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Season Preview Part III; Hitters/Coaching Staff

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-Can Jonny Gomes continue off of his hot 2005 and lead the Rays offense in 2006?


Well, after two weeks of the softball things, the Rays' 2006 look off the field and the recap of the offseason, we finally move to the meaty three issues of the series, starting with this week's edition, which will focus on the hitters and the coaching staff. Now, doing a preview of the opening day Rays three weeks away from the first game obviously presents its difficulties. Will the 25 man roster look like what you predicted it to look like? What players won't be on the roster that you thought would? Well, this is an issue we are going to have to live with. Injuries and unexpected decisions can come at a quick rate, as we saw today with Shinji Mori being out for the season, but we are going to look at the 2006 season from now, and deal with changes as they come to us. This requires a little bit of subjectivity on my part in guessing the roster, but whatever it is, I'm not going to go into why I picked them to make the roster over someone else in the interests of time, both yours and mine. But at least we know the likelihood of coaching staff changes between now and opening day is minimal, so that shouldn't be a problem. The third installment of my season preview series follows the jump.


This is part three of my five part series previewing the 2006 season, a series which will conclude on Monday, April 3rd, opening day against the Baltimore Orioles. The next part in the series will focus on the pitchers and just general key info to know, and the following installment will cover the rest of baseball. To read the previous installments about business and the offseason, simply click the link you would like to read below.

Part I; Overview/Introduction
Part II; Nothing Personal, Its Just Business
Part III; Hitters/Coaching Staff
Part IV; Pitchers/Key Info
Part V; The Rest of the Majors

The Lineup

1. SS Julio Lugo:

2005 Season-Lugo had his best season in five years in 2005, hitting .295/.362/.403 with 39 stolen bases, batting mostly from the top of the order. He came 18 hits short of 200 while showing great plate discipline, walking only 11 less times than he struck out. He still had some underdeveloped power issues, hitting only six home runs, but drove in 57 runs en route to a .765 OPS.

2006 Outlook-Lugo will be returning for his third full season next year, assuming, of course, that he isn't traded before the start of the season. Lugo has a fine OBP and batting average, his problems lie squarely in his power supply. If Lugo can add just .035 points of Slugging Percentage, he can be a much better hitter. Alas, his value has probably peaked, and he needs to be dealt sooner, rather than later to take advantage of said value. But there is no question that he was a great find four years ago, and here's wishing a great season for a great guy, wherever he may go.

2. LF Carl Crawford:

2005 Season-Carl Crawford continued to improve in nearly all facets of his games last season, except, that is, for plate discipline. But Crawford achieved career highs in games played (156), at bats (644), hits (194), doubles (33), home runs (15), RBI (81), batting average (.301), slugging percentage (.469), and OPS (.800). He improved last season as a hitter, however his plate patience actually tanked from years past. His BB:K was worse than in '04, while his OBP remained the same, despite increases in batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS. However, on the bright side of things again, his stolen base success rate (85%) was higher than that of any other previous season.

2006 Outlook-Crawford has probably topped out in terms of his home run ability, in my opinion, as he will probably get no higher over his career than the 15-20 range. His game is complete, he's got okay pop, he gets good contact, and we know he can play the field, but his further improvements are tied to his plate patience. Crawford needs to develop a greater recognition of crap pitches at the plate, or all pitchers will do is throw him slop. Take a walk, let a few balls go by, just don't swing at every pitch. If he can get on base through other methods besides hitting the ball, there may be hope yet for Crawford as a leadoff hitter.

3. 2B Jorge Cantu:

2005 Season-Cantu proved he could hold up and mash the ball over a full season last year, and made Chuck LaMar look like an idiot for the 1,298th time for actually signing Roberto Alomar to start at second base. Cantu batted .286/.311/.497 for an .808 OPS in being one of the league's better second basemen, hitting 28 home runs and driving home a Rays record 117 RBI. However, like Crawford, his K:BB was dismal, as he walked once for every four strikeouts, hence the low OBP.

2006 Outlook-Cantu has solidified himself as a top second baseman for years to come due to his 2005 season. If he can keep it up, he will be a better option at second base for the Rays than a lot of teams in the AL have in the four hole. He can make contact, he has pop, the only thing that is missing is the all too common theme of plate patience. A .311 OBP for a player as good of a hitter as Cantu is a travesty. His hitting ability should be able to garner him a lot more walks, and if he can lay off a few bad pitches next year, you are looking at an even more dangerous hitter.

