Results tagged ‘ Willy Aybar ’

A J Pierzynski Contacted the Rays This Winter

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Recently I was volunteering at a golf tournament and got to speaking to a pretty well known Catcher who was on the Free Agent market for a bit this Winter. I had met him a few times on the sidelines at Florida Gator games, but never really got into the baseball discussion until about twilight just as the gold tournament was coming to a close. This is a ample backstop who has a World Series ring, a few All-Star selections (2), caught a No-Hitter (Mark Buehrle) and a Perfect Game (Phillip Humber) under his belt and is considered by some one of the most hated, but fiery competitor you either love or hate (depending on if your team can overcome his special karma).

A.J. PierzynskiYou might have guessed by now I’m talking about Catcher and Orlando native A J Pierzynski who even drove former his CWS Manager Ozzie Guillen a bit nuts with his “gray area of the MLB rulebook and on-the-field conduct. Here I was face-to-face with the guy who possibly pulled off 2 of the most debated plays that seemed to magically bend the MLB rulebook like a slider dipping towards the outside corner of the plate rules. You hate playing against him for his slight of hand moves and borderline antics, but you also know if he was on your team you would defend him to the rafters and beyond.

Toby Hall ST Celebrity Golf Tourney 2013 133I really had that almost universal love-hate feelings in regards to the new Texas Ranger Catcher, but what he said that day kind of shocked me, both in a good and bad way. Pierzynski only had a few minutes of time to sign an autograph for a baseball fan who showed up hoping to score some of the athletes scribbles, but as he signed, I threw out a few questions and without batting an eyelash, a few interesting revelations quickly came to light.

I found out he kind of knew heading into the final White Sox games of 2012 that he might not get an offer qualifying or not from his former club, and knew fully expected he would be venturing down the Free Agent highway for the first time in his career. I asked if he had every thought of calling the Tampa Bay Rays and then again without hesitation came the bombshell I knew was lying in the deep grass.

thCA6V6DWRPierzynski and his agent had contacted Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman about a possible spot on the 2013 roster. Since Pierzynski still has an off-season home in the Central Florida town about 100 minutes from the Trop, A J could have possibly commuted with RP Kyle Farnsworth daily from the Orlando region during Rays home stands. I wonder if Friedman took the call as a courtesy, or if he thought long and hard at what offensive power Pierzynski could bring to the bottom of the Rays lineup, or if his style of play would bring a little havoc into the Rays fold on the field.

In the end Pierzynski was blunt that the money was not a right fit, and he in turn took the Rangers $7.5 million offer. Still I wonder if Friedman had offered $5 million with some offensive incentives if Pierzynski would of thought long and hard and made his “X” on a Rays contract?

uspw_6536500-1352315631We all know the Rays catching corps has been a roller-coaster over the last 2 seasons, and with Jose Molina making a club friendly $1.5 million this year, and Jose Lobaton being out of minor league options the Rays hands might have been tied unless an offer that blew the doors off the Clubhouse had been received by Pierzynski. But then again you have to think the offensive upside of having A J behind the dish along with his ability to frame pitches with the best in the MLB might have merited a longer bit of discussion between the pair.

But Pierzynski is now a Ranger, and will probably be a thorn in the Rays side again this season, but still I wonder just what would have happened if he had somehow found the right combination to entice the Rays to bring him into their fold. If that had happened, I wonder how many of the Rays Republic would have still greeted his presence with a clenched fists or  a forgiving gesture of open arms?

Rays Bullpen is On the Clock

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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


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

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


 

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


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

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

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


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

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

 

High Noon Rays versus Rangers Showdown

 


 

Did we possibly see the Texas Rangers today accidentally awaken a sleeping Rays ball club. Could the Rays offensive explosion in the 8th and 9th innings tonight be a by-product of the outstanding pitching performance being provided tonight by Rays starter Matt Garza. With this sudden burst of often elusive firepower coming from all sides of the Rays line-up, could this game prove that the heart and soul of this Rays squad is still very much alive and pumping some extreme energy ?


Tonight’s game truly looked like a team slowly awakening from a slumber of the lumber when the once offensively dormant Rays finally pushed across their second run of the American League Divisional Series in the top of the 6th inning. Could this Rays team have finally wiped the sleep dust out of their eyes and become the solid hitting machine this team needs for the rest of this series. Or could tomorrow be more of a return to form of Games 1 and 2 anemic Rays offense. Interesting sidebar point in this ALDS series is that the home team has not won a single ballgame, or been in a position to win after the 8th inning.

