Results tagged ‘ James Shields ’

The August “Whack-A-Mole” Experience

I love the smell in the morning of the August Trade Waiver drama. It is simply surprising to see who get through this seasonal “Whack-A -Mole” fandango without a single waiver claim, and those who find themselves popped on the noggin being smacked back to the reality of possibly leaving their present squad.

It sometimes seem to work exactly like that classic kid’s arcade game. Every MLB team has their own mallet that they can either whack or smack their collective desired player (mole) square on the head and try and claim them. But the wild part is their present team can pull them back down into the safety of their own 25-man roster and back off the waiver wire with not a hint of their real intentions.

It is clear arcade gamesmanship at it best. The first action of a team posting it player upon the waiver wire is exactly like the mole poking his head out of the hole. Up for all 29 other MLB head honchos to see and possibly mangle for their own team. But here is where it gets really interesting, the team that posts the player has all the advantages, not the person manning the heavy mallet.

You would think it would be the opposite, but then you would be sorely wrong. Even thought it might be a nice therapeutic action to pop a veteran or budding MLB player on the head, he could without warning be pulled back, offered safety again without his claiming club getting a viable chance to claim their prize. Not even a slew of tickets would emerge from the machine, sometimes this game is all or nothing.

That is where the real gamesmanship comes into play. Sure you could smack the daylights out of a player like Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields when his head pops out of the machine, but the Rays front office could be also baiting you for a Winter discussion and pull Shields back into the comfort of the Rays fold. Suddenly you are left holding the bloody mallet with all to see you covet Shields.

Most of the time this scenario is the end result. Teams place the heads of their viable commodities firmly in the game to see who wants to take a whack at acquiring them, or has more than a passing interest. Some like Rays OF/DH Johnny Damon got completely through the game without a single thump upon the noggin, but still there might be a hidden want for his services.

It is almost like a visual game where others see what you are craving, wanting to thump into submission and take back to your roster as a prize. Interesting enough, even if you land one hard and heavy upon the exposed head of Shield’s, the Rays can pull him back to safety and he is no longer an exposed asset for the rest of the MLB to smash and dash.

Shields is not the only Rays player to be pulled back into his team’s safe haven with at least one square hit to his cap region. The Rays Republic have even seen their closer Kyle Farnsworth get a firm planting upon his frontal lobe, but the Rays pulled him back to the comfort of the Bullpen. B J Upton has been the latest Ray to receive a compound headache and a possible plane ticket out of Tampa Bay.

The Rays can either discuss a trade possibility, or pull Upton back into the Rays confines safe until at least the Winter Hot Stove season. The Upton talks or balks will be interesting. It will showcase either that Upton is a viable part of the Rays current post season march, or Desmond Jennings or Sam Fuld have started to erase the “Upton factor” from the Rays game plan.

More intriguing is the firm possibility that Upton was claimed by an American League team that has a good relationship via the trade with Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and could facilitate an Upton move with a few healthy and young and budding MLB relief options in their present fold. Should be a few interesting days until either the Rays pull Upton back to the safe confines, or send him to possibly play with the seagulls nightly up at a vista on the Great Lakes.

During this waiver period the Rays will pop out many of the Rays rostered minions hoping to find the right suitor, trade situation and possibly a future piece of the Rays always unfolding puzzle. This is not a game about “likes” or “dislikes”, it is still about a game where the person with the most toys win. And to win in this business, some times you got to whack a few moles. 

Stay Classy Tampa Bay

Tell me another Major League Baseball team that embraces their community with such abandon and vigor that the Tampa Bay Rays do on a daily basis. It seems like almost every day now a player, Coach or even members of the Rays front office are out and about trying to make a difference in our Tampa Bay community.

From building playgrounds, to charity events, this team has always had a solid focal point towards giving back, giving of themselves, and this community has taken them also into their own arms. Other communities around MLB also get a glowing show the faith, love and respect from their athletes Tampa Bay does, I personally think it is just glowing brighter right now in Tampa Bay.

The Rays have been blessed as a franchise to have a minimum of off-the-field” distractions and behavioral problem players in their brief existence. I want to attribute it to the low key and socially class-less South code of life, but Rays Manager Joe Maddon is from blue-collar Pennsylvania and VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman is from Texas.

Still, it has been remarkable how this community embraces and give the up most levels of respect when they venture beyond the gates of Tropicana Field and head out into the Tampa Bay community. From the ever increasing band of “BJ’s Bunch” or the newly formed “Joyce’s Juniors”, young and old have embraced these players and come emblazoned with their Rays gear as a show of community solidarity.

I kind of like how the Rays players have been able to live in a bit of seclusion and security instead of the bustle and fast pace of those other regions. This is not a condemnation of large city fans like Philadelphia, Chicago or New York, it is just a different vibe down here.

It simply amazes me how the general public around Tampa Bay has not smothered or scared our Rays into hiding with idiotic banter or heckling as they serve our communities and visit with fans. I guess the fans in this region understand that these players are performing a job, and we give them space to do their work, even out in the community.

Think about it for a moment, where else in this country do you think a professional baseball player can go out with such abandon to local phone stores, supermarkets or even banks and fans do not get out of sorts, rowdy or even testy at the mire mention of someone running late, or having to leave. This region seems to get it. But then again, Tampa Bay is a mostly service-oriented community.

