Results tagged ‘ Jason Bartlett ’

Upton is heading to Arbitration Avenue

 


Chris O’Meara/AP

As I  could hear the bell chimes ringing from the old church near near Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, at high noon, you know that the echoing sound  could also be heard in the Rays front office on the third floor of Tropicana Field and provided a nice musical end the team’s revolving series of conversations with their remaining arbitration eligible player centerfielder B J Upton.

For it was now time for the Rays organization to regroup and prepare for their next meeting between them and Upton and his representation at his arbitration hearing. It was time for both parties to again refocus on the future where a single mediator will decide the future dent made by Upton in the Rays 2010 payroll. And at this time you can envision that there will be no winner in this round of talks, the Rays have a distinctive advantage going into this final round of discussions about Upton’s possible 2010 salaries.
 

And I kind of thought the arbitration situation might ultimately pan out this way only a few short weeks ago. Sure there was a chance that the Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman might have extended a multiple year scenario and salary figure to Upton’s camp, but in reality, he was always the one player who might have been banking on going through with arbitration during the entire unfolding of the process. Upton might have been the one Rays player who thought it was his time to be heard in private about his worth to this franchise…..And now he and his representative will get that chance sometime this Spring.
 

And some people call this entire arbitration mess more like taking a load of your potential future earnings to Las Vegas and playing a single hand of Blackjack, but never being able to doubling down, or even slightly predict the outcome  before the cards hit the table. And you have to admit it is always a crap shoot that your production numbers and potential earnings would mesh perfectly so that this process could be avoided at all costs. You end up put your  total expected earnings amount up for grabs and hope that the mediator finds your figures satisfactory and in-line with your request.

But you always  like your chances and gamble that the last minute paperwork to flow off that fax machine could  be acceptable to you as it was the the last communication from the Rays after their team imposed high noon deadline. And because the Rays have enjoyed a stellar arbitration track record (3-0) in hearings since Stuart Sternberg took over the team, you would think the “house” has the strongest chance to win here. 

The whole process is not made any easier in the fact that Friedman is getting comfortable in his Rays role in this arbitration process by using his risk managment style scenarios with  pin-point percision and submitting the right collection of statistics based on comparative peer player performances to end up  snatching  large amounts of moolah away from you as you stare blindly at him as Friedman sits at the other end of the table.



And it is not personal, it is business, the Rays business model in fact, to secure the lowest salary rewards to fine-tune and effectively reduce payroll and give some breathing room to the organization heading into the Spring Training reporting dates. Friedman has chiseled his own path to financial victory in all three of his prior arbitration hearing over his four seasons with the Rays. And that might make it seem  more like a “no-win” situation for Upton, but he is also left standing alone with a better performance based situation for a nice raise in pay than former Rays catcher Josh Paul, who fell victim in two of Friedman’s four past arbitration hearings. 
 

         
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You would think that the Rays would consider Upton is one of the face’s of their Rays 2010 team and placed  somewhere front and center in a collage on the cover of the Rays Season Ticket Information folder given out in December 2009. But the funniest thing happened here in the fact that the top four pitchers in the Rays rotation grace the cover of that folder, and not long time stalwarts Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford or even the arbitration eligible B J Upton.

Upton was the only player who I realistically thought was headed to his first arbitration setting long time before the Rays team imposed deadline. And both parties might have made some headway in their negoiations with the Rays before high noon, but the deadline passed without Upton batting an eye. As most of the long time Rays fans know, since Upton has been up with the Rays at the Major League level, he has let his  Major League contract be renewed automatically with a small raise every season before 2010, and Upton has not been open to public discussions about any multi-year salary extensions since the long gone era of ex-Rays General Manager Chuck LaMar reign over 5 seasons ago.

It might be a bold move, and one that might have to be calculated closely as Upton will submit his first arbitration numbers to the Rays at some point today. I think Upton will be seeking a huge increase in salary considering his 2009 $ 435,000 salary was sandwiched closely between Garza and Howell’s 2009 salaries, and both could get sizeable increases for 2010. This will be the first chance for Upton to get his significant increase, and I could see him submitting a number around $ 3.5-3.75 for 2010 season.

Upton is the one member of this season’s Rays arbitration class that was not going to give a local discount to the Rays, or even consider an extension before getting his first chance before an arbitration mediator this Spring. But sometimes a situation like this can back-fire on a player and it can get pretty messy if personal feeling get twisted during discussions. With some members of the Rays Republic and even the media thinking that this could finally be Upton’s break-out season, this series of salary negoiations might be critical to his survival as a member of the Rays.


Mike Carlson/AP

But then again, it could be a nice tactical situation by Upton to just see how important the team think he is to their future, and his position with the team in their future. I think his refusal to discuss his salary away from a mediator at a arbitration hearing has nothing to do with respect.  But it will certainly be a war of wrds and sharp minds backed up by volumes of pages of statistics and future output projections both met and missed by Upton over the past two seasons that could decide this issue.

Not playing at all into this he
aring will be that nice shiny American League Championship ring upon Upton’s finger as he  personally stepped it up a notch during the 2008 playoffs. But what is sure to surface is his step backwards in production after his shoulder situations in 2009, and his presumed attitude problems while playing in games. I can definitely see this hearing getting personal at times, and it might end up becoming a clear indication of the Rays hopes and Upton’s future plans with the team. The Rays could go hard on the megative factors in this hearing, or just sit and wait and see if Upton toots his horn a bit too loud, then come in and crash the party.

The funny thing about arbitration hearing is it should be about the player in relationship to his contributions on and off the field to his team. And should be a showcase to shop his ability to step up and and take it to another notch for his team, which would equal a request for an increase in salary. But most of the time it is a room full of lawyers and accountants with a pile of papers arguing for or against a matter as if in ta court of law. 

Upton should play a major role in the Rays  success during the 2010 season. He could end up being saddled with a salary that Upton doesn’t totally agree with, but still produce a stellar season and prove without a doubt he deserve some substancial coinage during his next arbitration round in 2011. But the reality of it all is that if Upton sees his arbitration salary as a  Rays power play and as a way for management to control him, he could produce either a break-out season or have another bust season and possibly be gone by the July Trade deadline.

But there is always hope. The Rays thought Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett ($4 million),Rays starter Matt Garza ( $ 3.35 million) and reliever J P Howell ($ 1.8+incentives) might be all heading also towards arbitration  before all three candidates agreed to contracts  in the last 24 hour period. Their multiple phonecalls and faxes ended up with a series of deals that please both the players’ and the Rays front office.

So the Rays last minute dealings have cut the field to one lone survivor and they no longer intend to try and convince Upton to see it their way. And with Upton basically announcing he will submit his numbers, the arbitration clock stops ticking for 2010. And with it last tick, it makes Upton the lone Ray player to step into the mediator’s office during the 2010 Spring Training. 

And the worst part is that all the information and all the number floating up at that meeting will have nothing to do with Upton the person, but be totally about Upton the team employee being considered for a huge fiscal upgrade. It will not be about handshakes or even hugs after winning key games, it will be about business, and that is something Friedman and his crew of fiscal mercenaries are pretty good at……..or so Upton will find out soon enough.

   

Rays Arbitration Clock is Ticking Loud

 
 


Mary Schwalm/AP

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

As I glance up at the luminated clock on the kitchen wall, I see that it is just a few minutes past midnight on Saturday morning. Within the next 24 hours, the Tampa Bay Rays front office will be finalizing the 2010 fate of 10 of their players. This is that stressful 24-hour period that every Major League team and their selected players have to endure where offers of arbitration, possible signing of contracts, or non-tendering their players  so they can find employment elsewhere, or possibly sign with the team as a free agent (but doubtful).

It is not only a nervous time period for the 10 Rays players the team has up for arbitration this season, but also for the Rays fans who have grown attached to these players. A few of these player’s names might be absent from the Rays 2010 equation within the next 24 hours.  And the possible 10 decisions by the Rays will include core players and borderline players who stepped above and beyond, but might be eliminated by numbers and talent rising up from the Rays farm system.

Of the 10 Rays players being considered for 2010 arbitration hearings, only one  of them is currently a Rays starting pitcher. And on paper, you have to consider him to be a bona fide “sure thing” to be offered a contract. Rays starter Matt Garza  might actually be one of the four possible “sure things” for the Rays within the next 24 hours.  Garza has been a key member of the Rays staff, and has upped his game again in 2009, and on paper is a solid choice yo again be with the team in 2010. And Garza will see a nice bump in his 2010 salary (estimated $ 3.2 million) compared to the $ 430,000 he receiveded during the Rays 2009 season.

