Results tagged ‘ Grant Balfour ’

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.
 

 

My Picks for the Top 20 Rays Photos of 2010, Part 1

 

Most people know I took the blinders off this years and decided to do more photography before , during and after the Tampa Bay Rays game. With the media changing every day, I decided it was better to have a multi-faceted approach than to just sit back and write a blog and hope the someone in the photographer’s well got the same photos.

Being an amateur photographer (but getting better with every shoot), I decided to try and throw together two different posts to include my top 20 photos that I personally took from the Rays 2010 season. Today I am going to include the bottom ten (11-20) of my Top 20 2010 photos. Tomorrow’s post will have my Top 10 overall photos. These photos are not arranged or selected based on just the photo taken. Some have interesting back stories or reasons I feel they are in this top echelon of pictures taken during the 2010 year.

These photos will go from the day that Pitcher’s and Catcher’s reported to Port Charlotte, Florida this season, through Spring Training, and ultimately conclude with a Rays post season airport celebration photo. They will not however be any of the 2010 Rays/Hess Express Saturday Night Concert series photos.

I decided to do another post in the next few days with my top 2 photos from each of the Rays/Hess Express Saturday Night Concert Series concerts that I got to shoot down in front of the stage in 2010.


Considering I have no training or experience before this season taking photo except for a 7th Grade Photo class back at Tyrone Junior High ( they weren’t called Middle Schools then), I think my under 340 dollar old Fuji camera can sometimes get some pretty good shots. That being said, let’s get right to the top numbers 11-20 photos that I picked to include in this end of the season package.

 

Photo # 20 is a crowd photo taken from my seat region during the Rays annual Parks and Recreation Days that can fill Tropicana Field with over 15,000+ children all using the Rays Thunderstix either for crowd noise or for their own personal sword fights. Reason this is one of my favorite photos is the fact this is the day that Royals starter Zack Grienke complained about the “circus atmosphere” within the dome and it was all because of these great kids doing their part all game long.

 

Photo # 19 was taken during one of the St. Petersburg Times Sunday Fun Days when Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey decided to commandeer the Rays mascot Raymond’s All Terrain Vehicle during the Rays pre-game/ Hickey actually rode the ATV around for a few minutes, usually in a circle around Raymond before he got back to his regular Coaching duties before the game. Raymond finally got his ATV back, which he uses to entice the crowd excitement before the beginning of the Rays game, but it was great to see someone get the better of the blue fuzzy one for once.


 

Photo # 18 was taken at Bright House Network Field up in Clearwater, Florida during the Rays versus Phillies Spring Training game. In the photo we see Rays infielder Elliott Johnson chatting with a small ballplayer who just got done throwing a bit of pre-game warm-ups with Johnson for about 10 minutes. I found this photo intriguing knowing that Johnson hold small instruction lessons and camps with kids in the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina area when he has been up playing with the Rays Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls.


 

Photo # 17 was taken during the first day that Pitchers and Catchers’ reported to the Rays Port Charlotte complex back in February 2010. So many people do not get to see this side of Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg as a big a fan as the rest of us. But also, he is always a gracious and hospitable guy who is more than willing to chat baseball or even sign for the Rays faithful fans. I consider Sternberg one of the most accessible owners in baseball, and his Carolina Blue sweater is usually a key element to his game day wardrobe


 

Photo # 16 is a unique photo of Rays Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi putting the finishing touches on an inter-locking ” T B ” logo that the Rays Bullpen put on the back of the Rays Bullpen mound during the 2010 season. Not sure why the symbol did not get adapted or formulated for the Rays main pitching mound in 2010, but possibly it is just a experimental thing being done to see if they can duplicate some of the mound MLB team logo impressions. Like the tell-tale “A” of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.


 

Photo # 15 is special to me because it is the only photo of Rays left-handed reliever J P Howell in his Rays “whites” in 2010. This photo was taken on the Rays Opening Night and was the last time Howell would put on a Rays uniform and stroll down to the Rays Bullpen in 2010. It was a significant loss when Howell went down with shoulder fatigue, and then went under season ending surgery. I have gotten word Howell is doing great in his rehabilitation and should be ready to go in Spring 2011.


 

Photo # 14 was also taken at Bright House Field in Clearwater during the Rays versus Phillies game this Spring. During the middle of the 7th inning after Grant Balfour was done doing his side running in the outfield, he came over and signed for the Rays crowd for a few minutes before popping into the Rays dugout. Always find it interesting and exciting to see the pitchers’ after their outings running on the outfield

Warning track during Spring Training. Wonder if any of them have either been hit by a batted ball, or accidentally became involved with a ball in play?

