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Article:2008 Tampa Bay Rays UltraMega Preview by ManRays (Part 2 of 3)

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Tampa Bay Rays


Spring Training for pitchers and catchers has begun in St. Petersburg and the lowest number of invitees ever for Rays camp are competing for fewer open spots than ever. Manager Joe Maddon is thrilled!!! Every position in the field is locked up except for third base where the job is Evan Longoria’s to have for the next 15 years if he’s ready and rightfield where a trio of veterans will platoon and split DH duties.

The Players

  • (numbers in parenthesis denotes how many seasons the player has spent with the Rays)

Template:Manny Stiles/2008 Rays Preview

1st base

Carlos Pena (2nd season with Rays)

After his amazing Comeback Player of the Year and Team MVP campaign in 2007, the Rays HAD to resign him. And they did – to a three year deal that made him the highest paid Ray. He crushed franchise records in HR, RBI, SLG, OPS, walks, etc and so forth. He also set a club record with a 7 RBI game and had a team season high 14 game hitting streak

He was the first ever player to hit 40+ HR after being released the previous season (he was cut TWICE in 2006 – by the Red Sox and Yankees). Carlos was a beaming smile machine in the clubhouse and was genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity he was given. His positive attitude was infectious and he led by example demonstrating to younger players that no matter the hype around you, you still have to play the game..

Keep in mind, he only started 139 games after riding the bench for most of April or his numbers may have been even gaudier. His performance allowed the Rays to deal Ty Wigginton for Dan Wheeler. Now he is the Rays main power threat.

Carlos hit 5 of the 10 HR that were hit onto Tropicana Field’s catwalk in 2007.

And you know what else? He’s a pretty decent fielder too!

Interesting Carlos fact: One of only 11 players in baseball history to amass at least 45 HR, 120 RBI and 100 walks in a season – list includes Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, David Ortiz, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro and Rocky Colavito.

Also may be seeing time at first base: Willy Aybar, Joel Guzman, Cliff Floyd


2nd base

Akinori Iwamura (2nd)

My boy Aki made the switch from 3rd base (where he was a 6 time gold glover in Japan) to a new position, Second Base. Manager Joe Maddon has praised Aki’s work ethic and physical abilities and has dubbed him “Aki Mazeroski”.

Iwamura will field the position just fine as he was amazing footwork, tremendous flexibility, range and a sweet, sure glove. The move should solidify the position - a rare feat for the franchise.

As a hitter, Aki will leadoff and may demonstrate a bit more power than his first go around in America. He has amazing hand-eye skills and an unorthodox/Ichiro-similar approach at the plate. He has demonstrated power to all fields and certainly has the foot speed to cause things to happen at the top of the order.

Aki also has the distinction of having his bats checked by umps more than anyone else it seems. He has his bats specially made so they are not rounded at the end of the barrel, but completely flat. Odd to some (Joe Torre had a fit over them) but completely legal. He also uses a glove with alligator leather.

Aki is a genuine individual that is well liked in the clubhouse and dealt with an entourage of Asian reporters all season. He also had the joy of having his first child during the season. On top of all that, he dealt with a nagging oblique injury that robbed some of his power, including a stretch of 51 games without a HR.

With a little more settled comfort off the field, learning and adapting to a new position shouldn’t be so tough and his production should more closely resemble his Japan League numbers.

Interesting Aki fact: The Rays were 17-2 in games Aki scored 2 or more runs.

Also seeing time at second: Willy Aybar, Ben Zobrist, Joel Guzman


Shortstop

Jason Bartlett (1st)

Leading all shortstops in errors last season with 26, Bartlett has been labeled a disappointment after tantalizing scouts in the minors. The Rays believe that nagging neck and shoulder injuries attributed to most of Barlett’s fielding woes and still think his glove, especially his decent range and exceptional arm will improve the numbers dramatically. They like what he contributes that isn’t in the box score more.

Bartlett does have some decent speed which will aid the Rays base running attack. He is a threat to hit triples (he has hit more triples on the road, so his numbers aren't aided by the plastic baggydome). I think we'll see his other power numbers go up once he crosses the magical 1000 PA threshold.

Bartlett also had some exposure to the postseason in 2006 with the Twins.