Tick…..Tock….Tick….Tock….

But during this 24-hour period the Rays front office might be finished crunching the numbers and getting scouting reports while letting their personal feeling for the players disappear from the equation. The Rays Bullpen could look considerably different after this 24 hour period as 5 total members of the Bullpen are up for arbitration. But the first glints of daylight also  showed a rays of light that one arbitration eligible player will not have to wait for his fate as left-handed reliever Randy Choate signed a 1-year  $ 700,000 contract with a possible $ 25,000 bonus if he appears in 80 games next season for the Rays.  

That’s right, Choate is the first Rays player to feel the joy of not having to worry about the anxious stress of not knowing his 2010 fate. But even with one player down, and nine to go, that still leaves Bullpen mates Grant Balfour,J P Howell, and Lance Cormier to  wonder about their possible fates for the next several hours. 

But of that selective reliever corps, I have to consider Howell the second “sure thing” bet of all the Rays players to again get a clear contract offer from the Rays. He went above and beyond his job description in 2009, even giving the closer’s job a chance before the Rays finally shut him down in late September due to arm fatigue. The progress that Howell has shown from miserable,disgruntled starter to confident, out-going reliever is like a night and day transformation. And with that, Howell might finally get a chance to celebrate with his new wife that fact that he could have an estimated 2010 salary in the $ 1.8 million range during his first time on the arbitration tightrope. 

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

But that still leaves both Balfour and Cormier to be in the “unknown” group based on a few personal observations, and not on their solid pitching performances in 2009. During the late 2009 season, Balfour was critical of the Rays pitching concepts late in the season and might have produced some bad blood between him and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey. Could Balfour’s small episode of mouthing off cost him a chance to continue with the team?


Kathy Willen/AP

Also considering the Aussie is about to get hitched on January10th, you hope he did not put a wedge between him and the Rays front office and coaching staff in 2009. Could the Rays make him sweat a bit before late in the evening offering Balfour a contract? And if they do sweat him out a bit, could they be possibly motivated by the comments to try and get his estimated $ 2.1 million reduced through the arbitration hearing?

But my biggest Rays question mark concerning the Bullpen might come down to what the Rays will do about their long reliever spot. Cormier was impressive in that role during 2009, and I truly hope he is safe. But the Rays have two other pitchers fighting for their 25-man roster  spots who do not have a secured spot for 2010. Might Cormier be the “sacrifical lamb” to give the Rays a possible roster spot to pitcher Mitch Talbot, who has no minor League option left, or Andy Sonnanstine. 

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

Cormier would garner around $ 1.1 million in possible 2010 salary if the Rays offer him arbitration. Sonnanstine and Talbot’s combined 2010 salaries might only cost the Rays around $ 850,000, and could be the main reason the team doesn’t give Cormier an offer. Personally, I hope he gets an arbitration offer from the Rays because the job he did in 2009 was fantastic, but my word means nothing in the final scheme of things.

 
**** Update: 7:33pm EST.  Lance Cormier, who is arbitration eligible this season for the Rays has signed a 1-year contract to stay with the Rays for 2010.  

Now that we have looked into the Rays possible arbitration plans for their 2010 pitching staff, lets look to the five Rays field players who also could receive an arbitration offer within the next 24 hours. I will also make a quick evaluation on their possible chances to remain in the team past December 12th.


Jim Mone / AP

You have to consider both Rays players B J Upton and Jason Bartlett are pretty much another set of “sure things” locks for a contract offer within the next 24 hours. Bartlett has increased both his offensive and defensive worth to the Rays since the first day he lined up at the shortstop position for the team. But considering he might get a huge bump in contract up into the $ 3.3.5 million range in 2010, you can never count out anything until the arbitration contract is faxed to your agent. And everyone, everywhere has their own special opinions on Upton.

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

I personally can not see this team without Upton in centerfield in 2010. With the flip flopping of people around baseball as to the possible departure of Carl Crawford by the MLB Trade Deadline in late July, Upton  is the solid member of the outfield and has increased tremendously over the last two years while learning his centerfield positon “on-the-job”. I truly have a feeling Upton will come into his own in 2010 both at the plate and in the field. Everyone has comments on his running style and his sense of complacency at the plate, but in reality, no one on the Rays is more concentrated and inwardly critical of his own actions as Upton.

But the stark reality is that Rays farm hand Desmond Jennings might just be on the cusp of playing in the Major Leagues, but it will not be in centerfield. Upton will be at the arbitration table for the first time and should get a considerable jump up from his 2009 salary of $ 435,000 to an estimated $ 3.5 million on his first journey through arbitration. It might seem like a good idea by Upton and his agent several years ago to not sign a long-term deal with former GM Chuck LaMar and continue with his norm of 1-year contracts until his arbitration years.

And this leaves us with only three members of the Rays squad still being considered for arbitration to discuss further. The trio left consist of outfielder Gabe Gross and catchers’ Dioner Navarro and newly acquired Kelly Shoppach. I do not think I am going too far out on a limb thinking here that a budget restricted team like the Rays usually do not trade for an arbitration eligible player unless the player could be a solution to a internal problem. And one of the main off season priorities of the Rays this year was their catching situation. 

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

And that is what intrigues me most about Shoppach. Would the Rays possibly go to arbitration with both of their catchers  and secure both of them on their 2010 25-man roster, or is one of them(hopefully) being shopped around for a possible new locale right now for 2010? Seriously here,I think Shoppach is a clear power upgrade to Navarro and might possibily be saved by the arbitration alarm clock in the 11th hour. Navarro might not so lucky.


Elaine Thompson/AP

Considering that Shoppach’s estimated 2010 salary ($ 2.1 million) is close in comparision to the estimation for Navarro ($ 2.5 million),I think Shoppach wins  a arbitration submission based on his possible upgrade at the plate and his ability to get on base over Navarro. Their catching styles are similar, but Navarro has shown to be a bit lazy this past season behind the plate, or the team would never have traded for Gregg Zaun in the first place late in 2009. 

I am thinking that Navarro might be one of the two Rays on the outside looking in after the bell strikes at midnight tonight. And I think there is nobody else to blame here but Navarro. The Rays gave him the steering wheel early in Spring Training by not bringing in a veteran to push him for the first time in his Rays career. But Navarro visually seemed to have gotten more and more lazy on bouncing balls in the dirt and  seemed to have lost some concentration and confidence in his game behind the plate. Combine that with his solid decrease in hitting, and you have a formula for possibly being non-tendered tonight.

Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

The lone Rays player left to be considered for arbitration just might be a victim of the Rays farm system and available options that exist within the club. He is a guy I have seen play above and beyond his abilities in his two seasons with the team, but hard cuts sometime have to be made,and Gabe Gross might be the hardest of the Rays decisions today.

You know the team has treasured having him in the lineup for the past two seasons, but youngsters like Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings are knocking at the Major League door to play in rightfield. And if Sean Rodriguez is dominant this spring at second base, it might force a position change for uber-player Ben Zobrist to play in the outfield. The Rays organization is coming to a point where a decision like this is not going to be based on performance, but on an obtainable roster space.


Ben Margot/AP

And you know the Rays have tried to find another suitor for Gross, but corner outfielders are a deep position this Hot Stove season, and no one has made a play for Gross. For years Rays fans have know that at some point the team would have an abundance of talented young players in place to force an established player off the Rays roster. And this season, the player elimination hatchet might fall hard on Gross. The Rays decision will not be based on monetary reasons, but on the overflow of talent just below the Major League level.

So within the next 24 hours, there will be cheer and tears for members of the Rays roster. Some players might be faced with the stark reality of looking for another team, while other might be just starting the battle for their positions in 2010. But as the arbitration offer clock winds down, some of the Rays arbitration eligible players will be sweating while others sit calm waiting for calls from their agents and the team. I am guessing that 7 or 8 of the Rays arbitration eligible players will be smiling.


Tick….Tock….Tick….Tock….

(Fellow Rays blog, Rays Index was the source for my estimated 2010 salarie
s included today on my blog post. You can visit them on their website
www.raysindex.com. It was a great help using your sidebar tools to complete this blog…..Thank You).

