Results tagged ‘ Andy Sonnanstine ’

Will it be “Sonny” in 2010?

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

Coming into Spring Training in 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays might have all five of their rotation spots sewn up before the February 19th reporting date. That would be the first time in franchise history that the team had a solid 5-deep pre-Spring rotation set-up in advance of the reporting date. And that possible starting pitching affirmation, it might not bode well for Rays starter/reliever Andy Sonnanstine to crack that line-up in 2010. Because of his up and down moments since his first MLB appearance in 2007, Sonnanstine could be on the outside looking in this year because of the 2009 seasons posted by the Rays three rookie starters.

As of this moment it seems that the Rays pitching trio of starters’ David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis look pretty secure in their fight to again have a rotation spot with the Rays. But as we all know, an early injury, or a fall from grace could make a  starting spot suddenly available for Sonnanstine to shine and make the late March decision difficult for the Rays.

But there is a large dark cloud hanging over Sonnanstine right now. The basic fact that Sonny has had problems making adequate adjustments on the mound during games doesn’t guarantee him a spot either in the Bullpen or the rotation. And the odd fact that his pitch selection might be deep, but not overpowering like Price or Davis, or having that extreme downward angle of  the 6’9″ Niemann makes him the pitcher on the outside right now.

Since Sonnanstine’s abbreviated 2007 season when he posted a 6-10 record with a 5.85 ERA, Sonnanstine has  seen his game prove  to again be a rollercoaster ride in regard to consistency. After that personally disappointing 2007 season, Sonnanstine did make the needed adjustments to his game and rebounded with a solid 13-9 record in 2008. But a glaring trend was developing where the hitters’ were beginning  to predict his pitch selection, and that hampered his growth as a starter.
 

Since that 2007 season, Sonnanstine has changed his finger grips on the ball slightly and made some break variations to his pitching, but still his arm angles and pitch speed did not change enough to camouflage his pitch selection to the hitters. His evolution as a starting pitcher worked out great in 2008 when he posted 125 K’s during the season, and brought another element to his game. It was his first time Sonnanstine ever posted over 100 strikeouts in a season during his three year Major League career.

Sonnanstine came into the 2009 season with a new level of confidence and a sense that he could pitch at the Major League level. He earned early praise during Spring Training from Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey, and this new confidence helped him secure the fourth spot in the rotation before the end of March 2009. 

But Sonnanstine did not start the season  the way either he or the Rays envisioned it. During his first start in Baltimore on April 5,2009, Sonnanstine was in trouble from the first pitch of the game and lasted only 4.2 innings, giving up 8 hits and 5 runs on only 92 pitches. It was not the kind of start of the season that would give him or the Rays, a  dose of confidence in his abilities.


Gail Burton /AP

From that first start, Sonnanstine began a trend of an up and down season where he posted dismal results one outing, and seemed to rebound in the next.  But the fact that he had allowed 18 runs in 19.2 innings during April for the Rays, raised more than a few eyebrows. But the game that seemed to define his 2009 season was the May 27th game on the road against the Indians.

In this contest there were early signs it might be a long night for the Rays. First, they had to endure a two hour rain delay before finally taking the field. Then Sonnanstine immediately got rocked after his squad stakes him an early lead. Sonnanstine got hit hard in the game by the Cleveland hitters’ and lasted only 3 innings while surrendering 8 runs on only 75 pitches.

The Rays stuck by Sonnanstine for another month before finally optioning him to the Durham Bulls (Triple-A) on June 27,2009. At the time of his demotion, Sonnanstine had the highest ERA (6.61) in the American League and the most Earned Runs allowed (60). Sonnanstine’s season total of 7 losses combined with his .305 opponents average put him solidly as the second worst  starter in the American League at the time. He had sunk to rock bottom and needed to go to Durham to regain both his pitching and personal confidence.

And Sonnanstine worked on his pitching and regained his confidence and ability to throw strikes.  He made 9 starts for the Bulls, which included seven quality starts and a 5-3 record with a 4.40 ERA. He had rebuilt himself as a pitcher and was awaiting a chance to again prove himself to the Rays. He got his shot after the trade of Scott Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels and came up on September 1st and took Kazmir’s slot against Boston at Tropicana Field.

During the early days of September, Sonnanstine made  3 starts in his first four appearances back up with the Rays, but did not impress the Rays enough to secure that rotation spot for the rest of the season. But in hindsight, the Rays might have been waiting for the Bulls to complete their Triple-A Championship season before bringing up Davis to take Sonnanstine’s spot. 


Ted S Warren / AP

Sonnanstine was subsequently put into the Rays Bullpen and after a spot start against Baltimore in Camden Yards, he made his last three appearances of the season out of the Bullpen as a long reliever. His demotion to the Rays Bullpen was the first time Sonnanstine had pitched out of the Bullpen in his Major League career. The last time Sonnanstine had pitched in relief during his professional career at all was during his rookie debut season with the Hudson Valley Renegades (Rookie level) and the Charleston Riverdogs ( Class-A) in 2004. As a Rays reliever during his 3 appearances in 2009, Sonnanstine had a 5.79 ERA out of the Rays Bullpen.

And the 2010 season might be the final chance for him to  make an impression on the Rays coaching staff that he can be a starter in the Major Leagues. I personally think that he will either have to make some radical speed adjustments to his arsenal, or he might again face being sent down to the minor leagues. The Rays still have minor league options left on Sonnanstine, and he might just be used as an “insurance policy” against injury for the Rays this upcoming season.

But what is upsetting to me is the pure fact that this is not a pitcher who doesn’t only throw two or three pitches, but has an arsenal of five possible pitches to use at vari
ed points during a game. His cutter can be thrown from two different arm positions, and is an adequate different approach to his 2-seam fastball. Sonnanstine also mixes in a nice slider, and a 12-6 curveball.  And his change-up has developed a nice sinking action to it, but his main problem is that from his fastball (86-90 mph), to his change-up (81-82) there is not a huge amount of velocity difference, which  can easily translate into hitter adjusting on the fly to him during an at bat with ease.

But I love Sonnanstine’s work ethic and the way he approaches the game of baseball.  He never wears his emotions on his sleeves like Matt Garza, but stays cool and calm on the mound. Sonnanstine has the same off-speed abilities to dominate the plate like James Shields. You just do not win 13 games in an MLB season without knowing how to throw the ball for strikes. But for Sonnanstine to again secure a possible spot at the Major League level, he either has to rediscover that mode of consistency,or he might never get another clear shot with the Rays.

I expect to hear his name surface a few times in trade chatter due to the fact he does have a MLB arm and has minor league options that would benefit a team taking him on and maybe using him in a duo role. But I really do not see him in a long reliever role for the Rays unless they intend to not offer Lance Cormier arbitration in the off season. Sonnanstine’s limited relief appearances aside, Sonny is not a reliever yet at the MLB level. If the Rays did decide to go that direction, he will need time in the minors to adjust his pitching approach in that direction.


J Pat Carter / AP

So the Rays brain trust must decide what type of role Sonnanstine will play within the Rays organization in 2010. Could he be that MLB experienced insurance policy against possible injury for the team? Or could the Rays consider him expendable with the pitching depth in the minors and trade him away for some catching or possible relief help?

We have around 128 days before the 2010 Rays team reports to Port Charlotte, Florida for Spring Training. As Rays fans have discovered over the past year,anything can happen between that period of time. Rays fans never even anticipated the Edwin Jackson trade coming before it was completed and announced to the media. Could the same happen to Sonnanstine this off season? 

Maybe he will be a nice addition to a package deal that could land the team a experienced reliever or catcher? Or maybe the clock has finally stopped ticking and it is his time to possible leave the Rays? 128 days is a long time. But within that time we hope to discover and learn the possible avenues that the Rays could use Sonnanstine in 2010. What do you think the team should do with Sonny?

Pitch Counts are here to Stay

 


Steve Nesius / AP

A lot of times during the Tampa Bay Rays 2009 season we have seen a Rays starter get into a dominating groove against an opponent and he begins to take complete control of the game only to be taken out after a mystery number of pitches, or because the current pitching match-up philosophy dictates he has run his course in a game. But  the common question still on our minds is why is there a mystery pitch count number,and why do some of the Rays starters seem to get more of a leash than others before getting yanked out of a contest?

We have all witnessed the unusual pitching formulas in person where the Rays Coaching Staff will let a starter come out in the top of an inning to face maybe  only one batter before being yanked for a reliever. But why it the system doesn’t let this starter finish the inning? Why is the match-ups more important than the flow of the game at that point. Would letting a starter throw an additional 10 pitches to try and finish the inning endanger him more towards an injury, or a possible loss? 

The  Rays current pitching situation is apparently based on computer-based match-ups and not pitch count, but sometimes it just seems like misused mathematics gone wrong when the Bullpen ruins the outing for the starter.. 

Because we have all seen starters who are in total control on the mound get taken out late in the 7th or 8th inning with a definite shutout possibility and a still possessing a manageable pitch count, usually under 100 pitches. And then the Rays reliever comes in and gives up either a few base hits or a home run and the shutout and quality start have been flushed down the toilet. With good intentions by the starter, but a loss in the process. Could the system need a bit more instinct than Sabermetrics at times. And do the Rays have any flexibility in the system at all?