4. RF Jonny Gomes:

2005 Season-Gomes broke onto the scene last year after previously having terrible performances in small sample sizes in his only other major league appearances. Gomes batted .282/.372/.534, a .906 OPS, in a little over half a season, hitting 21 home runs. Gomes led all of Major League Baseball's rookie players last year in the Baseball Prospectus measure-all of offensive production, VORP (value Over Replacement Player) at 36.9, despite having more than 180 less plate appearances then Tadihito Iguchi, another prominent rookie, and 150 less than Robinson Cano.

2006 Outlook-Gomes will be in the starting lineup one way or another on April 3rd, obviously, it is just a matter of where. Depending who you ask, Gomes is either a liability, or just average in right field. He'll either start the season in right or at DH, depending on where Aubrey Huff starts the season. On the offensive side, there is little to worry about. Gomes has the best raw power on the team, and the only worries are a drop in an average that some say is inflated. However, even in the scenario that his average drops .025 points, he should be a great bet for the cleanup role, generally reserved for the team's masher.

5. 3B Aubrey Huff:

2005 Season-Huff encountered his worst offensive season since 2001 last year, batting for a mediocre .261/.321/.428 batting line for a .749 OPS, while hitting 22 home runs and driving home 92. The Rays' all-time offensive leader in most major categories had hit for OPSs of .884, .922, and .853 in his three previous seasons, so you can see why 2005 was considered a disappointment. His usual second half rebound never came, yet even so, the Rays still managed to field one of the AL's best offenses in the second half of the season and finish with a winning second half record.

2006 Outlook-Huff comes into 2006 with a more uncertain future than ever. With the highest salary on the roster due to the backloaded contract he signed previous to the 2004 season, he is most certainly going to be on the trading block. The question is, will he be moved? The departure of Huff, it seems, has been rumored since he first arrived in Tampa Bay. He might be moved next week, next month, in July, or not at all. But to be a valuable trade commodity, Huff needs to break out of his usual first half swoon. To that effect, he showed up at camp in good spirits, and has been decent offensively thus far this spring. But he will need to keep up that production for us to have any chance at recouping decent value from him before he becomes a free agent after the season.

6 DH Rocco Baldelli:

2005 Season-Baldelli missed the entire 2005 season due to a knee injury sustained while he was playing catch with his brother Dante at his Rhode Island home in October 2004. Originally slated to make his debut in July or August, he sustained an elbow injury, requiring Tommy John surgery that sidelined him until camp. Baldelli was in the midst of a steady improvement in 2004, increasing his OPS .02 points from 2003 to .765, while hitting 16 home runs and driving in 74.

2006 Outlook-It is unclear of Baldelli's path as of now, as a hamstring injury has complicated matters as to whether Baldelli will be ready to start the season. Considering he has not had a lot of time in the field this spring, he will likely be eased in at DH to start out, then wound into the defense in late inning substitutions before he fully takes the field. Still, it is unknown how Baldelli will rebound production-wise from his injury, but he has higher expectations due to the contract he signed in the offseason. At this point, Baldelli is being treated with bubblewrap in his return, so it will be interesting to see whether he is in the lineup at Camden Yards.

7. 1B Travis Lee:

2005 Season-Lee had an awful first half and was on the verge of being DFA'd before an extremely hot stretch of play that encompassed a month brought his totals up to merely mediocre totals. Playing in a righty/lefty platoon with Eduardo Perez, Lee batted .272/.331/.426, a .757 OPS, in 404 ABs. This after hitting through the first half of the season at a .232 clip. Lee also brought to the table an automatic, his stellar defense, which was more important than you might think, as the Rays struggled with a defensively challenged infield that included Jorge Cantu and Nick Green at the five and four holes.

2006 Outlook-Lee may not even be on the roster at midseason. With No. 2 prospect Wes Banskton on the fast track to the majors, a quick start at DBAP with the Bulls could force the Rays' hand, and even if Bankston does stick at third base, that will force out Aubrey Huff, most likely if he is starting there, which will force out Travis Lee from the first base job, because, in all likelihood, Delmon Young will have entered the outfield picture. In any case, Bankston will be, at the very least, a September callup, and so Lee's PT will be compromised at some point. But if Lee can provide his usual great defense along with 2003 level production, he may get some interest from contending teams at the deadline.

