Thursday, April 2, 2009

Let's play ball! Well let's talk about playing ball!

It’s that time of year. The time of year when everyone gazes into their crystal ball and tries to predict what’s going to happen in the upcoming season. I’m not going to lie, I haven’t spent too much time this season watching or listening to Rays preseason games. I’ve read the local papers and a couple of the websites around the internet, but I haven’t exactly done all of my homework.

Are you surprised? After all, you don’t come here for well thought out and reasoned opinions, right? You come here for the pictures of naked women. Wait, my editor just told me we don’t have those either. Looks like you’re all out of luck.

So since there are no naked women or well-formed, thought out analysis I guess you’ll have to settle for half thought out, easily disproved, spur of the moment ideas. In past seasons I’ve previewed the Rays by going over the projected 40 man roster (I was bored with that by the 15th player) and by comparing and predicting year over year results by position (I made it all the way though 2 positions!) This year you get some random thoughts followed by an overall prediction. So without further adieu - here it goes:

Player who is ready to burst on onto the national scene: B.J. Upton

While his season may start a week late, look for the 24 year old to build on his solid post season from last year. He has the potential to play Gold Glove defense while hitting 30 homeruns, 30 doubles and stealing 30 bases. While last year the press was ready to run him out of town this season they will be begging the Rays to lock him up long term (possibly at the expense of moving Carl Crawford).

Not to throw too many numbers at you, but while playing with a torn labrum last season he still hit 37 doubles and stole 44 bases. He also increased his walk total from 65 walks in 2007 (a rate of one walk every 8.43 plate appearances) to 97 in 2008 (one every 6.59 plate appearances). He also struck out 20 less times despite having 57 more at bats. All those numbers point to increased plate discipline which leads to him getting better pitches to hit. With a repaired shoulder he will be able to drive the ball more, especially to left field.

Player who is about to change “future potential” to “lost potential”: Scott Kazmir

He has now pitched 125 games in the green / white / blue uniforms of the Rays. In 5 seasons he has always been labeled as the future ace or ace of the staff. The times, however, are changing. Right now James Shields is the present and David Price is the future.

Kazmir is only 25, but he is quickly turning into an “old 25”. His arm has thrown 12,736 pitches during regular season games (and another 543 in All-Star / Post Season innings) and that it is biggest problem. Over the past three seasons his number of pitches per inning have increased from 16.80 to 18.05 which is the number one reason he hasn’t had a complete game since 2006.

The lefty has mentioned that he never trusted his slider last year and that could have been part of the problem. I have yet to find this stat anywhere, but I am willing to bet that no one in the league gives up more 2 strike foul balls than Kazmir. If he’s regained the confidence of his slider that may change, if not it’s going to be another long season of watching him throw 115 pitches to get through 6 innings. If that’s the case maybe it’s time to explore the possibility of moving him to the bullpen.

Player who should have retired gracefully last year, but is hanging on and making things uncomfortable: Troy Percival

He brought leadership to the bullpen last year. He wore the morale building T-Shirt. He saved 28 games out of 32. He also had three trips to the disabled list last year and off season back surgery. Oh, and when he was told that he wasn’t on the postseason roster he took his ball and went home to California.

While he’s saying all the right things now(feeling great, never been healthier, etc) things could be very different by June or July. With him staying on the roster the Rays are forced to chose between Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel. Closer-in-waiting Grant Balfour will spend another season in set up exile.

I spent much of last season defending his role on the team, but this season it just seems deferent. The team has been through the fires of the post season and that “veteran role” isn’t so important. With the talent the Rays have waiting in the wings they can’t afford to waste a roster spot with a player coach.

Joe Maddon is loyal. He is loyal to a fault. If Percival struggles early on will Merlot Joe be able to make the decision to pull the aging closer? If he does, how will Percival react. He is stubborn, which is a solid trait in a closer, but might fracture a team that prides itself on chemistry.

Enough on the players how about the team?

What is the worst thing that can happen for the Rays? A slow start.

I was debating between a slow start and injuries, but using the injury excuse is a cop out. The Rays made it through last year despite having their top slugger (Carlos Pena), stud rookie (Evan Longoria), best all around talent (Carl Crawford) and strikeout artist (Kazmir) all spend time on the DL.

So we’re left with a slow start. Six of their first nine games are against the Red Sox and the Yankees. It will definitely be an early test to see how the Al East is going to shake out. More important, however, is how the rest of the month will shake out. If they stumble against the O’s, Mariners, and A’s then they might find themselves playing catch up in October.

Am early slump could also erode away the growing fan base that the ownership is counting on to pay for the $60 million payroll. The TBA is a notoriously fickle sports nation. A three game losing streak will have “fans” cancelling their season tickets and complaining about the lack of football in the summer.

What is the best thing that can happen for the Rays? Offense, Offense, Offense

The two big off season acquisitions were Pat Burrell and Matt Joyce. It looks like they’re going to both be in the opening day lineup. They were brought in to stabilize a line up that had a few holes in it - especially against left handed pitchers.

The line up now boasts two possible 40 home run threats (Pena and Longoria), two 30 home run threats (Upton and Burrell) and a possible 20 home run hitter in Crawford. That’s enough offense to make Jon Gruden giddy. What I can’t make a Gruden/offensive genius joke just because he was fired?

Adding that kind of firepower to a team that’s built on a base of defense and pitching could make for a very dangerous team. In the AL East they will need every bit of it to repeat as the Division Champs.

So enough with the build up - where are they going to finish? Wildcard

It pains me to say it, but I think the Yankees made enough changes to jump back to the top of the standings. Adding two legitimate number one starters is going to make the difference. It will be a close race, which means another fun season!

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