All-Star break team report cards are easy filler stories for reporters and columnists alike. And since I just came back from a nine-day vacation up north, I'm going to do exactly that.
Yes, the All-Star report card, a staple of reporters and columnists who think "Q & A" or "Top Ten" stories are truly entertaining. These stories are also quite effective in sparking debate and filling hours of sports talk radio discussion because the hosts have nothing better to talk about. Normally I wouldn't think of doing such a thing, but since the only Rays news I got came from Sports Center and box scores in the Providence Journal and the New York Daily News, I didn't think it was fair to criticize or praise the team when I didn't have full access to the games in person or on TV (To be honest with you, I did finally have some internet access at the end of my travels where I caught up on the last few games of that spectacular losing streak). So here we go, position by position, feel free to debate all you want. All talk show hosts can e-mail their thanks to my show prep for them by clicking on my name at the top.
- First base, A-: I don't know how many people I argued with last season about how the Rays had to keep Travis Lee for his defense with a young infield despite his Mendoza Line batting average. I argued a power hitter would help the team out more as Lee's defensive numbers were only a small part of the team's plan to improve. Carlos Pena has turned into a power hitter and a defensive gem as good as Lee, and even though Hee Sop Choi is out of the picture I lauded the Rays for going out and trying to find the right guy for the position. Ty Wigginton has also done well in 17 games at first, with Greg Norton and Jorge Cantu preventing this position from being graded "A+".
- Second base, B: Offensively this position deserves an "A", but defensively it deserves a "C", hence the "B" grade. Wigginton, B.J. Upton, and Josh Wilson have hit well while in that position but have also combined for 17 errors-- the most at any position on the team. Although the offense has done well here, second base is classically a defensive-minded position and the Rays may still want to explore finding the right guy for the job there in the future.
- Shortstop, A-: I was tempted to give a lower grade simply because of Ben Zobrist's struggles there earlier in the season, but I applaud the Rays for a) acquiring Brendan Harris, and b) realizing he was the better option than Zobrist (if only they'd do the same for Norton). While there was a lot of talk earlier this season about Harris being an All-Star, he's not quite there yet (especially when you compare him to the actual All-Stars in the AL this season). Although he's one step below that status, he has so far been as good or even better than Julio Lugo offensively and defensively. And trust me, after spending four days in Rhode Island reading the Journal, Red Sox fans are not happy about the Lugo deal.
- Third base, A: There was some concern if Akinori Iwamura could adjust to the American style of baseball over his native Japan, and judging by his first half I'd say absolutely. Defensively this position does slip a bit with the numbers of Wigginton and Harris at the hot corner, but overall this trio (and primarily Iwamura) is a much better solution than Sean Burroughs, Aubrey Huff, Jared Sandberg (fill in every other mediocre third baseman to play for the Rays since 1998).
- Outfield, B-: This is a position that could go half-a-grade either way from my "B-". Offensively, Carl Crawford, Delmon Young, and recently Johnny Gomes have done well. Rocco Baldelli (remember him?) was merely average, Elijah Dukes was worse, and Dustin Mohr is... well... Dustin Mohr. Defensively, there have been a few gaffes, notably by Young who I give a slight pass to simply because he's playing in his first full big league season. I could have graded lower, and probably should have, but overall the situation isn't bad. It could be worse, but it could also be just a little bit better.
- Designated hitter, C-: The only thing that saves this position from being graded any lower is the fact that Gomes and Wigginton appeared in a combined 30 games at DH this season. Norton's ho-hum season has been a letdown, and the fact Joe Maddon keeps throwing him out there makes the whole situation more confusing (Hey Skip, ya seen Gomes swinging the bat lately?). Cantu has had plenty of time on the bench to think about how and why he wasn't on the opening day roster.
- Catcher, C: When the Rays traded for Dioner Navarro last season, they raved about his defense. That's good because his .177 batting average at the break would've made the whole trade for him (and Jae Seo... geesh) a real stinker for the team. Fortunately, Raul Casanova (three words normally not strung together) has filled in well for the struggling Navarro as Josh Paul and Shawn Riggans have been injured. Not one of the four has been able to completely stand out and help this team improve however.
- Starting pitching, D: Two words keep this department from failing: James Shields. Despite Shields' little June slump, he is the only starter looking like a legit major leaguer this season. Scott Kazmir is way off his game from last season, yet there is hope he'll eventually turn it around since he's only 23. There is some potential in Andy Sonnanstine and J.P. Howell but these guys are not the answer for improving this team now. Edwin Jackson, and I hate to say this since he's a nice guy, just isn't working out (but he still has enormous potential at his age, and that's why the Rays won't risk putting him through waivers). Jae Seo has already been jettisoned, Casey Fossum has been banished to the bullpen to become the most expensive gas can on the team. I will bang this drum until the team follows through: if the Rays want to became a playoff team by the end of the decade, they MUST acquire at least one veteran starter to lead these kids by example. And yes, it will cost money and/or talent from the farm.
