Results tagged ‘ Travis Phelps ’

My Baseball Path Not Taken

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I remember back in the Fall of 1987, I had a brief thought about becoming a baseball scout. I wanted to be on the amateur side of the scouting fence, possibly being the guy to pluck a unforeseen gem out of the treks through the back roads of my assigned region, getting that grand and ultimate joy of watching as a player I signed and watched finally got the chance to toe the rubber or scratched his spot in an MLB Batter’s Box for the first time.

003I dreamed back than of possibly finding a rare player like former Tampa Bay Rays RP Travis Phelps who was drafted in the 89th Round of the 1999 MLB Draft and made his journey from unknown to making his MLB Bullpen debut back on April 19, 2001 against the Boston Red Sox and throwing 2 scoreless innings to begin your MLB career . Phelps will forever be a trivia question in bars and baseball contests as the lowest drafted player ever to make it to the MLB ranks. But what a exhilarating thing it must have been for the then D-Rays scout sitting in the stands at obscure Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri and possibly hearing the sound that made you know Phelps had the stuff to be in the big leagues.

The event that brought me again back to daydreaming and wondering if I should of gone down that path was watching my copy of the film, “Trouble With the Curve”. Sure the movie might have done more romancing of the position than is its stark reality, but who in their right mind wouldn’t love the chance to find a future MLB guy possibly playing unseen in a clay field with only a few pairs of eyes gathering his potential, then watching him ascend someday to playing on a MLB diamond.

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVESure scouting is a lot harder than waking up a little later in the day, watching potentially hundreds of baseball games, tackling mountains of written reports, data and on-line statistics that swirl the mind in hundreds of directions until those faithful last moments each June that concludes with the annual MLB Draft. Who would want to stretch their baseball evaluation skills to the limit and place all your chips, possibly going ultimately with your gut instincts to decipher and begin the journey towards someone’s life dream.

I truly wanted to hit the trail of becoming a scout hard back in 1987 with a suitcase, duffel bag of equipment and possibly a Juggs gun and begin my education and potential trek to finding my own baseball treasure. I was anxious to begin my own scouting paper trail and take that untampered guttural instinct that is fundamental to the life’s blood of a amateur scout while seeking out talent anywhere and everywhere. I was truly anxious and excited for the adventure of hitting multiple high school or college baseball games and smell that pine tar and see the faces of kids and young adults just starting get a true whiff of their budding potential and chasing their ultimate dream of playing round ball professionally.

TTTTTI had that dream of possibly sending in a scouting report of a player like Phelps who might have fell off the MLB radar, or played in such a obscure diamond who’s potential was limitless with the right training and guidance. I wanted to get that phone call advising me to change someone’s life by having them sign on the dotted line, potentially changing their life path.

I wanted to be able to sit in the bleached wood stands or under the aluminum overhang of a small ballpark and pick apart a player’s game from hitting, throwing, or any of the other 3 skills most people associate with greatness on the clay and grass fields of the major leagues, plus dig in and see if they also had the courage, determination and confidence to survive the farm system trail on their way to pulling on that MLB jersey. I wanted to see firsthand if they had the tools to handle defeat, pressure and were open-minded and personable with a team aspect fundamental in their baseball makeup.

baseball-scouts-400x210I wanted to be that guy in the trenches, not an advance scout or a professional level scout who checked in and evaluated talent already plucked and cleaned off by others. I wanted to be like the aging Gus Lobel in “Trouble With the Curve” who could hear the potential of greatness in the crack of the bat, or the solid and resounding thump of a pitch hitting the glove. Maybe I dreamed of potentially changing someone’s life path by seeing beyond the reality of their present family situations and show them another path and chance to provide and bring a positive outcome to their lives.

I really wanted at that time in my life to find a raw talent like Phelps who would one day become a significant piece of my team’s puzzle ascending through the farm system until he finally reached “the Show”. I had the budding aspiration back then of wanting to finding that player who just lite you up inside because of their potential and heart for the game on the deepest level.q6ec86y9peec64kz

It would have been grand to pursue such a task, with the risks and potential for failure being higher than the distant pleasures of potential success. I still wish I had done it because I know I had the internal fortitude and want to be successful. I wasn’t afraid of the hard life and sacrifices that accompanied this line of work. Instead I put my dream of pursuing a scouting career to bed in October 1987 after a phone call.

