Results tagged ‘ Spring Training ’

Ain’t Nothing But a Spring Thing

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Got to tell you, yesterday was extremely fun. The 78 mile trip seemed so long getting there, even with the red hued Sun poking out of the morning haze as I crossed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but I was on my first mission of the Spring.

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I always look forward to the first day of workouts. Punxsutawney, Pa. might have their “Phil”, but when you finally see Rays First Base Coach George Hendricks pop out of the clubhouse and begin his strut to the field….It is a true sign of Spring. Along with the usual classic Spring Hendricks sighting, I got a special gift to begin the 2011 Rays baseball season.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 2011Report Day 003.JPGA first glimpse of Manny Ramirez dressed in a blue and white track suit walking towards the Rays clubhouse with his father. A half hour before the first glimpse of Rays blue this Spring we got some “Manny” time, and I totally approved of it. Sure I might have only had a second of chatter with ManRam, but he seemed all business and ready to roll. I like that in a player.

As if they were all wearing precise Swiss chronological devices, at the chime of 10 am, the rolling doors on the west side of the Rays clubhouse opened wide up and out cam our Florida “Boys of Summer”. I was extremely psyched to see the familiar faces, and also finally face to name of some of the new arrivals through trades and minor league signings. I got my first “official” Garfoose signing, got to also take in the mini dreadlocks look of young pitcher Chris Archer.

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J P Howell strolled out looking thicker in the shoulders and new Rays Adam Russell just looked like a seaside condo. But the playfulness was also at hand as leftie David Price made a hovering newspaper writer his personal bubble gum holder and other veteran Rays pitchers began to make the round trying to place names with faces on this first day.

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One of the most interesting moments was seeing Rays Bench Coach Dave Martinez come out in full “Caveman” fashion with a full-blown beard and a swagger. Rays catcher John Jaso also carried a few more whiskers than usual after his 2010 off-season adventure in the land of the Mayans. I was actually afraid Jaso was going to be speaking in Mayan or Spanish when I first talked to him.

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Rays owner Stuart Sternberg also made his yearly pilgrimage down to “meet with the troops” and make his yearly confessional to the Tampa Bay media. Sternberg was more than candid on his optimism for the region, and emphatically told the assembled masses he has not been approached by “outside” communities wanting to entice the Rays away. 

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 Sternberg did not wear his usual Caroline Blue sweater vest that had become a bit of a Tampa Bay tradition on the first day, but his smile and to the point remarks made it clear his intention was to work in harmony with this region towards an eventual stadium situation. As Rays skipper Joe Maddon took his assembled army on the path of what is expected this season. Another Way” was a phrase used often and with emphasis in his lecture.

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That energy and vibe also carried on to the fence line as Rays fans watched as the Rays pitchers and catchers stretched, ran some agility drills, then went into their pitching group for various other exercises and eventual running. But this was the day to hear the hard popping sound of the ball striking the mitt leather. This was the day for the franchise to again find the pieces of the puzzle and assemble them in such a way to possibly prove everyone.  I was looking forward to see the pitchers’ throw for that first time.

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 To see what kind of slide and dice Hayhurst had on his pitches, or see the great break on his fastball that archer is famous for in Team USA circles. But it was also time to see Rays minor leaguers like Alex Cobb, and Rule 5 pick-up leftie Cesar Cabal throw for the first time in the Major League camp.

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 I was especially excited to see what Cabal had knowing he would have to occupy a Rays roster spot all season long, or be offered back to the Red Sox. You can bet the Rays will do everything in their power to not let the Boston get Cabal back in their system. The leftie will have to show this Spring the confidence the Rays had when they plucked him off the Red Sox farm system roster this Fall. So far,

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I like the drop on his pitches, and he could be a real underdog to possibly taking the left-hand specialist spot in the Rays Bullpen. I honestly think he will be given every opportunity to make this Rays squad and be a significant member of this rebuilt Bullpen. Most came out to see the guy  that is sure to have his say in who will be the last pitcher on the hill.

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Kyle Farnsworth did not try to elude his intimidation factor one iota today as he made sure to pop the glove and stare in on every pitch to Jaso during their first side session together. As they finished, Jaso made sure to go out and shake Farnsworth’s hand.

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First day impression means a lot to me. Maddon has already left his mathematical equations and rhymes at the door and went with the eloquent and to the point “Another Way” mantra for 2011.

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Somehow I see it being done another way. I can fully imagine and see immediate success in the 2011 twists and turns in the “Rays Way” as it is modernize to fit the 2011 goals and aspirations, to incorporate this young bunch of impressionable youth with seasoned veterans like Ramirez and Johnny Damon.

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Looking forward to that first Grapefruit League game on February 26 in Port Charlotte. Hopefully in that contest towards the beginning Maddon will utilize the first of his multi-dimensional lineups for 2011. But today was all about the pop of the glove and birth of another season.

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Today an owner embraced the Tampa Bay area with enthusiasm and open arms while a few young pitchers’ left immediate impressions and glimpses into the Rays future/ A future Hall of Fame member came walking into the clubhouse like a kid in a candy store eager, willing and happy to be there while teammates assembled outside mingling and meeting each other for the first time.

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It was a day of meetings, first greetings and a first glimpse into the 2011 mind of Maddon. It ain’t nothing but a Rays Spring thing.

