Results tagged ‘ Pat Burrell ’

Andrew Friedman: Reloading the Rays, Not Rebuilding.

 

TBO.com/Unknown Photog

I really do not know how Tampa Bay Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman keeps doing it. For a long span of this off season it was almost as if the Rays entire front office staff closed their doors until almost January.

It was if the Rays staff wanted to sit there lurking as the MLB Free Agent market set its ceilings and cellars for positional and pitching. Then like a top of the food chain predator, Friedman awoke from his Rip Van Winkle slumber and proceeded to hand pick his replacement fruit from the still bountiful MLB player trees.

Evan as other free agents started getting plucked with vigor from the tree by other teams in haste, Friedman acted more like a customer in the produce aisle thumping the exterior of players like a ripe melon. His first move of the off season Friedman went out and signed promising ex-Nationals right-hand reliever Joel Peralta on December 17,2010 to help fill the first piece of the Rays Bullpen overhaul.

In his now classic under a cloak of secrecy Rays style, Friedman was also concluding one trade deal with the San Diego Padres to ship one of his big ticket arbitration eligible Jason Bartlett on the same day as the Peralta singing. Still lurking in the darkness was a thunderous trade of Rays starter Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs on January 8, 2011. Friedman made out like a bandit on both trades bringing back a bountiful treasure trove of both MLB quality players, plus some high caliber prospects that will help reload the Rays farm system for the next Rays reload.

The trades of his two highest dollar arbitration eligible players helped Friedman free up just over $ 10 million to pursue some big fish for other Rays glaring holes in their Bullpen, plus a big bat to protect Evan Longoria in the Rays line-up. But the Tampa Bay sun was shining bright on Friedman as two of his other arbitration eligible players Centerfielder B J Upton and reliever Andy Sonnanstine both signed one year contracts freeing up Friedman from any possible arbitration hearing duty this Spring.

Just as you thought Friedman might take a deep breath and relax for a brief moment, Friedman went out and got his intimidating back-end of the Bullpen reliever in RHP Kyle Farnsworth on January 15. Friedman then possibly made a few decoy moves in signing complimentary pieces RHP Dirk Hayhurst and 2B Daniel Mayora to minor league deals with a Spring Training Invites.

Then in Friedman style, just when you thought that the MLB cupboard was starting to become mighty bare, Friedman signs Tampa Bay native and defensive First Baseman Casey Kotchman to a minor league deal. The Kotchman deal might have been another Friedman diversion as his next deal had some around the MLB wondering if the Rays were in fact rebuilding or just simply reloading.

One day after Kotchman signed, the Rays announce their biggest off season signing of the season, a duo signing of Lf/DH Manny Ramirez and LF/DH Johnny Damon to one year contracts that are very team friendly. Ramirez and Damon’s combined salaries will cost the Rays around $ 7.25 million (not including Damon’s attendance incentives), which still is only $ 1.75 million LESS than the Rays paid Pat Burrell for his services through mid-May 2010.

If you even include Farnsworth’s $ 3 million base salary (not including games finished incentives), the three signings will sneak just under the projected off season arbitration figures of traded players Bartlett and Garza ( $ 10.5 million). Only Friedman could trade away two important cogs of the Rays roster and get so much back in return, plus prospects who will help keep the Rays payroll in check for a long time.

TBT.com/unknown Photog

But that is the magic of Friedman. Somehow he can come into a do-or-die cost-cutting scenario with only a bale of wheat or hay and come out in the end spinning a strand of thin gold into a tight ball. You have to seriously wonder just how savvy and creative Friedman was as an investment banker if he can do all of this with a significantly reduced Rays payroll (proposed ceiling between $40-50 million).

Pull up the Rays 40-man roster going into Spring Training, including their under the radar Spring Training Invites. On February 15, 2011 when Rays pitchers and catchers begin their first 2011 workouts, it will be just over 60 days since Friedman’s first signing of Peralta. Just think about the level of talent already assembled, and we still have over 10 days for Friedman to still daze and confuse us before that first workout.

Not since that first Rays blunder under Friedman’s watch when the Rays tried to sneak Josh Hamilton through the Rule 5 Draft, has Friedman toughened up and taken a firm stand that he will never be surprised like that again. Deal for deal, salary for salary, I truly think Friedman might have gotten the most money back on his entire player investments since taking the Rays reins.

Besides the tarnish of the Burrell debacle, there is nothing but shine to Friedman’s trade and Free Agent moves. Since his emergence on the MLB scene, Friedman has been simply golden. Gifted with a crack Scouting Department, piles and piles of correlated data and visuals, plus an eye for talent, Friedman has made the Rays a role model for team competing on a shoestring budget.

But do not be surprised if in the next 10 days, before February 15th if Friedman doesn’t pull another off-the-cuff deal that seemed to come out of nowhere. But then again, that is okay, Friedman is not rebuilding the Rays, he is just helping them reload

Have You Tried the Rays NEW D&M Sandwich?


pbj.jpgExaminer.com photo file

 

Got to tell you, when I first heard the signing rumblings recently about Florida-born Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez possibly signing with the Tampa Bay Rays, it made me ………extremely hungry.Yes, you heard that right, I became famished, and eager to sit down and digest this whole enchilada bite by bite. Not sure why this idea of “food” as an analogy point crept into my mind, but the more I focus in on the Rays Republic’s knowledge on these two iconic aging stars, the more my thoughts seem to melt into an ever expanding culinary direction.

The extremely wild part of it all is tat I instantly imagines a homemade Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich when thinking about these two players signing with the Rays. If you really look deep into this equation, the two of them were brought in to be a cohesive bonding agent for the Rays offense. Both have strengths and abilities that will benefit each other, and with their confidence and leadership, could mesh this unit into the perfect PB & J.

Of course Damon is the Peanut Butter with his smooth stroke at the plate and good running style. Coming to a team like the Rays that use the stolen base as an additional means to produce scoring opportunities, Damon will get more than a few chances to stretch him self from the heel to the crown of the bread loaf, and smother himself. Most might think I would pick Ramirez for the peanut butter since he does have his “nutty” tendencies, but the P B is all Damon.

Not the crunch variety either. I honestly think this was a great move that will actually streamline the Rays running game and produce some great numbers for Damon in 2011. Most people are downplaying the positive aspects of Damon coming here, but remember, the Detroit Tigers were not known for their love of the stolen base last season. Now the big question might be where to insert Damon into this line-up to take advantage of this speed-based offense.

That brings me to another reason why Damon is peanut butter. You see, it is not jelly and peanut butter, but peanut butter and jelly. With that culinary distinction, Damon should hit lead-off. Some might suggest B J Upton there with his speed and power potential, but I see Upton actually hitting second and give Damon chances to not only score runs, but possibly put pressure on the opponent’s defense to make the hard plays.

But you can’t have PB & J without the jelly. Ramirez is still a great hitter. Just because some of his power numbers have taken a spiral downward since his 50-game in-season vacation while with the Los Angeles Dodgers doesn’t mean it was “juice-induced”. Jelly is all about the preservatives, pectin and the ultimate fruit tastes that push this classic sandwich to the next level.

Living in FL, I have gotten to know odd flavor concepts in jelly from orange to guava escalating into my new favorite mango. Ramirez is like a ripen mango, and ready for the picking. He was not happy in La-la Land, and at times his play on the field showed brightly to the fans that if Manny is not happy….Manny takes to playing the game on his own level. Hence the mango jelly.