Interesting J.B. fact – In his first full season at shortstop he had 26 errors and 97 DP. In Ozzie Smith’s first full season at short he had 25 errors and 98 DP. Just saying…

Also could see time at Shortstop: Ben Zobrist, Joel Guzman


3rd Base

Evan Longoria (1st)

The former #3 overall pick, was Team USA's third baseman in the World Cup and is getting every chance in Spring Training to nail down third base for the next decade or so. Longoria turned heads and dropped jaws (mine included) at Arizona Fall League in 2007 including hitting a legendary monster HR at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Longoria has all the tools to be a perennial All Star and has a noticeable star quality on the field. He is an excellent fielder with a strong arm but it’s his bat that gets the most attention. He will hit for a good average and has PLUS power. He might not be blistering fast, but I would rate him as a well above average base runner with excellent baseball instincts.

He is getting a long, slow look from the team in Spring Training. They have reiterated that they are more interested in seeing how he reacts in situations more than what his stats are. Joe Maddon has already stated Longoria could hit .500 in Spring Training and decide he’s not ready or he could hit .130 and decide he’s ready.

If he doesn’t break camp with the Big Club, he won’t be in Durham for long.

Interesting Longoria Fact: He was a college teammate of Troy Tulowitzki.


Also may be seeing time at third base: Willy Aybar, Joel Guzman, Akinori Iwamura


Catcher

Dioner Navarro (3rd)

Navvy just turned 24 years old earlier this month. While his offensive production for much of 2007 was anemic, he heated up in the second half of the season, hitting 8 of his season’s 9 HR and 31 of his 44 RBI after the All-Star break.

He tallied a .285 AVG after the break to raise his season average to .227. Yeah, that’s how invisible his first half was at the plate. His season batting average was under .200 from May 16 through August 8. Although he is a switch hitter he will sometimes bat right handed against righties as he does have more career success from the right side. Navvy also is a fine bunter from both sides who laid down 7 successful sacrifices during 2007.

Behind the dish, his defense was praiseworthy as he threw out a respectable 25.3% of runners and allowing only 6 passed balls all season. He garnered much praise for his game calling and handling of the pitching staff, despite some not-so-favorable results.

Navarro was traded in deals for Randy Johnson and Shawn Green after making a 5 game debut with the New York Yankees in 2004. He came to the Rays in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers with Jae Seo and player named later, Justin Ruggiano for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson.

Interesting Navvy fact: Nicknamed “Little Pudge”, Dioner is liked by everyone in the clubhouse for his dedication and work ethic. He also has learned enough Japanese to joke with Akinori Iwamura and taught Aki some “choice” Spanish words as well!

Also seeing time at catcher: Sean Riggans


Leftfield

Carl Crawford (7th)

C.C. became the seventh player in MLB history to win 4 stolen base titles despite missing the last 12 games of the season with an injury. Carl also hit lefties very well (.318 4th best among LH batters), led all visiting players with a .444 average at Yankee Stadium, set a club record with a .342 Road batting average and led the majors in Day batting average (.397). Crawford became the first Ray to be selected to an All-Star game and hit a HR during the Midsummer Classic.

Crawford will hit in the second hole this season where he is a career .318 hitter and seems to be most comfortable. It should allow him more RBI opportunities and have protection behind him with Carlos Pena batting 3rd.

There’s no doubt about C.C.’s amazing athletic talents. He was a standout three sport athlete who states he was a better football player than a baseball player but chose baseball because “football careers are too short and training camps are too hard”. Although the thing he dislikes about baseball the most is that it’s hard to talk trash on opponents when you only get to talk to guys during certain times of a game whereas basketball and football allows you to talk trash all game long.

He is one of the coolest, most chill and unassuming “star athletes” I’ve ever met. He LOVES to talk – he’ll talk your ear off if you let him – but he never bores. While he is highly entertaining with his cool Houston drawl and is the longest tenured Ray he doesn’t feel as if he is the team’s veteran leader because he is a mere 26 year old and in his own words “still learning the game just like these other young guys”. That is slowly changing.

Still, he is the face of the franchise and putting up historical numbers in relative obscurity. That might not last much longer. As the Rays improve, C.C. will draw the attention with his extraordinary skills. I also believe part of the reason for signing Cliff Floyd was to give Crawford a “big brother” in the clubhouse.

