Results tagged ‘ Grant Balfour ’

Was Wily Mr. O. Possum be the New Oakland Spirit Animal?

 

Native Americans believe that nine different spirit animals or totems are connected to us throughout our lives acting as guides to steer us towards events or occurrences that will define our lives. They believe these nine animals are with us for life and even as they all have their purpose, one is the lead animal that will show the way and provide moments of clarity and awareness.  downloadWe now know that the opossum has to be one of the Oakland Athletic’s nine focal spirit animals. And possibly with this white-faced creature showing itself to the assembled masses last night in the bottom of the 10th inning of a tied contest between the Tampa Bay Rays and the home town A’s, his presence had to be the deciding element to sway the energies last night and provide a victory. It’s the only logical reasoning  for the way the bottom of the 10th inning played out for the Tampa Rays last night. For the Opossum spirit animal is a deceiver, a strategist and an animal that uses deception to his advantage now both on and off the baseball diamond.  Whatever else could have caused such a rapid and defining chain of events that led to the A’s snapping the Rays road winning streak with this very peculiar stage of events? download (2)I mean the Rays had the fiery ex-Athletic, current Rays reliever Grant Balfour growling on the hill, but somehow the elements did not favor the Aussie one tonight as he saw not one, but 2 consecutive hitters get out of the 0-2 hole and find solace upon the base paths.   The first Oakland hitter Alberto Callaspo saw 4 pitches before lining out to left for the first out of the inning. The inning started to look a bit uneventful for the A’s. Then all bets seemed to be off as our opossum made his appearance strutting down the outfield wall in left field to his favorite cubbyhole just after Balfour’s first pitch to someone the O-town locals call “Super Sam” ( wonder where they got that name) Fuld. Possibly the opossum occurrence  inspired Fuld who was down 0-2 at the moment on 2 straight called strikes.  Fuld then found his pitch and deposited it into center field to become the A’s first base runner of the inning. Opossum 1, Rays 0. Then another former Rays, this time a chap named John Jaso swung mightily at 2 straight Balfour offerings as Balfour again had another A’s batter down 0-2 before Jaso, possibly through the vision of the opossum, gained  a bit of serenity and somehow secured himself a free pass to First base via a walk.  Opossum 2, Rays 0. imagesThe during the at bat by Oakland 3B Josh Donaldson we witnessed the usually steady defensive duo of Sean Rodriguez and Kevin Kiermaier somehow let a white sphere drop not in their gloves, but to the green turf  down the left field line missing a golden opportunity to garner a much needed out from this A’s  and keep them from victory. Wonder if S-Rod or the Outlaw saw a opossum out of the corner of their eye, or possibly seated in the stands? Donaldson’s at bat also produced a double whammy of not only reaching base by another walk by Balfour, but also via a deceived fourth ball that got Rays Manager Joe Maddon all ballistic and led to his eventual ejection from the contest by Home Plate Umpire Quinn Wolcott. Opossum 3, Rays 0. That set up a bases loaded situation with one out for the A’s next batter, Brandon Moss. Unfortunately Moss ended up striking out setting up the possible walk-off scenario for the next hitter, Derek Norris.   images (1)Balfour quickly got Norris behind in the count 0-2 before Norris followed Fuld’s lead and hit a game-winning single into center field breaking the Rays road winning streak and sending the Aussie muttering to himself about lost opportunities. Sure the victory went to the A’s that night, but somewhere, under the stands I can just see Mr O. Possum doing the “Dougie” knowing he might have helped by diverting just enough attention to deceive a win. 

Rays Inspired World Cup Squad

 

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It is the World’s game. Only in our country does the sport heard ‘round the World take second, third or maybe not even a fifth fiddle. The globe embraces the sport of football, or as we Americans have dubbed it, Soccer.

With our own United States men soccer team showing their grit and glory by winning their first matchup against Ghana in this year’s World Cup last night, I thought it might be fun to pencil in my own Rays World Cup squad based on the current members of the Rays 25-Man roster.

Instantly most of you would wonder why a Baseball blogger would want to write and create a Soccer squad. From the age of 10 to 21 I played either as a Sweeper or on the left-side of the turf on local Men’s leagues (FSSL), on the All-South select U-17 travel teams and spent my 16th summer in Malmo, Sweden working out with that vistas reserves team.

Heck if you look over at the blog photo on right you will see a photo of me playing indoor soccer, so I have the knowledge and know what it takes to play the game.

Of course the Club Rays team’s Managers slot is already taken as you cannot discount the philosophical and game day rhetoric of Joe Maddon. Heck in a lot of ways he might even be a better communicator and guru to young minds than the current USA Manager Jurgen Kilinsman.

downloadI decided this Rays Club needs to play a 4-3-3 alignment which is 4 defenders, 3 midfielders and 3 forwards. We all know the Rays claim to fame in the last few years have been defense, so a line with a left, center, right fullbacks and a sweeper manning the gaps seems as a perfect lineup to help keep games close and with minimal scoring (hopefully).

So let’s start at the last line of defense, the goalkeeper position first. I am going to pick Ryan Hanigan as he has shown he has the ability to block balls in the dirt, move around with grace under pressure and will come out of goal and sacrifice his body for the team. Most people would think I might pick Jose Molina as a back-up, but I chose Alex Cobb as much for his leadership as for his attention to the little things and would be a great communicator back there.

That being said, my defense will also have a few wily Rays vets manning key spots, and even a few surprises to some people. My left fullback has to be someone committed to defense as well as have good sprinting speed to defend an opposing winger who is usually the fastest guy on the team with the ball.

For some reason Jake McGee fits that spot for me. He is a big body guy who should be able to keep his shoulder square to the ball and ride a winger off the ball if he wants to proceed towards the touchlines or the goal box. On the right side I’m going with a gut feeling that Yunel Escobar will be a mirror image of McGee and keep the crosses from getting to the goal mouth and has the closing speed to thwart long passes into the box.

images (4)Center fullback is a tough one. I want to get a big body in there, but more in height than in weight. For that reason I chose Grant Balfour who at 6’2” has a bit of a nasty streak, highly competitive and if he chats to the ball, that might scare a few opposing forwards from going up the middle of the pitch. As long as he keeps his back to the goal, I think the snarling Aussie should shut down any middle of the field dribbling and long range shots.

As for the sweeper position I wanted to give that slot to someone who can be both an offensive and defensive weapon. Someone who can be that 4th utility defender as well as crash up into the offensive zone for corner kicks, help take free kicks and set a few boomers toward the goal. Perfect weapon for this Rays Club squad would be Sean Rodriguez.