It is an acquired taste. Some people would be repulsed by it while others savor the exotic nature of it all knowing the difference is what makes it special. Hence, Ramirez is the Manny Mango in my jelly-based opinion. Ramirez was brought here to protect the Rays golden asset, budding MLB hot shot Evan Longoria in the line-up. Ramirez’s ability to hit it long and hard, or just produce period makes him a great protector for Longoria in the Rays line-up.

Playing mostly at DH for the Rays ( except during Inter-League), it is a chance for Manny to show the rest of the American League that he can make the transition from everyday field player to Designated Hitter. This is a chance for the Rays and Ramirez to desperately inject a new tangy and intoxicating bit of favor to the DH position without the bitter aftertaste of the Burrell DH era. In short, it is Ramirez playing for a possible 2012 audition as a AL DH.

I really feel deeply that Damon and Ramirez aka Dam-Manny come as a unique flavor profile package, not unlike the mentioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Heck, the idea that the Rays lost out on signing Andrew Jones is muted instantly by the basic premise of the BOGO (Buy One, Get One Free) situation where the Rays produced a “win-win” situation by getting two prolific scorers for one low price. That kind of grocery savvy reminds me totally of the Rays favorite grocery chain (Sweetbay).

When in your wildest notions would you have ever expected to see these two players EVER in the Rays Carolina blue jerseys. But coming within a month, when they report to Port Charlotte, Florida for Spring Training,. Waiting for them will be a young team with a hearty appetite for winning, and a want to succeed.

Most people expected me to possibly throw this deal under a microscope and find fault, blame or even a dab of sarcasm at the expense of the new duo, But this deals makes me extremely hungry for a pure fact that it feels like the perfect sandwich. Together both Damon and Ramirez give the Rays a two headed approach at American League hitting this season, where if they had signed Jones, it would have been one flavor all season long.

With the addition of these two talents, we will definitely see either Damon or Ramirez at times camped out in the Rays outfield with the NEW AstroTurf II under their tootsies hopefully performing amazing plays. The addition of the two hitters also give the wheeling and dealing line-up machine of Rays Manager Joe Maddon two more weapons in his daily arsenal to take down the Red Sox and Yankees from their predestined podiums.

Damon and Ramirez fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Together they can make a tasty treat that will make you smile and get you excited. But apart, they become two different taste platforms that do not go well on their own merits. I am still feeling a bit hungry, and I think it is time for me to venture into the kitchen for a hearty snack. Maybe I will conjure up a special D&M sandwich, better known to people outside Tampa Bay as a PB&J…..

 

 

 

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?

 

 

Was Burrell just plain Evil as a Rays Doppelganger?

 


 

There was growing Tampa Bay Rays rumor floating in the Rays clubhouse prior to the 2010 season that Rays All Star outfielder Carl Crawford would not even entertain an idea of a contract extension because of this one player. In 2009, the tension grew and grew between these two leaders in the Rays clubhouse until finally a confrontation between the two exploded and Crawford had to be restrained by Rays starting pitcher James Shields.


Crawford’s adversary had taken a cheap shot at his friend and teammate B J Upton after a contest, and somehow pushed Crawford beyond his boiling point. Immediately a thickening line was drawn in the sand nonverbally that if the Rays valued Crawford, that this one individual had to go. Increasing rants and raves outside the locker room began to point towards this lone figure and provide a mountain of blame because of his decrease in productivity and leadership to this young budding squad.

More and more the sediment became apparent in the stands that member of the Rays Republic has seen their tempers growing thin with his antics and his chatter . That his mown rhetoric of playing in the field fueling his motivation fell upon increasingly deafened ears as the divide began to grow deeper between himself and the Rays fans. Finally on May 14, 2010 after he went 0-4 in a 4-3 loss against the Seattle Mariners at home in Tropicana Field, the door closed quickly on his time in a Rays uniform.

On that Friday night in May when he hit a long fly ball out to Ichiro Suzuki in the bottom of the ninth inning, it would be his last time putting on a Rays uniform. After that night, the evil doppelganger that was Pat “The Bat” Burrell was laid to rest by the Rays. The next morning the Rays front office officially designated Burrell for assignment, but he was not even in the Rays clubhouse.

Burrell had already heard the news and was adjusting for another shot somewhere else. He would have to endure a 10 day storm of criticism and negative innuendo before finally weathering the storm and searching for his next opportunity. He had hit a paltry .202 during that short span with the Rays, but he still knew he could play the game if he could find an employer who would listen to his plea and give him an opportunity.

 

Burrell had been crying to the heavens before his release to the Rays staff that he needed to ” get into the flow of the game” by playing in the field with an occasional Designated Hitter relief spot. That playing everyday in the green grass(turf) got him into a positive flow and environment where he produced instead of sitting on a bench expected to rise to the occasion 4 or 5 times a game. He needed a consistent game flow, not one predicated by InterLeague games and Spring Training starts only in the outfield.


So were we all fools not to heed Burrell’s logic? Did he really know the essence of his hitting stemmed from his getting some time in the fresh air and outfield, or was it just a ruse? Considering the pure fact that Burrell seemed to suffocate within his new restrictions as a DH in the American League, did that predicate his departure again for the National League and a chance to again force a team to insert him into an outfield situation?

Was Burrell’s pleas and wants to play in the outfield met by deafened ears within the Rays system and not even thought of as an alternative to getting his fires churning before the Rays designated him? Here the ideas are speculation, but the proof is in the pudding. Burrell suddenly seemed to excel again once his tootsies touched the green grass/turf of the outfield.

 

Burrell had to shed the evil doppelganger persona and renew his NL allegiance by signing with the San Francisco Giants for the rest of the 2010 season for the league minimum salary. The Rays were still on the hook for a bulk of his $ 9 million salary, but they now had no ties or bonds to the enhanced positive spirit and exuberated talents now showcased by Burrell during the reminder of 2010.


His evil doppelganger never reared its ugly side in San Francisco, instead a more centered and reliable bat spilled out of the rejuvenated Burrell. Before May 14,2010 ( 24 games) Burrell had compiled a .202 batting average with 2 HR and 13 RBI. In tune with the evil doppelganger, Burrell had struck out 28 times in only 84 plate appearances. Simple nasty numbers considering his high salary and the demand for consistent performance from his DH position.

Upon his return to the Major Leagues with the Giants in 2010, Burrell went on to play in 96 games for the G-men posting 18 HR and 58 RBIs and boosting his OPS to a .872 mark. His strikeout totals were still high (77 in 289 at bats), but Burrell quickly quadrupled his walk totals and provided a much needed offensive piece of power for the Giants. Burrell even felt a rejuvenation in his play in the field playing 87 games in the Giant’s outfield and collecting only 2 errors. A total of 632 innings in the outfield and only two small errors. By comparison, the Rays right fielder Matt Joyce played in 63 games for a total of 472 innings and had 3 errors.

Simply put, Burrell might have been right about his fielding help accentuate his hitting. Maybe if both the Rays staff and the fans given him a chance to play in the field occasionally, it might have worked to the satisfaction of both parties and given Burrell a renewed energy and vitality at the plate. Of course this is purely speculation because in hindsight, who knows what Burrell could of done if Burrell was included in the platoon mix in Rightfield for the Rays.