Interesting C.C. fact: Just the seventh player in MLB history to increase his batting average in five consecutive seasons – he is the first to do it from the start of his career. He is also a mere 10 hits from 1,000 for his career and he would become the 8th player to have 1,000 hits and 250 stolen bases before his 27th birthday (August 5th).


Also seeing time in Leftfield: Jonny Gomes, Justin Ruggiano


Centerfield

B.J. Upton (4th)

A former #2 overall pick (2002), Upton is poised for a true breakout season in 2008. I feel as if he is one of the most underrated players in the game. He is 23 years old and has already (will turn 24 in August) demonstrated flashes of undeniable brilliance. Coming into a season where he won’t have to stress about his position or place on the team should yield exceptional results.

After struggling to get comfortable at shortstop, third base and second base, Joe Maddon decided to accentuate Upton’s supreme athleticism in the outfield and that allowed him to get comfortable at the plate as well. Although he appears to be rail thin, he is country strong. He has powerful wrists and generates surprising power.

He hit over .300 for the entire season. In fact, his final average of .300 was the lowest his average was all year. He dealt with positional changes and a quadriceps injury yet still managed to rip 24 HR and knock in 82 in a mere 129 games. BJ batted .335 on the road in 2007, just .266 at home.

He will be a cornerstone in CF for the Rays for a long time and will only get better as he grows accustomed to the position. He had some gaffes, a learning curve I you will… but he also made several highlight plays with the leather.

Interesting B.J. fact: His real name is Melvin Emmanuel Upton but is called B.J. by his parents. His Dad, Manny (great name) is a longtime ACC basketball referee known at home as “Bossman” and Upton earned the nickname “Bossman Junior” or “B.J.” for short as a kid. He said the only time he was ever called Melvin as a kid by his parents was when he got in trouble.


Also may be seeing time in centerfield: Jonny Gomes, Rocco Baldelli, Justin Ruggiano


Rightfield

“The Right Field Triangle” aka Cliff Floyd (1st), Rocco Baldelli (6th), Johnny Gomes (5th)

Manager Joe Maddon calls Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli and Jonny Gomes his “right field triangle”. These three will be interchanged between rightfield and designated hitter depending on matchups. Floyd will likely get the most playing time, however much depends on Rocco Baldelli’s return to health.

Cliff Floyd was the lefthanded bat the Rays needed to get in the offseason. More than just a body in right and some lefty pop, Floyd will bring a solid veteran presence to a team that truly needs some elder leadership. He has had injury issues in the past but is coming into Spring Training ready to produce.

Interesting Cliffy fact: Lost a State Championship in High School basketball to a team that included three eventual 1st round NBA picks including Michael Finley.

When Rocco is healthy, he is an immensely talented baseball player with all five tools. His career began at a historic pace but since his 2003 rookie campaign he has struggled to stay on the field. He is among the most snakebitten players in the game missing 385 games over the last 4 seasons suffering injuries to his knees, elbow and ongoing troubles with his hamstrings.

Interesting Rocco fact: Rocco is a member of the Rhode Island Italian-American Hall of Fame - What? You didn't know there was an Italian-American Hall of Fame in Rhode Island?

Gomes is a player that needs to stay in the lineup to be productive. His swing is downright violent and produces as much bat speed as any player I have ever seen. He crushes pitches and when he relaxes and just hits instead of pressing to go yard, he is very productive. However, he needs to play consistently to keep his timing. He could easily surpass his career high of 21 HR given enough playing time. He has never had more than 385 AB in a season.

This trio should easily replace Delmon Young’s offensive production although DY’s arm and defensive presence will be missed.

Interesting Gomesy fact: Jonny has hit 3 of the 10 longest hit HR in Tropicana Field history and has hit the catwalk 6 times in the last two seasons.

Also seeing time in rightfield: Justin Ruggiano


Designated Hitter

Platoon

After a putrid season of production at DH, the position will be filled based on the “RF Triangle” depending on match ups (and Rocco’s health). Whoever isn’t in RF will be DH’ing.