Rays Number #2 Moment of 2009: ” B J Upton takes a Cycle Ride”

 


They call it one of the hardest and most exciting feats in baseball. It takes concentration and a will of steel to perform such a feat in the game of baseball. And the pure fact that it took over 1,939 Tampa Bay Rays game before we saw the first of its kind, just adds to the mystery and the awe of the spectacle. For on that night of October 2, 2009 in Tropicana Field, B J Upton put his signature on the game forever. But he was not the first of the Rays to face this obstacle in 2009, but he was the first in team history to finally break through and complete the first cycle in Rays history.

It was really only natural for this moment of triumph by Upton to be picked somewhere within the “Top 5 Rays Moments of 2009″. Some people might bicker and argue it should be popped somewhere lower on the list, but to me, this is the perfect spot for this moment. Considering that Upton spent the most part of 2009 fighting to prove he is more than just a good centerfielder, but to prove his plate discipline and bat had matured over the last season. And team mates like Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria also had chances this season to add their names to this list, but they fell short.

And the “cycle” proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that time is the element Upton needed this season to correct and get back into the saddle at the plate. That maybe his off season shoulder surgery left pains and discomfort for most of the year before he thrust his average skyward in July. For that month he became the American League Player of the Month after posting a .324 average with 5 HR 22 RBI and 14 stolen bases.  

Anyone who knows me knows I would fight to the death over this guy’s reputation. I have heard the passion and the will to succeed in his voice this season, and in all of  this, most fans just seem to see his faults.  Upton went 5 for 5 on the day, to tie the Rays record for most hits in a game with 4 other players, but it was only the second time the act has been reached at Tropicana Field, and the first since ex-RayTomas Perez did it on July 29, 2006 against this same Yankees squad.

And another amazing part of the feat that people tend to forget,he started his quest for the cycle in the first inning of the game batting out of the seventh slot in the Rays order. And he got the hardest hitting element of the cycle out of the way during that first appearance….the Triple. I think it is unfortunately that Upton was now finding his rhythm at the plate in the team’s 160th game.


Chris O’Meara / AP

And some of the Yankees faithful might look at that first hit, that went underneath sprawling Yankee rightfielder Nick Swisher as he dove for the ball heading into the right-centerfield gap as a gift, and nothing more. But it was the start of a magical trip that all in attendance got to see, feel and relish for the first time in Rays history. And by getting the double in his second at bat, Upton was putting his own stamp on this game, and making the feat easier for himself. 

And let’s not forget, the Yankees did have a stellar pitcher on the mound in this game trying to get his 20th win of the season. C C Sabathia was not lobbing the ball up to the plate, but Upton did make solid and great contact on got two of his hits off Sabathia before he left in the bottom of the fourth inning. The other three hits came off the Yankee Bullpen..  

Upton is considered the first American League player to get his cycle before the 5th inning of a game since 1954. During that same period, the National League had three players complete the feat by the 5th inning. And he had completed the task the quickest since the Rockies Mike Lansing did it on  June 8,2000 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. 

What was also so amazing, before that Friday night game, Upton had only 1 HR in his last 31 games, and 2 extra base hits (both doubles) in his last 14 games. Another wild fact is that it was the eighth cycle this season in Major League Baseball, tying the previous record set in 1993. And 6 of the 8 cycles this season have been set in the American League.

But there is another wild statistic that might have missed the Rays fans and the media about Upton. During the month of October, Upton has hit .301 (28 for 93) with 13 extra base hits, 8 HR, 23 runs scored, and 23 RBI.  Those statistics cover over 24 career games, including the playoffs.  So it might not so far fetched that at this time in the season he  also collected 6 RBIs on the same day as his “cycle”,but it is a pity we could not have had that offensive power the entire season. I guess it will be one of those “What If” situations.


Chris O’Meara / AP


Hopefully this offensive explosion gave Upton the confidence going into the off season to sweat a bit harder during his off season workouts and come into the 2010 Spring Training on mission.  Sometimes it take a moment like this for a player to escalate to that higher level in their career. Lets hope that by Upton producing the first cycle in Rays history it also pedals him towards what we all know he can be……….an elite member of that speedy Rays outfield both in the field and at the plate.


Don’t forget, I have links to all  of my Rays top moments of the season over in the sidebar to the right of the blog. Just click on the “moment” link and it will bring up an
MLB.com webpage and report on the event. Tomorrow I should be wrapping up my Top 5  Rays moments of 2009, and next week will venture into the Top 5 worst adventures during the 2009 season. Until then, I hope you come back and check out the Number #1 moment tomorrow and also celebrate an awesome season by a team that proves it doesn’t take millions to succeed in baseball.

Rays Decision on Iwamura is Complex

 


Duane Burelson / AP

With the beginning of the 2009 off season upon us, teams like the Tampa Bay Rays will soon have to begin to make some serious personnel decisions for the 2010 season, even before they hit the MLB Winter meetings in Indianapolis, Indiana. Everybody and their brother already know about the Rays impending decision on Carl Crawford’s $ 10 million club option, and his public eagerness to sweeten the deal and possibly sign another extended contract.

But there is another Rays player who has made it be known to the Rays front office through the media that he would entertain a contract restructuring, and maybe give the team a local discount because of his family’s love for this area. Iwamura informed the Tampa Bay media during his May 29th press conference about his successful knee surgery that he wants to “come back for the fans” in 2010, and the teams holds a $4.85 million club option.

One thing working into Iwamura’s favor is the fact the Rays have seen him work totally with the team in mind in the past to do whatever is needed to make this Rays team better. When he first came to the Rays, he was their third baseman, and he quickly showed his defensive skills at that position. After the end of the 2007 season, Iwamura was asked by the Rays Coaching staff if he would consider a move to second base to open the door for the Rays top prospect Evan Longoria to maybe move into that position in the Spring of 2008.

Without hesitation, Iwamura  began to work on the switch during the off season both  in Japan and with the team at the Rays complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. Iwamura was hoping for a smooth seamless transition to his new spot at second base. During that off season, the Rays traded with the Twins for Jason Bartlett to also add more defensive power to their two weakest spots in the infield.
 


Michael Dwyer / AP

Iwamura stated to the St. Petersburg Times on February 17,2008 that he was “Proud of my play at third base but at same time if the team needs me to be at second for team reasons I more than welcome it,” he said through new interpreter Bori Uchibori. “It’s a challenge to me anyway. I know I can do it. Wiggy can do it so I can do it.” During that season’s Spring Training, Iwamura and Bartlett  worked out together and formed a quick bond and a second sense for each others actions and reactions, and it became a flawless fit for the team.

Even after his knee surgery to repair damage received during a May 29,2008 game against the Florida Marlins where Marlins rookie Chris Coghlan came in hard to break up a double play and Iwamura went down in a heap after getting caught between the bag and Coghlan’s foot. Iwamura was encouraged by the surgeries prognosis and vowed to be back with the team before the end of the season. On August 29th, Iwamura returned from the disabled list after 60 days.

And that kind of team-oriented qualities need to be welcomed by the Rays Coaching staff and Front Office as they consider if they want to include Iwamura in their future plans.  You can bet there will be more than a few discussions before the team announces if they will pick up or refuse Iwamura’s 2010 option. And the team can go a few directions here.  There is some doubt right now if recently acquired infielder Sean Rodriguez, who might have outgrown Triple-A is ready for every day duty in the major leagues.

And that has to be the biggest question mark surrounding Iwamura right now. Can Rodriguez be an every day MLB level player for the Rays, or even a valuable utility man like Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist? That might be the big question in mind as the Rays roll the dice before the team reports to Port Charlotte on February 19,2010.  Can they afford to refuse his option and resign him for a reduced salary and incentives, or risk letting him test the free agent waters?


Ben Margot / AP

And you know there are a bevy of teams that might want to lure Iwamura away from the Rays. A team like the New York Mets could benefit from the Rays confusion and would use his speed and flexibility to compliment their infield. But this is putting the cart before the horse. The Rays have not let their intentions known yet to the general public, but you know it is a high priority of the Rays Front Office to try and get both a financial and  team suitable arrangement that can benefit both sides.

