Results tagged ‘ J P Howell ’

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.
 

To My Baseball Buddy

Tampa Bay Rays Baseball club
Rays Clubhouse
Attn: J P Howell
100 Tropicana Drive
St. Petersburg, Florida 33710
 
 
€€
Dude,

We have been Baseball Buddies for some time, and with that distinction, you know I have got your back any time you need anything….anything. And right now, the only real gift I can offer you during your time while rehabbing from your shoulder surgery is to try and constantly remind you that there is a huge amount of positive support and encouraging words coming out of the Tampa Bay Rays Republic community that want to see you smiling and taking the Rays mound as soon as humanly possible 2011.
 
I know it is a setback of massive proportions, but it is also a charcter building exercise as you learn more about yourself as you endure the struggles and the obstacles that come with such a surgery. But by staying in a positively focused mindset, you already would have gained the first step towards heading to the mound again. 

I personally have been in your shoes before in my life with an unforeseen injury taking not only your breath away, but making you face some realistic mortality issues both on and off the field. I have had an negative injury prognosis overtake and consume me to force my mind and soul into a unnaturally dark place that seemed to constantly suffocate all the good around me, and made me dwell and focus on the darkness just out of reach that was seeming to surround and confuse me daily. But, the stark turth is that you and your attitude and mindset are the best foundations to staying positive and remaining encouraged throughout this whole unfolding episode.

It might be time for me to use a really badly conceptualized California allegory right now. You really do have to ride this turbulent shifting wave the rest of the way out to its ultimate conclusion. And it is extremely possible that it will still have a chance to thrash and toss you around a bit with its unexpected twists and turns, but stay focused on the sun on the horizon and you will be able to ride it from crest to the beach shoreline.
 
Try and focus on the “goodies” so that those negative whitecaps just wash by you and far away. It is so easy right now to get into your own head with the demons and demoralizing thoughts, but do not get pulled into that bottom rip current of doubt, uncertainty and utter frustration. Hang Ten and take this as a bonding experience of strength and determination, not as a loss of opportunity or major physical boundary. 

And there will be more than a slight bevy of demons and unforeseen confusing thoughts that will suddenly sideswipe you and try and toss you from the safety of your board. But just keep paddling and riding those turbulent waves towards that serene and tranquil spot (maybe a lagoon in Bora Bora) that brings back your unique aire of confidence, and the “Dude” we have gotten to know during your Rays days.
 
And it is understandable that right now you might be looking towards that deep dark swell of water with a small sense of doubt or uncertainty. Push through that obstacle and focus again on the great things just within your eyesight and heart. The joy of spending extra time with your expanding family,your beautiful bride, and your life outside the lines and clay fields of the game. 
And hopefully you will beam  just from the pure thought that you have the entire Rays Republic and Tampa Bay Rays fan base wanting only the best for you. Many Major League Baseball players have gone down over the age with this same difficult and traverse obstacle to their careers and seen both amazing long-term results and some increased mobility and strength because of this same surgery, which revitalized and energized their careers.

Sure all of us Rays fans miss our own unique “J P ” moments during the Rays season. Be it the special gestures, or even a head nod that tells us we are part of your Rays game traditions. But now it is time for us to return the favor. It is time for us to return all those hand gestures, photos and talks on the side of the field. It is time for all of us collectively to show undying support and to display to you our own levels of admiration and the baseball bond  that has become supremely special to us. It is time for the people within the Rays Republic to visualize that we are there for you in any and every way possible during your recovery process.

And the greatest thing about this Rays organization J P is that you already know the guys in the Rays clubhouse, from the players, to the Medical Staff and all the way to the Fourth floor Rays offices are firmly behind you tri-fold. But there is an even bigger crowd that also want you to know you have our undying support and any positive vibes you might need in the future.


One thing I learned from my days after my injury is that the true fans of your team do not forget you. They are the one who make sure to see how you are feeling every time they see you, or ask you how things are going for you, even when you are playing for an opposing squad. And you have a large group of those fans right now hoping and praying for both a speedy recovery, and a time for you to renergize and focus on a date with the pitching mound as soon as March 2011.

These fans might seem like borderline stalkers at times, but there is a genuine emotional want and desire to see your Baseball Buddies have on-the-field success and a constant reminder of crowd confidence in their abilities. We have seen you not only grow in confidence, but become more extroverted and open up towards the fans in the stands to become a true Rays fan favorite for your smiles, waves and in-game gestures.