 

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Rays Covert (Signing) Ops Team nets them Leslie Anderson

Trying to follow the Tampa Bay Rays Front Office is becoming more difficult as their “silence is golden” trade chatter blackout grip has become even more tight-lipped and further tweaked beyond any type of white noise in the last few seasons. Now that the Rays can effectively have out-of-sight, out-of-mind multiple Rays staffers and attorneys cloaked in darkness back in the Rays offices in St. Petersburg do a lot of the legwork out of the vision of any eagle eyed journalists or bloggers, getting any morsel or tasty tidbit is getting particularly difficult for us to supply to the Rays baseball hungry fans. 

And today’s announcement of the Rays signing the former Cuban National Team multi-positional player Leslie Anderson to a $ 3.75million /4 year contract, the signing had most of us online, and sniffing around the team’s Spring Training complex caught completely off guard by this Rays move. Most of the Rays Republic knew that the Rays had set their sights by offering a possible contract to fellow Cuban refugee Jose Julio Ruiz in February. And some people actually thought the Rays might have had an upper hand in possibly signing Ruiz seeing that Tampa Bay had the second highest Hispanic population in the Southeastern segment of the United States.

The Rays presented Ruiz’s agent with a $ 2 million offer back in February, but with the recent hurricane brewing within Ruiz’s camp with his firing of his agent, and the ensuing turmoil, maybe the Rays quickly switched their previous focal point on Ruiz, and took another route without being noticed, and ultimately signed the versatile 27-year old Anderson.

And the wild part is that Anderson, who is also a left-handed hitter like Ruiz, might end up being the most versatile of the two players having played both First Base and the Centerfield for Camaguey in the Cuban Baseball League before leaving Cuba in September and becoming available to all 30 Major League Baseball clubs this January.

This signing might just be a great future insurance policy for the Rays since Anderson has been projected to be able to play multiple positions. And with the possibilities of Anderson also playing any of the three outfield positions, it increased the Rays appetite to include Anderson to their system. Most fans might remember Anderson has played Rightfield for the Cuban National Team during the last two World Baseball Classics. 

Before Anderson was moved to First Base while with Camaguey in 2009, he was the team’s starting Centerfielder and considered a great gap hitter with the potential for at least 15-20 Home Runs at the Major League level. And with Anderson’s potential to play all three outfield positions, plus First Base, Anderson brings to the plate another interesting set of future scenarios if the Rays can not entertain Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena to stay with the team when their contracts expire following the 2010 season.

Anderson might actually be a more advanced in his plate discipline than Ruiz, and boasts some really impressive numbers while with Camaguey, where he finished fifth in the Cuban Baseball League with a .381 Batting Average. But more impressive still might be his almost identical numbers against left-handers (.379) and right-handers (.383) to show that Anderson might just be the great addition to the Rays future roster by showing superior numbers from both sides of the plate and might end the Rays platooning outfield spots in the near future. 

And you got to give Rays Director of Scouting R J Harrison and Rays Director of International Relations, Carlos Alfonso a huge double high-five on their department’s Black Ops work to go totally on the deep down low and stay completely off the baseball radar with possible baseball workouts with Anderson without causing any sort of attention being focused towards the Rays or Anderson taking place this Spring.

 

 

And you know it was not a small group of Rays staffers’ involved in trying to keep this quiet, but it still amazes me time after time how the Rays have been so silent until they finally announce their signings without a lot of rumor chatter. The usual rumors that have been played have come from the other player’s reps or agents and not from within the Rays office. That in itself is amazing to me.

 

But this is the path that baseball is beginning to take with instant communications by a bevy of options available at our fingertips. With the addition of instant video conferencing even by cellphone now, baseball workouts can be broadcast back to team officials on a constant stream of video while the players participate in hitting, or even fielding in an arranged simulated game. And maybe the Rays might be viewed as ruining the trade system by staying tightlipped before getting a player’s John Hancock on the dotted line, but in essence, if that is what it takes to get the job done, then I am all for this new Rays personnel mentality. 

Anderson’s signing was not expected by most of us following the Rays this Spring. Most of us within the Rays Republic thought the team was slowly reeling in Ruiz towards finally signing with the Rays instead of hauling in another big fish like Anderson. Reality is that the Rays could still maybe also sign Ruiz in the near future as another future fixture to combat high payroll concerns. And both players effectively co-existing on the same Rays roster should bring a level of excitement to Rays fans. And maybe that is another unsung victory for the Rays scouting department and office staff in not only getting Anderson signed, sealed and delivered, but covering it all in a cloak of mystery, which is really impressive.

Who knows to what extent Anderson will benefit the Rays in 2010, but you know he will have a definite imprint on future Rays squads, and maybe a possible new competition battle in the Spring of 2011 as he makes his mark within the Rays farm system. Looking at both the positives and negatives of both players, the Rays might have picked the one total package multi-dimensional player who will not bring both a sense of drama and uncertainty instantly towards the Rays franchise’s system. 

It is still too early to project any possible scenarios for Anderson, but I could see him being assigned to either Double-A Montgomery and worked out at first base, and then begin his rise through the Rays system with a possible MLB debut date in Tropicana Field maybe in September 2010. And if he does get to the Major League level in 2010, could Anderson be one of those late season additions that propels the Rays again towards the Playoffs. This might not happen, but I like to be optimistic when I talk about these 2010 Rays. Because I really feel another “Magical”-type season brewing under the surface and this Anderson signing could be a great ingredient to the total mixture.

