Where Are They Coming From

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays became a Major League team in 1998. Since then, the team has averaged a shade above 60 wins a season. The Rays are just one of four teams to never make it to the World Series (Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and the Washington Nationals). The team has placed last in the American League East every year except for 2004 when they finished fourth in the division with 70 wins (3.5 games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays). The 2007 season was no different, finishing the year at 66-76.

When you consider that in their nine years, they have had seven Top 10 picks, six of which were Top 3 picks. The team has drafted the likes of Josh Hamilton (TEX), Delmon Young (MIN), B.J. Upton (TB), Rocco Baldelli (TB), and 3B Evan Longoria. With these names, you would think that this team would be far better off than they are today. Both Hamilton and Young are no longer with the team.

The 2007 team had to endure injuries to 3B Akinori Iwamura, the oft-injured CF Rocco Baldelli, INF/OF B.J. Upton, Closer Al Reyes, and promising young SS Ben Zobrist. However, this was not the biggest reason for their poor showing but it may have been the difference between another last place finish and fifth (Baltimore had only 3 more wins).

There were some very bright spots on the 2007 roster that were worth investing some time with, starting with B.J. Upton. Upton seems to have finally arrived, batting an impressive .300 batting average, 24 homeruns, 22 stolen bases, and an impressive 80-80 runs/runs batted in on a terrible offensive team. Both Scott Kazmir and James Shields were able to win 13 and 12 games, respectively. These two young pitchers combined for 423 strikeouts with over 421 innings pitched. Although Shields only surrendered 36 walks, Kazmir continued to run up the walk totals, netting 89.

Least we forget the young OF Delmon Young. Delmon’s rookie year was not as hot as his temper, but it was enough to garner looks from around the league when the season ended. Young batted .288 even though he managed 127 strikeouts and only 26 walks. It is easy to conceive a high percentage of his 38 doubles to transform into homeruns, adding to his 13 homeruns from 2007. Carl Crawford was still extremely productive with only Carlos Pena being the only productive player on the roster. Carl swiped an impressive 50 stolen bases, continued to improve his plate presence, batting .315, and produced 37 doubles, 9 triples, and 11 homeruns. The only downfall was his strikeout total which rose from his average of mid-eighties to a career-high 112 strikeouts.

Players Added

With outfielders Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Rocco Baldelli, and Johnny Gomes, the team made an interesting trade with the Minnesota Twins. The Rays traded away OF Delmon Young and INF Brendon Harris in exchange for SP Matt Garza and SS Jason Bartlett. I think that this was a great move by the Rays. When you can add a young, promising arm to your rotation, you must jump on it and quickly. Matt is not extremely impressive when you look at his statistics. Matt started 15 games in 2007, racking up an ERA of 3.69, posting a 5-7 record and only giving the Twins an average of 5.5 innings a start. With all that being said, we must remember that he is only 24-years old and was listed as the seventh best prospect in the Minnesota Twins minor league system entering the 2006 season. He has also demonstrated that he can pitch, striking out 11 against the Indians on July 29th.

Jason Bartlett brings some more speed to the Tampa Bay line-up, stealing 23 bags, and slapping 20 doubles and 7 triples. He did, however, give up 26 errors. When considering the switch of Brendon Harris for Jason Bartlett, I think that the Devil Rays walked away with the better hand…

The team did try to add some veteran experience by adding Cliff Floyd. Cliff has had an up and down career due primarily to injury. The team’s website has him listed as their starting DH. With limited playing time and more opportunity to focus on his plate presence, this move could prove very fruitful for a team that is struggling to get out of their historical funk and into a more prominent position with an extremely difficult division.

To add arms to the bullpen was important and the team did what they could to bolster their late-inning efforts, signing relief pitcher Troy Percival to a two-year contract and executing the contract option on closer Al Reyes. The team did invite veteran C Mike DeFelice to spring training, giving young Dioner Navarro a run for his money.

Players Lost

Beyond the trade of Delmon Young and Brendon Harris, you really could not use the word “lost”. The Washington Nationals acquired OF Elijah Dukes for a minor league player and RP Shawn Camp did fly north to Toronto for a spring training invite. There are several players who were not re-signed and remain a free agent market, however, none have any roster or fantasy impact.

Moves Still To Come

When reviewing the roster, it is clear that the team has taken a step forward, especially in their pitching rotation and bullpen. The addition of SP Matt Garza and RP Troy Percival shows a willingness to push passed their historical disappointments and starts to look towards the future with promise. This does not imply that there still is not a need for assistance in these areas. The team has three solid relief pitchers (Reyes, Percival, and Dan Wheeler) but need to either seek an arm or two in the free agent market or rely on young arms such as Scott Dohmann, Juan Salas, and possibly taking young Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell. With the age of their veterans, these young pitchers need to step up their game, settle down in their pitch control, and round off this bullpen.

In addition, the starting pitching consisting of young arms truly has no veteran leadership. Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and Edwin Jackson have a combined 1 year of experience (2.4 year avg.). What this team needs is someone who has “been there, done that” and can eat up some serious innings to take away some of the pressure on the bullpen. Look to the Rays to try using the youth and speed of their line-up along with the veteran arms in the bullpen to lure a pitcher like World Series starter Josh Fogg or inning eating Livan Hernandez.

What to Watch in Spring Training

I believe that the Rays will be one of the most exciting teams to watch as they have many positions to finalize. With the departing of starting 2B Brendon Harris and top minor league prospect 3B Evan Longoria expected to make the leap into the big leagues, second year INF Akinori Iwamura makes the transition from third base to second. There are obvious candidates to take the 7th inning, setup, and closer position with Wheeler, Percival, and Reyes on the payroll. The interesting part will be watching each of these three run out there every day and compete to be the closer.

The same could be said for the starting rotation. Unless the team does wheel and deal for a veteran that can help lead the youth, eat innings every chance they can, and be talented enough to help lead this team above the .500 mark, they will have to evaluate and invest the pitching staff’s time building up 2 of the 4 young pitchers battling for the fourth/fifth starter position, a position in the bullpen, or risk being sent to the minors. While many eyes will be focused on the top three starting pitchers and the talented outfield, they will not be the only one’s benefitting from the “awe” of spring training. 3B Evan Longoria will receive his fair share of publicity.

The team is hoping that he rivals the year that Boston Red Sox Rookie of the Year, Dustin Pedroia. Evan had an excellent AA (Montgomery Biscuits) campaign in 2007, hitting 21 homeruns, 78 runs, and 76 runs batted in 381 at bats. Additionally, he posted a .307 batting average. He did make the leap to AAA (Durham Bulls), getting 104 AB and posting some mediocre numbers (.269 BA, 19 2B, 32 SO). The question is, can he make the jump essentially from AA to the “bigs”?

All in all, I believe this team is positioned to post their best season ever. I am not suggesting that they are playoff-bound; however, I do believe they are certainly better than the Baltimore Orioles and should be competitive enough that if the Blue Jays continue on their stumbling ways, they could win 80 games and place third in the division behind the Yankees and the Red Sox.

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