four starts he has pitched to a 2.86 ERA. And he has been a bit of a road warrior for the team, starting 7 of his 10 starts on the road and coming back with a 3-1 record with 4.11 road ERA. And to add some offensive support, the team has scored 40 runs in his last 5 starts.
His last start was a bit of a bummer for Niemann as he only got to throw 3 innings in Cleveland before the game went into a rain delay. Even though he took the loss for the start, he did perform great against the hot hitting Indian offense. His only run given up was scored on a groundout by Victor Martinez. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has gotten better with each start, but in the last 5 games he has posted 23 strikeouts, including a career-high 9 in last night’s game. The statistics are showing his confidence and his belief in the Rays way of pitching has shown on the mound. With almost no runner on base last night, Niemann looked in control both from the stretch and the wind-up. He might finally feel comfortable in his Rays skin.
As for his counterpart Sonnanstine, until Tuesday night’s game, Sonny has looked a bit consistent in a bad way on the mound. But like Niemann, Sonnanstine has continued to cut down on his walks in his last outing surrendering none to the Royals. The Rays did go 4-2 in his May starts despite a 7.58 ERA. He has received the largest run support of any starter this season for the Rays. If Sonnanstine had enough innings to qualify, his ERA (7.66) and .340 opponents batting average would be the worst in the majors for a starter. But then again, he has been behind the eight ball a few times for the Rays this season. He was the lucky, or unlucky pitcher on the mound for the line-up fiasco game against the Cleveland Indians at home.
In that contest, he had to bat in the 3-hole after Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist were both inserted into the third base position for the game. Because the Rays fielded Zobrist for the first part of the inning, Longoria was disqualified from the Designated Hitter spot, so the Rays lost that AL advantage for the game. Showing some true grit and conforming perfectly for the situation, Sonnanstine went 1-3 with a RBI-double. According to the Elias Bureau,in that game he became the first Rays pitcher to bat in an AL home game, and the first to bat at Tropicana Field. He also threw 5.2 innings that day to post his third win of the season for the team.
Maddon and Friedman will
confer with Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey closely on both pitchers before maybe coming up with a solid decision on who might have the longest shelf life for the Rays. Considering that Niemann is in his rookie campaign with the Rays, and Sonny has had three years to ply his trade, both recently have made strides to have either of them stay with the team. Both pitchers have also been a huge part of the resurgence in the Rays since their 4 game slide in Cleveland. Niemann was not only defeated by the Indians, but robbed by the elements of putting up better numbers. In that series, Sonnanstine ran against his arch nemesis, Ben Francisco, who is now 8 for 9 lifetime against him with 4 homers in his last 4 at bats against him.
But we are done with Cleveland this season, so Sonnanstine can focus on other matters for the team. But the upcoming decision could also be made easier if a member of the Bullpen goes down, or if Maddon can see him as a long reliever for the team. That position is currently held by Lance Cormier, who has done an awesome job in that role. But the transition from starter to reliever can take some time and the meetings about Sonny might focus on the fact he might have trouble adjusting to a unconventional and limited pitching role.
Steve Nesius / AP
After last night’s game, during the Florida Sports Network post-game interview newly anointed right fielder Matt Joyce acknowledged the fan base in rightfield that was so supportive of him after he hit his second homer in two games. The young right fielder has only been back in the Rays fold since coming back up to start in centerfield for B J Upton during the Sunday afternoon game. He is beginning to get the feeling that the rightfield crowd can make or break a player in Tampa Bay. During the interview he was quick to voice his appreciation for the show of support and loud applause for him so early in his Tampa Bay career.
Joyce is a local guy who dreamed back when he was in Tampa’s Armwood High School of someday patrolling the outfields at Tropicana Field. It is quickly becoming one of those great hometown stories that national and local papers like to use to show the local fan base is alive and well in Tampa Bay. And little by little he will get to know that sometimes this same fan base that is happily clapping cowbells louder and louder for him can be a fickle bunch at times.
From the first game ever for the Rays on March 31, 1998, when current Bench Coach Dave Martinez was the first guy to man the “9″ spot for the Rays, the love-hate relationship with our rightfielders have been a very open subject. In that first contest, Martinez got the first hit by a Rays player in history and the crowd in right field was there to show their support for him loud and clear that night. From the days of Martinez to the fan adulation of another right fielder, Bubba Trammel, the position has had its share of positive and negative men man the spot under the Jumbotron. Martinez has since gone on to become another special piece of the Rays puzzle as he is the second eyes and ears of Rays Manager Joe Maddon, but you know he still has a special place in his heart for that rightfield corner.
Martinez played with Tampa Bay until they traded him to the Chicago Cubs in 2000 for pitcher Mark Guthrie. Most of all, Martinez had played in over 1,799 games as a player and did not get to the post season one time. During his first stint as a coach for the Rays, he got his dream and more in 2008. But it might have been the tough guy Bubba Trammell that so far has been the most revered of Tampa Bays rightfielders.