19 other times in modern baseball lore, an American League club has gone down 0-2 in a ALDS with only 4 teams (1995 Mariners, 1999 Red Sox, 2001 Yankees and 2003 Red Sox) having the stuff to fight back from the brink of defeat to solidify themselves and eventually take the ALDS series. Interesting enough, the 2001 Yankees were the only team (before the 2010 Rays) to fall behind 0-2 at home. Could it be a great omen that the 2001 Yankees completed their ALDS comeback and went on to win that season’s World Series?.

Before tonight’s 6-3 Rays victory, the Rangers had outscored the powerless Rays 11-1 and out hit the usually potent Rays offense 19-8 over the first two games of this ALDS. Tonight the Rays belted out a 11-6 hit advantage over the Rangers, and made the red clad Texas crowd take their brooms back home under their arms. The anemic Rays were truly pitiful at Tropicana Field, hitting a paltry 1-13 ( .077) with 9 strikeouts with runners in scoring position before tonight’s offensive awakening.

Tonight the Rays were 3-9 with Runners in scoring position, a massive improvement with the Rays trio of Carlos Pena, B J Upton and John Jaso all providing key hits to score or provide insurance runs to show support for the 4 Rays pitchers that took the hill tonight. It was a solid team effort from a team that looked puzzled and bewildered before they boarded a charter flight to Texas after Thursday afternoon’s contest.

Rays hitters produced an impressive 11 for 37 ( .336) mark tonight as the Rays saw a total of 173 pitches, 50 pitches more than the hometown Rangers. To throw a quick comparison with their prior two performances, in Game one the Rays saw 136 total pitches and only managed 6 hits with one Rays Ben Zobrist getting 2 of those hits and their only run. Game 2 saw the Ranger pitching staff throw 135 pitches with only 2 hits with only Willy Aybar hitting an extra base hit (double).

 

The way the Rays offense woke up today was remarkable since the rays offense had only produced 3 extra base hits and a solo run ( Zobrist HR) before the Rays produced 5 extra base hits tonight, including Home Runs by Carl Crawford (solo) and Pena (3-run HR). How dramatic was the Game 3 turnaround of the Rays? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one other team has begun a preliminary postseason series (ALDS/ALCS) with no more than 1 run and no more than 8 hits in their prior two contests (2009 Boston versus Los Angeles Angels). Tonight that statistic is just dust in the wind as the Rays kept from being swept and sent packing by the Rangers.


Finally this Rays team is beginning to hit the ball like the American League East Champions. All along you knew the power and the strength was within them, but now they are bringing it to the plate and providing more than enough ammunition to defeat the Rangers. But the hard work is far from over. Will the Rays formulize an effective hitting and pitching scheme on Sunday to provide the fourth losing game in this ALDS for the home squad.

The Rays will be sending rookie right-hander WD-40 (Wade Davis) to the mound tomorrow afternoon with a chance to again take the Rangers to the Trop. for a one and done possible rematch of lefties David Price and Cliff Lee in the decisive Game 5.

Some within the Rays republic have questioned the idea of starting Davis in this key Game 4, but I feel he has more than shown his maturity and value throughout this 2010 season. Davis has been one of the most solid rookie pitchers in the American League in 2010, but might have to throw the game of his career to get the Rays in solid position to win this contest.

But going into this game, Davis’s had won 7 of his last 8 starts, with only a non decision to blemish his record since coming off the DL. His only non decision came in Game 162 with Davis’s start last Sunday in Kansas City on the last day of the regular season. Since July, the Rays have won 9 of his previous 13 starts. Davis finished the MLB season leading all AL Rookies in ERA (4.07), winning percentage (.545) and was second in innings, starts and strikeouts behind only Baltimore rookie pitcher Brian Matusz.

More importantly, Davis has been gaining more consistency and control as he took the mound in his last 7 starts, and finally seems to be very comfortable in his MLB skin. That bodes well for the Rays, and a solid first five innings could prove to be a vital key to a possible Rays win. If Davis can keep this game close or possibly scoreless and let the Rays offense get their new found hitting on track, this series could definitely be headed for a fifth and final contest.

 

That has to be the front and center the motivational centerpiece for the Rays right now. If they take their new offensive awareness to Rangers starter Tommy Hunter tomorrow, then their fate will definitely rests in their own hands. But if they falter, it is going to be a long Fall and Winter for the Rays 25. But the ice has been cracked, the Rays once lifeless bats have been awoken to bring about a Game 4 old fashion Texas showdown.


Game 4 will officially begin just past high noon (12:07 pm CST) in the Fall Texas sun, but it will be definitely hotter and more humid with every hitter from both team’s who step in the Batter’s box tomorrow. Both squads desperately need a victory for another step towards bringing another page of history to their respective franchises. If the Rangers win, it will be their first postseason series win in their club’s Washington/Texas history.

