Opening Day 2010

Well, well, well… I’m finally back, just in time for the season to start. I graduate from the University of Tampa next month and I have been caught up in all the pre–graduation work. Then I expect to move in July, likely out of my lifelong hometown of Tampa, for graduate school and possible employment. So updates here will likely be even more sporadic than they were last season

Back to baseball, we are just about in full swing. The Braves debut with most other teams on Monday and the Rays host their opener Tuesday night. (The night I happen to have a late can’t–miss class.)

I checked out Braves Spring Training on March 13 when they hosted the Blue Jays. Ricky Romero owned the Braves and Toronto won 3–0 behind untimely errors against Tim Hudson. The slightly–improved Champion Stadium looked great as usual, and we sat in the lower level for the first time. I was about four rows behind Frank Wren, right behind the plate. It was a bit hotter than expected due to the concrete and steel, but nothing like it would be today. That didn’t stop me from having chicken noodle soup catered to my seat. It was good too.

After the game we stayed at the Best Western Lakeside (my first night ever in a hotel room all to myself) and ate at Colorado House of Beef. I recommend the Colorado’s Best, a 14–ounce center–cut portion of New York strip steak. We may go back again next year.

Now on to the regular season. The Rays added both Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac to the Opening Day roster. I like the idea because both men are versatile and did very well this spring. Rodriguez particularly killed the ball. Hopefully Rodriguez carries it over into the regular season and earns some playing time. It seems like Brignac will get most of the second base appearances while Ben Zobrist will play right field. These three should get all the time they can because they are all better than Gabe Kapler. Nothing personal against the Jewish muscleman, he’s just past his prime.

Mike Ekstrom narrowly beat Joaquin Benoit for the final bullpen spot. This surprised me quite a bit; I see Benoit as the better pitcher. But Ekstrom was said to have better fastball command and he didn’t just miss a season injured. So he should hold over in a mop–up role until J.P. Howell comes back. I also like Andy Sonnanstine in the long relief spot, and I love former Brave Rafael Soriano as the closer.

The Rays are expected to possibly drop their payroll by $20 million next season. That’s quite sad for this market. As Tom Verducci said, we “failed the litmus test” last year when our attendance only rose by less than 1,000 fans per game. I’m as guilty as all of us, only having gone to two games. In our defense, the economy in this area sucks and only nine teams saw any increase in attendance in 2009 — ours was the sixth–best increase. In terms of cutting payroll, if we get Pena, Soriano and Burrell off the books, that’s about $25 million right there. If Crawford decides to unfortunately depart, that’s more than $10 million extra. We could actually sign one or two good players next offseason. Combine that with the rise of Desmond Jennings and other prospects, and we can still contend. Don’t count us out.

I wrote a spring recap/season preview for the Rays for my school newspaper. I basically talk about everybody there, and it would clog a lot of space on this blog, so the link is here.

On to the Braves, their starting rotation looks like the 1990s, chock full of stars: Lowe, Jurrjens, Hanson, Hudson, Kawakami. When Tim Hudson is the fourth starter on an underrated staff, you know you have something special. Tommy Hanson could win a Cy Young Award soon, and so could Jair Jurrjens. If they just keep up the pace and Derek Lowe stays in shape, the Braves could sneak into the postseason.

The talk of Braves camp is Jason Heyward. What an amazing talent. He has rocket power, a great batting eye, good speed and a cannon arm. He can be the next Ken Griffey, Jr., hopefully without the injuries and slowing down. He can make Braves baseball its most exciting since the late 1990s. Now if only Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus can rebound and Nate McLouth starts to hit.

The Yankees and Red Sox begin the season tonight. I’ll be cheering for the weather and the medical staff. Now we wait impatiently for our teams to begin the 2010 season. Every team — OK, maybe about 25 out of 30 — has hope for a championship. Let’s bring one down south.

Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

Late Recap of Rays FanFest 2010

Well, for the first time in my second decade of MLBlogging, I’m back. And just as it began in the previous two years, the 2010 Rays season kicked off with FanFest on February 20.

I arrived at around 8:30 at Tropicana Field, much later than that 7:00 arrival last year. The line was still short, maybe just a few dozen people. FOX 13 interviewed the first people who got there (they couldn’t do this last year?), then the doors finally opened around 10:10. It felt good to escape the cold winds, and just as good to escape into center field. I promptly gathered my cards for the autograph lines as I checked the schedule. My brother went out to FanFest for the first time since 2001, so we could double our autograph intake. I noticed that Table 2 featured Desmond Jennings and Dan Johnson at noon, then Carlos Pena at 1:00. I had both Jennings’ and Pena’s cards, so Table 2 it was. My brother headed off to Table 5 with a Matt Joyce card. Table 1 with Evan Longoria was not happening by the time we reached the lines.

