It wasn't too long ago (September 30th to be exact) I was bemoaning the final few weeks of the 2007 season with some serious questions regarding the near future of the Rays. Over the past few days the Rays have made some very smart investments on the field. It's a small step towards making this a long-term winner, but at least they are steps in the right direction.
The biggest addition in my opinion is the re-upping of Carlos Pena for $24 million over three years. Finally, the Rays have that power hitting, defensively solid first baseman they haven't had since Fred McGriff or Tino Martinez. While Pena's range is limited, he has shown a great ability to scoop up balls in the dirt which is a godsend for a young infield. I still laugh at people who said we had to keep Travis Lee because he was so defensively sound, yet he couldn't hit over .200 on a regular basis. Even if Pena's fielding percentage is .005% less than Lee, the long ball and RBIs Pena brings with him is a much-needed trade off.
Seeing Minnesota's Justin Morneau signed for just over $7 million for next season, and Atlanta's Mark Teixeira signed for just over $12 million next season, the $6 million price tag for Pena in '08 is a bargain if he puts up similar or (wouldn't it be something) better numbers than last season.
While many fans would like to see Scott Kazmir signed long-term, I think the one-year deal for $3.8 million is fair for both sides. Kazmir really shined at the tail end of the season, going 5-2 with a 2.92 ERA in 10 starts with a K/BB ratio of more than four-to-one. But the scary thing is Kazmir can be so much better if he wants to. He's a stubborn guy, and if he can get his ducks in a row we can see those stellar performances he's shown every now and then during his career on a more consistent basis. He has certainly earned a raise from his previous salary, but he hasn't shown the club he is deserved of a long-term deal. 2008 will be a very important season for Kazmir as it will be a chance to show the Rays 2007 was a step forward towards a dominant future.
James Shields has already made that step forward, which is why the Rays are reportedly working on a long-term deal with him. Shields has been a little easier to work with, and if the little aspects of his game seen in 2007 blossom in 2008 (a 5:1 K/BB ratio, a WHIP, OBP, OBA, dropping anywhere from 40 to 60 points) a long-term deal could be one of the biggest bargains in the big leagues in quite a while.
As R.J. has pointed out, the pieces are falling into place which has pleasantly surprised me. Whether it was by design, or by response to public outcry for originally sticking to a 15% payroll raise, Stuart Sternberg appears to be breaking the mold by adding almost 30% to the payroll (a final number won't be determined until just before the start of the season). Whether by design or by pure coincidence the signings occurred as the general public doubts the merits of a new ballpark in downtown St. Pete is interesting to ponder too. But do these particular pieces coming together really signal a turnaround or just window dressing? Let's re-visit some of the questions posed by me in my September 30th post.
Despite what the Rays think, they're still not good enough to face the A.L. East beasts just yet.
If the beasts are the Yankees and Red Sox, I still agree with this. The Rays have locked in some key players in current Rays and trade or free agent acquisitions, but the fact is this pitching staff is still very young and still learning on the job. With that said, I think the Rays can really challenge the Orioles and Blue Jays and a last-place finish or less than 70 wins seems less likely if the team can stay healthy.
It would be nice if Sternberg spent every dollar on every dire need of the Rays, but I suspect he won't.
So far he hasn't, but he has already outspent what he originally proposed spending at the end of the season. I estimated just to keep the core players here in 2008 the NDRO would have to spend about $10 million alone. That estimate is almost dead on just with the Pena and Kazmir deals alone, with some extra cash going to raises to Carl Crawford, Jonny Gomes, Carlos Pena, and others.
I'd still prefer a veteran starter (more on that in a minute) and there is still a big question mark in right field, shortstop, and catcher. Will Jason Bartlett's defense be good enough to shore up that position? Can Justin Ruggiano put up numbers anywhere close to what Delmon Young put up? What about Rocco Baldelli in right, or will he be rehabbing again? Is Dioner Navarro going to become the stud catcher the team was hoping for? Sternberg is taking care of the core, which is good, but there are still some positions on this team that can swing either way and I'm not so sure that's a good thing for this club right now.
We may have a few Wall Street kids running this operation, not baseball fans intent on winning.
At the very least, the NDRO is showing it is intent on winning more games than before. There are still moves that need to be made for this team to eventually make its way to a playoff position. Now we are seeing the "Wall Street" money/power play going on off the field with the new ballpark in downtown St. Pete. I've seen and heard more spins in that deal than a five-year-old feels on the tea cups at Disney World. Check out this article from Creative Loafing regarding some of the issues that still need to be addressed. A couple of these are tree-hugger issues, which I can't stand, but there are still several things to think about here.
The Rays need a veteran starter to show the youngsters in the rotation the ropes.
Well, mission half-accomplished. Troy Percival may not save 30 or 40 games like he used to, but he has a can-do attitude that is priceless to the bullpen and pitching staff in general. Still, I think you need that grizzled starter to take the reins of the rotation while letting that #5 starter polish his craft in AAA. There's still time to find that guy if the Rays want to.
Joe Maddon's "easy does it" attitude will come back to haunt him when it's time to play the bad cop.
Well, the good cop is still here while the bad suspect is in Minnesota now. That's normally not how it works, so this team is Maddon's to win with... or lose with.
The Rays are looking to make a wise business move, and make them the true "Florida" team.
I'm still not crazy about the second annual trip to Orlando, simply because I believe you build a product that is so good people come to you and not the other way around. But with the new unis, the A-level team in Vero Beach, and spring training in Port Charlotte next season, this is starting to become a regional team which is good. The Marlins can't even get people in Miami to go to their games, especially after dealing away their top two players to Detroit. A select-a-seat Saturday at Dolphins Stadium last month drew a whopping 50 fans in the first two hours. I can't make this stuff up.
In summary, the Rays are doing a lot of things right with the signings of Pena, Kazmir, Percival, and others. Yet there is still a lot of work to be done to make this a legitimate contender. On the other hand, the NDRO has done a lot more than I imagined it would and that's a good thing. I don't mind being wrong one bit if being wrong makes this team better.
* Note: I'm very busy with my work with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and loving every minute of it. The postings here will be few and far between until the end of hockey season but I'm keeping an eye on everything. Thanks to everyone working on this site for keeping slackers like me off the hook!