And you should pull on those special moments of talking with people like George Stone, or taking photos or chatting with the Pat and Christin Manfredo before the game. Of all the people you see and talk with on your journey down to the Rays Bullpen every night. Most of those same collections of Rays fans people are not only hoping and praying for a speedy recovery, but hope that you strive to maintain a positive outlook even when the pain get unbearable, and the rehab exercises drain you of all your strength in your body.

I know your impending struggles will at times seem totally disheartening and frustrating, but I hope the thought that we all collectively are pulling for you to again to sling a nifty 12-6 curve ball over the plate as soon as possible again for the Rays can provide some small foundation of support and affirmation we can’t wait to see you pitch again.


Working your way through the rehabilitation process after an injury or surgery is a seemingly never ending game of solitude and a roller coaster ride of emotions and painful moments. I can not say I envy the enduring trail ahead of you right now. But if I can offer any advice, it is to just keep those positive affirmations in your life close. Focus within those special moments, take positive emotional stands and push through the pain knowing it gives will provide you strength in the end.

My father once told me the true measure of a man’s fortitude is how he faced his adversities and overcame them. That to turn and run ruins not only your own aspirations, but those around you in life.


J P some doctors in Indianapolis still think it was a miracle I was running and sprinting less than 4 months after being on that field with no feeling in my extremities. But I put the things I cherished on a piece of paper and put to memorizing them into my subconscious so that when it got rough, tiresome and totally mentally and physically exhausting, I could pull out that list and find a few more reps, a few more steps, and even a few more moments of sweat and tears.

I remember a quote by the late Christopher Reeves, who said this passage during a motivational speech session I once attended: “Misfortune can force you into doing things you should be doing anyways. Lessons come from adversity. Anything can happen to anyone…You can find a new lease on life-more meaning that you thought possible in simple things…Let go. Live in the moment. Go forward.”

If you need anything, any time…..You know where to find me, because that is what Baseball Buddies are for….Can’t wait to see you again on the field.
 
 
Rays Renegade
 
Section 138….You know where

 

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.

 
RRCollections

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.
 

 
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 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!

Rays Pitching still has Question Marks

 
 
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The only thing right now keeping Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Wade Davis as a question mark entering the final weeks of the Spring is Davis himself. Davis could have made some movement towards silencing his critics, and possibly securing his fifth spot in the rotation with a good outing, but instead Davis stubbed his toes. And that lackluster outing has added fuel to the fire that Davis might not be with the Rays on April 6th for the Home Opener and might be headed down to Durham for a month or so to regroup.

 

And before his last outing, the idea of the Rays sending Davis down to stop his Major League service clock seemed to be the only logical reason to ship Davis back to the minors until at least the middle of May and sticking with Mr “Plug In”, Andy Sonnanstine on the Rays roster. The versatility of Sonnanstine right now might lay heavily on their upcoming fifth rotation decision as Sonnanstine could effectively switch from Bullpen or staring positions as needed until either Davis or J P Howell are again shown to be a positive move for the club.
 

And it was only last Spring that Davis also took himself out of the thought process for the battle for the Rays fifth spot in the rotation in 2009 with another similar bad outing at the wrong time. But this year, after a great late season campaign up starting games for the Rays, it seems that Davis had his future with the Rays in 2010 firmly in his pitching hands. And with Sonnanstine not flinching at all, but showing his resourceful nature and rebounding effectively from a bad 2009, it seems that the Rays could, should and might send Davis back for a month to push his service clock back a season.
 

And this move is totally reminiscent of the way the Rays pushed Third Base prospect Evan Longoria back to Durham in 2008 for a small period of time before Longoria was then brought up weeks later due to an injury to Willy Aybar. But with the Rays recent injury bug there is speculation that both could make the Rays roster without incident this Spring and push away the competition for the fifth spot. Which poses a few questions to me. If both starters make the roster, with one pitcher doing spot duty as a long reliever, will that reorganize the overall chemistry and roles of the Rays Bullpen, with the exceptions being closer Rafael Soriano and Dan Wheeler?
 

And if Sonnanstine is given the additional slot on the Rays 25-man roster, does that mean that Joaquin Benoit doesn’t have a realistic chance to make the Rays roster? There have been moments where Benoit has looked like his former Rangers heydays, and others where he has looked like he is still seeking the answers. But Benoit has done exactly what the Rays have asked of him, and is currently tied with several relievers in total game appearances this Spring, plus Benoit has looked extremely good over the last week. Could Benoit be peaking at the right moment to get in the mindset of the Rays Coaches as the clock winds down this Spring?
 