 

The cycle has now seemed to have turned 180 degree for Burrell with a level of success and another trip to the post season firmly within his grasp. Burrell is having the time of his life renewed by the pressure and stress caused in trying to win a National League pennant for his new club against his old squad, the Philadelphia Phillies. Funny how ironic it is now that the Rays signed Burrell as a offensive weapon in their arsenal for the next time the Rays could have faced the Phillies in a playoff situation.


Crawford has now boxed up his equipment and gone home for the season, possibly never to wear a Rays uniform again. The Rays never seemed to have gotten a level of consistent power or hitting from their DH even after Burrell’s departure. Ironic again that the Rays might have finally cut their ties with Burrell thinking he was not the piece that would get them to their final goals in 2010. Now Burrell is preparing for a trip home to San Francisco with the series tied 1-all and a chance to again be anointed as a godsend late addition to the Giants than as a possible evil Rays doppelganger.

Special Moments within Moments

 


Steve Nesius/AP

The Red Sox series did a few things for the Tampa Bay Rays. Not only did it create a scenario where the Red Sox would have to go 23-8 to even catch the Rays now, it also brought about some personal celebrations within the Rays clubhouse. Some of these moments show the longevity, commitment and great feats accomplished by a few of our favorite Rays. But it also silently rewarded a guy who has been viewed as a liability for the wrong reasons.


It was great to see James Shields win his third game in a row after getting demolished in Rogers Centre against the Blue Jays. Especially enlightening was the way Carl Crawford still seems so humble as his name is written next to some of the true icons of the game and still he has that “aw shucks” mannerism to him. But hidden behind all of this was the celebration of the big “10″. Former Rays DH Pat Burrell hit this lofty plateau on my birthday (ironically).

 

Most Rays Republic members have mixed emotions about Gabe Kapler being on this Rays squad. Some point to his ability to play the outfield with zest and gumption as a perfect model of the consummate professional baseball player. Others nag and argue about his diminishing skills at the plate and his usefulness to this Rays squad has passed him by. I am centered in both camps a bit knowing that 10 years of playing in this league can take a lot out of you, but Kapler is a player that remains “old school” in hustle and demeanor, and that never gets old. But even as the team brought in a chocolate cheesecake to commemorate the moment.


But a confectionary treat should also be brought in for Rays starter James Shields who got to the top of the Rays pitching mountain with his 56th career Rays victory in his 145th career start. It has been classic Shields over the last two weeks after his out of character homer fest in Toronto, and that bodes well for the Rays. Not only has Shields turns his game around, but he is also closing in on a dubious Rays seasonal record. Shields currently has 29 Home Runs allowed, which is tops in the American League, and that total is within 3 of the Rays club record of 32 Home Runs allowed by Tanyon Sturtze back in 2002.

 

Even with a 6-2 record now over his last 8 starts, Shields has also shown a bit of his advanced age (28) this year on the mound, but his 13-11 record is very misleading. He has thrown 10 strikeouts in 5 games this season, and also was on the other end of the Dallas Braden Perfect Game against the Rays. As the cocky veteran on the Rays staff this year, Shields has also established his legacy here in Tampa Bay by finally rising to the top. But another Rays has been on top for quite a while, and we might be seeing the twilight of his Rays adventure.


There is no denying that Carl Crawford is a humble and timid person off the field. The guy is soft-spoken and polite to the end. So when he hit his 100th Home Run last night to push himself past Fred McGriff and into the third spot in the Rays all time Home Run list, you knew he would not want a big thing made out if the event. And the same thing happened twice this year as Crawford jumped over the 400 stolen bases mark, or even hit his 100th triple. This same guy will probably be the first player to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame wearing a Rays cap ( hopefully an old 2002 model ) and you would think he was only selected as Employee of the Month at your local Publix.

 
Steve Nesius/AP

But that is what you love about C C, that he is caught up in the numbers or the historical significance of it all right now. Crawford is definitely the type of guy who will reflect on it after his job is done maybe this off season on the accomplishments and events that have transpired over his Rays career with admiration, but the whole enchilada has not hit him yet. The iconic baseball names like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Lou Brock, Frankie Frisch, Kenny Lofton, Paul Molitor and Tim Raines, who pushed beyond that 100 HR,100 triples and 400 stolen base mark like Crawford also had that humble gene close in their minds and heart.


People will remark soon about this team as winners. They will embrace them again as playoff contenders, but one of the greatest things to me about this Rays team is the way each player melts into the whole stew of doping it the “Rays Way”. You have a wily veteran (Kapler) who might be seeing the sunset of his professional career hit a high water mark of 10 years of MLB Service while watching the kids win nightly. You have a pitcher young in age, but older in his leadership ability and effort (Shields) while guiding this team again towards the path of remembrance.

And then you have the still swift feet of Crawford, who might soon find these same feet walking out of his Rays clubhouse for the last time after their playoff run. Each celebrating a different special moment this season, but all collectively staying true to the Rays mantra of “WIN- What’s Important Now”. Last night’s series victory over the Red Sox might be a special moment in the melting pot of the 2010 Rays, but within that cauldron of bubbling goodness is the feats of Kapler, Crawford and Shields each going in their own singular directions, but within the path of the Rays destiny.

Good Riddance Hank Blalock!

 

 


 
Mike Carlson/AP

It was about time. I truly think it was a month or so past due to take out the trash, but finally the era of the “convoluted contract” is over in Tampa Bay. Finally there is some finite closure to the whining and egotistical demands made by Hank Blalock on at least two opportunities before the Tampa Bay Rays reluctantly brought him up with the Big team. Finally there will be so joy in Rays-ville for the might Blalock is gone lock, stock and bat barrel.


With the Rays finally pulling the trigger and designating him for assignment, they have effectively sent Blalock home to Ranchero Santa Fe, California to re-think his logic to getting back to the Major Leagues full-time. But hopefully, it will not be with the Rays. The team could still offer him a Triple-A deal, but I hope Blalock decided to move in another direction…far away from Tampa Bay. This action was really past due in my mind based basically on his blatant disregard for protocol and using the media to spin his wheels in motion back to the Major Leagues.

The Rays front office finally reached down deep inside their mindset and saw a mediocre utility player who basically verbally extorted them in to compliance to the Majors again, then appeared in only 25 Rays games. The Rays could see that their “Less than a Million Dollar Man” was in fact an overpriced benchwarmer who produced only a .254 average with a lone Home Run and 7measily RBI while up with the Rays. Here was a guy who tossed out accolades and performances, but then looked like a wet firecracker when needed. It was a great inexpensive experiment, but had horrendous results.

This was the guy the Rays chose to take the place of another “B”-list player, Pat Burrell instead of other capable MLB quality players stirring the pot in Durham. Former MLB players Dan Johnson and Joe Dillon, who also were having breakout seasons at Triple-A were bypassed for the charming vocal (sarcasm) renditions of Blalock. Either one of the above mentioned hitters would have been an improvement over Mr Blalock, and all three of them can play multiple positions on the field.

 
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Some team around the game might need a average bench bat or a utility player like Blalock, but I hope the rest of the MLB paid close attention to the series of farces Blalock the negotiator played on the Rays management. Hopefully Blalock will play it smarter next time and let his bat do the talking. Some will throw the blame of the end of Spring Training rant, plus the May manic cry for promotion to ‘bring me up or let me go” towards his agent, Scott Boras. But it was Blalock who stood firmly behind those words and quotes. If he felt Boras had pushed too hard, he never voiced that opinion or showed an ounce of remorse.


