Results tagged ‘ Jim Hickey ’

Rays are a AL/NL Hybrid Squad

 


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Maddon has One More Math Problem to Solve this Spring

         

 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 

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

GailBurton/AP

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 

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

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

 
 

 
Steve Nesius/ AP
 

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

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

Rays 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).

Will it be “Sonny” in 2010?

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

Coming into Spring Training in 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays might have all five of their rotation spots sewn up before the February 19th reporting date. That would be the first time in franchise history that the team had a solid 5-deep pre-Spring rotation set-up in advance of the reporting date. And that possible starting pitching affirmation, it might not bode well for Rays starter/reliever Andy Sonnanstine to crack that line-up in 2010. Because of his up and down moments since his first MLB appearance in 2007, Sonnanstine could be on the outside looking in this year because of the 2009 seasons posted by the Rays three rookie starters.

As of this moment it seems that the Rays pitching trio of starters’ David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis look pretty secure in their fight to again have a rotation spot with the Rays. But as we all know, an early injury, or a fall from grace could make a  starting spot suddenly available for Sonnanstine to shine and make the late March decision difficult for the Rays.

But there is a large dark cloud hanging over Sonnanstine right now. The basic fact that Sonny has had problems making adequate adjustments on the mound during games doesn’t guarantee him a spot either in the Bullpen or the rotation. And the odd fact that his pitch selection might be deep, but not overpowering like Price or Davis, or having that extreme downward angle of  the 6’9″ Niemann makes him the pitcher on the outside right now.

Since Sonnanstine’s abbreviated 2007 season when he posted a 6-10 record with a 5.85 ERA, Sonnanstine has  seen his game prove  to again be a rollercoaster ride in regard to consistency. After that personally disappointing 2007 season, Sonnanstine did make the needed adjustments to his game and rebounded with a solid 13-9 record in 2008. But a glaring trend was developing where the hitters’ were beginning  to predict his pitch selection, and that hampered his growth as a starter.
 

Since that 2007 season, Sonnanstine has changed his finger grips on the ball slightly and made some break variations to his pitching, but still his arm angles and pitch speed did not change enough to camouflage his pitch selection to the hitters. His evolution as a starting pitcher worked out great in 2008 when he posted 125 K’s during the season, and brought another element to his game. It was his first time Sonnanstine ever posted over 100 strikeouts in a season during his three year Major League career.

Sonnanstine came into the 2009 season with a new level of confidence and a sense that he could pitch at the Major League level. He earned early praise during Spring Training from Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey, and this new confidence helped him secure the fourth spot in the rotation before the end of March 2009. 

But Sonnanstine did not start the season  the way either he or the Rays envisioned it. During his first start in Baltimore on April 5,2009, Sonnanstine was in trouble from the first pitch of the game and lasted only 4.2 innings, giving up 8 hits and 5 runs on only 92 pitches. It was not the kind of start of the season that would give him or the Rays, a  dose of confidence in his abilities.


Gail Burton /AP

From that first start, Sonnanstine began a trend of an up and down season where he posted dismal results one outing, and seemed to rebound in the next.  But the fact that he had allowed 18 runs in 19.2 innings during April for the Rays, raised more than a few eyebrows. But the game that seemed to define his 2009 season was the May 27th game on the road against the Indians.

In this contest there were early signs it might be a long night for the Rays. First, they had to endure a two hour rain delay before finally taking the field. Then Sonnanstine immediately got rocked after his squad stakes him an early lead. Sonnanstine got hit hard in the game by the Cleveland hitters’ and lasted only 3 innings while surrendering 8 runs on only 75 pitches.

The Rays stuck by Sonnanstine for another month before finally optioning him to the Durham Bulls (Triple-A) on June 27,2009. At the time of his demotion, Sonnanstine had the highest ERA (6.61) in the American League and the most Earned Runs allowed (60). Sonnanstine’s season total of 7 losses combined with his .305 opponents average put him solidly as the second worst  starter in the American League at the time. He had sunk to rock bottom and needed to go to Durham to regain both his pitching and personal confidence.

And Sonnanstine worked on his pitching and regained his confidence and ability to throw strikes.  He made 9 starts for the Bulls, which included seven quality starts and a 5-3 record with a 4.40 ERA. He had rebuilt himself as a pitcher and was awaiting a chance to again prove himself to the Rays. He got his shot after the trade of Scott Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels and came up on September 1st and took Kazmir’s slot against Boston at Tropicana Field.

During the early days of September, Sonnanstine made  3 starts in his first four appearances back up with the Rays, but did not impress the Rays enough to secure that rotation spot for the rest of the season. But in hindsight, the Rays might have been waiting for the Bulls to complete their Triple-A Championship season before bringing up Davis to take Sonnanstine’s spot. 


Ted S Warren / AP

Sonnanstine was subsequently put into the Rays Bullpen and after a spot start against Baltimore in Camden Yards, he made his last three appearances of the season out of the Bullpen as a long reliever. His demotion to the Rays Bullpen was the first time Sonnanstine had pitched out of the Bullpen in his Major League career. The last time Sonnanstine had pitched in relief during his professional career at all was during his rookie debut season with the Hudson Valley Renegades (Rookie level) and the Charleston Riverdogs ( Class-A) in 2004. As a Rays reliever during his 3 appearances in 2009, Sonnanstine had a 5.79 ERA out of the Rays Bullpen.