 

Photo # 13 was taken on the night Rays closer Rafael Soriano set a new Rays save record. Just like thousands of Rays fans, I wanted to know what Soriano writes on the back of the pitching mound so many times during his outings. But it is a Soriano trade secret. I did take a photo however of his cap at one game and finally figured out that he has a bit of a cheat sheet in his cap to help him with hitters he faces on the mound. Going to be hard to find someone to duplicate Soriano’s dominance this season,.


 

Photo # 12 was one of my Zorilla Gorilla photos that I took one Sunday afternoon when the Rays were out of town on a road trip and someone within the Rays front office got me a few of the gorillas’ to put in some unique poses. This photo was taken at Lake Seminole Park in central Pinellas County on a sign by one of their great smaller lakes within the complex. The sign just seemed so perfect. Had a blast that day hitting over a dozen different locales taking photos that I submitted to the Rays.


 

Photo # 11 was taken after one of the many extra innings games by the Rays this season. It was actually a 1-0 win over the New York Yankees thanks to Reid Brignac’s walk-off Home Run. The Rays mascot Raymond always has a few interesting costumes he changes into during the game, but this pajama and nightcap ensemble always gets me laughing. I know that we do not have Spider-Raymond or Rally Raymond costume in-house anymore, but this night time Raymond just needs bunny slippers and it is perfect.

Hope you enjoyed the bottom ten of my Top 20 photos taken during the Rays 2010 season. Do not forget to stop by again tomorrow as I post my personal Top 10 photos that I got to take druing the 2010 season.

That Dastardly Injury Bug

 
 

When Tampa Bay Rays reliever J P Howell went down for the 2010 season and had his shoulder surgery, it pushed a disturbing thought into my mind. When was something else devastating going to happen with regards to a Rays player this season? Injuries for some odd reason seem to come in a surreal pattern of 3’s. Instead of having any Rays nagging injuries early on this year, the Rays stayed relatively healthy and injury free as they made their remarkable climb straight to the top of the Major League Baseball mountain, and the injury bug never got a chance to catch up with them.

Deep down, I knew the “big 3″ injury prognosis was coming. The injury bug had been eradicated by the Rays Medical Staff for over 2/3rds of the 2010 season, but I knew the team could not be totally immune to it’s eventual sting. Rays fans knew in their hearts and minds that any injury epidemic, or even a slight clog in the Rays machine could cripple a chance of celebrating in late October. Then without a hint or warning, the Rays had a quick foursome of injuries.
First came the weird occurrence where Rays Centerfielder B J Upton took in a routine fly ball during the first inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers, then suddenly went down to the turf like a sack of potatoes.

 

Somehow the Tropicana Field turf reached up and grabbed Upton by the left ankle and twisted with all of its might. It officially took Upton out of Centerfield for the remaining two against the Tigers, but it also facilitated another injury. Ben Zobrist, who came on and played in Upton’s usual position suddenly felt his back begin to stiffen up, and another Rays soul was claimed unrepentantly by the injury bug.


This time the culprit wasn’t the diabolical turf or the Rays playing surface, but Zobrist’s own personal strive to be a better player and taking a few too many swings in the batting cage. Immediately Zobrist was removed from the Rays line-up and given time to let his back heal to try and facilitate a quick return to the Rays line-up. But now, two injuries could be assigned to the that dastardly invisible injury bug. Then just as quickly, the third member of the Rays suffered another setback on Friday.

During the Rays Batting Practice on Friday night, Rays reliever Grant Balfour and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey were “joking around” on the turf and again, and that spiteful injury bug again reached up from beneath the turf and caused both men to lose their balance and fall to its green surface. Immediately, Balfour became the third and latest victim of the increasing Rays injury bug plight. The injury has been called a “freak occurrence” by the Rays front office, but it was actually a secret covert operation conducted by the injury bug Black Ops corps done under the guise of playful “roughhousing” by Balfour and Hickey.

Balfour will get a 4-6 week unplanned vacation as he strained his intercostal muscle group, which aids in the holding of the ribcage in place, plus promotes adequate breathing. The injury bug had done his black magic in three straight days and had gone 3-3, but it was not done yet. Not even a day after Balfour’s ailment, another member of the Rays core offensive production had an issue of his own that needed attention by the Rays Medical Staff.

