So 2007 is nearly here, and we're about 50 days until pitchers and catchers reporting. So what better time than to point out 20 things to watch for next season, and yes I'm doing this without knowing the set roster, rotation, lineup, additions, subtractions, ect. just to give me excuses in case of complete and utter failure. So let's proceed, as the title says `the glass is half full' well good, now flip your hour glass.
All Stars Improve
Scott Kazmir and Carl Crawford (okay he wasn't an `official All-Star' but that's total crap and the system is trash, as I will prove I a few months. Both of these two have done nothing but progress in each of their seasons. C.C. hopefully won't be juggled in the lineup or field and will produce a .305, 20 homerun season with 40-60 steals depending on his power numbers. Kazmir will hopefully have a pen that can shut the door after he exits, 20 wins for Kazmir would be my dream, and 14-15 is the reality.
September Peek Show
Okay so it's sad that we have to look forward to the September call up period as one of their `things to watch for' but this year's call-ups could be even better than the Delmon call-up of last season. Andrew Sonnanstine, Mitch Talbot, Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac, and Joel Guzman are all distinct possibilities for a late season call-up. With Sonny and Mitch you may end up seeing your future rotation of Kid K, Shields, Niemann, Sonny, and the K-Bot. Longoria and Brignac are the future bash brothers (minus the able pricking with needles) and Guzman is either the future 1B, 3B, LF, or DH depending on who you talk to, and is the fan base's hound for being 21 in AAA and struggling.
Gomes and Cantu Rebound
If the Gomer and Human Lawn Statue regain their May or 2005 forms the Rays could basically sign two 25+ homerun hitters, one with a knack for getting on base and hustling, the other with a timeliness for clutch hitting and a tattered butterflies' net for a glove. One or the other may not actually be on the roster come the springtime, none the less the fact remains, if both remain and stay health, the offense could become the `Big Green Machine' we all dream of and start putting up runs faster than Justin Gaitlin on speed.
The Butcher is No More
Now that pitching coach Mike Butcher is in the place known as Los Angeles of Anaheim, perhaps Joe Maddon can stop making jokes with his good friend and focus on the game at hand along with talking strategy with Billy Evers and new pitching coach Jim Hickey. I'm not accusing Maddon of spending too much time talking with Butcher, but he has a bench coach for a reason, and it appeared to me that he spent too much time talking with his pitching coach, more so than most managers do at least.
From Akinori to Zobrist: Be With Us, Leather.
Last year the infield defense was a major disappointment and the team decided to upgrade it with a five time Gold Glove winner (even so if it was Japanese), Ben Zobrist is solid, whoever plays at first needs to have jumps and feet as the Minuteman (if he is indeed at third) has some issues. Over / Under on Errors for each of the infielders are as follows with: Upton 30, Zobrist 20, Iwamura 15, 1B combined 10.
Seth McClung, Edwin Jackson, Juan Salas, this is for you guys. Hickey should help some, but you guys have got to depend on something other than your pure out heat. The league has shown, guys with mad heat can become successful if their second and or third pitch is a plus and not referred to as `a fastball with some extra heat', if one of these three become our `flaming breakout' like Joel Zumaya or Bobby Jenks the Rays pen becomes a heck of a lot better immediately. Look for Seth's curve and Salas' slider, if not...look for some balls flying over the shortened walls.
Murphy's Law Need Not Apply
Things really can't get worse record wise. I mean sure we could lose 102 games, but did it really feel like a 101 loss team last year? It honestly didn't to me, you look at Kansas City and that's a team you say `well of course they have 100 losses' but look at our team and it's just not that state of emergency prepare for a horrible season type of reaction. We've lost some of the `bums' from last year, we don't have any players whose atoms are well past their half-life, we do however have a lot of younger talent that will need to improve as a unit, really does anyone expect anything but improvement from this team?
I'm of course talking about former number one picks Delmon Young and B.J. Upton. It's time to live up to those selections, to the hype. Baseball America placed Delmon amongst the top prospects ever, same with B.J., Delmon showed some of that fire in his belly after avenging a hit by pitch. He told Ozzie Guillen where to take his aggressive methods by delivering a homerun in his first career game. Young also showed Ichiro that it's not smart to test the power of Del as he gunned down the speedster at third. B.J. has gotten a raw deal, the old regime abused him mentally, the new one didn't accelerate his progression in part since Julio Lugo was setting the world ablaze and upping his value, Aubrey Huff had to do the same, and it's not like Upton even changed positions until July. Should we have considered him in CF for the 60 or so games Rocco missed last season? Hindsight is 20/20, perhaps Upton does a marvelous job and we're talking about Rocco being the one with something to prove, but that's not reality. Reality is that he's got to show he can hit at a major league level. He started to come around late, the problem seemed to work it's way out a little, but you'd still like to see him become a
little more aggressive, not Delmon aggressive, but a nice medium would be okay. In the field he's got that cannon-like right arm, slick moving, all the things you want in an athlete, but something psychologically has to be wrong: when it's a quick throw, he's money. If it's a routine play, run for the hills or rather, if you're the first baseman, stand on one.