Now onto midfield, or the engine room of this team. We already know Evan Longoria will wear the Captain’s band and has the grit and stamina to man the center midfield slot and his ability to give out orders and command respect will have opposing defenders marking him tight, so I want my outside midfielders to have a burst of speed and great ball skills.

soccer_300x77My selection for left mid will be James Loney. I picked him as much for consistency as for his bursts of power which on free kicks or fouls way outside the box his kicks could free Longoria and the forwards to jockey for inside position on the opposing defense. My right midfielder would have to be Ben Zobrist. I do not know if Zorilla is ambidextrous on the soccer field, but if he was he would be a great fit to the usual attacking side of the field and could center passes or do flanking moves or U-runs down the line for crosses into box.

That leaves the forwards line. Here I’m going for the tall man in the box and shifty runners down the outsides or who can change directions and do crafty diagonals into the box for short chips, passes or provide ball in the air for headers.

So with me wanting to capitalize on speed, it is no secret the left wing has to be Kevin Kiermaier who seems to have a sixth sense to getting into position for the right play and who is one of those players who brings a new level of excitement to the team.

download (1)Right wing has to be another speedster as I pencil in Desmond Jennings for this slot and will call upon his quick first burst for great offensive moves and set plays. Add to the fact Jennings did play in that other brand of football, I think he will be a great target in the air for headers and taking a defender out of his position for scoring opportunities at the top of the goal box.

That only leaves the center spot. I had to go with someone here who has leadership, respect and plays on a different level at times. The obvious and clear choice for this spot was David Price.  One of the glaring reasons is his 6’6” frame can rise a good 3-4 inches above most defenders for headers and I think he has the foot skills and dexterity to pull off picture perfect passes and provide 110% throughout the contest.

Of course this Rays team will have great and skilled substitutes on the bench like Chris Archer, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore,  Joel Peralta, and I might add Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi to the mix as we all need a true “enforcer” on our soccer team.

images (2)I know there will be debate about my choices, but I think this squad could do some real damage on the pitch, provide some spectacular scoring chances and picture perfect goals as well as keep the score low and within reach of the Rays offensive unit.  Well it’s time for me to set the ball on the middle dot and get this Rays Club team going. Besides, you can always vent your thought at Rays Soccer Night Friday, June 20th.

What? I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines and watch this team, I would make the perfect Referee plus I want to see this match at ground zero, not in the stands. And besides, St. Petersburg,Florida like the Rays is home to the 2-time North American Soccer League Champions, the Tampa Bay Rowdies who play on the Rays old Spring home. Florida Progress/Al Lang Field.

Now if I can just get the linesmen to keep Jonny Gomes from running onto the turf, we would be golden. 

 

Rays Photo Day Shows Both Sides of the Rays Personalities

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You never quite know what sensibilities are going to “play out” when the Tampa Bay Rays let photographers bring about their own illuminations on the team’s character, or is that characters. You only have to look back to the Feb. 25, 2010 Rays Photo Day shots where the photographer that day used the natural sunlight of Florida as sparkling and illumination points on the photos of that season squad.

2010Sure they were embarking on a new strand of light called the post season that spring and the Sun made more than a few spectacular effects in a variety of photos from that spring’s squad. Then in 2013 it seems the Rays photos were a bit more subdued than usual with some playful spots of individuality, but the photos overall seemed to illustrate a unison or harmony among the troops.

Of the 26 photos already released from the Rays 2014 Photo Day, there is again a underlying theme that clearly is visible and unique all to the Rays way of team chemistry. This spring photos show a calm, a essence of a more tranquil and centered squad of players who see that goal in the cross-hairs and calmly and professionally plan to be the team that “eats last” come November 2014.

eatslastYou see a more relaxed Papa Longoria with the Rays leadership crown solidly planted upon his head along with fellow Clubhouse General David Price presenting himself quite Zen-like in his photos awaiting the approaching Opening Day more with zeal than strife.

But then you have the other side of the Rays coin also displayed in the type of Gasparilla-infused notions and action of Rays reliever Josh Lueke both in his biting of a baseball, to juggling and possibly showing that some fun must come with all the stress of competing and delivering your goal.   

wjbjI enjoy seeing the fight and fire as well as the comedic notions that make up a M L B team. Not everyone can be serious all of the time and sometimes that moment of tongue-in-cheek humor or even dawning a gladiator’s mask can deliver more energy and fight into a group than any Knute Rockne oratory.

The Ying and Yang of this year’s released Photo Day shots also shows the ebb and flow that will ultimately exist within the Rays this year as leaders and jokers can come together tone their antics and abilities to the highest achievement levels and produce memories and events that we will speak about for years.

LLMEFrom the high points of  Longoria who with a consistent effort in 2014 should ultimately by-pass and become the sole Rays all-time leaders in such categories as HR, RBI, Extra Base Hits, doubles and Slugging Percentage before the end of 2014 to Myers who will again be called on provide the same kind of energy, production and raw unharnessed spirit that saw him take home an American League Rookie of the Year trophy, this team will rise and fall on both the chill moments and chaotic scrambles that make up a 162-game campaign.

pllbSure this is but only a 26 frame cross-section of the character and characters of that will become the heart and soul of the 2014 edition of the Rays, but if this is any indication of what we might have in store for us for a 162 game haul…..I’m ready to buckle in and take the rough with the fun for it’s almost time for the games to matter and I can’t wait for that last day in March………..But I don’t think Lueke will have to eat too many balls this year because this team looks and sounds hungry enough to push it to that last meal….and maybe have room for a champagne-infused dessert.

All photos taken by Zimbio.com photographers. They do so many other M L B teams photos each spring. Search their website for your team’s spring photos. I do have a Facebook link with the latest 26 and any additional Rays Photo Day shots I find past the submitting of this blog post.

Tasty 2014 Rays Media Guide Tidbits: Rays Bullpen

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As I have mentioned before, the day I get to check out the Tampa Bay Rays new edition of their Media Guide is a day filled with adventure, intrigue and maybe even a little whimsical fun. Glancing over the awesome moments of our brood of baseball buddies always bring to light moment uncaught by our eyes and ears in the stands and produce stats and figures we never really realized for our guys who battle upon the turf.

ku-xlargeSo I decided to stay in the hurler mode today for my 2nd installment of the special career notes and humanitarian efforts of our firemen down on the First Base line who we affectionately know as the Bullpen. Depending on the type of relief corps your team possesses, they can either give you a warm feeling or outright panic when a starter begins to show fatigue.

Lucky for us here in Tampa Bay our relievers have shown more pluses than minuses over the last few season, but glitches do happen. Also we do not know yet if the Rays will carry 11 or 12 pitchers going into the season, so I’ll just take a coin flip and list the 6 guys I think might comprise the ‘Pen and a few names to possibly watch this spring.

th (6)Jake McGee: Jake and his wife Morgan went a bit “Italiano” this past November visiting Venice, Milan and George Clooney’s hangout Lake Como. During Christmas Eve this past year, Jake and his wife also visited local foster families in Reno, Nevada and provided the kids with Christmas gifts.