So after playing the waiting game, during which time I pulled up several pieces of the field as souvenirs, it was time to approach the tables. Of course, they didn’t start right at noon, which I’m sure angered people in the Longoria and B.J. Upton lines. I had a good spot in line, about halfway up from the end where the line curves around. Plus it just so happened that many of those ahead of me were there to see Pena, while I was comfortable with Jennings. So I jumped ahead and took my shot. I talked to Johnson first, asking him how Japan treated him.

“They treated me well,” Johnson told me. “But I did more work there in two weeks than I did in a year here.”

We also agreed that Japan (where Johnson hit .215 with 24 home runs for Yokohama in 2009) promotes a vastly different culture. After he signed my program and I thanked him for the 2008 home run in Boston, I moved on to Jennings. I didn’t have many words, but he did sign my 2007 Bowman Sterling card. That will be money in the bank many years down the road — at least as long as Jennings himself cashes in on his potential.

After eating (expensive) Checkers food in the right field seats, I returned to the field and caught up with Jennings again. This time I visited the Metro PCS Call a Friend booth, where I had Jennings call my dad. They talked for a minute about everything Rays, and it made their days. Well, at least Dad’s.

At 2:00, it was town hall meeting time. This is always one of my favorite events, being able to listen to broadcasters and other notable names discuss the game and the team, plus asking them questions. The first round starred Dewayne Staats and Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. Roberts may be 83 years old, but his baseball memory remains perfectly clear. Plus he signed my program. A Hall of Famer’s signature is worth every dollar and every minute I spent at FanFest. Anyway, Roberts spent a lot of time on the differences between his era and today, and the dynamics of pitching. I asked him how far he thought baseball went to protect the hitter in today’s game. His first sentence spoke volumes.

“When I started, hitters didn’t even wear helmets.”

Then he made it a point to discuss the controversy over hitters wearing body armor at the plate, which never happened 50 years ago. He told a few more stories, littered with details — this guy knows the count on which he gave up a home run in a memorable game in 1954. And, of course, pitch count was a major point of contention. Roberts suggested that a pitcher’s mechanics determine injury risk more than the amount of throwing. He has a point.

After they wrapped up, 3:00 meant time for round two. Radio broadcasters Dave Wills and Andy Freed (whom I had spoken to earlier in the day) made their way up on stage at the Batter’s Eye Restaurant. Joining them was the man who will hopefully turn the Rays’ strikeout–prone, foul–bunting woes around: new hitting coach Derek Shelton. His focus is on situational hitting, which I think is essential to any championship team. In discussing this topic, Shelton made a valid argument.

“If Carlos Pena is up with a runner on third base, less than two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, I want him putting the ball on the ground. If it’s two outs and nobody on base in the same situation, I want him taking his three swings and trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Shelton’s main points were that it’s not striking out often, but striking out at the wrong times, that kills run production, and that they just needed to play to win the game. He also mentioned his work with most of the team’s hitters during the offseason, notably with B.J. Upton. He says Upton needs to cut down on the “moving parts” in his swing, and his extremely fast hands could do the work. He added that it could take as long as 18 months to recover from the shoulder surgery Upton went through in November 2008, which would explain his epic fail 2009 season. Speaking of which, Pat Burrell is also in shape and ready to hit under Shelton’s guidance.

Shelton answered my question about which young player would break out by explaining Upton’s progress and saying he would be that guy. Dave Wills told me this last year too, so maybe it’s not a lock. My brother asked Shelton about Kelly Shoppach, with whom he worked with the Cleveland Indians. He said Shoppach was “closer to 2008” than his injury–riddled 2009 season. 2008 was when he hit 21 home runs and rendered Victor Martinez nearly irrelevant. He also loves Tropicana Field, a rarity in this league.

That ended my 2010 Rays FanFest on a high note. The autographs were an automatic win for us, and of course talking to these people up close and personally is a rare treat that should always be capitalized upon. The only problems: the people running the show had little sense of timeliness, and there is no possible way to do everything one can do in seven hours. They need to make this a two–day event. Overall, I would say FanFest hit the line between B+ and A–.