Brian Blanco / AP

Sure there have been pitching moments this season where we all collectively felt Rays Manager Joe Maddon might have left a guy in too long, or maybe might have taken someone out a bit early and he could have fought through the problems and collected a “W”. But the physical side of the game of baseball along with the fans has been slow to accept this new found  set of pitching principles. But  it seems to me that the Rays Coaching Staff is now totally committed to this new style of pitching, and we are the one who must learn the system before we pull all of our hairs out of our skulls.

 
And the argument for or against a set number of pitches for a starter or even a reliever has been a winded and highly emotional debate that will go on until we can get some  critical answers to our overflowing bowl of questions. What we as a fans need to do now, for our own sanity, is to try and understand the new pitching system before we can make an clear and educated judgment or even begin to condemn the operation as a waste of our pitching talent base. And it is hard to accept what some people have coined as the “wussification of pitching” because of the adaptation of this process by many teams in the Major Leagues.

Has the games parameters changed that much in the last 10 years where we are now considering a formally common thing like a Complete Game or even a quality start as a thing of beauty and rarity instead of a by-product of the game? Have we whittled down the pitching system so much that if a starting pitcher hits a 130+ pitch mark in a game it is a time to get really excited, or maybe even concerned?

In a recent series against the Rays on September 4, 2009, Detroit starter Justin Verlander threw 126 pitches and the Rays let starter Jeff Niemann throw 115 pitches before he was pulled from the home game. I mean this newly anointed system points oddly towards the century mark( 100 pitches) as a precursor to the thought process of removing someone from the game. But is that number set in stone if a guy is struggling on the mound, or is that just set as a barometer mark for guys throwing with authority and control? Right now this pitching system is beyond the infant stage, but is just now being accepted by some people in the stands.


Kathy Willens /AP

We see the actual game pitch count now displayed everywhere from the Internet  In-Game boxscores to the stadium scoreboards or special displays, to the constant verbal barrage by the Television and Radio announcers to this 100+ marks level of mortality in pitching.  This designated mark in the game now seems to be the  key determination factor more than actual game performance now.  I mean will we some day just look up at the scoreboard and see 100 pitches flashing on the screen and know that our pitcher’s personal time bomb is ticking  and will soon be taken out of the game?

I mean this must have a wild effect on the pitching staff as a whole knowing that even if they are cruising along, that at that century mark they could get pulled from the game and see their work trashed within a 1/3 of an inning by an unstable Bullpen. But in recent Rays games we have seen a glint of pitch count flexibility in this system. Maybe it is because we are no longer playing for the post season, or maybe it is just the fact that right now the Rays Bullpen is fighting a uphill confidence battle amongst themselves.

Either way, it is encouraging to see Rookie Wade Davis take the mound in front of the Tropicana Field crowd for his Major League Debut and get to throw 105 pitches, and leave with the lead and a possible 1st MLB victory. But then we quickly saw it evaporate as the Rays Bullpen threw a cookie down the middle to Tigers slugger Brandon Inge who hit a Grand Slam in the top of the 9th inning to boost Detroit to a victory 5-3. But the aspect of letting Davis even get to that 105 pitch mark might have been dashed if the Rays were still hot in the fight for a playoff berth.

But could there be other determining factor like adjusted work load and the fact that some of the staff might be fighting arm fatigue or shoulder soreness that we do not know about. But so far the Rays have not announced any shutdowns or reflected minimal outings for their starters in 2009, which hopefully means that people like Davis, Niemann and David Price will get to throw deeper into games for the rest of the season. But that again becomes a double-edged sword for the Rays.

For if one of those three were to come down with an injury before the October 4th Season Finale against the New York Yankees, the fans would be wondering out loud of the system hurt or helped the pitcher this year. That is why yesterday I brought up the idea of shutting down maybe two of the guys who have put in maximum innings the past two seasons. But in reality, the Rays usually employ a 75-pitch count in
the minor league for some of their starters, and for that reason, even Davis has thrown a total of 158.2 innings in the minors before his current 9.2 innings so far for the Rays.

Both Davis and Price were held to strict pitch counts in the minors in 2009 with an eye towards the end of this season. The minor league system of limiting pitches might have actually helped the Rays in their decision to maybe shut some people down this year. But considering Price only threw a total of 34.1 innings before coming up to the Rays, and only has a total of 144 innings right now, both Price and Davis should be able to complete the rest of their starts this season without  a shutdown.

But can the same be said for fellow rookie Jeff Niemann? He put in a total of 133 innings at Triple-A last season before finally coming back up to the Rays and throwing 16 extra innings in the Major Leagues in 2008. Combine that with his 2009 total of  165.2 innings with the big club this season, and he also might be about ready to cross into the new systems red danger line for yearly pitching totals. But with each pitcher maybe getting three more total starts each, the possibility of adding 15+ innings to those totals seems to be garnishing no concerns from the Rays.


Brian Blanco / AP


This new system is as curious to me as a new girlfriend. You know you like it, and you know it is right for you, but you are afraid of the consequences if it falls apart and you are left in the ruins. There will be a huge bit of discussion in the off season by both the fans, media and the Rays themselves as to the merits and demerits of this new found system. But in the end, if it can reduce injuries and keep guys playing longer in their careers and with more explosive stuff, then it might just be the savior of the pitching game.

But the system will have to be flexible to adjust to each teams needs and wants and not be written into stone tablets for all to follow with a strict code of obedience. The system will show its flaws soon, and it is how we adjust to those waves of ups and down as to the future of this system with the Rays. “Going with the flow” might be the term for the rest of 2009 and 2010. For if we do transfer a bit of the workload onto a competent Bullpen with guys secure and ready for anything, then this system and the Rays fan can again see glory coming their way. 

 

Should Shields and Garza be Shut Down?

 




Jim Prisching / AP

Recently I have been hearing more and more chatter about the Rays shutting down Rays starters Matt Garza and James Shields before the end of the 2009 season. There are several great reasons for this to happen, but the most compelling  answer might be that if the Rays are not playing for anything in particular, like a playoff berth, maybe they should shut down their work horses before the Rays last home stand of the season.

This makes  a lot of sense for several reasons, but the clear facts that the Rays have other pitchers in their Bullpen who could take some of the slack off both of the starters. over the Lance Cormier, Andy Sonnanstine and Jeff Bennett could  throw some valuable innings right now to  perserve both Shields and Garza for the 2010 season.

And there lies an interesting situation for the Rays Caoching staff. All three of these Bullpen pitchers  have at one time or another been spot starters either in the minor or major leagues. And the possibility of each or all of them pitching at least 4-6 innings of work could take some of the pressure off the Rays staff. But real problem might be in convincing both the competitve Garza and Shields that they can take a rest because of what they have both done since the beginning of the 2008 season.

The reality of shutting both of them down does merit a great amount of thought since both guys will either be passing or nearing their  innings pitched totals for 2008 in their next two starts. Neither pitcher has anything to prove to the Rays staff or fans. We know they have been the studs who have gone out there every 5 days and thrown their arms off for this team in both 2008 and 2009. And maybe a little more pitching information on both of them in the last two seasons might make this decision a whole lot easier for the fans to digest.


Gail Burton /AP


Considering that in 2008, Garza and Shields were the only pair of MLB pitchers to toss 2 complete games each while allowing 2 hits or less. And that statistic alone is a monumental feat for a team that has always struggled with their starting pitching to hold a degree of solidarity. But if you add to that overall mix the fact that both of them also threw an additional 25 innings each during the 2008 Post Season, and that by adding those innings  to either their 2008 or 2009 pitching totals, it would take both of them way beyond their previous top inning marks in the Major Leagues. 

And a  honest fact that might have eluded most of the Rays fan base is the odd fact that Shields will easily become the only Rays pitcher to ever throw three straight 200+ innings in a season with his next start. And Shields, os also the only Rays starter to ever throw 2 consecutive 200+ innings in a season. Shields has been a thoughbred during the last two years throwing 215 innings in both 2007 and 2008, and that mark was only 9 innings short during both seasons of the 2002  pitching record set by ex-Rays Tanyon Sturtze (224).

During the 2008 regular season, Shields went to the hill 33 times for the Rays and posted a 14-8 record with a 3.56 ERA. To further boast the reputation of Shields, only Toronto’s Roy Halladay (471.1) posted more innings than Shields (430) in the past two seasons in the American League. But in 2009, there have been times that it actually looked like maybe he was having a “Post Season Hangover” because of the extra 25 innings tossed in the 2008 playoffs.


Elaine Thompson / AP


Add his 33 starts to his 4 starts in the post season, and Shields went to the hill 37 times for the Rays just last season. And during his last 10 starts  so far in 2009, he has averaged at least 6 innings of work before leaving the game. But during that time, Shields has also seen his ERA slowly creeping up from a 3.70 to 4.03 ERA. This might be a subtle change, but it might also be an indication that his arm is beginning to tire a bit, and shutting him down could prevent injury or complications in 2010.

But the same scenario can also apply for Garza. Even though in 2008 he did miss a few starts due to a radial nerve irritation situation in April and missed 16 games on the disabled list. But even with his missing a few starts in 2008, the Rays gunslinger threw 184.2 innings last season and also tossed an additional 25 innings in the post season. Garza took the mound for the Rays in 30 regular season starts, and like Shields also started 4 games in the Rays run to the 2008 World Series. That would push Garza’s 2008 total to 209.2 total innings, which is a lot for any pitchers first full-season in the Major Leagues.