And the 2010 season might be the final chance for him to  make an impression on the Rays coaching staff that he can be a starter in the Major Leagues. I personally think that he will either have to make some radical speed adjustments to his arsenal, or he might again face being sent down to the minor leagues. The Rays still have minor league options left on Sonnanstine, and he might just be used as an “insurance policy” against injury for the Rays this upcoming season.

But what is upsetting to me is the pure fact that this is not a pitcher who doesn’t only throw two or three pitches, but has an arsenal of five possible pitches to use at vari
ed points during a game. His cutter can be thrown from two different arm positions, and is an adequate different approach to his 2-seam fastball. Sonnanstine also mixes in a nice slider, and a 12-6 curveball.  And his change-up has developed a nice sinking action to it, but his main problem is that from his fastball (86-90 mph), to his change-up (81-82) there is not a huge amount of velocity difference, which  can easily translate into hitter adjusting on the fly to him during an at bat with ease.

But I love Sonnanstine’s work ethic and the way he approaches the game of baseball.  He never wears his emotions on his sleeves like Matt Garza, but stays cool and calm on the mound. Sonnanstine has the same off-speed abilities to dominate the plate like James Shields. You just do not win 13 games in an MLB season without knowing how to throw the ball for strikes. But for Sonnanstine to again secure a possible spot at the Major League level, he either has to rediscover that mode of consistency,or he might never get another clear shot with the Rays.

I expect to hear his name surface a few times in trade chatter due to the fact he does have a MLB arm and has minor league options that would benefit a team taking him on and maybe using him in a duo role. But I really do not see him in a long reliever role for the Rays unless they intend to not offer Lance Cormier arbitration in the off season. Sonnanstine’s limited relief appearances aside, Sonny is not a reliever yet at the MLB level. If the Rays did decide to go that direction, he will need time in the minors to adjust his pitching approach in that direction.


J Pat Carter / AP

So the Rays brain trust must decide what type of role Sonnanstine will play within the Rays organization in 2010. Could he be that MLB experienced insurance policy against possible injury for the team? Or could the Rays consider him expendable with the pitching depth in the minors and trade him away for some catching or possible relief help?

We have around 128 days before the 2010 Rays team reports to Port Charlotte, Florida for Spring Training. As Rays fans have discovered over the past year,anything can happen between that period of time. Rays fans never even anticipated the Edwin Jackson trade coming before it was completed and announced to the media. Could the same happen to Sonnanstine this off season? 

Maybe he will be a nice addition to a package deal that could land the team a experienced reliever or catcher? Or maybe the clock has finally stopped ticking and it is his time to possible leave the Rays? 128 days is a long time. But within that time we hope to discover and learn the possible avenues that the Rays could use Sonnanstine in 2010. What do you think the team should do with Sonny?

Credible Blogging begins with Leg Work

 

I remember back during my Mass Communication class in High School when my school newspaper advisor told us during a class lecture that at some time in our writing future, the subject of naming or not naming your “sources” for stories would turn our journalistic integrity into a slippery slope towards the negative, and the background work of our judgments to name or not name a source would play directly on our credibility as writers. Journalist have gone to prison and even been banished as if they had the Black Plague for misinformation and dishonesty in their writings.

And that simple premise of “watching your back” seems to make a lot of sense in today’s fast paced, electronic world of libel and slander where even a tongue-in-cheek reference can land you deep within a mountain of litigation, and then quickly, you and your writing integrity  could be sent sliding down the dark side like a mudslide even if you are totally right. Because that is essence of the culture today.  Injury someone emotionally or physically and some of the first words out of the mouth of the general public is “I will sue you!”. 

So dotting your “i’s” and crossing your “t’s” takes on a bigger role in the 5-second media world we have today. This weekend I was reading a very sordid and tangled web of “sources” and “unnamed sources” in a small series of blog postings by the New York Baseball Digest blog posting by Mike Silva. And while I was reading this account out of the New York area, that class discussion over 32 years ago  about sources came quickly to mind.

I was brought up on the old A P style book of journalism. Heck, back then it was the bible every Evening Independent Sports Correspondent and staffers used as a foundation for our story stylings.  And it suddenly came to my mind the old teaching of where if you make a statement associated with a source without credible sources or information, your stories foundation might crumble and not withstand a storm of controversy. 

One of the first thing I remember being taught was the fact that when you name sources or people with knowledge of an event, it is in your best interest to have two solid forms of evidence or information before even quoting one of them in your story. The reasoning for this method is to give your information a solid foundation so if you are questioned or receive a nice little legal writ, you have a secondary source that adds to your credibility on the subject matter.

Accuracy and credibility are the two of the founding cornerstones of retaining a loyal band of readers online. If they can get a sense of trusting your writings as the truth, then you gain readers and hopefully more web views of your postings. And maybe that is why it is so upsetting when I see a blog with half-baked writing principles and mis-guided information you know are half-truths at best.

Most of this simple misguided energy can be corrected with a simple credible source for your information. Some guy named “Joe Schmoe” who tended bar in such and such a club and overheard a conversation by player “A” and “B” about an event or something in regards to the Rays is considered “hearsay” at best unless you have a second person who heard or saw the same event.