McGee is 2013 ranked second in the M L B among reliever southpaws with an average fastball velocity of 96.3 mph. The mark was the highest among American League leftie relievers. McGee also posted up second among all M L B relievers with throwing a fastball on 93 percent of his pitches. Makes sense McGee has been working on a few additional pitches this off-season to keep hitters guessing in 2014.

th (7)Brandon Gomes: Took the LSAT after graduating from Tulane and if he wasn’t playing professional baseball, Gomes would have attended Law School and pursued a career in law or finance.

Even though Gomes only appeared 26 times in 2013 due to a right lat. Strain which sidelined him for 88 games, he did go 3-1 last season and split his season almost down the middle 14 games before/ 12 games after returning) between his injury stint. Could be a pitcher to watch this spring as he wants to show the Rays he is durable and consistent.

th (8)Cesar Ramos: He learned English at a bilingual preschool in Los Angeles, Calif. His parents immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico 34 years ago seeking a better opportunity for their family. Cesar also has sister named Elena.

16 of Ramos 47 appearances in 2013 were 2 innings or longer which was the 4th highest number in the American League and most by a Rays reliever since J P Howell’s 23 in 2008. Ramos also secured his first M L B save after throwing 3 scoreless innings in Cleveland on May 31st.

th (9)Joel Peralta: Considered quitting baseball in 2002 following a demotion from Double-A Arkansas to Class-A Cedar Rapids while with the Angels. His older brother Frank persuaded him to stick with it and Joel responded by going 5-0 with 21 saves and a .95 ERA with the Kernels (THANKS Frank!).

Peralta led the majors in 2013 with 80 relief appearances, which puts in 2nd overall in Rays history behind Randy Choate (85 in 2010). It was Peralta’s 3rd straight season of 70+ appearances (227 over 3 seasons) and the cherry on top is Peralta led all M L B relievers with 41 Holds in 2013.

Rays-Heath-Bell-2014-600x337Heath Bell: Who knew the All-Star closer was also such a force in the kitchen? Bell made 24 gingerbread houses from scratch for his kids school. Heath hopes to meet Duffy, the Ace of Cakes this year when the Rays travel to Baltimore and would like to compete on the Food Network pastry competition show Sweet Genius someday.

Pitched in 69 games last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was his 7th consecutive season of 60+ appearances. Ranked 3rd among M L B closers in saves (166) over the last 5 seasons. With Mariano Rivera now retired, only Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon (173) remains in contention for the overall top spot.

th (10)Grant Balfour:  Most people might not know Grant’s father after completing his rugby career became a leader in developing and promoting Australian baseball and served as the G M of the Sydney Blue Sox before retiring last August.

Grant saved a career high 38 games last season with only 3 blown saves. Over his last 24 appearances in 2013, Balfour had a 92.7 percent save percentage, 4th best in the AL and in A’s team history. He beat out his own 92.4 percent mark set in 2012 for the 4th spot. Converted 62 of 67 (92.5 %) save chances over the past 2 seasons.

th (11)Juan Carlos Oviedo:  He might be one of the biggest question marks this spring in regards to the Bullpen. The team took a gamble on 2013 by signing him while he was rehabbing after a Tommy John’s surgery. They released him in the off-season, but quickly resigned him and invited him to spring camp. If healthy and firing on all cylinders this spring, could be a factor in the team’s Bullpen makeup and possibly send someone above away in a late spring trade.

Oviedo logged 92 saves from 2009-11. That total was 8th best in the M L B at that time and ranked him 3rd on the Miami Marlins all-time save list.

His last time pitching in a professional games was July 14, 2013 while with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. 

pageAs always, do not discount the names of Jeff Beliveau, Brad Boxberger, C J Riefenhauser, Josh Lueke or even Kirby Yates of not making noise in supplanting one of the above pitchers for a spot on the Rays 25-man roster. Even if none of these names make the final roster before Opening Day, their names will again be heard possibly at some point within Tropicana Field in 2014.

Also worth circling might be the name of Erik Bedard who might have a chance to fill the Rays long reliever role with their 2013 hurler. Alex Torres traded in the off-season. Bedard could also be a great fill-in starter in-house option for the Rays if he were willing to accept a non-starter gig in 2014.

Tomorrow we will hit the factoids concerning the players who should be deemed the starters in the Rays infield for 2014. 

Going to Miss the Rays Aussie Bloke

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I somehow knew this moment was coming, but still it’s hard to finally accept. He was the one player of that large Tampa Bay Rays Free Agent mish-mosh corps that I thought might just be out on a Winter walk-about and would again this January somehow wander back to the Rays brood for 2011.

Maybe that was really wishful thinking to imagine that such a return could possibly be in the cards for RP Grant Balfour, but I wanted to believe as long as possible that it could happen.

Instead I am now a solo participant in a local St. Petersburg Outback Steakhouse holding my own private Aussie funeral dirge complete with an I-pod filled with the musical rhymes and verses of Colin Hayes (Men at Work Lead Singer) ringing through my head.

Surely I could have picked the upbeat styling’s of either AC/DC or even Midnight Oil as my musical accompaniments as I pound a oilcan of Fosters, and eat a hearty Blommin’ Onion.

But this is a solemn celebration of Balfour’s new multi-year contract. It has been one of those days where I will rise a middy or two as I begin a sit-down of bountiful tucker (food) and possibly one last XXXX (Queensland brew) to wish him the best and a long career.

I sit her pondering the notion that Balfour has taken his leave and gone onto the big smoke ( big city) of Oakland and I will have to settle for conversations only 3 times this year when Balfour again visit’s the Trop.

Talking to Balfour has became a game day ritual for me, standing there by the RF retaining wall near my seat joking with him, I am really going to miss my old Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen mate.


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I guess the best way I can finally put closure to the loss and sorrow within my chest is to ponder and spout a few Aussie terms and nuances I learned from you over your Rays time as a faithful farewell to my favorite bloke from Oz (Australia).

You know Grant, I was hoping the furphy (rumor) of your Rays departure was premature and totally bollocks before I heard the good guts (accurate information) about your grouse (very good) contract offer in Oakland. I consider you a bonza (really great) Aussie Grant that I used to have many a chinwag (conversation) with daily either during the game or at Batting Practice.

I truly hope you do not consider me an irritable ear masher (talks too much) or even a drongo (slow-witted bloke). I still consider it so crook (sick) what that Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey did to you last season during your BP open slather (free-for-all) that cost you unwarranted disabled list time. It was totally onus (unacceptable) and showed what a nong (fool) Hickey really can be at times.

I do hope you make a good fist (to do well) in Oakland and hopefully when you come into our humble homestead again we can wring hands and possibly go down to a local billabong (watering hole) and hoist a few stubby (375ml bottle of beer)to your success. G’day ol’ fair dinkum (really genuine) cobber (friend).