 

Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena had been fighting a nagging pain in his right foot for a few days before finally he could not stand the throbbing injury any longer and consulted with the Rays Medical Staff. Immediately Pena was taken out of the Rays line-up and became the fourth Rays in less than a week to get a solid nibble from the injury bug. But there is a ray of light on the immediate horizon in regards to Zobrist and Pena. With both partaking in a few days of rest and attention by the Rays Medical team, both players on Sunday felt a bit of pain relief and decreasing pressure in their troubled areas. Finally the Rays had some good news on the injury front to tell the media and fans.


Zobrist is optimistic he will not be headed to the Disabled List like Balfour and could return to the Rays line-up as soon as Tuesday, or at the latest Thursday during this last stretch of the Rays home stand against the Minnesota Twins. Pena has also let it be known to the Rays Coaching staff that he is also feeling less pain. But the Rays might be extremely cautious with Pena and Zobrist. Rays fans could possibly see one of the two take a few more days off, or one of them could be submitted today to the 15-day Disabled List to make a more solid guarantee that their injury situations are completely resolved and that the team can promote a better chance of no future repercussions down the stretch run of the season.

A two week vacation now could be beneficial and provide a secure cushion of not re-injuring or agitating the injury down the line. Extermination of this injury bug epidemic needs to start now. Nipping it in the bud and promoting health is a top priority of the Rays right now. The injury bug and its lasting effects have devastated a few Major League teams this season like the Boston Red Sox. There is no ample way to detect or predict the injury bug in advance, but the Rays Medical Staff keeps a keen eye out on any agitation or unusual movements by the Rays players during game or their workouts.

With the Rays having one of the best Medical and Training staff in Major League Baseball, the long term effects and the instant discovery of an aliment or injury can be handled in a timely manner. Injuries are a daily fact of life when you play in competitive sports. There is more than ample opportunity for players to try and step outside their usual comfort zones and try and gain an extra advantage or give their team a greater chance to succeed. The injury bug waits for those moments of self sacrifice and sometimes delivers a cruel and unkind result.

Hopefully we have seen the extent of the injury bug’s attempts to plaque this Rays team with unfortunate injuries and unexpected pitfalls. There is no cure for the injury bug. No chemical can eliminate, exterminate or eradicate him completely. But with players being open and honest about their aches and pains, sometimes the warning signs can be observed, and an aliment or injury prevented. This Rays team needs their core intact and healthy for their run here in the last 1/3rd of the 2010 season. Hopefully Ron Porterfield, the Rays Head Trainer is sitting on the bench tonight with an oversized flyswatter to smack that injury bug where he lies…..Dead.
 

The Rebirth of Chad Qualls

 
 
People remarks all the time that sometimes, people need or deserve a second chance in life. That a bad situation or event should not taint or stain a reputation, or cause people to shy away from you or not consider you effective. And there is no better time for that period of renewal, or a second chance to set things right during a Major League Baseball season as when the Trade Deadline expires. And believe me fans, if anyone is thankful for the reversal of past deeds, it is new Tampa Bay Rays reliever Chad Qualls.

Qualls will again get to taste this magical potion that will start his reliever redemption and it all came with just changing his locker from a National League team to an American League squad. Instantly and with no regard to what Qualls had in his dark Arizona closet, with a bad April-June start, instantly all that rubbish and doubting is gone with a blink of the eye. And maybe that is the most unique thing about this time of year. Every Major League Baseball teams is searching for their own answers by seeking out players who could make a substantial contribution over the last third of a season, or maybe provide some added defense or a deceptive pitching performance to put their squad in contention down the stretch.

Something as simple as boosting the power of Rays Bullpen can produce a handful of needed wins that can be the difference between playing into late October, or making airline flight plans with the family to begin the long baseball off season. And if there is one guy that understands this totally after an unusual and often dismal start to his 2010 season, it is Chad Qualls. The right-hander leaves behind in the National League a .370 Opponent’s Batting Average, with a .390 average against left-handed hitters. Something any pitcher would give his non-pitching arm to reverse in a heartbeat.

 

Boosting Qualls want for redemption is the fact as late as last Tuesday, Qualls allowed 2 runs on 2 hits (1 HR ) in 2 innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. Adding insult to Qualls open wounds, opponents have scored on Qualls in 5 of his last 7 games to produce a preposterous 11.74 ERA. Qualls has been victimized with 10 Earned Runs in his last 7 innings of work prior to his trade to Tampa Bay. More heart wrenching is the fact that since June 10th, Qualls has been scored on in 10 of his last 16 outings, despite a small reprieve from June 29-July 5th when he threw 4 scoreless innings. But there is a bright spot to all the doom and gloom forecasted already about Qualls 2010 season.