Rays DHs combined to hit .239 with 17 HR and 66 RBI. Production from the DH slot was better than only the catcher slot (.219 – 16 -64). Those numbers should increase substantially in 2008.

Interesting DH fact: Rays pitchers combined to bat .364 in 2007. Who needs a DH?


Also may be seeing time at DH: Carl Crawford, Akinori Iwamura, Carlos Pena


The Bench

Willy Aybar (1st)

Acquired in a trade from Atlanta, Aybar will give Joe Maddon that versatile utility player he loves to have. Aybar is primarily a third baseman but also can play second so he will be an important reserve for the Rays with Aki shifting to second and the rookie Longoria likely manning third.

Willy is a switch hitter but the Rays like him especially from the left side, where he has a little more pop.

Interesting Willy fact: His brother Erick plays with the Angels and learned how to play shortstop with tutoring of childhood friend Miguel Tejada.


Joel Guzman (2nd)

Joel (pronounced Joe-Ell, not Jole) played 16 games for the Rays at Third, first and even 3 games at shortstop.). Guzman looks to be the projected third baseman if Longoria doesn’t nail the position down coming out of Spring Training.

Interesting Goozie fact: At 6’6” 250, he might be the biggest shortstop in the history of baseball (Gotta look that one up sometime)


Ben Zobrist (3rd)

Zobrist rode a hot 2006 Arizona Fall League showing into a starting role coming out of Spring Training in 2007. Unfortunately he failed to produce at the plate (.155-1-9) before getting injured and subsequently replaced at short when Brendan Harris went on a tear and Josh Wilson was claimed off waivers. He was recalled after Wigginton was dealt to Houston only to injure his oblique.

He has a decent glove an accurate arm and decent power. He just hasn’t had the breaks go his way at the Major League level yet.

Interesting Zoey fact: Was starting shortstop for Team USA in the 2005 World Cup. His wife has sung the National Anthem before Rays games. Zobrist is also second to last among all active MLBers alphabetically.


Shawn Riggans (3rd)

Returning from elbow surgery, Riggans is competing to be the Rays backup catcher. He has appeared in 13 games over the past two seasons for the Rays.

Interesting Riggy fact: He did not start a single game for his High School baseball team.


Justin Ruggiano (2nd)

After leading his team in nearly every offensive category and earning AAA Durham’s Player of the Year award, Ruggiano got a cup of coffee with the Rays in September and split his seven games played between all three OF spots.

Ruggiano also joined Evan Longoria and Team USA this past fall in Arizona Fall League before traveling to the tournament in China.

Interesting Ruge fact: Justin became the first player in Durham history since Ron Gant in 1986 to log a 20-20 season (20 HR, 26 SB) – Yes, I will squeeze in every Ron Gant reference I can!


Elliot Johnson (R)

A standout switch hitting second baseman in the minors he is on the 40 man roster but doesn’t figure to make the parent club.

Interesting E.J. fact: Hit his first grand slam for Montgomery Biscuits (AA) and proposed to his wife on the field the next day. In the deciding game of the Southern League Championship, he became the first Biscuit to hit for the cycle, started by a bunt single.


Reid Brignac (R)

The Rays shortstop of the future has demonstrated a slick glove and surprising pop for such a skinny babyface. The Louisiana native will get a good look from Manager Joe Maddon in Spring Training but is expected to start the season at AAA.

Despite averaging an error every 4 games in the minors (86 E in 383 minor league games), his glove, his arm and his footwork in the field are all outstanding. He has a tendency to pull the ball but has a quick bat with really good power. Sometimes he tends to uppercut and hit deep, lazy fly balls. He needs to be more selective in pitches he swings at but has demonstrated good patience drawing walks in the minors.

Seeing him in Arizona Fall League, I really wasn’t that impressed. He seemed out of sync and had the distinction of ending the Fall League with the most AB (113) and the worst OPS (.466) of all players.

Still, the potential to be a solid Gold Glove caliber shortstop hitting 20-30 HR every season is there. I hope we get to see it come to fruition.

Interesting Brignac fact: He was the Rays minor league player of the year in 2006. He was also listed as the second best shortstop prospect in the game and 14th best overall by Baseball Digest in 2007.


