Results tagged ‘ Joe Dillon ’

Rays Pitchers and Catchers Report…The Photo Blog

 



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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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


 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

 

 

Rays Pitchers & Catchers Report…2010 Edition

 


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**** Within the next few days I will post a extended Photo blog of the pictures I took today after the Rays Fan fest tomorrow afternoon.


I could not sleep a wink last night and thank goodness AMC had a pretty good movie lineup until 6 am this morning. This felt like the first time I ever suited up for a baseball game. I had the butterflies early today and mixed with the anticipated assembly again with Tampa Bay Rays baseball players who I consider “baseball buddies”. And the long hours leading up to this special moment of the Rays pitchers and catchers reporting for 2010 more than lived up to all the previous night’s hype and anxiety.

Sure you would think the hour and a half drive down to Port Charlotte from the shadow of Tropicana Field would seem to take forever as the sun began to rise in the East, but the reality was it seemed to furiously fly by with only the time staring to ebb slower as I began to wait first in line this morning to get into the Charlotte County Sports Park and “officially” begin my 2010 Rays experience. And it was great to not have the over indulgence of the Mosaic Corporation’s name attached to signage surrounding the complex today. And as I was standing there as the Rays media members began to assemble, some just passed by, while others acknowledged me standing their in my Pepsi sweatshirt as I battled the 56 degree weather.

And while I was standing there, a wild figure in pink sweatpants, barefoot and a huge poof of hair began to walk up to the security checkpoint carrying his baseball gear in a Army green dufflebag. He had come to make the team, and Edgar Gonzalez was not going to take “no” for an answer. Sure he might not have had great baseball experience only playing Marine Corp baseball, but decked there in his USF baseball jersey ( but did not play at all for USF), he was energetic and wanting an audition today for a possible slot on the Rays.

 
 

And two assembled security guards were business like and totally professional as they tried to point him towards Tropicana Field and the Rays Front Office to arrange an “official arrival” or even a slot to participate when the minor league camp came in next week. But Gonzalez was persistent and totally seemed to have his wits about him, until he began to unravel his story into a million pieces by saying he was trying to hold correspondence with U.S. President Obama and the world leaders on the curing properties of baseball. So as Gonzalez began to fade to black in the minds of the security force, he was advised to “put shoes on, or vacate the property as a safety precaution”.

 
 
 

Just then, you could see the color drain from Gonzalez’s face and he knew instantly that he had blown his scheme to try and infiltrate the Rays first 2010 workout. But I do commend the security force for doing it with grace, class and not singling him out and making the situation difficult. So as he turned away he said he would rehash it out up in “Tampa” with the Rays officials and be back another day to formally take the field. Well, Edgar Gonzalez, I wish you luck, and I hope you do get that shot, but since you have, by your own admission, never faced a 90+ mph fastball or seen a slider in your life, the audition might last the $ 2 it costs to run the Batting Cage machine at the Mini Golf complex down the street.
 

 

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But as 10 pm came, I strutted in first in the line and was handed a Dioner Navarro and Matt Garza bobble heads and a great present of a Rays Spring roster cardboard placard that listed each invited Rays ” guest” to the 2010 Spring Training complete with the final statistics including every stop during 2009. I scanned up and down it a few time to see the names and former 2009 teams illustrated and saw a few extremely interesting names. Names like Mike Ekstrom who was claimed off waivers by the Rays this off season from the San Diego Padres , or former Ranger pitcher Joaquin Benoit, who might push some pressure on the Rays Bullpen spots, or Joe Dillionaire” Dillon who might push for a bench spot on the team and be an adequate third catching option on the Major League roster because of his versatility.
 

 
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As the guy all assembled around Rays Manager Joe Maddon for his first inspirational speech for 2010, and the brief speeches and chats by Jeff “Ziggy” Zigler, who is the Rays Traveling Secretary, the team got into stretching and began long toss to get their arms stretched out for the first time in 2010 in front of a live audience. Rays starter Matt Garza and Rays Bullpen reliever Lance Cormier put on the show of the day easily topping 200+ feet in their long toss segment before the squad split into three groups and began to start drills on retrieving the ball in front of the mound and doing basic drills like covering first base on a bunt or even shot towards the hole at first base.
 
 

And on another part of the field, the Rays field players were beginning their daily workouts in the batting cages under the watchful eyes of spectators and autograph hounds. Gabe Kapler, Jason Bartlett and a bulkier-looking Rays prospect shortstop Tim Beckham all took their swipes in the cage today before taking time out to sign for some of the fans and expressed excitement in returning to Tropicana Field tomorrow for the 2010 Rays Fan Fest. I took this time to chat a bit with Rays Communication Manager Carmen Molina and St Petersburg Times Rays writer Marc Topkin about the season and to see if I could get a few tidbits.