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An great example of the right way to document and solidify your sources was with the rumor I heard from a Rays player about the Tampa Bay Rays using their old 1998-99 Devilrays multi-colored logo jerseys during the Sunday July 12th afternoon game against the Oakland Athletics. I first heard a hint of this rumor back in late May 2009 by a player after a game, and I decided to dig a bit deeper into it before bringing it out into the light. Just because I now had one source doesn’t make the rumor a “truth” yet.

I first got a confirmation from a member of the Rays  field staff and another player as an additional source, but decided it might not be good to use them as my source. I do not like to use players as sources of information because they could decide to “clam up” and I might not ever hear another good morsel of information to track down. So I contacted someone within the Rays front office who deals directly with marketing and promotions and asked them to simply confirm or deny the spreading rumor. As soon as he  got back to me, that rumor quickly transformed into a fact, and I posted a Tweet about the upcoming event.


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And because I had more than two sources to verify the possibility of the old “Rainbow Devilrays” uniforms were going to make an appearance again in that July contest. This in-depth  fact checking into the rumor gave me credibility about the event. And that is the one thing most people forget when they write online. Sure I can say almost anything about anyone on the team and maybe no one will call BS on me, but that is not the issue. Staying within the truths and admonishing the lies is the job of publications like the National Enquirer or Star Magazine, not the general blogging public.

If NYBD want to idolize those publications and style themselves in that realm of journalism, then go for it. But they have to be reminded that there are hundreds of websites like that all jockeying for the same morsels of media fodder. With every slight of hand missed fact and negative comment posted, the negative mountain is building around them. I know I would rather be the guy who will give his honest opinion and facts about an event, and I do shy from some of the “hot topic” stories around the league at time because I do not want to be 1 of the 2,000 people writing about the same thing day in, and day out.

We hear almost daily about some blogger somewhere who has given “fake” or mis-guided information and it in turn tends to affect all of our credibilities. But that doesn’t mean the “mainstream media” always follows the Golden Rule either. With the advent of sites like Twitter and the other social networks, fans can get  a snippet of information in the flash of a camera bulb and minutes before the “paid” media.

And that can be a slap in their faces at times. I posted a Twitpic of Pat Burrell’s new 70’s butch mustache during the 2009 season and also few “first” pictures of new Rays reliever, Jeff Bennett before the local media even reported it online. Here I am an unpaid and unsolicited fan got the scoop.


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NYBD  made some critical errors when they did not get secondary sources checks on their quotes and information before posting it. Sometimes it is difficult to get that information, but if you can not prove it is 100
% true
, then it is a rumor. Blogs take a beating every day from the Media sources throughout the country as being slanderous and libel within an inch of their collective lives. For us to gain the credibility and the trust of the readers, we sometimes have to take it a notch above and sweat a little more for our information.
Anyone can write a rumor.

Anyone can create a mis-truth and start to perpetuate a lie. But if you really want to be known for your writings, do the leg work, strain the eyes to see beyond the words and ask the simple questions. Some times, the answers you get from a source can make your day. Other times it can disappoint and frustrate you. But every once in a while you get a tasty morsel and you do the work and build it into a credible masterpiece and then you can bask in the limelight and know you did it right……..the first time.

Rays Show Confidence in Pitching Coach Jim Hickey……….Really?


Elaine Thompson / AP

Sometimes I truly think that the Rays Front Office loves to use subliminal and subversive messages to gather information on the public perception of an event or something that makes them go…..hmmmmmmm?  But I have to admit, this one move, this 180 degree change of heart that shows something towards Rays Pitching coach Jim Hickey keeps him here for another Rays season. And for the life of me, I do not see a solid reason while he is still employed by the Rays. And you know the local kool-ade drinking media will not voice their dismay over this action………..nope, they will remain wihin the party lines.

But I do not have Press Credentials, or even an inside information mole to give me things like them. I get my information from watching 80 games a year at the Trop., and every game that MLB.com shows on the air. What could be their logical reasoning to let go of Hitting Coach, Steve Henderson today who’s Rays hitters only set new Team Records in homers, runs scored, RBI and stolen bases this season, but keep a Pitching Coach who’s starters and Bullpen relievers took a definite two steps backwards in 2009. I mean Hickey does have some Houston roots, so he might understand this next scenario without him having to have flash cards or pictures.

What has seemed to happen this season to the Rays pitching staff is akin to a guy doing the Texas two-step in a deep foxhole. You can go forward, you can go back, but only two step no matter what. And that is what his Rays staff has done most of the season. they have made slight improvements and altered their course in games, but the end result is always the same……..sometimes the “pitch to contact” system delivers up a long ball instead of a ground out or a double play ball for the defense. 

And if that system doesn’t work do you blame Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, or Rays Manager Joe Maddon? In reality you can put the check mark next to both names, because Friedman keeps Hickey and Maddon keeps believing in him. But in my mind, the only culprit here is the mechanic who tunes the system and makes it run smooth, clean and with a minimum of problems. And this season, Hickey looked more like an apprentice than a master craftsman.

Sure he got dealt a bad deal two years in a row when Troy Percival took his glove and went home to rehab, but at no time in the season did the team try and promote from within or try and isolate anyone to take over that role for the season. Other teams call on the veterans, or even a hot shot prospect with a cannon on his arm. At one point, the Rays signed Jorge Julio to a minor league contract maybe hoping he still has some gasoline in his tank. But the team instead adapted a much discussed and faulty plan of using pitching match-ups as a basis for the later innings.


