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Jonny Be Good?

With Akinori Iwamura returning from the disabled list, it came down to choosing the lesser of two evils... or as some may put it... the evil of two lessers. Like the final episode of "American Idol" this past week, the choice was between two people that nobody really was excited about. Do you option Jonny Gomes or Jorge Cantu to triple-A to make room for Iwamura? The Rays chose the former, and they chose correctly. And despite Gomes' reported 15-minute tirade with the Rays coaching staff, he has the right attitude about the whole situation.

A career batting average of .220, a pile of home runs, and a strikeout every 3 1/2 at-bats on average. No, I'm not talking about Gomes. I'm talking about Rob Deer, the hulking man-child who provided plenty of cool breezes with his big swings during his 11 big-league seasons in the 1980s and 90s. I bring up Deer because that's who I see Gomes as, a man with plenty of "pop" and more than enough "whiff".

I've never been the biggest Gomes fan, in fact I'm probably one of the few baseball fans in the Bay area who didn't go ga-ga for Gomes when he became a spark plug for the team in 2005. I'm not saying Gomes didn't do some great things that season, in fact without him the Rays would've only been much worse than their 67-95 record which is just plain scary to think about. Most people were giddy about how Gomes was a firecracker for a dormant Rays team. Then again, repeated viewings of a Hugh Grant movie would have seemed like a firecracker given how that season played out. Regardless, Gomes' .282 batting average and 21 home runs in 101 games gave many people the hope that he might be part of a surging 2006 team.

With the weight of the success of 2005 of Gomes' suddenly bulked-up shoulders, 2006 was very much a letdown. His average dropped to .216, and while his home run and RBI numbers remained about the same to 2005's output in 117 games, another facet of his game made an ugly appearance. The man can strike out... a lot. And in true Rays' fashion, it seemed Gomes would strike out in key situations only to kill a rally. With all young players, you can never really tell what you've got until you give them a full season of work. With Gomes the tendency to be too aggressive at the plate, striking out once every 3.31 at-bats in 2006, was just a continuing trend since his minor league days. Add in a bum shoulder that affected him all year, and the questions of what role Gomes would fill in 2007 started rolling out almost immediately at the end of the 2006 season.

So after 49 games this season, the Rays decided it was Gomes' turn to head back to the minors and it absolutely was the right reason. With his paltry .184 average in 52 at-bats, and his 18 strikeouts (keeping up to par there), Gomes' bat was a liability. Defensively, it would be nice to have another outfielder but with Carl Crawford, Elijah Dukes, Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Ty Wigginton, and Greg Norton all capable of playing the outfield, there just wasn't any room. Gomes, understandably, was pissed. No one likes being told they need to step back to take two steps forward. But this move is in the best interest for both the Rays and Gomes.

Even though Gomes apparently doesn't believe it, the at-bats are there for him in Durham. If there's one thing he needs it's regular playing time to work through his batting issues. If he doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as a DH, and if he doesn't want to become the next Rob Deer, it would be best for Gomes to fine-tune his game. With Baldelli's neverending injuries, and Dukes' neverending off-the-field problems, there just may be a chance for Gomes in Tampa Bay again and soon. At the very least you hope his demotion gives him some confidence at the plate, and gives the Rays some confidence in putting him in to a big game or a crucial situation without worrying about him striking out again.

Although most people will talk about Gomes' verbal sparring with Joe Maddon and the coaching staff, and although Gomes is clearly upset and will be about the demotion, I have to commend him for at least saying the right things after the demotion. As quoted in today's Tampa Tribune, "I mean, there's been some other guys, you know, that got sent down, had some tough words to say, but like I told Joe [Maddon] before I left, I want to be here, you know. I want to turn this thing around, and I want to win here. So it's just a matter of time before it works out my way." Here is a man who is taking this adversity, and turning it into a positive fight. Instead of cavetching and moaning about how unfair it is to get sent down to the minors, Gomes clearly gets it. This is a move that is supposed to help him and the team, and much like previous battles in his life he is going to use this as motivation to prove everybody wrong. The same can't be said for the man who remained on the roster, instead of Gomes.