I will end here by announcing my annual journey to Champion Stadium in Kissimmee to see the Braves. It is happening March 13 when the Braves face the Blue Jays, who I saw there in 2007. Hopefully Jason Heyward gets some playing time. He’s rated the number–one prospect, ahead of Stephen Strasburg, and has already sent shockwaves around Braves camp. Hopefully he and Jennings become the game’s two most dominant outfielders.

Until next time, go Rays.

Zaun Signs with Brewers; Soriano from Braves to Rays

Two major roster moves have shaken up the Tampa Bay Rays — and my other favorite team, the Atlanta Braves.

First, Gregg Zaun signed a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this week. This is unfortunate for the Rays, who hoped to keep him to back up Kelly Shoppach. There is still Shawn Riggans if he returns in good health, or even Dioner Navarro if necessary. The Brewers had virtually no catching game, so Zaun is a good pickup for them. Good luck to Gregg in this endeavor.

Today came the big announcement that the Rays and the Braves had made a big deal. The Braves, who gave the Rays Willy Aybar before the 2008 season, sent closer Rafael Soriano to Tampa Bay for middle reliever Jesse Chavez.

Soriano had just surprisingly accepted arbitration with Atlanta, signing for one year and $6.5–$7 million. The Braves recently signed former Red Sox (boo) pitchers Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito for the back end of the bullpen, so Soriano was available on the trading block.

Soriano shared closing duties with Mike Gonzalez in 2009 and posted a 2.97 ERA with 27 saves out of 31 opportunities. He walked 27 hitters along with 102 strikeouts. His closing experience gives the Rays a huge bullpen boost. They could no longer trust J.P. Howell’s on–again, off–again finishing of games. Soriano turns 30 years old on December 19 and thus is in his prime, and while he has been injury prone, he made a career–high 77 appearances last year.

Chavez gives the Braves a reliable middle reliever. He was previously acquired by the Rays in the Akinori Iwamura trade with the Pirates. The 26–year–old made a team–high 73 appearances in 2009, totaling a 4.01 ERA, ballooned by a 5.10 ERA in his final 30 appearances. He can help bolster the front end of an overhauled Atlanta bullpen, the way he would have in Tampa Bay.

Essentially, the Rays dumped Iwamura’s salary and got Soriano through that move, while the Braves kept their bullpen strong and freed up Soriano’s salary to acquire a powerful first baseman or outfielder. Great job by Andrew Friedman and Frank Wren, and best of luck to both Soriano and Chavez.

Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

Kelly Shoppach Traded to Rays

The Rays have made their first major roster move since the Akinori Iwamura trade. They will send a player to be named later to the Cleveland Indians for power–hitting catcher Kelly Shoppach.

This, of course, may signal the end for incumbent Rays catcher Dioner Navarro. He went back to being abysmal after his All–Star 2008 season, hitting just .218 with eight home runs and a paltry .261 on–base percentage.

Navarro could be traded, or even non–tendered into free agency as Jonny Gomes was last year. The Rays have expressed interest in keeping Gregg Zaun along with Shoppach.

This would be one of the quickest falls from grace ever for an All–Star. Navarro’s 2008 season is looking like a one–time fluke.

Shoppach also had a terrible 2009, hitting .214 with 12 home runs in 89 games. This was down significantly from .261 and 21 home runs in 2008. He is also strikeout–prone, which was the last thing the Rays needed offensively.

However, Shoppach has shown more consistency prior to last year, and of course more power than Navarro could put together in three years. Zaun is the right player to balance out Shoppach’s weaknesses, whereas he was just a superior version of Navarro. Not to mention Shoppach had a few injuries last year that slowed him down, whereas Navarro has no known excuse. So at this time, this looks like the right move for the Rays.

Shoppach turns 30 in April, so he probably has a few good years left. Zaun is nearly 40 and he still plays, so Shoppach could be here long–term.

Until next time, go Rays… and Blue Jays, if you give Roy Halladay to the Yankees or Red Sox, you can bite me and the entire Rays Republic.

Iwamura Traded to Pirates

It is now official: Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In return, we received relief pitcher Jesse Chavez.

Iwamura had been with the Rays since 2007, their last year as the Devil Rays (and as a bad team). He scored the winning run in his first home game and played very good defense at both third base and second base. He also became enormously popular with Rays fans for his enthusiasm, including helping to pioneer the “Rayhawk” of 2008.