Like a Rock
Centerfield shouldn't be a priority for the Rays for the next decade, that's exactly what Rocco Baldelli needs to show the front office, fan base, and the media this season. To my beliefs he will, and by doing so he will earn that `untouchable' tag that only C.C. has earned so far. If he continues to leadoff (and I'm hoping he does) we're talking about a possible Alfonso Soriano effect. Is he the prototype .390 OBP guy that you'd love to have at the top of the order? No, but he's got a bat, an arm, and feet, and quite possibly the best name in baseball.
Young Turn Wise
I'm not talking about the talent on the field or in the clubhouse with this. I'm speaking of the immense potential in our front office. `General Manager' (remember the Rays don't actually have a GM title) Andrew Friedman could be around for the next 30-35 years if things go astutely correct. If that's the case and he needs a title for the (assured) book on his GMin' life, what about Friedman Jewels? He's got a very good mentor in Gerry Hunsicker who built the Houston Astros. Feiny from Moneyball, Click from Baseball Prospectus, the list goes on. We saw last year that Friedman is not a stupid man, he's very intelligent, and most important, he has baseball knowledge. He's building on the foundation with a Moneyball-esque hybrid that looks to be a very `safely' based. Most of the draft picks and signings haven't necessarily been high in risk, the front office is looking for accomplished players. One could wonder if the current regime were around in the beginning if a guy like Tim Hudson wouldn't have found his way here in the 1997 amateur draft, or perhaps Barry Zito, maybe even Jake Peavy, or maybe all three, of course we could play what if's for every move in franchise history, let's not and move on.
No not the newest Fox hit (and that means no former American Idol winner will be appearing on it) but rather `Los Angeles (NL) Player Development' Blues. Gone are former top prospects Edwin Jackson (see him above), Chuck Tiffany (injury), Joel Guzman (see above), Dioner Navarro (see him below), Sergio Pedroza (see him below), or the little publicized Justin Ruggiano (one of my favorite prospects, so he gets a mention) and that's leaving them drier than before. Now I'm not going to say they're New York Yankee dry, but they went from rain forest wet, to morning dew moist. They still have a load of pitching, which is why I wouldn't rule out a deal with them at any point. Now of course you're thinking about the no prospects for major leaguers `rule' in place. That should be upheld, but let's say Dan Miceli goes `Salad Fork of God' on us and posts a 2.5 ERA in the first half, the Dodgers wanting a vet arm offer a nice pitching prospect (I won't name names since I don't want people calling me crazy or sending me nasty emails, it's all theoretically people) would you really hound Mr. Friedman for making that deal? Didn't think so, hence is why if you're Logan White, be afraid, very afraid.
Backstop Barren No More
Since the Rays' inception we've never actually had a `good' catcher, sure John Flaherty and Mike DiFelice went on to continue playing for 7-8 more seasons, but were primarily back-ups. Then came the Toby Hall, Charles Johnson, Paul Hoover, Tim Laker, Javier Valentin, Brook Fordyce, Kevin Cash, Josh Paul, Pete LaForest collective eras. Now we're at the point where the catching position is beginning to look like a strength for the organization. Navarro, Shawn Riggans, Pedroza, John Jaso, Nevin Ashley, ect. all have the potential to become decent if not good backstops in the majors. As far as this season ideally the team cuts ties with Josh Paul and goes with a platoon of Navarro and Riggans. Navvy became a fan favorite with his semi-clutch hitting, including hammering Jonathan Papelbon in that August series against the Redsox, effectively tying the game. Riggy is more of a defensive catcher, and went to St. Thomas Aquinas HS, so he's a homegrown talent as far as regions go. I'll admit I liked the Paul trade last season since it meant less playing time for Toby Hall, but that was of course before we got Dioner, who has the advantage of being a switch hitter and one of the three OBP triplets (Navvy, Zob, and Bossman) as I said before it's time to let Paul work on his book as his full time summer job.
