Results tagged ‘ Joaquin Benoit ’

2010 Was Definitely a Rays “Kumba” Moment

 

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Common.Wikepedia.com Photo files 

 

It has been my custom over the last few years to attach a word, phrase, or commonplace item as a keynote to what the ending year has envisioned to me. This year I am again incorporating my yearly ride with the Tampa Bay Rays by my side into this year end resolution. 2010 was a spectacular 365 day odyssey that somehow closely resembles the Kumba multi-inversion rollercoaster located just 25 miles from my front door within the oddly placed fauna of Busch Gardens in the urban jungle of Tampa Florida.

It really has been that kind of wham, bam thank you Ma’am year for Tampa Bay. One that has taken all of us, including the Rays, on moments of Mt Kilimanjaro-type highs, to the unexpected desolate lows of Death Valley, California while we all scream incisively through the zero G rolls and inverted loops to bear witness of the year’s gut wrenching end result. Hearing the collective loud thumping cadence of our heartbeats within this 32-passenger rail car as the rollercoaster finally finishes off as an unfocused blur.

The 2010 ride started out so serene and calm as we welcomed back 1B/3B Dan Johnson after a short Japanese baseball trek and saw the Rays signed their first European prospect LHP Stepan Havlicek (no relation to the Celtic legend). The impending illusion of a smooth and possibly uneventful ride seemed ease our minds as our car first left the ride station.

We became entranced and hypnotized by the soothing clicking sound of the car as another tremendous Rays Fan Fest came and went where we sadly got to see local Rays resident and Baseball Hall of Famer Robin Roberts for one last time. We all marveled at the Rays Jumbotron at Fan Fest watching the antics of Rays Radioman Rich Herrera and legendary eater Joey Chestnut boast about their hotdog eating skills while systematically standing in line to pursue the autographs of our Rays heroes.

All the while the clicking of track kept us somehow distracted, and played into the final menagerie of peril that was to soon take our breath away. The March signing of RP Joaquin Benoit to a minor league deal made us all giddy with anticipation and hopes of new found glory for Benoit. Suddenly our car took an unexpected 90 degree left turn out of our comfort zone when this Spring we saw LHP J P Howell suffer a bout of shoulder soreness that would start him on his own unanticipated rollercoaster ride during 2010.

With Howell’s injury only thought to keep him out until May, we began our 143-foot lift hill that would eventually send us rapidly screaming at full G force through the highs and lows of the 2010 season. After an incredible Grapefruit season where the Rays finally saw the emerging stars of SS Reid Brignac and 2B/utility man Sean Rodriguez shine bright, our car quickly headed into the Kumba’s signature pre-drop element.

Quickly the Rays season began to take a few twists and turns brought on by a sudden 135-foot drop to our left with the early season struggles of Designated Hitter Pat Burrell and escalated into a 114-foot vertical loop that intensely thrilled us as the team got out to a late April record of 17-5 before the Rays encountered their first diving loop and subsequent first extreme low point of the season.

It all started as the ride entered its initial diving loop segment with the team firmly clutching their pink bats and uniform ribbons when on Mother’s Day (May 9,2010) their coaster ride entered its first Zero-G roll brought on by the Perfect Game thrown by Oakland A’s LHP Dallas Braden that put lumps in our throats and stole our breath from us. But this was only the Rays first venture into a systematic tail spin as more unexpected plots twists were creeping our the horizon for the Rays.

The team then seemed to hit a rough patch as they spent a short spell on a smooth stretch of track before finally entering a much feared Cobra roll on June 25,2010 that saw former Rays RHP Edwin Jackson toss a No-Hitter against the Rays in the comfy confines of Tropicana Field. The result sent us again flipping upside down for the second time this season before we were able to enter a mid-course brake run at the All Star break . It was then that we saw Rays starter David Price become the first Rays pitcher to ever start an All Star game. At the midway point of our coaster ride the Rays end the first half with the Major League’s second best record (54-34) trailing only our division rivals, the New York Yankees.


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Just as the ride was beginning to obtain some sort of normalcy, the Rays and the coaster again began a accelerating fall off the brake run through a series of interlocking corkscrew twists that heightened with a renewed Rays excitement by a No-Hitter tossed at Tropicana Field by Rays starter Matt Garza, and accented by the Grand Slam of another Matt (Joyce) to put the game finally out of reach and into the Rays record books.

Gut twisting and wrenching wins then somehow became the norm as the Rays unexpectedly ran into a 5-game losing streak (their only losing streak above 3 games in ’10) at the entry point of their first corkscrew twist. During this negative twist of misfortune during back-to-back Rays versus Blue Jays games from August 7-8th that saw normally secure starter James Shields surrender 6 Home Runs one day, then saw the Rays have to rely on Evan Longoria hitting a dying quail single through the 1B-2B hole with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning to stave the Rays from becoming the first team to have 3 No-hitter thrown against them within a years’ time.

As Rays Kumba car entered the darkened tunnel after their latest close encounter in Toronto, the Rays again got back on the winning track and eventually approached the end of the season with a playoff berth in their grasp, and a possible American League East title just beyond their fingertips. As the ride entered its final braking run, the Rays faced a 1 game ultimate gut check presented to them to possibly secure another AL East banner for the rafters of Tropicana Field.

In classic rollercoaster form, the Rays took their final game of 2010 against the Kansas City Royals in extra innings and added to the climax and crescendo of that last right hand turn by being greeted by multitudes of Fans at St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport upon their arrival again in Tampa Bay before the ride began is last motions towards a ultimate disembark at the rail station.

Their quick exit in the ALDS just showed how accelerated their post season ride in 2010 could be extinguished. Lost in the final equation were a few special Rays moments that only further illustrated just how exciting and thrilling 2010 was for the Rays.