Of course, Iwamura also made the final defensive play that sent the Rays to their first World Series. Hopefully he kept that ball in good shape.

He did have his negatives (too many strikeouts, hit .217 with runners in scoring position), but added to all the other positives was an ability to hit timely home runs. His two–run shot off Clay Buchholz in April 2008 turned a 1–0 deficit into a 2–1 win. He also led the Rays to victory in the Division Series against the White Sox, hitting a home run late in game two.

Iwamura could run well, play the field, even hit for power occasionally. But with so much money (nearly $5 million) on the table to possibly become a glorified bench player, this trade was justified. Ben Zobrist stole his job and had a massive breakout season, and Sean Rodriguez (the young guy from the Scott Kazmir trade) and right fielder Matt Joyce will also be competing for starting jobs. That effectively squeezed Iwamura out of the Rays’ plans.

Meanwhile, Chavez can give the Rays some necessary bullpen help. The 26–year–old right–hander appeared in 73 games and gave the dismal 2009 Pirates some good work. His 1–4 record doesn’t match up with his decent 4.01 ERA or his mere 22 walks allowed in 67.1 innings. He looks like a one–inning Lance Cormier (who I hope stays, by the way). With the declining Chad Bradford leaving and possibly retiring, Chavez could be the right man to take his spot.

The man known as “Aki” and celebrated by almost every Rays fan on Earth is now in Pittsburgh, also known as Purgatory. In my blog archives is my favorite Iwamura story, and a big reason this team’s culture will never be the same. It was 2008 Rays FanFest and I showed him his Japan rookie card from 1997. He looked at the guy next to him and said “Rookie! Rookie! Twelve years ago! Twelve years ago!” Then he eagerly signed the card.

Make Pittsburgh fun, Iwamura–san.

2009 Season Retrospective: Part Two

Welcome back everyone to my 2009 Rays recap. Well first, the Yankees and the Phillies will be playing in the World Series from Hell. I’ve had visions of this in nightmares. As a Rays and Braves supporter, it gets no worse. I will be boycotting the 2009 World Series, and I invite everyone else to join me. Let’s start enjoying football and fall weather. Though football would be more enjoyable if the 0–7 Buccaneers would win a game.

Now on to the recap. This time, it’s personal. Personal opinion, at least. I will be sharing some insight — good, bad and insulting — about this year’s team. Straight to the chase, here it is:

Positive:

  • Jason Bartlett had an amazing season. Already the team MVP in 2008, he stepped his game up and delivered big offensive totals. He jumped from .286 to .320 and from one to 14 home runs. Those are staggering figures by his standards. If this is typical Bartlett from this point forward, we need to sign him long–term and build around him. Tim Beckham will have a few more years to develop.
  • Speaking of monster statistics, Ben Zobrist leaped from roleplayer to All–Star. The man known as “Zorilla” hit .297 with 27 home runs and 17 stolen bases while starting at six different positions. His most notable spots were second base and right field. He started making adjustments late in the season, which bodes well for his future.
  • Evan Longoria further cemented himself as a team leader. The first Ray ever voted to start in the All–Star Game (though unable to compete due to injury), he batted .281 with 33 home runs while improving on walks and strikeouts and establishing himself as the face of the franchise. He can be one of the best influences in the game in the next few years.
  • How about the rise of Jeff Niemann? The 2004 first round Draft pick finally showed his potential in the Major Leagues. He narrowly won the team’s ERA title at 3.94 with a nice 13–6 record. The Rays definitely made the right decision between him and Jason Hammel.
  • The Rays posted the two largest comebacks in franchise history in 2009. They battled back from a 7–0 deficit to win 8–7 over the Indians on May 15. They topped that by coming back from down 9–1 to a 10–9 victory in Toronto on July 25. There were those few times when the team displayed the resolve of a champion.
  • Tim Beckham made nice strides at Class A Bowling Green. The number one pick in the 2008 Draft hit () with five home runs and went 13–for–23 in base stealing, not bad for a guy who started 1–for–8. I think by 2011 his power potential will show. As long as his skills are being refined now, his potential ceiling is off the charts.