Maybe being a scout was not in my life’s grand plan, but I do give myself the chance to day dream about scouting as I watch the film wondering if I could of found that special player and then watch as he made his MLB debut. In that I envy the film life of Lobel, but also cherish the decision I made to stay within the embrace of the game as a fan…or maybe a lifetime “scout-in-training”.

Just a Tip of the Rays Fan Fest Iceberg

 

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With the time ticking away faster towards the doors finally opening at the Rotunda entrance to Tropicana Field, maybe I can give you some information that could make your day more organized. In this post I will be including the (subject to change) Autograph locations, including Table numbers for all Tampa Bay Rays players and minor leaguers participating in the Fan Fest experience.

You might see pretty marquee names missing from the tentative list. Johnny Damon has a prior commitment on this day, but rumor has it that he might just be somewhere in-house at Tropicana Field, possibly greeting the early admitted fans. When the Rays list went to print there was no indication that Manny Ramirez would be participating, but if the last few days have been an indication…We might have a ManRam sighting within the Trop.

But before I get to the recent list and locations of both Rays players, plus the more than 30 Major League Baseball Alumni who will be singing for FREE during Fan fest. There are a couple of other activities I think you will want to Make time for, because they should be interesting and entertaining for all involved.

The first would be the “Reading with the Rays” program which will be held in RightField Street. The event will give you child a chance to sit and listen to an actual ballplayer The Rays have found this reading experience well received in the past as Rays players visited Tampa Bay area school during the regular season.

Starting the event off at 1:15 pm will be recently acquired OF Sam Fuld. At 2:15 pm, OF Brandon Guyer will begin reading and turn the book over to Rays reliever J P Howell at 3:15. Possible Rays Opening Day starter James Shields will begin the last segment of the day at 4:15 pm. This should be an excellent chance for your kid to meet and listen to an authentic MLB player share the gift of reading.

The Pepsi Stage area should be another high energy hub of fun and frolic as the Raymond Stage Show begins the day’s festivities at 11 am, then is followed by the Induction ceremonies for the class of 2011 Rays/Pepsi Fan Wall of Fame. Right after the conclusion of the Wall of Fame inductions, at 1:15, Rays top prospect Desmond Jennings and local resident Casey Kotchman will begin the first of four Panel discussions.

They will be followed at 2:15 by pitchers Jeff Niemann And Andy Sonnanstine taking the stage to talk about the upcoming 2011 edition of Rays baseball. At 3:15 the fellow pitching duo of David Price and Dirk Hayhurst will take to the mike and possibly be one of the more entertaining events of Fan Fest. You can almost anticipate the “Garfoose” questions even now. Batting clean-up this day for the panel discussions will be Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports fame at 4:15pm.

                                      Rays Autograph Schedule

 

Time Table 1 Table 2 Table 3 Table 4 Table 5 Table 6
12:00 – 1:00 Evan Longoria Sam Fuld Casey Kotchman   Reid Brignac JJ Furmaniak B.J. Upton
    Chris Carter Desmond Jennings     Russ Canzler  
1:00 – 2:00 Ben Zobrist Rob Delaney Leslie Anderson Tim Beckham Sean Rodriguez   Jeff Niemann
    Ray Olmedo Daniel Mayora Alex Cobb Brandon Guyer  
    Justin Ruggiano Chris Bootcheck Albert Suarez    
2:00 – 3:00 David Price Alexander Torres Chris Archer Joel Peralta Felipe Lopez Jake McGee
    Jose Lobaton Robinson Chirinos   Dirk Hayhurst  
3:00 – 4:00 James Shields John Jaso Bobby Ramos Dave Martinez   Matt Bush Kelly Shoppach
    Richard De Los Santos   Derek Shelton Jim Hickey Jonah Bayliss Juan Cruz
      George Hendrick   Ricky Orta  
4:00 – 5:00 Don Zimmer Nevin Ashley Cesar Ramos Tom Foley Cory Wade Jeremy Hellickson
    Craig Albernaz R.J. Swindle Stan Boroski Brian Baker  
    Cesar Cabral Stephen Vogt   Dane de la Rosa  