And with Iwamura being a bit of a fan favorite, the team might have to tread a bit lightly right now considering the fallout from the Scott Kazmir trade in late August 2008. To make another trade so quick without a solution in hand might again send up some unwarranted red flags amongst the Rays faithful. The Rays best solution might be to sign Iwamura to a extended contract with the stipulation that if Rodriguez is ready, Iwamura could be traded to another team during the season. 

That would show a level of good faith by the Rays along with some future considerations in place if Rodriguez provides another option piece for the team.  The worst part of this decision is that it is going to be more of a financial than personal decision about Iwamura. You know the team would love to keep someone like Iwamura on their roster, but his payroll number might make it unfeasible. But the team has been sure to note that an exit visa is not in the cards right now to jettison Iwamura from the Rays.


Lynn Sladsky / AP

But  his $ 4.85 million club option is also pretty affordable by most of the teams within the MLB, and the Rays could shop Iwamura maybe for some Bullpen help that the team desperately need right now. I actually hope they come to an arrangement prior to accepting or declining his option that would benefit both sides.  And maybe an “out” or trade revision will have to be added to any contract. But since Iwamura has announced he would do some shifting in money and conditions, this negotiation is going to be tricky for the Rays.

There is a slippery slope here that the Rays have to be careful and move gingerly or fall prey to some past decisions. But that is one of the drawbacks of being an successful club. Sometimes hard line financial decisions have to be made without personal feeling involved. Best case scenario has Iwamura staying with the team and maybe moved at the Trade Deadline when Rodriguez could get some extra time at Triple-A.

But no matter what the team does between now and February, you know this is going to be one of their toughest decisions of this offseason. Hopefully they make the right decision with the team and its future in mind.

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Earlier this season I got a chance to try something I had been meaning to check out and participate in for about 5 seasons. You always hear your friends and other people around you discussing the activities of their Fantasy Leagues, and how in-depth and how competitive they can get over the course of a season. I have had some previous experience with a ESPN Fantasy team in regards to College Football and NASCAR picks, but had never joined a competitve league.

What was even more exciting to me was the fact that this league would be formualted with 13 of my fellow MLB bloggers pitting their wits and their strategies against each other from the Opening Day first pitch to the last two weeks of the 2009 season. The final two weeks of the 2009 season would consist of two rounds of playoffs, which became some of the most intense weeks based on all of our competitve natures, and some of us (me included) were still refining our rosters within an inch of their lives.

And all of this started from a question asked by “Confessions of Baseball” ( Chris Powers) even before the 2009 Spring Training season. Chris was seeking interested people in participating in a season long head-to-head competition fantasy league with a foundation from the MLB bloggers as members.

The “League” membership was quickly formed and consisted of a great cross-section of bloggers like ” Julia’s Rants”, “Braves World”,”The Future Sox Blog”, “Team Clemson”, “Indianapolis Reds”, “Team Diatribe”,”Austin James Dreamer”, “Mets Main Man”, “The Mets Blog”,”How About Them Orangebirds” “Bay Area King of Cali”, “Bob’s Boston Green Sox”, “Rambling Ramblers” and of course, “Rays Renegade.”

MLBlogger Fantasy League Best Draft 2009

So our first order of business after selecting our team names was the “Live Draft held on Valentine’s Day. Perfect day to pick players for the game we all love so much. I have to say, from my first pick of the “Live” draft ( Ryan Braun) to the last game played  during the Championship Playoff series on October 4,2009 , this league was always fun-filled and extremely exciting.

And it was truly wild time sitting there on February 14th anxious and sweating during the “live” draft since I had never been in a situation like that drafting players round by round.  From the first pick by “The FutureSoxBlog” of Hanley Ramirez to her last selection of J C Romero, the draft seemd to have come off perfectly.

I have to admit I did have few moments of getting a bit upset when someone selected my guy one spot before me, or if I missed someone and saw him go within two spots of my missed selection. But it was an extremely awesome time, and one I really want to try again next season. I got a new respect for the MLB scouts and the MLB’s front offices by sometimes taking soem critical time trying to select the best players with in the two minute time lines. 

But I thought I selected a pretty competitve roster, and even got a few sleeper picks mixed into the bunch. I did get a pure gem when I selected Tampa Bay Rays uber-superman Ben Zobrist in the 34th round and he rewarded me constantly during the entire season. But I also made a few amateur mistakes that came back to haunt me throughout the season. After the Draft, the league membership was polled and I was rewarded with the first Draft Championship virtual trophy.

I mean I made some pretty critical mistakes throughout the season and for some odd reason I accidently dropped Rockies First Baseman Todd Helton early on in the season. He was not the first blunder, but was one of the one that made me kick myself a few times. I also at one point in the season had three very important cogs in the Rockies outfield platoon consisting of Carlos Gonzalez, Seth Smith and Dexter Fowler, but I tried to be smart and let them slip through my fingers back onto the Waiver wire and onto other teams. But the one that really irked me was the one I did by total mistake, and it cost me dearly.

I was trying to gain another frontline starter and accidently dropped Tigers pitcher Edwin Jackson for someone I ended up dropping within a few weeks. That really hurt me, more for the fact that I am a huge pro-Jackson supporter and I dropped the ball totally on that move. I wish I could say I was trying to get him through the waiver system without anyone seeing him, but I messed up big time, and I regretted the move from the moment I hit the Enter buttom on the computer.  


Gail Willens / AP

But I get a few guys I felt might make a huge impact in the 2009 season, but they either got injured or were not effective throughout the season. I selected Josh Hamilton in the 2nd Round, and kept him through the season hoping for a healthy return. But after his first injury during the season, he did not possess the same power and monster numbers I was hoping for this year.

But I had a few players who went down with unexpected injuries after they began the season on a truly positive note. Players like the Brewers Ricky Weeks and the Rays Jason Isringhausen, who both went down and would be sidelined for the rest of the season.  But also bad season starts from guys like Rays new DH Pat Burrell and the Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco had me sweating at time during the season before I gave up on them and dropped them from my roster.

But besides  the pick of Zobrist, I did feel I picked up a few other good sleeper picks. I selected Oakland/Colorado basher Jason Giambi in the 30th Round, and also ended up getting Seattle slugger Russell Branyan, who had the best season of his career before going down with an injury in September. I got a small dose of what it felt like to be a General Manager  to try and adjust and  seek a few select players that would make a difference in my team. But fortunately, I did not have to juggle payrolls or decide MLB service time in this league like the actual MLB GM’s have to do every day in their jobs.

During the season I have to admit, some teams creeped up on me and scared me to death during the weekly match-ups. I selected 7 members of the Tampa Bay Rays for my roster, and if they did not play up to snuff, my team took a dive fast. But I was happy with my Rays offensive selections of Zobrost and Carl Crawford and added and released pieces like Burrell, Willy Aybar and Akinori Iwamura during the season. Gregg Zaun even made an end of the season appearance after he was picked up by the Rays after a trade with the Orioles.

But my other two main pieces for my Rays offensive foundation might not happened if not for some great trade partners. I ended up trading with the “Mets Main Man” and sending the Brewers Ryan Braun to his team for Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett and eventual Nationals closer Mike MacDougal. That gave me a consistent bat at shortstop, and also someone who could steal some bases for me. 

My sec
ond trade might have a few people scratching their heads a bit, but it is my faith I have in this player that made this trade a sure thing for me. On June 1, 2009, I traded Angels closer Brian Fuentes for B J Upton straight up with “The Mets Blog“. I still think this was a great trade, because Upton ended up becoming the July Paler of the Month for the American League, and ended up the season on a bit of an offensive tear.

 MLBloggers Fantasy League Best Record 2009

I bounced around in my divisions standings until the final three weeks of the season when I balanced out and found myself on top of the hill. I ended up the season with the MLBlogger’s Fantasy Leagues best record at 128-79-13 and was awarded my second virtual trophy. But then it was time for the Playoffs, and I was selected as the number 1 seed and ended up fighting my major competition in my division who got seeded 4th for the playoff rounds.

For two weeks “Braves World (Gregg Henglein) and my roster fought back and forth before I finally started to take a slight advantage and ended up winning the first round of the Playoffs with a 6-4 record. Then came the finals against a team that I had fought me hard during the season, but I expected more extreme action this time. So during the last two weeks of the season it was ‘Rays Renegade” against “Austin James Dreamers (Darion Morgan)” for the League title.