If the Rays are victorious, they are still on track to become only the fifth team to come back from 0-2 to be in line to possibly win their once lop-sided ALDS series. It is time for the Rays ultimate “Feel the Heat” motivational scheme to further push the Rangers new fangled “Claws and antlers” into the background. Sounds like the perfect Texas mano-on-mano style gunfight. Wonder if the Rays will come firing blanks or multiple bazooka rounds in this high noon showdown?

Second Time was Just as Sweet!

 
 

 

You could feel the moment beginning to pulsate within the Teflon roof of Tropicana Field. It was the top of the ninth inning with Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano heading to the hill. With the sound of the sledgehammer hitting pure steel, your heartbeat synched solely with that one loud clang for several moments before someone shook you and you were forced back into this realm of reality.


 

 

Rays starter David Price had done his job for eight solid innings, and now the Rays All Time saves leader was not out there to collect another save, but to be one with a moment that will be in Rays fan’s minds for a long, long time. Soriano did not have to be inserted into the game with a 5-0 score and no chance of a save opportunity, but somehow, it just seemed right that the guy who anchored the backend of the Rays success this year should get a front row seat to the celebration carnage.


 

 

And even before Home Plate Umpire Joe West got a chance to throw a vocal note to the final pitch thrown by Soriano past Baltimore Orioles hitter Adam Jones, the Rays dugout and Bullpen were half way to the pitcher’s mound. Celebration was in full force in St. Petersburg that night with veterans like Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford taking special moments to collect all the sights and sounds of this cherished event.


 

 

With a scheduled Team meeting at the pitcher’s mound, the entire team collected and embraced, high-fives all around brought the evening to its ultimate climax, but there was a second act yet to be played out upon the turf of Tropicana Field. As the Rays employees were herded into their own special corral just to the west of Home Plate to be a part of the celebration, the first bottle of champagne was open by Rays First Base Coach George Hendricks who then made sure Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who was being interviewed in full view of the entire stadium at the time, got the first taste of the bubbly.


 

 

Sweet nectar of the God’s streamed down Maddon’s fresh new Rays playoff cap and upon his Carolina Blue plaid lettered T-shirt to commemorate the moment. Just as quickly, players began to filter out of the Rays clubhouse holding their own bottles of Domaine ste Michelle champagne looking to celebrate and salute a moment 161 games in the making. B J Upton and Crawford were the first to rise to the top of the Rays dugout and spray the home crowd while others looked for family members or friends to celebrate this historic Rays moment.


 

 

 

Then slowly, but surely, the team made its triumphant march down the First Base sidelines with bottles in hand spraying the crowd and offering a few swigs to those special fans and friends assembled to bring a final end to the first primary goal of this Rays team. I took my usual photo space down by the Rays Bullpen secondary clubhouse entrance and began to shoot the impending celebration stampede heading my way. I had to put down my camera as player after player came by and let me have a small slice of that moment with them.


 

 

Willy Aybar immediately doused me with champagne right after I congratulated Upton and Grant Balfour and then I saw the biggest smile on the faces of both Evan Longoria and David Price who earlier that day were going through some personal damage control after some unusual comments by the pair.

 

 

I yelled at Longoria that “this was the first of five celebrations” and he looked at me and said” I truly believe that.” Price then shook my hand and I told him I was proud of his actions today and every day he has been here.


 

 

Suddenly, the players sea seemed to part for a moment and one of my oldest baseball friends on the team presented me with a ¾ full bottle of champagne and quickly he disappeared in the exuberant posse. I quickly took a long and deep swig of that nectar and immediately passed it to a friend who took her own dose of delightful bubbly and I thrust the bottle to the air. A few players saw this and also cheered and pointed to me as I took in this second celebration, and immediately remembered just how far this team had come in 2010.


 

 

How only one National Media guru had predicted the Rays to be in the post season at all, and a shot at getting the divine prize of another American League East title was still sitting on the mantle waiting for the Rays to claim it for themselves. That celebration will have to wait until Kansas City, but tonight we were toasting to the success and the finalization of putting the Red Sox out of our rearview mirrors knowing that the New York Yankees were the only foe in our sights of another A L East crown.


 

 

And there was something soothing about this second time. Something that did not have me nervous or pacing like in 2008. Maybe it is the pure fact we have been here before. That we have scaled the mountain in recent times and could again hike it with the ultimate result this time…winning it all. Tonight was the symbolic starting point to that journey. A celebratory exclamation point to the 2010 season, but the Rays still have some walking to do along this dark path.


 

 

Tomorrow might be the last home game, but the team still has one more goal in mind, one giant moment yet to savor and enjoy…One more celebration before the season ends. But that is for us to ponder tomorrow, tonight is the time to celebrate, enjoy and totally let the pressures of the last few weeks pour down your body like the droplets of champagne.

