Monday, April 9, 2007

One week in... how are the kids doing?

As of this writing the Rays are wrapping up their first week of the season. The early returns are intriguing. Their record (2-3) is better than expected after opening with a series on the road against the Yankees and at home with the Blue Jays. However, it could have been better as they surrendered leads in two of their three losses.

The biggest culprit of the blown leads has been their pitching (6.95 ERA and a WHIP of 1.70). The bullpen has been shakier than the starters who, with the exception of Casey Fossum, have averaged about 6 innings in their first starts. Two of the more experienced bullpen members have struggled the most – Ruddy Lugo (3 appearances 13.50 ERA) and Shawn Camp (7.71 ERA in 2.1 innings). Al Reyes looked good in his one save opportunity, but bridging the gap from the starters to the closer looks like it’s going to be a yearlong struggle for the Rays as many have predicted.

Enough of dwelling on the bad news because there has been more than enough good news to keep people excited. They have a road win. That doesn’t sound like a great stat until you realize that they only won 3 road games before the All Star break last season. The next week will be a real test to see how the team has improved on the road as they have 3 in Texas and 4 in Minnesota. It will be a test for their bullpen as well. Including a 3 game series against the Baltimore Orioles after the road trip they will have played 14 days in a row.

The young kids have been a surprise as well. BJ Upton is hitting .400 and adapting well to second base. Delmon Young is showing why he was a pre-season Rookie of the Year favorite as he is hitting .350 and leading the Rays with 5 RBI’s. One of the bigger surprises is Elijah Dukes. As one of the last players added to the roster he started his big league career with a home run in Yankee Stadium for his first career hit. He added another one the next game and has also shown a good eye at the plate drawing 4 walks in his first 5 games.

Upton and Young have both had issues making contact (6 strike outs for Upton and 5 for Young). Yet when they make contact they are getting on base. On at bats where he puts the ball in play Young is hitting .467 (7 for 15). Upton has been even better. When he makes contact the new second baseman is hitting an impressive .667 (6 for 9). The high number of strike outs can be attributed to them getting behind in counts. Part of that is their aggressiveness and part of it is their inexperience. As they compile more at bats they will develop a better eye for a major league strike zone and start forcing pitchers into hitters’ counts.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the play of Akinori Iwamura. The Japanese gold glover has been a pint size power house for the Rays. His first week has produced a .527 average, 1 home run, and 7 runs scored. He has also shored up the third base position handling his first 44 chances without an error at the hot corner.

In the first game against Texas he made 3 consecutive dazzling plays. First he charged a bunt, set his feet and displayed the arm that earned him the nickname “Top Gun” in Japan. The second play was pure reaction. Kenny Loften smoked a line drive that was heading toward left field and Aki stretched his entire frame (generously listed at 5’9) to snag the line drive. The final play was a smashed one hopper that Iwamura got in front of, fielded cleanly and threw over to first.

His play looks like it help solidify a position that has plagued the Rays for the last few seasons. Since the retirement of Wade Boggs they have juggled a cast of characters in search of some one that could lock down the left side of the infield. Along with Ben Zorbist the Rays may lack range, but should be fine on everything hit at them.

Overall the defense has been better than expected. With so many young players in the line up I was sure that the Rays would challenge the record for most errors and most unearned runs given up in a season. Not only do I have no idea what those records are, but the Rays have actually committed the fewest errors in the American League with only 1. While they have given up the second most runs in the American League (34) none of them have been of the unearned variety.

The outfield has been solid with either Rocco Baldelli or Elijah Dukes patrolling centerfield. Delmon Young has yet to record an assist, but has unleashed several Raul Mondesi-esque throws to keep runners from advancing. With Ichiro moving to centerfield I think Young has to be one of the two best arms patrolling right field at the moment (Vladimir Guerrero would be the other).

Offensively the Rays need to be above average if they are going to win 75 games (an arbitrary number picked by myself). So far the hitters have been holding up their end of the bargain. They are hitting .272 as a team which is good for fifth in the American League and their 9 home runs lead the league. Last season they were the worst team in the majors at getting on base. Their OBP of .314 was 5 points lower than the next worst team – the Chicago Cubs. This year, despite a line up that has 4 players that are getting their first real major league experience their OBP is 6th in the American League at .332.

What’s this all mean? In the long run one week probably doesn’t mean much. After all Camp and Lugo are currently getting their brains beat in by the Rangers hitters. It will be interesting to see how the team fares the second and third time they face teams, but with their blend of speed, power and youthful promise they have officially become a dangerous team to play.

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