It was Blalock who thrust his chest out like he was the Rays answer at their dismal Designated Hitters spot., I would characterize Blalock’s Rays tenure as lukewarm ( at best). But there will be those voices heard loud amongst the baseball world that think Blalock was about to break out after posting a 7-19 (.368) mark with 3 walks over his last 9 Rays games. Combine that with his 2010 InterLeague mark of 8-23 (.357) with 5 walks and his only Home Run off Houston’s Bud Norris, and some might say this Rays move was a tad bit premature.
By the Rays deciding to reactivate Gabe Kapler for the Disabled List last night, and send Blalock packing, it might speak volumes about what the Rays expected out of Blalock after all his distractions and banter.

It seemed that Blalock used his mouth to sign check his talents could not cash with the Rays. I am so glad Blalock was designated during an away series and not a home game. Now Blalock can slither away in peace without a throng of Rays fans shouting or throwing fake love towards him in exchange for a parting gift autograph . Some might see this as a extreme measure by the Rays to break a cursed losing streak. The reality is that Blalock has been a part-time player during his brief stay when the Rays needs a full-time leader and DH right now.


When Blalock first signed with the Rays I was hoping he left his bad baggage still in Texas and did not bring his brash, hard nosed attitude with him to Port Charlotte this Spring. But we all know how that worked out as Blalock cried and whined like a little child when he was not awarded one of the final roster spots. Immediately it threw up huge red flags to me of his past Rangers rants. I smelled danger on the horizon, but the Rays took their lumps and finally got him to agree ( after a nice $$ bump) to go to Triple-A and wait his turn.
Then in May, Blalock wanted to either be in a Rays uniform, or be let go to shop his talents elsewhere, and the Rays let him saunter into the Rays clubhouse on May 15th, as former Ray Pat Burrell was packing his bags.

 
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Immediately he was on the clock (with me) to prove he was the solid choice. Just because you work out and carry a strong work ethic doesn’t mean it translates into instant game time production. Blalocks’ gun was not loaded with blanks, but his hit and miss mentality began to grow thin with the Rays, and they cut the cord…….thankfully.


Blalock might go on to prove the Rays wrong, and that would be good for him and his career, but his time here in Tampa Bay is over now. Who knows if he might mimic fellow former Rays DH Burrell and find a spot to rejuvenate and rebuild his career. All I know it is time to finally rest easy and know that the Blalock experiment is over in Tampa Bay.
 
No longer will we see a guy who promised results swing and miss in a critical moment (15 K’s in 63 appearances). No longer will we see a guy brought in to help produce runs have a lower Slugging Percentage than Carlos Pena. No longer is their sorrow in Rays-ville…for the might Blalock has gone home. Do not let the door hit you on the way out.

Blalock is the Bandage, not the Rays Answer

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Anyone who has known me for any amount of time know that I have very well cemented opinions about this whole enchilada concerning Pat “The DFA” Burrell and Rays new poster problem child Hank Blalock. I do agree with the Rays Front Office that it was time to make some sort of residual personnel change and find a feasible offensive option at Durham for the Rays woes at the Designated Hitter spot.

But what concerns me is not the haste of the fond farewell to the Burrell Era, but the Rays reasoning for accepting Blalocks “convoluted” threats and letting him get what he wanted in the long run instead of flushing him out of the Rays organization. This recent action goes a bit against the grain of the Rays usual mentality to purge those negative influences instead of enhance them through promotion in their farm system.


There was already a viable Ray solution currently on the Rays 25-man roster named Willy Aybar who was more than capable of taking over and having instant success at the DH position. Why did the Rays Front Office bring in their resident angry child Blalock who might end up doing more harm than good in the character of this cohesive Rays clubhouse. Why wasn’t Aybar, who has seen his name erased from duty at First Base lately not given a chance to “own” the D H spot for himself before letting Blalock and his agent Scott Boras  deafening verbal barrages force the Rays hands on give in to their temper tantrum problem child.

In essence, the Rays did not have to play any part in Blalocks  tug and pull game, but there might be some sort of dark reasoning to all this madness that will expose itself in time. Sure there have been acknowledgments from the Rays camp that those verbal barrages did not play into the recent decision that could have ultimately exploded on them on May 15th if the Rays did not make a corresponding move to entice Blalocks happiness. My twisted point here is that this is second moment of Blalock misery that has descended upon the Rays Front Office ears in less than 60 days that Blalock has thrown his blatant opinions and close-ended options to the media instead of hashing them out in private with the Rays Front Office like a true professional.

I hate to say it like this, but I have more respect for the two snitches in the Mariner’s locker room right now than a player who whines through the media to hasten his departure from the minor leagues. But sometimes things are done in a business like baseball to hastly dampen outward disruptions while a viable alternative solution or destination can be fully figured out from stem to stern.

If you consider baseball a normal business, then why did the Rays let an “employee” manipulate their cherished positive value system and give him a promotion to the Major Leagues instead of sending Blalock on the same sharp rail that disgruntled former Rays employees Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes took on their treks out of town and to their MLB squads. And we all know how well that move went for the Rays organization. Well, at least the Young trade netted us key Rays contributors Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. 

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But this time for some odd reason, the Rays decided to let the playground bully get his way and stroll into the Rays locker room with his chest extended far and wide. I can tell you I will be one of those Rays fans sitting on their hands until good old # 9 gives me a legitimate and constant reason to raise them and pop them together. And the main reason for my defiance to Blalock comes from his numerous rants and raves that I felt was not needed if he truly did have the stats and the ability to help instead of hinder this squad. But there were other options at Durham who might have also fit the bill for the Rays. Cue the Dan Johnson promotional video.


Seriously, let’s look at both Aybar and Johnson for a moment before I make a final statements on Mr. Blalock. Coming into Sunday’s game, Aybar has been a great offensive addition to the Rays with the constant flux concerning Burrell before his final Designated For Assignment verdict on Saturday. Considering Aybar went a combined 5 for 21 with a HR and 6 RBI on the Rays recent 9-game road trip, Aybar has shown a knack for getting the right hit at the right moment to spark the Rays offense. And his exclamation point just Saturday afternoon of hitting a walk-off Home Run in the bottom of the ninth inning off former Rays reliever Jesus Colume shows he has the gumption and the ability to fill the D H position in-house without Blalock in the fold.

So let’s turn our attention to my subtle reasoning for a Dan Johnson promotion, who like Blalock can play most of the Rays infield positions. Johnson has also been on a bit of a tear in the minor leagues with Durham to start the season. And if you stack them side-by-side, they might make the Rays decision a bit more…well “convoluted” to me. Johnson has appeared in 31 games and has hit .325 while Blalock was maintaining a .349 batting average. Close enough to maybe throw a tie into that mixture of facts. 

If you look at their collective OPS so far in 2010 at Durham, Johnson has a 1.047 OPS as opposed to Blalocks .910 mark. During their Bulls tenure, Blalock has played mostly Third Base while Johnson has manned the First Base bag for the Bulls. But I really think that Johnson’s 11 HR compared to Blalocks 4 HR gives Johnson a distinctive edge as an offensive weapon for the Rays. But maybe the Rays saw Johnson’s 25 strikeouts compared to Blalocks 19 and considered that stat another tie or wash. But then two stats that should of made Johnson a “shoe-in for promotion might be his .651 Slugging Percentage and 15 walks. It shows shows Johnson is more selective at the plate compared to Blalocks 10 walks and .505 Slugging Percentage.