 

 

Now is the time to show the emotions and the feelings that have been bottled up waiting for this glorious moment. I think it is time for me to finish this bottle of champagne and then look to the heavens knowing this is the first of five celebrations.

Longoria’s Quad Feeling mighty Odd

 

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

Sometimes weird and unusual injuries happen as the human body begins to break down towards the end of a hard fought and hard contested Major League Baseball season. No matter what the preventative measures taken in advance, some times the body just has to give. With Tampa Bay Rays Third Baseman Even Longoria only missing one other start in 2010 (May 23 in Houston) maybe this latest injury could be a blessing in disguise to get some extra rest and relaxation before the Rays embark on their second post season venture.

Speculation right now is that Longoria could possibly be rested for almost a week, or until the Rays head out for their last road trip to play the Kansas City Royals next weekend. Already there are a few cries of despair and agony within the Rays Republic, but isn’t it more important to have a healthy and ready-to-go Longoria in October than to possibly see him shelved with fatigue or a nagging injury during the playoffs?

Rumors are also flying as to how Longoria might have strained his quadricep, but if you saw this pivot on a double play against the Yankees while in the leftie shift on Thursday night, you would have seen a small grimace on Longoria’s face as he swept his foot past the second base bag. Longoria did play the rest of the inning, but he did seem a bit uneasy and shook his leg a few times, maybe to try and keep it from binding up while he was on the field.

As an ex-Track sprinter & pole vaulter, I can tell you the most mettlesome injury is
a tweaked or pulled quadricep that can grab the back of your leg and seem to not let go no matter what happens. It cripples and takes you down almost instantly because of the muscle throb and pain. Even worse is the fake confidence this injury can give you that you are healed, then you play on it and it instantly grabs at you again and can become a more severe injury.

 
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

This injury to Longoria might seem a bit troublesome for a Rays offense that has sputtered a bit in the past few weeks, but then again, this Longoria injury could also have a distinctive double meaning for the Rays. The first aspect is that it can give the Rays young infielder some much needed “sit time” with possible pinch hitting duty (doubt it) while Longoria gets the needed medical treatment and also a well deserved rest and relaxation period on the bench.

Secondly, the time with Longoria out of the line-up can be used as a great talent evaluator for Rays Manager Joe Maddon. who might have not penciled in his entire 25-man playoff roster just yet and could use pieces like Dan Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and even Willy Aybar to anchor the “Hot Corner” for a week. This could give the trio some extra plate appearances, plus give the Rays a possible look at alternatives if Longo happens to re-injury himself in the playoffs.

I think this works great for Rays in seeing more plate appearances for Johnson as they try and evaluate his potential for the playoff roster, and maybe a audition for a possible 2011 Spring Training invite with the Rays. Most people seem to have forgotten that Johnson actually played Third Base for the Rays during this year’s Spring Training games, plus Johnson spent the majority of his time at Triple-A Durham playing the “Hot Corner” instead of only DH’ing and playing First Base.

This unfortunate injury to Longoria might actually work out to be a hidden silver lining for the Rays and for the Rays utility guys to step up and make an added late season impression. There is nothing better for a borderline or utility player in the Major Leagues than to establish their talents at another position and maybe get a solid chance to be added to the playoff roster.

The Longoria injury also seemed to happen at a time when Maddon systematically was going to try and to give his 3-time All Star a bit of a rest anyways. The original prospect was possibly only a day or two at the most off for Longoria, but the extended rest period can recharge his body and his mind for the quick paced playoff campaign.
With Longoria telling the Tampa Bay media before Friday nights game that his injury is a “moderate strain” to his quad and not a tear, a sigh of relief was seen on a few faces.

Longoria also underwent an MRI, which came back showing no extensive damage to his leg. Longoria will undergo heat and cold treatments plus spend a few special moments in the hydro-pool as he rehabs himself to get back as soon as possible.
 

Going to be fun to see how Maddon comes up with a winning strategy or a platoon method at Third Base with Sean Rodriguez possibly getting the most time playing against lefties, while Johnson should get ample time at the plate coming in to play defense against right-handers. Aybar has spent time in the past at Third Base, but Aybar will probably spend most of this Longoria injury time still at the DH spot instead of taking a possible turn at Third Base.

 

This quadricep strain by Longoria can be looked at with a glass half full, or half empty mentality. Most within the Rays Republic might see it as an half empty situation where our most prolific power hitter ( at the moment) is down for the count for a week while the Rays are clawing their way to secure another post season berth, plus fight for the crown again in the American League East.


The worry warts among the Rays fan base have brought up the fact of an extended injury by Longoria, but I have a distinctive feeling Longoria will be back in the cages before the end of the weekend trying to keep his timing and swing in check for a possible pinch-hit appearance some time during the last home series against the Baltimore Orioles.