The 2010 Rays team ended up with 96 wins that season, only one “W” away from eclipsing their club win mark set in 2008. It was amazing for a Rays team that many baseball prognosticators did not even envision even a playoff berth for the squad back in April. We saw the maturation and confident emergence of a Rays starting 5 rotation that missed a team goal of 1,000+ inning season by its 5 starters by less than 46-odd innings. Then saw Longoria pick up his second consecutive Gold Glove while Carl Crawford finally got the Golden Glove that has eluded him.

Even with all the eventual ups and down, in and outs of their 2010 season, the Rays sent all of us on a cascading water flume ride of unexpected emotions and thrills as the team finally exit the railcars for the last time in 2010. We then had to say goodbye to 9 Free Agents, almost as many non-tender arbitration eligible Rays as the team began their foundational framework for another future glorious coaster ride.

Not knowing if it was a bead of cooling sweat from the fearsome ride, or a trickle of an unexpected tear set in motion by the thoughts of losing Rays stalwarts like Carlos Pena, Crawford, Benoit, Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler, Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour. I am stricken with a unforeseen bout of silence as I might have been witness to the last ride of a 4-year journey that started in 2007, and will end at the stroke of midnight tonight. I had been an up-close and personal participant in the formulation of a winning culture by the Rays in our short existence. I want to stand in line again for another chance at having my breath taken away on another future glorious trip.

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 At midnight the clicking of Kumba will be heard in the background as I wander towards another Rays odyssey. The rise and fall of this franchise definitely mimics the twists and turns of a well maintained rollercoaster that is always pushing the limits of both gravity and the breaking points of humanity before tumbling down towards a sense of reality.

Thank you Rays for this years journey. Thank you for the “firsts”, the “lasts” and the 81 straight tickets to ride as I took my seat in Tropicana Field this year and each time It left me simply breathless and aching for more. Some call this season the end of a Rays era, I think it is the beginning of a tradition of celebrating the “Rays Way” and buckling every New Years Eve for another ride of our collective Rays lives. Now where is that SheiKra coaster located again?

 

 

Rays Bullpen is On the Clock

 

 

As I look up at the big clock on the kitchen wall, I can see the second hand moving fast and it instantly reminds me that the Tampa Bay Rays only have a few more days to actively pursue their Free Agents without any outside interference. The clock seems to be ticking faster by the moment during these first five days after the World Series before the Rays Free Agents officially become fodder for the rest of the Major League General Managers and scouts.


There are more than a few players from the Rays current 5-days hold list who will probably never wear a Rays uniform again, including such highly valued names as 2010 All Stars Carl Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano. Two biggest names at their respective positions that should in all likelihood leave the Rays roster this Winter.

There are other who will also garner attention from all over the Majors after the 5-day grace period like former First Baseman and power option Carlos Pena, 2010 surprise RP Joaquin Benoit, plus relievers Grant Balfour and Randy Choate could harbor another home stadium in 2011.

But the Rays have five days, or a total of 120 hours to actively talk back and forth with their Free Agents before they are officially released to also have talks with the rest of the MLB mob. Five days really is not a long time to trade numbers back and forth and try to finalize a deal, but it is enough time for the Rays front office to make an impression on if they are actively seeking a return, or willing to watch their former players mosey on out to greener monetary pastures.

There were two more names thrown into the mix recently as the Rays decided to decline the team options on Rays reliever Dan Wheeler and utility player Willy Aybar. The move was considered a financial move to possibly save the club almost $ 2 million dollars by buying out the pair, then talking to them as a Free Agent (Wheeler), or a still arbitration eligible player (Aybar). Wheeler has expressed a desire to remain with the Rays for 2011, but it will have to be at a bit of a discount from his $ 4 million option.

 

Basically right now, the Rays Bullpen bench has been stripped almost bare with only Andy Sonnanstine, who is arbitration eligible for the first time this Winter the only player currently with any extended relief appearances. Sure there is still Mike Ekstrom and rookie southpaw Jake McGee who are still on the Rays 40-man roster, but beyond this trio, the rest of the Rays Bullpen is either heading towards the Free Agent market or already been released by the Rays (Lance Cormier). Right now the Bullpen is the biggest position of transition for the Rays this Winter.


Right now the Rays entire sixth through eighth inning options are within a few days of actively finding another pitching spot for 2011 unless the Rays decided to actively pursue any of them. In a perfect world I would love to see the Rays try and keep Benoit, Balfour, Choate and possibly Wheeler to bring some form of veteran stability to the Rays 2011 Bullpen. I would however personally hope that the Rays do not actively engage in discussion with reliever Chad Qualls who is also set to become a Free Agent soon.

Currently this drastic change within the back part of the Rays pitching game has to have more than a few fans sweating bullets, but there are loads of viable options that will soon be available to the Rays, but at a cost.

Every time you bring in a new pitcher to the Rays system there is always the possibility of them not adapting to the Rays pitching game plan and becoming a liability. That is why I am hoping the Rays at least think long and hard about the quartet of Benoit, Wheeler, Balfour and Choate before releasing them to the rest of the salivating masses in the MLB.


There is the underlying huge question mark concerning returning leftie J P Howell’s effectiveness, and the possibility that the Rays could decline him arbitration possibly this off season to set another storm into motion. Combined with Howell’s uncertainty plus the youth and inexperience of McGee, it might not be a huge leap to consider Choate as a viable option for 2011 at least until the two question marks are answered.

It might be unorthodox for the Rays to possibly carry three left-handers in their Bullpen, but would it be more of a disaster to count on the two question marks totally with only minor leaguer southpaw R J Swindle in the Rays system as a back-up plan.