From Rays outfielder Sam Fuld visiting USF Diabetic Center this week visiting with kids and their families who go through the same daily struggles from type 1 Diabetics just like Fuld daily. Or seeing Matt Joyce returning to a local supermarket chain where he once bagged groceries to help the Tampa Bay chapter of Feeding America by tossing in throw after throw of food and goods into a cart like he was picking off runners at second base.

This community is lucky to have such great and budding Tampa Bay community leaders. In a time when so many people speak of and yearn for role models for our youth, this Rays team from top to bottom spawns so many choices. From James Shields and his work with foster children centers, to even the Rays wives teaming up recently for a backpack and school supplies drive to support the PACE Center for Girls.

From stem to stern, there are plenty of heroes and inspirations to go around both on this Rays roster and within their own front offices. It is one of the reasons I always open my hands to help at any Rays event possible to volunteer or support this team and their many causes. This is truly a team that “ gets it” as is open to embracing their seasonal community with open arms.

If you have ever attended an outside Rays event whether it is a autograph signing or a appearance at a hospital or McDill Air Force Base, this team is greeted with smiles, cheers and loads of positive vibes. To this day I have never heard of a Rays heckler, arrogant fan or disturbance at any of their outside charity or community events.

As a former athlete, giving back was always something I wanted to do, felt I needed to do for my community. With this Tampa Bay community embracing the players as they perform these duties and tasks, and also respecting their place in this community, the sky is the limit to the further outpouring of the Rays involvement and outside endeavors to helping those in need in our community.

Next time you go to a Rays community event, look them in the eyes and tell them “thank you”, it is that type of comment that fuels many more community efforts and events for these players. Events where we can also walk in the footsteps of role models for our own growing sons and daughters. 

Let Them Eat (Bundt) Cake

Not much of a dessert guy myself, but tonight, the Toronto Blue Jays got their just desserts. Funny how it was not a shaving cream pie, or even a Carvel sundae, but it was a special Tampa Bay bundt/bunt cake that did the trick.

Who would have thought the recipe for again awakening the Rays offense would be to start off in the bottom of the 2nd inning playing “ small ball”. That’s right, not aiming for the fences, but putting the bat on the ball and squirming it along the AstroTurf woke up not only the Rays bat, but reminded the Jays defense this team doesn’t quit.

Sure Ben Zobrist did his best “2008 Zorilla “ impression crushing a ball into the Rightfield bleachers for a short-lived 1-0 lead. Then after a Casey Kotchman fly out, B J Upton showed why the Rays gambled and kept him here instead of sending him away. A well crafted single to Leftfield, then well placed 9 iron shot by Matt Joyce into shallow Center put the Rays in a position to make some early noise.

With Joyce and Upton in scoring position, Sean Rodriguez dropped a beauty of a bunt just in front of Jays starter Carlos Villanueva who then proceeded to commit a costly error as Upton stamped on Home Plate. That was the first sliver of the bunt/bundt cake.

Then Rays rookie catcher Robinson Chirinos put down his own little bounding ball of short happiness for a infield single to First. Joyce came in to score, and all of a sudden it was 3-0 Rays on top. Second helping of bundt/bunt cake with a little extra dab of frosting.

All of a sudden last night’s lone Rays run scorer decided to get into the action himself as rookie speedster Desmond Jennings wanted to deliver his own bit of sugary goodness by placing a perfect bunt in front of Jays Third Baseman Edwin Encarnacion who was playing back hoping for a double play ball.

Suddenly bases were loaded with Rays, another slice of bundt/bunt cake delivered. Finally Johnny Damon ended the sugar rush by delivering a long and deep sacrifice fly to Centerfield that easily scored Rodriguez to make it 4-0 Tampa Bay. All of a sudden a little bit of pre-game prep work by the Rays in bunting drills snapped their offense out of its funk.

When the Rays came up in the bottom of the 3rd inning, it seemed the Jays were still infused and decimated by the Rays bunt barrage, and possibly a little sugar shock. Villanueva, a former Jays reliever, couldn’t seem to get out of his 2nd inning stride and quickly the Rays added some more morsels to their run/ sugar intake.

Of the 8 Rays hitters to go to the plate in the bottom of the 3rd inning, 4 produced extra base hits, and the Jays saw 4 more runs cross the plate. Suddenly after solo homer by Kotchman, a double by Joyce, Rodriguez getting pelted with a pitch, Chirinos decided it was time to put the cherry firmly upon the cake and delivered a 3-run shot to Leftfield that left more of a bitter taste in Villaneuva’s mouth than sweet.

Ex-Rays bat boy and Jays starter Jesse Litsch came in and stopped the flow of Rays runs getting Damon to strike out swinging.

Finally the Rays had figured out a way to get out of that 1-2 run lead routine with the Jays and tack on some needed runs with the small ball, then using the long ball to seal the win. This is the type of offensive show that we have seen so often in road games, but has been few and far between at Tropicana Field.

With a win tomorrow during the Parks and Recreation Day, plus the Rays Tweet Up, the team could head into their 3-game series against the Oakland Athletics, who the Rays hope they can extract some more sweet revenge on this weekend. This is the home offense we have been anxiously awaiting. Pining to see finally break through and produce at home.

What happens during the Thursday matinée will go a long way in providing comfort and stability that this team has finally broken out of the home rut and will again dominate. A win tomorrow will put then back at square one with a 26-26 mark at home.