Qualls did convert is 50th career save in2010 season, plus he has converted 11 of his past 13 save appearances prior to his trade to the Rays. Amazing enough, since 2005, Qualls is in the Top five among all relievers in the Major Leagues in games and innings pitched. And is also in the Top Ten of all relievers in wins and holds. All categories that show that effectiveness has not eluded Qualls his entire MLB career.

 

So there is some firm foundation to provide Qualls with another change in a different locale, and with the recent Disabled List visit by Rays reliever Grant Balfour, Qualls might be in line to be the secondary “go-to” guy and assume Balfour’s usual set-up role. Balfour will be out until possibly September with an injury to his intercostals muscle group, which runs between the ribs and helps promote the breathing action. The injury was not obtained during a Rays contest, but during a playful “horsing around” session


Balfour sustained his injury as Balfour and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey were roughhousing around during Batting Practice on Friday night, and both fell suddenly to the Field Turf. Since the Rays were facing a shortage of veteran experience in their minor league system, they decided to give Qualls a chance to erase the horrors of his miserable first half as a member of the Diamondbacks hoping that his latest chance with the Rays will not bring with Qualls any of his D-back nightmarish results that could rear its ugly head again and forsake the Rays for giving him a chance to start all over again in the American League.

 

Qualls has been given the grand opportunity to showcase himself over the rest of the Rays season to give adequate proof that his days as a questionable reliever are long gone. And that his new Rays reliever new image will emerge and show the confidence and productive nature needed for a chance at 2011 employment.

Second chances in sports do come, and if Qualls makes the most of his rebirth with the Rays, he could effectively salvage and possibly erase his horrid start to 2010 with a powerful and confirming last few months. And the magnitude of the overall situation is not lost on Qualls. Prior to Saturday night’s game against the New York Yankees, Qualls told the St. Petersburg Times,


“The majority of my text messages were, ‘Now you’ve got 0.00 ERA.’ That’s a great thing.”

 

Qualls has a clean slate, a chance to redeem himself and provide a solid answer to the Rays Bullpen over the course of the season. And with Qualls undoubtedly becoming a Free Agent at the end of the 2010 season, he could make a compelling case for someone to take another chance on him in 2011,maybe even the Rays But that is one of the glories of this time of year in Major League Baseball. Things can be erased and forgotten within a moment’s notice.

New beginnings can revitalize and reenergize a player to provide a solid performance for his new club. And a career once in peril can again be reborn brand new and full of hope and promise. Who says Christmas doesn’t come at the end of July?
 

Rays are a AL/NL Hybrid Squad

 


 1080theFan.com
 

During the Tampa Bay Rays versus New York Yankee game last night Rays Television Announcer Dewayne Staats made sure to mention that the Rays have basically played like a “National League style team” this year. And with the Rays sporting the best record (30-11) in both Leagues right now, being a little like the “Senior Circuit” might not be a bad thing heading into the first round of games against a National League foe on their terms.

And with that, the Rays will be totally comfortable playing by the National League standards since they have been playing that style of baseball since the first week in April. The Rays have been masters at executing and perfecting the sacrifice bunt, squeeze bunt and even the suicide squeeze, which have been National League staples among the N L squad’s offensive arsenal.

But what was once considered a N L advantage with the American League teams sending their pitcher’s into the batter’s box for the first time this season, the Rays might have some special surprises awaiting their N L foes.


Sure heading into Houston we will first see Rays starter Matt Garza hit the mound to start the 14th season of Interleague play . And even with the Rays entering this season’s Interleague schedule with a less than .500 record All Time (99-115), they have been a combined 43-29 since Rays Manager Joe Maddon , which is the sixth best record in the Interleague play format since 2006. And over the past two years, only the Minnesota Twins (26-10) own a better Interleague record than the Rays (26-11) coming into their series against the Astros.

But just because this is usually the first time they send their bevy of pitcher’s to the plate, the Rays over the last two years have batted a Major League best .295 in Interleague play and their pitching staff has held their opponents to a .236 average, also best in the Major League. And even during their 2009 campaign into Interleague play, the Rays posted a 13-5 record last season which was beat only by the Los Angels Angels of Anaheim (14-4).

But playing in unfamiliar parks have been a bit of thorn in the Rays sides as they hold a 44-63 record in the National League ballparks, but they have begun to reverse that trend as they have gone 11-7 over the past two seasons in their strange surroundings.


But heading into the confines of Minute Maid Park with its train that moves throughout the outfield during Home Runs, and their unique Centerfield incline with their majestic flagpole in the center, this will only be the second time the Rays have ever wandered into the Astros home turf. But back in 2003, their last visit to Houston, the Rays did not leave with a great bit of Texas hospitality as the Astros swept them during contests from June6-8, 2003. And only one Rays player still remains on their roster from that 2003 squad, and Houston just happens to be his hometown (Carl Crawford).