But the Rays glass is definitely half-full as they have adequate and great alternatives in-house to supplement a small time off by Longoria. There was a time not so long ago that an injury like this would have sent shockwaves through the Tropicana Field. The great emergence of Rodriguez as both an offensive and defensive weapon combined with the power hitting of Johnson have given the Rays a bit of flexibility at the corner that they did not have in the past.

All will be fine and well in Rays-ville as Longoria sit and get better daily with an eye on coming back and dominating in the post season, and Johnson and Rodriguez get a few extra shots at trying to impress the Rays and become viable options again in 2011. Most teams within the Major Leagues, if a player of Longoria’s stature falls to injury there is a immediate panic and shuffling to find an answer. For the Rays, the answer is already sitting on their bench eager and willing to do what they can to help this team get to achieving “What’s Important Now”.

Pena’s Progress take a Step Backwards

 

 

Foot injuries can be the worst injuries in baseball for a powerhitter like Rays First Baseman Carlos Pena. Due to the fact that there is a minimal amount of muscle and ligaments in that apendage, sometimes the injury can bring you down like a ton of bricks when the pain gets too much, even for a professional like Pena.This one region of the human anatomy has mostly a bone surfaces that can easily bruise and when injured can provide a constant level of aching pain if you do not rest it and let it heal. The simple action of an opponent accidently stepping on the wrong part of your foot, or inadvertantly twisting their cleat onto your shoe can render a constant and lingering pain that can go on for weeks or weeks without treatment.


So this past Saturday during the Rays versus New York Yankee contest when Pena finally gave into his searing foot pain in his right plant foot, you knew it had to be tremendous pain to get him to leave such a hotly contested series. One of the givens in athletics is that you always have some sort of ache or pain during the competitive season. When Pena finally confessed to the obvious pain in his right plant foot to the Rays Medical Staff, they took every precaution and every  treatment move to try and get Pena back in the Rays line-up as soon as possible.

But after a training exercise and drill set yesterday before the Rays played their finale against the Twins, the team decided that Pena could be better served with a bit of down time and let his injury heal naturally. So following the game last night against the Twins, the Rays Medical staff  have a conference with the Rays front office and Coaching staff and decided to place Pena on the Disabled List retro to August 1st. This will provide some added rest time for Pena to do additional sessions to promote some healing of the region, plus give the Rays an added body on the Rays 25-man roster on their 6-game roadtrip. 


 

When Pena left the Rays line-up during their game against the Yankees, you knew it had to be something monumental for the Rays clubhouse leader to finally sit with his team so close in the hunt in the American League East. But a consistent pain in the top of your right foot when you are a left-handed batter can in time take you mentally out of your focus range while hitting as the repetious ache can feel like someone is stabbing the top of your foot when you swing a bat, or use your right foot as your trailing foot on the First Base bag.

That back leg is also a key element to providing optimal power in the swing process from the left-side of the plate. To have any type of nagging ailment in this region of the body can render your swing less productive, and provide limited power until the pain or the cause is found and dealt with accordingly. The loss of Pena tothe line-up until possibly the home series against the Texas Rangers will take another power bat out of the Rays line-up, and could be critical to them staying in close proximity to the Yankees in the A L East stadnings.


 

Think about it, Pena is one of those old-fashion warriors who normally will play through the pain and aches, to provide the  motivational leadership to keep the Rays young guys hungry. To see Pena sit, even for one game meant that the pain had to have reached his personal limits. So it was great to see the Rays do due diligence by performing an M.R.I, which concluded Pena had a slight ligament tear on the top of his right foot. But even with the right care and guidance the last several days, Pena’s injury did not respond the way the Rays had hoped, and he will spend a few days on the D L  healing and hopefully regaining his power level for the stretch run.


 

It is the kind of injury that you can deaden with pain killer or shots, but can also fester and become worse if not diagnosed and treated before it becomes a more severe tear or even finding the ligament detached from the bone. It was great to see Pena doing agility drills and performance tests with Rays Head Trainer Ron Portfield and Rays Third Base Coach and infield instructor Tom Foley before the game. They did agility drill with and without the baseball to try and gauge Pena’s range of mobility and seemed to focus on his quick acceleration left and right whilemanning a defensive position on the field.


 

Porterfield and Foley also tested Pena’s progress with him coming out of his hitting stance with a test on his first three steps out of the batter’s box to see if there is any hesitation or hitch to compensate for his ligament injury. They also did a battery of testing his acceleration moves on the base paths and a battery of test movement with Pena shifting his weight in multiple directions before concluding the exercises and all three then standing near the first base foul line discussing the exercises at length.