And in 2008 he responded  to the Rays challenge with a 11-9 record and a 3.70 ERA in those 30 regular season starts. But it was his two srats in the 2008 American League Championship Series that established Garza  as a threat every time out on the mound. During that series he allowed only 2 earned runs in 13 innings and posted a 1.38 ERA during the ALCS 7-game series against the Red Sox. But it was his stellar performance in Game 7 held on October 19,2008 that has endeared him to Rays fans forever.

During that contest, Garza threw for 7-innings and produced a 2-hit, 1-run gem against the Red Sox while striking out 9 Boston hitters. It was a truly gutsy clutch performance, and a feat that eventually garnered him the 2008 ALCS Most Valuable Player award by allowing only 7 total hits in his 13 innings during the 7-game series. In doing so, Garza became the youngest pitcher ever to win the ALCS MVP award while holding Boston to a .226 batting average and gaining victories against, Red Sox starter Jon Lester in both their starts in the ALCS.


www.tbo.com

And in 2009, Garza also has push onward and upward  and had classic Rays moments, but also had outings where it looked like the carry over post season innings might have given him a bit of arm fatigue. Garza has posted only a 7-10 record this season with a 3.84 ERA. Though todays game, Garza has already made 29 starts for the Rays,and has surpassed his 2008 inning pitched total by a 1/3 of an inning (185).

Over his last 10 starts this season, Garza has averaged 6 2/3rds innings of work, with only one outing against the Los Angeles Angels  did he throw less than 5 innings. In that contest on August 10, 2009, Garza lasted 3.1 innings and surrendered 4-runs on 6-hits while also being tagged for 2 homers in the outing. And Garza has gone at least seven i
nnings in his last two starts for the Rays, which was beneficial to the Rays as they sorted out some Bullpen malfunctions. 

Coming into tonight’s game against the Orioles, it is possible for  Shields to have a total of three more starts in 2009,  he should be going to the hill in the Rays last road trip of 2009 to Texas (Sept. 25) and  could have possibly two more starts at home against the Orioles ( Sept. 30) and the season finale against the New York Yankees on Sunday,October 4th.  Garza himself could be in line for at least two trips to the mound to conclude 2009, starting with a possible start against the Rangers (Sept. 26) and take the mound again in his last home appearance on October 1st against the Yankees.


Mike Carlson / AP

To decide to place either player on the bench for the rest of the season will be a difficult decision by the Rays. But the great fact that the Rays have three long relievers right now on their roster, and could even bring up an additional long reliever or starter after the Durham Bulls finish their playoff run, this give the team realistic options to shutting the pair down soon. Either way, the Rays could possibly shut down both of their top pitchers by the time the team returns from Texas on September 27th.

The Rays Coaching staffs decision has to be based on the total number of innings thrown by the young pair, with an eye towards the 2010 season. I actually see them maybe sitting down Garza after his start in Texas since he already has peaked out at around his 2008 innings totals. Shields might get two more starts at the most before they should shut him down.

Both pitcher should be proud of this seasons efforts and the level of stability they have established in both of their pitching in the last two seasons.  Subtle adjustments and pitching grip changes might be in order for both in the off season, but their collective 2009 seasons have given the Rays a chance to strive towards their post season goals all season long. 

Both pitchers have also established themselves among the best young arms in the AL East, and should develop more in 2010. I just hope both pitchers take the possible “shut downs” as a career positive and not a demotion or negative at all. Both have produced countless memories for the Rays in 2009, and I give both of them a standing ovation and a huge round of applaud for their efforts. If the season has no possible merits for the post season again, and the honest fact that the additional innings could increase their chances of injury, then they should be shut down to conserve  a pair of the Rays best resources.
 


Marc Avery / AP

The Rays starting pitching did not set the league on fire in 2009, but it did raise a few eyebrows to the competitive nature of this team, and the Rays should again be fighting for the division league for many years to come. Shields And Garza are two valuable member of the Rays future plans for success, and everything should be done in the team’s power to conserve and eliminate any possible injury situations in the last couple of weeks of the season. For we all want to again see both of them celebrating and having the time of their lives in the post season. And if that means sitting them right now, then that is the right decison.

Pitching to Contact

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

There are moments during the game, and also during the post-game that I question this whole “Pitching-to-Contact” system and its basic premise to induce ground balls outs and secure pitch counts for starters. The system seems almost laughable at times when the pitcher’s only seem to last until the middle of the 6th innings at best, and the pitch count as gotten the better of Tampa Bay Rays pitching staffs. But then I see some of the Rays rookies use the system, having been taught it in the minor leagues, and it does show that it has some merit if the right pitchers are used in the system.

And that might be the hidden key that everyone else has missed for the Scott Kazmir trade. Power pitching doesn’t belong in this system. The basic ideal of the system is to confuse and induce ground balls and hittable balls for strikeouts and foul ball put outs to minimalize the scoring chances of your opponent. And Kazmir was brought up as a power pitcher, and we have seen him try to conform to the system, but the system ended up eating him up like a chew toy and spit him out all over the mound. 

How much more acceptable would the idea of this recent trade have been if Andrew Friedman has just said that Kazmir was not a good fit for the Rays pitching system, and that after both sides tried to make it work, a change was needed by both sides to succeed from this point forward. I could have accepted that reasoning in a heartbeat, and known that Kazmir was hurt the last two years trying to conform to a system that was foreign to his own pitching style. But why is it a young power pitcher like Kazmir could not develop into the system, but some one like Jeff Neimann is a natural for it?

There is the ruse. There is the hidden answer to it all, the system doesn’t pick the pitchers to be employed into it, the team does that. And a pitcher like Kazmir and even James Shields were not in the current Rays system under Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey where they could learn the system at the lower levels, then come up with a total understanding of it all. And that might be the reasoning for the reduced strikeouts and some of the anemic outings by Shields also this season. He is adapting to the system, but it has not clicked with him yet.


Mike Carlson / AP


So what is this “Pitch-to-Contact” system, and why is it as hard to master. Well, first off, it is actually developed to help pitchers keep the ball down and hopefully go deep into ballgames. The system plays heavily on the pitchers physical fundamentals and his ability to fight off fatigue in game situations. And if the system is not taught in the lower levels, it get harder and harder at the Major League level to readjust and rethink your entire mode of pitching. That is why Shields has seen difficult outings and barrages of hits when in the past he would have just powered his way past a batter.

 And there are success stories even within our division of pitchers who have adapted the system and gone on to major success in the league. Toronto’s Roy Halladay converted to this method of pitching in 2006, and his abilities and his stamina have grown every season. Now this concept of pitching to contact is not based on just throwing the ball down the middle and hoping for the best. It is actually playing to the individual pitcher’s strengths and adjusting speeds and quadrant location to maximize their abilities during every at bat in a game.
 

But changing a pitcher’s mindset gets hard the more time he is in the majors. We are taught at a young age to “throw it by” an opponent or even using our breaking ball to set up our “out” pitch. This system throws all of that into a basket and relies more on the ability to induce throwing low into the zone and hopefully getting more ground balls that you defense can easily convert into outs. And this system is better perfected in the minors than at this level of the game. That might be the basic reasons that Rays rookies David Price and Jeff Neimann are having the success they are having this season. They have been taught the system in the minor leagues.

One of the basic rules of the pitching to contact system is getting ahead in the counts to hitters. As we have seen in the past, this has been a true problem for the Rays pitching staff. But this system employs a system of pitching low and to outer quadrants and letting the ball be hit, if it is in the zone more on the ground than in the air. That the past notion of “painting the corner” or trying to just itch the outside of the corners is a thing of the past, and is not a part of this system.  The past belief in “painting” or nibbling at the corners actually is a negative if you want to preserve your pitch count and stay in the game later.  The pitching to contact system can increase your outings if you follow its rules.


Nam Y Huh / AP


The Rays Coaching staff believes that by keeping pitches down, it will lead to more ground ball that their defense can handle for easy outs. And just because this might lead to more hitters getting their bats on the ball doesn’t go hand in hand with more runs crossing the plate.
The point of this is to show that getting hitters to put more wood on the ball will not automatically mean more runs crossing the plate. This is especially true in Tampa Bay in 2008, where the abilities of a talented infield meant more outs for pitchers unafraid to have the ball put on the ground.  For this system to work, a pitcher has to believe in it 100 percent.

You can see where this system could be a pitcher’s best friend after awhile helping him become more pitch efficient and maybe transforming that into going deeper into ballgames, but you can maybe effectively gauge some of that on the kind of pitcher, and what he basically throws to be a great indicator of his success or failure in this system. Here are a few examples brought to light by the U.S.S. Mariners blog back in Feb 2007 on this system:

“Great pitching+great command: You shouldn’t care about pitching advice.
Great pitching + horrible command: chuck it down the middle, let them swing and miss.
Hittable pitches+great command:  You want to live on speed changes and hitting the corners.
Horrible pitches+horrible command: You’re not going to be around long anyways. “

This system right now has its good and bad moments posted all over the Rays 2009 season. I can not say that I truly think that every pitcher on the Rays staff right now is fashioned to use this type of pitching system, or could develop it into his own arsenal to become more effective on the mound. But because the recent influx of the Rays rookie pitchers, and their ability to adjust and transform their pitching styles into this system might be a good indicator of future success. But for this system to truly work to perfection, the Rays defense again has to step up a bit and take it back to and above their 2008 levels.