 

A Beautiful Day for Spring Baseball

 
 
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Got to admit it here, I love it when the Tampa Bay Rays come north and play the Philadelphia Phillies during Spring Training. It is basically a Rays “homecoming” to their fans who do not have the time or resources to travel the 80 miles down to Port Charlotte, Florida for their Grapefruit League schedule. And making it a double pleasure is that the game is played at BrightHouse Field, which has to be one of the most beautiful baseball stadiums in Pinellas County.

So here we go as I pop on a few photos today on my journey northbound to the chilly tundra that is Clearwater, Florida. Seriously, when the game started on Sunday at 1 pm, it was 65 degrees, by the time the game was wrapped up with the Rays shutting down the Phillies 5-3 for their third victory of the Spring, it was down to 61 degrees. Not complaining, just found it kind of weird during such a sunny day with limited wind hitting you in the stands. But then again as I always say….If you do not like the weather in Florida, wait 15 minutes, it will change.

 
 
 
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Always wanted to be a fly-on-the-wall during a Rays Press Conference with Rays Manager Joe Maddon. Here we see the local media gurus along with Rays Vice President of Communications Rick Vaughn doing their daily pre-game meet and greet to discuss some of the days events, and even maybe get news on the expected signing of Free Agent Hank Blalock to join the Rays on a minor league contract. I want to just love to hear some of the news firsthand without the dissection of the Rays quotes and news for once. You know I could find a tidbit or two in just a 30 second voice blurp.
 
 
Also would love to hear what Maddon thinks about the possibility of Joe Dillon making this season’s 25-man roster. I find it kind of refreshing that Dillon has made it clear to the Rays and anyone that will listen that he plans to do whatever is necessary to show he has the abilities and the versatility to play almost anywhere for the team in 2010. Most people do not know this, but Dillon was actually Maddon choice as an emergency catcher if something would have happened in a game with his two normal catchers.
 
 
 
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That might be another reason Dillon has been catching more this season to make his stock rise above just being a utility player mostly playing in the infield. And during Batting Practice today, I saw him moving all around the infield from taking balls at third base, to manning the first base bag for a bit. Dillon did get in the game yesterday coming in for Elliot Johnson and playing third base, but went 0-2 in the game. Got to tell you, I always get a bit jealous of those corporate slugs across from me sitting in the Hooters VIP Diamond Dugout section. Not only do they get waitresses in skimpy Hooter attire, but they have almost instant access to the bench along with some great chicken wings and blue cheese.


 
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Got to befriend someone some day and see if I should be so jealous of this section….I think I would be no matter what. But I also find it kind of wild that in Bright House Field, the Phillies have two Hooters ball girls down the foul lines who sit in these nice canvas chairs with gloves in hand flirting with the fans and just looking pretty. Sure I have seen them get out of their chairs a few times, but I forget they are not there for their baseball skills but to look cute and smile for the fans. Always wondered why the Phillies did not bring down two of their regular season Philly Ballgirls who actually play softball for local leagues or college in the Philly area.

 

 
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Always love how the Rays players treat their younger fans. You do not get the total jest of it in this photo, but Elliot Johnson was actually throwing the ball with the young baseball player in red for about three minutes before the kid had to go back into the infield and stand for the National Anthem. You know it is moments like these that makes a child a baseball fan for life. And what a story he will have when he goes back to school on Monday telling all of his friends he threw a baseball with a Major League Baseball player… on the field before a game….priceless moment.

  
 
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Always love it when the United States Army’s Golden Knights parachute team does a pre-game event like this in BrightHouse Field. I have now seen it a few times and it is always a great spectacle and an extremely emotional sight seeing the billowing red smoke and the final recognition of our flag attached to his parachute. I find it really interesting to see this Sunday prior to the Oscars last night that saw the simply amazing film “The Hurt Locker” take the Best Film honors. I have to say I have seen the film and loved it for its realism and attention to military detail.

 
 
 
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What was amazing in this game on Sunday is we saw everyone of the Rays players fighting for a roster spot play in front of some of their hometown fans who came out and helped set a attendance record for a Spring Training game held at Bright House Field. 10,474 fans filled every nook and cranny of the stadium on Sunday. It was definitely standing room only out in the grassy berm areas, and the concession stands did look like the usual rush during a Rays/Yankees or Rays/Red Sox series. Even saw one of the Trop’s beer guys Mark working in the stands yesterday and it made the game feel more like a home game.

 
 
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Had a funny thing happen to me yesterday while I was sitting in the 7th row down in Section 104. Had an older gentleman tell us to either give him play-by-play of the game or shut up. My new found friends from Philly were a bit perplexed, but I reminded them that we do live in a retirement region here in Florida, and some people like to concentrate on the baseball game. I did not want to upstage the guy and tell him I would be more than willing to do audio for him of the game. The few fans around us were a bit upset, but for me, it was just business as usual in Florida. But I do understand the guy’s request.