From the body language displayed by both Foley and Porterfield, it looked like they were receptive by noticeably concerned by the lack of progress in Pena’s situation . Their facial expression showed that they were not optimistic and totally pleased with the drills. The next step might be a bit of rest and relaxation for Pena for a few days, then re-evaluate the situation and plan a rehabilitation plan accordingly. 

 

One thing that has stood out in the past two Rays games is the visual fact that the Rays do not have an adequate bat outside of Pena that strikes any notion of fear into the opposing pitching staffs. The Rays have recently seemed to be one guy short of a great offensive strategy at times. The expulsion of Pena from the Rays line-up has left  one of the Rays young power hitters, Evan Longoria exposed and during this roadtrip teams will try to intimidate and make Longoria carry the bulk of the Rays offensive power.

 
In the last two games without Pena’s threat of power, the Twins manipulated Longoria and temporary fixes to the Rays line-up did not extract any levels of fear in the four slot in the Rays line-up. Now will be the time for Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson and even Willy Aybar to step up and become other great power options for the Rays in Pena’s absence. This segment without Pena will be another test to see just how adaptable this Rays team will be to change and if they can adapt on the fly to bring their offense back up to par and win. 

 

The loss of Pena until possibly next weekend could be a major blow to the Rays trying to stay in pace with the Yankees. With one of their leaders and big bats missing from their line-up, the Rays need to immediately refocus their attentions and have each team member contribute on this 6-game roadtrip through Toronto and Detroit. If the Rays stumble and fall and do not regain their offensive mindset, the season could pivot on these 9 games. It the Rays line-up can reconnect and finds a way to contribute evenly throughout the line-up, they might be able to effectively weather the Pena injury situation and come out on the winning end.

If not, it is going to be a long 9 games, and the team could find themselves closer in the standings for the American League Wild Card slot with the Boston Red Sox instead of nipping on the Yankees backsides for the A L East title. If the Rays want to secure their destiny and surge ahead, each member of the Rays roster during these 9 game will have to dig a little deeper and provide a few moments of their own.  But that is what good teams do, they adapt, conquer and move onto the next test with flying colors.

Rays Already have a Viable Power Option In-House

Sometimes it just gets to me how a highly productive baseball player ,in your own farm system can fly so low under the radar, even after doing something amazing. That in this advanced electronics age of scouting and information, a surging baseball player can somehow go completely “out of sight, and out of mind” to his Major League team executives as they collectively screams and frantically searches for a player with his already apparent talent? This same scenario is happening within the Tampa Bay Rays farm system, and for some odd reason, this productive player is still sitting in front of his Triple-A locker every night suiting up.

The Rays have been searching high and low for a formidable power bat option throughout the Major Leagues, and somehow have skipped over the current Triple-A Home Run Derby Champ in their own farm system backyard. What is it that this mystery ballplayer has done to make the Rays Major League scouting department forget his name, stats or his dramatic flair for the game? It is like he is a ghost in the machine right now. How else do you explain hitting one of the most memorable Home Runs in Rays history, then not being on your team’s Spring Training invite list the following season?

Sure you might have developed double vision at one point in your past MLB career when you got suntan lotion in your eyes before an afternoon contest, but you have rebounded and proven you can be a power hitter and a consistent bat in the line-up. But then this same Rays front office sent you on a Japanese vacation as you played for the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2009 like a baseball castaway. So you somehow got were sent farther out of sight and out of mind. But then these same Rays front office folks signed you in January 2010 for $500,000 and you again thought you had an honest chance to prove your worth in the Major Leagues. But again you were met with a career roadblock, and off to Triple-A obscurity you go again.

And during the 2010 Triple-A season you have gained a solid reputation for timely hits and huge Home Runs, but still you still sit in the Durham Bulls locker room waiting for that mystical call to “The Show”. You might have guessed by now, I am talking about Durham Bulls power slugger Dan Johnson. It has been a weird year for him, but what does Johnson have to do to show his willingness and abilities are just what the Rays need in their line-up without the Rays resorting to a trade? Does he have to hit 3 HR in a game? Steal a base? Or maybe Johnson just has to sit silently and watch as the parent team ache and pain for a talent like his without muttering a single word.

 
DurhamBull.com

I consider it a crime against great Major League talent here. Are the Rays so stockpiled with talent in their minor league system that Johnson has somehow slipped through the cracks without a head nod or mention as a in-house power option? It saddens me to think that a talent like Johnson has been relegated to being a second class citizen mired in the minors when he has the abilities to not only help the Rays, but produce runs, provide depth and bring a bit of fear back into the Designated Hitter’s spot. Currently there has to be no American League pitching staff that is in fear of the Rays trio D H force of Matt Joyce, Willy Aybar or John Jaso. But could Johnson the ointment needed to finally provide some relief to that burning lack of production in the Rays line-up, or are the Rays just seeing him as another quick fix bandage?