Tonight the Rays delivered a beauty of a game hitting on all cylinders, providing not only a huge run support cushion for Rays starter James Shields, but a solid effort with this team finally figuring out their home crux. Tonight the Rays did deliver a sliver of just desserts to the Jays, but hopefully it is only an appetizer of what is to come in the next 4 contests.

Bon Appetit Rays Republic, for tonight, let the Jays eat some humble pie.

Time For the Rays to Go from “Feastmode” to “Beastmode”

Was just reading a tweet by a Toronto Blue Jays players (@JoeyBats19) who used a #beastmode hashtag in his posting about his team’s victory tonight. Starting to wonder if the Jays are in “beastmode”, does that mean the Tampa Bay Rays at home are in #Feastmode? Another tasty web byte taken at the expense of the lacking Rays offensive surge at Tropicana Field.

Not sure what has happened to the Rays offense that seemed to finally awaken in their finale in Oakland and stared their series in Seattle devouring the Mariner’s pitching. Starting to really think the Rays should keep their road routine intact, even within the confines of the Trop.

After a single day of rest, relax and rejuvenate after a wishy-washy 4-6 road trip, this Rays team firmly put their foot squarely again in the bucket after tonight’s defeat and took a unhealthy slide backwards seeming to have regained their lackluster 2011 “home” form.

Funny how in odd numbered years now the Rays offense can not keep up with their pitching and defense. Not “ha-ha” funny, but funny “strange”.

Then again, how can you not think #feastmode when the Rays had bases loaded tonight with no outs, and not a single run crosses the plate. Not going to point fingers at anyone in the the Rays lineup except for their lead-off hitter rookie outfielder Desmond Jennings who gets a solid “thumbs up” for putting some solid wood on the ball and ruining a potential no-hit bid by the Jays Rickey Romero.

I think Rays Manager Joe Maddon hit it squarely on the head when he tweeted tonight post-game “From a pitchers prospective I’m sure they can’t make a mistake. Have to keep pounding on that offense door until it opens up. ”

Problem is Joe, right now one is answering but a select few, and even they can carry the whole team on their shoulders for long.

It definitely puts a huge burden on your starting pitchers and relievers when they realize every single mistake or error is magnified and that they are being held accountable for every slight error in their appearances since the offense can’t mend and heal a small mistake.

After tonight’s loss, the Rays fall to 2 games under the .500 mark at home this season. 30 home games still to go, and this team will have to dig deep if they intend to again rule the Trop. The Rays Republic was loud and proud tonight, but even their noise and encouragement could not trim the bird’s wings.

This is a team the Rays have to beat. Not just for their place in the American League East, but because they have a more solid base at this moment. But maybe the tide has turned, maybe the Trade Deadline deals by the Jays brought them that final piece of the puzzle to drown the Rays in their own tank.

A series loss to the Jays will do some considerable damage to the Rays post season dreams as the Jays could pluck the Rays out of their third place stronghold by taking this series.

Doesn’t help that the Rays hold a flimsy 5-4 seasonal series lead over the Jays heading into tomorrow night’s contest, and all 9 games this season, and 12 of the last13 between these two rivals have been decided by 1 or 2 runs.

This fact tells you immediately that any offense in this series by either squad comes at a premium in the seasonal series against these two, and the Rays currently are only scoring 3.22 runs per game in Tropicana Field in their 50 home contests. Throwing more water on the Rays offensive fire against the Jays, coming into tonight’s game, the Rays have only hit .206 against the angry Canadian birds, setting up perfectly tonight’s dismal showcase.

It was suppose to be a notch for the home team as Rays southpaw ace David Price had a 8-0 record and a 1.99 ERA lifetime against Toronto. But tonight it did not look like vintage Price as he seemed to be more stressed and pressured to produce outs than in any other start this season.

It was almost as if Price knew that if this team doesn’t buckle down soon and turn their 24-26 record at home around, there might not be any meaningful game come late September. And that is a lot of poundage to put on a young pitcher’s shoulders who doesn’t know if he can rely on his offense to basil him out of a untimely mistake.

One great thing came out of the loss tonight, finally the Rays scored a run of support for Price, but it wasn’t enough. Consider this interesting run support fact, when the Rays score 3 runs or more with Price on the hill, they have turned out a 9-2 record. When they score 2 runs or less, the Rays have failed considerably with a 0-7 mark.

I find it incredibly interesting that the Rays top two pitchers Price (2.91) and James Shields (2.23) started the night as the only Rays starters to not get at least 3 runs per game support from their offense. Even if you pitch a 1-hit shutout, or a 10-hit 1-run game, if the offense doesn’t cross the plate, it is sure to post up in the loss column.

It is almost like this team left some of their soul, some of their new confidence sitting possibly on the tarmac at Sea-Tac airport before embarking on their flight home. This team is better than this. They have the offense weapons, the ability to produce runs and hits to manifest more offense, but again a loss at home sending the masses back into the dark wondering about this squad.

Make me believe Rays. Show me I am having acute tunnel vision and not fully grasping the big picture. Please prove me wrong during this 10-game home stand. I honestly feel the 2011 season is teetering towards the abyss without positive results. Make me eat my words. Time for this Rays team to transform their own current home “feastmode” into a Rays “beastmode”. Time to devour the birds.

