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Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 91-71 Manager: Joe Maddon

The scrappiest team in baseball, the Rays are a tough matchup because of their talent, but also their overall tenacity. That comes from Maddon, who might be the best manager in baseball. Their starting rotation might be the best in baseball and they have a solid, if not spectacular lineup. There is good reason for the high expectations on the Gulf Coast.

Player in the spotlight: Evan Longoria 3B

Longoria got off to a slow start last year, partially due to injuries, but he ended the season strong and went over 30 HRs again. He’s the everyday face of the franchise and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be a MVP candidate again.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: BJ Upton CF

Upton annually teases the Rays and fans alike with his immense talent. Especially since younger brother Justin’s performance in Arizona has been so impressive. But Upton probably enters his last season with the Rays as he will become a free agent at the end of the season. If he is able to finally put it all together with a big contract as motivation, the Rays lineup suddenly becomes deep with high quality hitters and they could top triple digit wins.

Pitcher in the spotlight: David Price

The big, hard throwing lefty is an annual Cy Young candidate and after a slightly disappointing 2011, Price should be really good this year. If he can keep his ERA back under 3.00, Price should win 20 games for the first time in his career.

Biggest pitching question mark: Kyle Farnsworth   Closer

Part of this concern is due to Farnsworth starting the season on the DL. But expecting consecutive stellar seasons at 36, including a season starting trip to the DL, might be too much. Expect to see one of the other solid bullpen arms like Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta to get some looks at the closer role. Maddon might decide to go with a committee for the first half of the season before they settle on one option for the ninth inning.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Alex Torres SP

Torres is a major league ready, high quality 24 year old lefty starter. Only the Rays can keep a talent like this in AAA due to the incredible starting pitching depth. Look for Torres to be the trade bait to either upgrade the lineup or to get a closer.

Prediction: 2nd in AL East and wildcard

The Rays are primed to give the Yankees all they can handle in the AL East. This could be a great two-team battle for first that goes down to the final week. The division title means more now with the added wildcard team setting up that one game playoff so teams are much better off getting in as a division winner. The Rays should win at least 95 games and could possibly win triple digits for the first time in club history. As long as they can find a solution for closing out ballgames, the Rays could become the favorites to win the AL.

MLB Daily Balk Morning Rundown 5/6

 

Last Night’s Games  
American  
New York 3 Detroit 6
Toronto 1 Tampa Bay 3
Los Angeles 11 Boston 0
Baltimore 1 Kansas City 9
Cleveland 4 Oakland 3
Texas 1 Seattle 3
National  
Houston 4 Cincinnati 10
San Francisco 2 New York 5
Florida 3 St. Louis 6
Washington 3 Philadelphia 7
Milwaukee 1 Atlanta 2
Colorado 2 Arizona 3

 

The Say Hey Kid turns 80 today!

Best of Yesterday May 5

Jay Bruce provided the offense, going 3 for 4 with a homer and 3 runs scored and Homer Bailey pitched well in his 2011 debut for the Reds. Bailey only gave up 1 run in 6 innings to earn the win over the Astros.

The Tigers snapped their 7-game losing streak on Tuesday and won their third straight against the Yankees on Thursday. Brennan Boesch, the new # 3 hitter, went 2 for 3 with a homer and 3 RBI and Rick Porcello gave up only 2 runs in 7 innings to earn his 2nd win for the Tigers.

Carlos Beltran hit his 5th homer and Mike Pelfrey put together a rare quality start to win for the Mets. The Mets really benefitted from the GiantsJonathan Sanchez‘ lack of control with his 6 walks.

David Price shutdown the Blue Jays for 8 innings and allowed an unearned run in the 9th for his 4th win of the season. Price struck out 10 and walked none in another masterpiece. Remember when the Rays were 1-8? Well, they’re 16-6 since and a game out of first.

The Angels got the wakeup call and the Red Sox didn’t as they played a day game following their 2:45 AM finish on Thursday morning. Joel Pineiro and the rest of the Angels pitchers were effective enough to shutout the Sox and rookie Mike Trumbo blasted his 6th homer off former Angel John Lackey.

The Cardinals waited out Josh Johnson and roughed him up late in the game, punctuated by an 8th inning 3-run homer by Lance Berkman off reliever Mike Dunn with two of Johnson’s runners on base. Eduardo Sanchez came on for his 3rd save in as many chances.

Bruce Chen continued his career renaissance with 7 strong innings to earn his 4th win for the Royals and Melky Cabrera went 3 for 4 with a homer, 3 runs scored, and 4 RBI. The Royals have benefitted from a favorable schedule that has had them play 20 games at home already, but they’ve capitalized with 14 wins at Kauffman Stadium.