And I have to admit, I was selecting starting pitching and still tweaking my roster up until the last day of the season. It was so close of a battle that the series really did not turn until the last few days of the regular season.  “Austin James Dreamer” took an early lead and made me sweat more than a few times during the two week period. That also  corresponded perfectly during the time that the Rays got flattened by the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in two straight series and did not rebound until they got back home.

But finally my guys began to win some starts, and began to drive in some RBIs and It went back and forth from a 4-5-1 record to a 5-5 record to finally getting settled at a 6-4 record. And I was really sweating a bit when on the last day my roster advised me I had used up my alottement of pitching and I would not getting any more statistics from my starters on that day. I was at the mercy of “Austin James” pitching staff to secure the League title. So finally on October 5th, I was declared the MLBBloggers Fantasy League’s first Champion and got my third virtual trophy of the season.

MLBloggers Fantasy League Champion 2009

In the end, I glanced at the final totals for my teams a found some interesting facts. My pitching staff had accumulated 2,369 strikeouts, over 490 more than my closest competitor. Also amazing to me is that fact those same starters got me a total of 178 wins, which was 35 wins more than anyone else. I had built my original team based on offensive power, and my pitching staff ended up being the strong part of my league team. I did lead the league in stolen bases and RBI, but fell a bit short in runs and HRs. 

I admit, it was a great fun every week being pitted against other people and using my head for more than a baseball cap rack. I am really looking forward to the January announcement of the reformulation of the MLBloggers Fantasy League for the 2010 season. For now I have a  league title to defend, and I am really excited to again include this great event into my yearly baseball plans..

I want to thank all 14 members of MLBlogs who particiapted in the league and look forward to going from the “Live” Draft to the Playoffs again in 2010. It was an amazing experience, and it even got me to join a Fantasy Football and Hockey League on ESPN this year to get some added experience.

I had never gotten so much fun out of a computer based gaming activity as I did in this season’s fantasy league. I know it is not an activity for everyone, but I highly recommend doing it because of the great competition and the great amount of experience and fun you can have taking the role of a team owner and adjusting your roster by adding or subtracting to your team throughout the season.


www.SPTimes.com

So I ended up on October 6th opening a small bottle of Mumm’s champagne and spilling it all over the grass outside my apartment building. The neightbors might have thought I was nuts, but I wanted to experience the last part of being a team owner. I wanted to have that celebration and that extreme moment of knowing all the work was worth it. As I picked up a towel from the ground and wiped the stinging chamapgne out of my eyes I remembered the same thing I experienced with the Rays in 2008. I felt pride, honor and an inner feeling of accomplishment………..And yes, I yearned for more.

Ladies and Gentleman, Welcome to the B J Upton Show!

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

Oh many times do we go to baseball games wanting to see something we have never seen before?  You know see that event that will be discussed by us to our grand kids or even friends hundreds of times until it gets so boring people know by the first words out o your mouth and either runs for the hills or sit patiently hoping the story gets shorter this time.

Well, we had just one of those moments last night. and for 12 seasons players have gotten close, they have gotten within a cats whisker of it before, but not until last night can a Tampa bay Rays player hold this special event in baseball close to his chest forever. Sure we have had Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and even Ben Zobrist get close in 2009, but the one guy who needed something like this more than anyone on this roster gets his name permanently in Rays lore now.

And how glorious it was that B J Upton, the Bossman Junior himself stood on first base and did not know if he should step off the base and acknowledge the crowd, or wait a bit until finally tipping his batting helmet towards the stands. The guy that has been run over by the Rays bus numerous times during 2009 by the media, by the fans and by a teammate is now in the spotlight for an amazing feat, and he still looks nervous and unsure. But, you have to admit, if anyone on this team needed a moment like that, it was Upton.

And Upton’s last home stand of the season has been rolling along at a awesome clip before Friday nights game against the New york Yankee. The national media was poised at Tropicana Field hoping to see the Yankee hurler CC Sabathia post his 20th victory, but his night was cut short by Rays rallies in his first 2 2/3rds innings.  And all the Yankee regulars were in the game tonight, it is not like Upton was hitting against the “B” team in the early stages of the contest.


Chris O’Meara / AP

But for the last week or so you saw something like this brewing underneath the surface for Upton. You could sense from the over-the-shoulder catches to the lack of his front foot tapping during his swing that something was going to erupt.  And not only did B J  hit for the cycle, but he did it before the end of the fifth inning!  It was the fastest cycle since Mike Lansing of the Colorado Rockies got all four hits in the first four innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks on June 18, 2000.

But the last 10 games have been a mini great season for Upton. On Wednesday night he got his 41st steal of th season to post back-to-back 40+ steal seasons, and had gone 9 for 25 (.277) over his last 9 games prior to Friday night. If you add on his numbers from last night, Upton has now gone 16 for 40 (.400) over his last 11 games with 12 RBI, his solo HR last night.  During that stretch, he also had 4 stolen bases and 4  consecutive multi-hit games.  The last 10 games have also seen a subtle change to Upton’s approach and swing, but if you have not watched B J, you would miss the small detailed differences.

Gone is that nervous energy tapping of the foot on his follow-through. That was more a part of his internal timing device to try and syncho himself with the opposing pitcher, but people picked up on it and began to attack him with multi-speeds and sent him into a bit of a funk after July. But now the small tap is gone, and with it has been a more fluid and sure-footed plant as he swings through the zone. Sure this might not be the only thing that has been either mentally or physically adjusted by Upton, but it is something that looks small to most people, but has produced major results for him since its change.


Chris O’Meara / AP

For most of the year you have seen me write about Upton because I see a major player with an open book of potential about to hit his stride. I was hoping 2009 would be the year he would breakout at the plate and dominate at the dish the way he does in centerfield. But with this late rush of excitement and confident stroke in hand, this will send B J  into the off season with a ton of confidence and hope for the 2010 season. The kid (he is only 25) has a long time in this league, and we might only be seeing the tip of the iceberg right now.

But for most of the Rays Republic they have stood fast in their condemnation of Upton this season. Hopefully the last 10 games, and the American League Player of the Month award in July when he hit .324 with 5 HR, 22 RBI and 14 SB was just a taste of what could be in store for teams in 2010. All ready there have been online rumors floating about maybe shopping Upton in this off season. But it is fair to say that the Rays will do their usual listening to every offer, but it will have to be a blockbuster deal to send the talented outfielder outside of Tampa Bay.


Chris O’Meara / AP

And on the heels of this seasonings ending will be the first time that Upton will also be able to face the Rays cash register as he will enter only his first arbitration hearing this winter. Sure the Rays tried to lock him up a few years ago when the old regime was in control, but he has stood fast to taking the one-year deals from the team until this year’s hearings.  It is proposed by Rays Index, which guess-timated that Upton could get as much as $ 3.5 million in his first jaunt to the table this fall. If you factor in the defense, the churning of offense the last two seasons, and the potential of this budding superstar, he will be going no where this winter.

But still, last night event showed the Rays fans that Upton is here to play. the quiet outfielder was sure to thank the fans first last night in his radio interview with Rays Radio post-game host Rich Herrera. And that is the true nature of the guy. He knows he is lucky not to have to pretend to love the 9-to-5 grind. And he truly feels blessed to have his talents and abilities. but sometimes that soft personality that hides his true passion gets mistaken for arrogance and conceit. But the guy is all baseball, and hopefully in the next coming years we will see him open up both on the field and with all of us and see what a great guy, and player B J Upton really is………..and we are lucky to have him, and watch him 162 games a season.

Rays Players Highs and Low in 2009

 



Bill Koustron / AP

There was some ramblings during the last months of 2008  that if that Tampa Bay Rays squad did not make the playoffs, they would be referred to as the “Best Rays team to never make the playoffs”. Well, with their huge mountain of success that season I can safely say they will never have that title attached to their legacy because of the 2009 team’s fall from grace. But, the 2009 team could very well be the team that will be in your minds for a long time as the team was good enough to win a post season berth based on their talent, but fell short of the goals with their game results. 

Even with 15 games to go in the 2009 season, and the playoff balloon sitting on the ground with no more air in it for fight or flight, this Rays team is still fighting for a few of its members to post career numbers and fight for Top 10 rankings in categories all throughout the American League. Considering this is the same Rays team that sent 5 members and their entire Coaching Staff to the 2009 All Star Game in St. Louis, Missouri. And even with the improbable story of Carl Crawford walking away with the games MVP award on a monster catch in leftfield, it might be just as rewarding to remember the season of Ben Zobrist, who caught the last out of the All Star game.

