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How will Price, Rays cope without franchise stars Crawford and Pena?
December 8. On that date in 1941, FDR delivered his Day of Infamy speech following the attack on Pearl Harbor. And on that date in 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays endured their own day of infamy, almost certainly fading from being one of baseball’s most skilled and vibrant teams to a just another small-market wannabe. In a single news cycle, Carl Crawford (the best player the Rays have ever had) signed with Boston; Carlos Peña (the best home run hitter they’ve ever had) became a Cub; and Jason Bartlett (the best shortstop they’ve ever had) was sent to San Diego. It took 24 hours for much of the momentum accrued as AL East champs two of the past three years to dissipate. And with Rafael Soriano (the best closer the team has ever had) lost to free agency and Matt Garza (the first Ray to throw a no-hitter) traded it became a virtual inevitability that the only flag the Rays would be raising in 2011 was a white one.
After months of resistance, the starter-rich Rays finally dealt their ace-in-the-hole, sending Garza to the Cubs for an irresistible package of prospects. The deck, however, remains stacked. No 24-or-younger lefty in 34 years has matched David Price’s 2010 combo of 19 wins, 188 strikeouts and 2.72 ERA. Fast-developing secondary pitches that complement his 95-mph smoke could make him the pitcher of the decade. Wade Davis, who is Price’s age, is a future All-Star. Save a June swoon, he went 12–5 and threw a gem in the ALDS. James Shields became bewilderingly hittable in 2010, but he’s thrown 200 innings four straight years, the first three of which his ERA was a competitive 3.85. To be determined is what the Rays have in Jeff Niemann — the guy who had a 10–2 stretch in 2009 and started last year 6–0, or the one who grappled with shoulder and mechanical issues to wobble home with a 7.69 second-half ERA. Garza was expendable due to the readiness of Jeremy Hellickson, the consensus Minor League Player of the Year who went 30, 2.05 in spot starts. “This guy is different,” says Rays manager Joe Maddon of the 23-year-old’s precocious pitchability.
Unrecognizable from the one that led the AL with 51 saves and a 3.33 ERA a year ago, the pen returns none of its top six operatives. Entering spring training, the closest thing to a proven commodity was Joel Peralta, a 35-year-old with 43 fewer career saves than Soriano had in 2010 alone. Manager Joe Maddon wouldn’t commit to him as his closer, saying only, “He’ll be part of the high-leverage moment.” Setup duty falls to Kyle Farnsworth who split time with Kansas City and Atlanta last season. He held hitters to a .230 average and has whiffed a batter an inning over the last two seasons. Another option is gargantuan ex-Padre Adam Russell. Called “a tough guy to square up” by GM Andrew Friedman, Russell has a power sinker but spotty command. Andy Sonnanstine is a versatile innings glutton. The X-factor is pea-throwing prospect Jake McGee, who could be an end-game option if he shows the head and heart for it. Beyond those four, it’s a scramble. Candidates include a couple of Cesars: Ramos (a touch-and-feel type who was overmatched in brief Padres trials) and Cabral (a raw-but-promising Rule 5 pick); and a couple of Alexes: rookies Cobb and Torres, the top two starters on last year’s Double-A staff. Mike Ekstrom may stick until one of the more talented kids is ready or former closer J.P. Howell (shoulder) makes a midseason return.
The team’s “vending machine” development model — one Ray is ejected with cash from another team, but a replacement is instantly queued up behind him — will be tested at shortstop this season. There should be minimal fall-off from Bartlett to Reid Brignac who, according to the skipper, is “one of the better fielders of the ball in the American League.” Offensively, he’s midpack and needs to make adjustments. Multi-positional gamer Sean Rodriguez will see most of the second base action. His tools rate average-to-above, and Friedman calls him “a consummate baseball player.”
With a Silver Slugger and two Gold Gloves before his 25th birthday, Evan Longoria is the game’s gold standard at third base. Best of all, the Rays had the prescience to negotiate contract options on him through 2016. First baseman Dan Johnson will not replicate Peña’s 36-homer/102-RBI average Rays season, but the club hopes the 31-year-old journeyman’s monstrous minor league numbers finally translate. He takes a voluminous number of pitches — both balls and strikes — but will hammer a mistake. Defensively, there’s no comparison.
After the winter flurry of contracts calmed, the Rays signed former Red Sox teammates Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, both part of Boston’s championship in 2004. Damon will play left and will be Maddon’s first choice at leadoff. Rookie Desmond Jennings is a reasonable Crawford facsimile in the speed and defense departments, but has yet to show similar hitting instincts. That’s not to say he can’t become a star in time, but if he’s not quite ready, Ben Zobrist is an option. Maddon moves Ben Zobrist all over the diamond, but most days he’ll be in right, where he’s outstanding. His surprising emergence as an impact bat in 2009 was fleeting, but like most Rays, he walks a lot and will swipe a bag. Center fielder B.J. Upton is officially an enigma. Only occasionally have the Rays seen the .300-hitting/24-homer pop they got in 2007. And occasionally they see a somewhat lackadaisical talent-waster. What’s always in evidence are stolen bases and strikeouts by the boatload and rangy, strong-armed play afield.
John Jaso’s high rates of contact and getting aboard made him an unlikely leadoff-hitting rookie last season, when he ousted former All-Star Dioner Navarro from the backstop job. He improved defensively during the year but is no threat to win a Gold Glove.
Ramirez wasn’t signed to sit, so he’ll take over full-time DH duty. Assuming Jennings doesn’t win an outfield spot and breaks camp with the major league club, he will have ample opportunities. Matt Joyce will be one of the better fielding fourth or fifth outfielders in the game. Three players — Rodriguez, Zobrist and rookie switch-hitter Elliot Johnson — can play almost anywhere. Maddon will deploy them as if they were so many Stratego pieces. Kelly Shoppach is an adequate platoon partner for the lefty-hitting Jaso, his primary attributes being veteran savvy and a .949 career OPS against southpaws.
Owner Stu Sternberg and GM Friedman have crafted a largely self-sustaining talent machine that can be supplemented with astute major league player analysis and scouting. Still, Sternberg has been flexible enough to overextend the budget when necessary. This approach is going to have its down cycles, and 2011 — thanks to a slashed payroll — is the start of one. Maddon is something of an iconoclast whose many unorthodox decisions alternately intrigue and exasperate.
Friedman is realistic in conceding, “To have a business model that’s based on being right more than anyone else, it’s not really a lasting business model. … We relish in the fact that we have to swim against the tide. It’s just that the current is getting stronger.” Translation: The Yankees and Red Sox are spending much more money; the only things less adequate than our power and bullpen are our revenues; and if things go as well as they possibly can, we’ll finish third.