2010 Was Definitely a Rays “Kumba” Moment

 

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Common.Wikepedia.com Photo files 

 

It has been my custom over the last few years to attach a word, phrase, or commonplace item as a keynote to what the ending year has envisioned to me. This year I am again incorporating my yearly ride with the Tampa Bay Rays by my side into this year end resolution. 2010 was a spectacular 365 day odyssey that somehow closely resembles the Kumba multi-inversion rollercoaster located just 25 miles from my front door within the oddly placed fauna of Busch Gardens in the urban jungle of Tampa Florida.

It really has been that kind of wham, bam thank you Ma’am year for Tampa Bay. One that has taken all of us, including the Rays, on moments of Mt Kilimanjaro-type highs, to the unexpected desolate lows of Death Valley, California while we all scream incisively through the zero G rolls and inverted loops to bear witness of the year’s gut wrenching end result. Hearing the collective loud thumping cadence of our heartbeats within this 32-passenger rail car as the rollercoaster finally finishes off as an unfocused blur.

The 2010 ride started out so serene and calm as we welcomed back 1B/3B Dan Johnson after a short Japanese baseball trek and saw the Rays signed their first European prospect LHP Stepan Havlicek (no relation to the Celtic legend). The impending illusion of a smooth and possibly uneventful ride seemed ease our minds as our car first left the ride station.

We became entranced and hypnotized by the soothing clicking sound of the car as another tremendous Rays Fan Fest came and went where we sadly got to see local Rays resident and Baseball Hall of Famer Robin Roberts for one last time. We all marveled at the Rays Jumbotron at Fan Fest watching the antics of Rays Radioman Rich Herrera and legendary eater Joey Chestnut boast about their hotdog eating skills while systematically standing in line to pursue the autographs of our Rays heroes.

All the while the clicking of track kept us somehow distracted, and played into the final menagerie of peril that was to soon take our breath away. The March signing of RP Joaquin Benoit to a minor league deal made us all giddy with anticipation and hopes of new found glory for Benoit. Suddenly our car took an unexpected 90 degree left turn out of our comfort zone when this Spring we saw LHP J P Howell suffer a bout of shoulder soreness that would start him on his own unanticipated rollercoaster ride during 2010.

With Howell’s injury only thought to keep him out until May, we began our 143-foot lift hill that would eventually send us rapidly screaming at full G force through the highs and lows of the 2010 season. After an incredible Grapefruit season where the Rays finally saw the emerging stars of SS Reid Brignac and 2B/utility man Sean Rodriguez shine bright, our car quickly headed into the Kumba’s signature pre-drop element.

Quickly the Rays season began to take a few twists and turns brought on by a sudden 135-foot drop to our left with the early season struggles of Designated Hitter Pat Burrell and escalated into a 114-foot vertical loop that intensely thrilled us as the team got out to a late April record of 17-5 before the Rays encountered their first diving loop and subsequent first extreme low point of the season.

It all started as the ride entered its initial diving loop segment with the team firmly clutching their pink bats and uniform ribbons when on Mother’s Day (May 9,2010) their coaster ride entered its first Zero-G roll brought on by the Perfect Game thrown by Oakland A’s LHP Dallas Braden that put lumps in our throats and stole our breath from us. But this was only the Rays first venture into a systematic tail spin as more unexpected plots twists were creeping our the horizon for the Rays.

The team then seemed to hit a rough patch as they spent a short spell on a smooth stretch of track before finally entering a much feared Cobra roll on June 25,2010 that saw former Rays RHP Edwin Jackson toss a No-Hitter against the Rays in the comfy confines of Tropicana Field. The result sent us again flipping upside down for the second time this season before we were able to enter a mid-course brake run at the All Star break . It was then that we saw Rays starter David Price become the first Rays pitcher to ever start an All Star game. At the midway point of our coaster ride the Rays end the first half with the Major League’s second best record (54-34) trailing only our division rivals, the New York Yankees.


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Just as the ride was beginning to obtain some sort of normalcy, the Rays and the coaster again began a accelerating fall off the brake run through a series of interlocking corkscrew twists that heightened with a renewed Rays excitement by a No-Hitter tossed at Tropicana Field by Rays starter Matt Garza, and accented by the Grand Slam of another Matt (Joyce) to put the game finally out of reach and into the Rays record books.

Gut twisting and wrenching wins then somehow became the norm as the Rays unexpectedly ran into a 5-game losing streak (their only losing streak above 3 games in ’10) at the entry point of their first corkscrew twist. During this negative twist of misfortune during back-to-back Rays versus Blue Jays games from August 7-8th that saw normally secure starter James Shields surrender 6 Home Runs one day, then saw the Rays have to rely on Evan Longoria hitting a dying quail single through the 1B-2B hole with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning to stave the Rays from becoming the first team to have 3 No-hitter thrown against them within a years’ time.

As Rays Kumba car entered the darkened tunnel after their latest close encounter in Toronto, the Rays again got back on the winning track and eventually approached the end of the season with a playoff berth in their grasp, and a possible American League East title just beyond their fingertips. As the ride entered its final braking run, the Rays faced a 1 game ultimate gut check presented to them to possibly secure another AL East banner for the rafters of Tropicana Field.

In classic rollercoaster form, the Rays took their final game of 2010 against the Kansas City Royals in extra innings and added to the climax and crescendo of that last right hand turn by being greeted by multitudes of Fans at St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport upon their arrival again in Tampa Bay before the ride began is last motions towards a ultimate disembark at the rail station.

Their quick exit in the ALDS just showed how accelerated their post season ride in 2010 could be extinguished. Lost in the final equation were a few special Rays moments that only further illustrated just how exciting and thrilling 2010 was for the Rays.

The 2010 Rays team ended up with 96 wins that season, only one “W” away from eclipsing their club win mark set in 2008. It was amazing for a Rays team that many baseball prognosticators did not even envision even a playoff berth for the squad back in April. We saw the maturation and confident emergence of a Rays starting 5 rotation that missed a team goal of 1,000+ inning season by its 5 starters by less than 46-odd innings. Then saw Longoria pick up his second consecutive Gold Glove while Carl Crawford finally got the Golden Glove that has eluded him.

Even with all the eventual ups and down, in and outs of their 2010 season, the Rays sent all of us on a cascading water flume ride of unexpected emotions and thrills as the team finally exit the railcars for the last time in 2010. We then had to say goodbye to 9 Free Agents, almost as many non-tender arbitration eligible Rays as the team began their foundational framework for another future glorious coaster ride.

Not knowing if it was a bead of cooling sweat from the fearsome ride, or a trickle of an unexpected tear set in motion by the thoughts of losing Rays stalwarts like Carlos Pena, Crawford, Benoit, Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler, Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour. I am stricken with a unforeseen bout of silence as I might have been witness to the last ride of a 4-year journey that started in 2007, and will end at the stroke of midnight tonight. I had been an up-close and personal participant in the formulation of a winning culture by the Rays in our short existence. I want to stand in line again for another chance at having my breath taken away on another future glorious trip.