8. C Toby Hall:

2005 Season-In parts of six major league seasons, Toby Hall has had an OPS of over .683 exactly one time, in an 188 AB season in 2001. Last year was no different, he just gave a little to his average while taking some from his slugging, while his OBP remained stagnant. All in all, Toby hit .287/.315/.368, while driving in 48 runs. On the plus side, pitchers have said he still calls a good game and that his defensive skills are top notch. Besides, Toby is a good guy, and while that will never be (or shouldn't be) a reason to keep a baseball player, his generosity to the fans and the community is to be commended.

2006 Outlook-The dean of Devil Rays hitters, Toby is the longest-reigning starter on the team and he returns for the 2006 season, once again at the backstop. While it would probably be too much to ask for a .07 increase in OPS, if Hall could just get over .7, then it would be good for the team. However with an offense as good as the Rays have, it isn't like Toby Hall is going to be noticed as much, so if he improves a little offensively, and keeps up the good work defensively, and in working with the staff, then I think we will be fine with Tobias behind the plate.

9. CF Joey Gathright

2005 Season-Example No. 1,234,874 how Lou Pinella screwed a young player over: demoting Gathright to the minors at the beginning of last season for "milkshake", aka Alex Sanchez, the no field, no OBP, no power outfielder whose deceptively high average fooled the DRO into actually keeping him for two months. Anyways, Gathright racked up a career high 203 ABs with the Rays last year, hitting .276/.316/.340 while driving in 13 runs. An outfielder in, essentially, a righty/lefty platoon with Damon Hollins last year, the speedy Gathright got his first significant taste of major league action, hitting unimpressively and fielding about as well as his batting line. He also hit .305/.388/.407 in a stint at Durham.

2006 Outlook-Gathright will at least start the season in centerfield with the injury to Rocco Baldelli forcing him to the DH role, but after that, it is anyone's call and his playing ability will likely decide what happens. The logjam of outfielders returns next season, so the Rays can't afford to be keeping .656 OPS outfielders on the roster. To be a viable option, Gathright must follow the mold of his 2005 Durham season and get on base a lot through walking. He doesn't have any power, XBH or HR, so he needs to make up for it in average and IsoOBP. Otherwise, he is of no use as a major league player. Though if he improves his bunting ability and defense, then it is a start. Currently, the Rays are actively shopping Gathright on the market, most notably to the Florida Marlins, so Gathright could end up somewhere else on April 3rd should the Rays get the right deal, for Scott Olsen or another prospect.

The Bench

C Josh Paul:

2005 Season-Paul gained national attention last season when he failed to tag out A.J Pierzynski on a strikeout in Game Two of the ALCS, which allowed Pierzynski to get aboard and eventually score a run in a game that the White Sox won. The Angels, who came in with a one games to none lead in the series, would not win another game in the series as they were eliminated in five games. Suffice it to say, Paul was not exactly the highest regarded figure in Southern California, and was traded to the Rays in the offseason for A baller Travis Schlichting. Last year, Paul didn't even hit the Mendoza line, batting .189/.231/.378, a .609 OPS. He did have decent power, two home runs in 37 ABs, but had little else, and is simply a mediocre holdover kept because Kevin Cash is a worse alternative.

2006 Outlook-Paul will get some pressure from Cash if he plays poorly again from Kevin Cash, though he will be squeezed for playing time down at Durham, possibly by Shawn Riggans. If Riggans is able to keep up his solid inning, which is likely in hitter-friendly DBAP, he will get promoted at some point this season, however the exact time will be determined by how Paul plays. And looking at his previous seasons, Riggans may be called up rather quickly.

IF Nick Green:

2005 Season-Green was acquired just before the start of the regular season last year by the Atlanta Braves for RHP Jorge Sosa. Brought on primarily to help LHP-challenged Rays infielders and to just generally give infielders a break, Green hit .239/.329/.346, a .675 OPS, while driving in 29 runs in 318 ABs for the Rays. He was actually very decent against left-handed pitchers, hitting .292/.373/.427 against southpaws. It was just the other, rare pitchers, ya know, the right-handers, that gave him trouble.