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But the two teams did meet during 2008 from June 20-22,2008 as the Astros took two out of three from the Rays with former Astros Brandon Backe beating the Rays in their “throwback jerseys on that Sunday contest. Surprisingly, all three of those game were one run contests that season. But there will be quite a few Rays who will have a crowd or two on hand during this road series as Rays starter Jeff Niemann, who will start the Sunday finale, Crawford, Rays set-up man Dan Wheeler, and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey all have Houston roots. But the real treat might just be in how the Rays pitching staff does at the plate during this series.


The Rays pitching staff have been taking their turns in the Batting Cages over the last several weeks with several Rays pitchers showing they might just come out and surprise a few of us during the N L-slate of the Interleague this season. And starting with tonight’s starter Matt Garza, who is a career 0-8 at the plate, but has been showing increased ease and poise at the plate in recent B P sessions with Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton.

And Garza has a bit of revenge on his mind as this will be his second start against Houston lifetime. But his last outing on June 20,2008 when he opposed Astros ace Roy Oswalt did not go well as he lost the decision 4-3. But Garza also brings in a nice 3-2 mark All Time in Interleague play with a special one-hitter in 2008 against the Florida Marlins.


And with no Designated Hitter in N L parks, the Rays might be at a distinctive disadvantage seeing that only 5 other members of the entire Rays pitching staff after Garza even have a Batting Average. We could possibly see Lance Cormier ( 5-46 .109 2 RBI ), Dan Wheeler ( 1-7 .143 ) make at least one plate appearance this series. But Rays Saturday starter leftie David Price owns a 1-3 .333 batting average, and last night’s starter James Shields could get a go at the plate in the middle innings if Maddon wants to save his bench players for a late inning rally. Shield sports a 5-22 .227 average with 1 RBI. But the pride and joy of the Rays pitching staff hitters might be their “secret weapon” Rays long man Andy Sonnanstine who is a career 7-21 or .333 with 2 RBI.

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But most Rays fans might remember his May 17,2009 clutch performance when a line-up card snafu had Sonnanstine batting in the 3-hole after a mix-up on the initial lineup card given to the Home Plate Umpire before that contest. For some odd reason, Rays Third Baseman Evan Longoria was suppose to be the game’s DH, but was listed on the lineup card as a second Rays Third Baseman and was disqualified from the lineup. Sonnanstine responded with a 1-3 day with a RBI double.


And with Sonnanstines first step into the batter’s box, he became the first AL pitcher to be in the lineup in an AL ballpark since Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Brett stepped in the box on September 23, 1976 against the Minnesota Twins. On that date, Sonnanstine also became the first Rays pitcher to ever head to the Batter’s box in an AL home game, plus was the first Rays pitcher to ever bat at Tropicana Field.  

Because of that hitting success, Maddon used Sonnanstine again on May 23,2009 as a Pinch Hitter against the Florida Marlins at then Pro Player Stadium, he then again stepped into the box on June 21, 2009 against the New York Mets at Citi Field. During those appearances, Sonnanstine became only the second Rays pitcher following James Shields example from his June 28,2008 appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Three Rivers Stadium. Sonnanstine also pinch ran on June 6, 2009 in a AL game against the New York Yankees and scored a run for the Rays.

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But after the aforementioned five Rays pitching “hitters”, the rest of the Rays Bullpen and starter have laid golden goose eggs to a tune of going 0-19 lifetime during Interleague play. Rays starters have combined for a 6-38 mark or a .157 average combined, but Wade Davis has never made an appearance yet in a Major League batter’s box.  The Rays Bullpen (including Wheeler, Cormier and Sonnanstine ) have gone 13 for 93 or a .140 Batting Average in Interleague play. Hopefully we will not have to see Rays relievers Randy Choate (0-5), Rafael Soriano (0-4), Grant Balfour (0-1) or Joaquin Benoit (0-9) make plate appearances during this series.

 
So they Rays, who have the basis of a National League squad down pat will come into their first series against a N L foe with a bit of confidence and a few tricks up their sleeves. But with that one extra hitter missing from the ninth spot in the Rays lineup, it is going to be really interesting to see how Maddon utilizes his troops and his pitching staff for spot duty at the plate.
And who knows, it could be the advent of the short game by putting down a well executed bunt or even a single through the hole that provides the difference in one of these three contests. But playing ” small ball” is the advent of the National League system. And even if they are considered a totally power-based American League team, they think like a National League squad, which could be dangerous for the Astros this weekend.
 