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 At midnight the clicking of Kumba will be heard in the background as I wander towards another Rays odyssey. The rise and fall of this franchise definitely mimics the twists and turns of a well maintained rollercoaster that is always pushing the limits of both gravity and the breaking points of humanity before tumbling down towards a sense of reality.

Thank you Rays for this years journey. Thank you for the “firsts”, the “lasts” and the 81 straight tickets to ride as I took my seat in Tropicana Field this year and each time It left me simply breathless and aching for more. Some call this season the end of a Rays era, I think it is the beginning of a tradition of celebrating the “Rays Way” and buckling every New Years Eve for another ride of our collective Rays lives. Now where is that SheiKra coaster located again?

 

 

Rays Bullpen Undergoing Extensive “Renovations”

 

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 Mike Carlson/AP

Just when I thought I could feel a tad secure about the Tampa Bay Rays unstable Bullpen situation, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman has to drop another bombshell on the already scarred Rays Republic. With the recent revelations that even Rays stalwart reliever Grant Balfour is shunning the Rays arbitration offer, the team has quickly seem it Bullpen’s health go from unstable to critical.

With a upcoming contract tender decision today concerning Rays long reliever Lance Cormier and Rays jack-of-all-trade Andy Sonnanstine, there was bound to be another interesting twist or two before the Rays began to effectively rebuild their Bullpen and possibly contend again in 2011. But the bomb that came out of Friedman’s mouth yesterday during his pre-Winter meeting press junket might have delivered a death blow to the Rays post season aspirations for 2011.

I instantly felt like Daniel-san from “The Karate Kid” with a hearty leg sweep taking me out and sending me to the canvas. Suddenly the foundation I thought was flimsy but fixable, might just be undergoing a major overhauling. Maybe I invested too much into hoping, praying, thinking that Rays southpaw reliever J P Howell could somehow be that impending shining light we would need in the Spring of 2011 to blaze a Bullpen path.

Instantly, that foundation, that hope of some stability was swept clean, at least for the first few months of the 2011 Major League Baseball decision. Friedman had very encouraging words about Howell’s rehabilitation program since his 2010 shoulder surgery, but the only words echoing through my mind again and again was the possibility he would not be available until May or June. With just those few words it seems that a total transition of the Rays Bullpen was underway, and would Sonnanstine and Cormier be spared from the purge?

In reality, the Rays Bullpen went quickly from a slight rebuilding mode to a full blown reconstruction mode even if Sonnanstine and Cormier are brought back for 2011. Howell was thought to be some of the glue that might bond this unit tighter with his hugely optimistic attitude and energy. But with Friedman’s announcement of a possible road bump in his rehabilitation process, Howell quickly goes from a veteran cog of the Rays Bullpen 2011 machine, to an in-season inserted piece.

Suddenly the instability of the Rays Bullpen reminds me of those moving grass patches in the Florida Everglades that on the surface look like solid ground until you walk on them, then you fall through into the murky water below. Even with young arms like southpaw reliever Jake McGee and righthander Mike Ekstrom possibly returning for another Rays extended gig, Friedman made it clear that McGee would have to prove himself this Spring or possible start the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.

With the Rays possibly carrying 12-13 pitchers going into the 2011 season, suddenly only the starting five of James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann seems to be on any form of solid ground for now. But we have a long way to the Rays first reporting date of February 13th and anything can happen. If the Rays do consider carrying 12 pitchers’, that would mean that 7 new faces could possibly enter the Rays Spring Training complex in Port Charlotte, Florida on that date. I hope the team is stocking up on ” Hi! My Name is….” tags.
 
 

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Such a major re-configuration to the Rays late inning staff could take them immediately out of the thought process of contending during 2011 and might have damage their post season aspirations for several years. Suddenly the once solid and reliable Rays Bullpen unit is a shadow of its former self. And with the Rays farm system a bit discombobulated after 21 minor league free agents were not offered an olive branch by the parent club, more change is expected.

Going into the Winter meeting in Orlando, Florida the Rays might be going on an extended window shopping journey to see just what affordable options lie within their price range in the free agent and trade routes in regard to relief help. It could easily be considered that any trade even on the back burners would have to have at least one farm hand or MLB ready reliever to even be considered. With the Rays closer, leftie specialist and 3 key set-up pitchers possibly having played their last game wearing the Rays unis, the team might be in definite stealth “buying” mode.

It is a long way to February 13th, and the Rays could possibly entertain a multi-year offer with Balfour, or possibly have the chance to sign Wheeler to a lower salary figure than his declines $ 4 million option and retain some form of reasonable back end stability to the Rays Bullpen. Tendering 2011 contracts to Sonnanstine and Cormier could alleviate a bit of the Rays relief flux, but would only be a band-aid on the seeping wound.

With a limited payroll the Rays will have to effectively find a legitimate closer, a few set-up men and possibly a left-hand specialist. Even with the influx within the Rays Bullpen, McGee and Ekstrom will have to prove themselves to even be considered in the Rays overall relief equation this Spring. What was once a steady and reliable relief unit has quickly turned itself sideways and could be at its weakest point since Rays Manager Joe Maddon took the Rays reigns.
 
 
 

Rays Put Out Trade “Feelers” on Bartlett


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Since Free Agent Shortstop Juan Uribe decided to accept the Los Angeles Dodgers offer a few days ago, now the spot light is centered directly on Tampa Bay Rays middle infielder Jason Bartlett who might have priced himself out of the Rays fold. Bartlett is entering his last phase of arbitration this off season and could command up to $ 5 million dollars through arbitration.


The shortstop is still a viable defender and might have just had a down year in 2010, but his upward salary scale is definitely making him more than expendable to the cost efficient Rays. And with Uribe now off the books, during the upcoming Winter meetings I am expecting Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman to be a popular man with at least four teams searching for a shortstop option.

The teams considered at least mildly interested in Bartlett include the newly crowned World Champion San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles. Three of the four make perfect sense to also get Bartlett out of the American League where he would only post a 3-game problem at the least when the Cardinals and Rays square off in an InterLeague match-up at Tropicana Field July 1-3,2011.

The most interesting possible trade scenario might be if the Rays decide to trade with their American League East divisional partner, the Baltimore Orioles. Considering that the Orioles still have Julio Lugo, also an ex-Rays shortstop on their current roster, it could make for an interesting 17 game home and away seasonal series in 2011. With that in mind, it also makes the Orioles the most unlikely of candidates for the Rays to consider a trade for Bartlett, but Friedman has been known to shock a few people before, even among the Rays faithful.

So with these few teams in mind, let’s take a look within their respective rosters and see just who might be able to be considered off all four teams as potential trade pieces with the Rays for Bartlett. With Uribe off the boards, Bartlett is probably at his highest possible trade value at this point, and if the Rays do pull some sort of delay or freeze any trade discussions past the Winter Meetings, the Rays could have overstayed the marketplace and would have to trade Bartlett for less value in return.