 

 
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But I was lucky enough to be within a good earshot of the conversation by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to the assembled media when he began to discuss the Rays payroll, keeping Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, and the possible Rays stadium pot that is beginning to boil. He was his usual self showing total commitment to the St. Petersburg market place the team is currently in, but stressed the stadium will not be adequate up until the 2026 lease expiration date. Standing their in his own “Rays Sky Blue” sweatshirt he spoke for about 15 minutes answering volleys at him and providing in depth, complex answers that more than fulfilled the questions thrown at him on the fly. P. T. Barnum would have been proud.
 
 

And as the players began to split into their respective groups for their day ending run in the western-most field’s outfield, several players like J P Howell, Jeff Neiman and Rays prospect Jake McGee sprinted to the Rays clubhouse and shed their sweatshirts and came out again to do their running before taking time to chat and sign for fans before leaving for the day. I had a chance to talk to Howell, and his eyes lit up when I asked about his off season trip to Bora Bora for his honeymoon, or when I asked if we could do an interview sometimes during Spring Training about it.

 
 

And as I was asking that, Grant Balfour slapped me on the back asking if I was keeping my same seat. I quickly told him I was, and told him he better keep his same seat also ( on the Rays Bullpen bench) for 2010. He just smiled from ear-to-ear and told me he was going to do everything possible to stay put. Or when Randy Choate came up with his new facial chin hair and asked why I did not yell “Randy” when he saw me. And I began to tear up a bit. This is hard to explain, but over the past three years while I have been battling employment issues, these guys have been the solid foundation and the people I made sure to say something to before, or during every single Rays game.

 

 
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So today was special to me in a different way than most of the people assembled to welcome the Rays back from cold Winter snow-scapes, or even trips abroad with their new loved ones, this is my personal rite of Spring passage. Baseball is back, but better yet for me, Rays baseball is back. Even as I stood there talking with baseball buddy’s Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos or Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi, I could feel that inner fire kicking up again and was eager for the upcoming season.
 
 

Maddon did not bring out any mathematical equations this season, but offered confidence and a yearning to remember those steps made in 2008 to again get back to that ” special place”. For the Rays to revisit their 2008 roots, it will take sweat, blood and commitment by each and ever member of their 2010 roster. In the next month and a half guys will come and go from the Rays clubhouse either to the minor league camps, or even towards other opportunities in baseball, but Maddon stressed that they had to regain that passion, had to redefine and re-energize to again do things “The Rays Way”, and make those steps to again claim a top spot not only in the American League, but in their ever present difficult Eastern division. But for today, it was just great to see my buddies again.

 
 

Zobrist is the Rays MVZ (Most Valuable Zorilla)

 


Chris O’Meara /AP

Before the 2008 season, Benjamin Thomas Zobrist was considered a possible “Super Utility” player for the Tampa Bay Rays future. He was one of the players the team acquired back in July 2006 when the Rays sent disgruntled rightfielder Aubrey Huff to the Houston Astros near the MLB Trade Deadline. When the Rays made that deal, Zobrist was being sought after as a back-up and not a starter, even though he had the talent to start in the Major Leagues.

And even if the Rays did throw that “utility” moniker on Zobrist  when he arrived, at that point the Rays had not given him a fair amount of time to shine at the Major League level until  the end of 2008. But then again, Zobrist has always seemed to be in that different group of player who’s game beats to a different drummer, but is in unison with the team’s goals and aspirations.

But Zobrist has always been strong silent type who used his glove and bat to do his talking. And even then he still got pigeon-holed into a small finite group in the MLB. Zobrist is only the ninth player in MLB history to ever appear in the regular game at the shortstop position, joining Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer in that exclusive club.

Zobrist is only the second Rays player to have a “Z” at the beginning of his name, joining Victor Zambrano in that club. And only Tiger’s pitcher Joel Zumaya is lower in the alphabetical listing in the MLB entire active roster than Zobrist. So as you can see, Zobrist has always seemed to be at the back of the class by alphabet, but on the field, well that is a different story.

But how valuable is a guy who in 2008 played 6 different positions for your squad? During the Rays 2008 season he jumped back and forth from the minors to the major leagues four times before finally sticking with the Rays on August 5,2008 and played every field position but pitcher, catcher and first base during the season. And this season, he added first base to his playing resume’ when he started playing the position after a late season injury to All-Star first baseman Carlos Pena.
 

And who knows, after  the Rays let go of Joe Dillon, maybe Zobrist was the Rays designated “third catcher” option  in case of a unfortunate injury to Dioner Navarro and Gregg Zaun during a contest. But that is the reason Rays Manager Joe Maddon think so highly of his fielding handyman who brings four different types of fielding gloves into the dugout during Rays games. I can still remember a game during the 2009 season where he started the game in rightfield, moved to second base in the middle innings of the contest, then finished out the game at third base subbing for Evan Longoria.

