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Rays of Hope

January 13th, 2008 · 15 Comments

What a fine idea I wasOne of the more interesting themes being discussed this offseason is whether the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are finally getting their ship righted and headed for glory in the not too distant future. You see it here in a nice article by Joe Henderson.

I did an interview with the Drays bay wesbite about a month ago, but one thing I didn’t mention was that I hung out on the Devil Rays usenet group a bit in the late 90s. I found the team absolutely fascinating in their wrong-headedness. If you don’t remember, the team’s business plan appeared to be to acquire a bunch of veteran/past their sell-by date players (from the area if possible) and then hope fans would support a team they “knew” instead of one that was actually on track to win baseball games sometime soon. I found this interesting for it’s sheer incompetency. It was an expansion franchise seemingly abandoning taking the important early steps of building a winning infrastructure.

And win they did not. As we now sit in 2008, one thing the brutal mismanagement of the LaMar/Naimoli era did is give them lots of high first round draft picks (and hgih in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc.) and that’s really helped them build a good looking farm system. But as much as I’m pulling for them to take the Yankees and Red Sox down a few notches and make the AL East a five team division again, there’s a lot of caution to be urged here. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as waiting a few years and then conquering.

As much as David Price is as good looking a College Pitching prospect as you’re likely to see in some time, he’s still a guy who hasn’t thrown a professional pitch. His control at Vandy wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either. They don’t always turn out the way folks hope and to complicate things a bit, his option clock starts immediately due to his contract. Longoria, of course, looks like the real deal.

But there’s a lot of distance to be traveled from “good future” to “good team” and it’s not an easy one. There’s a lot of that still there with the Rays. There’s a lot of guys who “ought to be good someday” but sometimes that doesn’t work out, and sometimes it does, but not for you. Dan Wheeler is a pretty good Major League relief pitcher, but not for the Devil Rays. Young pitchers (the strength of the Devil Rays system) will break your heart in a thousand different ways. The Mets rotation of the future of Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher wound up nothing of the sort: Pulsipher never really turned out, Wilson had his moments but not really with the Mets and Isringhausen became a pretty good reliever with someone else. There is a such thing as a pitching prospect, but there’s a lot of good reasons why folks occasionally claimed there wasn’t. Even successes are often fleeting and/or minor like Mark Prior.

I think the biggest key with the Rays short term will be a guy like Andy Sonnanstine. The Rays have guys with “stuff” coming out of their earholes, and yet there’s no evidence a guy like Edwin Jackson will be a better pitcher than Sonnanstine. If they wind up with an either or decision, will they go with the stuff or the stats? The thing is with Andy, he’s done something in the major leagues that suggests he might be able to pitch there. The Rays really have to make sure this is something they heed going forward.

The Rays also have some pretty serious long term issues at 2B, C and possibly SS. All of the second basemen in the Rays system last year hit like complete crap, and Dioner Navarro remains a maybe as to his long term usefulness. Iwamura did not dazzle as a defensive third baseman, how’s he going to do at second? I like Ben Zobrist as much as the next stat geek, but he’s fast approaching the point where he’s going to stop getting chances and his glove is nothing special for a middle infielder. If the Rays could simply put 9 outfielders in their lineup (or eight and Longoria) things might be different.

All I’m saying is that there’s a lot of work still to be done, and if it isn’t done or done poorly, the ascendancy of the Devil Rays is far from a given. And they are in the toughest division in Baseball to accomplish it.

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15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sky // Jan 14, 2008 at 9:15 am

    I agree that catcher is a gaping hole for the Rays. But Jason Bartlett is a great fit at short (potentially average hitter and good to very good glove) and I like Iwamura’s chances of being a good 2B. For one, that was his natural position in Japan. Second, his skillset seems to fit 2B better than 3B and their about even on the defensive spectrum. He’s seems to be more of a range and hands guys than a reaction and arm guy. But that could just be me talking out of my arse.

  • 2 Brick // Jan 14, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Just pointing out that Bartlett is the SS, not Zobrist. With Bartlett under team control for 4 years and Brignac being the young guy who will get multiple chances, I’d be surprised to see Zobrist get another shot at being the starter, barring an injury.

    As for Iwamura, it was interesting. My eyes and the stats told me two different things. The stats may come out mediocre for Iwamura in part because the guy next to him (first Harris, then Zobrist/Wilson) was so poor defensively that the statistics bled over into Iwamura’s. Another alternative is that being 5’9″ rather than 6’3″ really did affect his defense, and while it looked like he was making great plays on flying leaps, they were on balls that would have been routine plays for a normal-sized 3B. At the very least, these two factors should be gone for ’08. Iwamura isn’t relatively tiny for a 2B, and he’ll be wedged between two good defenders in Bartlett and Pena, so if he flounders at 2B, then I guess he just isn’t cut out for the position.

  • 3 Voros // Jan 14, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    I was talking about Zobrist at 2B, which is really all that’s left if Iwamura doesn’t pan out there. As for SS, Bartlett should be good enough for now, but “now” isn’t the critical point in time for the Devil Rays. When the Devil Rays are ready to actually compete, is he going to be good enough to get it done? I think that’s a big question.

  • 4 Voros // Jan 14, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    God I keep calling them the Devil Rays. I can’t help it.

  • 5 Dave // Jan 14, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    Reid Brignac? Arguably the top SS prospect in baseball does nothing for you?