We were talking about Philly places I knew and the Winter they just went through up there, and maybe this guy was not into our discussions. One of the Philly guys actually remarked that if we were in a movie theatre, it was not a problem to stop talking, but we were at a baseball game. I just laughed it all off and said it was fine, I could get some more photos and maybe get some much needed sun on my farmer-tanned bones. Funny it really got a few people around me upset, but I made sure they knew if it was Tropicana Field I might have kept talking, but since I was in someone else’s stadium, I respected the guy wearing his green Phillies cap.

 
 
 
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One thing I did notice was that Rays First Base Coach George Hendricks seemed a bit unprepared for this game today. I tried to ask someone in the Rays clubhouse if George’s usual number 25 jersey might not have made the trip north, but they were really closed-lipped about it. It was kind of funny to see him wearing that “95” jersey, which usually a sure sign of a Rays minor leaguer getting a chance with the big club. Notice Hendrick’s batting helmet shows his “usual” jersey number 25 on it 

 
I tried to get George’s attention a few times during the middle of the innings to see if maybe the 25 jersey was still hanging up in the Coach’s area at the Rays Spring complex, but never got an answer back from him. Another wild moment was when Heath Phillips started the eighth inning and was relieved by Heath Rollins. I made a few people around me chuckle a bit when the first Rays pitcher who was about 250 pounds left the mound and I called the new pitcher “Heath” too. It was a unique situation and one you might not see during the regular season, but might be more commonplace during Spring Training.
 
 
 
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I also asked a few of the photographers about these wild looking silver camera I saw in at least three different spots around BrightHouse Field on Sunday. I was advised that they were permanent Major League Baseball Network cameras that got primary shots from the First Base, Third Base and Centerfield angles during Spring Training games. I had not even noticed them before and found it quite interesting they did not employ three different cameramen for these regions during telecasts earlier in the Spring.

 
Guess you learn something new every day at the ballpark during the Spring. I am going to be sure to also try and check out the Home and Visitor’s dugout at Tropicana Field to see if these might also be put into a permanent position around our home ballpark for game situations during the regular season. I know from walking around Charlotte Sports Park that the Rays do not have this capability yet, but who knows what might happen in the future.

 
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But it was a great simply beautiful day out in the sun in Florida on Sunday.  And the day was even made more special after Rays Radio man Rich Herrera yelled out “Renegade” from his silver car as he sped away from  a side street onto Old Coachman Road on his way home from the ballgame. Plenty of excited Rays fans and Phillies fans enjoying one of the best weather days this Spring. Congrats to the Phillies again for setting a new single game attendance record, and hopefully we can make another run at that record on Tuesday, March 23rd when the Rays come back to this amazing ballpark and I will sit instead out in the berm region to give a different prospective to this great ballpark.

 

Sean John or maybe S-Rod…Decisions, Decisions

 


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You automatically got to like this kid. Really you have to, it is a moral imperative within the Tampa Bay Rays culture that when you give up a great left-hander like Scott Kazmir, you got to get to know his replacement, and at least give him a few games to settle into his new spotlight before you condemn or pledge your loyalty to them. Well, ladies and gentlemen, if the last couple of Rays Spring games is any indication, Sean John Rodriguez is already cool as a cucumber and slick as a fox, and an instant fan favorite.

And believe me the cliché’s are going to coming fast and furious if he does find a way to steal this last coveted roster spot away from the Johnson & Johnson brothers , or his close competitor, Reid Brignac.

 
 

But if you base his total roster chances on just Rays games over the last few days, it might actually be more like, when he steals that roster spot away. And it is not like he has not been in this kind of pressure situation before while fighting for a Major League spot. Rodriguez has spent a bit of time in the Big Show before when he was with the Los Angeles Angels, so this is not his first rodeo.

And that might be a side of Rodriguez we truly had no idea about before this 2010 Rays Spring Training season began. Most of us Rays fans might not have noticed the young guy manning the second base bag during the Angels first visit to Tropicana Field from May 9-11,2008 was the same Sean Rodriguez.

 
 

And we definitely did not notice Rodriguez sitting in the Third Base Visitor’s Dugout at Tropicana Field after being called back up from the Salt Lake City Bee’s when the Angels went through a rough patch with multiple infielders going down with injuries in early 2008. And there is an eerie set of similarities to his Spring start here in 2010, that might bode well for him making this team’s roster, if you really look at the numbers.

Back in Spring Training 2008 with the Angels, Rodriguez hit only one single in his 11 Spring Training games while hitting a double, a triple and solo Home Run with 3 RBIs. It is just a bit of an odd coincidence that he currently sports no singles while pushing a double, triple and 3 Home Runs across the board this Spring in three games for the Rays. Maybe it is a baseball omen to us to watch this guy over the next few weeks.

 
 

But this impressive start at the plate has also given him a bit of a quick jump on Brignac, who also is trying to keep up with the white hot Rodriguez, and it is going to be a complete thrill to see which of these hitters blinks first and let’s the other get a bit of an advantage in their race for the last utility spot on the Rays 25-man roster.


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And Rodriguez knows a lot about these Rays from his 5 game played against them in 2008. He was the field for all three games during that early May series when the Rays swept the Angels here, and was witness to seeing the Rays eventually winning 6 out of their 9 games against Angels that season.