 

The addition of retaining Balfour and Wheeler would give valuable experience and proven set-up power and abilities to a new Rays Bullpen. Balfour seemed to come into his mown after returning from the DL (thanks again Jim Hickey) in September to post some of his best outings of the season.
 
Balfour also seemed to have gained some extra velocity after his short mid-season rest. Of the two pitchers, Balfour might have the best Rays upside and could be the most fiscally affordable considering the Rays payroll downsizing to possibly between $ 40-60 million for 2011.


The Rays front office will have to scrape and save all over the place considering the team already have a projected payroll of about $ 15.45 million even before adding arbitration figures and considering Free Agent signings. The initial scraping of almost the entire Rays Bullpen will either be a blessing or a curse this Winter and a major discussion point by the Rays Republic until the Spring.

Can a team like the Rays that has already been considered a early favorite to head towards a post season run in 2011 sustain themselves if they purge and rebuild their Bullpen from within their farm system and the Free Agent route?

The next five days may hold a key to the Rays thinking, and their possibly plan of attack. Sure I would love to see Benoit possibly resign with the Rays and take on the closer’s role. Would be ecstatic to see Balfour and Choate become leftie-rightie bookends to extinguish scoring chances late in the game.


But the stark reality is that the Rays will be a team in late inning pitching transition this Winter. With a few left-handed question marks and only a handful of MLB experienced help currently on the Rays roster, this Winter the Rays Bullpen might be a total work in progress.

Hopefully the Rays front office will be sensible and find a nice balance between the old and new that will compliment the Rays starting rotation. This off season we might truly see just how good Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman is with his crystal ball and a desk full of statistical reports and flowcharts. Somehow the Rays need to pull that mythical rabbit out of the hat this Winter.
 

 

Did Shields Throw his Last Pitch for the Rays?

 

 

Sometimes we have to do things we do not like in life. Sometimes the idealisms and good things we have collectively done in our lives really do only amount to a hill of beans. With baseball becoming more of a business and streamlined industry every season, sometimes even the good guys can lose out because of one inconsistent season. There is one member of the Tampa Bay Rays who might have a interesting Winter, and possibly be venturing into another clubhouse this Spring.


We are not talking about Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, or even Joaquin Benoit. Even though he is a pitcher, his worth to this Rays team can be measured in many variations, but also his 2010 statistics show a decline not witnessed before in his short Rays career. With talent like Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson and the rest of the Rays farmhands knocking at the Rays backdoor, James Shields might find himself the odd man out by the end of the Winter.

This is the time you start to hoist up a starter like Shields and see who take long glances or inquires deeply on his tenure with the Rays. This is the time you take small meetings and discuss the future without or without the Rays Opening Day starter for the last three seasons. Just because you were a vital cog on Opening Day three years straight doesn’t mean you are invincible or “off limits”. Rays team tenure doesn’t really mean that much on this young squad, it only means you have been here a while.

 

It doesn’t matter in the long run that Shields was the 2009 and 2010 Roberto Clemente recipient for the Rays, or that you designed your own T-shirt as a Rays fan giveaway. It doesn’t matter that you are the oldest member of one of the youngest rotations in the Major Leagues. In the end it just comes down to if you still have enough value to possible get the Rays some of the pieces needed to formulate another winning line-up or Bullpen.


Shields has the past stats and the veteran leadership to command a good piece from a competitor in return for his services, and being signed already to a pretty low cost contract considering his experience, his value will ultimately be set by the top tier veterans who hit the Free Agent market. But with the earmarking of Shields even being considered as trade bait comes the reality that he might also be viewed as a questionable commodity considering his uncharacteristic sub par 2010 season.

Simply put, could Shields have already peaked as a pitcher and we are suddenly seeing his decent from the top tier of pitchers, or is he just not making adequate adjustments during the game that have seen his seasonal ERA climb from 3.56 in 2008 to balloon towards a 5.18 ERA fort his season. No one will question the heart of Shields as he ventured past the 200+ inning mark for the fourth straight season, but could it have come with a cost this season for Shields. Could his pitches have finally been charted and projected so well that now they seem routine or forced to the plate?

977.2 innings over a career is an incredible feat that so many other MLB quality pitchers’ wish they could count on their resume’. Combine that with a franchise high 56 victories and winning the Rays only World Series game, plus an added distinction of winning the Rays first playoff game (2008 ALDS Game 1), and you get a resume’ few can argue with around the Major Leagues. But even with those lofty accomplishments firmly within his grasp. Shields has also has some moment in 2010 that we all wish we could somehow forget.

What Rays Republic member can forget that Shields, as the eldest member at 28 in the Rays rotation gave us a few times where we all openly gasped at his lack of control at critical times this season. Currently Shield sis riding a 5-game losing streak all the way back to his September 4th loss in Baltimore 8-4 to the Orioles. Lost among that losing streak is the positives that Shield’s 853 innings pitched since 2007 is the 3rd most in the American League behind only starters’ Mariners Felix Hernandez (879.1) and Tigers Justin Verlander (867.0).

Even though Shields only missed the Rays strikeout lead by one single K to fellow starter David Price in 2010, Shields had 5 games of 10 or more strikeouts this season, a career high. Shields strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.67 was the fourth best in the American League , but punctuated hard on his record was his 15 total losses, which also was a career high. Accenting this downward trend further is the fact Shields gave up 34 Home Runs, first in the American League and led the Major Leagues 128 runs allowed and 117 earned runs allowed while surrendering 246 hits, which tied him for the MLB lead with Chicago pitcher Mark Buehrle.