  • 6 Voros // Jan 14, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Well Brignac’s a guy that just hit .260 in AA. Yes he could turn out, but I mean that’s part of the reason why the DRays and Royals haven’t really competed for a while. David DeJesus turns out, Dee Brown, Carlos Febles and Angel Berroa more or less don’t.

    I think you need a bit of prospect redundancy, and it appears the Rays have essentially one middle infield prospect, and I don’t think he’s anything near a slam dunk.

  • 7 smrad8 // Jan 14, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    **David DeJesus turns out, Dee Brown, Carlos Febles and Angel Berroa more or less don’t.**

    What a blast from the past. Remember when Carlos Febles and Carlos Beltran were nicknamed the Dos Carlos? It seemed like really a good nickname for all of spring training.

  • 8 Pete Toms // Jan 14, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Voros I’m in your camp. A lot of great prospects don’t pan out. I’ll add a more recent example to your Wilson, Pulsipher, Isringhausen example, the DVD trio ( admittedly they could still all “pan out”, but at least 2 of them will not be in Rangers unis ).

    It seems every time there is a vets for prospects trade the baseball web chattering classes overwhelmingly interpret the winner of the trade as the recipient of the prospect(s). I question that.

    Voros, you did a lot of work for the Red Sox on the amateur draft. How far has evaluating amateur talent come? It’s not that long ago that Sandy Alderson concluded it was awful and new approaches were needed. Those new approaches have been adopted but how much better are the results?

  • 9 Voros // Jan 14, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    “Voros, you did a lot of work for the Red Sox on the amateur draft. How far has evaluating amateur talent come?”

    That’s really a discussion for another time. The aluminum bat is probably a real hurdle to overcome. I’ll get into this later, as the amateur draft is really much more of a springtime conversation.

    A look at Baseball America’s top 10 Prospects in all of baseball from 2000 reveals four hits (Burrell, Vernon Wells, Nick Johnson, Furcal), four misses (counting Ankiel as a miss plus Ruben Mateo, Ryan Anderson and Sean Burroughs) and two glancing blows (Corey and John Patterson).

    And BA has 6 of the guys on the Rays top 10 as starters for the Rays in four years. That’s not a realistic outlook (not if the Rays are also going to be a good team then). Longoria is the only one I’d put better than even money on. Everyone else qualifies strictly as a “maybe.”

  • 10 Pete Toms // Jan 14, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    For fun I’ve been wanting to look at the BA #1’s for all teams from whatever – 4 to 5 years ago – to see what transpired. I’d be shocked if a lot of them didn’t turn out poorly.

    I’m not slagging BA, I think they are very credible, they are compiling info from the teams and presenting it to us geeks, they are not evaluators.

    I read all the BA Top 10’s but I understand that most won’t have significant big league careers. If each team has 10 legit prospects, that’s 300 in total. There are 750 players on 25 mans, the turnover isn’t high enough to suggest that most “prospects” have legit shots as big leaguers.

    All this to say that the Matt Morris’ & Carlos Silva’s of MLB aren’t the awful acquisitions that a lot of us baseball web geeks think.

  • 11 Squawking Baseball » Blog Archive » Wednesday Catch Up: Cameron, Kotsay, etc. // Jan 16, 2008 at 4:14 am

    […] McCracken does a pretty good job of assessing the Rays’ progress. There are certainly some legitimate reasons to be optimistic, but they have a lot more to do […]

  • 12 Sky // Jan 16, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    I might be crazy, but I think “now” is when the Rays are ready to compete.

  • 13 Alan // Jan 21, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Couple of quibbles. The Mets’ trio is an excellent example of how young pitchers usually don’t pan out, except the Rays have two who HAVE: They’re looking to fill in behind Kazmir and Shields, not build a rotation from scratch, and I think the difference is worth noting. (Granting that in a year or two they might STILL be looking to fill in behind Kazmir and Shields.) Also, I doubt Rays management believes it’s “as simple as waiting a few years and then conquering” either. They’ve made plenty of moves to suggest they’re not just sitting around waiting for the kids to develop (a widespread assumption that Friedman et al have openly disputed).

    FWIW. Basically I agree. I’m moderately optimistic, but I know the odds are stacked against them.

  • 14 Paul // Jan 22, 2008 at 6:16 am

    I’d go one further to say that they are filling in behind Kaz, Shields, and Garza. And I think the key with the pitching is the tremendous depth, because yes, prospects do flame out. If MLB pitchers don’t come from top prospects, they come from the depth that the Rays have done a pretty good job of accummulating.

    Also, I’m not yet ready to stick a fork in Dioner Navarro or Edwin Jackson yet. (I’ll be more than ready if their first halfs this year resemble their first half last year, rather than their second halfs) And Bartlett is every bit an MLB SS and under control for quite a while. He’s probably a 30 run upgrade defensively and a wash offensively over Brendan Harris.

    Lastly, the thing that is MOST encouraging is an evaluation of the new front office. Voros says that he was amused by the sheer wrongness of the old front office plan, but how can you not be enamored with the plan in place and the progress and moves made in these first couple of years of Sternberg direction?

  • 15 Brendan Gawlowski // Jan 22, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Does Shields already count as a pitcher who has already panned out? I know last season was really good, but so was Mark Prior in 2003.

    And also, how does the organization see Andy Sonnanstine? I asked someone who covers the Rays, and he said Sonnanstine might be headed to the bull pen, which sounds odd considering he hasn’t made a relief appearance since 2004. That said, they do have some pitching depth, and while I like Sonnanstine over guys like Edwin Jackson, will the Rays focus on potential or will they look at the stats instead?

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