People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. ~Rogers Hornsby
If you were to ask my loved ones or friends, they'd be quick to tell you no quote is more apropos to my relationship with the seasons. The winter is awful, and the fact that baseball does not happen all winter is probably a big of part it. See, I love baseball. I long for baseball during the short winter days and dreary winter evenings.
We all love baseball for a variety of reasons. We all look forward to baseball for a variety of different reasons (if nothing else, the boys of summer are not the boys of winter). In that vein, we all look forward to an innumerable amount of things about each and every season. Personally, as a prospect and stat-hound, my list of things I look forward to each particular season is a bit different than your typical columnist in a daily newspaper. Much like them, I love the look of the grass in Spring Training. I love the fact that any team can be hopeful come spring. I can't wait to hear the pop of gloves, crack of bats, or giddy children watching men play a child's game. I see all these things when I stare longingly out in to the dark, dreary abyss. But that's not all I see. I see regression, I see sleepers, I see youngsters hopefully filling big shoes, etc.
This season is rife with intriguing storylines for folks of my ilk, as well as the Tom Jones or Martin Fennellys of the world. While they'll be sharpening their quills to pen columns extolling the virtues of veteran presence, deriding the distractions caused by the latest from Upton or Manny, or questioning ownership over spending or fans over attendance; we be here clacking at the keyboard looking at a whole set of story lines that are wholly different. Personally, most everything I'll concern myself with deals with the two aforementioned areas I love about baseball: the kids and the numbers. So allow me to touch on a number of items that I am most excited about for this season.
First, did you guys here Manny Ramirez is a Ray? Yes, that Manny. The Lord of Dreadlocks will bring his three-ring circus to the Beautiful Tropicana Field this year. That's not why I'm excited, though. I can all but assure you that columnists around the nation are penning columns about how Manny's distracting this young team with his antics if we struggle or how the veteran presence is stabilizing the clubhouse after the mass exodus that occurred this offseason. Not me, not here. I can not wait to see if Manny's able to rebound from an injury plagued 2010 to help the Rays offense make up for what it lost. REGRESSION!!!!!! Many a word has illuminated a laptop screen from this site about how great Manny has been, and I will not bore you with more, but I can not honestly remember the last time a single player made me this excited by simply joining a team. Needless to say, I'll be there Opening Day in my #24 t-shirt jersey going crazy the first time he steps in to the batter's box (I don't quite have the minerals or lack of self-awareness to rock the ‘locks)., and the only time I will have been more excited for an at bat was the first at bat in the Rays playoff existence.
Speaking of rebounds and regression, the story of James Shields and hitability has been a hot topic around these parts in the past reaching its crescendo this offseason. Never a huge Shields fan because of his lack of elite stuff, I have been moved firmly in to the Shields camp after the struggles he's had the last couple of years. The "slow and steady" type previously for the Rays, he's due for a big bounce back if you buy in to most advanced analysis on pitching and stripping luck away to isolate true talent. By true talent measures, Shields has been incredibly unlucky with his results. I really look forward to seeing what James can do, and I can not wait for more data that may enlighten us more about pitching and defense.
Wade Davis seemingly turned a big corner at the end of last year. After a short DL-stint in July, Davis was much improved in his last 12 starts. Prior to hitting the DL Davis was pretty horrid; his stat-line of 5.94 K/9, 4.02 BB/9, 1.48 K/BB, and 5.74 FIP was huge drop from his short stint in the bigs in 2009. After the break, something clicked. He improved all the above figures: 6.2 K/9, 2.43 BB/9, 2.55 K/BB, and a 3.77 FIP. This was the kind of production so many were hoping for from the Big Righty.
Desmond Jennings also had a rough year in 2010 when you compare it to his 2009. The consensus top 10 prospect in 2010 suffered an early wrist injury, and it his bat suffered last year as a result. He'll be back in AAA waiting for an injury, trade, or failure at the big league level; in the meantime, he'll be honing his bat to hopefully become the leadoff bat we all dream about. A return of 50+ extra-base hits is what I'm hoping for if he's stuck in the minors all season.
Another prospect whose star has dimmed in most people's eyes, Tim Beckham, has a lot riding on his 2011. Reaching AA as a 21 year-old is a pretty nice feat, but when you're the former 1st overall pick the expectations are completely different. Despite the fact that he's posted above league average batting lines as a young SS in each of his two full pro seasons, Beckham's been downgraded severely by every prospect resource. A breakout in 2011 would go a long way toward adding some much-needed positional depth to the Rays near-best farm system. I will not give up on him if he posts another mediocre statline at the plate, he will at least need to answer some defensive questions to stave off the folks already calling the young man a bust.
The positional depth in the system probably depends more on the guys at the lower levels than anywhere else. Names like Ty Morrison and Cody Rogers could be huge boons to the Rays' farm strength. The 2010 draft class is a huge piece of this as well, and I will be watching them very closely. Is Josh Sale the big bat we all hope he can be? Is Drew Vettleson a future right fielder for this team? There are so many young positional prospects that will be very interesting to follow this year, and I think we will get a good glimpse at what our offensive future holds with these young men.
Another young positional prospect that could climb up the prospect ratings is Hak-Ju Lee. Along with his fellow former Cub-farmhands (say that five times fast), Lee is a story-line that's compelling in 2011. How will these youngsters respond to the tutelage of the Rays well-renowned development staff? Will Archer be in the Big League bullpen by the end of the year, or will we keep him as a starter? Can Robinson Chirinos be the perfect match for Jaso he seems to be? The Rays have had a lot of success with trades so far under this regime, and I can't wait to see if these guys will follow in their footsteps.
What's the best way to acquire young talent? It may be trading franchise cornerstones, but I don't even know if that's the case (see Miguel Cabrera trade). How about having 12 of the first 81 draft picks in the first year player draft? I started getting in to prospects a little over five years ago. That led me to dabble in following the draft. Last year, when the Rays had a few picks pretty early, I really started to get interested. This year, I have already started building up my draft knowledge. I am already scouting out college players who I can go see. I am hooked. I can not wait to see who the Rays add to the already deep farm system. I mean, come on, we are a team built through player development, this is the pinnacle of getting talent to develop, and we have one of the greatest opportunities in recent memory to load up on developmental talent. MORE PROSPECTS!!!!!
I could go on like this for pages and pages. This season may be my most-anticipated. The big league expectations are not as high as last year, and we have so much going on in the organization. Going in to this offseason, I was not sure how much I would actually anticipate the start of this season. Needless to say, I am ecstatic to see some of the World's best athletes back at it in the sun of Florida or Arizona. So what are you gusy looking forward to? What did I miss (and do not say a Tim Beckham backside quip because here it is)?