And odd point to Shield’s rollercoaster 2010 season, he was on the hill as the Rays starter for Oakland Athletic starter Dallas Braden’s perfect game on May 9th in Oakland, California. Shields last victory was August 29,2010 in Fenway Park against the Red Sox. Combine that with the fact Shields only logged 7-plus innings twice in his final 18 starts and you see a reason to wonder about the once solid Rays stalwart.

The last time Shield threw for 7-plus innings was his start against the Texas Rangers at Tropicana Field when he went exactly 7 innings and picked up the win in the Rays 8-6 victory. Shields left that contest with a 7-3 lead. For some reason Shields has gotten more predictable on the mound for the Rays. His change-up is still his mystery pitch, but with him starting to overload his throwing of it in key situations, hitters are beginning to adjust and wait on the slower pitch.

Even in fastball counts Shields has been relying more on his change-up to get him an advantage, but has instead just gotten a fresh ball from the Home Plate Umpire. Because of this, it makes Shields expendable for the first time in his MLB career. Even with one of the best change-ups in the Majors, Shields might have to re-evaluate the pitch in the off season and tweak it a bit to bring himself back to game form for 2011.

With his team friendly contract of several one-year options ( $ 4.25 million in 2011) there is the flexibility for another team to try Shields on for size without a long term commitment. With the Rays also seeing two of their other starters begin to reach past the million dollar mark in salary in 2011, it makes him more expendable because of salary than for his 6 Home Runs allowed to the Toronto Blue Jays in 4 innings of work back on August 7,2010. Funnier still is that Shields only gave up one more Home Run in his other 6 starts in August.

Maybe it is time the Rays break their ties with one of their senior members of their pitching staff. Possibly a change in scenery will do wonders to Shields refining his crispness on his pitches and finding another team that will value his devouring of innings. Right now With Hellickson and possibly Matt Moore sitting at the Rays backdoor looking for a spot and a chance to perform at this level, it puts a target squarely between Shields shoulder blades.

 

Suddenly it will be more about future potential than past accolades for Shields. More on the focus of the Rays upcoming 2011 business model than on his T-shirt endeavors. It will center squarely on whether it is time to cut ties with Shields, or try and ride his coattails for one last time hoping for a meteoric rise rather than a star fizzling out.


Shields is still a valued commodity around Major League Baseball that needs to be dealt to induce Rays farm talent a honest chance to rise to his once great level. It might just come down to the black and white on the page instead of the color and personality Shields brings to the Rays. Possibly we saw Shields exit his last Rays game during the ALCS never to wear the Rays sunburst again

Gunslingin’ at the O K Trop Corral

 

They say that old Western gunfighters used to use their eyes to bring their opponents down in a street side disagreement. That a twitch of the eye or even a glimmer or glance could trigger an explosive event where one lies dead and the other victorious. Why is it tonight I think we just might be preparing for the fight at the O K Tropicana with plenty of fireworks and unexpected results before either teams give an inch tonight.


I do not think there are enough superlatives my pocket size Webster’s dictionary to illustrate the true essence of what tonight’s game means to these two teams itching with their finger firmly on the trigger knowing that tonight’s eventual winner gets another crack at those city slicker New York Yankees.

Both the Tampa Bay Rays and the visiting Texas Rangers have shown that they both have a huge propensities to post impressive victorious campaigns in the other’s hostile environments, with both combatants hushing the home crowds. That is all about to possibly end tonight, for it is now a solo “Win or be Gone” situation where a gunfighter’s mentality may just be the final key to being crowned the victor and getting a champagne or Bud Light shower, with and the loser seeing their playoff dreams dead in the water..

Presently both the Rays the Rangers know what is at stake with a lose, and can see with their own steely eyes how to come out victorious tonight and get another shot at those smug Yankees. Not lost within all the predetermined drama and swirling circumstances is the small aspect that no matter who the victor is tonight…. A new chapter of baseball history will be written with the game’s final out.

Who knows what misadventures on the field or post-game jubilations awaits either team as they get set to play in front of 40,000+ highly energized fans under the Teflon roof of Tropicana Field tonight. Not lost on their minds, and those of their fans is the fact have a slight edge as the Rays are 45-18 (.714) lifetime playing in front of crowds 30,000 and above, but that pure and plain fact will not rattle the confidence of these ornery Rangers.

Still undecided is which page of the current ALDS history will be re-written tonight. No matter the final outcome, you can bet the fans both inside Tropicana Field and watching in Texas and around the country will get their money’s worth tonight. If the hometown Rays take it to the Texans tonight, they will be the first team since the 2001 Yankees to come back from a 0-2 start at home and finish off in the victor’s circle in an ALDS.

If the Rangers were to upend the high flying hometown Rays, this Texas team would be celebrating their franchises first postseason title …..ever. Not even the founding Washington Senators even won a single game in the post season, much less win a series. An added plus is the pure glorious fact that the ultimate winner will get to host the Yankees at their home stadium for the first two games of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) set to begin this Friday night.

 

Not lost in all the frilly glitter and plaid glamour tonight is the fact that if the Rays were to be defeated at home tonight, these two teams would have combined their collective road victories to become the first ALDS pair to even win all five of their road contests. But then we get the added bonus of superior pitching match-up between some of the best throwing left-hander in baseball in a ALDS finale.


How incredible is it that the Rays David Price and Rangers Cliff Lee get to square-off again tonight with some much on the line and put their own personal stamp on their team’s chance for victory. Lee posted a clear advantage in Game 1 of the ALDS, but there have been heavy whispers that Rays Manager Joe Maddon has made a few adjustments to his line-up card for tonight and will have the Rays coming out at Lee with both barrels blazing.