Rays Need to Plot a Victorious Course in Seattle

I swear some times the Tampa Bay Rays use my heart like a toy yo-yo. They seem to tear it out of my chest, fling it down and then slowly up until it is again within my chest. I do not take any heart medications, but after a few of the recent games, including today’s back and forth battle…I might consult a doctor.

Is this going to be the hidden mantra of this team to push the limits of faith and trust, or will they again have a solidified basis for all of us to believe and rejoice in nightly. When this team goes on losing streaks, even the rare ones on the road, they do it with a loud bang.

How else can you describe the man-handling of the Rays top tier pitchers David Price and James Shields in this series. Even rookie Jeremy Hellickson was left pondering the “what if’s” during his lackluster performance to start this 4-game whirlpool of emotion.

Can we blame the chatter and talk among the players and fans regarding the Trade Deadline, or is it the curse of this ballpark where Rays wins always seem to come at a premium, even with the great California mountain range in the background.

Starting this contest this Rays squad was a season high 11 ½ games behind American League East front runner Boston with 58 games left, another AL East title may be beyond reach. Even though the /Rays are a considered the third best team in the American League, they are also the third best currently in their division. And their 7 ½ game deficit to the New York Yankees is bringing more than a few of us mild to severe heart palpitations.

This season is again starting to mirror image a bit of the 2009 Rays season where no matter what they did, it was one hit, one win, one pitch away from securing something magical. But the good news is the Rays head to Seattle next, where wins have been extremely rare lately. The reality of the Rays losing 5 out of the 7 games currently on this road trip tends to sho maybe this team peaked too early.

Again, after the first week this team had, any push upward, even towards a .500 mark seemed like a gift from the Baseball Gods. Mixed into this losing streak was the questions about this teams offense, their run support for their starters, and why certain teams just seem to choke the Rays into submission.

It was only three weeks ago this same Rays team was 49-39 matching their high-water mark of 10 games over .500 and were sitting in the catbird seat just 3 ½ games behind the Red Sox. In these 21 days, the Rays have gone 4-11 and have tumbled 8 games farther behind their divisional foes farther into the dismal abyss.

Again a dark cloud looms for the Rays as they jet northward to Seattle. Mariner’s starter Erik Bedard, who might be making his last M’s start will get the call. When healthy, Bedard has been a Rays killer. Post that with the stat that the Rays are a MLB worst 7-12 against the AL West, and we might hear a few late night screams.

But there is a shining light on the horizon, or at least for tonight in that the Rays showed pride, confidence and a renewed vigor at the plate in the final innings to hand the Athletics at least one loss in this series. Now it is off to the town of coffee and seafood to battle a Seattle club that until recently had been in their own cauldron of disappointment.

This series might decide more than who stays and who goes as the Trade Deadline approaches, it could prove to be the final resting place of the Rays 2011 post season dreams. Sweeping Seattle would not push the Rays into playoff consideration, but the confidence and stride as they headed back home could help them face their home field demons with more vitality.

A lot os going to be riding on this 3-game series. A chance for redemption in this un-Rays like road trip. A sweep would push their present 10-game road trip record towards an even 5-5 mark. Not the expected Rays road results, but would be a 4-game winning streak heading into a 10-game home stand with revenge games against Oakland and Kansas City on the horizon.

Watching this Rays team over the past few nights have been an adventure with emotions running rampant from pride and hope to despair and frustrations. This 2011 Rays squad might not have the depth and stability of the 2010 squad, but they have more than enough in heart, courage and determination. Let’s hope those latter emotions lead the Rays to victories and not another sequence of heartaches and turning the channel. 

Rays on Cusp of Going From “Buyers” to Possible Trade Deadline “Sellers”

So when is too much, too much? What is that final tipping point where the Tampa Bay Rays consider themselves “ sellers” instead of “buyers”. Originally I was firm in my opinion that the team will hold tight on OF B J Upton and SP James Shields.

But as the team falls towards that double digit mark trailing the current American League Wild Card holder, the New York Yankees, at what point will the Rays throw up their hands and either give in, or buckle down and hope for another “Miracle of Summer”.

At this point the Rays are 9 ½ games behind the American League East division leading Boston Red Sox and 7 ½ games behind the Yankees. With an unexpected late loss last night in Oakland, the Rays are on a slippery slope. This was suppose to be the time between series with Boston and New York for the Rays to pack on some victories, and possibly sneak back into the race before this Sunday’s 

Trade Deadline.

If the Rays do not take bot this series against the Athletics, plus their 3-game set against the Seattle Mariners in the Emerald City, they could be past that double digit comfort level. But when is it too late? When are the Rays past the point of no return in regards to a post season berth? In any other division this would not be an issue at this time, but in the strong A L East, being 10 games behind the A L Wild Card is a pretty steep rock to climb.

At some point between the West Coast trip destinations this team has to decide their path. Presently it seems that all engines are churning towards trying to catch the Yankees and pull off another super road trip. These next 5 games could produce either the selling of talent, or the revival the Rays need to thrust themselves back into this playoff race.

Personally, I am of the mind that if this team does stumble in their next 2 contests and go under 10 games back of the Yankees, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman will accept a few more phone calls, listen intently and possibly sell high on a few guys.

I was hoping the season would come down to a key series in September. If the Rays go through an abnormal road trip free fall and come back home with a losing road trip record, they might be minus a few key players due to trades and deals made before the Sunday final bell.