John Jaso (R)

Jaso is getting a long look as a backup to Navarro at catcher. He has very good plate patience and performed very well at Arizona Fall League. The 6’2”, 205 lb, 24 year old from California is a solid defensive catcher. From my observations, he seems pretty intelligent and has a positive, encouraging attitude with teammates. He was very popular among teammates in AFL action.

A lefty bat with decent contact and power, he would be the Rays catcher of the future if there wasn’t so much promise in the younger and more seasoned Dioner Navarro. Jaso will most likely start the season at AAA Durham but could very well get his first sip of the Bigs this season.

Interesting J.J. fact: He dominated a round of Rock and Roll trivia amongst teammates in the bullpen during an AFL game in November.


Projected batting order (2007 AVG / OPS / HR / RBI)

NewhatManrays

Hear that sound? It's the steam building on the bandwagon! Plenty of seats still available!!!

2B Iwamura - .285 / .770 / 7 / 34

LF Crawford - .315 / .821 / 11 / 80

1B Pena - .282 / 1.038 / 46 / 121

CF Upton - .300 / .894 / 24 / 82

RF Floyd - .284 / .795 / 9 / 45

3B Longoria* - .299 / .922 / 26 / 95

DH Gomes - .244 / .782 / 17 / 49

C Navarro - .277 / .642 / 9 / 44

SS Bartlett - .265 / .700 / 5 / 43

  • *(2007 AA and AAA combined totals)



Starting Pitchers

The Rays are entering the season with the first three spots in the rotation set and two spots to fill amongst 5-7 candidates. No matter who the #4 and #5 pitchers are this is the best and deepest pitching staff the Rays have ever had.

They enter the 2008 season with potentially what could be the best 1-2-3 pitching trio in the game. They certainly have the talent; it’s just a matter of health and execution.

The Rays management will decide the last two starters in Spring training and while the thinking is Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine will secure the jobs a plethora of prospects are getting more ready to supplant them. There has never been so much hope in Tampa Bay.


Scott Kazmir (5th)

Staff ace and dominant lefty, Kazmir led all Al pitchers in Ks (His 239 was only one behind MLB leader Jake Peavy who netted 6 of his Ks in the one game playoff vs. the Rockies to pass Kaz) . He also tied for a AL high and team record 34 starts and was second in K/9 at 10.41 was 10th best all-time. For the second year in a row he led all pitchers in Home K/9 at a blistering 11.46 (11.11 in 2006)

Kaz’s second half stretch was simplyamazing. While Brandon Webb was getting press for an astonishing second half run (2.56 ERA, 98 K in 105.1 IP), Kaz posted a 2.39 ERA with 124 K in 94.1 IP.

He had 5 starts of 6+ IP and 1 or less ER that did not earn a victory. The top 5 hitting teams in the AL (BOS, NYY, DET, LAA, SEA) batted .207 against him in 2007. The quartet of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are a combined 17-114 (.149) off Kazmir

Interesting Kaz fact: Only five lefthanders in baseball history had more Ks before the age of 24 (which he just turned in January)..


James Shields (2nd)

The 25 year old Shields stacked up 215 Innings of work in 2007 despite getting shut down towards the end of the season to minimize getting too worn and showed that he is a fearless workhorse. He may be a tad too brave and aggressive in certain situations since he is not afraid to challenge good hitters (explaining 28 Hr allowed). His 184 Ks to a mere 36 walks was astounding in his first full season of work. His WHIP was 3rd in the AL and his K/BB ratio was second only to C.C. Sabathia.

Shields may be the most underrated starter in the game and is poised to remain a secret to the rest of the world no longer. He has Extra Plus command of all of his pitches and has excellent velocity, a hard breaking 12-6 curve ball and a Houdini-like change up.

If not for one brutal outing against the Yankees July 22nd in which he allowed 10 ER in 3.1 IP en route to a Rays 21-4 loss, his ERA would have been a very illustrious 3.41 instead of his final 3.85

He is a bulldog of a competitor and a clubhouse favorite. His toughness and leadership skills are undeniable and he backs down to no challenges (10 HBP in 2007). His career numbers through age 25 compare similarly to Bartolo Colon, who became an All-Star at age 25.

Interesting Jamie fact: He is the cousin of Aaron Rowand.