The Slots Machine Called `The Lineup Card'
145 lineups in 162 games, yikes. Of course it's easy to blame this for all of the team's struggles and the offensive impotency however injuries and trades along with just pure mediocrity out of multiple positions resulted in the lineup shuffle. The good news is it seems the black hole know as right field now has a glowing mass covering it, catcher got rid of ½ of the bums, more on that above, DH seems to be a revolving door, which unless you have David Ortiz or Travis Hafner you probably don't have a full-time masher (Jason Tyner need not apply.) Jonny Gomes may become that masher for the Rays, though since he is (as we speculated, and Mark Topkin confirmed) going to attempt and play 1B, which leaves Elijah Dukes out of a lineup spot, not to mention Ty Wigginton, but all of this has been covered before so let's just end this by saying if we use less than 90 lineups this season it will be a very good year.
Joe Maddon is entering his 2nd of a 2 year deal, with two club options for 2008 and 2009. The Rays have yet to make a statement on his job status pertaining to those option seasons. It's really a tough one to make if you ask me, if the team shows progress this year do you credit this to Maddon and give him those option seasons entering two of the `window' years, or do you thank Maddon for babysitting the job and then see if someone like Tony LaRussa or Joe Torre (or even Joe Girardi) want to take this team to the next level. In fairness to Maddon he's yet to call any player out in the media, and while some fans plaster him for this (how would you like your boss calling you out for a minor mistake?) if nothing else he's kept the team loose and confident. He gets blamed for using `bums' yet when a player like Damon Hollins leaves fans say how they'll miss him even if he didn't contribute. Let me just say "HUH?" you burn the man for using Hollins yet you will `miss' D-Holla for just being a nice guy? I'm sure Brian Meadows is a very nice man, but I do not wish to have him pitching for my professional ball club. As far as bashing him for being a wine lover or saying things that sometimes make no sense, get a life. If you're really going to criticize the man for his personal things then really you're taking baseball too far, and this is coming from a person who stays up to 2-3 to work on a column about baseball.
This is a huge year for Casey Fossum, if he indeed recovers from his labrum injury and pitches well in the first half he could earn a trip to a playoff team in the NL (or AL, though it's more likely he could become effective versus the lesser competition), of course that's assuming the Rays won't keep `The Fozz' who they gave up all of Jose Cruz Jr. for. It's my hope that we separate him and Kazmir in the rotation as both are lefties yet opposites, it seems more effective (and this is playing into baseball psychology) that it would mess with the minds of opposing batters by seeing Kaz one day, Shields the next, then Fossum. If nothing else perhaps Casey takes the same route of Mark Hendrickson and moves to the bullpen where he could rekindle what made the Red Sox hesitant to trade him for Curt Schilling. He has worked in the pen before even recording 2 saves in his career. The issue with Fozz this season was his lowering K:BB rates, in 2004 and 2005 he walked around 60-65 but struck out over 100, making up for the walks, in 06 he walked 63, but only struck out 88. Fossum will live and die with his curveball but let's all just hope for a few more sub-50 MPH Fossum Flips this year.
Is the Price indeed Right?
The Amateur Draft is in June but the Rays have been on the clock since October. The choice is believed to be Vanderbilt lefty David Price, a large pitcher who has unbelievable strikeout rates as well as Patrick's admiration for all things Commodore (including Jay `Captain' Cutler, Jeremy Sowers, Shelton Quarles (most underrated NFL player in the last decade?) and anything else DYNAMITE!) regardless Price is an intriguing prospect who hasn't had major surgery yet. He's probably the closest to the majors player in the draft, and if he were drafted in June could possibly see time end of 2008. Other intriguing prospects include Andrew Brackman, a reliever out of North Carolina State and Matt Weiters, the catcher / first baseman / designated hitter out of Georgia Tech.
How will the Rays draw in their series at Disney World? Obviously knowing Disney, the same people behind the four letter network and shameless cross promotions they will advertise the heck out of REAL LIVE BASEBALL, including neon signs of Scott Kazmir. The ideal is the Rays makes some fans in Orlando as well as tourists from the state and states that perhaps don't have a baseball team (say Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, ect.) though it's apparent most of the fans in Tampa aren't pleased, be honest, how many of the three games versus Texas would you really have went to?
The payroll is projected (barring trades or signings) to be over 20 million this season. It was 35 at the beginning of last season, 18 or so at the end of it, and has gained thanks to the signings of Iwamura and could even increase more if recently Hee Seop Choi were to make the roster along with guys like Gary Glover, who figures to at least attempt and make the team out of spring training. Is the payroll up there with the rock star entertaining Mets or Yankees? Of course not, though one could easily foresee the total salary of the team raising above 40 million by 2008, especially if Scott Kazmir gets his extension and it looks more like Jeremy Bonderman's than Jeff Francis', add in Rocco and C.C.'s escalating contracts and the arbitration to Delmon and B.J. and the payroll could very easily start reaching into `mid major' status.