Negative:

  • Situational hitting was lackluster. The 2009 Rays might hold an all–time record for most times leaving the bases loaded in a season. Bunting was slightly improved, but still far from perfect. And the strikeouts — more on those later — lost critical games. This was the reason hitting coach Steve Henderson was fired. The focus definitely needs to shift.
  • Almost the entire bullpen took a nosedive. J.P. Howell had its best ERA at a respectable 2.84, but struggled with a slow start and a rocky finish. He blew eight saves, among the most in the league. Grant Balfour slid back to Earth, running his ERA up from 1.54 to 4.84 as hitters figured out his fastball. Chad Bradford spent most of the season injured and was unproductive. Joe Nelson, the big offseason signing, was designated for assignment by season’s end. Dan Wheeler was the only consistently decent reliever. Just an excruciating year for these guys. They just need to implode some of that bullpen and rebuild it.
  • Need I mention strikeouts? Carlos Pena (160), Evan Longoria (140), Pat Burrell (), B.J. Upton () and Ben Zobrist (104) hit triple digits. Carl Crawford finished with 99. Jason Bartlett hit a career high, and Fernando Perez had 17 strikeouts in just 36 at–bats. The K’s helped kill this team’s playoff chances. Every hitter on the team needs to cut that down.
  • Pat Burrell = Epic Fail. .221 with 14 home runs does not an $8 million player make. If he doesn’t hit 30 home runs in 2010, he will go down as a huge disappointment and a waste of valuable money.
  • B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro and Andy Sonnanstine all had miserable seasons, as I previously mentioned. Upton’s 42 stolen bases were the only real accomplishment among them. Trading Upton may be a real possibility, though I could give him one more chance. Navarro should be replaced soon — 2008 is looking more like a one–time fluke. Sonnanstine… we could have kept Edwin Jackson. Enough said.
  • Scott Kazmir tanked himself to a 5.92 ERA with the Rays. It dropped to 1.73 in six starts with the Angels before he became a postseason liability. Hopefully that performance starts silencing those Rays fans calling for Andrew Friedman’s head. We did get some value out of trading Kazmir, notably Sean Rodriguez.

That’s about it for this season. When I find out from ESPN who wins the World Series, I might be back. I should also keep everyone posted on any offseason roster moves. They already fired hitting coach Steve Henderson, but retained pitching coach Jim Hickey. I personally would have done the opposite, though the Rays do need to focus on situational hitting. Until next time, go Rays.

2009 Season Retrospective: Part One

Now that the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2009 season has been completed, here are some facts and figures from the season, including the good, bad and completely miserable:

  • Record: 84–78 (Third place)
  • Home Run Leader: Carlos Pena (39)
  • Stolen Base Leader: Carl Crawford (60)
  • Best Starter ERA: Jeff Niemann (3.94)
  • Batting Leader: Jason Bartlett (.320 — Franchise Record)
  • Best Bullpen ERA: J.P. Howell (2.84)
  • RBI Leader: Evan Longoria (113)

Longoria also led in runs scored (100). B.J. Upton was second in stolen bases (42). Matt Garza finished just behind Niemann in ERA (3.95). Howell led the team in saves (17), but also in blown saves (8).

  • Pat Burrell: .221, 14 HR in 122 games
  • Dioner Navarro: .218, 8 HR, 18 walks in 115 games
  • B.J. Upton: .241, 11 HR in 144 games
  • Andy Sonnanstine: 6–9, 6.77 ERA in 22 games (18 starts)
  • Grant Balfour: 5–4, 4.81 ERA (1.50 in 2008)
  • Scott Kazmir: 8–7, 5.92 ERA with the Rays in 20 games; 2–2, 1.73 ERA with the Angels in six games
  • James Shields: 11–12, 4.14 ERA

So without six busts and a mediocre season from Shields, this team probably would have made the postseason. Every one of those guys could have done much better, as they have before. Thankfully, they were aided by the surprising Ben Zobrist (.297, 27 HR, 17 SB) and Bartlett (30 SB, 14 HR; one HR in 2008).

  • Five players (Pena, Upton, Longoria, Burrell, Zobrist) struck out more than 100 times, while Crawford reached 99. Bartlett had a career–high 89 in 137 games. This is actually down from last season, when seven players reached triple digits.
  • Crawford stole his first 32 bases consecutively, but ended up being caught 16 times. He claims he was safe on half of those, and I can recall at least one (in New York) where he was indeed safe.
  • Troy Percival remained on the payroll the entire season, despite posting a 6.35 ERA in 14 games before going home in May. He still earned $4 million.
  • Lance Cormier and Randy Choate were the anti–Percival, pitching surprisingly well after signing minor league contracts. Cormier held down a 3.26 ERA and Choate 3.47.
  • Longoria hit 8 home runs with 26 RBI against the Red Sox.