Neither of these pitchers’ or their teammates’ have shown an ounce of stepping down, or aside for the other during this 5-game Battle Royale. Ultimately, it may come down to whichever team shows the first sign of weakening. Both have solid defenders in the field, but a slight miscalculation could provide the needed crack in either team’s armor right now.

This ALDS has been a classic old fashion baseball barnburner with no preconceived notions on the horizon as to who should be favored tonight. Who would have imagined less than a week ago that those “Claws and Antler” loving strangers from the Lone Star state could have moseyed into the Trop and put a hurting on the home town Rays by outscoring the homesteaders’ by a 11-1 margin in those contests, plus send more than a few shivers up the spines of the Rays Republic.

But with the Major League Baseball best road record in 2010, the Rays again showed why you can never count out this spontaneous team until recording the 27th out. The feisty Rays might have wandered into Arlington, Texas with a huge disadvantage in the series this past weekend. Then provided the Rangers with a personal double dose of the Rays old fashion Southern in-hospitality by strolling into the red-clad Rangers homestead and pushing the Rangers around for two solid games within their own green pasture.

But with everything squared-up and even now, it is again about time to see if we have a Rangers redemption or Rays celebration tonight. Before the clock ever strikes midnight, there will be an other Rays versus Rangers historic performance written in stone under the dome of Tropicana Field. Now we just have to wait and see which team’s fate and destiny gets written tonight into the MLB record books.

How much poetic justice would be served if a former Ranger and current Rays reliever Joaquin Benoit could provide the initial punch needed after being booed by the partisan Texas crowd in Arlington this past weekend. Or how insanely ironic would it be if a current Ranger and former Rays farmhand Josh Hamilton were to deliver the first deathblow to the Rays playoff chances after being applauded by Rays fans in Game 1 and 2.

Neither team has to be coached or prepped on the severity of the moment, and the fact that their 2010 season is at stake tonight. Both team’s have itchy fingers and are ready and eager to go at it tonight.


Some say that the actions of a pitcher and a hitter at the plate mimic those of a pair of gunfighters’ ready for battle. Each trying to provoke and gain an advantage before finally administering the final shot that would decide one’s death or elimination. All night long these battle will be undertaken by both team’s until the ultimately there will only be a team of 25 still standing and celebrating the victory.

It reminds me definitely of a deadly gunfight where two may enter the field of battle, but only one is left standing in the end.

Could September Soreness be effecting the Rays?

 
 
Chris O’Meara/AP

“Dead arm” syndrome, “September soreness”, those are just a few of the titles of the turmoil that is beginning to get a tighter grip on the Rays rotation and Bullpen. And it could not come at a worst time. With the Rays magical number now dwindling down to “10”, this is one of the worst times for your pitching staff to be experiencing any symptoms or even effects of the long Major League Baseball season.


The Rays already saw two of their rotation mates, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann go down for a period of time this season to try and rehabilitate the aliments without a long lay-off. So far the rest and relaxation technique seemed to work some wonders with Davis, but Niemann has last a bit of his stuff in the process.

Before his soreness, Niemann was considered one of the most consistent pitchers on the Rays staff, but since his return he looks a bit bewildered and astonished at his lack of control. Since his return, it has also sometimes seemed like Niemann is shot putting the ball to the plate, or even just trying to place the ball in a quadrant instead of his usual throwing motion. Niemann has gone from a consistent member of the Rays to a question mark right now.

And that does not bode well for the Rays, who will need a fourth starter in place before the playoff begin in a few weeks. This doesn’t mean Niemann is out of the running, but if he keeps up his inconsistent starts, he might just be shut down by the Rays and possibly left off the post season first roster for the American League Divisional Series (ALDS). That would give the Rays the option of letting him rest a bit more, do some side work and possibly be activated before the team has to submit their names for the American League Championship Series(ALCS).

Rob Carr/AP

And with Davis coming out of his time on the Disabled List throwing some of the best ball of the year, he might be the beneficiary of possibly getting that fourth slot. And for all the grip and grumbling Davis has taken for not being as consistent as the Rays other four pitchers, Davis is the only qualifying pitcher among the American League rookies with double digit wins (12). Only Baltimore’s rookie Brian Matusz (122) has more strikeouts than Davis (104). For all of Davis’s possible bouts of rollercoaster outings, he has been able to maintain a pretty impressive end result under the radar.

But Davis and Niemann are the only pitchers the Rays have acknowledged are experiencing soreness, while starter Matt Garza has shown signs of definite problems on the mound, but it seems the Rays are willing to let him sort it out on the mound and not on the bench. James Shields frustrations over the past month could also be a small bout of pain caused by a bit of overwork considering he has topped 200+ innings over the past two season, and maybe his arm finally has reached his limit right now.

The lone member not to show any adverse signs of the fatigue and demand of the long season right now is David Price. He has looked consistent and actually seems to have strengthened a bit as the innings pile up this season. But the aliment can come on quickly, and are the Rays throwing the dice right now hoping that Price doesn’t hit his limit before the Rays secure their second post season berth.

To have Price excluded from the playoff roster even for one series could be disastrous. But with the team possibly having to go with their usual starting five up until possibly their last week of the season, when could the Rays rest Price?


 

And suddenly, a few members of the Rays Bullpen have also started to show a bit of signs of fatigue and dead arms of their own. Over his past two appearances Dan Wheeler, who has usually been one of the consistent cogs in the Rays late inning machine has given up Home Runs, and also contributed towards two Rays losses. Could Wheeler have hit the proverbial wall this season after being a consistent piece of the puzzle for so long.

Over the last 7 days Wheeler has appeared in 3 contests, last 1 innings and posted a 18.00 ERA. That is not the signs of a consistent set-up man, but could be an indication Wheeler is feeling some fatigue right now.