If the Rays do begin plucking off a few of their player assets, it is great that these players would have played their last game in Tropicana Field against the rival Yankees, and took a victory with them on the road. But it also brings up a touchy subject that again, just like when the Rays traded SP Scott Kazmir while on the road (in Detroit), the home fans might never get a realistic chance to thank them for their past efforts. That is one of the really awful parts of the Trade Deadline coming on the heels of a road trip.

Hopefully this doesn’t happen, but the possibility is still there for a last minute change, a up-grade, or possibly just the right time in the Rays eyes and minds. This is that time of the year that players and teams can not control, but right now, the Rays have the choice to be the “buyers or the sellers”. 

Intriguing Assortment of Rays Choices for Trade Deadline Shoppers

Always a great guessing game trying to decipher correctly the needs, wants and desire of any of the 29 other MLB squads for anyone on the Tampa Bay Rays roster. Sure there might be a few GM’s just coming by doing some future window shopping or prod and nudge a bit of the merchandise, but is there really any top shelf Rays that will exit before the end of the Trade Deadline?

Can’t be easy time span for a player either with a large contract or even a “ walk” season under their belt until the clock strikes midnight on August 1st. Sure even then deals can still be hashed out, but the large majority of the transactions will be at least attempted in the next few working days. But even the best deal can be stricken down by the might pen of the M L B Commissioner Bud Selig if it seems unfair or has too much cash considerations.

So who among the 25 currently rostered Rays players do you think will garner the most attention? Who do you feel will be showcased now for departure in the off season? There are plenty of options, including a few that could either make or break the Rays post season surge. Then again, if the Rays do go into a tailspin over the next few series( Kansas City/Oakland/Toronto), they could instead purge before the last moments in July?

Even the Great Kreskin would have a difficult time trying to summarize some of the gossip and whispers currently doing the rounds in the MLB circle. With the emergence of SP Alex Cobb and Rays Manager Joe Maddon staying with a 6-man rotation. Could this be a precursor to a starter leaving town?

James Shields has reconstructed his delivery and career to a point some teams are eager to get a guy who can push out innings and provide strikeouts. Shields might have de-valued himself a tad during his recent 4-game tailspin.  With a team friendly $ 7 million dollar salary for 2012, Shields is still affordable and could be in the plastic bubble until this time in 2012.

Do the Rays instead sell high on SP Jeff Niemann while he is on his own hot streak? The Tall Texan might not garner a top tier return, but a few teams do have veterans who might walk after this season, and if they fit into the Rays mold….Niemann could be on a flight by August 1st.

With that in mind, why not put SP/RP Andy Sonnanstine on the top shelf to see who wanders by for a long look. Sonny has all the qualities a good team needs with MLB experience, stability and is a solid “company man”. He can be used in a variety of ways, and his tenure with the Rays might be on unstable ground with the emergence of Cobb and others pushing hard to break through the Triple-A ceiling to the majors. Sonny, like Niemann will not collect a bevy of returns, but his shelf life with the Rays might be getting near its expiration point.

Cesar Ramos is a southpaw, and with the Rays currently having 3 in their Bullpen, excess might not be the keys to the Rays Bullpen success. He might bring in a better haul than Sonny, but knowing the Rays and their love of the crafty lefties, he might stick. Still, the Rays would not offer up fellow relievers Jake McGee or J P Howell unless the return was something they could not refuse.

That brings us to the Rays field players. A few names possibly jump out at you, but one that I truly think is “off limits” is First Baseman Casey Kotchman. The job he has done since he cemented himself at First has been incredible. With only 1 error this season, Kotchman might be tied to this Rays team soon for the next 3 years. I have heard a few whispers in the hallways.

In the infield, with the thoughts also swirling that SS Reid Brignac is taking backward steps, this effectively closes any possible discussions on Elliot Johnson or Sean Rodriguez. Their stability will be needed now more than ever, and cutting loose even one of the pair would be disastrous unless an infield MLB caliber upgrade is received.

With the recent injuries surrounding the catching position, it might be a hidden blessing for C Kelly Shoppach. Still, the Rays could deal the often offensively maligned backstop for prospects, or maybe even a little cash. The market is not seeking Shoppach with gusto, but a back-up with experience heading into the stressful last months of the season and beyond can be a blessing to a young team.

That leaves the outfield has one of the biggest question marks with at least 4 possible Rays players getting a few glances and maybe trade discussions. Still think Desmond Jennings is here to be looked at by not only the Rays, but by 29 other teams. I really think the Rays have a lot of questions about Jennings, and he could be traded for the right package.

You might have thought I would thrust B J Upton in the top spot for trade discussion, but I truly think the Rays will keep Upton until the end of the 2011 season, then listen intently to offers. Upton might not be the most attentive player on the bases, but he plays solid defense and has trimmed his swing a bit to be more productive. Who in their right mind thought he would get over 15 Hrs in 2011?

Still, with the Washington Nationals eager for Upton, and with names like INF Ian Desmond or RP Drew Storen being put on the end of the pole, the Rays could bite and fill a future hole in their team with young replacements who are starting to show their MLB potentials. Still it is a long shot these names are included with Upton’s’. Then again, Friedman can deliver brilliance with Bull-hockey pucks.

The guy who might garner the most outfield attention doesn’t actually play there on a daily basis. Johnny Damon could bring a nice haul in return from a team on the cusp of contention, or wanting to stay hard in the race until the end. But is he worth the gamble of leaving with the type of offense and ability to help charge up this team with a single swing?