The always popular Metro PCS Call-A-Friend event will be back again in 2011 with Rays OF Matt Joyce and starting SS Reid (Briggy Baseball) Brignac taking the stage to call your friends, neighbors or possibly a jealous friend who had to work on Saturday. Replacing them at 2:15 will be Uber-utility man Ben Zobrist and 2B Sean Rodriguez. Remember , all proceeds from today’s event will benefit the Rays Baseball Foundation, the ALS Foundation, the St. Petersburg fallen officers through the Jeffery Yaslowitz and Thomas Baitinger Memorial Fund and the Salvation Army. Be sure to go on over to the first annual Rays Yard Sale where collectibles and memorabilia from 1998 to today can be purchased with the proceeds going to the above charities.

Also you will have a chance to buy a MLB Authenticated Mumm’s champagne bottle from the 2008 playoff celebration, plus a 1 foot piece of the champagne soaked clubhouse carpet for just $ 25. You can also get a piece of the former playing surface of Tropicana field for another $ 25 donation. Both items are in limited supply and should go quickly.

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Also on hand will be over 40 former Major League Baseball players including a signing time from 11am to noon that will feature former Rays players P Dave Eiland, closer Roberto Hernandez, RP Travis Phelps and recently retired OF Jason Romano. This free event will also have a collectible MLB Alumni poster that will feature the name and player photo of a majority of the players signing on that day. Below is a list providing all the players and their times that will participate in the FREE Fan Fest autograph signing.

 

Tomorrow during the Fan Fest event I will also be Tweeting live @Raysrenegade starting around 1 pm giving some interesting tidbits of information every 15 minutes on several members both new and returning that have been invited to the Rays Major League Spring camp. Going to be a great day, and those in attendance, come on by the RF seats and say hello. I would be glad to meet you…personally. Got to go now, so much to do, and so little time…..

 

 

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My Ho-Hum Draft Attitude


Not sure why, but I do not get up for all the hoopla and pageantry of the First Year Player Draft or Rule 4 Draft like some people do around the Tampa Bay region. You will not see me profile or even throw a huge amount of fanfare or prognosis towards a player getting their first taste of professional baseball just yet….They have not cut their teeth yet on the rawhide and still might not sign or make the grade out of the gate. The First Year Draft is not a sure thing draft where stardom and money come falling from the sky like rain, but is it a great starting point towards achieving a lifetime dream.I do not even watch the pomp and circumstance of the whole Draft process even though  I did love the idea a few years ago when Major League Baseball held the draft at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, and the Tampa Bay Rays shipped a bunch of fans across the state to watch the events unfold firsthand. I regret not going on that special one-time only journey more for the life experience than for the names pop on the big draft board.

The main excuse or premise I have for not watching or giving a huge amount of time or effort into this initial draft is that the process will take more than four years before these picks can even attempt to blossom onto even for the Double-A or Triple-A rosters, much less gain a chance to stay long into the Spring Training season with the big squad.

The solid fact that a High School kid hit .450 this season or pitches in the upper-90’s  has my interest, but the level of competition they faced is more cause for me to get overly excited. This First Year Player Draft is just that, a leaping off point for these athletes to decide if their MLB dreams will start now, or they forgo the signing and attend college and take the gamble of seeing their stock rise or lower their future draft position. And maybe this is an underlying element to this draft that has me yawning instead of jumping for joy, not that the Rays selected an ambidextrous pitcher in the early rounds.

Unlike the NFL Draft where it is a minute possibility that a player will decide to not pursue a professional career (unlike Bo Jackson and Tampa Bay), the MLB is centered around more unpredictable elements. Sure most of the 30 Major League scouting departments know more useless information about a player before that player’s name is sent to the podium even far beyond if they are an easy sign, or bankable within the team set monetary guidelines. I do not see the Rays anytime soon paying “Matt White” ( $10.2 million) upfront bonus money to a 18-year old even if he does have a golden arm or can shoot a ball into a basket from 500 feet away. Those numbers are no longer fiscally realities to this franchise….yet.