Steve Nesius / AP

This works well when you base your Spring Training team on to this formula, and not adopt it in the middle of trying to stop a losing month, or keep a string of wins alive. The match-up system has to be nurtured and fcoused on totally, not just based on situational 8th, or 9th innings hitters. And with this team bascially only having three reliever that can be trusted with hitters from both sides of the plate, it makes your options a bit tighter in the games.

And who has to be the craftsman behind all of this, well the Pitching Coach. Sure Maddon and Hickey can go over situational devices and plan accordingly, but life doesn’t always go by the book, and Hickey doesn’t always give the same sage advice as Maddon. I actually can not see the correlation between these two at times. Maddon is the always thinking, mind turning a million miles a minute, and Hickey is just, well Hickey. I know Maddon does scribble a few hints and stats on his personal score sheet to check on later in the games, but I really do not see the collective brain trust in Hickey by his side.

Sure Hickey does the Rays pitchers Side Sessions and the Bullpen Session with his pitching staff, but I sometimes see more vocal words coming out of Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi’s mouth than Hickeys in relation to the pitches. I might not see the video work he does with “Chico” Fernandez to get these guys ready for a ballgame, and I do not know his personal preparation routine for game days. But what I do see is a guy who sometimes goes by the book more than his instinct and wisdom. The black statistics on that white printer paper might have a few highlighted marks on it, but i do not see him as a strategist in the least…………sorry.

So if a guys starters leave and do better in other locales, can you give credit to a guy that used to be their Pitching Coach, or do you question why they prospered away from the “pitch-to-contact” scheme of Hickey’s gameplan. How can Jason Hammel go from a hot and controled environment like the Trop and have a lower ERA in of all places, Coors Field in 2009.  Edwin Jackson was a stud in the making as a pitcher even before he went to Detroit in a trade. I mean the Rays considered him for the closer role before, and with the recent plight of Percival, why did they not consult E J  and see if he would take on the task?

And you know I am going to bring up Scott Kazmir and his seeking advice outside the organization from the man who was his first Pitching Coach in New York, Rick Peterson. Oh how that must have burned deep inside Hickey that he was not visually equiped to notice a small step adjustment for maximum velocity. I bet if they let him, he would have drove Kazmir to the airport that next morning and kicked him out of the rental car haflway there………..(just kidding, maybe).


Chris O’Meara / AP

So if the Rays Bullpen gets rebuilt in Hickey’s mold with the financial restrictions in mind, it might only be a tweaking of the current system. Even if Chad Bradford and Percivals money comes off the books, there might still not be enough to achieve a maximum upgrade, but it can be done.  But is Hickey the guy you want to entrust with that job, or is there someone within the Rays system like Xavier Hernandez, who has been fine-tuning the Rays Triple-A guys for several years.

I actually have more faith in Hernandez than I do Hickey based on what Hernandez did as the Rays snatched starters from the Bulls throughout the year and he still had the arms to take the Triple-A Championship. Gone by that time was David Price, and Hernandez manipulated the system when injuries to Mitch Talbot and other hit the Bulls staff. But still Hickey will be manning the pitching charts and books for the Rays in 2010. But how long will his luck go before he finally runs out of gas or chances with the Rays?

You know they took a big PR gamble a few years ago after the Rays last game of the season when he hit a Rays batboys truck at an intersection, and drove around the car and proceeded home. He was stopped by the St. Petersburg Police Department several miles dow
n the Interstate and did not act in all in the manners of the “Rays Way”.  

But Hickey showed remorse to the Rays Front Office and recieved a year contratc to show he was to change his ways.  And considering at that same time the Rays were going through a slew of “problem chld” situations with Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, they could have just sent him on his merry way and not looked back.  I hope that the Rays made thew right decision and that Hickey does make me regret this posting, but I do not think that is going to happen.


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Maddon will not be able to sheild him again if the Rays starters or even the Bullpen falls on hard times. He will be directly in the crosshairs, and I think he knows it now. During the last home stand there was a guy in Section 136 that had a sign that read” All I want for Christmas is a Pitching Coach”.  Well, the Rays decided to retain their present Pitching guru, and the hot seat begins right now. Hickey needs to not only get this team to totally believe in his system now, but also the fans so he doesn’t hear the chants and the catcalls before the next All-Star break.

Maddon can not protect him now. I remember seeing a comment that he called Hickey “one of the best pitching coaches” Maddon has has in his career. Hickey is a bit younger than most of the sage PC in the league, but if his ‘pitch-to-contact” system doesn’t gel right in Tampa Bay in 2010, the contact he will feel is the swift kick in the behind as he leaves the clubhouse door.

  

Pitch Counts are here to Stay

 


Steve Nesius / AP

A lot of times during the Tampa Bay Rays 2009 season we have seen a Rays starter get into a dominating groove against an opponent and he begins to take complete control of the game only to be taken out after a mystery number of pitches, or because the current pitching match-up philosophy dictates he has run his course in a game. But  the common question still on our minds is why is there a mystery pitch count number,and why do some of the Rays starters seem to get more of a leash than others before getting yanked out of a contest?

We have all witnessed the unusual pitching formulas in person where the Rays Coaching Staff will let a starter come out in the top of an inning to face maybe  only one batter before being yanked for a reliever. But why it the system doesn’t let this starter finish the inning? Why is the match-ups more important than the flow of the game at that point. Would letting a starter throw an additional 10 pitches to try and finish the inning endanger him more towards an injury, or a possible loss? 