And with Howell out for at least a month, could fellow lefties Heath Phillips or even Carlos Hernandez get a chance again at the Major League level to occupy Howell’s spot in the Rays Bullpen, then bring about some major decisions by the Rays when Howell returns. Or could the Rays take their chances and try to sneak either pitcher through waivers and back to the minors upon Howell’s return?
 

Howell’s injury brings up the new thought of both Davis and Sonnanstine staying up with the big club, but could the move compromise the Rays Bullpen’s overall integrity a bit. With Sonnanstine joining the motley crew, could the move force former long reliever Lance Cormier into Howell’s old role on the short term, or do the Rays hope that Benoit can assume Howell’s role of facing hitters from both sides of the plate, and leave Cormier to mostly specialized rightie roles, or as a second possible long reliever?
 

 
Gail Burton/AP

But then there is another Bullpen question that some people have been mumbling about since late in 2009. Could Rays reliever Grant Balfour be a problem or could he be hiding something? Balfour has been decreasing his overall pitch velocity and looking pretty vulnerable to hitters over the last several months of 2009. Could he just of had a weak arm also towards the end of 2009 from his overuse in 2008 and 2009, or could he just have run out of tricks and the hitters are wise to him now? And again this Spring, Balfour has not had the best Spring again here in 2010 showing either he is a slow starter, or maybe the 2008 season’s magic might have finally left his fingers.

 

There are still many pitching questions left to be answered, but the Rays have said that a definite decision on their 2010 rotation will be coming soon. One highly probable suggestion is to flip-flop current the 3 and 4 starters Jeff Neimann and David Price to break up the right-handed heavy Rays front of the rotation. Something that was unique for the Rays in 2009 was their addition of the second leftie when Price finally joined the Rays mid-season rotation so the Rays could break up the righty-lefty batting order match-ups during every series, but with Scott Kazmir now gone, only David Price remains in the Rays rotation.

The move would effectively eliminate a lefty dominant line-up for an entire Rays opponent’s series, and break up any chance of another teams getting into a hitting rhythm against the Rays by possibly facing three right-handers in a row. Big decisions, hard decisions. But then again, that is why the Rays brass get paid the big money.

 

My personal hopes are that the team uses Benoit effectively in the Rays Bullpen to begin the season, with Sonnanstine as the fifth starter for about a month. That would give Benoit a chance to show he still has the stuff to compete at the Major League level. When Benoit is on the ball, he is simply magical on the mound. And this move could also effectively buy the Rays an added year of Davis’s services, plus give the team more time to showcase Sonnanstine’s talents if they decide they might want to seek a trade, or they could simply send Sonnanstine back to the minors as a insurance policy against further pitching injuries.
 

Whatever the Rays decide, the team has to effectively decide what the roles Rays player’s like Benoit, Cormier and leftie Randy Choate will perform before they can streamline their thought process and make an adequate and concise decision. This might be the final season the Rays have this much offensive firepower for awhile, so the team needs to make the right adjustments and the right moves to counter that offense with a great pitching staff and effective Bullpen in 2010.

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

Rays Manager Joe Maddon is famous for using the quote, ” Starting pitching sets the tone of the game.” If the team doesn’t find the right solutions to shore up their back-end of the rotation, it will just fester into a situation every 5 days for the Rays. Davis and Sonnastine have to provide that comfort and confidence level over the next few days for the Rays to begin their final decision process. But with a swift decision, it also sets up the Rays pitchers to get into a rhythm now, even before the season begins and adjust accordingly to their rotation slots.

The Rays had a few setbacks recently on their pitching front, with Howell going down this weekend and question marks still surrounding several Bullpen 2010 roles and abilities. But in the end, the Rays have to do what is right for the team to fulfill their quest to again play deep into October. With both sides of the ball clicking for the Rays, the sky could be the limit in 2010, but quickly even that scenario can falter if an injury bug decides to hit the team, or a starter falters early….but then again, that is why we play 162 games before crowning a Division Champion.

The “Dude” Put on the Shelf Until May

 

Rays 2010 photo day | www.RaysRenegade.com
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Dude, Got to tell you this recent news is really killing the positive Rays aura of a great Friday night beat down here in Port Charlotte of the New York Yankees split squad. And it was made special by the Rays committing to doing the little things tonight as the Rays produced runs little by little to take the Rays to their Major League Baseball leading 12th win of the Spring.
 

But the news that really threw my karma karma chameleon into a blender was the sound bytes heard from field level that Rays reliever J P Howell could possibly missing almost a month of the 2010 season due to some shoulder weakness. It really bummed me out totally for the game and had me sneaking around looking for answers than watching the game in progress in front of me. And I did find some answers, but they are not the one I wanted to hear….Bummer man.
 