Choate is Alone on Leftie Island

 


Steve Nesius/AP

Being a fellow left-hander (writing) I can show compassion and a bit of empathy with the current stage that Tampa Bay Rays reliever Randy Choate finds himself in after a few disastrous early 2010 escapades on the pitching rubber. With the Rays letting former lefty-specialist Brain Shouse go following the 2009 season, and the early Spring shutdown of fellow reliever J P Howell, life has not been easy for the Rays lone leftie in their Bullpen.

But you also got to think of the extra stress and responsibilities thrown upon Choate from the first day of the 2010 season to be “the Man” when it comes to leftie situations and that his mixed bag of results have come with limited options for Rays Manager Joe Maddon.

 
And the situation gets more and more complex when you look at the other possibilities within the Rays Bullpen where only certain right-hander even have any remote possibilities of getting left-handed batter out with any measure of confidence. Choate is like a lone man on a deserted island with not even a lifeboat or ship in sight right now. Choate simply has to “sink or swim” right now, and I am betting he will end up looking like Michael Phelps again before all is said and done.

Left-handed relievers are a rare breed in Major League Baseball, and held as a commodity unlike gold by some teams like the Rays who have always tried to salvage and use left-handed relievers to their advantage. But right now with the struggles of Choate, and Howell still about a month away from rejoining the Rays, the left-handed duties are looking more stressful by the day.

 
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And before Choate’s recent problems he was considered a great asset and possible weapon against left-handed batters. But after appearing in 5 of the Rays first 9 games and only surviving 2.1 innings while surrendering 7 runs on 9 hits for a 27.00 ERA, Choate needs to stay out of his head and eliminate any other internal damage. And watching him pitch, you do not see any tell-tale sign of him either signaling or telegraphing his pitches, but this is not the same reliever who posted a 3.47 ERA for the Rays in 2009.

 
And Choate was extremely effective out of the Rays Bullpen appearing in 61 of the Rays final 115 games in 2009, which was the third most in the American League during that span. But more surprising was the fatc it was his first true season in the Major Leagues after providing only 23 innings over the previous 4 MLB seasons combined before his break-out after coming up from Triple-A Durham on May 25,2009. And his effective nature on the mound was quickly embraced by the Rays as only 9 of his inherited runners scored on him that season and led the Major Leagues in one-batter relief appearances facing just one batter in 29 of his 61 appearances. Choate became a specialist the Rays relied on and expected great thing from in 2010.
 
And who can forget the 5 saves he earned as a member of the Rays “Closer by committee” set-up in 2009 facing a total of 8 batter in those closing situation, and retiring all 8 hitters. Choate was on the fast track for a left-handed reliever as he held opponents in his first 10 appearances of 2009 to only a single hit and a 0.42 batting average in 8 innings. Even more impressive was Choate’s Opponents batting average against him with two outs and runners in scoring position.

In those situations, Choate posted a .111 average which was a superior mark for a reliever. Overall in 2009, lefties hit .144 against Choate while right-handers managed a robust .321 average. He was definitely a lefties weapon for the Rays, and a right-handers dream at the plate. So was it really surprising after Choate posted a 1.13 ERA in 7 appearances this Spring while also showing some signs of control issues with 3 walks in his 8 total innings. But nothing showed the signs of what would happen to him so early in 2010.

Choate looked effective in his first two appearances against the Baltimore Orioles at home when he threw for 1.2 innings and threw 12 strikes in his 17 pitches. Choate seemed in line and ready to provide great leftie situational relief appearances. But then on April 10th against his old team, the New York Yankees, Choate last .2 innings and 24 pitches but walked from the mound after giving up 5 hits and 4 runs to boost his ERA towards 15.43. And sometimes these situation happen during a season, but little did we know what was still on the horizon for Choate.

 

 
Mike Carlson/AP

Then again he took the mound against the Yankees on April 11th and this time lasted only 6 pitches while giving up 2 runs on 2 hits, one being a 2-run shot by Yankee catcher Jorge Posada in the sixth inning. That ballooned his ERA to 23.14 for the season and some concerns quickly mounted as to the lack of left-handed depth on the Rays Bullpen roster. Worst of all is the fact that both sides of the plate have feasted on Choate early this season with both left-handers ( 3 hits, 4 runs) and right-handers ( 6 hits, 3 runs) each showing high level of effectiveness against the Rays lone leftie option.