The  Rays current pitching situation is apparently based on computer-based match-ups and not pitch count, but sometimes it just seems like misused mathematics gone wrong when the Bullpen ruins the outing for the starter.. 

Because we have all seen starters who are in total control on the mound get taken out late in the 7th or 8th inning with a definite shutout possibility and a still possessing a manageable pitch count, usually under 100 pitches. And then the Rays reliever comes in and gives up either a few base hits or a home run and the shutout and quality start have been flushed down the toilet. With good intentions by the starter, but a loss in the process. Could the system need a bit more instinct than Sabermetrics at times. And do the Rays have any flexibility in the system at all?


Brian Blanco / AP

Sure there have been pitching moments this season where we all collectively felt Rays Manager Joe Maddon might have left a guy in too long, or maybe might have taken someone out a bit early and he could have fought through the problems and collected a “W”. But the physical side of the game of baseball along with the fans has been slow to accept this new found  set of pitching principles. But  it seems to me that the Rays Coaching Staff is now totally committed to this new style of pitching, and we are the one who must learn the system before we pull all of our hairs out of our skulls.

 
And the argument for or against a set number of pitches for a starter or even a reliever has been a winded and highly emotional debate that will go on until we can get some  critical answers to our overflowing bowl of questions. What we as a fans need to do now, for our own sanity, is to try and understand the new pitching system before we can make an clear and educated judgment or even begin to condemn the operation as a waste of our pitching talent base. And it is hard to accept what some people have coined as the “wussification of pitching” because of the adaptation of this process by many teams in the Major Leagues.

Has the games parameters changed that much in the last 10 years where we are now considering a formally common thing like a Complete Game or even a quality start as a thing of beauty and rarity instead of a by-product of the game? Have we whittled down the pitching system so much that if a starting pitcher hits a 130+ pitch mark in a game it is a time to get really excited, or maybe even concerned?

In a recent series against the Rays on September 4, 2009, Detroit starter Justin Verlander threw 126 pitches and the Rays let starter Jeff Niemann throw 115 pitches before he was pulled from the home game. I mean this newly anointed system points oddly towards the century mark( 100 pitches) as a precursor to the thought process of removing someone from the game. But is that number set in stone if a guy is struggling on the mound, or is that just set as a barometer mark for guys throwing with authority and control? Right now this pitching system is beyond the infant stage, but is just now being accepted by some people in the stands.


Kathy Willens /AP

We see the actual game pitch count now displayed everywhere from the Internet  In-Game boxscores to the stadium scoreboards or special displays, to the constant verbal barrage by the Television and Radio announcers to this 100+ marks level of mortality in pitching.  This designated mark in the game now seems to be the  key determination factor more than actual game performance now.  I mean will we some day just look up at the scoreboard and see 100 pitches flashing on the screen and know that our pitcher’s personal time bomb is ticking  and will soon be taken out of the game?

I mean this must have a wild effect on the pitching staff as a whole knowing that even if they are cruising along, that at that century mark they could get pulled from the game and see their work trashed within a 1/3 of an inning by an unstable Bullpen. But in recent Rays games we have seen a glint of pitch count flexibility in this system. Maybe it is because we are no longer playing for the post season, or maybe it is just the fact that right now the Rays Bullpen is fighting a uphill confidence battle amongst themselves.

Either way, it is encouraging to see Rookie Wade Davis take the mound in front of the Tropicana Field crowd for his Major League Debut and get to throw 105 pitches, and leave with the lead and a possible 1st MLB victory. But then we quickly saw it evaporate as the Rays Bullpen threw a cookie down the middle to Tigers slugger Brandon Inge who hit a Grand Slam in the top of the 9th inning to boost Detroit to a victory 5-3. But the aspect of letting Davis even get to that 105 pitch mark might have been dashed if the Rays were still hot in the fight for a playoff berth.

But could there be other determining factor like adjusted work load and the fact that some of the staff might be fighting arm fatigue or shoulder soreness that we do not know about. But so far the Rays have not announced any shutdowns or reflected minimal outings for their starters in 2009, which hopefully means that people like Davis, Niemann and David Price will get to throw deeper into games for the rest of the season. But that again becomes a double-edged sword for the Rays.

For if one of those three were to come down with an injury before the October 4th Season Finale against the New York Yankees, the fans would be wondering out loud of the system hurt or helped the pitcher this year. That is why yesterday I brought up the idea of shutting down maybe two of the guys who have put in maximum innings the past two seasons. But in reality, the Rays usually employ a 75-pitch count in
the minor league for some of their starters, and for that reason, even Davis has thrown a total of 158.2 innings in the minors before his current 9.2 innings so far for the Rays.

Both Davis and Price were held to strict pitch counts in the minors in 2009 with an eye towards the end of this season. The minor league system of limiting pitches might have actually helped the Rays in their decision to maybe shut some people down this year. But considering Price only threw a total of 34.1 innings before coming up to the Rays, and only has a total of 144 innings right now, both Price and Davis should be able to complete the rest of their starts this season without  a shutdown.

But can the same be said for fellow rookie Jeff Niemann? He put in a total of 133 innings at Triple-A last season before finally coming back up to the Rays and throwing 16 extra innings in the Major Leagues in 2008. Combine that with his 2009 total of  165.2 innings with the big club this season, and he also might be about ready to cross into the new systems red danger line for yearly pitching totals. But with each pitcher maybe getting three more total starts each, the possibility of adding 15+ innings to those totals seems to be garnishing no concerns from the Rays.