The draft process can produce flaws and guys who slip into full radar view who never pan out, or achieve even sub-par performances in the minor league and never get a chance to step onto a Major League diamond. I have one firm example for you, and one that most long time Rays fans still shake their head over even today. Outfielder Paul Wilder was selected with the Rays first initial pick in the 1996 draft, and never achieved even a partial degree of what Rays scouts saw in him during workouts and game footage.

Wilder was firmly hampered by injury concerns throughout his Rays career, and never got above the high Class-A level before finally bowing out and disappearing into the darkness. Wilder is a firm example of why I do not get worked up, or excited about signing a player right out of high school or college. There are too many variables between that signature going on that contract, and the day they finally step out of the clubhouse wearing the teams colors for the first time.

So I just watch their progress through the short-season farm teams and wait until they officially get on my radar at Port Charlotte where we can get box scores and information readily available to see daily.
I really have not followed former Rays first pick Tim Beckham’s rise through the Rays system until this season since he is stationed now less than 80 miles from the doorway of Tropicana Field. It is not an idea of “out of sight, out of mind”, but a more realistic view of them not being a viable option until they begin their rise through the Rays farm system with authority.

All we have to do is look at the spirited and enthusiastic tale of Matt White who signed with the Rays after his agent, Scott Boras found a loophole in the draft system and the Rays offered up a huge chunk of change for his right arm. White had numerous shoulder and pitching injuries and never got to be even a shadow of the pitcher we all thought he would become before finally getting to the Major League level. He was selected in the same draft class with local Sarasota southpaw native Bobby Seay.

But while Seay was taking his turn running through the Rays system, White was sidelined by injury or personal situations that hampered him until he finally retired still at the minor league level. That right there in a nutshell is why I do not get excited or even predict, complain or even get ruffled by the Rays draft selections. Too many flip-flopping variables, too many “what if’s” in the scenario, and ultimately, nothing can be cast in cement or gold as to the future of any one of those selected.

But then every once in a while a guy come from out of nowhere like Rays 89th Round selection  relief pitcher Travis Phelps. He showed me that the even the forgotten can rise up and be counted when he made his Major League debut on April 29, 2001 for the Rays against the Boston Red Sox and worked two scoreless innings of relief work. Guys fight to get to this point in their careers to wear the colors of their parent team. We do not see the sweat and toils and struggles firsthand, but see the physical remains of that adventure when they finally make it to “The Show”.

There is a small percentage of players that the Rays draft in this current two day process who will ever make it to the top tier of the minor league ladder, much less put on a Major League uniform. So the first sound of their names by an announcer during a draft possibly 5 years earlier is not a huge thing to me. But when the Public Address announcer at Tropicana Field finally says their name, you can bet I am alert, attentive and ready to see another Rays player achieve his childhood dream.

The first time I hear their name echoing throughout Tropicana Field, they have made that final step in the process, and now the job of maintaining that spot takes on a whole different set of parameters. So if the Rays drafted an ambidextrous pitcher in an early round, that is fine with me, but until he gets at least to Port Charlotte, he is what Kevin Costner once called “meat” to me.

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.

 


 
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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!

 
 
 
 

Digging the Rays Past (1996)

 


Raysbaseball.com/MLB.com

Every once in a while I get into one of these research kicks where I want to find out once and for all if something could of, did not, or should of happen concerning the Tampa Bay Rays or any other team. The object of my well, obsession last night was to see if any of the 30 Major League Baseball squads ever attempted to draft current NFL hero and New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees in 1996, when he lettered in baseball at Westlake High School in Dallas,Texas.

So I went on a long and detailed journey checking out every name for almost 100 rounds of the 1996 MLB First Year Draft online, and actually did not find a single mention of the Brees name. Some people might consider this then a waste of time and energy, but I did find a few very interesting secondary targets, and even a score of former Rays players I did not know were initially drafted in 1996.

 
 

The 1996 MLB First YearDraft was actually the starting point for first year player selections ever by the then Tampa Bay Devilrays and it set into motion the initial formation of their minor league ranks in their farm minor league system, which today is considered by many to be the best in baseball. And along the way, I found 24 names listed on that year’s draft board that one day would don the Rays emblem across their chests during a Rays game. 