Jorge Cantu deserves to stay up with the Rays for now. As opposed to Gomes, Cantu at least has something at the plate; hitting .269 in 26 at-bats albeit with no homers and one RBI. Defensively, he is still a liability although it appears he can handle duties at first base when called upon. What Cantu cannot handle is the adversity, the business of baseball if you will, when it comes to a minor league demotion.

While part of the reason why the Rays kept Cantu on board has to do with his better numbers at the plate than Gomes, a greater part is had Cantu been demoted again the team would never hear the end of it. After an injury-plagued, and less-than-fulfilling 2006 season like Gomes, Cantu was the odd man out at the start of the season. When told he was going to Durham, Cantu acted like a three-year-old screaming and yelling in the grocery store aisle when he didn't get the box of Frosted Flakes he wanted his mother to buy. Instead of taking up the challenge, and telling the world to shut it's mouth when he returned to his powerful style of 2005, Cantu demanded a trade. The Rays didn't yield so he pouted some more. Soon his agent did all the talking for him (never a good sign), and Cantu quietly went about his business when he returned to Tampa Bay earlier this season.

The Rays were somewhat forced to keep him aboard because whatever trade value Cantu has would have evaporated as soon as he complained again or flat out refused his minor league assignment. It's well known that would have happened, and was even acknowledged by Gomes when he mentioned "some other guys" in his parting shots. St. Pete Times writer Marc Topkin also added an interesting point in today's paper, when he noted Cantu won't get much playing time with Ty Wigginton at first versus left-handers. So what has Cantu earned with his pouting? He's earned a lot of pine and not much hope to do anything this season unless he's traded. Gomes, on the other hand, will get some regular playing time in Durham and just might be able to crack the roster again later this season. He may also be worthy of some other team's services, and could become part of a trade to bring in more valuable resources to the Rays.

As with any move, time will only tell, but I think it's the right move for both parties. The Rays know Gomes can be a valuable asset to the team when hits well. Gomes knows if he plays the political game and shuts his mouth, his chances will come either here or elsewhere. How he's handled the situation now, and how he fares in Durham, could be a lesson for his teammates... including the 25th man on the roster.

Other notes from Raysland:

  • "From what I gather when he gets steady work he pitches better, and hopefully we'll be able to give him that opportunity here to get steady work." These words came from Joe Maddon in late June of 2006, after the Rays acquired Jae Seo in a trade with the Dodgers. Seo has had 26 starts with the Rays since the trade, yet he has failed to impress with his lack of control and confidence. His bullpen role may be his last chance to do anything noteworthy as the Rays apparently are ready to move on.
  • Also quoted from that day in 2006 was Andrew Friedman noting, "As we're building the type of team we're trying to do in terms of being competitive and more importantly being able to sustain that competitiveness, (Navarro) fits into that. We want to build around those type of players and augment through the free-agent process as opposed to trying to build through the free-agent process." Navarro's struggles this season (.190, 0 homers, 9 RBI in 121 at-bats) highlight one of the pitfalls of cost-concious acquisitions. At the age of 23, Navarro has a ton of potential and could became the stud catcher everyone thought he would be in a few years. Right now though, pinning your short-term hopes on a 23-year-old catcher who has yet to deliver those stud numbers is a bit short-sighted. If the Rays want a power-hitting catcher, they need to find a veteran one for a couple of years. Let Navarro and Shawn Riggans improve their craft in Durham. This team isn't going to win the World Series this year, and they won't win it any year with a catcher hitting below the Mendoza line.
  • Jae Seo aside, I applaud the Rays' plan (discussed before the whole Elijah Dukes fiasco) to stick with who they have in the rotation. Let the Andrew Sonnanstines, Chris Seddons, and Jeff Niemans of the organization learn how to pitch in the minor leagues and not while David Ortiz is plunking one of their fastballs in to the bleacher seats.
  • Props to Eduardo Encina on an excellent article in this past Sunday's St. Pete Times on Elijah Dukes' brother, Tyrone Evans.
  • Speaking of Dukes, everyone wanted this guy tarred and feathered last week. Now he hits the game-winning hit and everyone's cool with him. It's funny how sports fans are.
  • Finally, just add bacon. ></object>