Those are some random bits of information to close this out. Join me again soon for Part Two: Honest Opinions. Until next time, go Rays… and anyone who beats the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies.

The 2009 Season Is Unofficially Over

The title says everything.

The Rays went 1–5 in their last homestand, their worst since 2005, then tanked a four–game series with the Yankees in which they got torched in a doubleheader, gave up a walk–off home run and blew an eighth inning lead. Perhaps worst of all, they lost Carlos Pena for the rest of the season.

Here is a little rant I wrote, initially submitted to my college newspaper’s sports blog:

The
Tampa Bay Rays effectively eliminated themselves from MLB playoff contention this past week thanks to an exhausted bullpen and a mismanaged squad.

The Rays faced a season–deciding homestand with the rival Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox held a four–game lead in the Wild Card standings, so the Rays had to win that series to realistically have a shot at toppling them.

Joe Maddon made the decision to start Andy Sonnanstine in game one against Jon Lester. While Lester has had a subpar history against the Rays, he has been an outstanding pitcher for three years. On the contrary, Sonnanstine had good career marks against Boston, but had struggled so badly this season that he spent two months in the minor leagues.

Nonetheless, Maddon chose him to replace the traded Scott Kazmir in the biggest game of the season. The strategy blew up in their faces.

Sonnanstine only lasted four innings, allowing five runs — three earned — as his defense and pinpoint command betrayed him. The Rays lost 8–4.

Following the game, Maddon took the surprising step of defending his pitcher, saying he “threw the ball really well.” Really, Mr. Manager of the Year?

How, exactly, does a finesse pitcher issue four walks, just two strikeouts and two home runs and throw really well? Maddon is stretching it in his defense of Sonnanstine. We respect you and think you have done a good job with the young guys. But just admit you made the wrong decision. It would be a first.

The Rays beat Josh Beckett the following night on ESPN thanks to a home run barrage of their own. Even so, Maddon used seven pitchers in his effort to micromanage every matchup. Three of his relievers issued costly late-inning walks and were pulled out of the fire by a three–run Rays eighth inning.

There would be no saves made in the must–win series finale. Boston beat the Rays 6–3 to take the series. Two relievers, again brought in for matchup purposes, allowed two late insurance runs that sealed their team’s fate. The number crunching does not always work, and it failed Maddon miserably in this series.

The Rays then had the daunting task of hosting the Detroit Tigers, who led the Central division entering Tropicana Field.

The first game had the Rays and Tigers tied at one entering the final inning. J.P. Howell, normally the closer, promptly allowed Detroit to take a 3–1 lead on a hit and two walks. Again playing the matchup game, Maddon replaced him with another left-hander, Randy Choate.

Choate allowed a hit to score a fourth run — one that would decide the game, as a comeback attempt by Tampa Bay ended in a 4–3 defeat with two runners stranded in scoring position.

Game two saw the Rays leap out to a 4–1 lead after just one inning. James Shields allowed six runs, but the game was ultimately lost by the bullpen. Three relievers combined to allow the decisive runs to score in an 8–6 loss.

The finale was the most gutwrenching blow. Up 3–1 in the ninth inning, Lance Cormier struck out the first Tigers hitter. Maddon inexplicably removed him for hard-throwing Grant Balfour, who walked Miguel Cabrera. Howell was next, and he walked a pinch-hitter and found himself pulled. Russ Springer then entered the game to deal with right–handed hitters.

After a hit loaded the bases, All-Star Brandon Inge stepped up with a golden opportunity to give Detroit the lead. He fell to a 2–2 count, then got a hanging slider. He proceeded to hit it to Timbuktu.

By that, I mean it was about a 400–foot grand slam. The life was zapped from the Rays yet again. When Maddon returned to make yet another pitching change, he was booed by the home crowd. This may be the first time he has ever deserved such an indignity. But he brought it upon himself.

The Rays did not beat the Red Sox and Tigers, nor did they beat the Rays. The Rays beat themselves.

And
Joe Maddon may have beaten himself out of the playoffs.

That is about as accurately as I could have summarized that painful week in Rays history. They have now lost eight consecutive games and will now have to travel to Fenway Park in an effort to help the Texas Rangers earn a playoff spot. Personally, I’m cheering for the Rangers.

I have also come across a very interesting system created by Cubs fans: the Hate–Dex 2000 Ratings System. It is a series of arbitrarily assigned hate points to a series of players on the team. Explanations should also be provided. Naturally, everyone would have different opinions on this subject, but I feel the need to post mine. So here they are.