So here I am sitting in a small wings and things joint just a mile from Charlotte Sport Park and more than a few fellow Rays fans have also expressed some worry and concern and a bit of frustration that “the Dude” will be delayed in his smiling flight nightly out to the Rays Bullpen. But considering all the innings (66.2 innings) and appearances (69), not including Howell’s Bullpen stint with the USA squad during last season’s World Baseball Classic.
 

In reality, only fellow Rays reliever Dan Wheeler has put in almost as much innings (124.0 innings) and appearances (139) than Howell’s last two years ( 156.0 innings) and appearances (133) that easily shows that the “Dude” has put in some vicious overtime in during the last two Rays seasons. And in reality, even with his increase in appearances, he did decrease his total innings by almost 23 innings in 2009.
 

But Wheeler has been a reliever for most of his MLB career, and was just one appearance shy of making his fifth straight 70 game appearance seasonal mark. Wheeler was trained to be a reliever for the last 9 seasons. The last time Wheeler even started more than 1 game a season was in 1999 when he was originally with the Rays.

April2009 | www.RaysRenegade.com
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Howell came from the Rays starter ranks not even two seasons ago, and maxed out himself in 2008 both during the season, and hitting the mound sick in Game 5.5 of the 2008 World Series. The “Dude” is a gamer people who doesn’t let minor obstacles get in his way, but this one situation got him firmly by the shoulder’s and let him know…

something is wrong. When the Rays first opened camp this Spring, I was down in Port Charlotte and saw the now dark-haired Howell throwing on that first day, but something caught my eye. Sure he might have been throwing softly like most of the Rays pitchers’ that first workout, but the arm angle looked a bit…well, off to me. I didn’t think much of it being the first workout and expecting some of the guys to just toss it lightly and get back in the flow within the next week.

But the second time I was down in Port Charlotte, Howell also had stepped it up a bit, but it did not seem right to me. I had watch him throw in the Rightfield corner over the last two season’s worth of Sundays, and something did not seem right. But then again, the whole time Howell has been with the Rays, he has not been known to blow away a radar gun with his pitches.

 

So when the Rays announced prior to the end of tonight’s game that the team would discuss further the possibilities of maybe delaying his Spring debut, it did not throw shockwaves through me, but I felt more of an air of caution by the team with the announcement. And you know that Howell is the perfect Rays “company man” for the Rays.

If Rays Manager Joe Maddon or Pitching Coach Jim Hickey told Howell to go out onto the mound and do the “Hokey Pokey” before he pitched, Howell would because the “Dude” is a total team type of guy.

 

And maybe this weekend was suppose to be Howell’s time to show everyone that his 2009 late season shutdown was just to let him chill a bit and regain some of that snap to his curveball again in 2010. I heard prior to the game tonight from a Rays player revealing to me that “Howell was not in uniform tonight, and might not be this weekend at all.” That revelation in itself told me something was wrong, so I went looking for Rays Medical Guru Ron Porterfield. Instead of finding Porterfield, I stumbled upon some interesting information.
 

Spring Training 2009 | www.RaysRenegade.com
Pat Manfredo/ Rays fan

It seemed that Howell when he first reported to the Rays this Spring showed some weakness early in strength and endurance testing and that the team decided to take a slow path and let him gain the necessary shoulder muscle and strength back before advancing in his workout program. Also Howell could tell something was off, but could not put a finger on the situation at the time. And Howell has since been examined by Dr Koko Eaton, the Rays orthopedic specialist, but I could not get a confirmation on his consult.

 

But I think the Rays are being smart here. Why ruin a perfectly good left-hander so early in the process when you could shut him down and get him healthy through rehabbing and specialized workouts to bring him back within 4 weeks or possibly before May 1,2010. Howell is valuable as a reliever who can face both left and right-handed hitter with success, and to rush him back to the team could jeopardize more than just Howell overall health, it could put a huge crimp in the Rays overall seasonal plans for the Rays Bullpen.
 
 
So for a bit the “Dude” will just chill and follow doctors orders before maybe starting a minor league rehab assignment in the middle of April with the Rays throwing out a possible Saturday, May 1st target date for his 2010 debut. That would work out to be during a Rays home stand where both Oakland and Kansas City will come to town before the Rays leave on a West Coast 10-game road trip against Seattle, Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels.