Brian Blanco / AP


This new system is as curious to me as a new girlfriend. You know you like it, and you know it is right for you, but you are afraid of the consequences if it falls apart and you are left in the ruins. There will be a huge bit of discussion in the off season by both the fans, media and the Rays themselves as to the merits and demerits of this new found system. But in the end, if it can reduce injuries and keep guys playing longer in their careers and with more explosive stuff, then it might just be the savior of the pitching game.

But the system will have to be flexible to adjust to each teams needs and wants and not be written into stone tablets for all to follow with a strict code of obedience. The system will show its flaws soon, and it is how we adjust to those waves of ups and down as to the future of this system with the Rays. “Going with the flow” might be the term for the rest of 2009 and 2010. For if we do transfer a bit of the workload onto a competent Bullpen with guys secure and ready for anything, then this system and the Rays fan can again see glory coming their way. 

 

Pitching to Contact

 


Chris O’Meara / AP

There are moments during the game, and also during the post-game that I question this whole “Pitching-to-Contact” system and its basic premise to induce ground balls outs and secure pitch counts for starters. The system seems almost laughable at times when the pitcher’s only seem to last until the middle of the 6th innings at best, and the pitch count as gotten the better of Tampa Bay Rays pitching staffs. But then I see some of the Rays rookies use the system, having been taught it in the minor leagues, and it does show that it has some merit if the right pitchers are used in the system.

And that might be the hidden key that everyone else has missed for the Scott Kazmir trade. Power pitching doesn’t belong in this system. The basic ideal of the system is to confuse and induce ground balls and hittable balls for strikeouts and foul ball put outs to minimalize the scoring chances of your opponent. And Kazmir was brought up as a power pitcher, and we have seen him try to conform to the system, but the system ended up eating him up like a chew toy and spit him out all over the mound. 

How much more acceptable would the idea of this recent trade have been if Andrew Friedman has just said that Kazmir was not a good fit for the Rays pitching system, and that after both sides tried to make it work, a change was needed by both sides to succeed from this point forward. I could have accepted that reasoning in a heartbeat, and known that Kazmir was hurt the last two years trying to conform to a system that was foreign to his own pitching style. But why is it a young power pitcher like Kazmir could not develop into the system, but some one like Jeff Neimann is a natural for it?

There is the ruse. There is the hidden answer to it all, the system doesn’t pick the pitchers to be employed into it, the team does that. And a pitcher like Kazmir and even James Shields were not in the current Rays system under Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey where they could learn the system at the lower levels, then come up with a total understanding of it all. And that might be the reasoning for the reduced strikeouts and some of the anemic outings by Shields also this season. He is adapting to the system, but it has not clicked with him yet.


Mike Carlson / AP


So what is this “Pitch-to-Contact” system, and why is it as hard to master. Well, first off, it is actually developed to help pitchers keep the ball down and hopefully go deep into ballgames. The system plays heavily on the pitchers physical fundamentals and his ability to fight off fatigue in game situations. And if the system is not taught in the lower levels, it get harder and harder at the Major League level to readjust and rethink your entire mode of pitching. That is why Shields has seen difficult outings and barrages of hits when in the past he would have just powered his way past a batter.

 And there are success stories even within our division of pitchers who have adapted the system and gone on to major success in the league. Toronto’s Roy Halladay converted to this method of pitching in 2006, and his abilities and his stamina have grown every season. Now this concept of pitching to contact is not based on just throwing the ball down the middle and hoping for the best. It is actually playing to the individual pitcher’s strengths and adjusting speeds and quadrant location to maximize their abilities during every at bat in a game.
 

But changing a pitcher’s mindset gets hard the more time he is in the majors. We are taught at a young age to “throw it by” an opponent or even using our breaking ball to set up our “out” pitch. This system throws all of that into a basket and relies more on the ability to induce throwing low into the zone and hopefully getting more ground balls that you defense can easily convert into outs. And this system is better perfected in the minors than at this level of the game. That might be the basic reasons that Rays rookies David Price and Jeff Neimann are having the success they are having this season. They have been taught the system in the minor leagues.

One of the basic rules of the pitching to contact system is getting ahead in the counts to hitters. As we have seen in the past, this has been a true problem for the Rays pitching staff. But this system employs a system of pitching low and to outer quadrants and letting the ball be hit, if it is in the zone more on the ground than in the air. That the past notion of “painting the corner” or trying to just itch the outside of the corners is a thing of the past, and is not a part of this system.  The past belief in “painting” or nibbling at the corners actually is a negative if you want to preserve your pitch count and stay in the game later.  The pitching to contact system can increase your outings if you follow its rules.


Nam Y Huh / AP


The Rays Coaching staff believes that by keeping pitches down, it will lead to more ground ball that their defense can handle for easy outs. And just because this might lead to more hitters getting their bats on the ball doesn’t go hand in hand with more runs crossing the plate.
The point of this is to show that getting hitters to put more wood on the ball will not automatically mean more runs crossing the plate. This is especially true in Tampa Bay in 2008, where the abilities of a talented infield meant more outs for pitchers unafraid to have the ball put on the ground.  For this system to work, a pitcher has to believe in it 100 percent.