Gail Burton / AP

I guess you can say that the jury is still out on if I believe this system can be employed by all five of our starters with effectiveness. But right now the advent of the system is beginning to show both signs of good and bad in our rotation. Some need to further adjust their styles to adapt the system totally into their pitching, but some also have come miles in the last few months to use this system to its extremes. All in all, if this system is taught at the lower levels of the farm system and employed all the way up the ladder, the next influx of Rays pitchers will also be able to use and adapt their abilities perfectly to conform to the system.

But right now, the Rays starters are beginning to show some signs of really getting this system ingrained into their every day pitching, and that could be a major thing going into 2010 ans beyond for the team. Who knows if this system will be here in two seasons, or might even be trashed the moment the team doesn’t retain their current Pitching Coach. But the reality of it all is that if the Rays infield defense and the pitching staff can both get on the same wave length, we could see another run like 2008 in the near future.

Niemann is my early AL Rookie of the Year Candidate

 


Jim Presching / AP

The deeper this Tampa Bay Rays season goes,the more the “Tall Texan” seems to grow on you. When you see how easy it is to call out Rays starter Jeff Niemann and he causally just comes over and chats with you while he continues signing a multitude of autographs for what seems like forever, and  he still has that smile on his face the entire time. And you see a small level of discomfort and bummed out look when he has to turn and head into the clubhouse with people still calling his name.
 

He is one of those reason the Rays are within striking range of the New York Yankees right now to again try and regain their spot at the top of the American League East division. And here is a guy who at the very end of Spring Training had to fight tooth and nail for a final spot on the roster that in prior years he might have had by mid-March. But since the 2008 success, a lot has changed in Rays-ville, and the “gentle Giant” is one of the great stories of this season.

I mean he truly did not know until almost the last possible day that he would regain the fifth rotation spot until his competition got traded away to the Colorado Rockies. But all during that time there was chatter and rumors that he too was under the trading microscope maybe heading to San Diego, Colorado, or maybe Pittsburgh. The competition for that final spot was so intense this season that even a guy who might have made the rotation on 20 other teams might of had to find alternative solutions to stay in the major leagues.

And how great do you feel right now if you are in the triad of Rays Manager Joe Maddon, Pitching Coach Jim Hickey and Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman right now that you kept the Tall Texan. Sure you might have labored over the decision and might even have second guessed yourself after the first start or two, but quickly you also saw a small glimmer of hope and beauty in the way Neimann was taking the ball every fifth day and making magic happen on the mound.

I mean take the fact he had a 2-1 record with a 6.32 ERA in Spring Training this season and it might look like a feasible reason to consider him for the last spot in the rotation. But if you really look close at his statistics, he was in a five-way tie on the team in wins,  his 6.32 ERA in the spring was better than the Rays Opening Day starter, Jame Shields who had a 8.16 ERA.  Unlike Jason Hammel, Neimann did not start a single game this Spring, but did get into 6 contests and still made enough impression to get two wins.  But his 15.2 innings of work was the fifth best on the team, and his 17 total his given up this spring were better than Matt Garza (26), Shields (19), Scott Kazmir (22) and Hammel (25).


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From the edge of Spring Training, he knew he had everything to prove, plus everything to lose in the coming months for the Rays. He had to have his stats put next to Hammel and David Price for comparison, and in the end might have gotten the job by proxy to the shagrin of some in the franchise office. But I do not see it that way at all. Neimann had struggled in the past with injuries, and in 2008 he had his best season as a professional because his health did not let him down at all that year. So this season was going to be a test of not only his health, but his pitching ability.

But the best part was this was not his first time up in the major leagues thanks to a short stint after Garza went down right after Opening Day in 2008, Neimann got some needed experience and struggled and also showed some great improvement to stay on the minds of the team the entire year. So it was no surprise that he was one of the possible pitchers brought up by the team after the Durham Bulls were eliminated from the IL Playoff picture in 2008.  The man a few people have commented on could be the twin brother of Toys R Us icon Geoffrey (Giraffe) was to get more of a chance to show his stuff in 2009.

And his first start this season at Baltimore showed that he still had a ways to go to be an effective pitcher, or did he just go into the game maybe a little over prepared and actually took himself out of that game by trying to think of adjustments on the fly without a good thought process in his mind. After his first start he had a balloon ERA of 10.13. He had only lasted 5.1 innings and had thrown 94 pitches in that game. The one shining light out of that performance was the he settled down after that disastrous first inning and blanked the Orioles until he left the ballgame.

But from that start he gained a lot of experience, and gained even more of an insight of what it was going to take to be a great pitcher in this league.  So at the end of the month of April he had gone 2-2 with a 4.43 ERA. He had rebounded from a two-some of tough games against the Orioles and the White Sox to put together two great wins against the Twins and Mariners.  In both wins in April he threw 3-hitters, and also saw his command  starting to come together. So with a even keel from April, it was imperative that he have a good month in May so solidify the Rays decision on him. 

In May, he went a combined 2-2 again in six starts and showed improvement by starting to see his walks-to strikeouts ratio get more into control.  He had a few blips of problems during a May 2nd contest against the Boston Red Sox at home, where he lasted only 3 innings and surrendered 6 runs on 7 hits. He only lasted 76 pitches into that contest, but his pitches for strikes was starting to show a closer trend towards an acceptable level. In that start he threw 46 strikes to his total 76 pitches. Neimann was beginning to understand how to win in the majors.

And during the rest of May, he surrendered less than 2 runs in every game but one. In that contest on May 18th against the Oakland A’s, Neimann did give up 4 runs in the contest, but he also got some great offensive support from the Rays and posted his  4th victory of the season.  He threw 110 pitches in that game, the most of the season for him. But the end of the month was not kind to him as he was limited to 3 innings in a rain delayed game in Cleveland that he had thrown 3 innings and had only given up a single run before the tarps hit the field.  He had only thrown 53 pitches in that game, but 34 had gone for strikes. He was beginning to show his improvement every time out from that point on in 2009.


Steve Nesius / AP

June also seemed to start great for him as he made 5 starts in the month and posted three
victories.  His 3.10 ERA for the month was the best he had posted as a professional, and he also had thrown 29 total innings in the month, the most since he had come up with the Rays. On June 3rd, Niemann tossed his first complete game shutout of his career during a home contest against the Kansas City Royals.  In that game he also seemed to have great command as he  struck out 9 batters and only surrenders a solo walk in the game. But in the next contest against the Los Angeles Angels he did have a bit of a setback only lasting 3.2 innings while giving up 5 runs on 7 hits that night.

June seemed more like a roller coaster ride for Niemann as he went to highs and lows before finally equaling out during a June 29th contest against the Toronto Blue Rays in Rogers Centre. In that game he went 7.1 innings and threw 100 pitches while giving up a solo run on 4 hits.  This was also the only time besides the first game against the Orioles that he had issued more walks than strikeouts. But it did not matter in the end as he took his seventh win of the season from this game. So at this point he was 7-4 and people were beginning to talk about the young Texan.

If June seemed like his month to shine, oh were people going to enjoy his July. So far this month he has only made three starts, but he has posted two wins in those starts to have the most wins so far as a Rays starter in 2009. July got started off a bit rough when he only lasted 3 innings in a game out in Arlington, Texas against the Texas Rangers. It should have been a bit of a homecoming for him, but the Rangers roughed him up early and he only lasted 47 pitches and gave up three runs in the game. It was not a pure disaster, but it did show him some room for improvement, and to get more first pitch strikes on the batters.

But after that contest, in his last start before the All Star Break, Neimann threw one of the best games of his career to that point against the Oakland A’s at home on July 10th.  This was the second start of the season for him against the A’s, and in his last start he lasted 8 innings and gave up four runs to the A’s hitters. But tonight he went 9 innings to post his second complete game shutout of the season. He threw a season high 118 pitches and got a standing ovation from the crowd as he went to the mound in the top of the ninth inning.  After that contest, while being interviewed on FSN/Florida, Niemann got the traditional shaving cream pie from Rays catcher Dioner Navarro.


Brian Blanco / AP

But that was not the cream on top of the pie yet for Neimann in July. After not starting since that July 10th game until last night, he was on 10 days rest when he took the mound in Chicago last night for his first start of the season against the White Sox. Neimann had saved his best for last ( so far) this season. Last night against the White Sox he posted 7 strikeouts and issued zero walks.  This was the third time this season he had not issued a walk in a game, and the second time in the last three starts. He was beginning to exert control on his game on the mound, and he lasted 8 innings last night before he was finally pulled before coming out in the top of the ninth after throwing  exactly 100 pitches. The Tall Texan made his presence known, and for the month has a 2-0 record with a 2.25 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 3 starts.

So this brings about some scuttlebutt and chatter now that David Price might not be the guy to watch for the Rookie of the Year award right now with the Rays. That Neimann might have stolen a bit of the preseason thunder directed at Price. And what is wrong with that? How many other teams outside of Toronto have had two rookies basically come forward and contribute so much for their teams. Neimann is currently holding a 3.44 ERA, which is pretty amazing considering after the first start it was a bulging 10.13 ERA.  And a pleasant surprise for the Rays is the fact he is now 6-2 away from Tropicana Field with a 3.84 ERA. 

In the month of June and July he is 5-0 after posting a 4-4 record in the first two months of the season.  He has started 17 games for the Rays this season and has seen victories in 9 of those starts. For a rookie, that is impressive to me. Going into last night game he was tied with Detroit Tiger starter Rick Porcello for the most wins by a rookie pitcher this season in the AL. And not lost is the fact that his next victory will tie Rolando Arrojo for the Rays rookie mark for wins with 10.  And is it an odd connection that the night before they honor the 1998 team with their technicolor jerseys on “Throwback Night”, Neimann threw his complete game shutout.