Howell is a valuable and rare relieving commodity to the Rays, and losing him for a possible 30-plus day stint could be tricky, but it is not impossible. Both with only current leftie specialist Randy Choate as the only other left-hander in the Bullpen, could this open the door for pitcher Carlos Hernandez or maybe Heath Phillips getting a longer Rays look past Spring Training as left-handed insurance policies?

 

We still have time to decide this, but the Rays have worked with only one leftie before in their Bullpen, but that was former Ray Trever Miller. And it is a bit of bummer that some are questioning that Howell’s off season workout program might be to blame for this ailment. Considering the guy got married this off season and went to Bora Bora, hopefully rowing in that canoe did not do damage to his shoulder.
 
 
Seriously, this put a damper in the relieving corps, but it is not unfixable since there is still time, and the Rays have viable options in-house to counter the injury. The good thing is the Rays did not greet Howell with a plane ticket to Birmingham, Alabama to see Dr James Andrew. That in itself should be Rays fans stoked that the “Dude” will be back soon pointing to fans and just chilling on the Rays Bullpen bench…Catch ya later Dudes!

Maddon has One More Math Problem to Solve this Spring

         

 

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With Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon seeming to go (on the surface) from genius to deflated mathematical slogans over the last two Rays seasons, it will not be the last time Rays fans see Maddon hits upon a numerical formula for the formulation of his young Rays squad. Just on the horizon, there will be another call for a numerical sequence to shape and ultimately sort out his final 2010 Rays 25-man roster.

And the final direction this 2010 Rays team takes in 2010 will be heavily based on this mathematical breakdown, even before their Home Opener on April 6,2010. And this simple math problem might say a lot about how solid and confident this Rays Coaching staff, and Maddon feel about the key elements of their 2010 squad before firmly heading into the Rays 13th Major League Baseball season.

 
 

One statistical breakdown remains unsolved, and it will definitely define the early roster of this team. This one still undecided simple mathematical conclusion could become the balancing fulcrum towards the realizations of multiple scenarios for possible failure, or ultimate success going into the 2010 season. For these two sets of simultaneous and sequenced numbers will decide the final set-up of the Rays roster. How the Rays split their 2010 roster into their “13 & 12″ segments will be a huge indicator of how the Rays perceive their team’s strengths coming out of Spring Training, and into the early divisional firestorm with American League East ramifications starting with Game 1.

How Maddon and his staff decide if they want to start the season with 13 pitchers and 12 bench players or vice versa will be an early tell tale sign to the confidence level this Coaching staff has with its roster, and its solution towards early challenges.

 
 

For the Rays can not have a downward spiral in the month of April, like in 2009, when the Rays went quickly towards an unpredictable 9-14 early record, and put themselves in “catch-up” mode for the rest of the season. How this Rays squad separates their personnel into those “13-12″ splits might be a instant indication if the Rays organization believes their pitching will need to get the “upper hand”, or if the hitting/fielding players will get the chance to man that “13th seat” at the table.

But you can count on more than a few players trying to force the Rays hands and have their names put in ink onto that “13th” numbered roster spot this Spring. These young and hungry players will do everything humanly possible to make the Rays staff’s decision tougher, and hope to make it lean towards their names with an impressive performance during Spring Training. And the ultimate reward just might make their first Opening Day MLB roster.

 

If the Bullpen pulls it together and borderline relievers like Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer make the roster, it could tilt that invisible line towards the team ultimately carrying 13 pitchers. And even the addition of former Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine thrown into the pitching mix, either in the Bullpen, or as a possible fifth starter. This could throw the whole equation quickly into the pitching sides favor early on this Spring. But that in itself presents an interesting and complex decision all by itself.

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With returning fifth starter Wade Davis and Sonnanstine squaring off in the only battle this Spring for a starting job, could the eventual loser of that battle just be sent packing to another team like Jason Hammel in 2009, or could they just be sent down to Triple-A Durham knowing they might be the first call-up of the season?

 
 

I have a feeling right now Maddon and his Pitching Coach Jim Hickey might be leaning towards extending that “13th slot” towards a pitcher, but there are also going to be some tough and interesting decisions to be made in the Rays infield and outfield mix that might make that entire pitching situation moot.

We already know that outfielder Matt Joyce is going to try to prove once and for all to the Rays Coaching Staff and Maddon that he deserves that Rightfield slot going into the season, and maybe for the next several years. And even if Joyce wins that spot (which I think he does), it is small factoring process compared to the highly competitive dogfight that will ultimately decide the fate of the Rays second utility guy between Reid Brignac and newcomer Sean Rodriguez.

