Monday, April 7, 2008

The Lightning Win (finally)

Well it looks like the Bolts will have the number one pick overall come June. So by October Steve Stamkos should be skating on the number 2 line. Good for them, it's a nice shining moment for an otherwise dismal season.

It will be interesting to see what kind of team shows up in Brandon for next season's training camp. Stamkos will come with the hype that follows a number one draft pick. Vincent Lecavalier will be coming off major shoulder surgery and possibly wrist surgery. It seems the goalie job will be Mike Smith's to lose and Kari Ramo might be in Springfield.

It doesn't look like the Lightning will be super agressive in the free agent market, possibly their biggest acquistion will be a vetern backup goalie (think Olaf Kolzig). Their self imposed salary cap prevents them from being a bidder for the likes of Marion Hossa. Look for them to find a 5 or 6 d-man and a winger along the lines of Michelle Oullett.

Let me be one of the first to welcome Mr. Stamkos to the TBA -- prepare for the apathy!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

How Eric Hinske could Ruin Evan Longoria's Career.

So what happens if Eric Hinske IS this year’s Carlos Pena? No one is talking about the consequences of Hinske making the everyday roster. We’re only a week into the season so it’s still too early to see if he will keep his average over .300, but so far he has looked solid as this year’s pick off the major league scrap heap. As a matter of fact, as I typed the last sentence he just drilled a single into right field off of Chien-Ming Wang to put runners on the corners with no one out.

The nDRO was criticized heavily for sending down prized super prospect Evan Longoria to begin the season. Their thinking was that it would be beneficial to Longoria (more at bats) and the team (delay his major league service saving them money long term). In the meantime the Rays would be able to hold court with the two headed dragon of Willy Aybar and Hinske.

Fans cried out in anguish on message boards across the vast internet wasteland. Even seasoned mainstream writers weren’t immune from the sexy prospect of the 23 year old starting the season with the big club. SI’s resident baseball guru Tom Veducci wrote, “Get him to the majors ASAP. The kid, polished and confident, looks as if he’s already been in the bigs 10 years”.

Well ok then. If a writer thinks it’s time for the Rays to call up the jewel in their top rated crop of future stars then let’s do it! From a quick look at his stats (11 at bats, 4 K’s and 0 hits) it appears the Rays may have made the right call. Hopefully, the demotion and his early struggles serve as a wake-up call. After spending all off season and Spring Training hearing how great he is and is going to be this could provide a little perspective.

Please don’t read this as a pile on Longoria post. He’s going to be good, really good when his time comes. Rather let’s give the Rays some credit for thinking long term. The easy call would have been to start the young kid on the roster. He didn’t embarrass himself in spring training and Aybar’s gimpy hamstring could have opened up a spot. The fans would have been happy; the press would be able to gush over the second coming of Mike Schmidt.

Andrew Friedman and his associates (Friedman and Associates – a new law firm?) stood firm with their decision. In comments to the St Pete Times he even acknowledged that they might be “erring on the side of caution” by sending him down. Of course they are and they should. The future Rays teams, the teams that fans insist will be competing for a title in 2010, must be built around the nucleus of Longoria, Crawford, Upton and their cadre of young arms.

If Longoria is called up to soon, loses his confidence and washes out of the majors then what happens? As unlikely as that scenario may be, it would be disastrous to the organization. The same fans who are calling for the bloody head of Friedman for not promoting him would promptly jump to the other side of the fence and blame him for destroying their new savior. More importantly the team will be missing a key component of their future. By keeping the slugger in Durham for a few months there is no long term damage.

On the other side of the coin there is the financial aspect. In the same article quoted above Friedman states that the financial aspect of sending Longoria down was “virtually irrelevant”. The unnamed interneters don’t buy that for one second. They see it as a ploy to keep the kid under Rays control for as long as and as cheap as possible. It’s still puzzling to hear people whine about the “cheap ownership” and how the “tightwads” are being unfair to the fans.

This current group has shown a willingness to spend money on the players that are important to the future of the team. How quickly the large contracts handed out to Carlos Pena and James Shields are forgotten. Feel free to criticize the past ownership about being a tight-fisted tyrannical crew ( I’m thinking specifically about Namoli making a band who was invited to play the National Anthem buy tickets to watch the game), but nothing the nDRO has done has indicated that they are willing to field a lesser team in order to save money.

Another thing to look at, in the long term this could actually cost the Rays more money. If they are unable to sign Longoria to a long term deal before he’s a free agent it would be better that he’s a free agent sooner rather than later. Why’s this you ask? Well when have you ever known the cost of free agents to go down from year to year? Signing the future All-Star to a big free agent deal in 2014 rather than 2013 could cost the Rays millions more over all.