One of the explanations for Blalocks promotion was his overall versatility to play both corner positions, plus add a Designated Hitting option from the left-side of the plate. But Johnson also has that same level of distinction. I hope the Rays did some serious soul searching before they arrived at this final decision to bring Blalock to this Rays clubhouse. Considering the combined abundance of extensive Scouting and player development intelligence within the Top floor offices at Tropicana Field, you got to think there is a secret black ops plan or some sort of alternative universe thought process in rewarding Blalock for his convoluted comments and threats.

And I expect to get hammered by some people who will try and tell me to give Blalock a chance because he was so great for this team this Spring. That was true for the two weeks Blalock played until the last week of Spring Training when Blalock seemed to veer from his “Rays Way” of thinking. That moment provided our first look into the Darkness of the Blalock world. After the Rays announced that Blalock did not have a coveted slot on the Rays final 25-man roster, his first wave of frustration or disbelief hit his brain stem hard and without thinking of possible recourse, he rebounded with an instant call for the Rays to find a team that would “respect his services” or send him packing.

Some will say that the Rays worked with him and gave him assurances and possible scenarios for promotion at certain moments in the Rays season, but Blalock began to get antsy and wanted fruition to the primal Rays song and dance. And there might be a Rays crafty ulterior motive here to let Blalock showcase his talents until possibly the Trade Deadline in the end of July when the Rays could discuss his final visa papers to leave the Rays-land for another location in return for some added minor league talent.

Maybe even back in March the Rays had a plan to maybe hold onto Blalock when he would become a “premium” player and use the market to their advantage to get some needed resources heading in their quest for a 2010 Playoff berth. And if that is the intention of the Rays in the long run, then Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman would have been wise to swallow his tongue and take the verbal abuses when it might net some key member(s) to a future Rays squad.

But in the end, this should have been Aybar time to shine for the Rays. Even if he is only hitting .239 in his limited appearances, he was riding a wave of increasing offensive firepower and could reward the Rays greatly in their ultimate faith in him. But then again, Aybar was batting .308 in his past 13 games prior to Saturday afternoon’s contest after starting the season 1 for 12. If that is not the sign of a positive turnaround, then I am as dumb as a box of rocks So with Blalock here, it is a no-brainer that Aybar might get the multitude of appearances against left-handed hitters while Blalock might get his moments against a right-hander.

 Mike Carlson / AP

It seems to me that the Rays made the choice of bringing up Blalock with a more than ultimate chance to showcase Blalock to other team’s who might be in the market for either power hitting options in their corner infield spots or possibly DH. It might end up being the Rays real ruse to use Blalocks talents to win some key ballgames and propel them within sight of their goal, then jettison him before the fire in his belly begins to burn again…..possibly in late July.

So I will sit silent until Blalock makes me a believer that the verbal assault were just his ploy to show he has the talent and ability to be here. But until then, my hands are folded for him, but cheering wildly and loudly for Aybar to take the position firmly in his hands and keep Blalock on the Rays bench. Oh, and hopefully during his tour in the minor leagues, Blalock finally learned how to hit a breaking ball on the outside corner. If not, it is going to be a long Summer for Blalock.

 

Yankees “Team Effort” Slams Rays

 
 
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It was kind of funny how everyone around me, including Rays fans, wanted to see me shouting and spouting out sports metaphors all over the place on Saturday afternoon after the New York Yankees used a bona fide “team effort” to dominate during their 10-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays. But the stark reality of MLB-style baseball is that these types of lop-sided, miscues, one-sided baseball contests happen several times a year to every one of the 30 Major League Baseball teams.

With only 5 Rays games in the 2010 books, you might not expect, or want it to happen today, but I knew this type of rude awakening was hovering on the distant horizon. Most baseball fans call these types of games “emotionless”, or that the “team didn’t seem to not have their heart into it tonight”. But the honest truth is that no matter how hard The Rays played today, no matter if the Rays go on to either win 100+ games a year or just sit at .500 with 81 wins, these types of nightmarish games come up and bite even the World Series Champions when they least expect them.

But do not think I have totally losing it here, but sometimes a game like this can be an early “wake-up” call to a emotional team like the Rays who seemed to dominate the Grapefruit League this Spring Training season, and might have forgotten for a moment some of their basic situational hitting skills that have made them great in the past several years.

 

Sure I wish this type of stagnant offensive contest did not happen against our division rival, the Yankees, and give their biggest rival even one day of an early season emotional advantage going into the rubber match on Sunday, but it happened. Now it is time to take stock, repair the damage and get ready for a brighter tomorrow. But I hate that these types of game can give a team like the Yankees even a slight idea of thinking the 2010 season might be more of a cake-walk than a rough and tumble set of series against these same feisty Rays.

But then again, if the Yankees do want to get over-confident and cocky, that is also fine with me because then it will make their eventual downfall in other Rays series games during the 2010 season a bit more…..tasty.

 

So you just have to rise from your blue Rays seat and salute the overall team effort by both Yankees starting pitcher C C Sabathia and his Yankee defense behind him today who got 18 of those key outs for Sabathia on ground or fly ball outs during this contest. And how amazing that earlier in this game it was scoreless and we were watching a budding pitchers’ duel between the Yankees 2009 19-game winner Sabathia and Rays Rookie Wade (WD-40) Davis.

 
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Even with Sabathia pinpointing that small white baseball within the Umpire’s small strike zone all game long, it was really the Yankee defense that made sure the game remained scoreless until the Yankees exploded for four runs by the beginning of the fifth inning.

 

And from that point the Yankee defense showed its solid backbone and helped carry Sabathia to his first win of the season. But this not to suggest Sabathia was inconsistent on the mound, but he only got two strikeouts from that point in the rest of the game as he relied on the Yankees defense to bring this win home. A key moment in securing this shutout win might have been when Sabathia got Pat Burrell to strikeout to end the bottom of the fifth inning with Evan Longoria standing on Third Base. Sabathia’s effort starved the Rays of a certain run that inning, and paced the way for the rest of the game.
 

And sure I felt a relieved when the pinstriped fans in the stands began to bellyache, moan and groan in the bottom of the eighth inning when with two outs, Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach ruined their world dominance scenario with a sharply-hit single through the 5-6 hole for the first hit of the game. It was as if Shoppach had hit a Grand Slam the way the Trop’s Rays-colored crowd visualized this lone drone hit to new Yankee Marcus Thames in Leftfield as a emotional release of all our stress and pent-up emotions that day.

The hit seemed to bewilder all those wearing pinstriped jerseys as they actively were counting aloud each and every Rays out like a countdown of an actual Space Shuttle launching, and throwing around “Yankee legend” banter around about Sabathia’s performance.

 

I have to admit, the pain is still there from the last No-hit bid by Chicago White Sox hurler Mark Buerhle, and I did not want to feel that same pain again today, especially at the hand’s of the Yankees. I was one of the Rays fans in the stands willing to take a deep inhale and exhale every particle of the air molecules in my lungs to try and help propel a Rays batted ball to the wall, or even visualize the speeding ball going through the hole by mentally trying to hold up a infielder’s glove for that first whiff of a chance today.
 