Baltimore Orioles:

I am going to embark on the possible trade candidates with the Orioles in mind with two of the most logical players, but also one that might end up looking more like a potential arbitration salary swap than a true upgrade in talent and moderate salary. Luke Scott has been within the Rays crosshairs for a few seasons as a potential offensive weapon. Scott is entering his third chance at salary arbitration this Winter, and could demand even more than Bartlett’s $ 5 million dollar prospective 2011 salary price tag.

But you can not argue with a .281 batting average with 27 HR and 71 RBI’s after you saw your best offensive weapon (Carlos Pena) go on the open market this Winter. It is imperative that the Rays find an adequate replacement for Pena to protect Evan Longoria in the Rays batting order. Scott also has the ability to hit for average along with power, which might be a great combination that could influence the Rays decision.

Considering that Scott might have peaked at the right time in 2010 by having a monster August hitting for a .314 average with 9 HR and 20 RBI, he might gain some serious looks by the Rays. His OPS (.898) and Slugging Percentage ( .535) suggest that he might be the bat the Rays missed in 2010 in the Designated Hitter spot. Scott also was the AL Player of the Week (July 25) and posted a 11-game hitting streak during the 2010 season. Scott might not seem like a value in trade for Bartlett, but it would help the team solidify a position (DH) that has plagued the Rays line-up for at least two seasons.

A second potential trade candidate has been mentioned a few times before in regard to Bartlett. Pitcher David Hernandez has only a $ 402,000 salary in 2010, and might just be the type of pitcher the Rays could effectively carry in their Bullpen for several seasons before he becomes too expensive for the team to carry.
Hernandez posted an 8-8 record in 2010,which might not seem impressive, but once the Orioles took him out of the starting rotation where he went 1-5 with a 5.31 ERA in 8 starts, he quickly adapted to a relief role.

Hernandez then went on to post a 7-3 record with a 3.16 ERA along with 2 saves as a Oriole reliever. The fact that Hernandez could be an effective part of the Rays Bullpen either as a middle inning reliever or as a inning eater should intrigue the Rays to more than just kick the tires on Hernandez. Sure he might have only, logged 33 total relief appearances in his career, but Hernandez has the fire and desire to succeed. That fact is truly demonstrated in his ability to go at least 5-6 innings in 7 of his 8 starts in 2010 for the Orioles.

San Francisco Giants:

Considering the Uribe left the World Champions for a new home in Chavez Ravine, the G-men will be looking quickly for an alternative with some relief pitching as the main bait. Javier Lopez, who the Giants got in a trade in late July from the Pittsburgh Pirates is a 4-time arbitration eligible player this Winter. Even with his fourth try at the arbitration game, his prospective arbitration amount should be considerably less than Rays Free agent RP Grant Balfour. Lopez earned a total salary of $ 775,000 in 2010 and could be a possible middle inning replacement if the Aussie refuses the Rays arbitration offer.

But as a left-handed option, Lopez brings a lot of great ability and stamina to the table. Lopez went 4-2 this season with a 2.34 ERA in both locales, but his numbers quickly dropped once he was sent to the West Coast. He posted a 1.42 ERA in 27 games with the Giants after leaving behind a 2.79 ERA in 50 games with the Pirates. But his main selling point to the Rays might be his ability to get out left-handed hitters as a viable replacement for another Rays Free Agent, Randy Choate.

Lopez held NL batters to a .163 opponent’s batting average, which was the lowest mark posted by a National League LHP since he joined the Giants. Even more impressive is the fact Lopez held left-handers to a .68 batting average. Another plus for the Rays would be the fact Lopez limited his opposition to a .190 average with RISP and induced 7 GIDP opportunities during that span.

San Diego Padres:

With the Padres sending two great young potential relievers to the Florida Marlins earlier this Winter for outfielder Cameron Maybin, they seem to be a bit bare in the cabinet in relievers unless something drastic or inventive can be arranged in a possible trade with the Rays. Sure you would love to see the Padres offer up closer Heath Bell, who is up for arbitration for the third time, straight up for Bartlett, but that possibility might just not be in the framework. But a guy like Bell could ease a huge chunk of the Rays problems with their Bullpen if they knew a guy who was 6-1 with a 1.93 ERA with 47 saves was to come in and take over for Free Agent Rafael Soriano.

But the real life scenario of the Padres sending Bell to the Rays would be more of a potential salary swap since Bell could also garner over a $5 million 2011 salary through arbitration. But again, it would cement close a huge Rays hole in the back end of the Bullpen? A more realistic trade option might be left-hand reliever Joe Thatcher who would still be under team control for a few seasons. Consider the southpaw posted a 0.51 ERA over his last 39 outings could make the Rays salivate knowing they could receive a quality LHP option in return for Bartlett.

Pushing Thatcher more into the spotlight is the fact he struck out 41 batter over his last 56 relief appearances, plus had only 19.7 percent of his inherited runners score on him this past season. Considering Thatcher went to the mound with 66 inherited runners and less than 20 percent scored is a huge plus compared to some of the Rays totals last season. But even if Thatcher did have 59 scoreless innings in 2010, he was used mostly as a left-handed specialist facing 1 batter in 33 of his 63 outings. But still a 0.00 ERA against right-handed hitters over 17 innings of work with 17 strikeouts provides a nice exclamation point as to Thatcher’s value to the Rays Bullpen.

St. Louis Cardinals:

The last team I will visit is the Cardinals. Sure they have ex-Rays RP Trever Miller under a good contract for 2011 ($ 2million), but I think the Cardinals would like to keep their leftie who posted 15 holds and had the fifth best NL mark in regards to inherited runners in 2010. But there are two young right-hand options that I think could be interesting to the Rays. First is a young RP Mitchell Boggs who is not arbitration eligible this Winter and made MLB minimum salary in 2010.

Boggs appeared in 61 games for the Cardinals in 2010 and came away with 44 scoreless outings. Combine that with his ability that he went extended innings in 11 of appearances, you get a little endurance to go with your stability. Boggs also retired 42 of his 61 first batters he faced last season, but also has left-handers handcuff him to a 5.23 ERA. This points to a positive upside as the young reliever (26 years old) can grow into a solid part of the Rays Bullpen for many years.

But the guy who really has my eye as a potential trade piece from the Cardinals is right-hand reliever Jason Motte. He converted 2 of his 3 save opportunities during 2010 when Ryan Franklin went down in 2010. The fact this young gun is not even arbitration eligible yet but ranked 13 holds for the Cards in2010 speaks to their commitment to using the young pitcher . After a short rehab assignment following a right shoulder injury, Motte did not allow a run in his next 10 appearances. His 54 strikeouts in 2010 pushed him to a 9/3 K/ 9IP clip that is impressive for such a young reliever.

Combine that with the fact Motte held right-handed hitters to a .198 batting average with 39 strikeouts shows that he can get hitters out from both sides of the plate. At one point in 2010, Motte retired 32 straight hitters and never surrendered more than 2 runs during an appearance. Another nice stat is that Motte worked better off one days rest ( 0.57 ERA/ 16 appearances) than with two days off (.079 ERA/ 12 appearances). But both stats show that Motte is beginning to provide secure and stabile relief ability, which could benefit the Rays for an extended time out of their depleted Bullpen.