So let’s take a look with 15 games to play in some of the American League leaderboard and some of its categories both good and bad, and see where our 2009 Rays team can make some historic marks for future Rays players to aspire to beat or avoid totally :


Bill Koustron / AP

*** Even with two pins in his fingers, Carlos Pena is still the Home Run leader in the American League with 39 this season. With 15 games left, Pena’s biggest competition comes from Yankees First Baseman Mark Teixeira, who is 4 home runs away from catching fellow first baseman Pena. This battle might come down to the last series between the teams in October.


***
Evan Longoria is also fighting Teixeira for the AL Runs Batted In title right now as Longoria currently has 104 RBI and is just 8 RBI away from catching Teixeira for the title. Longoria, who is only in his second season at the major league level would become the first Rays player to hold such a title.


***
Carl Crawford has his hands in at least two chases for titles with one currently just 1 more than his career best. That is right, currently Red Sox Jacoby Ellsbury, who has 61 stolen bases is leading the Stolen Base category, but Crawford is right behind him with 57 steals at this time. Crawford also is 29 hits short of 200 total hits for the season, and with both titles within his reach, you might see a few more chances by Crawford both at the plate and on the base paths in the last 15 games.

*** Both Longoria and Crawford also are currently tied for 10th in total games played this season with 142. the top spot is currently held by the Orioles Nick Markakis and Yankee Robinson Cano, who both have 146 games this season. Crawford is also currently 11th in at bats this season with 564 prior to tonight games against the Toronto Blue Jays. Longoria is also currently sitting in the 4th spot in doubles with 44 this season for the Rays.

*** Jason Bartlett has made a name for himself this season with his bat. Not only has he set new career highs in home runs and RBI, but he is currently batting to stay within the top 5 in AL Batting Average right now. Bartlett is sitting in 5th place at this moment with a .324 average, and is within .004 of tying Yankee Derek Jeter for the 4th spot. Bartlett is also holding strong in the race for triples where he currently sits in 7th place in a tie with fellow Rays Crawford and Ben Zobrist with 7 triples. The AL leader has only 9 triples, so the title is out there for any of the three to take it this season.


Mike Carlson / AP

*** Then we have Longoria who is also right out of the Top 5 spots with 283 total bases in 2009.  And there are currently two Rays in the top 10 for Walks this season in the AL. Pena is sitting in the 7th spot with 87 walks this season, and Zobrist is right behind him in 8th with a total of 85 walks in 2009. Zobrist has more of a chance to hit the Top 5 by the end of the season.

***  There is one category that the Rays probably wish they did not have 4 members in the Top 20 this season… Strikeouts. Pena is no longer in the top spot, but is holding down the 2nd spot with B J Upton sitting at the 5th spot with 147 K’s in the season. Longoria is also in the 10th spot with 127 strikeouts so far this season. And coming in 20th is the Rays new Designated Hitter, Pat Burrell with 109 for the year.

***  As we continue on the unhappy trail of some negative Top AL spots for the Rays, both Crawford (14) and Upton (13) are in the top 3 base runners caught stealing this season. This includes picked off of the bases and actual steals during games.  And another honor that he might wish he did not have, Longoria is on pace to be the top offender in Grounding into Double Plays this season as he is the current leader with 27, just 1 GIDP short of the MLB lead right now.

So now that we have established that several Rays players are having career seasons in 2009, lets head on over to the American League leaderboard in the pitching categories and see if we might also have some contenders for top 10 spots on the Rays pitching staff:

*** Rays starter Matt Garza is currently sitting in the 8th spot in the AL in Strikeouts this season with 167. With another start on Saturday night, Garza  might have a chance to boost himself closer to the top 5 spot currently held by Toronto’s Roy Halladay with 187 strikeouts.  But in reality, he might not get to the 200 K plateau, but it has been a great season for the Rays rightie. James Shields also is in the top 15 in the AL in strikeouts sitting at 14th place with 145 this season.


Chris O’Meara / AP


***
  Rays reliever J P Howell is currently sitting in the 6th spot for appearances with 67 this season. The top spot currently is only 4 appearance more than Howell’s, but that might be unrealistic as the Rays have unofficially shut down Howell at this time due to arm fatigue.


***
  Rays starter Shields is  also currently sitting in the Top 3 in Games Starts this season with 30, and is well within the top spot in the AL, which is held by Yankee CC Sabathia and  Tiger Justin Verlander with 31 starts. But in reality, there are 10 people sharing the spot with Shields who will be making his 31st start of the season tonight against the Blue Jays at home.

***  Rays rookie Jeff Niemann also has a few spots within the top 20 in several categories for the Rays in 2009. In his first full season with the team, Niemann is currently 14th in wins with 12 this season and 14th in ERA (3.80). The Rays AL Rookie of the Year candidate also is in the 8th spot for Complete Games (2) and is in a 4-way tie for Shutouts with two this season.

*** The Rays also have three members of their starting rotation Niemann, Garza and Shields in the Top 20 in the AL ERA category this season. And at this moment, both Shields (198.2) and Garza (185.0) are within the top 15 for total innings pitched this season for the Rays.  Garza also has the 3rd best Opponents Average in the AL currently sitting at .234 mark.

*** And some of the marks that the Rays pitching staff wishes it did not have in 2009 consists of Shields surrendering the second worst amount of hits this season in the AL with 217 hits. Also in the Red  spots for the Rays is Shields with the third worst amount of runs scored against him in 2009 with 101 this season.  And it gets even worse as Shields  is also in third surrendering 27 HR this season.


Marc Avery / AP

***   And just because his name did not flash in the last paragraph doesn’t mean that Garza also is off the hook with bad statistics this season. He is currently the second worst pitcher in the AL in hit batsmen this season. Garza is also within the Top 3 in Walks Allowed this season in th American League with 68 so far this season.

So as you can see, the Rays harbor some of the best young talent in the American League. With  a splattering of great events throughout this season taking the spotlight away from the reality of the disastrous events of the last few weeks, this team has struggled the entire year to decide what kind of team they wanted to be both on the mound and at the plate. That indecision might have led to the final free fall in September that dashed their dreams of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

But the solid foundation of this Rays team is strong and should be able to weather the storm of 2009 and come out strong again in 2010. Even with their expected 3 young starters with a year or less of MLB service hitting the mound in 2010, the Rays should again be the team to watch in the AL East.  Because with this season coming to a close, the learning process of this squad will not stop with the games. In the off season you can be sure that the hitters and the pitchers will be working hard to again get the taste of champagne in their mouths.

And the stark reality that this team is being built for the long haul and not just a single season or two of championship caliber talent might hasten their rise again to the top of the AL standings. With the Rays minor league system again brimming with young talent striving to make a mark so they can get a shot in the big leagues, this team might be again the envy of most of the Major League Baseball world. 

So this team might be considered a failure by some, but the reality of the situation is that the team could finish with the second best record EVER by a Rays team in 2009 and be considered a failure by the critics around the league. Just because the team took a step backwards in 2009 doesn’t mean they are losing their grips or going to go into another free fall towards mediocrity in 2010.  The team again will be stocked with tremendous talent with the abilities to again have the team celebrating next October.


Gail Burton / AP

It might be one step back, but it is not as if the team stepped off a large cliff and is destined for the rocky bottom. There is a current team who also struggled like the Rays the season after they appeared in the World Series. The Colorado Rockies came upon the same fate as the Rays and lost their chance at a world title. And the team did take a backwards step in 2008, but in 2009 they currently are riding high with a chance to again make the post season in the National League.

Anything is possible for the Rays in 2010. With the example of the Rockies also coming off the rock pile and again chasing the top spots there is hope and a sense of determination from these Rays players to be next season’s Rockies and again go to the MLB playoffs. So maybe it is now that the team needs to set a short term goal of showing the community their commitment and their striving to again post “W’s” in the left column for the next 15 games. This team might be the worst of the best Rays team to ever set foot on the Trop’s turf, but it is in no way comparable to the 2007 squad.