He was the chosen object of affection of the old 142 Crew, which sat out in Section 142 of the Trop and cheered for him nightly. And he was the kind of guy you wanted to see achieve great things. He was a hustler and a gambler on the field, and carried a big bat into the box with him nightly. Originator of the 142 Crew,Ted Fleming, who now is a member of the local media for The Examiner.com covering the Rays and hosts his own sports radio show on WSRQ-1220 AM in Sarasota, Florida was one of the first to loudly and proudly cheer for Trammell.
His 142 Crew used to be so vocal during Trammell’s at bats that the Rays stopped the music early so that the “Bubba” chant could be heard throughout the stadium.
Trammel was one of those guys you wanted to see do good and excel in the game. After his short time in Rays-land, current Kansas City Royal Jose Guillen enjoyed moments among the Rays rightfield crazies. But who knows, maybe the 142 Crew can reunite and find a second life now in Section 142 again with the likes of Matt Joyce patrolling the outfield fences.
But there have been a host of great outfielder to gain fans vocal support in the past in right field. Current Royals rightfielder Jose Guillen spent a few seasons listening to the cheers and jeers in the Trop. Guillen was known mostly for his rifle arm that just seemed to be able to pinpoint and throw out anyone on the base paths. The you had the always smiling Damian Rolls, who was more of a Ben Zobrist clone in the early 2000-2002 seasons.
He used to play wherever and when ever the Rays needed him, but he liked playing rightfield for the fans yelling where the base runner was right before he turned around to throw. Jonny Gomes, another fan favorite for his playing style that seemed more “Pete Rose”-style than anyone else to ever put on a Rays jersey used to love jogging out to right field because of the cheers he got every night from the fans. He also made sure to reward them with balls ever so often to show his appreciation for the fans support.
Jose Cruz Jr. also made a stop with the Rays after playing for the rival Toronto Blue Jays and saw a quick difference in the jeers to cheers he got for finally playing for the Rays. Cruz used to batter Rays pitching in Tropicana Field, and he continued to hit well in the Trop while he was with the Rays. Even when Gabe Gross first took his right field spot in 2008 after being traded to the Rays, the crowd made sure to welcome him on his first night with a thunderous applause.
But not everyone who played rightfield was met with cheers every night. Some players who played out there actually dreaded some of the nights they had to go out and play in right field. To say the rightfield crews were not well versed in baseball would be a crime. But some of the guys who have also manned the spot forgot how to play the game sometimes. Ben Grieve came to the Rays after a great beginning to his career in Oakland.
He never seemed to be at home here and quickly he seemed to garner the vocal backlash from the fans. His playing style was not accepted by the Rays faithful because he seemed to be so lackadaisical about the simple things of the sports. Add that to some hitting woes and it was a recipe for insults and catcalls for the young player.
But the fans seemed to be just getting started because after Grieve left the Rays, another player came out to play in rightfield who always seemed to get a mixed bag of reactions from the fans. Aubrey Huff did not come out and vocally state he did not like playing in right field, but sometimes it did give that impression to the fans out there.
Even though he was still a monster at the plate, his defense in right was questioned a few times during his brief time out there. Huff played his last baseball in Tampa Bay in rightfield, and even to that last day the fans always held him in a love-hate relationship.
But the guy who seemed to be the most hated rightfielder was not a member of the New York Yankees, or even the Boston Red Sox. He was a guy who was quiet on the field and might have even been hated or despised even before his first game in a Rays uniform. Delmon Young never seemed to have gotten a fair break from the rightfield fans, but then again, he never reached out to them either.
The young star held an air of entitlement and fut
ure glory from the moment he first stepped towards the slanted rightfield corner. Most of that was played out in comments and actions by him while he was coming up through the Rays minor league system.
But his lack of general respect for the game was not lost on the rightfield faithful, and they rained down on him whenever he made a goof or a mistake, even a unintentional blunders on the base paths. I can not say he never got a fair shot, but he also never seemed to care, so the rightfield fans fed on that and rain down catcalls more than cheers for him while he was here.
So the Rays fans have embraced the young Joyce and have seen greatness in him. The best part is that he has been here before in his career. Unfortunately he was in leftfield, but he has heard the roars from the right field stands before and might have been more aware of the fans because of his 2008 time with the Detroit Tigers.
Most might remember that he went 2-8 during the Tigers only visit to Tropicana Field from August 1-3, 2008. In that game he played two contests in leftfield, but made impressions for his hustle and defensive skills. He also played in all four of the Tigers home game against the Rays from September 25-28, 2008, but only managed to secure one hit in that series. He is off to a great start in his career with the Rays.
He has made a great impression in the spring when he came back from his ankle and calf situations to pound the ball late in Spring Training. So far with the Rays he is 6 for 17 for a nice .363 average to start the fans in his favor. His 6 RBI, with 4 just last night will also go a long way in securing the fan’s early support for the young star.