2006 Outlook-Green enters the 2006 season locking horns with Luis Ordaz for the backup in fielder job. Right now, I just can't see Ordaz entering the season as a starter, Green has major league experience and he can at least hit lefties, we just don't know what Ordaz can do. Originally brought in to compete with Green for this spot was Twins second baseman Luis Rivas, however he went down on February 28th to injury and will be out for another 2-4 weeks. Once Rivas works his way back down at Durham, he could put pressure on Green for the backup infielder job if he doesn't perform well, but Green will at least start the season as the backup infielder t=due to his versatility and lefty-hitting ability.

IF Ty Wigginton:

2005 Season-Wigginton, the ex-Met, split the 2005 season between the Pittsburgh Pirates and their Triple A affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians. He performed well in both locations. In 280 ABs with the Indians, Wigginton hit .293/.390/.507, an .897 OPS. He slammed 14 home runs while driving in 52 in dominating IL pitching. With the major league Pirates, Wigginton hit .258/.324/.425, a .789 OPS, while hitting seven homers, and driving home 25. Once you look past the average, Wigginton was actually very good last season.

2006 Outlook-Coming into camp, Wigginton had a good shot at getting the starting job at third base. However neither him, nor Sean Burroughs had good springs at the plate, which will likely cause Burroughs to be booted and Wigginton to be relegated to a bench role. However the Rays' bench would be much improved with Wigginton on it, as he can hit if he keeps up last year's totals, and he is versatile, he can play first, second, and third base, and the Rays have tried him in the outfield this spring, while Burroughs, Russell Branyan, and Greg Norton are all comparatively inflexible.

OF Damon Hollins:

2005 Season-Hollins was acquired by the Rays as a minor league free agent going into the 2005 season. Hollins began the year at Triple A Durham, and was promoted to the majors after about a month, literally because the Rays were forced to after Hollins hit .296/.414/.432, an .846 OPS. Hollins carried his hot stretch from Durham up to the majors, winning the AL's Rookie of the Month Award for May. After that, Hollins' season tailed off considerably, though he still finished with a not terrible, but good batting line of .249/.296/.418, a .714 OPS that was helped considerably by his impressive power, as he slammed 13 home runs while driving in 46 runs. A great story of a guy who always hit well in Triple A, but never got a chance, Hollins finally did last year, and filled in admirably for the loss of Rocco Baldelli.

2006 Outlook-That being said, with Rocco coming back for this season, Hollins was expected to be pushed aside, as Baldelli, Crawford, Gomes, and Joey Gathright looked like the only outfielders the Rays would go with. However with Baldelli's injury woes continuing and the extra infielder that his roster spot would have gone to, presumably Sean Burroughs, sucking wind. Thus Hollins looks like he will be returning to the roster to at least start the 2006 season after an impressive spring, and with the possibility of Rocco being injured and Joey Gathright being dealt, Hollins might stick a little longer than expected, even when Delmon Young is called up.

The Manager

#70 Joe Maddon

The 411-Maddon was named the fourth manager in Devil Rays history last November when he replaced the departed Lou Pinella in the dugout. A bench coach for the Angels for the last ten years, Maddon had spent 31 years in the Anaheim/California organization, and has an all-time managerial record of 33-26 in several interim stints. Known for his outside the box thinking, Maddon has been reading up on some non-baseball literature this offseason, including Blink by Malcom Gladwell. He has brought enthusiasm to camp and looks to build off of that as he goes into his first season as a major league manager.

The Coaches

Bench Coach #20 Bill Evers:

The 411-Evers is one of the longest-tenured officials in the Rays organization, having served with the team since October 1995. He has served as the manager of the Gulf Coast League Devil Rays, St. Petersburg Devil Rays, and from 1998-2005, the Triple A Durham Bulls, where he won two International League championships. He also won the Florida State League title in 1997 with the St. Pete Devil Rays. He has spent a total of 30 years in professional baseball, 19 as a manager, and this year will be his first in the major leagues besides an occasional September stint with the major league coaching staff. He has compiled a 1,381-1,206 (.534 Winning Percentage) record as a minor league manager, and was second among active minor league managers in wins before he was promoted to bench coach, replacing John McLaren.


First Base Coach #25 George Hendrick:

The 411-Hendrick is a new addition to the coaching staff, and the organization completely, having been hired as a new addition to Maddon's coaching staff to replace Bill Hatcher. A former first overall pick, Hendrick won two World Series' and played in four all-star games in an 18 year major league career. Hendrick was hired to be a coach on Maddon's staff from his position as minor league hitting coordinator in the Dodgers organization. Hendrick is well-acquainted with Maddon, as Hendrick ended his career in the Angels organization in the 80s.