Considering Johnson’s statistics with the Bulls this season, you have to think he is the hidden treasure trove of multiple talents the Rays have been searching for during this seasons Trade Deadline. Johnson has played in all 83 games for the Bulls. Moving around the infield from his customary first base slot and playing third base, which provides more depth and versatility to his resume’. Could his “new position” be a viable reason Johnson is being stonewalled from being brought up?

Johnson is hovering at a .295 batting average with 24 HR and 80 RBI., but Johnson also has 87 hits, which currently leads the Bulls roster. Then there was his recent show of dramatic power during Monday night’s Triple-A Home Run Derby where Johnson blasted out 25 Home Runs, and ultimately won the title. But in the event finals, Johnson and Lehigh Valley Ironpigs slugger Andy Tracy each posted 10 HR each in the final round. So it came down to a HR shootout format and Tracy did not connect on any of his five swings. It took Johnson only one swing of his bat to decide the Home Run Derby, and proved once and for all, he still has a dramatic flair to his hitting style.

But this was not the first time drama had entered Johnson’s Rays life when it came to hitting the long ball. Most Rays fans remember the Coons Rapids, Minnesota native for his improbable Home Run during a September 9,2008 contest against the Boston Red Sox. Johnson was called-up earlier in the day by the Rays and was inserted into the starting line-up, but plane delays and slow meandering cab rides brought him to Fenway Park at 6:50 pm that evening. Johnson might have been scratched from the starting nod, but he got another chance to project his broad shouldered persona on the Rays as he went to the plate as a pinch hitter in the 9th inning against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon.

 
TBO.com

Johnson had been called-up to the Rays after posting a .307 average with 25 HR and 83 RBI since the Rays claimed him off waivers on April 18th from the Oakland A’s. Johnson stood at the plate with the game on the line and put a Papelbon fastball clear into the stands above the Red Sox Bullpen in right-centerfield for the first pinch-hit Home Run of Johnson’s career. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time in the last 50 years that a player had hit a September Home Run in the ninth inning (or later) in his first at bat for a first place team. Johnson had made an immediate impact on his new Rays teammates, even before formally meeting most of them.


But why is it that the scouts and the Rays front office do not find Johnson so alluring right now for their slumping DH spot? Johnson is a guy who has toiled and done his time in both the minor leagues and abroad to show he has the innate ability and the broad confidence to hit both for average, and for power in dramatic settings. That is the type of player who is now being sought after by the Rays through the Major League grapevine. But it is really a tragedy that we have a proven asset sitting just up the Atlantic Seaboard Coastline in North Carolina who would not cost the team another single penny or a player from their packed farm system.

The Rays are actively doing their window shopping around the Major League right now looking for the same option they have in-house and who is ready for the phone call. It seems a bit illogical to send talent or even money to bring in a high cost alternative to hit for the Rays when you already have a proven commodity right in your system. Hopefully within the next few days, the Rays brass will somehow rediscovery Johnson and his talents because I would love to see him hit the ball “out of sight“, and if the Rays forget about this great player, and let him fester in the minor leagues, then they are “out of (their) minds“.

 

 

Does Jobu Make Housecalls?


 
Chris O’Meara/AP

I now know how it feels to be “that other guy”. You know the one I am talking about right now. The “guy” who somehow does it right, works his tale off doing his job day after day, dating the right girl for him, polishing up that 1969 Camaro hood to a shine like the Sun, then as Jackie Gleason once said: “Pow!, right in the kisser.” He gets smacked in the teeth by reality. And just like that, he has to rebuild and recharge to pull himself off that canvas to answer the bell.


It is that same sense of realism that the Tampa Bay Rays are facing right now. Three games ago no one in their right mind could of, or would have predicted this horrific outcome. Some of the Red Sox Nation in attendance who came down to root for their visiting team never envisioned something like this series sweep when they boarded those flights from Logan to TIA. If this series were to emulate a boxing match, it would have been called by the referee in the third round by TKO. It was a classic Northeastern beat down plain and simple.

The Rays have to immediately rebuild after their customary 30-minute grace period to try and refocus and re-institute Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s main mantra of the 2010 season. This team needs to rise from this horrid beating the Red Sox put to them and push that anger and emotion within their offense and reclaim what is rightfully theirs……A first place squad doesn’t give up, doesn’t lay down, and doesn’t show fear…It stands tall, even if bloody and tired, and asks for more please.

This Boston series was a vivid reality check for the Rays that their starting pitching might “set the tone” for their rise this season, but it can just as quickly be their slope to falling too. The offense can not afford to take a single inning, a plate appearance, or a single swing off, or the offensive machine could break down just as it did the last three nights. Even with the power display put on by Rays slugger Carlos Pena with a long solo blast that came only feet short of the Trop’s back wall in that first contest, only five other hits sprinkles Tropicana Field’s turf during that initial Monday loss.