But at that point it was an 8-0 Yankee lead and the end was within sight even after Shoppach was balked to second and then this Rays chance to rebound was squashed six pitches later when Rays pinch hitter Gabe Kapler fouled out to Leftfield to extinguish another Rays possibility to pull themselves off the canvas in this game. It was great to see Ben Zobrist just an inning later hit a long fly ball that just seemed to run out of fuel on its flight path to going into the Rightfield stands and ended up one bouncing off the outfield wall towards ex-Ray Randy Winn, who was manning Rightfield at that point.
 

 
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These type of emotional train wreck games happen in a 162-game season. But with only 5 games in the 2010 MLB books, this type of game should not have happened against a divisional rival. It instantly put us a game behind them not only in the standings, but also in the hole towards winning the 2010 yearly series against the Yankees. In 2008 when the Rays had their most productive season, the team had a dominant year against their divisional rivals taking it to them every game and eventually pulling out the yearly series, which ended up being the difference between a American League East title and a lower spot in the standings.

 

A MLB team stubs its toes more than a few times during a season, but it how they rebound or answer the call the next contest that shows the stamina or the short-coming of a team. I expect a better game on Sunday, a more physical contest and one where the fight will come early to the Yankees and Rays pride will shine again. And even if a loss does happen, if the team leaves it all out on the field, and comes to play aggressive and emotional baseball, then they might conquer that Saturday set-back, which might have done more damage behind the scenes than between the foul lines. How a team rebounds from a game like this can be a clear indication of the unseen character of a squad.
 
 
 

Rays Possible 2010 Batting Order

 

 
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With the regular season just a stones throw away now, I thought it might be time to explore the possible Tampa Bay Rays 25-man roster that should be standing on the chalk lines during the Rays Opening Day on April 6th 2010 against the Baltimore Orioles. And of course, the first thing that has come out of many people’s mouths is what the possible Rays line-up card might look at on that Opening Day. 

And sure there are still a few battles to be won or lost before the team finalizes their 25-man roster, but this is just one Rays fan’s educated guess, a “guestimation” if you will, in what might actually mirror the line-up cars presented to the Umpires prior to the beginning fo the Rays 2010 Major League Baseball season.

Accompanied with my personal thoughts on the Rays 2010 starting Batting order will be some great Rays player photos that were taken after the day’s workouts on February 28,2010 by photography image giant, Getty Images. I really like the sequences photographer’s use of the Florida late afternoon sunshine to  peek and poke between spot surrounding the poses and stances of the Rays player’s to put an exclamation point on the Rays ever evolving “rays of light” concept .
 
 
And the final images of the 2010 Rays squad really drives this Rays persona home.  Got to admit, it was a great feature to use the natural elements of the Florida sun, then combine them with the white Rays jersey clad team. But that is enough about the photos. Let’s get this party started off right today and begin with the one player I truly think derserves to be the Rays lead-off hitter in 2010.
 

 
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Jason Bartlett has been thrown under the bus a few times over the last few years as having the defensive chops, but not the offensive firepower that sometimes is needed from the Shortstop position. In 2009, Bartlett rose high above those comments and showed why he should be considered in conversation when you discuss the top tier of American League shortstops. And some have whispered that he might go into a short offensive funk during 2010, not unlike the downward spiral in statistics that Rays Catcher Dioner Navarro had in 2009. But the MLB.com Fantasy projections have Bartlett hitting in the Rays lead-off spot, where he seems extremely comfortable.
 

The MLB.com Fantasy projections have Bartlett going to the plate over 500 times this season, and sporting a .320 Batting Average with 14 HR, 66 RBI and 30 stolen bases. But the one figure that jumps out at me is not the Batting Average, but the fact he could plate 90+ runs in this high-powered Rays offense hitting in front of Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena. If Bartlett does get on base, even via the walk (54), Bartlett could be a thorn in the side of opposing pitchers’ in 2010. And with Bartlett showing early power this season in Spring Training, these stats might just be a launching pad for him this season.
 
 

 
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What can you say about the Rays second hitter that has not already been said either in Baseball Fantasy passages or prose. Carl Crawford might just be one of the most exciting players to simply watch during a plate appearance based solely on his unpredictable nature of mixing the infield hit with his power stroke. And the added ammunition of possibly adding a drag bunt to his arsenal in 2010, You could see him get his highest seasonal Batting Average as a Ray in 2010.

 
Crawford is one of the Rays players that is feared if he is on the base paths, by both infielders and outfielders. And throw in the another “tweak” to his base-running stride that he picked up this off-season, Crawford might go “lights out” again early in 2010 with stolen bases. MLB Fantasy projections have Crawford posting a .305 Batting Average with 15 HR, 68 RBI and another 60+ stolen bases season. But like Bartlett, if Crawford is on first base with a ball down the line, you could see some great coast-to-coast running by Crawford to produce some extra critical Rays runs in 2010.
 

 
 
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Some people are calling Ben Zobrist a ” man without a position”, and also downplaying his 2009 slugging campaign to the pure fact American League pitchers’ were conned early by his extra power and base running abilities. But 2009 was the first full season Zobrist actually has been healthy in his short career with the Rays. A small list of nagging injuries kept him bouncing in and out of the line-up before 2009 when Zobrist finally got a chance to show his abilities after an May knee injury to ex-Rays Second Baseman Akinori Iwamura. And maybe all Zorilla ever needed was a chance to shine after showing rays of brilliance during pinch-hit and spot duty during games in 2007-2008.
 

And we know that Rays Manager Joe Maddon will do everything to get Zobrist’s bat into the Rays line-up, even considering batting Zobrist in the 3-slot to begin the 2010 season. This is Spring Training swap in line-up spots for Zobrist has shown great results, and might be the answer to provide RBI-opportunities with three straight Rays hitters who can get on base and mix power and speed effectively to get rival pitching staff into early inning troubles. MLB.com Fantasy Projections have Zobrist hitting .297 with 27 HR , 97 RBI and 17 stolen bases. But his key moves in 2010 might be his position flexibility to give the Rays options at Second Base and Rightfield throughout 2010 based on game day match-ups and possible late inning position shifts.
 

 
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What can you say about Evan Longoria. He has shown in his two season up with the Rays that he is not a fluke and can match-up power and plate discipline. And with the possibility of Maddon moving Longo into the “Clean-up” spot in 2010, the young stars legend might just grow a few more paragraphs before the end of 2010. Longoria won the 2009 Silver Slugger Award for Third Base in the American League, and barring an injury, should be able to reserve a spot on his fireplace mantel for another nice piece of hardware this Fall.
 

This might be the next step in the evolution of Longoria as Maddon will push more offensive pressure on the young player’s shoulders. But I have a feeling Longo will actually welcome the chance to produce and also be a key leadership component of this 2010 Rays squad. MLB.com Fantasy projections have Longoria posting a .281 Batting Average with 33 HR, 113 RBI and getting 72 walks during the season. If Longoria gets off to a solid and hot start, this might be the season he sees more walks, and could easily pass that 72 walk mark easily.
 

 

 
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Early this Spring I was worried about Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena. After he had two of his fingers broken by a fastball pitch by New York Yankees starter C C Sabathia, there were early Spring concerns that Pena, who went over 21 plate appearances before finally getting back into the groove with a Home Run to start his 2010 Spring hitting regiment. But lost in the confusion was the fact he was hitting the ball solid during that time, but the new heavily padded batting gloves might have been more of a mental change and adjustment for Pena than a physical one.
 

