Thursday, May 29, 2008

Those notoriously hapless Rays

Change is upon us emanating out of St. Petersburg Bay. Some of you reading this may not have a clue about this "change", but if you have only a mediocre pulse following baseball, this story is etched into your corneas. Much like Barack Obama's politics of "change", this is a movement of a new, fresh player to the scene who is ready to take over the National Pastime. Yes, at 32-21 the Tampa Bay Rays have woken up to the 16th morning of the season that sees them in first place. At 1.5 games ahead of the mighty Boston Red Sox in the AL East and with baseball's best record so far, the Rays have smashed as many team records as Dan Uggla is smashing balls over the Teal Monster to the South. THIS TEAM HAS NEVER BEEN IN FIRST PLACE. They have already swept the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and took 3 out of 4 from the Yankees this year. Who are the Rays you ask? It is not a crazy question. They have been a hard team to spot throughout their 10 seasons of dismal bottom feeder performance. Names like Kevin Stocker, John Flaherty, and Damian Rolls don't exactly jump out at even some hardcore baseball fans. Now the Rays stand as undeniably the most exiting team in baseball and the best part is they haven't even hit their stride yet. Here are the things both good and things yet to arrive in 2008 for the Rays.

The Good

1. Pitching
The Rays currently boast the 9th best ERA in baseball. Throughout the years, the Rays have had to send out to the mound every fifth day the likes of Ryan Rupe and Jae Wong Seo but this year is different. Even with loosing ace Scott Kazmir for the first month of the season, The Rays work was among the best in Baseball. James Shields (4-3, 3.38) played ace in the beginning of the year throwing both a two hitter and one hitter along the way. Now Kazmir is back with a 4-1 record and an ERA of 1.50. The best thing about this stacked rotation? It is perhaps the greatest collection of young pitching baseball has ever seen. Kazmir (24), Shields (26), Matt Garza (24, 4-1, 3.78), Edwin Jackson (24, 3-3, 3.47), and Andy Sonnastine (25, 6-3, 4.98) form an unprecedented group. Even the notoriously weak bullpen has been solidified by veterans in closer Troy Percival and setup man Dan Wheeler. Al Reyes has returned off the DL to aid successful stop-gap relievers J.P. Howell and Trever Miller.

2. Evan Longoria
The phenom finally arrived on April 12th and quickly made everyone forget his controversial demotion to AAA Durham during Spring Training. Since his arrival, Longoria (.252, 7 HR, 28 RBI) has had the flair for the dramatic with game winning hits and big-time home runs. What goes overlooked is his Gold Glove caliber defense so far, he just committed his first error the other day. The Rays were smart to lock Longoria up to a long term deal his first week in the majors. With his future guaranteed, the heavy favorite for A.L. Rookie of the Year just has to go out, produce, and continue to lead the culture change for the Rays.

3. Andrew Friedman's Personnel Moves
The wizard GM behind all the complimentary pieces has softened some of the blow left by Chuck Lamar. He traded away negative clubhouse influences in Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes and brought in positive veteran leaders in Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival. Signing Eric Hinske to a low risk contract before the year has paid off as the corner outfielder is on his way to 30+ HR. Furthermore, Friedman has added to the stability of the franchise and clubhouse cohesiveness by locking up Carlos Pena, James Shields, Evan Longoria, and Scott Kazmir all to long term deals. Friedman's job is never done, but get a long term agreement done with B.J. Upton, and this GM will be able to sit back and watch a well tuned machine he built in action.

Things yet to arrive

1. The pitching prospects

The number one overall pick from last year's draft, David Price has finally arrived to the Rays Minor Leagues. So far the 6-6 lefthander is 2-0 and in two starts he has struck out 13 in 11 innings and has yet to allow a run. Some think he could arrive to St. Pete in the late summer. Wade Davis, Jake Mcgee, and James Houser are three others on the horizon and among the top prospects in all of baseball. Not to mention the Rays have the first pick in the 2008 draft next week.

2. The hitting

How can a team have the best record in baseball and not yet even have the offense that was predicted for the team? I really can't answer this question and it amazes me every day. The only players exceeding their expectations at the plate so far for the Rays are Dioner Navarro and Eric Hinske. The main offensive cogs Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, and Carl Crawford have not even come close to their ceilings yet.

3. The fans

Much has been made of the attendance issue at Tropicana Field. While the Rays contend the sparse crowds at the "Trop" do nothing to aid their proposal for a new waterfront stadium. There is even a great article in today's St. Pete Times about this issue written by Gary Shelton that I have linked below. My only advice on the fan issue is give it time. Wait till the dawn of summer and if the Rays prove they are competitive the fans will start to arrive. It takes time for a city to warm up to a franchise that has been nothing but a disappointment for 10 years. Fortunately they have never done any franchise killing trade-offs such as their Citrus Series mates, the Marlins. The fans will clamor for success they just need to see it sustained into the summer, and they will make the 20 minute drive from Tampa to St. Pete. Tropicana Field is actually a very good place and fan friendly environment to watch a game in, contrary to popular belief.

So the moral of the story kids is if you are in the Tampa area be sure to catch the tides of change rolling through the St. Petersburg Bay and take yourself out to a Rays game.

Link to the Shelton article


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