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AL East Roundtable: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

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Introduction

Recently, the AL East brain trust here among the SportsBlogsNation network met up to discuss our teams for the 2007 season. You may remember that the SBN AL East caucus met up last year in a similar format, and you can see last year's piece on the Devil Rays here. Well, in doing it again this year, everyone came back to pretty much the same format. One author from each AL East blog was present to answer three questions regarding the Devil Rays, plus old DRaysBay friend Marc Normandin of Beyond the Box Score. This series was done for every AL East team, and the installments for each one are hosted at that respective team's blog. You can see those respective installments at the links below:

Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays

I personally represented DRaysBay in each roundtable discussion, including that of our very own team. Please note that this interview was conducted several weeks ago, so some of the answers may be a bit dated. I'd like to personally thank Eric Simon of Amazin' Avenue, our SBN New York Mets blog, for moderating each roundtable and getting things organized for the SBN baseball roundtables as a whole. Thanks, Eric!

And lastly, be sure to check out the other installments of the roundtable series, as offered up above.

Read what our guests had to say about the Rays after the jump, but don't be too hard on our Yankee friend.

Participants

Beyond the Boxscore (MLB)-Marc Normandin
Bluebird Banter (TOR)-Mark Willis-O'Connor
Camden Chat (BAL)-Scott Christ
DRaysBay (RAYS)-Patrick L. Kennedy
Over the Monster (BOS)-Randy Booth
Pinstripe Alley (NYY)-Anaconda

Question #1

Can the Devil Rays compete in the AL East? Should competing even be the goal at this point, or is it all about taking baby steps towards respectability?

Pinstripe Alley: No.  The Rays are a Quadruple-A team with a lot of young talent.  Unfortunately, they exist right now solely for the benefit of the bigger market teams who can pry them away come free-agency or the July trade deadline.

Over The Monster: Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps. They're developing a lot of talent down on the farm and at some point it's going to all come together. It has to come together, I think. They can't be cellar dwellers forever. Potential doesn't count for crap because it doesn't always pan out, but when you've got as much as the D-Rays do, something has to work. Delmon Young is going to be a great player, for sure, and players like BJ Upton and Elijah Dukes could be great.

Bluebird Banter: In the future, of course, but certainly not within the next couple of years or so. The turnover in management was a huge step in the right direction, and it'll be interesting to see how they parlay their outfield surplus into useful commodities. Hopefully management has learned a valuable lesson from Bill Stoneman's inability to trade unnecessary, though still highly talented, Angels prospects while their value was high.

Camden Chat: Sure, they can compete. They're going to have to start developing better pitching. They've had hitting prospects falling out of their ears, but I can't recall off the top of my head a single Tampa Bay pitcher (Kazmir doesn't count, since he was a Met) that panned out for them yet. It's also going to be next to impossible for them to compete on the free agent market, no matter how good Crawford, Young, Dukes, Upton, Baldelli, etc. can make this team. They won't have the money, the park is not attractive place to play, and they've never generated any excitement past their first season of existence. The old guard in the Rays front office, now thankfully gone, killed this franchise ten minutes after it was born. But competing should always be the point - no team, no matter how bad or outclassed, goes to the park to lose. If you don't sell the idea of competing, you're telling a lot of the guys on your team that might not be there when you're eventually ready to make a move that they're just filling space for now, and that's just breeding a losing culture.

DRays Bay: Can the Rays compete in the AL East? Absolutely, I believe they can. It will certainly be very tough, and their window of opportunity would tend to be pretty small but there is no reason why they can't win the division with an effective business model of developing from within. As long as the Rays continue to develop top notch talent and minimize their mistakes with regards to development, they should be in a fine position to compete. Whether the team chooses to utilize the Oakland A's model of letting players go after their six years of organizational servitude ends and just re-stocking, or if the team re-signs select players to affordable contracts to contribute over the long haul, there are plenty of ways through which the Devil Rays may field a competitive ballclub. To set the infrastructure up for this is long and arduous, and you have been seeing that taking its toll on the major league roster in the last few years, but once you get a system in place to deliver you an effective stream of talent through the farm system, a lot of doors open for you to contention. Obviously the need to best the Red Sox and Yankees will probably mean fewer chances than if the team was in another division, but there is no reason the team shouldn't be able to compete. To do so, the Rays will need to develop from within, but there is no reason that the team can't do that successfully and compete at the major league level. And I believe that competing should always be the goal, because ultimately isn't competing the only way to gain respectability? Being competitive should always be the objective; you can't waste time going for "baby steps". And as several recent turnarounds in the majors over the last few years have proven, turnarounds are often not gradual, but rather abrupt and sudden. I think you will see that with this ballclub, if not this year then possibly next.

