Rays of Hope
Will the sun ever shine for baseball’s version of Crystal Pepsi?
The Devil Rays are ready to win.
Why else would they sign veteran manager Lou Piniella to a 4 year, $13 million contract?
With that in mind, I checked out the Rays organization from top to bottom to figure out how they could have lost 106 games last year. And more importantly, how they can win more ballgames in the future.
We start at the top with general manager Chuck Lamar. Luckily, Lamar is on the same page, “No one (involved with the Rays) has lost the passion to win. We lost the momentum, and Lou starts that momentum, and we need that momentum.”
Unfortunately, besides momentum, Lamar also has a fixation on proven, unproductive veterans like Vinny Castilla and Rey Ordonez. Thankfully, with the slashing of Tampa?s payroll from $34 million to its projected 2003 total of $25 million, he isn?t given much money to manage anyway. This will prove to be a blessing in disguise.
After the departures of Greg Vaughn, Ben Grieve and Rey Ordonez, Tampa will enter the winter of 2003 with a roster costing about $15 million dollars barring any new expensive, long-term contracts.
Finally, some light at the end of the tunnel. However, before Tampa reaches this point the Rays brass must decide who to keep and who to scrap.
First, we will inspect the team?s position players. Some will be keepers, many will not be. In each player?s line you will find their 2002 stats as well as their age and what level they played at:
Toby Hall (MLB, 26 yrs, 330 AB, 0.258 BA, 0.293 OBP, 0.376 SLG)
Comments: The Rays are apparently shopping for a left-handed backup catcher. Not surprising, given the disappointing production of Hall. The proposed move makes less sense when you consider Hall has hit righties (.719 OPS) better than lefties (.647 OPS) the past three seasons. Hall was a very tough out in the minors and that is why his lack of production is somewhat surprising. Hall has still only accumulated 552 plate appearances over the course of his career and could most definitely use a full season in 2003. He has the stick to be an cheap, above average producer behind the plate ? despite little patience ? and he is a keeper.
Aubrey Huff (MLB, 25 yrs, 454 AB, 0.313 BA, 0.364 OBP, 0.520 SLG)
Comments: Huff is definitely a keeper. He had a breakout season in 2002 and will look to repeat his performance in 2003. He is the favorite for this year?s token Devil Ray All-Star and should be kept as long as the price is reasonable.
Brent Abernathy (MLB, 24 yrs, 463 AB, 0.242 BA, 0.288 OBP, 0.311 SLG)
Comments: Abernathy was brought over from Toronto with hopes he could be a table-setter. Not quite. He?s still young, but it?s unlikely he?ll ever post D?Angelo Jimenez numbers. Second base is a position in dire need of an upgrade.
Rey Ordonez (MLB, 30 yrs, 460 AB, 0.254 BA, 0.292 OBP, 0.324 SLG)
Felix Escalona (MLB, 23 yrs, 157 AB, 0.217 BA, 0.262 OBP, 0.293 SLG)
Hector Luna (A+, 22 yrs, 468 AB, 0.276 BA, 0.334 OBP, 0.404 SLG, 32 SB, 11 CS)
Comments: The Rays picked up another shortstop via the Rule V draft this year. Luna has more offensive upside than Escalona and is the keeper between the two. Ordonez was quite miffed at the New York fans and media for turning on him after a bad season in the field and ? shockingly ? at the plate. He?ll head to Tampa with a score to settle and pop outs to smash. The Rays also acquired prospect Antonio Perez in the Randy Winn/Lou Piniella swap. I have about as much faith in Antonio Perez as I do failed phenom Pablo Ozuna ? which is to say not much. 2002 top pick B.J. Upton is the long-term answer. The Rays will undoubtedly rush him to Tampa as soon as possible and all reports point to him being a productive ? possibly impact ? player.
Jared Sandberg (MLB, 24 yrs, 358 AB, 0.229 BA, 0.305 OBP, 0.444 SLG)
Chris Truby (MLB, 28 yrs, 382 AB, 0.215 BA, 0.238 OBP, 0.314 SLG)
Comments: Sandberg has a nice name, decent patience and some pop. If he adds 30-40 points to his batting average he will be a welcomed keeper. Truby was signed to a Minor League deal and invited to spring training to back up Sandberg. If Sandberg continues to hit markedly south of .250 add third base to the upgrade immediately list.