 

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Bartlett is going to be traded at some point in 2010. Now is the time when his inherent value might be at its peak and other teams might be willing to trade for the arbitration eligible shortstop. As the season grows closer, his value will go down and the return will also suffer. At this point with more than a few teams looking for middle infield options, Bartlett’s stock is on the rise. Friedman will be diligent, but hopefully he will not be so cautious as to not entertain a reasonable offer for any young reliever or hitting option. Hopefully by the end of the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Florida, the Rays will have found a good locale for Bartlett for Spring 2011.

Rays Have 9 Arbitration Decisions on the Horizon

 

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Should be an interesting 24 hours for the Tampa Bay Rays front office. With 9 pending arbitration decisions to be made during this tedious 24 hour period, it could ultimately show the Rays poker hand. The arbitration list set for immediate discussion by those in the Rays boardroom comprises 6 relief pitchers, 2 former All Stars, and a offensive player picked up off waivers in 2010. Tomorrow’s final decisions at the conclusion of the deadline will show a distinctive and resolute signal by the Rays head honchos of whether any of the nine have any possible future with the Rays.

There is one member of that nine under consideration that doesn’t have to worry at all about an arbitration bid. You can bet with some certainty that former Rays reliever Joaquin Benoit will get an arbitration offer. Benoit, the surprise of the 2010 Rays season will definitely be offered arbitration since Benoit has already signed, sealed and delivered in a 3 year $ 16 million dollar contract with the Detroit Tigers. With the Rays arbitration offer and a sure decline by Benoit, the Rays can then pocket a compensation pick between the first round of the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft for their Detroit bound Type B Free Agent .

But from that one secure arbitration point, it becomes more of a interesting gamble for the Rays to consider offering arbitration to their other Type-A players who might just take the arbitration offer and force the Rays hands to trade them or face some difficult financial decisions considering the Rays will cut their 2011 payroll nearly in half to around $40-59 million dollar range. But does it really seem in their past character that Carl Crawford or Rafael Soriano would accept such an arbitration offer to rejoin the Rays knowing that multi millions are lying out there waiting for their services outside Tampa Bay? Hopefully the dice do not come up “snake eyes” in this situation.

A more possible arbitration offer could be extended to Rays reliever Grant Balfour after another sub 4.00 ERA year with the Rays. This also might not be a “given” knowing the facts that the Rays are searching high and low for low cost Bullpen bodies to replace 2010 members like Balfour, Soriano and Benoit. Balfour seems like one of the two possible Rays arbitration offers ( in my opinion) that might be accepted. Then again, recently Balfour’s name has been mentioned as a top tier relief option that could hit the unrestricted market full bore on Tuesday if he is declined arbitration.

The Rays again have issued their usual code of silence that is not letting out a single whisper or hint as to their final decision or possible direction in terms of these arbitration issues. But the thought of a possible arbitration offer to Choate might actually provide an adequate Rays insurance policy in the event Rays reliever J P Howell has some sort of delay in his return in 2011 from his shoulder surgery. That could instantly open the door wide for Choate or another Free Agent southpaw to join the Rays roster with an eye on a possible departure during the Trade Deadline. Roll the dice again and hope for “Boxcars”.

That leads us to 4 former Rays players who have played their last games in a Rays uniform unless a drastic change of heart by the team. Brad Hawpe, who was picked up by the Rays after his release by the Colorado Rockies, and reliever Chad Qualls, who was traded to the Rays by the Arizona Diamondbacks at the Trade Deadline should be two players who do not get even a thought of arbitration by the Rays. Both had seasons to forget, and did not instill any sense of confidence in their abilities to continue with the Rays for 2011.

Qualls in particular did not seem to embrace his change of scenery and in the end almost duplicated his high dubious ERA that he maintained with the D-backs before his trade. Most people might point to his recent success near the end of 2010 and the postseason as reasons to keep Qualls, but the end result is there are dozens of reliever out there who can get ground ball outs with less extra baggage and worry than Qualls. A 5.57 ERA in a limited amount of appearances does not bode well to promoting confidence or providing an assurance of a relief reprieve.

Hawpe never seemed to get into a solid Rays groove once he came up in August mostly getting chances as a pinch hitter or the Rays Designated Hitter role. Not showing positives and embracing the DH spot might of brought an instant kiss of death for Hawpe. His .179 batting average in 15 games with the Rays did not instill any other emotions of enthusiasm or hope that he could be a possible solution to the DH problem for 2011. Hawpe was brought in to test run for a possible arbitration decision this Winter at DH for the Rays.

Instead it seems that Hawpe just folded his hand and left the table early.

That leaves two former Rays members who the Rays front office might be posturing or hoping that by not offering them arbitration, the Rays can still continue possible future contract discussions in good faith with both parties and their agents. Some people might doubt the importance of Dan Wheeler to the Rays Bullpen in 2010, but I actually think he was the veteran glue that kept the Bullpen together. He might have not had the glowing stats of Soriano or Benoit, but Wheeler again was a constant asset to the Rays appearing in 64 games, the same amount of game appearances as Soriano.

There might have been 4 million little reasons ( his 2011 club option figure) that could have easily factored into the Rays deciding to decline his option for 2011. With Howell also up again for salary arbitration this Winter, it is possible that the Rays did not want to spend around $ 10 million plus just for three pieces of their 2011 Bullpen. The aspect of offering Wheeler arbitration could blow up in the Rays faces considering he posted his third straight season of 60+ appearances, and ended the season with 6 scoreless appearances. Always a gamble to offer someone arbitration as their stock is climbing.

That leaves one more soul that the Rays will not offer arbitration, but hope that he will eventually offer a bit of a “hometown discount”, possibly cutting his 2010 salary up by 25 percent to make him again affordable to the Rays for 2011. Carlos Pena has been very vocal and more than adamant about returning to the Rays again in 2011. The Rays definitely can not discount the loss of offense and defense by the omission of Pena from their roster, but also can not afford another $ 10.5 million salary in 2011 for their former All Star First Baseman. The two parties must somehow find a suitable compromise.

 


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Adding up the accolades of the past few seasons of winning a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and also a spot on the 2009 All Star squad, Pena has made any part of an arbitration offer moot. Even with a sub-par 2010 season Pena is still one of the most prolific Home Runs hitters over the last four seasons since he came to the Rays. With every negative element like his large strikeout totals (158) or low batting average (.196), Pena can basically cancel those lowly feats out with his team high RBI (84) and HR (28) totals. His .325 OBP and 87 walks in 2010 also provides a key element that Pena still has a keen eye at the plate at times.
Rolling the dice and trying to play the odds is always pretty precarious at this stage of the season. The Rays like so many other teams have to make a detailed and solid decision within the next 24 hours as to their 9 arbitration eligible free agents, and their possible continued role with the team in 2011. Possible decision concerning Balfour and Choate might be made even tougher with a fine core of eligible free agents relievers also possibly hitting the books tomorrow after the arbitration deadline.