You can see where this system could be a pitcher’s best friend after awhile helping him become more pitch efficient and maybe transforming that into going deeper into ballgames, but you can maybe effectively gauge some of that on the kind of pitcher, and what he basically throws to be a great indicator of his success or failure in this system. Here are a few examples brought to light by the U.S.S. Mariners blog back in Feb 2007 on this system:

“Great pitching+great command: You shouldn’t care about pitching advice.
Great pitching + horrible command: chuck it down the middle, let them swing and miss.
Hittable pitches+great command:  You want to live on speed changes and hitting the corners.
Horrible pitches+horrible command: You’re not going to be around long anyways. “

This system right now has its good and bad moments posted all over the Rays 2009 season. I can not say that I truly think that every pitcher on the Rays staff right now is fashioned to use this type of pitching system, or could develop it into his own arsenal to become more effective on the mound. But because the recent influx of the Rays rookie pitchers, and their ability to adjust and transform their pitching styles into this system might be a good indicator of future success. But for this system to truly work to perfection, the Rays defense again has to step up a bit and take it back to and above their 2008 levels.


Gail Burton / AP

I guess you can say that the jury is still out on if I believe this system can be employed by all five of our starters with effectiveness. But right now the advent of the system is beginning to show both signs of good and bad in our rotation. Some need to further adjust their styles to adapt the system totally into their pitching, but some also have come miles in the last few months to use this system to its extremes. All in all, if this system is taught at the lower levels of the farm system and employed all the way up the ladder, the next influx of Rays pitchers will also be able to use and adapt their abilities perfectly to conform to the system.

But right now, the Rays starters are beginning to show some signs of really getting this system ingrained into their every day pitching, and that could be a major thing going into 2010 ans beyond for the team. Who knows if this system will be here in two seasons, or might even be trashed the moment the team doesn’t retain their current Pitching Coach. But the reality of it all is that if the Rays infield defense and the pitching staff can both get on the same wave length, we could see another run like 2008 in the near future.

Ex-Brave Jeff Bennett comes to Tampa Bay


RRCollection

Just when you think you can figure out the Tampa Bay front office ad what they might have on their minds they go and pull a complete rabbit out of their collective hats. Since the demotion of Rays reliever Joe Nelson, the team had a player in mind the entire time, but needed to make a sound judgment call on who would be the guy to go either to Triple-A Durham or be Designated for Assignment last night.

The team signed ex-Braves reliever  right-handed pitcher Jeff Bennett ( #47) to their roster before the start of their 4:10 game today against the Kansas City Royals.   The team also released James Houser today and Bennett will be placed on the Rays 40-man roster. Bennett comes to the Rays with a 2-4 record and a 3.12 ERA in 33 appearances. As we speak he is currently doing a side session under the watchful eye of Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey.


RRCollection


The Rays have not issued an offical press release yet on the roster move ( 2:08 pm), but when you are in a Rays BP jersey with your name on it, and you are doing a side session with the team’s Pitching Coach, it is only a matter of time. Bennett last appeared against the New York Yankees on June 24th and went 1.1 innings and gave up 2 hits and an earned run in the appearance.

Pitching Strategy…. My Way

 


Kathy Willen/ AP

If you are anything like me at the game, I tend to think and re-think the game a lot from the comfort of my blue chair out in the Baseline Box seats. Sometimes the simple fact that a Pitching Coach has come out of the dugout, or is  still sitting there contemplating a move and letting our guy on the mound get lit up can drive you nuts. You want  something positive to happen, but sometimes you are not rewarded at all.

And if you are at home, there is the added dimension of the broadcasters and hearing the cheers and jeers in stereo that can drive you simple batty as to pitching situations. So today I decided to maybe just give you a few situational pitching ideals and beliefs I have gathered  since I first picked up a ball over 40-some years ago.

Now I am not professing to be a professional pitcher, and my ideas might be as bad as some of the current MLB Pitching Coaches we all second-guess every day and night, but it might it might also enlighten some of us with some extra information before we yell and scream for the Bullpen to “get someone up” next time.

 
I know it is a hard position to be a MLB Pitching Coach. I know I could never do it for a living, but sometimes even the best of them needed to be questioned for actions, or even non-actions in a game. Most post-game interviews are with the team’s Manager, not the Pitching Coach who might have errored in leaving someone to bake on the mound, or pulled someone early. And Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey’s “pitch to contact” style is either viewed as a success or a failure depending on your pitching viewpoint.

But Hickey’s position is actually a “no-win” situation. Mostly for the pure fact that if a guy goes out there and performs fantastic, you never hear a question towards the Pitching Coach, just the Manager. But either way, we as fans always have a few questions in our minds on why or how a certain pitch or situational pitching scenario unfolds in a game.  Keep in mind here I am not trying to portray myself as a pitching guru or saint here, but I am going to try and give a fan-based Pitching tutorial.

I  still have foggy recollections and vivid memories of situational strategies that I was taught when I was much younger, and could throw a lot harder. So without any further delay, lets begin my little  journey into the simple basics of some pitching strategies. Former Chicago Cubs closer Steven Ellis uses to say that the best way to pitch was to “keep the batter uncomfortable at the plate.” Sounds like a simple method, but isn’t pitching suppose to be more than just about throwing a baseball across a keystone-shaped plate?