And with Wednesday nights 2-run shot by Baltimore left-handed pinch-hitter Luke Scott, Choate has now given up 2 Home Runs in back-to-back appearances. He gave up a total of 4 Home Runs over his 61 appearances last season. The event also boosted Choate to a 27.00 ERA, which have some within the Rays Republic both nervous and skittish about his effectiveness early this season. But the Rays do have a few viable options within their farm system right now, but might not consider them because of injury concerns or certain players needing more of the minor league maturation process before they are maybe considered later in 2010.

Sure there is the “waiver wire/ air miles traveler” leftie R J Swindle who seemed to be on a rollercoaster ride between Milwaukee, Cleveland and Durham for most of the end of 2009 before finally coming back into the Rays fold this Spring But Swindle is currently on the Durham Bulls Disabled List and he needs to show some relative progression towards health and pitching stamina before the Rays could even consider him a left-handed option this season. Swindle might be a viable option late in the season, but right now he would just be a liability.

And currently the shelf is mighty bear in Durham for left-handers as only big man Heath Phillips is the only other leftie on the Bull staff, but Phillips is actually a Bull starter and is not even adjusted towards relieving, even at the Triple-A level right now. And even at Double-A Montgomery, Darin Downs is still not ready for the aspect of promotion as a leftie reliever, and leftie Jake McGee who most Rays fans thought might have the fats track to the majors as a reliever has been stretched out and will again be a starter for the Biscuits.

So the Rays farm system has no viable options at this time to adequately bring up a left-handed reliever. But the free agents and trade aspects are there for a possible deal if the Rays lose their confidence in Choate before Howell returns in mid-May.

 
There are surely trade partners and even a few free agents like former Rays left specialist Brian Shouse sitting by the phone wondering if the Rays will go outside the organization for a leftie addition to their roster. And besides Shouse, there is always someone like Toronto Blue Jay Scott Downs who has AL experience and might be affordable to the team, but might not be available to team within the American League East, even this early in the season. Or there is always the Pittsburgh connection that might be willing to part with Javier Lopez or Jack Taschner with the right bait dangled by the Rays.
 

 
Mike Borcheck/ SPTimes

 Whatever the future holds right now for the Rays, they have to be concerned since their only option to facing left-hander is basically in a pitching funk. Fellow Rays relievers Lance Cormier and Grant Balfour have 0.00 ERA against left-handers this season, but they have only faced 4.2 innings of work against lefties in 2010 and it might not be an adequate measure as to their overall seasonal effectiveness.

It might seem a bit ‘ackward” and “goofy” right now for the Rays Coaching staff to have their total vote of confidence on their lone leftie right now, but then again….lefties have been fighting this leftie-rightie fight for a long, long time and are still in the right baseball frame of mind.

 

Rays Bang Out an Opening Night Victory

 

Got to admit, that was the way to throw an Major League Baseball Opening Day gig last night. From Tampa Bay Rays players coming out and meeting us at the Rotunda Gate 1 location at 4 pm, to the explosions on and off the field, if this doesn’t get Rays fan excited…then this region is in for a heartache. But what better way to get a community pumped up for the first journey into the Trop. of the Evil empire than to have a Walk-off 2-run double produced by one of your marque players.

So with that in mind, and with me still emotional tired and drained from the whole episode, let’s take today as a “photo blog” day and I will throw a few photos up for the fans who were not at the Trop. to see what might have happened in their absence. I have to admit to everyone, when I moved in October 2009, I think I lost my 3.5X Telephoto lens, so you will have to squint and look at thing s a bit out of focus until my new lens arrives from Miami (hopefully by Friday).

 
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But it was all about the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day today with several new additions to the Tropicana Field scene, and even a few new looks to the ballpark that I will show you in the next few days. But different this season is the fact I will not have my laptop with me during games at this time, but that might change in the near future if a few good things happen, like a real job (lol).

 
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When I got to the stadium at 3 pm today, I was the first person standing in the Season Ticket holders line at Gate 1, and was quickly bombarded by Rays friends and ballpark buddies talking about the uypcoming season and just renewing friendships. I even got yelled at by a friend who sit in the Upper Deck for my April Fool’s Day joke, and another baseball buddy in the Rays front office commented on that post too later in the day. But today was all about seeing the 25 members of the Rays surge towards their goal of getting back to the playoffs in 2010.


 
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But there were also some new sight on the field during the Rays Batting Practice as Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler was showing off his new glove that featured a Columbia Blue dyed “U-pocket” on his fielding glove, and a bit of Columbia Blue trim along the inner seams of the glove. It reminded me of the color scheme that ex-Rays infielder Akinora Iwamura did with his glove over the past few seasons. I will try and get a better shot of the glove today as Kapler was in a bit of a hurry yesterday and I did not get an “up close” look at his new mitt.