 
 
But even more telling that Rodriguez might be developing the emerging cult following, not unlike fellow Rays infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist with the instant accumulation of inspired nicknames that are beginning to be heard in the stands at Rays Spring games. Already we have heard at least two nicknames rushing to the forefront, with one really taking a quick liking to him.

There has been the “S-Rod” moniker which might have evolved more for his recent rush of power and uncanny ability to brush off the media attention, or maybe the one I heard at George M. Steinbrenner Field yesterday when someone asked “Sean John” for his autograph.

 

The last one actually had me chuckling a bit because I was looking over my shoulder for one of those goon interns of Sean “P. Diddy /Puff-Daddy” Combs instantly coming out of the woodwork trying to smash the “alleged” trademarked name infringement “Sean John” down into the clay of the infield and quickly silence that moniker from the lips of autograph seekers on the rails that game.

 
 

But there was no lightning quick response to the name, and I actually think Combs would be proud to share that patented name with a young baseball guy who just might have the style and panache to pull off a theft of this second base job and roster spot without much of a hitch. Heck, maybe if Rodriguez keeps this up he will have a Fed Ex package waiting for him with some signature Sean John wear inside them…You never know.

But seriously, this second base gig is going to be one of those spots in this 2010 Rays squad that you either own or rent in 2010. If Rodriguez makes it difficult for Rays Manager Joe Maddon to not pop his name on the lineup card in marker, he might just be an inter-changeable piece along with Zobrists and his traveling glove collection in 2010.

 
 

But some people worry that Rodriguez has only played third base and second most of his professional career, and has not concentrated his efforts toward maybe relieving Rays starter Jason Bartlett at some point in 2010. Again, this might be one of those finer points that Brignac has shown he can be effective at that position that makes this competition go long into Spring Training.

And even if most people have not seen Rodriguez play the outfield, he did play leftfield against the Yankees on Friday and looked pretty comfortable out there. But then again, he did play a lot of outfield in his All American High School career.

 
 

This entire competition between Rays Spring Training invited players to hold a competition for that coveted last spot in the Rays roster for a infield slot is quickly becoming a two-man affair. Elliot Johnson is doing everything he can to get his name included, but Brignac and Rodriguez are putting on a show at the plate and in the field that is dwarfing everyone else right now.

And if either of these two can force Maddon’s hand in the next week or two, this competition might even be over before the Rays take on their Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls in a friendly match up in Durham, North Carolina on April 3,2010.

 
 

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Some have questioned Rodriguez’s lack of full season experience to only a total of 71 career Major League Baseball games and a regular season average of only .203 with 8 doubles, a triple, 5 Home Runs and 14 RBIs. That could be a instant pause for Maddon and the Rays to consider, but Brignac also has only appeared in 35 Rays game and has only produced a .250 batting average with 8 doubles, 2 triples, a solo Home Run and 6RBIs.

This race is far from over, and it might come down to the Rays deciding if they want power or consistency in their hitting out of this spot in 2010. If they take the power angle, Rodriguez would get the early nod, and even based on experience, right now might be the guy who has the most to lose with a few bad outings. Sean Rodriguez is a great budding star that could play a significant role for the Rays if he develops the way they want him to over the next few weeks.

If he does, then he will definitely be in that Rays Opening Day lineup, and hopefully we can get him an appropriate nickname that might not upset a fashion icon, or even a certain player also in this division sporting the A-Rod moniker. But if Rodriguez keeps playing and producing at this level this Spring, then maybe they would not mind sharing some homage time with a guy who could help lead the Rays on the field.

Ladies and Gentleman…..Elliot Johnson

I remember back in 2008 seeing him standing right next to Akinora Iwamura during the Rays Team Photo. Standing there was this Rays player who is now fighting for his professional life, not even an arm’s length to the right of me, but I really did not know the first thing about Elliot Tyler Johnson at that moment. Johnson was one of those Rays players who had begun the 2008 season teetering on the edge of the Rays 25-man roster and was within an injury or a recovery away from again falling into the Rays farm system…again.
  

You have already known that Johnson has spent only a total of 28 days with the Rays after making the 2008 Opening Day roster following a blistering Spring Training, combined with Rays utility man Ben Zobrist’s 15-day Disabled List visit with a fractured thumb, Johnson firmly earned his first shot up with the big club. But his time in the Majors was short lived as Johnson appeared in 7 Rays games before disappearing again back to Triple-A Durham, where he spent the rest of the 2008 season. 

I had forgotten how not even a month earlier, Johnson had made his Major League debut in the holy confines of Yankee Stadium on April5,2008 in only the Rays fifth game of the season when Johnson got his first chance to show what he could do for this Rays squad. Johnson was that night’s Designated Hitter, and was popped into the ninth slot in the lineup. And I somehow had forgotten that Johnson did get his first Major League hit off Andy Pettitte in Johnson’s second at bat, but maybe I brushed the moment away because Johnson then got picked-off first base by the crafty left-hander. Not the first guy to have that happen to him, but not also a great moment to show weakness in your talents. 

And before these same Rays teammates assembled on those risers back in 2008 for the official team photo, I could have talked with Johnson beforehand, but I missed a great opportunity to chat with a Rays player who is quickly seeing his time with these Rays ticking away with his every step into the batter’s box, or play amongst the dust of the Rays infield. That second hand on the Johnson’s Spring Training clock is beginning to run out on Johnson, as the team is currently focused on other players fighting out their battles this Spring. For when Johnson was sent down on April 27,2008 when the

Rays decided to bring up another infielder Andy Cannizaro, Johnson had only appeared in 5 Rays games and batted only .158 ( 3-19) , but in an instant, Johnson was gone again.
 