Rightfield in Tropicana Field has seen its good and bad times. But the players who have manned that position have made not only a impression into Rays history, but some of them still are considered a part of the Rays family. Joyce is just the latest in the line of great players to man the “9″ spot, but with his future bright and the crowd behind him.
He could easily move into cult status like Jonny Gomes or Bubba Trammell with a great season for the Rays. And wouldn’t it be great to see more signs like the one last night that said, “The Right Choice…. Matt Joyce” ever night in rightfield.
I am beginning to really enjoy the local media members who are at the same odds as us bloggers right now as to the proper terminology or even the phrasing for what Troy Percival is doing right now. But we all should have been aware and ready for it since it is the same kind of song and dance we got right after he got injured near the end of 2008. We know the guy is hurt, we saw the way he was pitching right before he began to yell at his Manager Joe Maddon on the mound during his last performance.
But we have also been told recently that Andrew Friedman and Maddon would sit down soon and discuss the remedies and the consequences of the decisions that Percival needs to make in the coming weeks for the team to make any substantial decisions about his 40-man roster spot. You see, if he retires or leave the team voluntarily, the Rays can then have a solid decision and know what, and where they will need to make moves next. But the merry-go-round got more confusing during the beginning of Saturday nights contest against the Minnesota Twins. Because there was Percival, sauntering down to the Bullpen sitting right on the rail in front of Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi for about three innings.
It was almost like one of those “Where is Waldo” scenarios as I asked people if they saw him, but only a handful only remember seeing him nestled behind the bench, but on the rail before he then again vanished into the Rays dugout innings later. Was this a gratuitous Percival sighting to entice and confuse the Rays masses, or was it a nicely orchestrated move by both the team and Percival to put some water on the fires about his future with the team.
As we later found out, he was in town to have a chat with Maddon about the process he is going to encounter using his own personal chiropractor in California who is doing some readjusting and adjusting of his back in the western state. My question is why is he not going to visit a local bone stretcher and then the Rays can have ample medical records and conversations with this doctor. Much less, is he a doctor that Percival has history with from his time with the Los Angeles Angels, or someone referred to by the Rays. So Percival basically came to town to tell the team and Maddon that is doesn’t feel he is finished as a player, but needs some body work done in the mean time.
I know there was a part of the home crowd last night that thought you might be in town to finally cut the strings and fly away into your retirement. That you might be coming back to the Trop. to say your fond farewells to friends and players, but again, we got the mixed signals from you. We are already going to be paying you for your 2009 season since that time has come ands gone to release you without obligations or monetary considerations. We also know that the Bullpen is again in a state of high alert where their individual roles are going to be mixed and jumbled again on a daily basis, and is some instances, batter-by-batter basis.
But is that fair to the guy out there you sat with at your Bullpen team dinners, chatted and joked with on the planes, and even enjoyed seeing them celebrate their first bid into the playoffs up front and in person, then vanished into the background come playoff time.
We get you want o have your treatments in Cali where you can be closer to friend and family. I mean really understand the want to be near your family while getting treatment. Hopefully you stay in close contact with Ron Porterfield and the rest of the medical staff so they can get good and accurate updates on your attempt to find that last bit of energy to hit the mound again this season. So you basically told the team you wanted to play today and will be seeking your medical treatment at home in California. Okay, that is kind of acceptable………..What?
You mean you are going to string along this team for another two or three weeks or maybe draw it out for another month or so before either you come back healthy or you finally throw in the towel. And in that meantime, the Rays have to keep your 40-man roster spot warm and cozy for your triumphant return. Troy, buddy, I commend you on what you have done for the team in 2008 to get us to the promised land by posting 28 saves before finally going down with your body in shambles, but this time we need some reassurances you are going to be tip top, or a member of the Rays walking wounded for awhile.
Is that asking too much of a 39-year old closer who is closer to the retirement door than the clubhouse door right now. I understand the will and the determination to want to go on until they carry you off the field wounded and battered for the last time. But you are beginning to have the image of someone who is trying to hold on too hard to something out of fear of losing it. Calling it quits at any level or position is hard if you still think you can out-perform and out maneuver the young guys, but to endanger their chance at success and maybe be a contributing aspect to their chance of repeating for another title based on you “maybe” coming back in great shape to pitch them towards the promised land again. Well, maybe it is good you are getting treatment in California. You might want to bring a Hollywood scriptwriter back with you………because that would be a made-for-TV movie at best.
So okay, I am going to giver you some time to change my views here. I am going to give the great Troy Percival, who is hankering to get to number 7 in the All-Time saves category for his career. I am willing to give you some time since we saw you stroll from number 10 to number 8 in quick fashion. But you got to believe we will be watching for you Percy. Some believe that Maddon has too much faith in you right now, and should cut the strings and run hard the other way before you fire another volley of profanity on him on the mound. We will keep that locker open for you. We will also not give away your parking space in the players’ lot, but hopefully the Rays will have a tighter rein on you during this rehab.
Tick…… Tock, Troy, Tick…Tock!