 
 
And right now, I am basing this opinion solely on drills and exercises I have seen at the Rays complex, it seems at this moment that the Rays staff’s eyes are focusing tightly on Rodriguez’s defensive abilities more and more every day. But real soon we will see just how slick Rodriguez is at second base when Grapefruit League games begin on Wednesday with the Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Florida.

And maybe Brignac’s roster “pop-ups” to the majors in 2009 might have given the Rays staff more of an comprehensive book on Brignac’s abilities coming into this Spring, and possibly Brignac’s scorecard already has a few penciled-in notes and scratches from the Rays Coaching staff, while Rodriguez is a blank slate with everything to gain heading into the Spring Training games.

Sure Rodriguez was a key trade component of the Rays trading left-handed starter Scott Kazmir to the Angels in late July 2009, but this will be the first time most Rays fans and the Tampa Bay media will get an extended chance to see what the kid can do……now or in the near future for the Rays.

 
 
And if you realistically count the Rays bench players right now, with players like Carlos Pena, Kelly Shoppach, Dioner Navarro, Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, B J Upton, Gabe Kapler, Pat Burrell and the injured Willy Aybar, you already have 11 Rays players penciled into that first 11 possible bench slots ob the 25-man roster.

If more than one of these young players like Joyce, Rodriguez, Brignac or even Elliot Johnson makes a lasting impression that they “have to be” on this roster, this could ultimately shake up the preconceived notion of 13 pitchers and twist the equation quickly towards 13 bench players. And that scenario has a very distinctive possibility of happening this Spring. These numbers games for the first time in Rays short history, might effectively come down to total game day performances and not the foresight predictions on their talents, or a daily growing maturity in their abilities to play at the Major League level.

 
 

But, the wrist injury to Aybar might be one of the biggest question mark still unanswered totally into this first set of Grapefruit League games. If he is down and out for an extended time, or even gets put on the 15-day Disabled List to start the regular MLB season, the Rays could keep an extra bench player down with the Rays instead of sending them to the minor league camp or even up to Durham.

So there might be a lot of day-to-day evaluations and recommendations discussed with Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield in the next week or so to see if there is a viable option of Aybar playing before the Major League season begins, or they shut Aybar down from hitting drills and let him effectively rehab back into game shape before pressing this same numbers issue again during the Rays season.

 
 

And if Aybar does go on the D L, it could also be a bit of a last gasp of making this roster for one of the reliever fighting it out to become a Rays Bullpen member, or could evolve into a chance for the loser of the Sonnanstine/Davis battle to be kept on the Major League roster as a possible long reliever like Lance Cormier.

My personal gut reaction is that the Rays seem to want to do everything in their power to try and keep Sonnanstine up at this level, but if he falls into that 13th slot and Aybar comes back, he would be the first to fall from the 25-man roster. You already know that Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Cormier, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate (leftie specialist), J P Howell along with Wade Davis, James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann take up 11 pitching spots before even considering Abreu, Thayer or Joaquin Benoit as a Bullpen option.

 
 

 
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That would leave a possible one viable slots, with a second up in the air right now if the Rays want to carry 13 pitchers. You could pencil in Sonnanstine into one of those two spaces, but with him and Davis both having minor league options, they could always be sent down with the adage that it came down to that “13th ” spot. And even with Thayer and Abreu showing mixed results at this level, you have to think of the two, Abreu would get a longer look based on his 2009 MiLB.com designation as the Triple-A Reliever of the Year.

But not going in Abreu’s favor is his short stint with Cleveland in 2009, when he seemed to imploded a bit on the mound and almost started an all out brawl in a game versus Seattle. But both relievers have paid their minor league dues and could force the Rays hand and send Sonnanstine to Durham, even with great outings this Spring.

 
 

This is only my scenario of the whole situation and is only my personal glance into the Rays possible decision on this issue. I see the loser of the Davis and Sonnanstine battle to be immediate trade bait offered before MLB rosters finalize and if a good trade option can not be found, the loser of the fifth rotation battle will be sent back to Durham knowing they are the first starting pitcher recalled by the Rays.

I think there are a few NL teams that would jump on Sonnanstine if he has a great Spring, but there is still time to see about his 2010 situation. I truly feel that Joyce will win his battle for Rightfield, and will platoon with Ben Zobrist to begin the season until Joyce shows he can hit left-handers with consistency, then it open another can of worms for the Rays as to a final playing position for Zobrist.

 

Out of the infield battle, I see Sean Rodriguez maybe having a slight edge right now, but I feel it is Brignac’s job to lose since he has the confidence and skill level to play at the Major League level. And if Aybar does go on the D L , they both could get a realistic shot to make the initial Rays 25-man Opening Day roster. But I also think in the end, the Rays will shop Brignac and he could be somewhere else either before the 2010 season, or within the first few months of the season.