I know there are only a handful of players on any roster in the Major Leagues who can hop, skip and jump from position to position like Zobrist. And that is one of the reasons I keep looking at players like Mark DeRosa and new White Sox journeyman Mark Teahen and can ultimately see Zobrist developing into that same mold of player who will do whatever the team needs to win every game.

So am I upset that Zobrist did not end up in the top 5 in the MVP voting? I am a little surprised, but I also know that it sometimes take more than a splash on the scene to convince the tunnel visioned BBWAA guys in the press box who never played the game that you are a special breed. And that is  honest truth to why I feel he did not post any higher vote totals in the American League MVP race because the BBWAA voters are more geared towards their own teams player selections and other regional and divisional guys they see all the time.

But I can understand some of the BBWAA voters for not getting so excited about Zobrist this season. But if he still puts up the same numbers in 2010, and even posts higher numbers, will they still see him as a reliable utility player or as a full-time field player?  

And the fact the Zobrist began this statistic campaign actually during the last 4 games of the 2008 season when he hit four home runs and won co-AL Player of the Week honors after the Rays season ending series in Detroit. Sure in 2008 he might have only appeared in 62 games ( 49 starts), but people forget Zobrist might have actually made the Rays 2008 Opening Day roster if he had not gone down with a left thumb break. So you have to wonder, if Zobrist had gotten more playing time in 2008, would this season’s MVP total have been different.


Steve Nesisus / AP

And of course, this has to be speculation, but sure, his number would have been dramatically different, and considering he lead all Major League middle infielders with a 16.5 At Bat per Home Run ratio finishing ahead of players like Marlin Dan Uggla (16.6), Hanley Ramirez (17.9) and Phillie infielder Chase Utley (18.4). Considering each of these players is an All Star caliber player, doesn’t that make you think the potential might have always been bubbling under the surface in Zobrist.

And also in 2008, he hit is second Gram Slam of his career during a September 13th game against the New York Yankees and was the last visiting player to hit a Grand Slam in the old Yankee Stadium off starter Sidney Ponson in the nightcap of a doubleheader.  So as you can see, his 2008 numbers gave Rays fans something to look forward to in 2009.

And if you have even looked towards the outfield grass beyond first base before a Rays game, Zobrist is always out there stretching with the starters even if he is not in the lineup. That is part of his game day prep, and one of the reason I truly feel he is a player to watch over the next few seasons.


Steve Nesius / AP

And considering he is not even arbitration eligible yet, Zobrist becomes a huge double-edged value to the Rays both in payroll and in his playing ability. Zobrist’s projected 2010 salary might only be around $450,000 before he hits arbitration for the first time after the 2010 season. And how valuable is that right now with the Rays looking to stabilize their payroll and find needed money for possible Bullpen help. Zobrist is not only helping the Rays on the field already, he is heaping them in their fiscal bottom line too.

So even if Zobrist did not get an additional votes in the MVP race to post his name up there with the American League heavyweights, his day might still come in the future. People always love to root for the underdog, and you know Zobrist definitely fits the bill for that title, even in 2010. And you can be sure that in 2010 there will be more than a few Fantasy Baseball team owners who will take Zobrist onto their rosters. I have to admit, I took him in the 10th round last year because I have seen his potential over the last two years and have always liked what he brings to the game both on and off the field.

So Benjamin  Zobrist, we are proud of what you have done in 2009. And we salute you and hope and pray that the off season keeps you safe and ready for Spring Training in 2010
. Starting this spring, when your name appears in the lineup people will begin to check your stats and watch your development to see if you are a flash-in-the-pan or the real deal. We already know the answer here in Tampa Bay. We already know you are our MVP.


Chris O’Meara / AP

So what if the American League’s other BBWAA voters do not give you the respect yet, or even the courtesy of a 10th place vote on every ballot. You can be our little secret for another year. You can be the guy that opposing fans look at each other and wonder who you are after you launch one into the stands. Sure we might hide you around the outfield and infield again, but getting you on the field is the main thing, because a lineup with Zobrist in it is a ticking time bomb ready to launch an offensive explosion.

So as we begin to go towards the bulk of the off season, it is okay if the rest of the countries media want to forget about Zobrist. It is fine if they do not want to honor a year to remember from a guy who stepped up and accepted the challenge and propelled his team. We know your value and we know your potential. Tick,tock…..tick, tock. Spend the off season resting, relaxing and playing with your son Zion. For in the Spring of 2010, you can again get your determination and intensity scale set to “10”, because some people forgot who you were. They forgot you were “Zorilla”, but that is fine. Even Godzilla had more than one film, and he did pretty well for himself.   

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