You can’t buy that kind of massive production on and off the field this time of year. But if the Rays are truly in a mood to upgrade now, Damon might be the perfect carrot to dangle in front of the MLB herd. There is another player who has emerged to a point his status might be at its zenith, and a downward spiral is definitely in the cards.

I think the world of the abilities and freestyle aerial moves of Sam Fuld, but I also know MLB is treating him more like a novelty act right now than a budding star or long producing commodity. Here is another Rays player who might be at the peak of his trade value right now. Combine his on-field heroics with his solid base running and you get a nice threat either off the bench or in the field heading into the post season.

There is still the possibilities the Rays just bluff and stay with their current format, but the more realistic approach is someone will go, changes will be made. Upton should be planted in CF until the off season, Shields even though he turns 30 in December is a great anchor for this Rays rotation.

That being said, Sonny and Niemann could be on the “watch list” and be the two pitchers most likely to exit stage left. Shoppach could still be dealt even with the Rays catching corp down to their bare knuckles. This is one part of the Rays farm system that seems loaded for bear, and could endure a spell without remorse.

Jennings is the Rays top field prospect, and I have a sneaking feeling his up-coming promotion to “The Show” has a hidden agenda. Exposing Jennings to MLB caliber pitching with 10 days left could persuade someone to take a risk or gamble on a guy who might not be considered the best outfielder even on his Triple-A squad. But if the Rays do keep Jennings, Upton better look over his shoulder later in the season.

Fuld might be safe, but if his average goes South along with his “Legend”, his time and days will be numbered. Damon is the best Rays commodity right now and might be plucked. But Friedman will not trade him for a “rental” player or even a marginal player or prospects. When you have a guy who is putting up consistent numbers like Damon, the price tag has a few zeros in it, even for the short term.

This is the time of the year where guessing, predictions and even off-the-cuff remarks come with a glance from the baseball world. Teams want to chuck, acquire and sometimes streamline for different reasons. The only reasons any of these players might be plucked off the Rays roster is if this team truly thinks they have the horses for a playoff run.

Upgrading by trading would be the only reason right now the Rays would open their doors for change. 

How Can You Not Love “Hellboy”

His nickname will stick with him for the next 20 years. It seems that once you get a powerful and though provoking moniker like his, you are stuck with it for your entire career. Still not sure if there is a hidden story, or a mystery reason for this to stick so firmly to this young hurler, but the names does seem to fit him like a glove.

I have heard the legends, the stories of intrigue and power from his minor league past. Even saw a few hints of it in 2010 when he finally got to scuff the dirt on a real Major League mound. From that first moment on his name has been etched in our souls, our hearts and our prays. For some reason we all think the future encircles the young gun they call “Hellboy”.

His minor league rap sheet reads like a introduction to greatness. Who else has gotten the glowing endorsement of his home state’s Governor as then-Iowa Governor Chet Culver told the media last August: “The Rays organization will be better off for having this mature, focused and decent young man. His demeanor isn’t surprising at all to Iowans who have grown up with Midwestern values and unrivaled work ethics. Jeremy (Hellickson) is the epitome of Iowa”.

I guess you are starting to see that all who seemed to witness, play against or even play behind are admirers of this product of the farming community of Des Moines who somehow missed everyone other M L B scout’s radar before the Rays finally plucked him off the vine in the him Fourth Round back in 2005. Want to become more of a fan of “Hellboy”. I have to warn you, he is addictive.

How can you yell, scream or even hassle a guy who gave his Gold Medal from the 2004 World Youth Championship held in baseball-crazed Taiwan to his great-grandmother (Louise Abbas) Even more amazing, it seems the Midas touch is alive and well in the Hellickson bloodline, Abbas won her own Gold Medal at the Iowa games in bowling in the 75-and-up division.

Want more Hellickson goodness? How about he became the first pitcher in the modern era of baseball ( since 1920) to pitch 6-plus innings allowing 3 hits or fewer in each of his first 3 M L B starts. Need more coaxing, Hellboy posted 18 strikeouts over those 20 innings with a stealthy .136 opponents batting average. Starting to see some pitching goodness oozing from his seams.

Still not convinced? How about the pure fact Hellickson made a unheard of clean sweep of the Baseball America and USA Today Minor League Player of the Year award. Hoisted up as the Minor League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News and was the pitching rich International League Pitcher of the Year.

Still not enough to make you a believer? Hellboy also won a spot as an International League All-Star, Baseball America Minor League All-Star and a Topps Triple-A All-Star. To say a M L B All-Star selection is not within each soon is a understatement. All while going a combined 16-3 with a 2.69 ERA and 156 K’s in 31 games (25 starts).

With the Trade Deadline looming and a good chance Rays stalwart Shields might not be in the Rays uniform for much longer, Hellickson is definitely a candidate to possibly move up to maybe the third starter slot coming into the Spring of 2012. Sky, Heaven and that other place are definitely within his grasp even this season.

Some might discount his 9-7 record, but underneath all of that Hellickson is third on this Rays squad in innings pitched (110.2), is closing in on 100 K’s this season ( currently 75), plus is currently tied with Price for the Rays wins crown. All from a guy most people thought had number 5 pitcher stuff, but Hellboy has not only rose to the occasion, he has been almost money in key situations in 2011.