Matt Garza (1st)

Garza has a maturity beyond his years. After his son was born days after graduating High School, and days before getting drafted by the Rockies in the 40th round of the 2002 draft, Garza decide to take a scholarship at nearby Fresno State. He dedicated himself to caring for his girlfriend and son instead of leaving for a life on the road in the minors. In a rebuilding program at Fresno St., and a lack of pitching arms he was thrown into the fire and went 1-6 with a 9.55 ERA his freshman year.

He worked harder, dedicated himself and eventually turned into a 1st rounder (25th pick) in the 2005 draft. He made his MLB debut less than 14 months later.

The Rays knew what kind of stuff Garza has and also love his character and makeup. He’s the son of a career military man and will not shy away from tough situations.

Interesting Matty G fact: Was USA Today’s 2006 Minor league Player of the Year. New teammate Cliff Floyd was the winner of the same award in 1993.


Fighting got the last two starter slots

Edwin Jackson (3rd)

Jack had the most horrendous luck in 2007. He accumulated a team high 13 unearned runs. The Rays only won 8 times out of the 32 games in which he appeared. He lost his first 8 decisions and was one out from completing the fifth inning in a blowout to earn his first victory of the season when tingling in his pitching hand forced Coach Joe Maddon to remove him from the game as a precaution. He was fine and went on to earn a victory in his next start.

Jack is no lock to be a starter but has more experience than the other candidates despite being only 24 years old. He has excellent velocity and can be downright overpowering at times but needs to work on his consistency and location.

Interesting Jack facts: He was born in West Germany (when it was still “West” Germany). Originally drafted as an outfielder, his first career start came on his 20th birthday and he out-dueled Randy Johnson for the win. The first MLB game Jack ever attended was a Rays home game when he was a player at Class A Vero Beach


Andy Sonnanstine (2nd)

The rookie righty took his lumps and yet showed flashes of brilliance and resilience.

Also slightly favored to nab one of the two up-for-grabs starting roles, he will definitely have to earn the spot. He has really good command 97K/26BB. Unfortunately he got tagged by the long ball quite a bit – to the tune of one HR for every 8 hits he allowed.

He started out pretty rough but eventually settled down as his rookie season transpired. Working with the other pitchers on the staff and having year of seasoning he should dramatically improve on his rookie numbers.

Interesting Sonny fact: In 96 career pro starts, has walked more than 3 batters only once.

JP Howell (2nd)

A lefty in every sense of the word, JP made 10 starts for the Rays. Struck out 211 batters in 192.2 innings last year between Tampa Bay and AAA Durham (including playoffs). JP’s makeup, attitude and aggressiveness plus the fact that he’s a lefty may make him a candidate for the bullpen if he can’t make the roster as a starter.

Interesting JP fact: Batted before he threw a pitch in his professional debut.


Jason Hammel (3rd)

Hammel made 14 starts for the Rays in 2007. He was winless in his first 18 career starts before beating Andy Pettitte (who had a personal 12 game winning streak against the Rays at the time) in Yankee stadium for his first winning decision.

Interesting Hammy fact: Has a career 1.000 AVG, 2.000 SLG and 3.000 OPS. He hit an RBI double in his only career AB to date.


Mitch Talbot (R)

Acquired with Ben Zobrist from Houston in the Aubrey Huff trade, Talbot has yet to appear in the majors.

Interesting Talbot fact: Baseball America lists Talbot’s changeup as the best in the Rays farm system.


Jeff Niemann (R)

A 6’9” righty from Rice has potential is poised to see some time on the mound at the Trop this year. He was twice named the Rays best pitching prospect (2005, 2006)

Interesting Niemann fact: His sister won a NCAA women’s basketball championship at Baylor. Jeff was beaten out of a starting position from his middle school basketball team by Emeka Okafor.


David Price (R)

Price was the 2007 #1 overall draft pick out of Vanderbilt. He is projected as the eventual Ace of the staff which is very impressive when you consider Kazmir and Shields’ accomplishments to date. The Rays didn’t let Price pitch after signing as he had a farily heavy workload in college and they want to protect their future stud lefty.