Most of the Rays faithful know that the D-Rays picked Raleigh, North Carolina native Paul Wilder with the 29th pick in the First Round of that initial draft. But did you know that the last Rays selection in that year’s Draft was High School outfielder Michael Rose from Dayton, Ohio with the 1,736th pick?

 

It was a wild night remembering names and also associating them with past great Rays moments. Out of that first 1996 draft, the highest selected pick from 1996 to don a Rays jersey was outfielder Alex Sanchez from Miami-Dade CC, but most of us might remember him better for the April 3,2005  MLB press release that he would be the first MLB player ever suspended for violating the MLB’s newly instituted drug policy.

Not a great way to be remembered, but Sanchez did not last long with the Rays despite an early 2005 .346 batting average. His wishy-washy defensive play and the suspension might have hastened the Rays to designate him for assignment on June 13th 2005.

 
 

Besides Wilder, there was another name drafted in associated with the D-Rays during that first draft when they selected then, Florida Gators quarterback Doug Johnson in the second round. Even though Johnson did sign and report to a minor league team, he never seems to gather enough mustard to rise through the D-Rays farm system, and finally concentrated his efforts more on staying healthy behind the NFL’s Atlanta Falcon’s offensive line. It was a calculated gamble by the Rays Front Office to try and get Johnson to fit into their system, but the young player always seemed to be more comfortable with a football helmet on his head than the baseball batting helmet.

But what is even more surprising is the large number of other players selected in that season’s draft who would end up one day playing in Rays gear. During the 1996 MLB Draft, other teams ended up selecting a total of 17 players who ended up sporting Rays gear during their playing careers. The highest profile player might be 1B Travis Lee, who was the second pick of the First Round by the Twins that season. Also former Rays players LHP Bobby Seay(CWS), INF/OF Damian Rolls(LAD) and P Nick Bierbrodt(AZ) were all First Round selections that at one point wore Rays colors.

 


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But down the draft line there were also players like P Chad Bradford(CWS), LP Mark Hendrickson(TEX), P Joe Biemel(TEX), INF Brent Abernathy(TOR),3B/C Eric Munson(ATL) P Joe Nelson(ATL) C Robert Fick(DET),LP Casey Fossum(AZ), DH/1B Josh Phelps(TOR),OF Jason Conti(AZ), P Brandon Backe(MIL), P Ryan Rupe(KC) and P Tim Corcoran(NYM). It is a bit unusual for so many budding players to find their way onto one team and prosper during their careers, but at that time, Tampa Bay was a good starting place to establish yourself within Major League Baseball by showing a good foundation, then moving onto another team with experience under your belt.

 
 

It is funny now to also gather the names of other great players who also debuted  as professionals from that 1996 draft.  Later Round selected Players like Astros P Roy Oswalt(23rd Rd), Cubs P Ted Lilly(23rd Rd),current Free Agent reliever Kiko Calero(27th Rd) just among the top 30 rounds of the draft. The you have guys like Yankee OF Marcus Thames(30th Rd), Indians DH Travis Hafner(31st Rd), Twins 2B Orlando Hudson(33rd Rd), rehabbing P Chris Capuano(45th Rd) and Nats INF Eric Bruntlett(72nd Rd).
 
 

But if you like to win odd baseball Trivia Questions, then I have one for you. You can win some major food or drink concessions (I have) by remembering that the D-Rays reliever Travis Phelps, who was drafted in the 89th Round , and the 1,720th player selected that season is the latest draft pick to ever don a Major League Baseball uniform. And because MLB restructured the Draft since his selection, he will be the answer to that Trivia Question forever. Easy pickings unless you are at a SABR Convention.

But he is not the only D-Rays player selected from that initial 1996 Draft to make it to the professional level and put on the jersey of the team that selected him. He shares that honor with current Rays reliever P Dan Wheeler( 34th Rd), P Mickey Callaway(7th Rd), P Delvin James(14th Rd), and last, but not least, 3B Jared Sandberg(16th Rd). Sandberg also went on to coach in the Rays farm system, and will be the head man with the Hudson Valley Renegades (oh yeah!). This will be Sandberg’s third season coaching in the Rays farm system.