Jason Conti (MLB, 27 yrs, 222 AB, 0.257 BA, 0.315 OBP, 0.383 SLG)
Carl Crawford (MLB, 20 yrs, 259 AB, 0.259 BA, 0.29 OBP, 0.371 SLG, 9 SB, 5 CS)
Ben Grieve (MLB, 26 yrs, 482 AB, 0.251 BA, 0.353 OBP, 0.432 SLG)
Jason Tyner (MLB, 25 yrs, 168 AB, 0.214 BA, 0.249 OBP, 0.238 SLG)
Rocco Baldelli (A+, 20 yrs, 312 AB, 0.333 BA, 0.382 OBP, 0.535 SLG, 21 SB, 6 CS)
Damian Rolls (MLB, 24 yrs, 89 AB, 0.292 BA, 0.33 OBP, 0.382 SLG)
Comments: Forget Mario Mendoza, I want to read about the Jason Tyner line of sub-.250 batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage. Ben Grieve really isn?t as bad at the plate as he is made out to be, but he will be gone after the season. Baldelli and Crawford might not walk, but they do everything else. Tampa was silly to start the arbitration clock for Crawford last year and it looks like they will repeat their mistake with Baldelli this year. Both prospects could use more development time in the minors and the Rays are compromising their futures and the team?s finances for a few quick extra tickets sold. Josh Hamilton finally was able to post some solid numbers last year in High-A and if healthy, he could push himself into the outfield picture as soon as this year. He?ll start the season in AA-Orlando and work from there. Tampa has a plethora of other outfield prospects such as Johnny Gomes, Jason Pridie and Wes Bankston who are working their way up the ladder as well. This is a position of strength.
Greg Vaughn (MLB, 36 yrs, 251 AB, 0.163 BA, 0.286 OBP, 0.315 SLG)
Comments: It looks like Vaughn will be the Rays? Designated Out in 2003. New hitting coach Lee Elia will try and return Vaughn to his former level of "pretty good-ness", but likely to little avail. Vaughn is a keeper only in the sense that the Rays should forever keep Vaughn in mind when they see mid-30?s fading sluggers on the free agent market demanding millions of dollars.
Position Player Overview
For those keeping score at home:
C ? Hold (wait until after 2003 season to reassess)
1B - Keep
2B ? Need Upgrade
SS ? Hold (wait until Upton arrives in, hopefully, 2005)
3B ? Hold (wait until after 2003 season to reassess)
OF ? Keep (and wait for youngsters to develop)
DH ? Need Upgrade
That leaves two positions that need filling and another two that could possibly use an improvement depending on how Toby Hall and Jared Sandberg fair in the 2003 season.
The most appealing targets to fill these holes are sabermetric favorites Marcus Giles and Jack Cust. The market for Cust is almost non-existent after Oakland and Boston quenched their thirst for immobile young Ken Phelps clones with Erubiel Durazo and Jeremy Giambi. Ricciardi?s Bluejays have no room for Cust with Josh Phelps entrenched at DH and Delgado patrolling first.
With no hope of surviving the expansive Coors outfield, the Rockies would do well to trade Cust for whatever the Rays offered.
Giles would likely prove more costly, but he should be #1 on the Rays? most wanted list for second base.
Possible players to shop are Ben Grieve, Johnny Gomes, Joey Gomes, Antonio Perez, Nick Bierbrodt, Seth McClung and others in the system. Surely the Rays could pick up one of the underrated BaseballPrimer favorites, but regardless, more adept players could easily and cheaply fill the void positions.
Next, we turn our attention to the mound. It is obvious that Mr. Lamar and company are not the biggest proponents in of the DIPS theory. Rays? pitchers finished 12th in strikeouts and 13th in walks out of the 14 American League teams.
Tampa has weakened it?s rotation further by allowing Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Ryan Rupe to leave after not being tendered contracts. Who?s left?
Possible 2003 Starting Pitchers
Joe Kennedy (MLB, 23 yrs, 4.53 ERA, 196.7 IP, 109 SO, 55 BB, 23 HR, 204 H)
Dewon Brazelton (AA, 22 yrs, 3.33 ERA, 146 IP, 109 SO, 67 BB, 7 HR, 129 H)
Nick Bierbrodt (MLB, 23 yrs, 5.55 ERA, 84.3 IP, 73 SO, 39 BB, 17 HR, 100 H)
Delvin James (MLB, 24 yrs, 6.55 ERA, 34.3 IP, 17 SO, 15 BB, 5 HR, 40 H)
Travis Harper (MLB, 26 yrs, 5.46 ERA, 85.7 IP, 60 SO, 27 BB, 14 HR, 101 H)
Jorge Sosa (MLB, 25 yrs, 5.53 ERA, 99.3 IP, 48 SO, 54 BB, 16 HR, 88 H)
Victor Zambrano (MLB, 26 yrs, 5.53 ERA, 114 IP, 73 SO, 68 BB, 15 HR, 120 H)
Comments: Ouch. The group collectively posted 5.8 SO/9 IP and 3.8 BB/9 IP in their main stops for 2002. Joe Kennedy is the man everyone is asking about and if the rest of the rotation wasn?t so barren, I might suggest dealing him. However, for now Kennedy is a keeper.