I actually find that pleasantly exciting. The kid has been mired in doubt and intrigue the last few season as to his durability to play at this level, and this season he might eclipse the rookie record for victories in a season, and move it well beyond the present 10 win mark.  He has now won 5 straight decisions and has lost only one decision since the first week of May (@ Cleveland/ May 28th).  And even if he not on the mound to get a decision for the wins, the Rays have won 11 out of last 12 of his starts, and are 13-4 in all his starts this season.  And to put an exclamation point on his season since May 13th, he has a 6-1 record with a 2.51 ERA and has not allowed a home run since May 23rd when he gave one up to Dan Uggla in Landshark Stadium.

The above statistics can only help to establish Neimann right now as the team’s candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. Some might still feel it is Price’s award to lose, but Neimann right now is putting up all the right numbers to be within eyesight of the award. But considering he is only the 7th Rays pitcher ever to throw at least two complete game shutouts. Arrojo threw two in his rookie season in 1998. No other pitcher in Rays history has thrown three complete game shutouts in his career.  But that record, like Arrojo’s rookie win mark might be tested this season by Neimann.

And considering the impressive crowd he is now being mentioned with as the only holders of complete game shutouts this season, it reads like a “Who’s Who” in the MLB. The Royals Zack Greinke, San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, Cardinal Joel Pinero and Red Sox Josh Beckett are the only other guys to throw 2 so far in 2009.  You want some more impressive stats?
 

Hmmmm, he is also the fourth rookie this decade to throw two complete game shutouts joining Dontrelle Willis (2003), Jeremy Sowers (2006) and Hiroki Kuroda ( 2008).  And he is only the second rookie to throw both of his before the All Star break, the other was former Rays Arrojo in 1998. 

But then again, the Tall Texan has also been the recipient of some of the best run support in the major leagues by his teammates. The Rays are scoring 7.71 runs per 9 innings for Neimann. That works out to only the second highest percentage among ML qualifiers, and first in the AL. And to say he has been matched up against only fifth starters this season is a crock. He beat Roy Halladay in Toronto on June 29th, when he went 7.1 innings.  Sometimes being the fifth starter on the team can get you unique experiences for growth and excelling in your performance. I think it is more of Neimann finally feeling he belongs up here
and feeling more at ease on the mound. 

The winner in all of this are the Rays and the fans. In a spot in the rotation that people fretted and wondered about from the first game, Neimann had shown he is a solid member of the Rays rotation, and could be for a long time. Some people point to 2008, when Edwin Jackson also was the fifth starter and posted 14 wins in the season. So far Neimann is ahead of Jackson’s 2008 pace, and could be the new Rays total victories in a season leader by October. But the season still has over 60 games to play, and anything can happen from now on.

But one thing is for sure, the Rays are a better team with Neimann on it. Where early in the season people spoke aloud of the outlandish decision to keep him, now those same people are clapping and praising him for his wins and performance. Hey, the guy might just be the Rays second Rookie of the Year winner, and keep the tradition alive for one more season in Tampa Bay.  But I am going on record as saying when they ask me to put my stamp on any rookie who I think deserves the award, the first statistics I will look at in comparison is to Neimann’s numbers. And so far, no one is holding a candle to the Tall Texan.
  

Second Half Thoughts

 


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About now the Tampa Bay Rays players and coaches are beginning to arrive at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri eager to get this second half of the season started and off to a winning note.  Missing from today’s workout will be Evan Longoria, who is at the ESPN ESPY awards, but he should be back in time for the Friday night game. Also missing will be Rays reliever Grant Balfour, who is delayed in his return back to the team after attending his grandfather’s funeral back home.

This clubhouse will be alive with stories and excitement following the three day mini vacation that most of the team’s players had since the end of the game Sunday afternoon. But you know the real group to keep an eye on will be the five players and 6 coaches who attended the All Star game who will be holding court about the last few days and the parties and events surrounding their All Star game adventures.

You have to wonder how many times  Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos will tell the tale of the fantastic catch by Carl Crawford with his first hand account of the play only 3 feet beyond the Bullpen fence.  Or you really want to imagine how many times Crawford has now picked up that crystal bat and swung it towards the heavens as if he was using it at the plate.  And you really want to know where the new keepsake is hidden that Ben Zobrist got after the final out of the All Star game. That ball that will forever link him to the All Star game.  Or maybe to hear the tales from Carlos Pena on the “pitches” that got away during the Home Run Derby.

After today all those adventures and stories will have to be put back on the shelf to be retold during rain delays and night flight to other cities as the Rays will renew their quest to get back into the playoff picture this season. At this critical point in the season they are only 6 1/2 game out of the top spot, but they know that even if they hit the 93 win mark, they might be out of the playoffs this season. So their effort will have to take center stage starting tomorrow night as they take on the Royals in a 3-game series. Then they will head to the southside of Chicago for a 4-game series against the White Sox. Then it is on to Rogers Centre to take on the Blue Jays in a 3-game weekend series before finally coming back home to finish out the month.

This next week will be a  critical key indicator of any possible playoff push by the Rays. They truly have to adjust their mindsets and come back from this 10-game trip with a 6-4 record or better to begin a forward trend towards the top of the division. This is a road trip where a .500 record will not do them any justice. They have 3 games against a division foe, and 4 games against a caliber team in the White Sox to see just how good this squad is right now.  They are currently seven games off their 2008 pace, but even at this time last season they only held onto the American League East top spot by a half a game lead over the Red Sox.


Mike Carlson / AP

The road is going to be  a rough component for the Rays the rest of the season. They will play 17 more game on the road against just their division, and they will play host for another 24 at Tropicana Field. 41 times between today and the last game against the New York Yankees at Tropicana field on October 3, 2009. And so with a 41 game swing in any direction, the Rays will have to capitalize on their road opponents to make up some distance in the standings and give themselves any wiggle room the rest of the year.

But the road has not been kind to the Rays, who currently sport a 18-26 record outside the confines of the Trop. And the road mindset can be tricky at times considering the Rays pitching staff has not been great away from home so far this season. In their 44 road games this season, the Rays staff has a 4.52 ERA, and have given up 53 homers. Every statistic is higher on the road but hits. They have actually given up 5 less hits than at home, but they have not been able to stop rallies and scoring chances by the opposition on the road. So when James Shields take the mound tomorrow night against the Royals the Rays have to adjust their minds to almost feeling at home and strive to take this three game series from the Royals.
 

That would be a huge boost for the rest of the road trip if they got out of the gate in a positive manner.  But the Rays will have to continue to improve both on their defense and their offense if they plan on contending in late September and October. They will have to get on a good and fast run right now and gain momentum to achieve their postseason dreams again this year. The road will end up being the key to any playoff dreams.

But with the Rays top three pitchers, and the emergence of Rookies David Price and Jeff Niemann, the Rays have the horses to pull it off. The Bullpen has suffered a bit of a let down recently after blanking people since late June, but again they will be needed to step it up a notch to regain their edge and superiority.  And speaking of needing an edge, a few players who have begun to awaken at the plate again need to step up for the team to make any strides in the division. Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Zobrist have done their part to keep the offense clicking, but now a few other members of the team needs to do their part to propel the Rays.

Designated hitter Pat Burrell went 4 for 11 during the recent Oakland series and the ball sounded solid off his bat for the first time this season.  For the team to go anywhere the rest of the year, Burrell is going to have to step up his game and contribute on a nightly basis for the Rays to surge. And he is not the only one who needs to kick it up a bit right now. Evan Longoria started off the season simply on fire before he began to cool down during the first weeks of July. He has gone 7 for 40 in the last 10 games with only a single home run.  And during that period he has also drove in only three RBI.


Steve Nesius / AP

But there are great signs of the team’s sleeping giant offense making a second half run. Carlos Pena came out of a homerless streak recently during the Oakland series to get his game back on track. But his 5 for 33 mark in the last 10 games shows that the meat of the Rays order needs to awaken for the team to get any wins.   But then again the pleasant surprise of the season, Zobrist has been the big bat in the middle of the order going 10 for 35 with 1 HR and 6 RBI over the last 10 games. And that is a weakened set of statistics&nb
sp;by him right now. Between the 3 and 6 spot in the lineup the Rays are lacking some critical firepower.

But for what is missing right now in the middle of the order, the top and bottom of the lineup have come together to piece some huge wins for the team recently. Catcher Dioner Navarro, who has been flirting with the low 200′s most of the season has gone 5 for 13 in his last four games and has been instrumental in the rays scoring chances in the last two series Even the duo of Gabe’s have come up big for the Rays in the last week. Gabe Kapler has been hot recently going 6 for 17 with 5 RBI in his last 10 games. And Gabe Gross as emerged again going  7 for his last 26 to move runner around for the Rays.

But the consistent hitter for the Rays right now  have come out of the second and seventh spots in the lineup. Bartlett has come up big lately going 7 for 31 with 3 RBI while maintaining a .347 average for 2009. But if you really want to talk about pressure and coming strong right now, you have to point your finger at Crawford. Not only has he been great on the field defensively over the past 10 games, he has been incredible at the plate. 