As of right now, the only sure decision by the Rays is a arbitration offer to Benoit that will net the Rays another pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. The other eight decisions will have to be weighed with possible risks and counter balances to either extend an offer or possibly slamming the door shut to further free agent discussions. Will the Rays put their money firmly on the hopes that Crawford, Soriano will decline arbitration, thus netting the Rays additional draft picks when they do eventually sign with another team? Or could it all suddenly backfire and the duo accept arbitration and handcuff the Rays to finding a suitor for the duo before their arbitration hearings?

Calculated risks will be made in the next 24 hours. Some of the Rays decisions will effect not only their payroll for 2011, but possibly bring about some emotional responses from the Rays Republic, but in the end the Rays have to use their gut instincts in their final decisions. This is the part of the season where the guys in the suits in the front offices around the league make their respective reputations every year. They might not be the most popular decision, but consider the overall fiscal health of their proposed next season’s roster. No matter if it is cards, dice or even arbitration offers. Playing the odds right now are never a sure thing.
 
My Rays Arbitration predictions:

 

Joaquin Benoit                  Yes

Carl Crawford                    Yes

Rafael Soriano                  Yes

Grant Balfour                    Yes

Randy Choate                   Yes

Chad Qualls                       No

Brad Hawpe                       No

Dan Wheeler                     Yes

Carlos Pena                       No 

 

 

Rays Bullpen is On the Clock

 

 

As I look up at the big clock on the kitchen wall, I can see the second hand moving fast and it instantly reminds me that the Tampa Bay Rays only have a few more days to actively pursue their Free Agents without any outside interference. The clock seems to be ticking faster by the moment during these first five days after the World Series before the Rays Free Agents officially become fodder for the rest of the Major League General Managers and scouts.


There are more than a few players from the Rays current 5-days hold list who will probably never wear a Rays uniform again, including such highly valued names as 2010 All Stars Carl Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano. Two biggest names at their respective positions that should in all likelihood leave the Rays roster this Winter.

There are other who will also garner attention from all over the Majors after the 5-day grace period like former First Baseman and power option Carlos Pena, 2010 surprise RP Joaquin Benoit, plus relievers Grant Balfour and Randy Choate could harbor another home stadium in 2011.

But the Rays have five days, or a total of 120 hours to actively talk back and forth with their Free Agents before they are officially released to also have talks with the rest of the MLB mob. Five days really is not a long time to trade numbers back and forth and try to finalize a deal, but it is enough time for the Rays front office to make an impression on if they are actively seeking a return, or willing to watch their former players mosey on out to greener monetary pastures.

There were two more names thrown into the mix recently as the Rays decided to decline the team options on Rays reliever Dan Wheeler and utility player Willy Aybar. The move was considered a financial move to possibly save the club almost $ 2 million dollars by buying out the pair, then talking to them as a Free Agent (Wheeler), or a still arbitration eligible player (Aybar). Wheeler has expressed a desire to remain with the Rays for 2011, but it will have to be at a bit of a discount from his $ 4 million option.

 

Basically right now, the Rays Bullpen bench has been stripped almost bare with only Andy Sonnanstine, who is arbitration eligible for the first time this Winter the only player currently with any extended relief appearances. Sure there is still Mike Ekstrom and rookie southpaw Jake McGee who are still on the Rays 40-man roster, but beyond this trio, the rest of the Rays Bullpen is either heading towards the Free Agent market or already been released by the Rays (Lance Cormier). Right now the Bullpen is the biggest position of transition for the Rays this Winter.


Right now the Rays entire sixth through eighth inning options are within a few days of actively finding another pitching spot for 2011 unless the Rays decided to actively pursue any of them. In a perfect world I would love to see the Rays try and keep Benoit, Balfour, Choate and possibly Wheeler to bring some form of veteran stability to the Rays 2011 Bullpen. I would however personally hope that the Rays do not actively engage in discussion with reliever Chad Qualls who is also set to become a Free Agent soon.

Currently this drastic change within the back part of the Rays pitching game has to have more than a few fans sweating bullets, but there are loads of viable options that will soon be available to the Rays, but at a cost.

Every time you bring in a new pitcher to the Rays system there is always the possibility of them not adapting to the Rays pitching game plan and becoming a liability. That is why I am hoping the Rays at least think long and hard about the quartet of Benoit, Wheeler, Balfour and Choate before releasing them to the rest of the salivating masses in the MLB.


There is the underlying huge question mark concerning returning leftie J P Howell’s effectiveness, and the possibility that the Rays could decline him arbitration possibly this off season to set another storm into motion. Combined with Howell’s uncertainty plus the youth and inexperience of McGee, it might not be a huge leap to consider Choate as a viable option for 2011 at least until the two question marks are answered.

It might be unorthodox for the Rays to possibly carry three left-handers in their Bullpen, but would it be more of a disaster to count on the two question marks totally with only minor leaguer southpaw R J Swindle in the Rays system as a back-up plan.


 

The addition of retaining Balfour and Wheeler would give valuable experience and proven set-up power and abilities to a new Rays Bullpen. Balfour seemed to come into his mown after returning from the DL (thanks again Jim Hickey) in September to post some of his best outings of the season.
 
Balfour also seemed to have gained some extra velocity after his short mid-season rest. Of the two pitchers, Balfour might have the best Rays upside and could be the most fiscally affordable considering the Rays payroll downsizing to possibly between $ 40-60 million for 2011.


The Rays front office will have to scrape and save all over the place considering the team already have a projected payroll of about $ 15.45 million even before adding arbitration figures and considering Free Agent signings. The initial scraping of almost the entire Rays Bullpen will either be a blessing or a curse this Winter and a major discussion point by the Rays Republic until the Spring.

Can a team like the Rays that has already been considered a early favorite to head towards a post season run in 2011 sustain themselves if they purge and rebuild their Bullpen from within their farm system and the Free Agent route?

The next five days may hold a key to the Rays thinking, and their possibly plan of attack. Sure I would love to see Benoit possibly resign with the Rays and take on the closer’s role. Would be ecstatic to see Balfour and Choate become leftie-rightie bookends to extinguish scoring chances late in the game.


But the stark reality is that the Rays will be a team in late inning pitching transition this Winter. With a few left-handed question marks and only a handful of MLB experienced help currently on the Rays roster, this Winter the Rays Bullpen might be a total work in progress.

Hopefully the Rays front office will be sensible and find a nice balance between the old and new that will compliment the Rays starting rotation. This off season we might truly see just how good Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman is with his crystal ball and a desk full of statistical reports and flowcharts. Somehow the Rays need to pull that mythical rabbit out of the hat this Winter.
 

 

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