It is funny how two of the Rays past “utility” guys, Aybar and Zobrist based on their great seasons in 2008 and 2009 will play a part so deep into the Rays decisions in 2010. But that just goes to show you the improved depth and wealth of talent sitting in Port Charlotte right now, just at the Major League camp level.

 
 

 
Steve Nesius/ AP
 

Some people consider the number “13” to be mostly evil with no redemption for any good. But that same number “13” for one Rays player this Spring Training season will be a blessing, and a chance to show they have what it takes to survive and play daily at this level of the game. Whoever gets that coveted “13th” spot in 2010, no matter if they are a Rays pitcher, or field player, they will know internally that they survived one of the most competitive Rays Spring Training camps.

It might not seem so tough to some of the Rays fans watching the workouts and drills, but this Spring’s competition level has been raised very, very high, and the final Rays player to grace that “13th” spot decision has to consider himself lucky indeed, for they get a chance to grow with this Rays team as they again set their sights on games in October.
 

Rays Pitchers and Catchers Report…The Photo Blog

 



Today I want to conclude the photos that I took out at the Rays Spring Training complex on Friday morning. Hopefully each and every one of you will get a chance sometimes in your life to either get out to Arizona or Florida to see this yearly migration and training exercise featuring some of the most talented and fit athletes. No matter what team, or the location, these are our “Boys of Summer”,  and to catch them in this energetic elementary state away from the confines of the regular season.

 
 
This is the time of the season where the team begins to forge their team’s identity for the upcoming season, and prepare for their first battle in April 2010. Hope you all enjoy the rest of my photos of the Tampa Bay Rays as they “officially” began the quest to prepare for another enthusiastic and winning 2010 season.

One of the necessary “evils” of Spring Training is the television and media requests for interviews and short sound bytes about the upcoming season. Here we have former Rays Rookie of the Year candidate pitcher Jeff Niemann being interviewed by a local television crew about his expectation for the 2010 Rays season. You can not tell by the photo, but Niemann is growing a ” Abe Lincoln”-style beard that is just beginning to come into its own. He has not decided if he will keep it for the season, but combined with rookie pitcher Wade Davis, they could be the “bearded” back end of the Rays rotation this season. 


One of the great things about the way the Charlotte County Sports Park is setup is the short walk across the player’s parking lot before they hit the Rays clubhouse front door. It is an excellent spot to get autographs and also chat with your favorite players. Also, there are some players who are more pat to sign during Spring Training then they do during the regular season, and this is a great time to get those final pieces to your autograph collection. 

Welcome to Tampa Bay Kelly Shoppach. I think he felt like a hunted man as most of the Tampa Bay media was waiting for him and the other catchers’ to come in last during the days event and he was kind enough to give and every one of them a sound byte for their nightly telecast. 

Shoppach is pictured here in the middle of the media throng with local sportscasters popping microphones in front of his face as they ask about the upcoming competition to see who is going to be the Rays starting catcher for the season. Most people think the competition is going to be fierce between Shoppach and incumbent Dioner Navarro for the Rays starting catching job. I actually think it might come down to game situations as Shoppach is more apt at getting on base, while Navarro can provide some power at times in the lineup. Should be a fun time watching these two go through the Spring. 


I remember when I was playing sports, I used to hate hitting the “sharks” as I used to call them. The problem with some media members is they are always seeking the negative items and looking for an extreme angle on the team. People have asked me why I try and take a more positive approach to my blogs and my commentary, the proof is right above in this picture. With all the media onrush, I think a positive spin on even the worst situation can do wonders. But, I do have my own targets ( Hickey, Burrell).   

It was so great to see all of the guys out there tossing the ball around and laughing and commenting to each other throughout the workouts. Every pitcher performed drills today in anticipation of the Rays Fan fest on Saturday, in which most of the Rays pitchers’ will take that long trek up to Tropicana Field to participate in autograph signings and photo opportunities with Rays fans.  

 

I have always looked at Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer as our own personal “Yoda”. I remember someone saying one time that Zim has ” forgotten more baseball than any of us will ever research or see in our lifetimes”. And I have to agree with that quote 100 percent. He is always willing and eager to sign for fans, and is a true iconic figure that Rays fans are lucky to talk and learn from during times like Spring Training. It is funny, I used to pump his gas back in the 1970’s at my dad’s gas station, and no matter where you encounter Zimmer, he is always a great person to talk baseball with….always.