Pat Burrell (Hate–Dex Rating: 18) – I know you had a strained neck early this season, but seriously, who turned you into Adam Everett? Half the home runs, 80% of the batting average and all the strikeouts. You better hit 35 home runs in 2010.

B.J. Upton (HDR: 17) – A man named Desmond Jennings is at Durham waiting to take your job. He is basically you without the strikeouts. You can’t even catch up to an 89 mile–per–hour fastball anymore, which would make several of our coaches better hitters than you.

Dioner Navarro (HDR: 16) – Please pretend to act like you care. Baseball is a game of adjustments, so when pitchers adjusted to you after your .295 2008 season, you responded by hitting in the .220s and short–hopping throws like never before. I’m thankful you lost in arbitration. Your next adjustment will be to that hard wooden bench.

Andy Sonnanstine (HDR: 13) – “Epic fail” would be a good assessment of your season. Maybe even an understatement. You went from fourth starter to AAA journeyman overnight. How does a pitcher of your style give away so many walks and get hit as hard as you have? Keep your stuff packed, you may be next on the train out of town.

Grant Balfour (HDR: 12) – Speaking of adjustments, I knew hitters would adapt to you. But where have you gone? Pitches that used to finish the big bats now end up on somebody’s mantle as a souvenir. At least you admitted recently that you have been “freaking terrible,” so that knocks off a few points. But please, shake yourself and trust what got you here.

Carlos Pena (HDR: 10) – You hit 39 home runs this year, a phenomenal figure. But the price you paid was… well, everything else. More errors in the field and a batting average lower than those of some pitchers. That uppercut strikeout/foul back swing should have resulted in even more home runs. Though you are by all accounts a nice guy off the field, as am I, all the strikeouts made me want to break your bat over your head.

J.P. Howell (HDR: 8) – Your statline still looks decent and you have made some nice saves. But please for the love of the Rays quit bouncing pitches in front of the plate. This has been a recurring theme all season, and now maybe you have finally had a wake–up call by costing us important runs bouncing the ball away. If you would stop skipping stones so much and actually pitch like you did before, our team would be easier to watch.

James Shields (HDR: 4) – Every time I watch you, you pitch at one of two levels: mediocre and bad. I’m shocked your ERA is still under 4.00. You have been jobbed out of a few wins by your team, but a little consistency would be appreciated.

Carl Crawford (HDR: 2) – You’re not running so much anymore. That takes away from our offense. Try a bit harder in these last few weeks. Run when we need you to and make your stats look better. It’s a win–win situation.

That’s about it for hating on our players. I’ll be cheering them on to whatever they can accomplish for the rest of the season, but any playoff hopes are now dead. Until next time and next year, go Rays.

UPDATE (9/11/09): My Rays rant was posted by The Minaret. You can find the published version here.

Scott Kazmir Traded to Angels

On Friday, August 22, I attended the Tampa Bay Rays’ game against the Texas Rangers in section 149 in left center field. The Rays won 5–3 behind a strong start by two–time All–Star Scott Kazmir.

Little did I know that Kazmir’s Rays career would be over one week later, and that this would be his final home start at Tropicana Field.

Kazmir was officially traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim late Friday night for minor league pitcher Alexander Torres, third baseman Matthew Sweeney and a player to be named later.

He had an 8–7 record with an abysmal 5.92 ERA this season, but before that had been a dominating ace for four years. The man once known as “King K” helped lead the Rays to the 2008 World Series and was seen as the pitcher of the present and future in Tampa Bay. But with injuries, this season’s performance and a slew of pitchers seemingly passing him by, the team saw fit to cut its ties with him.

Kazmir was due at least $20 million over the next two seasons, which will now be covered by the Angels. The Rays want to use the money on other players, notably to retain Carl Crawford.

Scott had so much upside that trading him in August had never seemed possible. He was always known as a solid strikeout pitcher who could kick it up a notch in pressure situations. He seemed like the type of leader a team could build around. He looked to be on his way to a Hall of Fame career in his early 20s.

Then came 2009. Injuries started catching up with Kazmir, who had only pitched one complete game in his professional career. His out pitches became inconsistent and lost velocity. David Price and Jeff Niemann started stealing his thunder, and prized prospects Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson were waiting to take his job.

With that information in mind, Kazmir was let go. But not for nothing, as was the case with Alex Rios and the Blue Jays.