Talk about coming through in a pressure situation, Tuesday Hellickson took the mound after an unprecedented 15 days of rest since his last start. All Hellboy did was go out and put on a beautiful performance against the New York Yankees going 7 innings, tying his career high in strikeouts ( 7, 8/10/10 @ Detroit) and post a “W” while opposing a former Cy Young winner (Bartolo Colon).

All aisles in Tropicana Field lead to you wanting to see this young gun become one of those who you whisper about when he walks by you either at the ballpark or in public. Hellickson is on his way to that plateau, and I hope he keeps that “Hellboy” tag, for some reason it really does fit the feisty confident kid…..

I could definitely see “Hellboy” as the perfect guy to hoist up and produce a 2012 Rays Superhero figurine. Heck, could be the best promotional item since the Carlos Pena toothbrush holder……Maybe better! Maybe we can get Hulk Hogan to cut a Rays promo: What’s you gonna do Brother when Hellboy Mania runs rampant on you!

Has a nice ring to it.

Sternberg Still “Staying the Course” of the Rays Ship

The assembled Media mob down by the Rays dugout before this game merited a quick look. You usually do not see this many assembled media talking heads without reason. Then I saw the trademark sweater, the smile that radiates towards the Trop roof and immediately knew Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg was holding court with the media minions.

On tap this day was a bucketful of concerns within the Press Box about subjects like the possibilities of Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations heading to his Houston hometown to head up the new Astros future. Also on the minds of the media was if the Rays would be “buyers or sellers” before the Trade Deadline at the end of the month.

Sternberg just showed his pearly whites, tap-danced a bit for the assembled crowd and really again made the masses fall in love with him all over again. That is the mark of a great salesman. Using his charm, personality and a bevy of great information and background materials, Sternberg tames the Media beasts once again.

Sure he might not have stabbed an issue in the heart like the attendance concerns or about Friedman, but he also did not skirt the issues at all. Some of the things that came out of Sternberg’s mouth did follow the Rays “ party lines” and did not surprise me in the least. But others comments did pose a slight concern, not in their rhetoric or presentation, but what was not said by Sternberg.

Still it is always refreshing to get the words straight from the “horse’s mouth”. Sternberg was asked about items like the Rays downward trend in attendance figures, if the Rays have the fiscal resources to “upgrade” their team before the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline.

His comments on the Rays struggling attendance was refreshing since one local media source seems to want to force-feed the public the attendance figures every night. Sternberg’s statement actually instilled a bit more confidence in me that the Rays owners is really here for the long haul, not a possibility of selling the team and moving onto more fiscally “greener pastures”.

To be frank as I can about it, I’m really not focused on the attendance. I’m tired of thinking about it, talking about it, and I know you’re tired of asking me the question and most importantly, everybody is tired of hearing about it. It’s really all about what’s going to be is going to be and what it is what it is. The numbers coming through what they are and I don’t anticipate talking about it or focusing on it at all this season or any time in the near future after that.”

Refreshing to hear an owner talk straight from the hip and not sugarcoat, project pessimistic intentions or evoke a sense of entitlement that fans flock to his stadium. Sternberg has always remembered that this town is a tourist-based locale, and with that comes fluctuation in the fan base, community monetary flows. There is a presence of support, a foundation to build on that is solid, plus his focal group, the youngsters growing the Rays tradition are maturing.

But so many are focused on the end of the month Trade Deadline, and Sternberg had a few great sound bytes on that upcoming event in the season:

 “There’s resources in money and resources in players. A lot of that depends on what player you’re willing to give up and how much money you’re willing to spend. Sometimes you can spend less and give up more players. So we are always willing to expand resources, but it’s a question of what we get back and where that puts us. It’s certainly difficult doing that in our division more so than some of the other divisions and competing with the teams that we can compete with and have to beat.”

This comment by Sternberg might seem more versed in risk management assessments and terms than baseball, but you get the jest completely. The Rays are focused on getting a good return on any investment, trade or salary dump. With high profile Rays players like B J Upton, James Shields and possibly even Andy Sonnanstine on several M L B team’s radar, the return has to justify the decision.

Here is where Sternberg and his henchmen Rays President Matt Silverman and Friedman have excelled in recent seasons. They understand the power of the trade, and use it to their advantage. You only have to look at the trade of Rays starter Matt Garza before the Spring of 2011 to see the team is committed to getting a return that develops into a positive flow.

In that transaction the Rays got their “legend” Sam Fuld, outfielder Brandon Guyer and a future starting shortstop who has seen his stock as a top prospect rise repeatedly this season towards a Top 10 spot. Interesting enough, one of the players the Rays trade to the Cubs, outfield speedster Fernando Perez has already been cut from the Cubs system.

Then someone in the Media addressed the elephant in the room, the Rays stagnant stadium situation. This is where Sternberg really shined and provided a beautiful oratory on his thoughts, direction and true feeling as both an owner and fan of this frustrating issue:

We’re not changing anything at this point. I’ve tried everything. People know that. We hear it all the time, we’re winning on the field, we’re putting a good product out there, the place is inviting, we’ve got concerts, we’ve got the second most affordable team. There’s not much else to be done at this point. It’s baseball here. I believe in the game, I love the game. And just like (Tampa Bay Lightning owner) Jeff Vinik loves hockey, or the (Tampa Bay Buccaneers owners) Glazers might love football, you follow your passion and you put everything into it that you possibly can.”