Steve Nesius / AP

He has gone 8 for 37 and has stolen only four bases. the entire team is in a bit of a funk, but some members are still trying to keep the Rays heads above the waterlines.  For the team to have the added success the rest of the season, B J Upton will have to keep getting more hits and chances on the base paths.

But as Rays Manger Joe Maddon stresses, “Starting pitching sets the tone of a game.” Shields is the one guy on the Rays staff who needs to see an increase in the runs scored during his starts. The team has only scored an average of 2.61 runs/game for him. The only Rays starter to even get close to 5 runs of support was Andy Sonnanstine, and he is now in the minors. This team surely has the ability to turn the season around and gain ground on both the Yankees and the Red Sox and battle until the end for that playoff spot.

Certain things will have to fall into place for the Rays to make a surge both in the win column and in the standings. But this first road trip will answer so many questions and provide extreme answers to their chances of even getting back to defend their title. There needs to be a total boost from the bench to the Bullpen for this team to take the next step. They have been there before and they know the level of commitment and sacrifices needed to achieve their goals.  Starting tomorrow night with the first pitch by Royals ace Zack Greinke to B J Upton the team will be able to regroup, re-focus and re-energize to shoot towards that ultimate goal.

The clock has started ticking, the Rays are getting ready to toss the ball and do some light hitting before finally going back to the hotel tonight. In that short amount of time the assembled Rays need to come together and feel that power and strength of this ballclub. The prize is within sight, all they have to do now is reach up and grab it and hold on tight to the end. Hopefully their grip will be tight, and their will is strong.
Go Rays!

Rays have some Major Pitching Decisons looming

 


Paul J Berewill / AP

I do not envy Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman or Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s job this weekend. They will have to brainstorm and continue to formulate a plan to set two people either on a plane to the minor leagues, or find another alternative for one before the team gets on the plane to head to Toronto at the beginning of the week.  One player ( Winston Abreu) probably already knows his days are numbered and is just going to enjoy what time he has left before he is heading back to Triple-A this season.

But the second player that will needed to be plucked from the rotation and either sent down to the minors, traded, or maybe even relegated to the Bullpen might be the toughest decision for the Rays this season.  And I do not envy those two men at all for the deepest cut this year for the team. We all know that Rays starter Scott Kazmir is rumored to be starting one of the games this weekend, and with that becoming a reality, it means one of the two other starters this weekend either Jeff Neimann or David Price might be sitting on the hot seat.

But then again, did Andy Sonnanstine do enough to even secure his job last night. We all know he got roughed up in the first inning then completely solidified and became the starter we needed last night. Sonnanstine has the mental ability to start in the league without question. The only problem is that now we have a three headed monster to contend with here, and which head is the one to be chopped off. All three have merits to be here another day in the rotation, but someone has to give way again by Monday when the Rays have anticipated that Rays reliever Chad Bradford would be ready for duty.

That throws another gallon of gasoline in the fire because with his promotion back onto the Rays roster, one of the big three will have to give way. I want to play shadow General Manager here for a moment and try and decide, convince or maybe even throw some personal opinion into the barrel with the rest of Maddon and Friedman’s thoughts.  We all know that Bradford is further along in his rehab that initially anticipated and could even be restored to the roster by the weekend.

But my logical, or maybe biased view might be to use the obvious choice of sending down Abreu today or tomorrow to make that first roster space ready for Kazmir if he indeed is given a start this weekend in place of Price or Niemann. And with that happening, just move the current rotation down 1 to keep a rightie( Shields), leftie( Kazmir), rightie (Garza), leftie (Price), rightie (Niemann) match-up.  Okay you are quickly noticing my second part of the rotation here with the absence of a name.

I am over a barrel here because I love the spunk of Sonnanstine and actually think he is turning the corner.  His mental make-up is the thing I wish both Niemann and Price have right now. That is what makes this more of a toss-up than a sure thing. I can make excuses for either Sonnanstine or Price going down, but in reality, if we send down Price right now we might send the wrong message to him too. As I have mentioned before, in 2003 when Kazmir first made his Rays debut, he went 2-3 and showed impressive results in strikeouts and movement on his pitches, but you knew 2004 was going to be his year.

Price has been basically anointed by the media to be a darling since his playoff heroics of 2008, but that doesn’t give you the leg up to assume or take a roster spot in the major leagues. He did need that additional seasoning in the minors, and maybe it might not have been the right time to bring him up, but it is history now and if you send him back it might put him behind in his development. For some reason now I am of the mindset that for him to go back to Durham would revert his development a bit. 

Kazmir and James Shields had to learn to adjust at this level and turned out fine for the Rays. Matt Garza took huge steps in 2008 to prove he was a top tier pitcher in the league. That Texas tussle might have actually been the best moment of his career because it got him to see a problem outside of just pitching that was taking his mind off the business on the mound. Heck, even if Price got lite up a bit on Tuesday night in that first inning the fact he threw 30 strikes on 40 pitches in itself is pretty amazing.

So here is the rub. You got three guys who deserve the spots, but only two slots to fill. How do you decide who is the odd man out?


Steve Nesius / AP

1st contender…………….Jeff Niemann 


You got a former First Round draft pick that you have invested both time and money into who is finally coming into his own on the mound after only 16 career starts. He is currently tied with James Shields for the team lead in wins with 6, and is second among American League rookie pitcher this season in wins.

Not only that, he has matured and developed quickly since his first start of the season where he got shell shocked by the Baltimore Orioles and his six victories puts him 4 behind Rolando Arrojo’s current Rays rookie record.  The team has won 8 of his last 9 starts and are 10-4 overall when he has taken the mound in 2009.  This statistic is the best among the five starters on the Rays staff this season.  

He is getting 8.17 runs per 9 innings, the second best support in the AL after Boston’s Tim Wakefield. The Rays have scored 40 runs in his last 4 starts and have scored 8 runs or more in 10 of his 14 starts.  He has not allowed a home run  in 26.1 innings or since May 23rd at Florida (Uggla).  Niemann also has the only complete game shutout by a rookie pitcher this season in the majors.  He threw only 100 pitches in that shut out, with between 9-14 pitches each inning of that contest. 

The one really bad side to maybe even considering taking Niemann out of the rotation might be the effect it would have on his starting ability in the rest of the season. Being a major league reliever is a different mindset since you have to be ready every day to pitch. That is a totally different mental preparation for a game than studying two days in advance of your next start to get totally invested in the opposition’s hitting patterns. Relievers tend to learn on the fly at times, which might stunt his growth as a starter.


Kathy Willens / AP

2nd Contender……………….Andy Sonnanstine.

I have to say I re
ally like the way he handled that adversity last night, but for some reason it did feel like more of the same from him this season. He has gotten in deep dodo before in 2009 and fought log and hard to resurface with confidence and  a renewed vigor to pitch, and I respect that in him.  But the reality is that even though he is now tied with Neimann and Shields with six wins,he has had to endure more stress and rocky starts than the other two starters.

But he is  a sure thing at home this season, I will give him that. In 2009 he is 5-0 in six home starts this season. Compare that to his road record and he is night and day this season. On the road he is 1-7 with a 8.22 ERA.  But on top of some of those great home numbers is a few statistics that might frighten the daylights out of you. He had allowed a home run in 8 straight starts before he blanked the Philadelphia Phillies last night. During that span he has allowed 14 dingers.  But that is not the only warning signal to boast a red flag for Sonnanstine.

His 6.61 ERA is the highest among major league qualifying starting pitchers this season.  He currently leads the American League in runs allowed with 60 runs, and .307 Opponents Batting Average is second in the AL. But a big plus on his side to maybe stay until at least Monday is the fact he gives Maddon another left-handed bat on the bench for the Inter League series. He has been impressive with his hitting in 2009, and has proven to be a bona fide hitter for the Rays.

But even if the plus and minus side match up, he is also eligible to be sent down to the minors without having to be placed on waivers at all. He still has two minor league options that the Rays can use with him. I am not pre-determining anything here, but that fact along with the red flags on homers and Opponents Batting Average might be a determining factor in the future decision.

       
        Reinhold Matay / AP

3rd Contender……………David Price.

Here is where it gets really interesting. If you send down the Rookie do you send the right message to him that his time is coming and that this is just a postponement of his major league education? As I have stated before, I think he was not ready to come up right after Kazmir went on the disabled list. But he has gotten the same kind of training Kazmir got in 2003 when he went 2-3 and got thrown into the Rays rotation. Maybe this experience taught him something and if he did go back down a fire would be burning in his belly to get back up here as soon as possible.

But the reality is that the guy is here now and he could learn just as well up here as in Durham now. And the added fact of a second leftie in your starting rotation is nothing to sneeze at in the major leagues. But he is also a work in progress up here right now getting hit around at times, but always acting like a rubber band and pulling himself back into shape to adjust and get his game back into order. And that has not gone unnoticed in the stands either. 

Let’s look at his stats before the Tuesdays game to get a better look at what he has done so far in the majors. Before that game he had made a total of 7 career starts for the Rays.  If he had enough innings to qualify, he would be second in ERA and third in Opponents Batting Average for rookies in the AL this season.  He has also allowed two earned runs or less in 4 out of his 5 starts this season. He is the guy with the least amount of innings this season, but might have the biggest up-side to remaining with the team past this weekend.

I am not going to beat around the bush here and throw more stats out about Price.  We all know he has star potential and can be a huge cog in the Rays future. But the biggest thing that needs to be addressed is the simple fact he can also still be sent down without any cause for alarm. I think he is the most unlikely of the three right now to be optioned back to Durham, but this team has surprised me before with logical-illogical thinking.