Marc Normandin: The Rays are going to have to deal some of their extra young talent for young pitching. If that happens-and it will happen eventually once the proper fit is found-they will be much more of a sure bet going forward. I love the young hitters coming up-Brignac, Young and Dukes should all be beasts offensively, and Upton should be productive once he establishes himself at a position or as a Chone Figgins clone-and I'm a fan of their young pitchers as well. Kazmir is obviously a true ace if he can stay healthy, and I do like Howell as a starter too. Shields might need a bit more time to really improve, but his future should be bright as well. This is a team that is not quite knocking on the door, but they're certainly heading in that direction.

Question #2

The Devil Rays have a logjam in the outfield with Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Johnny Gomes, Elijah Dukes, Joel Guzman, and B.J. Upton all potentially vying for spots. Who comprises the starting outfield in 2007? Whither the rest of them? Trade? Infield?

Pinstripe Alley: Crawford is a lock, but I could see Baldelli moved at some point because he's had a lot of health issues and they may want to make room for the youngsters.

Over The Monster: Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young. It should be a great outfield, too. Crawford, of course, is one of the best outfielders in the whole game. Baldelli has been bit by the injury bug in his career, but when healthy he's a great athlete in every aspect of the game. Young had 30 great games last season, so in a full year he should be really effective in Tampa Bay's outfield.

Bluebird Banter: As it stands, they'll probably start the season with Baldelli, Crawford, and Young in the outfield, with Gomes at DH. However, they absolutely must trade one or two of them, even though their leverage is rather low. It's tough to part with any of them, because they're all young, cheap, and under contract for a while. Obviously, however, the upside is that they'd garner more in return.

Camden Chat: Baldelli, Crawford, and Young, and as good as Crawford is and as good as Baldelli can be when he's healthy, Delmon Young is going to trump both of them. The Rays might be best off trading Dukes and Upton - Dukes because of his off-field issues, and Upton because his glove is made of bricks. It's not that either of them should be considered unsalvageable projects or anything, but it's going to be hard to find a spot for either guy on this team.

DRays Bay: Well first off, Joel Guzman is not an outfield option. The pack out there is far too deep to be spending time on him out there, and his defense at third has been excellent this spring anyways, so his future is not in the outfield with this organization. Ultimately, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Delmon Young are your starting outfielders, and of that there can be no debate. Crawford is one of the top young players in baseball and Baldelli was perhaps the team's best hitter after coming back from injury in June of last year. As for Delmon Young, you simply can't keep that talent out of the major league starting lineup. He clearly has nothing left to prove in Triple A, and after a hot September debut last year, Young has cemented himself in right field. The wild cards are Dukes and Upton. Because Jonny Gomes is penciled in as the DH, there is really no starting position available for Dukes on the team. The possibility of playing him at first was floated earlier, but that plan has not been put into practice as yet, and because of his off-field transgressions in Triple A Durham last year, the Bulls' club president has said he is "not welcome" back with the team next year up there. So that really leaves the Rays between rock and a hard place with what to do with Dukes, and while it isn't really an option anyone wants, Dukes will probably go into the season as the fourth outfielder. Upton is a complete mess. The team has been trying him out at nearly every position on the diamond this spring trying to find him a spot, and with a full outfield, he likely won't go there. As such, he will probably end up rotating around a fluid infield with few set roles this season, probably bouncing between positions and getting playing time wherever he can as a "super utility" player. It isn't an option that seems very wise to me, I think Upton needs a consistent position from which to operate from, but it doesn't appear as though that will happen. Despite all of this, I don't really see any trade going down between now and opening day. I don't think the Rays are actively shopping their three starters, and when they've shopped Dukes and Upton in the past, they have not gotten any offers that would have made it worth giving up their respective potentials, and I can't see this dynamic changing in the next few weeks.