The Rays early Spring mantra of GTMI, or “Get The Man In” fell on hard times as the Rays went 1-6 with RISP, and stranded another 5 souls on the base. This statistic alone firmly stuck the fork deep into the Rays flesh and the fact the Red Sox pitching staff sent 17 consecutive hitters back to the dugout after Jason Bartlett’s double in that same contest , it twisted the fork harder into the Rays underbelly for their first loss to Boston this season.

GTMI had become instantly an anemic message of CWGaH (Can We Get a Hit). As the Rays fans walked to our cars for that long exhausting ride home after Monday night’s loss, we instantly gave that night’s win to the Red Sox knowing the “terrible two’s” ,Rays starters James Shields and Matt Garza were throwing the next two nights. With that great thought and vision of victories in our minds, that first loss seemed easier to swallow. The intense bitterness of that loss seemed less salty and diluted with the possibilities of “Big Game” and ” El Diablo” getting redemption for “WD-40″. A betting man would have wagered his salary easily on the duo with a high probability of a “W” on the left side of the Rays record column. Losing either of those match-ups would have entered his mind as he pluck down his wagers.

 
Mike Carlson/AP

Tuesday night, Shields posted a “quality start”, and set the tone by only giving up 4 hits and 2 runs over 8 innings,. But the odd mixture of an ever widening strike zone by Home Plate Umpire Bob Davison and the trickery of Boston starter Jon Lester taking that extra 6 inches off the plate proved to be the Rays recipe for disaster. Lester gave up only a single to Rays Designated Hitter Willy Aybar in the fourth inning to spoil his night. The Rays again were faced with another “slumber of the lumber” epidemic as the Rays went 0-5 with RISP, and stranded 7 Rays on base in their second loss in as many nights.


The invisibility of Maddon’s offensive mantra GTMI, or “Get The Man In” might have become a broken tooth on the spoke of the Rays hitting machine and it brought the whole she-bang to a screeching halt. When the Rays have shown their offensive pratfalls this season, the team has stranded countless men on base, or forgotten where those bases were located. Without a solid smack, slap or a tickle off the Rays bats, this team will feel that bitter taste of losing again. And we knew after that second smack down this second divisional series would go to Boston. But we still felt strong in knowing the Rays were sending their own demon to the mound for the finale, and he could already taste the sweetness.

And in this final swing at the Red Sox you knew that something had to give for the Rays. Something had to be discovered or uncovered that had boosted the Rays chances at failure the previous two nights. But just as quickly as the sixth Red Sox hitter, you saw Garza instantly show the frustration behind the mound, and some sort of implosion was definitely on the horizon. After that first blast by Adrian Beltre, Garza seemed to second guessing his strategy and try to change his team’s outcome in one sweep. Garza’s 5 walks and 3 home runs allowed last night showed his mind along with his control was not as sharp as the whiskers on his chin.

 
Steve Nesius/AP

Garza was having his own purgatory moments on the mound, the Rays hitters found a reoccurring theme of inconsistent hitting. They did string together an early scoring opportunity in the second inning after Blalock lead-off with a single. Blalock then advanced along the base paths and came across the plate on Reid Brignac’s grounder and tie the game and gave the Rays a boost of renewed confidence.
A second costly mistake to Beltre, which quickly deposited 388 feet into the Leftfield stands and the Red Sox quickly took this game solidly out of the Rays grasp.

As the game ended the frustration and the angst was visible from the Rightfield stands as the Rays players began their trip towards the dugout tunnel to the Rays clubhouse. Some chins were down and you wonder what the final remedy or cure will be for this anemic offense situation to rebound. For immediately on Thursday night, the Chicago White Sox will venture into Tropicana Field and after seeing the Rays recent struggles, they might also be smelling fresh blood.


The Rays need to resoundingly wake up their slumbering offense that went a combined 1-14 with RISP in their Wednesday night debacle. Soon the mantra of GTMI might be dead in the water if the team doesn’t institute a lifesaving move to save this home stand. People will point fingers from the stands towards certain Rays players who have failed to connect or contribute lately, but the stark reality is all 25 members of this Rays team are accountable right now. You win as a team, and you lose as a team.

Somehow some way this spell of offensive despair has to end. Hopefully it is a simple attitude or minor adjustment and again we can cheer and say hello to victory soon for the Rays. Either that, or is it going to be a long, long Summer, and we do not want that!

 

Blalock is the Bandage, not the Rays Answer

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

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


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

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

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

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

 RRCollection

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Mike Carlson / AP

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

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

 

Rays Pitching still has Question Marks

 
 
Www.TBO.com

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Gail Burton/AP

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

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

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

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