Throughout the offseson we'll be bringing you interviews with some of today's best and brightest baseball writers. On this Friday we're lucky enough to be joined once again by Espn.com writer, author, and long suffering Royals fan, Rob Neyer. You know Rob from his SweetSpot blog on espn and the numerous books he's written on baseball and it's fascinating history He was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk a little Rays basebal with us:
DRB: A simple question with a not so simple answer: What should the Rays do with Carl Crawford, trade him and take the prospects, let him walk and take the draft picks, or re-sign him?
Rob Neyer: He's obviously a valuable player, if less than a superstar. It's clear (at least to me) that the Rays have to trade him, so then the question becomes when. It's really up to Andrew Friedman to figure out if he'll get the greatest return this winter, or next summer. Of course, a complicating factor is that if you wait until next summer, you might be in contention (of sorts) and if you're contending it's almost impossible to trade a player like Crawford.
DRB: The Rays esentially used J.P. Howell as their closer last season even though the current regime hasn't followed the traditional "closer" philosophy. What do you think his role should be next season? The full time closer? Or would it be beneficial to let him roam free in the bullpen and use a closer by committee?
RN: I think Joe Maddon should be heartily encouraged to engage his mind and be even more creative than he's been. Maddon has done some interesting things with his relievers, but I get the sense that he's having trouble resisting the pull back to the dull middle.
DRB: In 2009 Jason Bartlett enjoyed one of the more surprising seasons in recent memory and has turned into a huge fan favorite in the area. Those who expect another season like that are wildly unrealistic. With young players like Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez, should the Rays move him while his value is at its absolute peak?
RN: That would take some real guts, huh? What makes the decision even more difficult is just how out of character Bartlett's season was. Just two years ago, he was your prototypical good-field/no-hit shortstop, no different from a dozen other guys kicking around the majors (some of them without every-day jobs). Now, he suddenly explodes with brilliant hitting stats ... and at the same time, his defensive numbers go in the tank? What do you do with a guy like that? The "problem" with trading Bartlett is that if the Rays start shopping him around, the other clubs might wonder what the Rays know about Bartlett that they don't. So I suspect that if they're even entertaining the notion, they should let the other clubs come to them. You know, sort of like this ... "You want Bartlett? Gosh, we couldn't possibly let him go ... unless you really, really want him, in which case we might be able to work something out." Anyway, you get the idea. Short answer: Yes, if the Rays can get a couple of good players for Bartlett, they should probably do it.
DRB: Many fans and media alike felt the trade of Scott Kazmir was the Rays version of waving a white flag and the cause of the September swoon. What did you think of the timing of the deal?
RN: I think the Rays made that deal when they did because 1) it was by then apparent that the Rays weren't going to catch the Red Sox, and 2) the Angels made them an offer they couldn't refuse. I know it's hard for the fans to see a longtime Ray like Kazmir get away, but I don't suppose they need me to remind them that Wade Davis pitched quite well after taking Kazmir's spot in the rotation. The Rays may lack an obvious 2010 Cy Young candidate, but otherwise their rotation going forward is just about as deep as anybody's.
DRB: B.J. Upton's lackluster season has had people calling for the young centerfielder's head. Upton is still young and there's no reason he cannot be the same player he was in 2007, or even 2008 for that matter. What do you think the key will be for Upton rebounding in 2010?
RN: No reason? There must be some reason. Whatever reason caused his batting stats to plummet from 2007 to 2009 might still be there, in which case I wouldn't expect much of him in 2010. But he's cheap enough and plays well enough in center field that he's still a fantastic value relative to his salary, even if he plays again like he did this year. Throw in the obvious upside -- there might still be an MVP candidate in there somewhere -- and unless somebody blows you away with a trade offer, you just keep playing him.
DRB: The production the Rays got out of the catcher position last season was less than optimal. Dioner Navarro did not have nearly the same success as he had in 2008, though he wasn't helped at all by a BABiP of .233. Should the Rays stick with Navarro behind the dish, or look for help elsewhere?
RN: "Less than optimal" is putting it kindly. When you have to trade for Gregg Zaun in August, you're probably in trouble. Navarro's struggles this season were roughly as inexplicable as Upton's. I don't know how much Navarro's elbow was hurting him, but any time a previously decent hitter is this awful, I typically wonder if he's been both unhealthy and unlucky, and this seems to have been the case with Navarro. Considering how well he played in 2008 -- granted, he was probably over his head -- I think if the doctors say he's healthy this winter you assign him 130 games and hope for the best.
DRB: Pat Burrell didn't exactly light the world on fire in his first season in the American League. Do you think it was due to him adjusting to a different, and tougher, league? Or are his struggles due to a rapidly declining skill set?
RN: Well, again, I just think he wasn't healthy enough to play well. Granted, going from the National League to the American League and from Philadelphia's ballpark to Tampa Bay's probably didn't help much, either. I thought signing Burrell last winter was a nice (relatively) low-cost move, so I suppose I'm predisposed toward giving him another chance.
DRB: Carl Crawford again finished first in the left field portion of the Fielding Bible Awards. Is this the season he finally wins a gold glove? And if so, how much effect do you think his All-Star Game catch will have on it? [Editor's Note: This question was asked before the results were out]
RN: He is obviously a center fielder playing left field, but as you know it's awfully hard for a left fielder to win a Gold Glove. Barry Bonds won eight of them, thanks largely to his bat. Otherwise, I believe that Darin Erstad is the only left fielder in the last 25 years to win one. So Crawford's swimming against an awfully strong tide.
DRB: If you were in charge of the Rays for one day, what changes would you make? Roster or otherwise.
RN: Honestly, the Rays seem to be so well-run that I feel even more presumptuous than usual. But, if you insist ... Gabe Gross simply isn't good enough to play regularly or even semi-regularly, as he did this year. Apparently Gross will essentially be replaced by Matt Joyce next season, which of course is the obvious (and best) move. And it seems that Desmond Jennings is ready to play for the big club, too. I don't have any information about Joyce's defense at hand, but perhaps Jennings as the every-day right fielder and Joyce in a DH platoon with Burrell if the Rays can't trade him? There's a great deal of talent in this organization, and if the management can get nearly all of it on the field, I don't see why this team can't get back into serious contention for the playoffs.
DRB: What's upcoming/new in the land of Neyer?
RN: Well, two things, one of which I can talk about and one of which I cannot ... This off-season we're expanding the SweetSpot Blog Network, and by next April we hope to have blogs in place for all 30 teams. I see that you are already spoken for, but fortunately there are some other solid Rays blogs out there. And the other thing ... Well, I'm crazy-excited about it, because nothing makes me happier than being associated with good work, and any day now my name will be attached to some of the best baseball analysis that's ever been done. But I'm afraid I can't say anything more until the press release is ready, which should be any minute now ...
On behalf of everyone at DRaysBay I'd like to thank Rob for taking the time to join us today. I know we're all excited to find out more about this secret project of his. Be sure to check out his blog on espn.com and this holiday season but sure to pick up one of his books for that special someone in your life. They make a great stocking stuffer, or so I hear. You can also follow him on twitter @robneyer.