Third Base Coach #6 Tom Foley:

The 411-Foley returns to the Rays' coaching staff for his fifth season, and is the only holdover from Lou Pinella's staff. Previous to joining the on-field staff, Foley was one of the first hires by the organization, serving as minor league field coordinator, and also for one year as the manager of the Butte Copper Kings of the Pioneer League. He led the Copper Kings to a 37-35 record and a playoff berth, and was named the league's manager of the year. He also served as minor league operations director, and managed in the Arizona Fall League in 2001. He also had a 13 year major league playing career before joining the Rays with ther Phillies, Reds, and Expos.

Pitching Coach #48 Mike Butcher:

The 411-Butcher joins the staff this season to replace the departed Chuck Hernandez, who left to become the Detroit Tigers' pitching coach. Butcher joins the team from the Anaheim Angels, where he was the minor league pitching coordinator. Butcher is also well-acquainted wuth Maddon, having spent his only four major league playing years with the Angels in the 1990s, and, of course, when he was the pitching coordinator.

Hitting Coach #55 Steve Henderson:

The 411-Henderson returns to the Rays coaching staff after an eight year abscence. The Rays' hitting coach in their inaugural 1998 campaign, Henderson has been in the organization for the past several years as the team's minor league hitting coordinator, though he did serve a few games with the team two years ago as hitting coach when Lee Elia, whom he replaced, was hospitalized. Henderson also played 12 years in the major leagues with the Houston Astors, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, and New York Mets, while being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds.

Bullpen Coach #7 Bobby Ramos:

The 411-Ramos was hired as the Rays' bullpen coach last offseason to replace the departed Matt Sinatro. Ramos is familiar with the organization, having served as the manager of the Princeton Devil Rays back in the late 1990s when the team featured Josh Hamilton, seen giving him a rub in the photo above. Ramos joins the team from the Angels, where he was the minor league catching instructor. Besides knowing him from his position in the organization, Maddon was likely acquainted with him before, as he spent one year with AAA Salt Lake in the Angels' organization in 1979. He had a six year playing career with the Montreal Expos and the New York Yankees.

Senior Baseball Advisor #58 Don Zimmer:

The 411-Who does not know of Don Zimmer? Former Cubs and Red Sox manager, New York Yankees bench coach, long time Treasure Island resident, major league player, Zimmer has been it all in 58 years of major league service. The Rays snapped him up prior to the 2004 season, when he resigned in protest from the Yankees, saying George Stienbrenner treated him poorly. Also known for his infamous charging the mound incident in the 2003 ALCS, Zimmer is mainly on the staff just for the Rays to say that they have Don Zimmer on the staff. He isn't really a coach, and isn't allowed in the dougout in games, but hangs around the ballpark all the time just to be there. Which is okay with me. If you're Don Zimmer, you have earned it.

Head Athletic Trainer Ron Porterfield

The 411-Why, you ask, am I including the head trainer? Well, he may not appear on the TV as much as the coaches or players, but he is just as important. The Rays have lost some of the least time in the majors to the DL the last couple seasons due to their excellent training staff, and for the team to be successful, they need that to continue. Already, the last two head trainers have been hired by other teams, Jamie Nelson by Texas, and Ken Crenshaw for the Diamondbacks last offseason. Crenshaw will have big shoes to fill as the Rays' head trainer, as the team was named Baseball Prospectus' Top Medical Staff in 2004, and nearly won the award once again last year. Porterfield is entering his fourth season with the Rays, and previous to that, spent 15 years in the minors with the Houston Astros' organization. He served as minor league medical and rehab coordinator with the Rays starting in 1997 before his promotion to trhe majors. He won the Texas League's Athletic Trainer of the Year Award in 1992.

Photo Credits:
Cantu Cover-TSN
Lugo, Crawford, Cantu-CNNSI
Gomes-(Nacogdoches, Texas) Daily Sentinel
Huff, Hall,
Lee-Prostate Cancer Foundation
Paul-Orange County Register
Green-The Globe and Mail
Wigginton-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hollins, Ramos-St. Petersburg Times
Evers-The Snorting Bull
Hendrick-Sports Collective
Foley-The Boston Globe
Butcher, Henderson-Baseball Almanac
Porterfield-The Diamond Angle