Rays RP Grant Balfour was also sporting a Columbia Blue T-shirt under his BP sweatshirt that read “Defend The Trop” with a black AK-47 situated in the middle of the shirt. It was produced by the Cowbell Kid in 2009 and given to Balfour, who is an honorary member of the Cowbell Security Force now. Another example of the right attitude can produce amazing results.

 
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I liked the way that the Rays today incorporated the smoke and fire elements in their pre-game festivities, but it ended up producing a smoke and haze within the Trop that had to be a definite obstacle for both teams outfielders during the game. At one point, it seemed early in the game that Rays centerfielder B J Upton had to make an instant change in his path to the ball before collecting it over the shoulder that would have had Willy Mays shouting his name.

 
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Over the past two Rays seasons they have used the propane fire pots more in a vertical display before the Opening Day festivities, but this season that had some very interesting variations on the flames paths, and also a nice addition of the Rays blue and yellow to bring out a different feel, but also a collaberation of the Rays color scheme.

 
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And Rays injured reliever J P Howell even came out for a little bit today to sit with his Rays Bullpen mates before going into the Rays dugout and watching the rest of the game. I was talking with Howell before the game and he is feeling the shoulder getting stronger and the wrokout program developed by Rays Strength & Conditioning guru Kevin Barr and Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield is showing fast imporvement in Howell’s mobility, but he is still on track to be out until possibily May 15th.

 
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So glad to see that Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos is again down in the Bullpen area for the 2010 season. During most of the Rays Spring Training schedule, Ramos was either doing Third Base duty, or helping out on the Rays bench learning some more tricks of the trade. Ramos would not tell me if he is heading towards a possible Bench gig in 2011, but he is still taking out the Rays line-up cars every game, since he is riding a 12-game winning streak when he performs that pre-game duty.

 
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Also something new at the Trop. this year is Raymond, our faithful Rays seadog has produced a new coat over the Fall and Winter and came out tonight with a shiny new coat that produced multiple sparkles and shimmering highlights. Either that or the Seadog finally began using conditioner on his coat for a healthier look in 2010.

 
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Rays new $7.5 million closer Rafael Sorinano did have a rude awakening tonight against the Baltimore Orioles as he got into trouble early and got bailed-out on a brilliant play at the plate on a throw by Rays Third Baseman Evan Longoria. Soriano was releived as Longoria’s throw kept the Orioles from again tacking on a few runs and gave the Rays a chance to come back in the bottom of the ninth for the victory.

 
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I had my camera going nuts last night and thought I might have caught Rays pinch-hitter Kelly Shoppach’s blast that popped off the Baltimore outfielder mitt and moved towards the yellow line on the railing in Left-Centerfield. But as you can see, it did not come out perfectly, but it did put two men on base, and if it had gone above that nice little yellow line on the fly…The game would have ened 15 minutes earlier.

 
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Got to admit, I am getting slower in my old age becuase I did not pick up the ball in flight here on Carl Crawford’s 2-run Walk-off Double, but then again I was trying to keep moving to get around the errant Rays ballboy that did not want to stay in one place while I tried to gather in a picture that would sum up the game’s event….I will try again. Dang you Ballboy!

 
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But really this picture says it all. And what was so amazing is the discussion I had with Rays Radio Host Rich Herrera before the game about we need to again get those “magical small moment
s” back into the Rays game plan in 2010 to get off to a great start and force someone else to hustle and keep up witrh us in 2010. And the way the Rays employed their confidence and their strive to produce those runs last night shows that maybe a few sparks fromn that 2008 spirit might still be alive and well within the hearts and souls of the Rays players.

 
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I do not have a photo of the event, but again Rays catcher Dioner Navarro is getting pretty stealthy when it comes to the post-game shaving cream pies. Carl Crawford was doing a interview with Todd Kalas by the side of the Rays dugout when a swiftly moving Navarro came out of the tunnel and just missed planting the towel filled with shaving cream onto Crawford’s face. Navarro ended up pushing most of it onto Crawford’s uniform right shoulder, but you can not discount his effort.

 
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But in the end what was important was the “W” last night. And in an interesting twist of fact here, Crawford’s 2-run double was the Rays 13th hit of the night to highlight a victory in the start of their 13th season, and of course, Crawford wears number 13 for the Rays. Nothing unlucky aboiut that number last night, and i have a feeling Rays fans will be looking for that 1 and 3 combination ( Sean Rodriguez (1), Evan Longoria (3), plus the always swifty number 13 to bring another win tonight as the Rays send starter Matt Garza to the mound. God I love this game!

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