Manager: Joe Maddon General Manager: Andrew Friedman
Home Ballpark (multi-year Park Factors): Tropicana Field (98/100)
Who's Replacing Whom:
Jason Bartlett replaces Brendan Harris
Willy Aybar replaces Ty Wigginton
Elliot Johnson replaces Josh Wilson
Erik Hinske replaces Delmon Young
Nathan Haynes replaces Elijah Dukes and Rocco Baldelli (DL)
Shawn Riggans replaces Josh Paul and Raul Casanova
Matt Garza replaces Jae Weong Seo, and the starts of Casey Fossum and J.P. Howell
Trever Miller replaces Fossum's relief innings
Howell replaces Brian Stokes in the bullpen
Troy Percival replaces Al Reyes as closer
Dan Wheeler and Scott Dohmann take over relief innings pitched by Shawn Camp, Juan Salas (minors), Jae Kuk Ryu (minors), and Grant Balfour
1B - Carlos Peña (L)
2B - Akinori Iwamura (L)
SS - Jason Bartlett (R)
3B - Willy Aybar (S)
C - Dioner Navarro (S)
RF - Eric Hinske (L)
CF - B.J. Upton (R)
LF - Carl Crawford (L)
DH - Cliff Floyd (L)
R - Jonny Gomes (OF)
L - Nathan Haynes (OF)
S - Elliot Johnson (IF)
R - Shawn Riggans (C)
R - James Shields
R - Matt Garza
R - Andy Sonnanstine
R - Edwin Jackson
R - Jason Hammel
R - Troy Percival
R - Al Reyes
R - Dan Wheeler
R - Gary Glover
L - Trever Miller
R - Scott Dohmann
L - J. P. Howell
15-day DL: L - Scott Kazmir, L - Kurt Birkins, R - Chad Orvella, S - Ben Zobrist (IF)
60-day DL: R - Rocco Baldelli (OF)
L - Akinori Iwamura (2B)
L - Carl Crawford (LF)
L - Carlos Peña (1B)
R - B.J. Upton (CF)
L - Cliff Floyd (DH)
S - Willy Aybar (3B)
L - Erik Hinske (RF)
S - Dioner Navarro (C)
R - Jason Bartlett (SS)
For years now, analysts, myselfincluded, have been predicting the coming rise of the Devil Rays. In 2004, their second season under manager Lou Piniella, the Rays won 70 games and finished out of last place in the AL East for the first time in their history. The following year, they saw their offense improve from 13th in the 14-team league to eighth and gave the Yankees fits by jumping out to an 11-5 record in their season series with the Bombers. Despite the extra thump, they won just 67 games and returned to last place. That winter, minority partner Stuart Sternberg bought out founding owner Vince Naimoli and overhauled the front office, installing new general manager Andrew Friedman in place of the much maligned Chuck LaMarr. Accordingly, the 2006 season proved to be one of transition as Friedman traded outfield prospect Joey Gathright, lefty Mark Hendrickson, and lineup mainstays Toby Hall, Aubrey Huff, and Julio Lugo during the season. The departure of the latter two combined with disappointing seasons from 2005 discoveries Jorge Cantu and Jonny Gomes to drop the Rays' offense drop back down to last in the league. The team won just 61 games, the second lowest total in their dismal history. Last year, the Rays again saw their offense jump up to eighth, but they again finished last, this time with just 66 wins, due in large part to a pitching staff that was by far the worst in baseball.
If one thing characterized the perennial cellar-dwelling Devil Rays it was bad pitching. The only season in which Tampa Bay has posted a team ERA below 5.00 was its inaugural season of 1998, when its rotation was led by Rolando Arrojo and Tony Saunders and its most effective reliever was Albie Lopez. Friedman set about to change that by trading utility man Ty Wigginton for Astros reliever Dan Wheeler at last year's trading deadline, then pulling off a blockbuster over the winter that sent Rookie of the Year runner-up Delmon Young and spare parts to the Twins in exchange for emerging right-hander Matt Garza, double-A pitching prospect Eduardo Morlan, and superb defensive shortstop Jason Bartlett. Those pitching upgrades coincide with the Rays' rebranding from Devils of the deep to beams of light from the heavens and have signaled to many that the club is about to make their long-awaited leap into contention.