Summary

Basically it is going to be a huge decision whoever the Rays decide to swap out of the rotation for Kazmir and Bradford’s returns. The most logical and practical options is to send Abreu down first, then make the needed arrangements or even a trade to make the second decision a no-brainer for the team. Niemann looks to be safe for a roster spot right now. That is not to mean he might be popped into the Bullpen like during the 2008 playoffs, but I think that might be a premature thing to do with the tall Texan.

Also I am thinking more and more that Price might have done all he can do down in Durham and learning on the fly up here might be his best option now. But a short turn back in Durham also working more on that change-up and learning a bit more on the constantly moving major league strike zone might also be in order. There is a 50-50 split on if he goes back to the Triple-A Bulls. But in the end, my head tells me he is here for the rest of the year baring injury or a major meltdown.

That leaves us with Sonnanstine. He has posted some of the biggest wins in the last two years for the team, but he has fallen down a notch or two in control and consistency. But as we all know Cleveland’s Cliff Lee is not the most consistent pitcher overall, but has gotten the wins when needed in his career. And Sonnanstine mirrors him in this respect. Sonny knows what needs to be done and will strive to do it at all costs, but is his clock winding down with the Rays.

Of the three pitchers mentioned in this blog, he is the one who might even garner the most attention on the trade front. We all know that the San Diego Padres are anxious to find more starting pitching, but could Sonnanstine be the right fit for that squad. Before the season a few teams were linked to Sonnanstine. Could any of these teams still be interested in the righthander?

The Rays might still keep him for pitching depth and send him to the minors or even put him in the Bullpen. But the stark reality is that he could go down and redefine himself at Durham and come up blazing and ready to reclaim a rotation spot. Nothing make a pitcher hungrier than knowing they can still produce at this level and being optioned down to the minors. But Sonny has done it before. He has gone from an unknown to a 14-game winner last season. I really do not envy those two men in the Ray clubhouse for this series of decisions. But even if they have to play a aggressive rendition of “Rock,Paper. Scissors” this will be done this weekend. Hopefully they can come to a consensus before the Wine Pong game comes out.

   

Price Check!

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

I found it kind of funny last night. The way some of the Rays fans in the crowd at Tropicana Field began to slowly turn against David Price. It was odd the way they were beginning to cross that hypocritical line that you invade when you think you might have duped by someone or something. They were in that zone I like to call, the See-Saw Zone. And it is not like have never been that way before here in sunny Florida.  As fans of a team that has only celebrated one winning season, we can be totally critcial of anything at anytime within the sport.

We have done it before to all of our local favorite teams, the  Tampa Bay Bucs have gotten it ever since they stopped making the playoffs. And the one year absence of hockey in Tampa Bay made a huge legion of fans forget about the Lightning on the ice even if they did win the top prize,the Stanley Cup before the strike put them on the shelf for a season. And now it seems that the Tampa Bay Rays fan are starting to do it to the best pitching prospect to come through our minor league system. The catcalls in Rightfield after the third inning irritated me to the bone. People seem to have ADD anymore about the positive accomplishments of any athlete, much less one of their own.

Another adage I sometimes use to show this kind of behavior is the old Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me Lately?”.  It is actually that sense of entitlement and self ownership that the crowd gets to show their pleasure and displeasure at their own discretion towards a bevy of things Rays related. So did it bother me that people began to actually say David Price’s name out loud that maybe we plucked the cherry tree too soon and he was not ripe. Nope.

Did it bother me that they are now questioning their own sense of baseball as self-taught scouts.  Who knows if they are right or wrong about the southpaw that seemed to hold the franchise together last season at key moments. He did not start a game, but his presence on the mound in the end of the game left an impression of superiority to the masses. But what really got my goat is the  inflated expectations by the Rays that they threw upon this young pitcher the moment his name was chatted on the radio or typed into a computer. The kid pitched a combined 12-1 in the Rays Minor League system in 2008. But all some of the Rays fans remember is a short stint in the Bullpen where he looked like the second coming of fellow southpaw Scott Kazmir to the team.

             
              Chris O’Meara / AP

People forgot the reality that he jumped from Class-A to the bench in the major leagues in less than a full season. That is usually not the case with a young pitcher you are counting on for your future. MLB Scouts commonly say that you never really get  a true evaluation and potential of a young pitcher until he has thrown about 200 innings. Well, if you combine his 2008 totals (109.2 innings), plus his Rays 2008 totals (14 innings) you still do not get a good 200 innings out of the guy as a young professional pitcher.  And in that scenario, you have to admit to yourself he will be a work in progress at the major league level.

Sure he as the  explosive stuff on the mound and the awesome ability to pitch above his head at times, but he is also trying to parlay a new pitch (change-up) into his arsenal that needs time to mature and develop fully to be effective. So far in 2009, with his number from Durham ( 34.1 innings) and the Rays ( 30.1 ) he is still 26 innings short of that basic measuring point in his development ( 174 innings). And is one of the key elements that bothered me when they first brought him up this season. Sure his placement and velocity of his slider and his fastball might be above average, but his change-up is a work in progress and is improving daily. But such a pitch can be used as a glaring weak spot for teams to  be patient and sit on pitches waiting on Price to throw them early in the game.

And that might be a perfect explanation of what happened last night when the crowd and the Philadelphia Phillies dissected him like a frog in Biology class. They basically poked and prodded the young pitcher fouling off his fastball and slider and were giddy when he finally offered up his breaking stuff. The Phillies 6 runs and 4 hits along with a costly error by Evan Longoria was the example of in-depth scouting and having the Phillies hitter wait for Price to make a pitching mistake.

And he did make a few in the first inning, but it was not all his doing. Even thought the team behind him was in an odd defensive funk, he did finally get it all under control after the first inning before again stumbling in the fourth inning. And when the Phillies again took him apart for 4 runs. That is when I started to hear the voices behind me question if we brought him up too early ,or if he was over-rated as a pitcher. These were the same souls who cheered his first win, and also shouted encouragement to him as he was warming up by the Bullpen this same night.

Have we all gotten that fickle now in Tampa Bay by one short season of Price showing he has the right stuff. There is going to be ups and down with Price this year just as we have seen with Jeff Niemann. And people really do have to be a bit patient with both of them. Price is starting to figure it out at this level, but some people in the stands want instant gratification and do not have the precious time to wait for an improvement or knowing that better things are coming for the Rays starters. 

But I think Price so far has been given the same luxuries that Scott Kazmir was given in 2004 when the Rays brought him up to learn the art of pitching at the major league level. Last night was not pretty, but then again, the Rays starters this season have been as up and down as the new Manta roller coaster at Sea World in Orlando. There have been numerous twists and turns by everyone on the staff, even James Shields and Matt Garza. But this is also a series where the two teams have ample and extended scouting on all phases of the game. You to guess the Phillies have not only done their homework on the Rays, but know this is a series based on  a lot of pride for the Rays. This series could turn into a defining moment in the 2009 season.

Maybe the Rays were a bit hasty when they began the Price dog-and-pony show the day he was drafted. Price has been hyped since day 1 when he first signed his contract on August 15, 2007 with quotes telling us he will be here fast and to expect him to be with the team soon than later. “We ar
e thrilled to add a player of David’s caliber to our organization,” said Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman told MLB.com. “Not only was he the most outstanding amateur player in the country this year, we see him as one of the best pitching prospects to come out of the draft in some time. In addition to his remarkable talent, David’s character is exemplary. He is an important building block and a potential upper-echelon starting pitcher for many years.”  Can you say pressure cooker on high heat!

But then Price when he was interviewed right after being selected by the Rays with the top pick in 2007 showed some of his maturity and frank honestly on the acceleration process through the Rays farm system. “The difference between Major League hitters and college hitters, there is not even a comparison,” Price said during a conference call with Bill Chastian, who is the Rays correspondent for MLB.com. “Being able to pitch in the Major Leagues, you really have to have something about you. To go from college and breeze through the Minor Leagues is a rarity. You have to be careful with that.” 


Reinhold Matay / AP


Most people cheered when the Rays finally promoted pitcher David Price to the major leagues later than expected in 2009 knowing that the future of the Rays organization was right on their doorstep. I am one of those people who thought he might be the wrong guy at the wrong time.   For the record, I was more into thinking Wade Davis deserved a chance to flaunt his stuff and was more developed at the time, but that is why I am not a Rays scout. I am not against Price in any way, I just feel he needed more time to gel his pitch selection and control in the minor leagues before he got thrown into the MLB melting pot.

I was hoping for a post All-Star promotion for Price to give him more time to refine his craft and also show he had done everything he could at the Triple-A level. That has been the knock on him that he is a great pitcher who throws strikes, but can be picked apart by extending at bats until a mistake crosses the plate. But that is also the tale of hundreds of young pitchers in the league. If you are patient to wait for a mistake, you will be rewarded. And that same evaluation was apparent last night. He truly got picked apart by the Phillies hitters.

It might have been easier for Rays catcher Dioner Navarro to yell out the signals because the hitters were looking for a certain type of pitch (breaking ball) every time they went to the plate, and they were patient for all 4.1 innings of Price’s night. But when he did finally come off the mound and was replaced by Rays reliever Winston Abreu, most of the crowd did not stand and cheer for him. Instead most sat on their hands beyond the eyesight of the dugout. They guy did his best that night, but the wishy-washy crowd would not have any of it. Rays fans need to understand that art of patience again, or they might accidentally ruin this young pitcher by sending the wrong message to him.