With his fingers healed and ready to go, Pena has recently begun to show more selective plate selection and getting his average moving towards the Mendoza Line this Spring. But you can not discount the sheer power and ability of Pena in this line-up, and he has been working hard this Spring on pulling the ball more towards the Third Base-Shortstop hole to fight off the game day shift that some American League teams employ against him. But the MLB.com Fantasy projections have Pena hitting .227 with 39 HR ,100 RBI and 87 walks. But a key for Pena might be to show an avid decrease in strikeouts since he will be hitting in the 5-spot and might see more different pitch selections in 2010.
 
 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

I am actually thinking this sixth slot might be a possible second lead-off position for the Rays in 2010.
And who better than speedster B J Upton to be at the plate in this situation. In Spring Training 2010, Upton is showing he has fully recovered from his off season 2009 shoulder surgery, and his bat stroke has looked real clean at the plate. But some of that credit might also rub off on new Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton who spent more than a few moments with Upton in the off season working on his front foot placement and swing follow through. The results are early success this Spring for Upton.

 

Upton might finally have that breakout season Rays fans have been waiting for in 2010. Upton has the ability to be one of the best Centerfielders in baseball, and with some additional pop in his bat, he could possibly meet his brother Justin in Anaheim for the 2010 All Star game. MLB.com projections have Upton hitting .241 with 11 HR and 55 RBI to go along with 42 stolen bases. Upton’s presence on base will also give pitching staff fits in 2010, and I actually see him hitting more like a .265 Batting Average with 16 HR and 70 RBI and posting 50 stolen bases. As you can see, I am expecting Upton to have a nice ” coming out” party in 2010.

 
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This is the one huge question mark to me right now. I want to believe in Pat Burrell’s just having an “off year” in 2010. I really do, but Burrell has to show more than just neck pain and inconsistent plate appearances, because “The Bat” has to perform this season, or be instantly labeled a flop with the Rays. Hopefully in 2010 Burrell can again live up to his moniker and provide some needed hitting from the 7th position in the Rays line-up. This season definitely needs to be a good season for Burrell to help provide some protection for Longoria and Pena, or pitchers will not fret knowing an anemic Burrell is in the On-Deck Circle.

 

But I see a vigor in Burrell this Spring. But he has still heard more than a few “Boo-birds” chirping this Spring, but his bat is showing more speed through the hitting zone, which hopefully projects into more hits or scoring chances for the Rays. MLB.com Fantasy projections have Burrell hitting only  for a .221 Batting Average with 14 HR, 66 RBI with a p[ossible “healthy” 412 plate appearances. But the key to 2o1o might be that Burrell excedds these conservative expectations and shows us his old 30-HR, 100RBI form we saw in Philadelphia for all those years with the Phillies. The Rays do not have much wiggle room to go out and seek a big bat if Burrell should falter at all, or if his neck injury come back to bite him again in 2010.


The eight spot in the Batting Order definitely be an “insert here” platoon situation depending on where Zobrist is situated on the field. Both Gabe Kapler and Matt Joyce have the offensive abilities to play every day in Rightfield, but they will be in a platoon situation with Zobrist depending on where skipper Maddon positions Zobrist that night.

 
 

 
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And then again, this spot could go to Rays newcomer Sean Rodriguez who was a main piece of the Scott Kazmir trade last July and has been on fire at the plate this Spring and might actually see extended time at Second Base if he gets off to a hot start at the plate in 2010. So with that possibly in the cards, let’s check out all three players projections for 2010. Kapler will definitely get spot starts against left-handers and also time as a late inning defensive replacement in 2010. Kapler no longer seems to have the power potential he had earlier in his MLB career, but MLB.com Fantasy projections have him getting at least 205 plate appearances while hitting .239 with 8 HR and 32 RBIs. Not a big power threat anymore, but a solid hitter who can also still run effectively on the base paths.
 

Matt Joyce might not even make the Rays roster straight out of Spring Training due to some extra time working on his conditioning because of a early Spring elbow ailment. But Maddon has shown extreme confidence in Joyce’s abilities, and he might be realistically destined for an early rehab or DL visit to begin the season. But projections have Joyce seeing limited duty in 2010 possibly as a fifth outfielder and his ability to rebound might take his stats off the charts in regards to early 2010 season projections.
 
 
Sean Rodriguez might make it difficult for Maddon to not use him as an every day Second Baseman or spot utility guy. He has come on like gangbusters this Spring and might have a solid chance to break camp as the penciled-in everyday Second Baseman. And even if Rays fans do not know his name, Rodriguez has built a solid MLB experience base over spot duties over the past two MLB seasons, and could propel his MLB.com Fantasy projections past the presets that show him hitting only .200 with a total of 25 plate appearances. It seems that most projection sites do not portray him as a starter right now, but Rodriguez is making people redefine their position with every Spring game.
 
 
 
And lastly, we have the two guys who will battle with each other in the Rays Catching corps, which is solid in experience, but definitely lacking in power and hitting consistency. And even though it was not so long ago (2008) that catcher Dioner Navarro was an AL All Star for the American League, it seems like so long ago after he fell from grace in 2009 with sub-par hitting and questionable moves behind the plate. So it was little wonder that the Rays traded minor league pitcher Mitch Talbot to the Cleveland Indians this off season for veteran Catcher Kelly Shoppach.
 

 
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On paper it seems that Shoppach might have a slight advantage on game day preparations and ability to block balls in the dirt with more regularity than Navarro, but the starting job is not going to be easy as both have been told it might end with both being measured up for possible match-ups based on certain Rays rotation members in 2010. We might definitely see Shoppach being Matt Garza’s battery mate in 2010. But in MLB.com Fantasy projections, Shoppach get the early edge based on power showing a possible .214 Batting average with 12 HR , 40 RBI and you can bet a boatload of Hit By Pitches again in 2010.

 

But the same MLB.com Fantasy projections show Navarro having a slight edge in average( .218), but lacking the power element that Shoppach will bring to the Rays. And Navarro was given the early edge in plate appearances, where projections have him coming to the plate 376 times compared to Shoppach’s 271 appearances. But the main contribution factor might be who will get an early hot hand and show a firm foundation with the Rays pitching staff. Both players come with their own sidelines of good and bad abilities, but both can throw out runners and have a good knowledge of American League hitters.
 

 
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But do not be surprised if one of the Rays catchers is injured that the Rays do not quickly pull up minor league catcher Nevin Ashley from the system over minor league veteran John Jaso. Ashley has shown the abilities and stamina that Maddon likes to see in his catchers’ and could be in line to fight for a back-up catching slot in 2011.

 

The potential is there for this 2010 Rays team to produce and score runs again at another record pace, but the key will be the health of the Rays. Even one key member out of the top of the Rays line-up for an extended time might throw some of these MLB.com Fantasy projections right out the window.
 

But the stark reality is that this is the most talented and athletic Rays team to ever step onto Tropicana Field. And with that comes inherent dangers of severe injuries, and the possibilities of extended hitting slumps or offensive lapses. Most Rays Republic remember the awful start the Rays got off to during April 2009 (9-14), and the Rays were constantly playing “catch-up” while the rest of the American League East played out their season. But the unsuspecting hand injury to Pena in September took the Rays down a dark path and they quickly fell out of contention for the AL Wild Card. Each piece in this Rays line-up carries a extremely important piece to the entire Playoff puzzle in 2010. One piece missing could cost them dearly in 2010.
 