 

I was talking to Kevin Barr, who is the Rays Strength and Conditioning coach for a few minutes on Friday, and he is as excited as the guys to get back to work in 2010. One of the great aspects of Ray Manager Joe Maddon’s Coaching staff is their positive enthusiasm and their confident approach to situations with the Rays players. No matter if it on-the-field problems, or getting back into game shape after an injury, this staff is centered in positive energy and it feeds off them to the players.

I was excited to head on down to the far end of the complex after the pitchers’ came in for the day and see the Rays catchers in camp doing time in the hitting cages. One of the guy who caught my attention was Joe Dillon, who is trying to make this Rays roster as a multipurpose player. Last season he was Maddon’s choice as an emergency third catcher, but with a great Spring, he could make the roster as a bench and infield utility man. Plus he was tagging the ball down the third baseline today with some extreme power.

I am always surprised by the new exercises and physical fitness regiment that they Rays include in their daily workouts. No matter if it is the extra large rubber bands to strengthen their calves and legs, or the flex tubing to help stretch out their arms and shoulders, each Spring there is something new in the Rays exercise arsenal. 

 

And it was great to see the guys starting to hit drills during the first day with everyone participating but Rays new closer Rafael Soriano who has been battling some chest congestion due to a vicious cold. He might have only thrown a few long toss balls today, but he was there for Maddon’s meeting and looks imposing in his Rays uniform. 


 

But the “man of the hour” was Rays owner Stuart Sternberg who fielded a barrage of questions from the media on subjects ranging from the Hillsborough County stadium buzz to the Rays possible scenarios to keep Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena for 2011. Another issue that was on the media’s mind was the payroll concerns for 2011 and the rumors of Rays Season Tickets being down for this season.
 

One of the true sights of Spring. Most of the Rays players came out in their game spikes, but they also brought along their running shoes for their post long toss running exercises and workout on another field. With most of their cleats not broken in yet, using these running shoes might be one of the best options to keep blisters and foot situations under control so early in the Spring Training process. 

 

Rays reliever J P Howell and Rays starter Matt Garza are shown in these two photos ” airing it out” in their long toss portion of the Friday exercises. Howell was throwing with a group that contained fellow Bullpen mates Dan Wheeler and Lance Cormier before Cormier and Garza hooked up and put on a long-toss show with both pitchers throwing consistent balls in the air from the leftfield foul line to almost centerfield before they stopped and moved onto the pitching drills segment of the daily events. 

 

 

Maddon has a very experienced minor league Coaching Staff, who also were in attendance today to help in the drills and also be his eyes and ears at all five separate drill locations. With the Rays minor league system being considered one of the best in baseball, these Coaches are the backbone of that entire system.

 

 

Most of the morning exercises were devoted to stretching and limbering up for the daily grind of drills and activities to see what shape each of the Rays players might be in prior to the team turning up the dial and getting more intense in the next few days. And with every pitcher basically not doing intense workout on Saturday because of their travels to Fan Fest, it was a time to push the envelope a bit.  

 

Jaoquin Benoit, pictured above is one of the many non-roster Spring invitees to the Rays camp and could make the Rays decision a bit more difficult with a great Spring. Most consider him on the outside looking in, but he could secure a spot in the Rays bullpen with a few impressive outings this Spring. The Rays begin their Spring Training schedule in 10 days. 


It was a great turnout of fans both from Charlotte County, and some who came as far as Boston and Chicago for the Rays first “official” day of Spring Training camp. Just another sign that the Rays Republic is beginning to get fans from all over the country excited about Rays baseball.

One of the things I respect most about Maddon is that he leads by example.  He is one of the most positive people I have ever met, and he is always preaching and showing confidence and the essence of positive thinking to his players. But something else I have noticed the last few years, he is always the last person off the Spring Training field.

Not unlike Lt. Colonel Hal Moore in the Vietnam War epic “We Were Soldiers”, Maddon has lead by example and been a constant force of steady, confident leadership for his team. And just like Moore would not step off the ground and into a transport helicopter until every last solider was transported or removed from the battlefield in the Ia Drang Valley, Maddon also shows that unity daily in his activities with his team.

So this was my short and eventful day at the Rays complex as pitchers and catchers officially reported to the Rays to begin the 2010 campaign to get back to the playoffs. There will be another 10 days of extreme workouts and drills before game action begins, and less than 45 days until the Rays open their season at Tropicana field against the Baltimore Orioles. Hope you enjoyed the photos, because I enjoyed getting them for all of us to enjoy…

 

 

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