And it is a bit of a crime that I have not taken the time to learn more about this guy who won the 2008 Al Lopez Award as the top Rays rookie during Spring Training, or who scored 17 runs and led the Rays 2008 Spring Training team with a .417 batting average and got 23 hits while logging an astounding 117 Spring Training innings. And how most of us within the Rays Republic knew his name only after maintaining the 2008 Rays team mantra of always hustling, even during the Spring Training games, when Johnson came in hard on Yankees rookie catcher Francisco Cervelli on a play at Home Plate during the 9th inning of a Spring Training game against the Yankees at George Steinbrenner Field, and ended up fracturing Cervelli’s right wrist. He instantly became a villain to Yankee fans, and a reincarnation of Pete Rose to the Rays Republic. 

Instantly he became the Rays Spring Training poster child for taking advantage of his game opportunities, but Johnson also became an instant scapegoat from other teams’ who condemned his Spring Training hustle because it was only Spring, and it cost another team one of their bright stars so early into the season. Instantly people forgot the great feat Johnson performed on May 28,2004 when he blasted homers in his first three at bats while playing for the Charleston RiverDogs in their first three innings of play that night. Johnson had started his minor league career with only three total home runs before that night’s breakout performance against the Greensboro squad. As a side note, Johnson had homered in his last at bat the night before in Greenboro, effectively hitting homers in his last four at bats for the RiverDogs. 

And before B J Upton hit his cycle with the Rays in October 2009, Johnson was the last Rays organizational player to hit for the cycle when Johnson hit his cycle on September 15,2006 while he was playing with the Montgomery Biscuits. Johnson was one of those guys who has more than paid his dues within the Rays farm system, but we as fans, discarded him for some reason without a second thought. And during this 2010 Spring Training season when the Rays are seeking a versatile utility guy who can play multiple positions, Johnson might be finally entering into his final sunset with the Rays.


Johnson no longer has any minor league options left in 2010, and Johnson could effectively be gone either by the Rays placing him on waivers, or Johnson could be dealt in a late Spring trade ,and gone from the Rays for good. And even with only two games down in the 2010 Rays Spring Training schedule, Johnson went 1 for 2 today with a triple and scored on a single by outfielder Matt Joyce in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the Baltimore Orioles 6-5 today in Port Charlotte, Florida. Johnson is still trying to get his name into the Rays organization’s minds this Spring, and hopefully get another chance to show he belongs at the Major League level.

I do not think I am alone here within the Rays Republic in not taking the time, or the energy to chat it up with Johnson along the Rays sidelines this Spring. And I am totally guilty of not taking advantage of this opportunity in the past, almost forgetting at times that Johnson was even here for Spring Training. Johnson is like so many guys among every Major League Baseball Spring roster who is not invisible, or even unapproachable, but might be caught in that middle ground of players that we always think will be a part of our teams. He always seems to do enough to stay on long into the Spring Training schedule, and we feel they might make that leap again, and you don’t give it a second thought that players like Johnson can be gone in an instant.

And you maybe would not even have recognized Johnson out and about within the Port Charlotte community, or even up in Durham, North Carolina where he still makes his home during the off season. Or that Johnson has conducted local baseball camps for the last three off seasons for the kids and teens of the Durham community, where Johnson also instructs students in one-on-one baseball lessons. Or that Johnson comes from the community of Thatcher, Arizona, which was the backdrop of the Albert Brook’s movie “Lost in America”. Johnson is simply one of those guys who has fallen through our mind’s cracks and might be getting his last chance in 2010, to make this Rays team soon.


For some reason, baseball fans sometimes seem to get a bit of tunnel vision during Spring Training where we funnel our attentions towards our team’s stars and the aspiring prospects, and we instantly forget the players like Johnson, who have been there for so long trying to grab a hold of a chance to get back to the Major League level. And Johnson has been with the Rays since the team signed him as a non-drafted free agent back in 2002. So it is not like he just rode into this Spring into his first run with the Rays franchise this Spring.
 

Johnson has been here so long that some of us, myself included, have made him a bit invisible to ourselves over the last few seasons. And that is a crying shame because this is the type of guy we should be cheering for ,and wanting to see make this 2010 Rays club. And Johnson is not alone on this squad in that manner. People forgot a bit about another long-time Rays farm hand Justin Ruggiano. But you can bet that on Sunday, when I hit BrightHouse Field for the Rays versus Phillies game in Clearwater, I am going to try and call over Johnson and wish him the best this Spring.

Finally, I am going to try and get a chance as a Rays fan to get to know Johnson before he might be gone. And maybe, just maybe, I could then call him over again on April 6th ,before the Rays take on these same Orioles in the Rays Home Opener, and Johnson would be smiling ear-to-ear while still sporting that # 47 jersey…. just like today.

 

Reminiscing Before the Rays Spring Opener


Chris Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune

It is about two hours before we again get to hear that first “official” thump into the catcher’s mitt to signal the official beginning of another fantastic Major League Baseball season for the Tampa Bay Rays. And it is great that Mother Nature decided to participate today with a nibbling cold breeze circling through the stadium, and the warming heat from that big orange ball in the sky are both making this first day of real baseball tingle, just like an early childhood Christmas morning.