2001 first round draft pick Dewon Brazelton will likely get a shot this spring. Minor League performance is generally a good indicator of ability. However, Brazelton was working on improving his curveball in Orlando. He eventually abandoned the pitch and has been much more effective since. He projects to be a solid top of the rotation starter for Tampa and should anchor the rotation with Kennedy.
Bierbrodt, James and Harper are three decent back of the rotation arms who would be competing for the role of number five starter (or Triple-A ace) on a semi-competitive team but instead may make up the majority of the Rays? rotation. All three are cheap and should be given every chance to raise their stocks as trade bait and solidify their starting roles in Tampa?s long-term plans.
Jorge Sosa is a converted outfielder who only started pitching in 2001. He was picked up via the Rule V draft and had to spend all of 2002 being knocked around Tropicana Field. He packs a mid-90?s fastball but little else. He would be best served developing a complementary pitch and fine-tuning his mechanics in Orlando or Durham, but that is unlikely.
Jason Standridge (AAA, 23 yrs, 3.12 ERA, 173 IP, 111 SO, 64 BB, 12 HR, 168 H)
Seth McClung (AA, 21 yrs, 5.37 ERA, 114 IP, 64 SO, 53 BB, 12 HR, 138 H)
Jon Switzer (A+, 21 yrs, 4.27 ERA, 103.1 IP, 129 SO, 26 BB, 8 HR, 108 H)
Doug Waechter (A+, 21 yrs, 2.66 ERA, 108.1 IP, 101 SO, 29 BB, 9 HR, 114 H)
Chris Flinn (A-, 21 yrs, 2.31 ERA, 128.1 IP, 116 SO, 41 BB, 6 HR, 103 H)
James Shields (A-, 19 yrs, 2.65 ERA, 71.1 IP, 60 SO, 10 BB, 7 HR, 62 H)
Chris Seddon (A-, 18 yrs, 3.62 ERA, 117 IP, 88 SO, 68 BB, 7 HR, 93 H)
Comments: Switzer is the top gun on this list. His bread and butter is a lethal fastball/change-up combination which baffled California League hitters. While some question his make-up (and his lack of a third pitch), it wouldn?t be surprising if he broke camp with the Rays in 2004.
McClung had a horrible stint in Orlando, but the big 6? 6" righthander could eventually make for a solid starter. James Shields missed all of 2002 with shoulder surgery (2001 Stats listed) and should return this season. He is a control pitcher who didn?t rely on overpowering stuff in the past so he may not be affected.
Outside Switzer, the future arms of the D-Rays look to be back of the rotation starters at best. However, four of these pitchers will be competing in Double A or higher next year, setting the stage for a fierce competition for rotation spots in 2004.
1. Joe Kennedy
2. Dewon Brazelton
It may not be pretty, but Tampa should be able to devise a functional pitching staff out of these arms. Certainly, the Rays could better their 2002 ERA of 5.29, last in the American League. As far as suggested additions, pitchers like Jim Mann and Al Reyes are readily available and could made for a surprisingly formidable pen. The timely signing (for around $2 million of the $20 million or so slashed off the books) of a starter like this year?s John Thomson could solidify the rotation.
This may seem like non-sensical dreaming because of the current Rays management. And it is. It?s purpose is to show how easily a 100-loss team can be turned around.
2004 would be the first year the Rays would challenge the .500 mark in one of the most competitive divisions in baseball. 2005 would be the year where the Rays? youngsters would truly start to come into their own, possibly helped by exciting young shortstop B.J. Upton. The squad sporting purple, turquoise and black would be one of the most electrifying young teams in the league with an intriguing mix of power ? Cust, Huff, Giles, Hamilton ? and speed ? Crawford, Baldelli, Upton.
As Lou Piniella said, "I would think within three years we’re going to have a darned good ballclub. This year, we have a modest goal of hopefully setting the franchise record for wins. Next year, try to get it as close as possible, at, or over the .500 mark, and then be competitive by the third year. That’s an aggressive goal, but that’s what we’d like to do."
And if they do it right, they could meet their goal.
Chris Reed owns and operates ProspectReport.com as well as contributes to various publications. Check out his site for statistical analysis, player features and reports on the future stars of baseball
Posted: January 13, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 2 comment(s)
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