Tears of Youkilis
Who shall become the Rays whipping boy (team) this season? Last year it seemed to be the Red Sox, from Curt Schilling moaning about Kazmir's `antics' to Josh Beckett getting `blistered' the Rays shredded the R-Sox at the Trop. What would be extremely nice would be finishing above .500 in divisional play, that's probably a pipedream, but the question is have the Yankees and everyone else really gotten that much better? The Rays certainly haven't gotten worse, and maybe it's just me thinking Mr. Dice-K (or is it Mat-K?) becomes a big bust, Andy-P doesn't regain form, Frank Thomas won't love Canada, and that all the relievers in the world couldn't help the Orioles from finishing last next season, but I seem to think the Rays could seriously (for real) make a run at 3rd place in the AL East. As I said before the O's are destined for last and I'm guessing the Yanks and Sox battle until the last week of the season before the division is solved, that leaves the Jays and Rays. Toronto is one A.J. Burnett bummed shoulder and Frank Thomas injury from being a truly average team. So okay Doc Halladay will win 20 games, that's probably a given, and B.J. Ryan will probably retain his `Best B.J. in the AL East' title (though just barely over the aforementioned Curt Schilling) but is anyone truly believing that the birds of the far north will have the same freakish production from Troy Glaus and that Gustavo Chacin can step up enough to replace Ted Lilly? In my estimations it's doubtful at best and that leaves the door ajar to where the Rays can slither to an impressive (and franchise best) finish, possibly.
One place the Rays did indeed finish above .500 was at Tropicana Field last season which keeps the idea that `hey maybe if the Rays can win 9 more at home, propping that number to 50, we could make a real run at this thing' line of thinking. I mean when you lose 61 road games it's a head scratcher as to why you're simply that poor on the road and good at home. One theory could be they just had 41 `good days' at home, but it probably has something more to do with that last at bat, as well as getting the first-three outs before the other team, in other words always knowing you have those three more at-bats no matter what happens in the proceeding inning. 50 wins is the hope, 45 wins is the expectation, set your over/under prediction accordingly.
Last season was and will be known by readers of mine as the `transition year' before the `reclamation season' which will be this year, what I mean is that hope and optimism you had in '98 should start coming back after watching the team this year. I can't really sit here and try and tell you the team is going to bring back memories of Dave Martinez shagging fly balls and of Albie Lopez making his bid for the Cy Young Award because quite simply, neither of those two things happened and if they did would you really want to remember Dave Martinez? It should be very interesting to see how the fan base reacts if one of two things happens: A) The team jumps out of the starting block and wins two of three of it's games against the Yankees, B) Gets swept in New York. Most of you know how I feel about the quite fickle Tampa fanbase as a whole (but hey whose to say the Lightning didn't finish 2nd in attendance because people of Tampa didn't just start liking hockey?) so I fully expect to see many, many more Rays fans if the team does indeed jump out to a 2-1, 3-0 start. I remember back in 03 once the team beat the Yankees in Japan, the talk around town was `the Rays are in first' basically that talk died after the team lost a game, but for that day (and remember the game was played in the wee hours of the EST day) the Rays were king. Now if the team goes out and starts 3-10, 3-11 you could probably foresee a few more 9,000 in attendance (including the ones who just happen to get 30 dollars to sit there for a half hour, er....yeah) let's just hope it doesn't come to that. Maintaining the audience this is a good time to send a shout out to all those closet Ray fans who accidentally wear their Red Sox or Yankees caps and shirts to the Trop when the team is in town (don't you hate when that happens?) then give Scott Kazmir a standing ovation as if he just pitched a no-hitter in game seven of the World Series, look we get it, the Rays are only 9 seasons old, you and the other team have a long history, I mean your step-brother spent half a semester in Connecticut, how can you just let that close nit relationship with the Yankees evaporate that quickly? For everyone else do the team a favor, start wearing your Rays cap every other outing, mix up your Rays and your Bucs / Bolts shirts, heck on campus, would it hurt to rep the Rays a little? Obviously it's hard to compare football to baseball, but look at what the University of South Florida just did in it's 10th year in existence: winning it's first bowl game and finishing 8-4. It may take the Rays just a tad longer to win it's `bowl game' but it's coming, let's just hope it happens before all of the fans have cleared the attire from their wardrobe, the players from their vocabulary, and the hope from their hearts. All in all let's look forward to what should be a very exciting and fun season, and see if a few of these 20 things don't work out in the good guys' advantage, anyhow let's end this with something we should all be saying come March, go Rays or get the heck out of my dome.