 
 

Hate to admit it to the baseball world, but I am a sentimental old fool when it comes to the game of baseball. Some say I am too emotionally and mentally attached to the game and that has produced some interesting flashbacks over the last few days. To me, it is just a reminder or a mental revisiting of some past Rays Spring Training Grapefruit moments that stand out in my mind. And there has been a bit of a revolving continual flashback video within my mind’s eye recently that hopefully will diminish with Guthrie’s first pitch. But they are great moments to me, and ones that always bring a smile to my face.

 
 
More than a few times the moments of 2003 involving Rocco Baldelli kept flashing in my mind. How during that season he set the bar high for Rays rookies to follow him and started that path by winning the 2003 Al Lopez Award given to the top Rays rookie during Spring Training. We saw his brilliance on the field that March and began our love affair with him and Carl Crawford to be a formidable force to be reckoned with for many years to come. Seeing Rocco yesterday at the Rays complex dressed again in a Rays overcoat brought back those emotions.
 
 

But even with a head nod from Rays reliever Dan Wheeler yesterday in the rain-reduced workouts at the Rays complex, another vision came of the young Wheeler being one of the only members of that first Rays Draft class to make it all the way to the top beginning with his fantastic Spring Training back in 2000 when he also won the Al Lopez award for the then D-Rays. It brought back times of seeing someone like Travis Phelps who was drafted so late in the 1998 MLB Draft you would think he would be a scout or in another line of work instead of coming into Rays games as a reliever and reminding people around Tampa Bay that confidence and talent can get you what you desire in life if you mix in a healthy dose of determination into the equation.

 

 
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And not everything rushing through my mind has been a good time. There was a moment on March 19,2005 right after seeing possible future Baseball Hall of Fame member Roberto Alomar trotting off the Progress Energy Park infield for the last time with his head down that it donned on me he might have just made his last Major League Baseball play, and then within a few hours notice, Alomar announced to the baseball world he was retiring from the game due to vision and back problems. And the duo night’s announcements of both Alomar and outfielder Danny Batista leaving the game on the same date left some of us gasping and wondering if the team might be cursed.

 

 
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But then memories like 2008, which was the Rays last season training in St. Petersburg, Florida come to my mind. Visions of Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir predicting while he was rehabbing an elbow injury that the playoff was the goal of the 2008 team. And maybe set into motion during that Spring Training quote nugget during a Spring Training interview out at Rays Namoli complex, this team formulated their foundation and cemented their confidence for the entire season. Instantly this team began to win those 1-run games that Spring.

 

And combined with emotional games against the Yankees in which Yankee farmhand Shelley Duncan was dishing out some baseball justice, this team came together on the clay and dirt of Progress Energy Park. And that cosmos of emotions built up right up until the March 23,2008 game against the Cincinnati Reds when the team played their last Spring Training game ever in the stadium where they had held every Spring Training game since 1998. For they were going to relocate 80 miles Southward the next Spring in the seaside hamlet of Port Charlotte, Florida taking over a refurbished former Spring home of the Texas Rangers. And that last sell-out game held a bevy of emotions that overflowed into the grandstands and grassy berms.

 


Even if the Spring Training game have been transported to our South, the Rays team taking the field today know what is ahead of them. With Rays Manager Joe Maddon discarding the mathematics and bringing on the abbreviated, we are entering a new Rays era. “What’s Important Now” is the new mantra. Maddon chatted a lot with Ken Ravizza, the Rays performance consultant and sport psychologist who actually came up with the Rays new possible T-shirt phrase, breaking the Rays Manager’s string of number-induced team slogans. Staying in the “present moment” is going to be key in the way the Rays play this Grapefruit season.

 


 
SPTimes.com

Breaking from the untold failures of the Rays past has been accomplished. This new Spring edition of the Rays will again try and control the controllable from today’s game throughout 2010, with an earmark to correcting past inferiors and mental stop signs. The team seems to be focused towards the immediate future, and what each and every one of them can bring to the table. I commend them for the early acknowledgment of what has to be trimmed and better defined for this team to again taste champagne in October.

 

But I am also a student of the past, and I personally know that sometimes you have to go back to review the past before you confidently step forward. So today as Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett steps into the batter box against Guthrie there is a heightened sense of renewal in the air here in Sarasota, Florida.

There is new orange paint surrounding Ed Smith Stadium, but there is also a crispness that only a great Spring Training baseball game can deliver, and a refreshing rebirth in “The Rays Way” this Spring that should lead to lofty heights and great results. And with that, it is time to watch some last minute preps toward seeing baseball for the first time in 2010. I am excited, reminiscent of the past, and also eager to see the future…Play Ball!

 
 
 
 

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…

 

 

Can Winston Abreu make the Rays Roster?

 


DRaysBay.com

Coming into the middle of February in 2010 when the Tampa Bay Rays pitchers and catchers begin to report for Spring Training in Port Charlotte, you have to realistically visualize the picture that there might only be one lone slot left on the Rays 25-man roster for another reliever. And considering this Spring invitees will include Durham Bulls relievers like Randy Cromier, Dale Thayer and Calvin Medlock, there is still one name missing off this list who I think might have a real legitimate shot at securing that solo seat on the Rays Bullpen bench for 2010.