Most famously, Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projected the Rays to finish third in the East with 88 wins. That projection expects the Rays to allow the fewest runs in the American League and 1.4 fewer runs per game over the course of the season than a year ago. Some of that has to do with the arrival of Garza and the continued maturation of Kazmir, Shields, and even back-of-the-rotation arms such as Andy Sonnanstine, who starts tonight against Ian Kennedy, and Edwin Jackson, but a lot of it has to do with an improvement in team defense expected by the arrival of Bartlett, the shift of third baseman Akinori Iwamura to second base in place of a motley crew of stone gloves from a year ago (Upton, Wigginton, Brendan Harris, Josh Wilson), a regression to average by catcher Dioner Navarro after a poor season behind the plate, and a couple of other changes that may not pan out quite as expected.
One of those anticipated changes was the installation of top prospect Evan Longoria at third base. The move of Iwamura to the keystone seemed predicated on the assumption that Longoria, who hit .299/.402/.520 between double- and triple-A last year, would open the season as the new-look Rays' third baseman. Longoria hit .262/.407/.595 this spring, but was inexplicably farmed out to Durham at the end of March. In Longoria's place is Willy Aybar, a poor fielder who sat out all of last year while rehabbing a wrist injury and his recreational addictions.
Similarly, PECOTA expected Rocco Baldelli to absorb a quarter of the playing time in right field, during which he would have been the team's best defensive outfielder. Unfortunately, Baldelli, who missed most of last year with chronic hamstring issues, may not play at all this year as he was diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder this spring. The Rays themselves were hoping Baldelli would be their full-time right fielder this spring, thus allowing righty slugger Jonny Gomes to form a designated-hitter platoon with veteran lefty Cliff Floyd. Baldelli's illness thus has had a cascade effect upon the Rays' roster, leaving right field in the defensively inferior hands of Gomes, four-corner sub Eric Hinske, and late-March waiver pick-up Nathan Haynes. It also will likely force the injury-prone and lefty-susceptible Floyd to play every day as Gomes is needed to spell Hinske against lefties (Hinske career v. LHP: .225/.295/.377).
To a certain degree, it seems the Rays' bubble has burst. A year ago their outfield prospects were five deep with Carl Crawford (then 25) well-established in left field, Rocco Baldelli (also 25) looking to build off his comeback year in center in 2006, 21-year-old Delmon Young installed in right, troubled 23-year-old Elijah Dukes attempting to right his ship and initially succeeding by homering in his first two major league games (both at Yankee Stadium), and 22-year-old B.J. Upton likely to shift into the pastures as Longoria, shortstop prospect Reid Brignac, and Upton's own dismal defense squeezed him out of the infield. Between then and now, Dukes' emotional problems got him banished to Washington (where he's once again on the DL), Baldelli's frailty became career threatening, and Young was shipped to Minnesota, leaving the Rays with a hole in a once over-crowded outfield.
Most likely this is simply another period of transition as the 24-year-old Garza works to establish himself alongside lefty Scott Kazmir (also 24) and righty James Shields (26) to give the Rays the best trio of starters their brief existence, prospects from Longoria and Brignac to 2007 top pick and potential ace David Price continue to fight their way toward the majors, and established starters such as Upton and catcher Dioner Navarro attempt to mature on the job. The rate at which each of those things happen will determine the rate of the Rays' improvement. Heck, by the All-Star break, this team could have Longoria and any of a handful of pitching prospects in place, Garza, Upton and company could be thriving, and the Rays could be well on their way to that 88-win projection, but given their bad luck and self-defeating maneuvers such as the demotion of Longoria, I just don't see it happening.
While the Rays' have made incremental improvements in their pitching and defense, their offense should break even as Carlos Peña regresses from his monster breakout season of a year ago. The result is likely something resembling a well-balanced 75-win team, which is a nice step up from a duck-and-cover 67-win team, but it's not about to change the complexion of the division. At least not this season.