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.

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