 


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So last night’s scavenger search brought up some interesting surprises, and also a few great Rays moments for me to envision again within my imagination. It is kind of wild that Rays reliever Wheeler is the lone Rays representative from that initial farm system class of then D-Rays left within the Rays roster. And what it must feel like for him to be here during the lean times, then go away and experience a World Series berth(Astros), then come back and see this Rays organization that drafted him also feel that rush of emotions in securing their first Playoff berth and run towards the 2008 World Series with Wheeler in the Bullpen enjoying the view from field level.

 
 

And there was one more name that was hidden among the mass quantity of names in that 1996 Draft that totally shock and awed me. Hidden way back in the 59th Round, and selected by the Seattle Mariners was a young pitcher named Barry Zito. Some people say that if you fall under the 20th Round in any year’s MLB Draft, your odds greatly swing downward to ever see the light of day as an MLB player at a Major League ballpark. So many of the above mentioned MLB players fell below that invisible line and are living proof that will, determination and great talent can not always get you to the show. Sometimes you need a lucky rabbit’s foot too…….Right Barry?

J P Howell and Lance Carter….Odd Rays Closers

 


Paul J Berewill / AP


The more I see Rays reliever J P Howell pitching and finding success in the late innings, the more I am reminded of another young Rays closer that once threw just like Howell without blinding speed to the plate, but used his pitch selection and deception in pitch speed to make his pitches dance around the plate. And maybe Rays Manager Joe Maddon has taken a page out of the Rays  not so distant past and is using past reasonings to again thinking of applying an off-speed pitcher into the closer role.

It has worked before, and with great results. If you have been a Rays fan for some time you might remember Rays reliever Lance Carter and his off-speed arsenal that propelled him to his only All-Star appearance in 2003 when he had 15 saves at the All-Star Break. He did not get to play in that All-Star game at US Cellular Field in the south side of Chicago, but you can bet that experience changed him. Maybe Maddon in all his cerebral wisdom is again coming to the understanding that control and not a 95+ fastball might be the answer right now for the Rays.

It is not like the Rays have a reliever right now thrusting himself to the forefront to take the 9th inning reins and lead the club to wins. When Carter was the Rays closer in 2003, he went 7-5, with a 4.33 ERA. The ERA is kind of high, but the results spoke for themselves. He was involved in 51.6 percent of the Rays wins (62) that season. Even more incredible is his year end total of 25 saves in his rookie season put him in the top 5 rookie performances  of all time at that moment.  He made over 61 appearances in 2003, which is incredible in its own right. He converted 25 out of 32 save opportunities for the Rays that year.  All by a pitcher who used his off-speed stuff to accent his high 80’s fastball.

Carter’s 25 saves shattered the Rays rookie save mark of 5 that was held by Travis Phelps set in 2001.  At the time he represented the Rays in the All-Star game, he was the oldest rookies at 28 years, 6 months and 29 days to be selected to play in the classic. Carter ended up back setting up closer Danys Baez in 2004 when the Rays signed the former Cleveland Indians closer. Carter did spend another two years with the club until he was dealt along with Danys Baez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young pitcher Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany on January 14, 2006.

In comparison, J P Howell’s climb to the Bullpen came out more of a change of direction for the young pitcher after some trouble starting games for the Rays in 2006 and 2007 hen he made 18 starts for the Rays and went a combined 2-9, but did show promise in getting 82 strikeouts in 93.1 innings of work. So when the Rays came to Spring Training in 2008, his main concern was to learn th fine art of  successful relieving to try and save his career.  His ERA in 2007 was a high 7.59, but who would have ever thought that the young pitcher would take to relieving with such zeal and success.

In 2008, he appeared in 64 games and finished the year with a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA. He also  almost threw more innings (89.1) in one season as a reliever than he had in the last two ( 93.1) for the Rays. He also began to set a consistent mark of striking out opponents with his fastball that sinks and tails and sometimes even cuts away from hitters. His fastball, just like Carter’s comes in a lot slower (84-88 mph) than his body makes it look coming out of his left hand. 


Boston.com

Combine that with a change-up he often overthrows that is only about 5 mph slower than his fastball, but it dives quickly as it approaches the plate.  And his curve ball, also like Carter’s can be the perfect out pitch because if its great last minute break. All three of his fundamental pitches tend to stay below the 90 mph range, and usually sit within the low to mid 80’s at any time. Combine that with a hard breaking and reliable 12-6 breaking curveball and both pitchers tend to look like photo negatives of each other on the mound. It is classic deception pitching at its best.