With New York and Boston not “reloading” as extensive this off season as they did in 2009, this division instead went ” defensive” and because of that, it might be closely contested into the final weeks of the season. For the Rays to uncork a bottle of bubbly again in 2010, the Rays will have to see a few of these projections shoot skyward and maybe even see Burrell or one of the Rays catchers’ catch fire early and spring the team onto some early success. Only a handful of days and nights before our MLB dreams become a new season of realities. Maddon key phrase for the year is “W.I.N.” which stands for “What’s Important Now”. For the 2010 Rays, it will be getting out of the gate fast and furious and taking no prisoners in their first month battling mostly divisional foes

 
 

If Pena or Aybar Struggle, Could Blalock Come to the Rays Rescue?

 

 
Bill Koustroun/AP

Coming into the 2010 Spring Training season, the Tampa Bay Rays were optimistic that First Baseman Carlos Pena was going to come into camp perfectly healthy and ready to lead by example for this young Rays team. And all eyes have been on Pena ever since he first told the Tampa Bay media members even before this 2010 Spring Training camp began that he feels healthy and that his two fingers broken when he was plucked by a C C Sabathia fastball in late 2009 were completely healed and the entire situation is totally forgotten.

 

Then early on in this 2010 Spring camp, the Rays announced that First Baseman/Utility guru Willy Aybar sustained a wrist problem during this while playing in the Dominican Winter League, and lingering injury has put Aybar a bit behind the rest of the Rays squad this Spring. To some around the Rays Republic, this immediately sent up a few red flags concerned about Aybar’s ability to be an effective back-up to Pena and Third Baseman Evan Longoria if his wrist injury turned out to be more a nightmare than a simple sprain.
 

And when the Rays made an surprising move and signed Free Agent Hank Blalock, who played a majority of his time at First Base for the Texas Rangers in 2009 to a pretty complex and “convoluted” ( per Andrew Friedman) contract that now smells more and more like a “sure-thing” insurance policy heading into the middle of the Rays Spring schedule. But while the Rays were enjoying winning 9-straight games, it seemed like the Rays front office and Coaching staff was not in the least bit worried about Aybar not getting his first swings in a game until this week, or concerned with Pena’s early Spring struggles as he has now gone 0-18 with only one run scored to begin the 2010 Grapefruit season.
 

And then last week the Rays signed former Cuban National Team member Leslie Anderson who can play all three outfield positions and also First Base to a 4-year contract and the team has been adamant that they want to get him in a uniform as soon as possible. Some might say the Blalock signing is a coincidence, but the signing also a Anderson might signal something might be wrong and the silent treatment is being employed throughout the Rays clubhouse. I guess only time will tell what is really going on with Pena and Aybar this Spring.
 

And with Blalock just seeing his first Spring 2010 action this past Saturday against the Florida Marlins and going 0-2 with a walk and a strikeout, it appear on the surface that Pena and Blalock both have that mysterious .000 average going for them right now, but the reality is that Pena is swinging hard in the batting cages before the games. And maybe he is concentrating too much on his swing and it is transformed into Pena shooting blanks right now in Rays game situations. And with Aybar and Blalock just beginning to get their hacks at the plate, and the next week might speak volumes as to who starts ,or gets the most at bats this Spring.
 

 
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And with two of the three Rays usual First Base candidates nursing off season trials and tribulations, it is only a matter of time before we find out if there is additional problems at bay, or if Blalock was actually brought here to maybe supplant Aybar as the Rays uber-utility guy since Blalock can effectively play both corner positions. And Blalock might not have put up some impressive offensive numbers ( .234, 25 HR 66 RBI) the last season with the Rangers, but his overall MLB pedigree ( 2 All Star nods) reads like a great sleeper addition to the ball club….on paper.

 

Since Blalock has a unique Rays contract that basically give him the final decision/option to decide if staying here with the Rays is a good thing, or bad, that might also speak volumes as to the Rays cautious level of uncertainty concerning both the health of Pena and Aybar heading into the last week of the Grapefruit season. The Blalock move puzzled me at first, but more and more I am seeing it is a great insurance policy with power by getting a guy who could start, or be an effective back-up DH if either Pena or Aybar go down with additional time on the disable list in 2010, or a viable option if Burrell sinks deeper in the quicksand with a slow start to the regular season.
 

And sure, Ben Zobrist can also play First and Third Base, but Zobrist has been used sparingly at First Base, even during Pen’a injury time in 2009, and might be a significant drop in the defense right now at First Base compared to Blalock who only had 6 errors in over 567 chances in 2009. And you can expect the question marks to get even bigger hanging over First Base with every game that Pena puts up a goose egg, or doesn’t hit the ball solidly at the plate. Sometimes the physical injuries can be healed, but the mental impression of the injury takes some additional plate appearances, or hitting attempts before the mind also thinks you are ready to hit again effectively.
 

And Pena is a total team player. If for some reason, Pena sees something harmful in his swing or plate demeanor towards the last week of Spring Training, you can bet Pena will be open and honest to anything the Rays might want to do to get him back on track again. And sometimes slumps happen to every team’s All Stars and Silver Slugger winners. All you have to do is look back at the horrific beginning to 2009 that happened to Boston DH David Ortiz following his wrist ailments to know that sometimes the body is willing, but the balls doesn’t seem to be going anywhere effective.
 

 
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And hopefully that is what is going on right now in the Pena’s situation. Maybe his timing is not where he wants it to be and his eye-hand coordination is off a tick or two. That can produce some major contact problems, but Pena also is not striking out in bunches this Spring, so it might just be simple adjustments and Pena maybe watching video of his swing mechanics the next couple of game before he comes back with a bang for the Rays.

 

But it is great that the Rays have made some consolation arrangements just in case something else might be derailing either Aybar or Pena for any amount of time this season. But the Spring clock is ticking louder on Blalock and with him having the final decision on his name being maybe placed upon the Rays roster, it might be time for both Aybar and Pena to show solid contact at the plate and relieve some of the Rays front office and staff from holding their breath this Spring and becoming Rays blue in the face.
 

I seriously would not like to see the Rays take the field in their 2010 Opening Game against division foe Baltimore without Pena on the field. But the reality of the situation might be that the Rays just have to collectively take a step back with both players, and maybe give Blalock a few more at bats while Aybar and Pena work in the cages with Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton and get some more confidence in themselves.
 

Pena is entering his last contract year with the Rays, and unlike the mysterious Crawford situation, I can see the Rays working with Pena to try and keep a guy who is a cornerstone of this franchise with his great power and his leadership on this Rays roster for a few more years. But right now there are big question marks rising every day over near that first base bag, and the Rays need to squash those questions and doubts in the bud as soon as possible.
 

If there is something wrong with either Aybar or Pena, even a small problem, then the Rays need to take a step backwards and work towards taking two steps forward later this Spring. With three guys with Major League Baseball experience at first base right now straddling the line and bag for the Rays something has to give. If Pena and Aybar are healthy and mentally clicking to begin the season, the parting of Blalock might not be a huge thing.

But if there is the hint of the lingering situation, Blalock might be the ultimate sleeper signing for the Rays this season. Clock is ticking, and soon Pena and Aybar must get on their horse and ride, or the former Ranger Blalock might be the guy wearing the big white hat for the Rays.

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