Get Ready for a Power filled Series

 


Steve Nesius / AP

It is that time of the season where a single loss can be a train derailing event towards a successful run at the postseason. Every single nuance of the game has to be clicking in rhythm from the get-go or the dream could come shattering down on you like a broken pane of glass. With the Tampa Bay Rays about to a begin a 3-game weekend set against the team many around baseball have dubbed the “2009 Rays”,maybe it is time for them to remind people around baseball that they are still in this American League Wild Card race.

So what if the Texas Rangers have been anointed this seasons “Rays”. Funny,but aren’t those pesky Rays still only 3 games behind the Rangers and 4 games behind the Boston Red Sox stalking both team’s every moves,and daily taunting them to lose so the Rays can creep up in the standings. Aren’t these the same Rays that people have put in correlation with the “2007 Colorado Rockies” and have stated time and time again will not repeat into the 2009 Playoff scene. How dare those Rays make ESPN’s Baseball Tonight look like fools. They do such a good job of that all by themselves. 

But there is a problem with that premise….Someone forgot to tell the Rays they are not suppose to be in this thing. But the honest truth is that all of this can change in the blink of an eye this weekend. With all three of the  current contenders for the Wild Card race playing key opponents this weekend,separation in the standings will occur this weekend,by hook or by crook.

The Red Sox host the New York Yankees for three while the Rays tuck a 3-game series against the Rangers into the weekend. This combination of six games could,and should bring about a better overview of the Wild Card hierarchy for the last four weeks of the season. After these two series conclude,someone will be chasing someone else for that last spot into the 2009 playoffs. And behind it, the reality, that another team could begin a free fall that will fade them from the Wild Card. 


Jim Prisching / AP

Not to say that the Yankees have the A L East division all locked up yet,but a major fall from grace would have to occur,and all the stars align just right for the Rays to again take the A L East crown. But right now,all the Rays fears and the attention has to be on a team that really does mirror the 2008 edition of the Rays in so many ways. And with Elvis in the building,you never know what is going to happen.

But the key to this series is going to be all about power. Power hitting and power pitching might be the key elements to post a series win, and a leg-up in the Wild Card race. If the Rays take the series 3-0, it could boost them to within one game of the Rangers, and depending on what happens in Boston, could get them within a few games of the top spot. But it is going to be pure adulterated power that defines this series.

And both teams have the power in their line-ups to take any of these game into routs in a single innings. Both the Rays and the Rangers have done just that this season. Each teams boasts a A L MVP candidate, and a A L Rookie of the Year candidate, and both could be riding high after this series. But as usual in events that place power above all else, it could be the simple fact of control pitching and getting first pitch strikes that dominates this series.

And both teams have competent pitching staff from the starters to the closers that could take either team out of rally situations with a single pitch. But that is the fun of it all. To see if Scott Kazmir tonight can get a blast of the past glory and take down the Rangers early and often and control the plate. Or if it is going to be Dustin Nippert, who is 2-1 with a 4.21 ERA in his 4 starts this season taking control of the Rays and shutting them down.

But there might be a slight advantage to the Rays right now just based on the pitching match-ups for the weekend. The Rangers are going to send three straight right-handers to the plate to combat the left-handed Rays. That could play right into the Rays hands as they have feasted on right-handers in 2009. But this is not so one-sided as it might seem. The Rays will combat this with the hard-throwing Kazmir going tonight, then follow with another power pitcher Matt Garza on Sat. night. The series will conclude with rookie David Price taking the mound Sunday.

But the Rangers also boast a pretty good offense themselves this season.  The Rangers have hit a total of 181 home runs this season easily out-pacing the Rays 155 so far in 2009. And both teams are only .007 clicks away in team average this year. This could be a well-balanced series with defensive mistakes proving to be the big indicator of the series winner. The Rangers are modeled after the Rays successful defensive philosophy,and is currently ranked 8th in the AL in total defense. The Rays sit  about 3 slots below Texas at this time.

But even with the Rays defense having an off year, the Rays have a distinctive advantage on the base paths over the Rangers in this series. So could Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and B J Upton prove to be turning points in this series? Only if they get on base and have the right situations to steal bases and get into the Rangers pitching staff’s heads. 

The entire series might come down to the basics of baserunning.  If the Rays get the chance to run, it might be a long night for Texas. But if Texas can control the running game and keep the Rays out of scoring chances, it might turn towards the Rangers advantage. Right now I am feeling confident on the Rays chances to get close again in this Wild Card race.


Marc Avery / AP

Rich Herrera, who does the Rays Postgame Show on the radio always says, “The next game is the most important game of the season.” And that is so true. They are all equally as important as wins to get to that spot you want to be in before that last series of the year against the Yankees in Tropicana Field.

Hopefully at that point the Rays will have either made their play, or will still be right in the thick of it up until the end. Either way this series might be a chance for the Rays to make a statement against all those so-called experts who have doubted, and rooted against the team for most of the season. It is time to play the “Rays Way” and then let the cards fall where they may.

Dear B J ,


Steve Nesius / AP

Hey there B J,

Got to tell you dude, lately you have doing some everlasting damage to your professional credibility here with your present boss, the Rays. Now we have known each other since  you first got called up in September 2001, when you were 17 and a few of us hit a local nightspot after a Yankees/Rays game and danced, chatted and got to know each other. I hope I can write to you as someone who has seen you grow as a ballplayer and offer some advice on your current problems. So take what I am about to say as a buddy just speaking to another buddy from heading towards a dangerous place.

No, it is not like you are attempting to go out on a building ledge and we need to talk you down, but you are in a very critical stage in your professional life where anything said from you right now is taken as gospel.  Now to even speak out of turn until your Batting Average and your fan approval  begins to again go north would be a very critical detour in your career. Seriously dude, when all that garbage came down a few years ago  from the local Durham fishwrap about the “Three Amigos” (Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes and moi) while with the Bulls, I was the guy fighting with Rays fans to see the words did not come from the “true” BJ, but from an “off the record”  BBQ conversation.

You rebuilt those bridges within the organization and showed you were a team player and you rebuilt your image to be sturdy and capable of taking on almost anything. But I have to level with you guy, right now the glaring games with the Umpires and the jawing after called third strikes along with the half efforts at flailing at balls outside the zone are making you look like a shadow of your former self.

E-man, I got to tell you this honestly, for a while there it looked like you were finally crawling out of that deep hole and were again showing that you loved hitting in the lead-off spot, but something suddenly died within your swing. Something zapped that energy and that strong will to strike that small white ball around like a toy.

Why is it that you got so upset about going down in the order? Dude, Joe Maddon has stood by and deflected the daily pot shots at you for so long that maybe he finally decided you needed to show some spunk and intestinal fortitude, and the 7-spot was a chance to sort it all out and still play every day.

Instead we got an entitlement attitude and a sense of lost focus at the plate. Dude, I know you still got it in you. Going down in the order sucks, but you are still living the dream and patroling the center fields of the MLB. And this latest bruhaha about you being moody about going to number 9 spot, Well stop it. I have to go with Maddon on this one dude. You forgot who B J Upton was there for a bit. You forgot the guy who the the opposition  nervous and sweaty while on base.
 

But If you truly want to know something……. Jason Bartlett did not like or want that lower spot in the either, but he smacked that ball and produced the hits and  drove in those guys in scoring position when you forgot how to play the game for a bit. Through him focusing  all his negative emotions onto his hitting, he got the desired spot he wanted. But he also thought of the nine hole as a “second lead-off” guy. And maybe that is where your mental state should sir right now. You get on base, you got guys coming up right behind you who have your back……everytime.


Chris O’Meara / AP

Understanding that was a move made for the team, not to punish you. It gives you an honest chance to readjust and refocus yourself to become the fiesty outfielder the fans have gotten to know and love. The actions that need to be taken were simple. You just need to now just chill a bit and accept things at the plate. Let Maddon go ot there and argue the balls and strikes.

Right now the more you whine to the guys in blue, the wider the strikezone might get before the end of this season. Smile, walk away and surpise everyone. Right now you are hiding within the shadow of a emerging star. You have not snuffed out the limelight, but it is growing dimmer. By showing maturity at plate, and towards the umpire crews, you will gain back that simple strikezone. Right now, I do not believe the umpires consider you a model citzen of the kingdom of MLB.