He’s a big dude (6’6”, 230) with a very good fastball and a great slider. He will get his first pro action in Spring Training and if the Rays feel he is ready, he could possibly make the big club without ever hitting the minors. Most likely, he will be eased into the pro baseball life and get some seasoning before progressing to the Majors later this year or next season.

He is friends with and shares the same agent as my Arizona Fall League pal, Matt LaPorta who gave me this assessment –“He’s going to be a great pitcher for a long time.”

General Manager Andrew Friedman has suggested no timetable for Price’s development and said about Price, “It’s in everyone’s best interest that the day he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues that he is pitching in the big leagues”

Interesting Price fact: Price was the first lefty pitcher taken #1 since Brien Taylor (UH-OH!!! - I'm kidding and not worried).


Bullpen

Maddon has stated that 5 bullpen spots are filled – Percival, Reyes, Wheeler, Miller and Glover. That’s a formidable back end five – ABSOLUTELY the best bullpen the team has assembled yet. Joe Maddon also likes to use his bullpen in a very formulaic manner.

Last year, the formula was committee for the 6th and 7th innings, Fossum as the lefty specialist, Glover or Stokes in the 8th and Reyes in the ninth. Fossum was released before the season ended, Stokes was a batting practice pitcher and well, the starters had a tough time getting to 6th inning on way too many occasions. The beat writers and fans railed on Maddon for sticking with his formula too much and not adjusting to game situations.

I felt his philosophy was sound but execution by the players was another matter. Maddon likes to think 10 steps and 3 games ahead and explained to me personally that his mindset was more on the games ahead and the pitchers’ health. He wanted his players comfortable in a set role knowing when they needed to be ready and when they would be used.

Many times he was questioned maliciously about his usage of particular pitchers and many times his answer was “we have more games to play after today, too”. He knew the Rays weren’t going to battle for a division title so there was no need to overwork arms as much as there was a need to develop those arms.

This year, the bullpen appears to be a strength. The pen is able to extend further and more seasoned pitchers will ease much of the tension/bleeding that the Rays’ bullpen has demonstrated in the past.

The arrival of Percival slides everyone up and Reyes can return to the setup role which he is best suited for.

Let’s look at the five pitchers that are set first:

8th Inning

Al Reyes (2nd)

Despite missing all of 2006 due to elbow surgery and coming into camp as a non-roster invitee Reyes got off to a torrid start in April, even earning some All-Star mumblings in some circles. “El Assassino” was the elder statesman for the Rays last season. After having totaling 6 career saves in 12 prior seasons Big Al racked up 26 and finished 52 games for the Rays. He was a closer for the first time in his career and though I wouldn’t say he has overpowering stuff, he was a fearless attacker. He came right at batters and challenged them. On many occasion he lost those battles but I will definitely give the man credit. He never backed down from reporters’ grillings and never shied away from taking responsibility. Setting that example in such a young clubhouse was a solid, classy move.

Otherwise, it was a very successful year for a guy formerly only known for hurting Nomar Garciaparra’s wrist. Keeping Reyes and moving him to the setup role was a wise and fairly cheap move. I might turn and look away this season when El Assassino is pitching – not because he is tough to watch, but because I’m pretty sure I saw all 13 of the homers he allowed last season – the extra innings loss to Arizona on June 19 was the most painful (and his first blown save of the season) as he gave up a game tying HR in the ninth and allowed the winning HR in the 10th – I was in the press box for that one and after the game he was basically assaulted by the media throng. I stood back and watched. After the crowd dissipated I told Al that I was very impressed with way he handled the situation, considering the circumstances and he simply said to me “I have played a lot of baseball.” But he definitely appreciated my sentiment. He is a true professional.

Interesting El Assassino fact: Al’s home ERA was 3.18, his road ERA was 7.09. He also made two appearances for the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series.

Closer

Troy Percival (1st)

Percy comes to the Rays 10th all-time in saves and gives the Rays their most proven closer ever. After missing all of 2006 due to elbow surgery he was a set up man for the Cardinals last season pitching VERY effectively He did not close for the Cardinals last year and opted to find a closing job as a free agent. The Rays were a perfect fit, including Manager Joe Maddon who knows Troy well from their days in Anaheim together.