 

And who knows maybe Maddon has also asked Howell to view some of Carter’s old game videos to get some confidence and show the young reliever he too can have success with moderate stuff on the mound. Howell has his age as the best advantage here on Carter because he is still the youngest member of the Bullpen and is still learning the art of late inning heroics. But both men have a calm and cool exterior that tends to deflect attention and brings a calming effect on team mate when they throw, which lends itself to great success in the late innings.

But most people remember Howell as the eventual loser in the World Series Game 5 who was actually sick as a dog on the mound, but wanted the ball.  And there is that second characteristic that tends to bond both of them as mirror image relievers. With the game on the line, both pitchers want the ball to give their team a chance at a win, and secure the victory. That kind of confidence or cockiness can not be taught, or even duplicated. Either you have that inside you or you do not…period. 

Howell might have had a 2008 that defies most logical answers. At the time he was the only Rays reliever on the staff under 30 years old.  But he quickly did not let his young age keep him off the mound for the Rays. He only got 3 saves in 2008, but in his last save of the year, he went 2.1 innings to preserve the win for the Rays. His 89.1 innings lead all MLB relievers, and  his 92 strikeouts was also a MLB high for relievers in 2008. Even as he was learning the craft of relieving, he lead all MLB reliever also in only letting 11.8 percent of his inherited runners to score in the game. 

And he only turned it on more for September as he owned a 0.00 ERA for the month spanning 15 innings. Howell also broke the Rays club record  with his 89.1 innings previously held by Doug Creek ( 62.2 innings).  Both left-handers (.188) and right-handers (.197) hit under .200 against him in 2008. Howell was developing into a severe late inning weapon for the Rays as they headed to the 2008 playoffs. 

           
            Brian Blanco / AP

 But Howell’s solid start to this year also shows that the things he learned las
t season and during the playoffs has made him better equipped for the 2009 season. Howell has become more secure and ready to take on all comers for the Rays. Sure the ex-starter might just be in his second year in the Bullpen, but Carter also found his success in his second stint in the Rays Bullpen.

Maddon might be drawing great comparisons to the two relievers and giving Howell the opportunity to show he can handle the ninth inning stress and responsibilities. So far this season Howell has been up to the test. Howell entered the 2008 season with only two prior relief appearances at Rookie-level ball at Idaho Falls in 2004. But he is turning into a polished gem for the Rays this season, posting in even better numbers than in  his remarkable 2008 season.

This year Howell has appeared in 35 games, which ties him for the American League lead. He currently has a 2-2 record with 4 saves.  He has thrown for 34.2 innings and has 42 strikeouts so far. His last 13 appearances have been scoreless, and  he is second in the AL in strikeouts.

But the biggest confidence to his year might be the time he spent in the Team USA Bullpen during the World Baseball Classic this spring. In the WBC, he appeared 3 times for Team USA and held opponents scoreless.  He did not figure into the last innings for any of those appearances, but got great advice and training playing along side some of the best closers in the game.


Chris O’Meara/ AP

One downside to Howell is his five blown saves so far in 2009. But that is some of the learning curve that he will have to endure if he wants to make the transition into the late inning guy for the Rays. But just like Carter, Howell is still throwing his style of game and not adjusting or tinkering with his pitches so far this year. His 4 saves already this year is only second only to Troy Percival.

Maybe this “blast from the past” is exactly  what the Rays need right now to again gain their 2008 edge. Reverting to a time where the closer threw slower and with control compared to the starting pitchers might be a godsend to Howell in his quest to gain the spot. But you know he has a great believer in his corner in his manager. Maddon is probably one of the biggest Howell supporters, an it just might get him another honor in the next few weeks.

Even if Howell is not determined to be the answer as a Rays closer, the job he has done in the past ans so far this season puts him in a small group of relievers in Rays history.  In the end, the guy who could have his pitches timed by a hourglass might be the best solution to the Rays closing problem this season. And who knows, maybe he just might evolve into the perfect guy for the job with his “on-the-job” training this season.

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