Secondly, get over all the chatter and ramblings about C C . I understand he is your sidekick, or vice versa. You guys will always be friends no matter if he plays here for in China. Look at the way CC is handling it, like a professional. He knows baseball is a business and he is hitting and playing like a fiend right now. He knows that the team could re-load the farm system with a trade for him. He is not happy about it, but both of you have seen enough guys come and go from the Ray to know it is not in your hands.

Come on guy, you are better than this B S. you truly know you got the stuff, or you would not be getting the chatter about your  “Web Gem” plays in Centerfield. You are within a whisper of getting your name mentioned with some of the best right now, and you might ruin it by sulking at the plate. Dude, they do not consider guys for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award who whine and sink at the plate. They do not give that beautiful Rawling trophy to guys who hits under .250 and does not look like they are leaders. That award is more than a defensive award, it recognizes the best of the best.

So the decision is yours dude. You know what this team needs right now is another bat to spring out and take control. Pat “the Bat” is beginning to find a small groove. The team has made a trade to get more production, and you now have got to carry your outfield weight. I am not asking you to hit .600 the next two months, but I am asking you go get on base, make pitchers nervous and be the B J we all came to watch play the game.

I got your back no matter what. I know how far you have sunk, and I know it is a tough road. But you got the goods to beat it and go forward from here. So why not take tonight’s game as a “coming out. part 2″ party and prove to some of the grumbling factions around the Rays Republic that you might be down, but you are not out.


Gail Burton / AP

Dude, just like the team, you are in a “must win” situation to garner  back the respect and the accolades you have sweated and labored for since that first call-up in 2001. It is time to take the Junior off your name is spirit and play like a man, take it like a man, and if defeated take your licks like a man. You know me, I will fight with words or fists to proclaim you are not a bum.
 

You have got to show these people the fire is still lit inside you. They think the flame is gone. It is time E-man. Time for you to show why we have been behind you for so long. It can be done with something as simple as a little more concentration and effort. So just think about what I am saying here. Think of what you are tossing to the side with those comments and outward anger. The number 9 slot is still in the lineup, you are not sitting on the bench watching Gabe Kapler or someone from the minor leagues play your spot.

Time to put childish things away like pity parties and temper tantrums and play like a professional again. You wanted this kind of attention and admiration since you were a young kid. Do not throw it all away on an attitude problem that will label you for the rest of your career. Tampa Bay has had this situation before, and his name was Jose Guillen.  Like you, he could play a fantastic outfield, could get the ball anywhere on the field. But he lacked plate discipline and focus. And that is the issue with you right now.

Not a lack of class, but of attitude and disbelief they would drop you down in the order. Remeber BJ, Guillen was here until his contract was up. After that he was free to go and became someone elses worry. I do not want to see you go down the same road. He was a great defender and could play the RF corner better than anyone who has ever put on a Rays jersey, but the drama with him on the team finally got to much. Young and Dukes are also gone because of their internal and external issues and frustrations surfacing at the wrong times.

Dude, all I am asking you to do it be that old BJ. The kid who could not wait to go to the ballpark and play baseball again. I am asking for that guy who used to grin when he got on base, smirk when he stole a base, and pump his fist when he scored a run.  want to see the guy who smiled before, during and after the game again. If not, then all I can say is I told you so.

Rays Can’t close the deal for Shields


Steve Nesius / AP

Oh, somedays it just doesn’t pay to be a Rays pitcher. Even if you are on the top of your game, it can fail with just a small mistake, or even a mis-guided play. Some people have been throwing Rays starter James Shields under the bus recently, but if you really look at his statisitcs, he has been pretty consistent all season.

It is just seems he has been the victim of the worst run support in the American League. Coming into today’s contest against the Royals, The Rays offense has only given Shields 2.59 run support in his 22 starts this season. The team has a 10-12 record when he starts a game, and Shields is so much better than his 6-8 record this season.

The guy has thrown 146.1 innings coming into today’s game, but had things fall apart on him defensively. He had everything going for him today and even after he strolled off the mound to a standing ovation from the home crowd, the only thought in his mind was on what could have happened. Yeah, what if Gabe Gross had done the same thing White Sox outfielder Dewayne Wise did for Mark Buehrle not so long ago.

What if? What if might dominate his mind for more than a short span. You see Rays Manager Joe Maddon wants his guys to think about a game for 30 minutes, then forget it and get ready for the next one. But I have a feeling this one is going to linger on Shield’s mind a little longer. Some people have the  avant garde opinion that Gross should have done everything humanly possible to grasp that ball and save the moment. Even if it meant him leaving his feet and snagging that dying quail fly ball in front of him in the 8th inning.


Steve Nesius / AP

Other people will view it as a defining moment catalyst that brought on the  lax in the defensive unit for the next few plays that ultimately cost the Rays, and Shields a win. You have to see both side of that ball that dropped in front of Gross. If he dives and makes the play, he is on “ESPN’s Baseball Tonight”, and viewed as a sunky hero that went beyond common judment to make a difference in the game. 

If he doesn’t ” go for it” or try and make the difference in the game, it will be viewed as a defensive decision based on the probabilites of disaster if he misses the ball and it rolls around in the outfield waiting for B J Upton coming over for it. You would then have Maddon  be the first to not question the play. Some will call it a perfect defensive play by one of the best rightfielder in the AL, but others will find fault in it because it led to a loss.

But that single by catcher John Buck, who was hitting only .227 at the time was quickly releived by pinchrunner Ryan Freel. Then the wheels began to come off this wagon for Shields, and he could do nothing but watch it happen.  Alex Gordon hit a squibbler in front of the plate and Rays catcher Dioner Navarro tried to take out the lead runner, but instead overthrew second base and Freel ended up standing on third base. Shields got Mitch Maier to a 3-2 count before finally producing a RBI single to centerfield.

Gone now was the shutout and the last three hitter had gotten good wood on the ball against Shields. But Mark Teahen pinch hit for Yuniesky Bentancourt and popped a simple out to Evan Longoria to take some of the pressure off Shields. He could breath a bit now knowing it was not over yet. Then the play that would define the Rays loss actually happened.


Steve Nesius / AP

Maier was caught in a simple run down between first and second by Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena and was shifting to and from second base when Gordon becan his trek to the plate. Bartlett was shifting his weight and was off balanced when he threw towards Navarro and home and could not get the ball on line and Gordon scored and Maier moved to second on the errant throw. It made the score 2-0 at that point and proved to be the difference in the ballgame.

In the previous three plays the Rays had committed two errors that deflated the enitre effort of Shields that day. It is not often that the Rays defense has a struggle, and it was not a pretty thing to see in person. But Maddon could see his starter beginning to unravel on the mound by emotion, not his pitching. So he went to the Bullpen and Shields was greeted by a huge chorus of support from the home crowd.


Steve Nesius / AP

James Shield came off the field today after 7.1 innings of work and a total of 107 pitches. It is a pure gamble sometimes when a games gets that late and you are chasing a dream peformance. Shields did struggle a bit in the first inning, but he adjusted and kept the Royals off the board. But he did stride and slide and scramble to try and make some Rays history today. This was a fantastic effort by Shields and the only loss was to a Gatorade cooler that was stupid enough to be near him as he left the field.

But you can understand it. But you also felt for the guy. This game always seemed to be just out of his hands a bit from the first inning on, but the Rays also could not give him the run support again. It is sad that two of the Rays best pitchers, Shields and Matt Garza have had to pretty much shut people out to win games this season. Wake up offense! You are missing some awesome pitching performances.

For everything the defense has done for the Rays pitchers this season, this was the one that will hurt the most. Not only did it rob us of a special piece of Shield’s history, but it also rob us of a memory that will never be forgotten. Not of the no-hitter, but of the fact they would again come off the match and get a chance to survive this latest struggle.

But it did not happen. So, what would you have done?
Would you have thrown yourself to the turf and hope it was enough for the catch, or would you have played it safe? That will be the debate tomorrow. Myself, I might have gone for it all on that play. I might have don
e evrything humanly possible to give Shields a chance at immortality. But then again, I am a gambler and never take the odds into account.

It will not define the Rays season, or even put them in a bad situation right now, but the honest truth is every loss from now on will take 2 wins to erase it. As my favorite movie line from The Program goes, “It’s time to put the women and children to bed and got get dinner.” It is the time to win, the time to set sights for the top again, and defend your teammates to the end. Don’t you agree?
 

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