It might have been the shock and awe of Price getting beaten around like this from a team coming in with a 6-game losing streak that unsettled the crowd. But lost within the stadium was the fact the Phillies are a monster on the road with a current 24-9 mark, which is best in the MLB this season. It is not often a team has a better road record than a home record and is still over .500. Price might have been more a victim of an aggressive team hungry for a win,but the Phillies did their best impersonation of a Sharks feeding frenzy when they tore into the young pitcher time and time again in the first inning. Price did threw 40 pitches in that inning, and 30 of them went for strikes by because of the score, any effectiveness went out the window. 

That proves he was hitting some of the spots that Navarro set up for him behind the plate, but the Phillies also stayed patient knowing the young southpaw would make a mistake. Rays fans had better get used to roller coaster rides by the young pitcher. t is common to have a topsy turvy time of it your first season. But for some reason it felt in the stands last night that people were looking at him throwing on the mound like the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year without even throwing 50 innings yet this season.

Scott Kazmir went through the same learning curve and has become the Rays winningest pitcher (51 wins). Kazmir also has thrown over 818 strikeouts in his 768.2 innings as a Rays starter . Jame Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine have all been battered and bruised before on the mound. But with them, the Rays faithful have given them time and space to grow into the pitching styles. Price not only deserves the same time and space, but he has proven he can win, and that he can pitch at this level. The big question is how long until they either join him or cast him off as a used relic.

It is sure to be a rough 2009 for Price, but if it was so easy, all of us might have had a professional career. The art of pitching at this level is one of the hardest things to master in sports. There are too many variables to account for on every pitch to bring about perfection or even a chance to try to achieve perfection. There is a reason we celebrate Perfect Games and No-hitter with such zeal. They are not given moments to people who settle or do not give total effort, but are classic examples of learning the craft and putting it all out there every time on the mound.

Price will be fine. He will begin to get it and become a great star in this lineup if we just give him the needed time to gel. The guy is only in his rookie year and people were calling for the Bullpen in the first inning.  What was especially upsetting was watching a young fan tear up a sign with Price’s name on it in the sixth inning. He looked frustrated and upset his guy did not get it done tonight. But also adding to the problem was his parents bickering and complaining about Price. It was not the right example to show to the kid first off, but it was not right to throw Price under the bus for great scouting and preparation.

Price might still get a chance to be selected for the 2009 Rookie-of-the-Year that most people in the sport anointed him with in Spring Training. But even if he doesn’t the guy is giving his all and doing a job most of us would trade almost anything for to try every 5 days. I have to admit, the first inning took a lot of the air out of me last night too, but I also know that this team can do anything if they motivate themselves. Price is going to be around for a long time here in Tampa Bay. We should show more positive crowd reactions to the guy, not chant for the Bullpen after the first inning. Maybe in five days when he is again on the mound against the Florida Marlins the fans will give him the chance to again prove he is here for good.

Pitching changes coming for the Rays


Steve Nesius / AP

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.

 
 
 
 
Right now they do not have the best 25 horse to pull the Rays wagon. That might be the worst part of it all. They know they have a solid team that can go head-to-head with anyone in the league, but small setbacks have not only stretched the minor league farm system, but also some of the fan faithful patience. Key players in the minors have either gone lame (Hellickson), or have been as inconsistent (Davis) as some of the Rays current pitchers.

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. 

         
          Steve Nesius / AP

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.

 
  Steve Nesius / AP

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.

 
 
 
But the deciding fact might just be as simple as this fact obtained from the Elias Bureau about Niemann’s effort. Last night was the first time in 20 years that a rookie pitcher threw a complete game shutout against the Royals allowing two or few hits against them.  Right now it might be an uphill battle for Sonnanstine to keep his spot in the rotation when Kazmir returns. But with the show of heart and ability he has, he might not be the front runner to stay, but you can’t count him out yet either.

Could Maddon have planned this Mistake?

 


RRCollections

I have to say that the lineup card fiasco yesterday stirred up its own pot of controversy as we sat there in the stands for almost 15 minutes not knowing what was going on at home plate. We could see Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge constantly bickering and arguing a fact from just beyond Dick Vitale’s seat, but even the loud and proud Vitale probably could not have figured this fiasco out in less time. It is not the intention of the Tampa Bay Rays to try and shore up their defense by putting both Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist at the same position.

But you do have to give it to the Cleveland bench for not saying a thing before the Rays took their first time out in the field to solidify Wedge’s argument that Longoria should be tossed off the lineup card in the 3-hole.  It was a measure of stealth that they let the Rays get their 3 outs then protest the line-up card to basically make this an old school National League versus American League game. By showing the error to the umpire crew the Indians did in fact get Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine put into that third spot for the ballgame. But little did they know that Sonnanstine was a .400 hitter and could stroke the ball with authority. Because the Rays play basically a NL-type game with a designated hitter most nights, the loss of Longoria did not take a huge bite out of the Rays scoring machine.

You would have thought it would cause all kinds of havoc and make for a very one-sided contest, but in reality, it boosted the Rays bench confidence in their team, and also got the other Rays pitchers to want to also take a few hacks at the plate. One television camera even caught Rays starter Scott Kazmir taping up his bat on the bench maybe hoping for a pinch-hitter role in the game. But what soon seemed like a huge injustice to the Rays turned into a plus as Sonnanstine put down an incredible bunt to get a fielder’s choice when the Indians instead went to second with the throw to get the speedy Carl Crawford. But later in the contest, Sonnanstine would make the Indians pay with a nice stroke to leftfield that had Ryan Garko doing circles out there in left field.

But for some reason, the post-game interview with Rays Manager Joe Maddon saw him take complete blame for the line-up blunder. He said it was basically his signature and that he was responsible for the error and that no one else’s fingerprints are on the decision to submit the wrong lineup card before the game. Okay, I am not a huge fan of conspiracy theories or even the mixture of intelligence and character building in reference to his team. But if I was, then Maddon is a true genius. For some odd reason I see his smiling face not at all too upset on the reversal of losing Longoria, who even got up off the bench and penciled in Sonnanstine’s name himself before putting on a sweat top and sitting on the bench.


RRCollections

How much of a true warrior statistician would you be if you pulled the wool over the eyes of not only your team, but the opposition.  I truly think that Sun Tzu would be proud of Maddon right now. I think he meant to do that yesterday. For some odd reason it makes sense that starting on Friday, his pitchers would again be taking the plate in Inter League contests against the Florida Marlins. Here we had the best hitting pitcher on the Rays having to take hacks today against a guy making his MLB debut.  It doesn’t take a wise man to see that the simple fact of Sonnanstine hitting can give the Indians a false set of confidence in at least one quick out in an inning.

It also doesn’t seem too far fetched to think of Maddon as using this “error” as a tool to motivate his pitchers who are now chomping at the bit to get time at the plate. That makes for more focused Batting Practice swings by the pitching staff, plus a bit of covert action by showing the pitchers’ one of their own going 1 for 3 with an RBI in Sundays win. I can see Maddon sitting in his office trying to devise his own “Trojan Horse” situation to boost not only the confidence of his pitching staff, but for his players to believe again in 2009. After the rough start to the season, and the last two nights emotional and building confidence levels, this move could make them take on a army of Transformers.

I sat down near the Bullpen and even joked about Joe Nelson and Dan Wheeler getting some hacks today at the plate. But in the back of my mind, I knew that Sonnanstine might get three chances, and by then it would be the seventh inning or beyond and the bench could be put into action. The last few days I have seen several members of this pitching staff take to the batting cages, and some of them have more focus than last season. So if Maddon did indeed do this to instill a sense of magic and power to his pitchers’ they got the message loud and clear. For the pure fact that he is the last one to see that lineup card before he gives it to either Dave Martinez or Tom Foley to submit, you have to think they also check it out while walking out there.

But for the fact that no one questioned it before the middle of the first inning is in itself a bold move by both benches. It could have been decided that Longoria’s name not being put under the “DH” moniker was just a clerical error and he would have been inserted anyway. But the umpire crew did its job and made the right decision. With a bit of luck, and skill it worked perfectly into the Rays favor. This is not to mean that Pat Burrell has been replaced by a pitcher, but it is a great thing to know that the pitchers want to contribute at the plate too now. That can lead to all sorts of plays and chances for this team to get additional bats in the lineup in the coming Inter League games.

I can truly see the mind of Joe Maddon cooking up this scenario and even making alternative plans in his head if it did not work well. That is why I like Maddon. He is one of those managers that actually manages during the game. Situational hitting, double steals and also watching for routine flaws in the other team is his style of play. Maddon is a great lover of the strategies and moves of the game. I am really thinking he just played the best joke on all of us, and only himself and maybe his Coaching staff know the truth in this matter.


Rienhold Matay / AP

So for now, the Rays as a “NL” team are 1-0 in the season. We will find out just how good this play of events evolves when on Friday night the pitchers again take to the plate in Miami.  Not to truly say that the Rays skipper did do it on purpose, but if he did, it would be one of the best coaching moves to motivate a sector of your team since the bat sc
ene in “Bull Durham”. Sonnanstine is now in the history books, and the Rays turned a visual mistake into a confidence-boosting exercise. Sounds just like something Maddon would cook up in the kitchen too.

 

 

 

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