You have to also wonder if Joaquin Benoit might be about to hit his own fatigue wall. Benoit made a miraculous comeback this season after surgery to pace this Rays Bullpen along with Wheeler for so long, but could his limits also being coming soon? For most of the season his ERA stayed below the 1.00 mark, but recently it has been pushed up to the 1.46 Era mark. This is not to say he is experiencing any fatigue, and is a key component of the Rays late inning brigade. Should Benoit also maybe be used sparingly over the last 15 games, or throw caution to the wind and hope for the best?

It is admirable that Shields and Garza are trying to fight the good fight on the mound and get through this without causing strife in the Rays rotation. But could their problems on the mound actually be causing a rippling effect through the pitching staff? We know that the minute the Rays secure their post season invitation the fans will see more of Andy Sonnanstine and possibly another pitcher (probably not Jeremy Hellickson) taking a start or two to give some of the usual starters, like Price a short breather.

 

But is it worth rolling the dice right now with the health and well being of your starters to get to that magical number plateau, then sit them down for the post season? And with that in mind, if the Rays do have to go late into the last week of the season with their primary starters, could that have been effected by this plague of “September soreness” and “Dead arm” syndrome? You can’t shut them all down right now, but can a shorter leash be attached for the rest of the season, or possibly we see a quick shutdown of the usual rotation after the Yankee series?

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.
 

Nelly Made the Trop Smolder with Heat

 

 

 I headed to the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday afternoon game wearing my jeans, an old Disney character polo and of course, my old Air Force Ones. It wasn’t Nostalgia Day or even 80’s Day, it was my own way of celebrating Hip Hop Night at Tropicana Field. Think about that wording for a minute…Hip Hop at the Trop…..Word to your Mother!

 

People seem to forget if it wasn’t for Nelly’s emerging talent at the mic he, Nelly might have made his way someday onto the Field Turf of the Trop on his own as a baseball player. He had some mad skills in the middle infield growing up and could turn the corner on a double play like his idol, former St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.

 

And as soon as the ball settled into the Tropicana Field stands, and the team concluded their on-field Team Meeting with Aybar as the guest speaker, then it was Aybars turn to get a ceremonial shaving cream pie to his face and head and begin getting in Nelly mode.  I was already feeling the rhythm and the pulse of the bass to get out on the field and take a spot where the photos would fall like rain, and the crowd would swing in unison to the verses and song of the minstrel named Nelly. But I made a cardinal sin ( at least in my book).

 

I had a photographer’s pass from the Rays and I wanted to get deep into the action, so I posted up on a L-shaped corner in the right end of the “Mosh Pit”. At that moment it just seemed like a natural move and perfect move going from shooting the Rays first concert from the middle sections for John Fogerty, to right behind the VIP section during ZZ Top, to down in the pulsating action and sea of motion of the proverbial front row. It seemed like a natural progression….But a hasty mistake on my part.

For I had put myself in the eye of the swallowing storm on the wrong side of the steel barriers. I have been in the front rows tons of times before, but not with a camera, and surely not with a group of most teens to 20-ish fans who wanted to move and groove to every single sound wave of beat or vocals coming out of the supercharged bass system right in front of the assembled mass. From the first deep drumbeat from the DJ, there was pushing and shoving from the side and back as people began to crush forward wanting a taste of Nelly and the music.

 

But then again, I would have done the same thing myself 20-odd years ago. Well, I know I did. And the audience was definitely transfixed as the beats got deeper, and the crowd behind me got more animated and pulled into the rhythm and music. Out of the 480 photos I took that night, I had to trash about 200 photos due to the hands in front of the camera lens or  small waves of motion around me that caused the photo to appear out of focus produced by my arm and shoulder constantly getting hit during filming. But I took the commotion and the frustration in stride as I got popped like a pinball for a few songs but within me I now wished I had taken a position on the stage side of the barrier.

But the music was the center of everyone’s attention tonight as even some of the Rays players like Carl Crawford,Dioner Navarro, Reid Brignac, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Garza and B J Upton swayed and rocked to the beats while doing their own version of Nelly Karaoke on the West side of the stage region. Upton seemed to be totally into the concert as you could see him singing the words and doing his own set of dances to the beats. It was great to see the players having as much fun as the Rays fans that night.
 
 

And it is sometimes weird that Hip Hop has now been around long enough to have Nelly “classics” like Ride Wit Me , “Air Force Ones” and “Batter Up“. I still remember watching the first broadcast of MTV at a college viewing party complete with free MTV swag and music until we left transfixed by this new style of selling the music to the public. How much we have all grown accustomed to this video and music combination that now most of us never hear the song without also seeing a video interpretation of the song at the same time.

 

And from the moment Nelly first emerged wearing a stylish white Rays T-shirt, the crowd on the field and in the stands were immediately consumed by the tunes and the chatter from Nelly.  From his classic Nike Air Force Ones on his feet, to the diamond-encrusted dog tags, and glittering diamond watch bevel, Nelly was quickly transporting us to a part of St. Louis with his music we would never venture into alone. We were taken instantly into Nelly-ville, and he was the Mayor and the man that was definitely large and in charge.
 
 

And the Trop almost seemed to take flight the moment Nelly as his crew began to sing ” E.I.” as well as “C
ountry Grammar
“. The moment the first beats hit the speakers, the entire crowd began systematically swaying and singing to the tunes. It was definitely a well needed audience participation segment, and the assembled crowd did not disappoint as it rang out loud to an almost deafening level all around me. But people forget, it was not all about the music tonight.