Brian Blanco / AP

Well to most people that is the basic aspects of the game they see with every pitch. They want it over the plate and not biting the corners or even high and tight on the guy. Most people want to see the power-against-power up there at the plate like gladiators with the better players coming out on top. But that is not always the way it ends during an at bat in the major leagues. Sometimes luck can ruin a perfect pitch, or a shattered bat can deliver an infield hit.

So we always wonder what some of the basic fundamentals or game day thoughts that might go through a pitcher’s mind while he is out there on the mound.  Some of the simple ideals of pitching can become complicated if mixed up and turned sideways by a Pitching Coach.

Baseball is a simple game, it is us so called ‘experts” that make it more difficult.  So here are a few of my personal ideals on how to be effective on the mound. These ideas have come from  the coaches and instructors I have known since my first days of Little League at Northwest Youth Center in St. Petersburg, Florida to the college ranks. Every one of them had a different spin on the philosophy of pitching. These are just a hodge podge of those instructions that have stayed within my mind in regard to pitching all these years. Some are very simple, but just like KISS, keeping It Simple Stupid can make you a 20-game winner on the mound.
 

1) You always want to make the inside of the plate yours. You have to make the batter anticipate the inside pitch, so you attack him inside and make him respect your fastball or breaking ball.

2) Show your off-speed stuff early in the game. Now you do not get in there and throw a massive amount of them because then the hitters can get gauge your timing and you are then asking for another ball from the umpire… a lot. But your curveball, change-up, sinker and slurve can help you dictate the game.

3) Always be careful with your change-up. Just because you think it is the right pitch, you have to also adjust to the fact he might be guessing right too. Just because it has worked for you all day doesn’t mean he is not now sitting there waiting for it again. The slower it comes in, the faster it will go out if he gets it right.

4) I was always partial when I was younger (over 14) to throw a curve ball on occasions during 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2 counts. The only reason I did this was that the hitter was usually waiting on a fastball to strike him out. Not that I did not mix it up at times, but it was just my personal pattern. Develop your own style.

5) With runners in scoring position, I tried to not let the batter get a good read on my fast ball. A  badly placed fastball can unload the bases just as quick as a well placed ball for a called third strike for that last out. You are not the only one playing this “guessing game” here, the batter is also trying to get the right answers to get his guys home. Also never think you are smarter than the hitter, you might have just been lucky today to this point.

6) Changing the eye level or height of your pitches can be more effective than changing the speed. A fastball low and inside followed by a curve up by the chest changes the batter’s perspective on your pitches. It can also open up the outside corner for a nice breaking ball to get that out. Always leave him guessing.

7) I personally loved to throw a 2-seam fastball on either the first pitch, or during counts like 1-0,2-0,2-2, or 3-2. It might seem predictable, but if placed right, it should be an effective pitch. To me a breaking ball on 3-2 is too risky unless you have no one on base at the time. Better to
go down in flames with your best stuff than gamble on a breaking ball hitting the plane outside on a full count.


8)
One of the worst thing a pitcher can do on the mound is get predictable, even with his first pitch every at bat. By changing the eye height of the pitch and hitting the corners of the plate you can put doubt in the hitter’s mind, and that is your best weapon to defeat him every time. If you have him guessing or confused, you have already won half the battle.

9) Everyone always hear the phrase “throw up a zero”, but it is important for  team confidence to shut down an opponent after they either score, or you have scored in the game.  The confidence of the guys behind you will make them more relaxed and want to make plays for you. A confident defense is ready to make outs.

10) This might be the most important one to me.  Always re-adjust, re-focus and make the hitter re-think past at bats when you are facing them the second time, or even third time through the batting order. Just because you threw a slider for a first strike last time up doesn’t mean you should do it again. Pitch the game wisely, make him guess right to get anything off of you today. Do not reward his memory by giving him the same pitch twice at the same part of the count in a game.


Chris O’Meara /AP


Well, those are just my personal 10 simple ways to develop a simple pitching strategy for the game. I am not a Pitching Coach, or even a Little League Coach. I am simply a fan who has loved the game since my first glove at Christmas at the age of three. But even if I am not a coach, I can see good and bad patterns and errors. With teams in the major leagues now watching video tapes and analyzing pitching charts on every starter, it is getting harder and harder to surprise teams now.

But if your team does employ these basic pitching ideals it can make the rest of your day  at the ballpark flow better. Worst thing about pitching, you can hit all your spots that day, be hitting the glove perfectly and still lose the contest. But that is why we play the game. If it was so simple we would have people like you and me out there hitting and playing the game until we were too old to pick up a bat or field a ball.

So some of us become those “off-the-field” coaches who can ruin even the best games of some of our players in our own minds. I enjoy reading some of these blogs where people question a pitching situation, or even a pitch selection or substitution. I just hope this short list can give some people a hint of more insight into pitching.

Sometimes even a 10-year pro pitcher can forget the basic and he gets drilled in an inning. I do not know who said it, but baseball is a game where we reward people for hitting the ball a third of the time. And that is so true. Baseball is simple, but it is the fans and sometimes the coaches and players who can make it seem more difficult.

So with that in mind, I am getting ready to head on down toward Tropicana Field tonight and watch the first game of the three game series with the current American League East division leaders, the New York Yankees. The only reason I am making a big thing of that is that if the Rays do get some “mojo rising” during this series, that current position in the division will change. But you can bet even tonight, Yankee starter A J Burnett will employ all or most of those 10 pitching strategy fundamental ideas listed above in the ballgame. You can bet on it.

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