Torres, 21, is a left–hander who bears a strong resemblance to a young Kazmir. He gets strikeouts and ground balls at high rates, and Rays scouts “rave about him.” He went 13–4 with a 2.75 ERA between Class A Advanced and AA this season. He looks to be the centerpiece of the deal for the Rays.

Sweeney, a slightly older 21, hit .299 in A+ ball with nine home runs. He is seen as a good power prospect with good strike zone knowledge. Or maybe trade bait. We don’t know yet.

The Rays also said that the player to be named later would be a “significant piece.”

It looks like the Rays didn’t leave empty–handed. But the franchise leader in wins and strikeouts is now gone, leaving a void in team history as well as the current roster. Kazmir may never fully recover, or he could morph into Steve Carlton. We don’t know yet. He frustrated us in 2009, but he provided us with many great games and classic moments through his years in Tampa Bay. Including a standing ovation in section 149 on a Friday night in St. Petersburg.

Goodbye, Scott. Best of luck in future endeavors. Rays Republic will miss you.

On Again, Off Again

Lately the Rays have paralleled what I have done to this blog: on again, off again. I don’t know why I’ve been gone for so long. A big part of that had to do with me traveling out of and back to Tampa for a few weeks, though I have had Internet access and have been following the Rays. Some big moves have been made and big games won and lost in recent weeks, so let’s just cut to the good news.

–Gregg Zaun, recently acquired from Baltimore, has become one of my favorite Rays players. He blocks pitches, something I saw Dioner Navarro put very little effort into, even with nobody on base. He also refrains from throwing the ball into center field. He’s even better than Navarro offensively now, which was never true last season. If he were a bit younger, I would go ahead and trade Navarro and keep Zaun for a few years. He has been big with this pitching staff and the bottom of the lineup.

–I also like the pickup of Russ Springer. The veteran relief pitcher has been good everywhere he’s been in his long career. He can bring yet another dimension to the Rays bullpen and teach the younger guys some new things. His experience is valuable as much as Zaun’s.

–Pat Burrell… hitting home runs? It looks like he stopped being Adam Everett and finally went back to being Pat Burrell. He has nine home runs since the All–Star break, even hitting two in consecutive games. If he finishes at this pace, he may eclipse 20 home runs for the season — a distant thought after those first three atrocious months.

–B.J. Upton has also homered in two straight games and brought his season total up to nine, matching last season. He needs to finish this year like the 2008 playoffs all over again or he may be out. This is a good start.

–If Upton fails to deliver, I have the perfect guy to replace him: Desmond Jennings. Not a big name… yet. But he is a 22–year–old center fielder with the Durham Bulls who is rising like a comet through the Rays’ system. Between AA and AAA this year, he’s hitting .315 with nine home runs, 43 stolen bases, 56 walks and just 62 strikeouts. After missing most of 2008 with injuries, he is back on the map in a big way. I would consider calling him up in September, if at all possible. There is at least an outside chance he can start somewhere next year. I am a big fan of his, so I’ll be cheering for him.

–How about the work of Jeff Niemann? I knew in Spring Training that he was the man for the fifth starter spot, and he has proven to be at least number three, if not better. After his latest win, he is now 11–5 with a rotation–best 3.71 ERA. His fastball and curveball are starting to work very well together and that top Draft potential is shining through. Jason Hammel is having a decent season with the Rockies, but Niemann blows him out of the water.

–J.P. Howell is turning out to be a very serviceable closer. Even though he gave up an inexcusable walk–off to home run to Ryan Freaking Langerhans in Seattle, he has generally been shutting hitters down lately. As long as they give him good pitching in front of him, and preferably a multiple–run lead, he can finish out every game if they let him.

–I need to attend more games. I’ve only been to one this year, watching the Rays beat the Red Sox. Money shortages and my time out of town have prevented me from attending more often, but I think I’ll be going to Friday’s game against the Texas Rangers, who stand in the Rays’ path to a Wild Card berth. I’ll be looking for intriguing September games as well.

I could also rant about the Rays’ numerous problems, which include: Leaving the bases loaded, striking out too often, giving up big hits and home runs to every team’s lightest hitter, allowing line drives into center field with runners in scoring position, leaving the bases loaded and striking out too often. But I can save it for the next losing streak. We need a sweep of the Orioles and then the Rangers to cap off Joe Maddon’s Johnny Cash phase. Until next time, go Rays.

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