But people forget it was not entirely about the music tonight as there was a large amount of young and older women inching towards the front of the stage area hoping to catch an eye glance with Nelly or getting some sort of savoring trinket to take home and cherish forever. At that moment you knew the focus and the attention was firmly bulls-eyed on Nelly as the player of the moment. When one of his crew announced he had a gig later that night at a local St. Petersburg nightclub, it was the assembled women who screamed and quickly asked the surrounding people the 5 W’s of finding this club. Nelly was in full effect, and the ladies were going to be in massive tow tonight at the Push Lounge.
 
 

And with that announcement, Nelly had just found the perfect segway to pop into his classic “Hot in Here” as he quickly removed his Rays  white t-shirt and threw it straight into the teeth of the crowd as people frantically pulled and yanked and finally separated the t-shirt into two sections before it fell into someone’s hands firmly encasing the prized possession for the night like a prized jewel. It was a white Rays gift from one of the Hip Hop chosen ones, and it now had to be guarded and cherished from that moment.

 

And as Nelly let the crowd know about his forthcoming album to be released some time this Summer you could feel the crowd letting go a bit knowing their dream might end soon. Usually when a singer or group mentions this tidbit, it is nearing the end of the concert. And when he asked for three volunteers from the audience the sound was deafening as every woman within reach of the stage began cheering and more than eager a chance to be on stage with the Hip Hop icon. Three women were finally selected and it was the beginning of some interesting final moments to the concert.

Nelly even gave one of the chosen ones a photo opportunity of a lifetime as she snapped a photo with her phone of Nelly facing her with the screaming crowd behind him. Then he quickly quizzed them as to their singing abilities and then broke into his tune “Dilemma” which he did originally as a duet with former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland.

 

The girls instantly fell into the rhythm and the rhymes of the song and began to sing and dance along with Nelly and his crew. It was one of the slowest moments of the concert, but helped the crowd recharge a bit before the night ended too soon for so many in the crowd. People wanted to hear every song from all his album in his unique styling that some have called a “Missouri Twang”.

 

The night quickly condensed into a meandering of unforgettable song hooks based on schoolyard songs with double-dutch chants. But what is amazing is the simple fact most people do double dutch lyrics as a rap, while Nelly has primarily done them in song, which is a major reason so many see him as a Hip Hop icon. The night was truly an adventure into Nellyville (also the title of his 2nd album) that I will not soon get out of my head.
 

 

But that is the thing about great music no matter what the format or lyric style. If it is good, it stays with you for a while and maybe drills into your subconscious for a future moment or even visual stimulation brings it out again for a great memory. People say that Rap or Hip Hop artists are this generation’s storytellers. They give their versions of the action and stories of life through their musical lyrics and prose. Nelly is a great example of this sage of wisdom and urban existence being told through music. And through it all, we also get a chance to see life through Nelly’s eyes.   

Rays Pitching still has Question Marks

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Maddon has One More Math Problem to Solve this Spring

         

 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 
 

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

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

 

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

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

 
 

 
Steve Nesius/ AP
 

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

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

Looking Forward to the Rays 13th Season


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There is going to be something special about the superstitious
number “13” and the Tampa Bay Rays this season. And surprisingly, there is not
just one instance where this number will come hugely into play this year,
but several occasions where “13” might just be the Rays lucky number. There are
a possible three instances where this superstitious number could bode heavily
into the Rays possible 2010 plans, and might also be instrumental in some of the
team’s future beyond 2010.

I have always liked this “strange”
combination of numbers, maybe more since it contains my two favorite numbers,
but the stark reality is that these two digits together will be constantly in
play over the next several weeks and might be right in the thick of it in
determining which direction this Rays team takes in the American East division.
I am  looking forward during the next three days to outline my scenarios
where “13” and the Rays will be side-by-side this Spring.

 

Considering the simple fact that the
2010 season will be the Rays 13th professional baseball season, and (
hopefully) one that will further define the direction of the franchise and
possibly make all the rest of Major League Baseball green with envy. Sure I
want to say I would cherish seeing Rays Manager Joe Maddon hoisting  a beautiful
golden trophy with all 30 MLB teams flags on it to the high heavens during a
cool, crisp October night.

This 2010 team has a viable chance to
cement the phrases “winning” and “Rays”  uttered in the same sentence within the
mindset of all baseball fans and media members around the country this year. The
always negative “devil” has now been exorcised for three seasons, and maybe this
is the year people finally forget that old name and the Rays can move from
underneath that negative persona and flourish like a shining ray of consistent
light.

 

The 13th season is going to be one
of the best in Rays history based entirely on talent in regards to their pitching
and field players. This is one of the first Spring Training in history where the
Rays have come into their Spring camp without a huge number of question marks
dotting multiple field positions and their starting rotation/Bullpen. For the
first time in Rays franchise history, Maddon can have the confidence to pencil
in five names, even before the first Spring Training game as his desired 2010
starting rotation. Even the remote thought process of penciling in a  Rays
rotation  has never been a realistic option so early into Spring Training for a
Rays Manager in the last 12 seasons. 

Sure
there could still be a huge question mark added as to the final decision on
the Rays fifth starter, but current fifth starter Wade Davis and possible option
Andy Sonnanstine both have minor league options still available for the Rays.
This might be another deja vu moment to 2009 when Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel
fought it out to the last moment to finally reign in that fifth rotation spot. 
But could the loser of this competition be a possible trade piece for the
Rays? But this ensuing competition will be great for both of them, and that
makes this 13th Rays season special.