Sure, we can debate back and forth for days as to the merits of the other three guys I have mentioned, or a even the merits of other relievers currently on the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits roster who could also make some huge advances and impressions both the field and in the minds of the Rays organizations Coaches minds by the end of March 2010. And the one name missing from this group is Winston Abreu. I think that Abreu has the stuff on the mound and the acquired veteran wisdom needed to secure his first Opening Day roster spot of his 14-year professional career.

Sure some people will certainly point to his extended journeyman minor league career with only two prior Major League promotions to the before the 2009 season with the Baltimore Orioles (2006) and Washington Nationals (2007) as a bit of negative fodder that his name should not even be uttered with such confidence. But then again, in all of his past promotions to the Major League, he has been a stop-gap guy filling in for a veteran persence missing on that Major League roster, and that shows you teams knew he had the abilities.


DockoftheBay.com


But again, in 2009, Abreu did appear to fill that same type of gap for the Rays securing a limited role with the Rays Bullpen after the team put veteran reliever Jason Isringhausen on the Disabled List on June 14th and only gave Abreu two appearances before designating Abreu  for assignment after veteran reliever Chad Bradford was ready to rejoin the Rays Bullpen after an injury.

And sure you can also throw the added negative bonus of the Rays then trading Abreu to the Cleveland Indians on July2,2009 and Abreu only spending about a month on the Indians roster before they also designated him for assignment on August1,2009. But Abreu quickly rebounded and signed with the Rays again and was sent to the Triple-A Durham Bulls for the second time during the 2009 season. And within 30 days of Abreu rejoining the Bulls, he was selected as the International League Pitcher of the Week for August 30th after only surrendering 1 lone hit in his last ten appearances of 2009.

And even if Abreu’s stats while pitching with the Indians held up a gaudy 23.14 ERA for the whole baseball world to see in his only three appearances for the Tribe, most people around baseball seem to remember his actions during a July 27,2009 game at Safeco Field. Abreu took the mound in the ninth inning after Mariner’s starter Chris Jakubuska’s hit Ben Francisco square in the back with his first pitch after surrendering a 2-run homer to Asdrubal Cabrera earler in the top of the ninth inning.

Abreu countered in the bottom of the ninth inning with an action that should happen according to the unwritten rule book of baseball and plucked M’s Third Baseman Jack Hannahan. Sure both benches and Bullpens’ cleared and came out onto the field, but order was quickly restored and the game started up right after the Home Plate Umpire ejected Abreu because of the retaliation pitch. Abreu was subsequently given a 3-game suspension for his part, along with a fine for good measures. Most people would see that as a negative blemishe on a pitcher’s mental make-up to try and incite a brawl, but I actually see it in a different light as a veteran pitcher understanding the unspoken code of the game, and doing the right thing for his teammate.

But the main reason I think that we will see Abreu make this year’s Rays 25-man roster might have come about with MLB.Com naming him the Triple-A Reliever of the Year after posting a 3-1 record with a 1.94 ERA during 37 appearances for the Bulls last season.  That might have been the cherry on top of that Triple-A Championship sundae. But with abreu coming back to the Bulls after his Indians disaster and showing his rubber mental consitution by getting 15 saves, you can see Abreu as a reliever who has that proverbial ice water in his veins that the Rays seemed to be missed most of last season.


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Abreu has that veteran mustard and wealth of past experience that the Rays Bullpen will need during their 2010 season. And sure he might have a few quirks like carrying his glove with him to the Bullpen restroom during his time up with the Rays, but the guy truly  understands the game from A to Z. The Rays farm system has a bevy of ample arms sitting down in the minor leagues, but they do not have any relievers with prior Major League experience besides Thayer and Abreu right now. When the Rays resigned Abreu on December 14th, I felt they made the move for his expertise, not as a reward for winning a Triple-A title or a post season MLB.Com award.

The guy has take a long journey through the farm systems of the Braves, Cubs,Dodger, Diamondback, Orioles, Nationals, Indians, Royals and now the Rays during his career. And the abundance of knowledge he has as a veteran pitcher could be a valuable asset in 2010 for the Rays. I mean if he was such a middle-of-thepack reliever, then how did he pitch for Bobby Valentine’s 2008 Chiba Lotte Mariner’s squad over in Japan?  You know Valentine stresses pitching on his teams. So coming into this Spring, I am going to be watching Abreu to see if he is one of the guys to get a lot of reps in Spring Training contests.

Last season Abreu made it all the way up with the Rays Spring Training roster until March 16th when the Rays sent him to the minor league camp also located in Port Charlotte, Florida. Hopefully during this this Spring Abreu can make a lasting impression on the Rays Spring Training coaching staff to get a chance to stay and earn a roster spot. Abreu has everything you want in a reliever at the major league level. 

Abreu has pitching ability, the vast experience and a yearning to succeed at the highest level of the game.
And we also know from his little incident in Seattle, that Abreu also understands the little things that
revolve just under the surface around the game of baseball. I guess all Abreu needs now is a chance on the mound to show he should be one of the last decisions of the Rays this Spring, and be sitting on that Rays Bullpen bench watching the first pitch of the 2010 season.

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