The 39 year old has never pitched more than 75 innings in any season so he should have many good outings left in him. The Rays and their medical staff have done well with pitchers that had reconstructive surgery. He is signed to a two year deal.

Interesting Percy fact: Percy is a 2005 inductee to the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame and has his number retired there. He earned his first career start as a big leaguer on the last game of the season last year going all of one inning and striking out two. Tony LaRussa inexplicably used 11 pitchers in the win against the Pirates.


Lefty Specialist

Trever Miller (1st - 3rd with franchise total)

Returning to the Rays after a stint with Houston the crafty lefty will see plenty of big game situations. His veteran leadership will help in the clubhouse and the bullpen.

Interesting Miller fact: Trever does a lot of charity work with children’s hospitals. His youngest daughter was born with a rare genetic disorder affecting her heart that required open heart surgery.


Gary Glover (3rd)

“G Lover” led all Rays relievers in games (67), innings pitched (77.1) and wins (6) in 2007. He is a favorite of Maddon’s and he is not afraid to be thrown into tough situations. He has pretty good stuff and is more effective than the raw numbers say.

Interesting G Lover fact: Glover spent part of 2006 playing in Japan before getting an invite to Rays Spring Training in 2007, making the club as a non-roster invitee.


Dan Wheeler (2nd – 4th with franchise total)

Acquired from Houston in the Ty Wigginton trade and reuniting with former Astros pitching coach Jim Hickey, Wheels returned to the franchise he broke into the majors with. He is a very effective reliever who posted a 9.9 K/9 ratio in 2007.

Along with Al Reyes, Wheeler shortens the game for Manager Joe Maddon when the starters fail to go deep into games.

Interesting Wheels fact: He is the son-in-law of Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats


The rest of the ‘pen

The following pitchers will be battling for the two remaining slots in the ‘pen, possibly also with some of the starters that might miss out on the #4 and #5 slots.


Scott Dohmann (2nd)

Dohmann led the team in home ERA at 0.00 (15.1 IP) but 6.23 on the Road (17.1 IP). He also had the team’s second longest scoreless streak at 15.2 innings (behind Kaz’s 17.1 inning scoreless streak)

Interesting Dohmann fact: Was winning pitcher at Louisiana-Lafayette’s first College World Series victory in 2000.

Grant Balfour (2nd)

Grant was acquired in a trade with Milwaukee for Seth McClung. The Rays were considering getting Joey Strikethree but opted for Balfour instead. Not much to say about Grant other than he had a couple bad outings that killed his season numbers.

Interesting Balfour fact: He is a native of Sydney, Australia


Chad Orvella (4th)

Orvella pitched only 8 innings for the Rays in 2007 and they weren’t good. He has 68 career appearances with the Rays over three seasons. He did not start pitching until his senior year of college.

Interesting Orvie fact: He has a 6-1 K/BB ratio in the minors but a 1.2/1 ratio in the bigs.


Kurt Birkins (1st)

I don’t know much about him other than he’s a lefty, he had an 8.13 ERA last year and he’s not named Casey Fossum, so he’s got that going for him.

Interesting Birky fact: Made his first MLB start against the Rays (I know, not very interesting)


Juan Salas (3rd)

Salas started his pro baseball career as a third baseman even spending six years in the Rays minor league system as a before converting to pitcher. He was also suspended 50 games last season for failing a MLB drug test (steroids).

He throws gas but sometimes lacks location and gets burned by the long ball.

Interesting Salas fact: Another Rays reliever more comfortable in the slantdome. Home ERA – 2.14, Road ERA – 5.87


Other Pitchers on the 40 man roster

Calvin Medlock

Acquired from the Reds in the Jorge Cantu trade, medlock performed very well in Arizona Fall League action and may see time in St Pete.


James Houser

Should get plenty of innings at AAA Durham.


Jae Kuk Ryu

Still more known for killing an osprey with a baseball than throwing strikes with it.


Spring Training Non-Roster Invitees

Catchers

Mike DiFelice, Hector Giminez, Josh Paul, Matt Spring

Infielders

Reid Brignac, Andy Cannizaro, Eric Hinske

Outfielders

Chris Richard, John Rodriguez, John Weber

Pitchers

Brian Anderson, Wade Davis, Christopher Mason, Jacob McGee, Scott Munter


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