- Bullpen, D-: Two words that keep this department from failing: Al Reyes... and who knows how long he'll last. I'm not even going to go pitcher by pitcher simply because you already know the story. If the pitcher didn't flat out suck this season, he was too inconsistent. If Andrew Friedman really was serious about fixing the bullpen, he would have done it in the winter prior to this season. And when I mean "done it" I mean actively acquire players and not merely "talk" to teams and agents. The Rays will not get an answer to the bullpen woes this season, and if it is not thoroughly addressed during the offseason we will know how serious the NDRO is about fixing the team's most glaring problem.
- The coaching staff, D+: This grade came tumbling down during the losing streak where Maddon again looked aloof and preached patience as opposed to winning. Only AFTER losing the final game of the Royals series, and 13 of the Rays' last 14 games, did Maddon actually seem upset at the results. Having a positive outlook is one thing, but being everybody's buddy is another and the latter can't be done when you're a big league manager. This is a make-or-break three months for Maddon, as people are already calling for his head. The NDRO has an interesting decision on whether or not to pick up Maddon's two-year option after this season. On one hand Maddon is perfect for the franchise because he won't rock the boat like Lou Piniella did. On the other hand, Maddon still does (or doesn't do) things that leave many fans to scratch their heads. Jim Hickey has also been in the firing line by fans this season, notably for his fidgeting with Kazmir's delivery, but this is his first season with the team. To me, expecting Hickey to instantly turn around the fortunes of this team is like expecting Leo Mazzone to do the same in Baltimore in 2005-- completely unrealistic.
- Management and ownership, C-: The acquisitions of Pena, Harris, Wilson, and Iwamura have been great moves. The lack of moves prior to and during the season to shore up the pitching staff are unacceptable. Look, I know this team isn't going to plunk down $150 million for three or four free agent arms, but at some point the NDRO has to budge off its stance of ONLY collecting players who they have complete contract control of (pre-arbitration and pre-free agent). There's a load of talent in the minors but that talent alone will not make this team a champion. Sure, the Rays might get closer to .500 with the guys in Durham, Montgomery, and Vero Beach, but eventually this team MUST look outside for talent and inside its coffers for the appropriate price for said talent. I know you've heard this before but I think it really will stick this season-- this upcoming winter is the most important one for this franchise and its new owners. If the Rays do go out of their way to bring in the right VETERAN pieces to start turning the corner, then there's some hope that the NDRO truly does want a winner sooner than later. If the Rays don't drastically improve the team while trumpeting the "cheap alternative" mantra and "exciting young nucleus" lines, then we may just have some Wall Street kids who just happen to own a baseball team here.
In other Rays and assorted baseball news:
- While the Tampa Tribune's mock-ups of new stadiums were nice and pretty, I'd like to see the local media (print, radio, and TV) hold this franchise accountable to building a winner before we build a stadium.
- Speaking of accountability, says Friedman in today's St. Pete Times, "We'll continue to search for guys to plug in [the bullpen] to try to complement the guys we have now and use the offseason to address it further," Friedman said. Please please PLEASE fans and media, hold Friedman to this statement.
- Accountability, lesson two: I owe a big apology to Maddon and to the readers of my column on June 29th due to a major oversight. Since I was rushing to get a column out before my vacation, I unfortunately let my good friends "facts" and "fact-checking" sit aside during my Brendan Harris vs. Josh Wilson rant. I chided Maddon for sitting Harris while having the not-quite-as-good Wilson play in his spot. I was wrong on the idea that Harris was benched in lieu of Wilson, as Harris only had one day off while most of Wilson's play was at second. While I don't like Maddon's merry-go-round lineups, and the reasons he writes them down that way, it was wrong for me to imply Maddon benched Harris for Wilson. As someone who prides himself on research and letting the facts get in the way of a good story, my goof was embarrassing and I apologize.
- Accountability to the third degree: How's this for not accepting "good enough"? Mets closer Billy Wagner told the New York Post, "We underachieved. There was no consistency in our offense. There was no consistency in our bullpen. And we have the talent on both sides to probably be twice as good as what we played." In case you didn't notice, the Mets are in first place in the National League East with the third-best record in the NL.
- Your reminder that Chuck Lamar was a buffoon: According to Canada's Slam Sports, the Rays ALMOST landed Alex Rios in a trade for Aubrey Huff with Toronto in 2005. Then Chuck got greedy for youth, like he always did, and asked for Brandon League. The Jays refused, and Rios has grown in to an All-Star. No really, thanks Chuck.
- The Washington Post says the Nationals, Lamar's new team, should move Dmitri Young before the trade deadline despite some fans and media types that want to see the 33-year-old slugger (and ultimate free agent acquisition) stick around after this season. With Young becoming a free agent again after this season, and with him playing his best baseball in years, I think the Nats would be foolish to keep him past July 31st.
- I've written enough today, so I'll tell you about my trip to Yankee Stadium next week so I can inform the locals who dress up in pinstripes at the Trop what actually being in Yankee Stadium is like.
- Finally, while eating at the awesome Union Station Brewery in Providence, I stumbled across an interesting little story in the free monthly Providence Monthly. They are reporting the Red Sox are auctioning off three player-themed types of wine with a portion going to the players' (Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, and Tim Wakefield) charity of choice. With Maddon's love for wine this promotion would only be natural for the Rays. But with the NDRO's penchant for "cheap alternatives", would you be surprised if the Rays vintage vino was made by Boone's Farm?