 

And even if the biggest question mark hovering
the Rays field players might be where Ben Zobrist hop, skips and jumps within
the Rays line-up, or lines up on the field in 2010, you can bet there will be
more than capable players to take the vacant spot(s) left by Zobrist with
a vigor and vitality that has been missed during past Spring Training seasons.
And with Maddon stressing that his starting nine will get more chances to hit
during the Spring Training games this year, it can only be a positive sign of
better things to come for the team and better prepared hitting corps coming into
the Rays first game against Baltimore on April 6th in Tropicana
Field.

When was the last time there was even the possibility
of a handful of Rays players possibly formulating all the changes within this
team’s final seasonal make-up.
Sure there
is the fight brewing for the fifth rotation spot between Davis and Sonnanstine,
but the top four slots are pretty much set in stone even before their first
inter-squad workout. The biggest controversy with the starting rotation will
come out of this fifth spot, and maybe if Rays left-handed starter David Price
gets the number 3 rotation slot to break up the right-hand dominated Rays
rotation right down the middle and provides a different adjustment for teams in
2010.

And even in the Rays Bullpen, there are signs it might
be down to a total of one or two slots depending on the numbers of pitchers the
Rays want to carry going into the 2010 season.
It could come down to the Rays decision on relievers Dale Thayer,
Winston Abreu or maybe a healthy Joaquin Benoit to win one of the two last
slots. But Sonnanstine could also figure into this mix as a long
reliever/6th starter option sitting in the Bullpen. And who knows,
maybe someone else coming into the Rays camp from the minor leagues might blow
the doors off the Rays Coaching staff and wiggle their name into the
conversation. That is why they call this part of the year
“training”.

 

But this 13th season could also be
the breakout year for many of the Rays field players. We all know that
outfielder Matt Joyce was upset last Spring after starting the season on the
Major League roster to go back down to Triple-A Durham after Rays centerfielder
B J Upton came back after his shoulder surgery, but the whole experience also
gave Joyce ample time to play daily and develop more in the minors with an eye
towards regaining his rightfield slot for good this Spring.

Maddon and Triple-A Manger Charlie Montoya have both praising
Joyce’s 2009 development and his adherence to the Rays ” wish list” given to him
before he left for the minors. It might have been this forward stride in their
confidence in Joyce’s ability for the Rays not to pursue a left-handed
outfielder this off season and that Joyce made all the right moves and the
strides to be penciled-in  as a starter in the Rays
rightfield.

 

 


But then again, we get the “Zobrist” factor that
will come immediately into play here. With Zobrist not having a defined position
and a defined role right now in the Rays field positions, he might just be a
human pinball bouncing from infield to outfield  to start the season until some
sort of stability forms, hopefully not due to an injury. And with that, it makes
the competition between prospects Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac one of the
most interesting and closely watched Rays competitions coming into Spring
Training.

This fight is going to be for one of the coveted
“utility” player roles on the Rays along with Rays holdover Willy Aybar. But
with the possibilities of Aybar nursing a bad wrist through much of the Spring
Training schedule. It might be their ultimate chances this Spring to either fade
out or shine  and possibly make this Rays squad, even if Aybar would go on the
D L.
And right now, there is a distinct
possibility that until Aybar takes his first swings in the batting cages, that
both could possibly be penciled into the Rays roster.

But
if I had to point towards someone right now, it seems that Brignac might be the
guy right now to have the edge defensively because he can play all the infield
positions but first base. But the Rays are going to push and raise the bar
for Rodriguez by having him play every position around the diamond this Spring
to test his abilities and evaluate his readiness to be pushed towards the Major
League level.

 

And right now based on possible logistics, you
have to consider that second base will be mostly a transient position for either
of them since second base gives the Rays a instant option to get Zobrist in the
line-up if Joyce come out  this Spring hitting the cover off the ball. But isn’t
it great to know that 4 infielders could decide the formulation of the Rays
2010 roster to such a degree. And there is only one shoe-in at this time
(Zobrist) that could be guaranteed a roster spot while the other three fight it
out to what degrees they will ultimately play in the Rays 2010 plans.

 
 

Got to love that as a fan. You can finally take a
side, much like the “Vampire/Werewolf” teams formed by the “Twilight” movie
series. We could see possible “Team Joyce” or even “Team S-Rod” or Team Brig”
T-shirts don the stands around the Grapefruit League pushing each of them
farther  along in this realm of competition. And maybe I am the first to say it
out loud, but this infield competition will greatly effected on what
ultimately happens with Joyce and a possible Rightfield slot. This
13th Rays season is going to be fun-packed from the get-go, and we
will definitely see the strongest Rays squad to ever take the field when the
rosters are finalized around the time the Rays face their own affiliate
and Triple-A Champion Durham Bulls in Durham’s home stadium on April
3,2010.
 
 

How fitting that the Rays will be playing
their Triple-A affiliate in their last warm-up game before heading back to Tampa
Bay to get ready for the 2010 Major League Baseball season. How great is it that
the Durham fans might actually be the first to see the formative Rays
everyday line-up the team will field in 2010. But then again, how bad is it
going to be for one of these borderline Rays players to be told after the game
they might be remaining in Durham, and not have a plane ticket for the flight
back to Tampa Bay for the season.

I have a weird vision in my
mind that all of them will be donning the Rays home blue and whites for the Rays
Opening Night game against the Baltimore Orioles. For some reason I
see Rodriguez,Brignac, Sonnanstine and Joyce there and being introduced to the
sold-out crowd beaming with pride that they made the cut for the Rays 13th
season roster. But their Spring Training numbers and play will ultimately decide
their fate. Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. Right now there are 
plenty of other MLB squads that need to fear this 13th Rays season. For I view
it like the Hindu religion as a positive sign and not the negative influences of
the Rays past. “13” will play a major role in the formulation of this season’s
Rays roster, but the next example will have to wait for
tomorrow. 

 

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