But I think his last comments of the day after almost 20 minutes speaking to the media speaks volumes on his intentions and his focus surrounding the Tampa Bay region and baseball:

 “There’s nothing more perfect than having it all work here right now. This isn’t about putting up Sternberg’s palace, or my idea of a perfect ballfield. The concept when we first came here was that we were extraordinarily confident we were going to make it work. Winning the American League East twice out of 3 years, no, not necessarily. But be competitive. So I went in with this mindset and said Okay, great, we’re going to be friendly, prices are going to be great, we’re going to fix the place up, put all the dough in here and you know what, were also going to win. So I think it surprised each and every person here, but this is what it is. And we’re still going to keep going at it day after day and doing the best we can.”

Touch e` Stu. Spoken like a man, a confident business owner and beyond all of that a honest baseball fan. We are lucky to have someone like this pulling the reins on this organization. Sure he wants to make a profit, show a positive gain both in resources and even fan commitment, but he also know the product will sell itself.

Baseball fans around the country know the Tampa Bay franchise is a hidden gem with boatloads of potential and possible moments. Sternberg is the man at the top of the heap, the guy who ultimately decides the direction of this franchise…He is the perfect person to help guide this currently turbulent Rays ship through the shallow Tampa Bay shoals and sandbars unharmed before emerging into the crystal blue waters where smooth sailing will be par for the course. Oh Captain, my Captain.

7 Games Does A Season Not Make.

The media’s “doomsday” prognosis that the Tampa Bay Rays have to come away in this 7-game home stand with a positive mark might just boarder on the extreme. Sure they are facing two of their bitter rivals in pivotal contests that could decide the fate of any of the three come October.

With the Rays sporting a .500 ( 19-19) record entering this first Friday night contest, there is a push for the team to again show some dominance within their home dome, but winning does eradicate any sense of impending doom and erases late season doubt from the present equation.

Still, even if the Rays do pull off a 4-3 home stand or better, the inherant problem is still they will only pick up marginal ground on the 2 squads ahead of  them in the American League East standing, and the post season
early projections. Now would be the perfect time for the Rays to exorcise a few past demons at Tropicana Field and thrust their might upon their high profile behemoth opponents.

Some might say it is the right time to face these demons of the A L East with injuries and inconsistent play dominating their results. But these squads also had a few days off, like the Rays and might have caught their proverbial second wind. Doesn’t matter that the Rays are throwing their Top 3 at the Red Sox to begin this series, wins trump everything.

Right now, wins within the Teflon Trop are at a premium, and with a Nationally baseball audience watching the Rays from Saturday to Monday, winning also sets up the rest of the country in believing in this Rays squad. Doesn’t matter what mental edge, elegant soliloquies or presence Rays Manager Joe Maddon expresses here, the end result on the scoreboard will be paramount.

A 7-0 perfecto home stand mark not only thrusts the Rays second half  home field advantage firmly into the mindset of every squad, including the Yankees and Red Sox, but also into the skulls of those teams that venture into the re-vitalized Trop. Conjuring up images of impending losing results instead of the possibility of a fistful of wins before leaving the Trop could play a great mental edge for the Rays if they are successful in this hoime stand.

Paramount to the Rays future right now is re-establishing their home field edge, their proverbial “10th Man” advantage that has been fleeting at best in 2011. Large crowds during this series will be speckled with red, and pinstriped fans, but the loud and musical Rays Republic has to answer the call. They have to bring their “A” game if they want to again experience post season magic in 2011.

A 4-3 split might only help the Rays creep a game up on either the Red Sox or Yankees. Combine that with the Rays 1-2 record against the Yankees at the replica Yankee Stadium, and you get a feeling of urgency right now to win.

Winning is a fickle thing. You can have a clear advantage and still get shut out or even go down in a stunning defeat. If you stare it right in the face and go aggressively towards defeating your opponent, the odds do favor you. That is the true key to coming out either as winners or losers in this 7-game showdown.

Sure winning is the wanted result, but having this Rays team begin to steamroll, to show their aggressive nature both on the hill and in the box will decide not only these 7-games, but their post season future. 7-games does not a season make, but these 7-games could decide so many people’s thought processes surrounding the Rays immediate future. This is not a “doomsday” prognosis, this series does not have a “Do or Die” stamp firmly upon it yet.

Taking both of these series will go a long way in erasing the cloud of doubt overhead this squad, eliminate a boatload of excess drama and swirling concern. Taking this home stand to the piedmont and providing a winning cushion again at their home field could finally give this team a second half foundation to drive towards the postseason.  Then again, isn’t it the ways of a good team to fight from the bottom, pass their adversaries and proceed towards the goal every
game, not just in a 7 day stretch?

162 games is a long time, but to condense this madness into a single 7 game set and not over the course of the combined 36 games between the Rays and these two high dollar darlings just seems like the media’s own madness. Winning the seasonal series, posting up and throwing losses on these two traditional powers will go a long way in deciding the Rays future……not just 7 games.

If this Rays team can eliminate their mistakes, take advantage of what is given to them and post up some run support for their starters, then even Charlie Sheen will be screaming “Winning” from the Trop
cupola.

In the end winning trumps losing…..But that doesn’t sell newspapers as much as drama. Let’s keep the drama in afternoon television, not around my Rays.

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