Marc Normandin: Crawford, Young, Dukes in the outfield, Gomes at DH, Baldelli will be dealt, and Upton will be a super-utility player for 2007, anyways. I like Crawford's development; his power and speed combination is fantastic, even if he doesn't walk much-walking isn't everything, and there are plenty of other things to be good at. Delmon Young should be a star with the bat, and if Elijah Dukes can stay out of any serious trouble, he can rake with the best of them. Jonny Gomes should have a return to form if his shoulder is healthy, and we'll see more of the power potential we saw at the beginning of 2006 from him. I love the idea of throwing Upton around the diamond and forcing him to establish himself. It will work out for the best, I'm sure, and they won't waste anymore time with Upton down in Triple-A.

Question #3

Scott Kazmir is emerging as a true staff ace of the pitching staff, but little else about the D-Rays' 2007 starting rotation is a certainty. Who will emerge as a stalwart? Who will eat innings?

Pinstripe Alley: I have no freaking idea and my guess is nobody else does either.

Over The Monster: Other than Scott Kazmir, I don't see any starter really making a difference. Casey Fossum has potential to compete with good hitters, but he's certainly not one of the best 2-3 starters in the league. Kazmir is really the gem, and the only gem. Unless Tampa Bay has a prospect waiting in the wings that can join the rotation soon then they don't have much to watch other than Kazmir.

Bluebird Banter: In all likelihood, the team will use a back-of-the-rotation-by-committee approach (now how's that for overusing hyphens!?). It will not be unlike last season, when twelve different pitchers started at least one game for the Devil Rays.

Camden Chat: I like Casey Fossum, but not so much because he's very good. I also like Jae Seo. Those two guys should fill rotation spots, and Shields may very well end my search for a decent Devil Rays arm product. Kazmir could seriously emerge as the best pitcher in the division at any moment, and that's counting Roy Halladay.

DRays Bay: The Devil Rays' starting rotation in 2007 will probably feature, behind Kazmir, Jamie Shields, Jae Seo, and Casey Fossum. The fifth starter is unknown, and there are a wide range of candidates for the position, with J.P. Howell probably the closest thing to a front-runner. Shields is a decent No. 3 starter, and Seo and Fossum are good league average pitchers to have around. The rotation was not the problem with the Rays last year, the five starters consistently pitched well only to be stymied in their quest for wins by a lack of offense, so the team didn't need a lot of upgrading for this season. A No. 2 starter would have been nice, but given the market, that was not practical. Ultimately Shields might end up being someone to look out for. Seo and Fossum will eat innings and give you an average body of work, and hopefully Howell can do the same thing, but on the present staff only Shields has any sort of a large ceiling from which to develop. He has an excellent curveball, and when he complements that curve with his fastball just right, he is a shutdown No. 2 starter. He put up a 4.84 ERA last year with excellent peripherals, and his ERA should more closely reflect that this year. The real "stalwarts", however, will come when the team's top pitching prospects are promoted up from AAA Durham later in the year. This would be Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot, and possibly even Andy Sonnanstine and Mitch Talbot. The Rays have a lot of nice-looking young pitchers in their farm system, just a few of which are starting to rise up to the surface within plain view. When Talbot, Niemann, and others arrive this year, the Rays' rotation really should be something.

Marc Normandin: Besides the stellar rotations that will appear on minor league Rays clubs for sometime in 2007, I'm a fan of J.P. Howell, and I think Shields should improve with a bit more major league time. That should be a pretty good front three, although nothing incredible, and with Seo and Fossum in the mix, the Rays should not feature any pitchers far below average. Once the top pitchers in their farm system come up, and the bats on the team are ready to go, this is going to be a serious team to watch, one that could make up for the nonstop losing campaigns of previous years.