Don’t believe it? Then let us turn back the clock to 2005. In April of that year a young Rays outfielder by the name of Carl Crawford inked a 6 year $32.5 million contract with the team. Everyone was happy. The team had locked up one of its stars and Crawford was being rewarded for his exemplary performance on the field. Even the fans were impressed by the commitment to the future shown by the new ownership. Now imagine how much more Crawford would have cost to lock up (or even in arbitration) if they had waited a year or so. Why’s that? Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells.

After the 2006 season Soriano (eight years $136 million) and Wells (seven years $126 million) drove up the cost of acquiring outfield talent. If he hadn’t signed his big deal the year before Crawford would have been in arbitration with the Rays, imagine how that would have turned out. Not well for the Rays especially with names like David Wright, Miguel Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez sharing Longoria’s position.
So fans, please relax. You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy Longoria’s heroics in the blue, white and yellow of the Rays. In the meantime enjoy the fact that your 2008 Rays are showing that they belong in the majors and just took two of three from the Yankees. If you have to get fired up about something go to an old standby – Jon Gomes not getting enough playing time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

My late preseason breakdown of YOUR Tampa Bay Rays

There is really not much I can add for a season preview that the national pundits haven’t already addressed. They’re young, they’re better than ever and they’re going to be tough to play. The always reliable preseason predictors have them winning between 79 and 89 games. They have the second coming of Tom Seaver (Scott Kazmir), Mike Schmidt (Evan Longoria) and Joe DiMaggio (B.J. Upton).

Reading the posts of the faceless commenters on various blogs would lead one to believe that anything less than .500 and a late season wild card chase would be a disappointment and cost them a chance of getting a new stadium on the waterfront. Of course they also think the DRO has personal vendettas against them as evidenced by the demotion of Longoria the wunderkind.

If they would take a deep breath and realize every little move isn’t life or depth they would realize that the club built is decidedly stronger than any Rays club ever assembled. They have speed, power, defense and depth. They have a bullpen that doesn’t rely on Brian Stokes or Chad Orvella. Carlos Pena could smash 40 homeruns and Upton could hit 30. Jimmy Shields could pitch 240 innings and garner 20 wins. Kazmir (if healthy, always add the “if healthy” when dealing with the slight lefty) could be a Cy Young candidate. Unfortunately they need all of that to happen to sniff 80 wins this year.

When it comes down to it they just play in too tough of a division right now to expect the 90 wins necessary to be talked about in the playoff hunt. New York, Boston and Toronto are better on paper Baltimore, despite their recent renovations, always plays the Rays tough. These are the facts and they are indisputable.
Luckily for you, me and the dog next door baseball doesn’t always rely on facts and logic. Despite the trend towards statistics and PECOTA’s there are still intangibles, or “what if’s” that affect the way a season unfolds.

What if Josh Beckett misses a few games against the Rays and they take advantage to sneak out a few wins against a team that has dominated them the last few seasons?

What if the Yankees young studs falter?

What if Toronto continues its lackluster 3rd place ways?

What if the Rays precautions pan out and Kazmir throws 200 injury free innings?

What if Pena doesn’t get weighed down by his huge contract and puts up another 40-some homeruns?

If the Rays have enough of those go there way wild card wouldn’t be out of reach. Looking back on what was just typed, those what if’s aren’t quite so farfetched.

Instead of my usual overall preseason prognostications let’s go with a position-by-position breakdown.

First Base

Carlos Pena

Last Season – 46 homeruns .282 average 121 RBI’s
2008 Prediction – 37 homeruns .269 average 120 RBI’s

His home run production should be down as pitchers around the league are better prepared for him. Other than Upton there really aren’t too many other every day home run threats in the lineup. However, don’t forget that he will basically have an extra month of at bats since he didn’t really work his way into the Rays line up until May last season.

His offense overshadows what might be his biggest asset this season – his defense. As he looks out into the infielder no one he sees was in the same place last season. Aki is learning a new position at 2nd, Jason Bartlett has had his ups and downs at short, and who knows what kind of defense is going to be played from the three-headed third base position. Pena will be key to keeping extra runners off the bases for the young pitching staff.

Second Base

Aki Iwamura

Last season – 7 homeruns .285 average 34 RBI’s
2008 Prediction – 12 homeruns .290 57 RBI’s

The Japanese import had his ups and downs last season and became a bit if a cult sensation (especially here). A couple of injuries derailed him a bit and kept him from getting into a comfortable groove. When healthy he has a knack (an Aki-Knack?) for scoring runs (82 Runs in 123 games) he could blossom into a nice table setter for a potentially potent Rays' lineup.

He has one game under his belt at 2nd base this season and has already drawn rave reviews. As naturally talented as he is it shouldn’t be a big adjustment and he should definitely be an upgrade over Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson. It will be a shame that one of his greatest assets, laser cannon like throwing arm, will not be displayed quite as much.

More tomorrow.