Jack Hannahan drove in the go-ahead run in the 12th inning and Lou Marson drove in Hannahan with a much needed insurance run for the Indians in their MLB-leading 21st win of the season. Ryan Sweeney had a 5 for 6 day for the Athletics as he drove in the tying run in the 8th inning to send the game to extra innings and then drove in another run in the 12th, but it wasn’t enough.

Roy Halladay won his 5th game with a 10 strikeout, 0 walk performance and Raul Ibanez went 3 for 4 again with another homer for the Phillies. Ibanez had a 0 for 35 streak going at the beginning of the series and proceeded to go 8 for 12 with 2 homers and 3 doubles against the Nationals in 3 games.

The Braves continue to haunt Milwaukee as they swept the Brewers in their 4-game series despite an admirable effort by Shawn Marcum. Brandon Beachy pitched well but it was Jonny Venters who picked up the win after Martin Prado blasted the go-ahead homer in the 8th.

Justin Upton got his 2nd walk off hit this week for the Diamondbacks as he blooped a single in front of Rockies RF Seth Smith to drive in Chris Young in the 11th inning. The game only went to extra innings because Huston Street blew his first save of the season by allowing home runs to Gerardo Parra and Chris Young in the bottom of the 9th to tie the game at 2. The Rockies’ players called it the toughest loss of the season.

Justin Smoak continued his very good early season hitting with a 3 for 4 night that included a solo homer for the Mariners. Jason Vargas pitched well and got his 2nd win and Brandon League earned his 9th save. Colby Lewis went the distance in the loss and struck out 11 for the Rangers.

 

What Happened (!!)Yesterday?

Mike Dunn of the Marlins came into the game in the 8th inning to face Lance Berkman with two runners on base on Thursday afternoon. Dunn had pitched 2 perfect innings of relief on Wednesday night and one wonders why manager Edwin Rodriguez would go to Dunn in that situation so soon after his extended effort on Wednesday. The result was a 3-run homer by Lance Berkman and the Marlins lost the game. The Marlins are going to need better judgment by Rodriguez if they’re going to compete with the Braves and Phillies to win the NL East.

Chris Tillman got lit up again for the Orioles and manager Buck Showalter needs the 23-year old to regain his confidence in AAA. It’s still early in the season and Tillman just appears to be overmatched so far this season. He’s started 6 games and only has 27 2/3 innings with 22 earned runs in those games. It’s not his strikeouts, walks, or homers allowed that’s hurting him. It’s his opponents’ batting average that is at .314. If the O’s aren’t willing to send Tillman back to the minors, then they at least have to consider moving him into a middle relief role until he gets a better feel for major league hitters. Logging less than 5 innings per start is a sure way to destroy a bullpen.

 

AL News/Notes

The Royals are calling up top prospect Eric Hosmer as they get serious about competing in the AL Central race this season.

The Angels and Red Sox marathon game on Wednesday night was the longest in Fenway Park’s history. Red Sox owner John Henry was passing out free coffee and hot chocolate to the fans who remained to the end.

Jose Bautista went back to Toronto early and the Blue Jays aren’t sure when he’ll be available to play again due to his stiff neck.

Eduardo Nunez struggled in the field for the Yankees playing for Derek Jeter on Thursday and Alex Rodriguez thinks that he might know why. Also, Eric Chavez broke a toe and could be out for awhile.

  

NL News/Notes

The Cubs are having issues with their starting pitching and they could turn to journeyman lefty Doug Davis. Davis is pitching in A-ball for the Cubs and could be activated to start on May 14.

The Astros’ Bill Hall got tossed by home plate umpire Tom Hallion and didn’t have anything flattering to say about the veteran ump after the game. Also, the Astros placed struggling closer Brandon Lyon on the DL on Thursday.

Roy Oswalt returned to the Phillies and should be good to start on Saturday against the Braves. Also, despite his starting success, Vance Worley is likely headed back to AAA when Joe Blanton returns. The Phils really need a good stretch from Blanton when he returns in order to entice a potential trade partner to take Blanton’s contract, or a significant part of it.

Nyjer Morgan just came off the DL for the Brewers and is headed back to the DL after breaking his middle finger on his left hand. Morgan has provided a much needed spark at the top of the order that is absent with Carlos Gomez. The Brewers haven’t been able to put it all together yet this season and continued injuries and performances like Yovani Gallardo‘s threatens their chances in the NL Central.

The Diamondbacks got a homer from pitcher Barry Enright on Wednesday and sent him to AAA on Thursday. The problem hasn’t been Enright’s hitting, but his poor pitching. The D’backs activated Aaron Heilman from the DL.

  

Top Friday Matchups

7:05 EDT Braves (Lowe 2-3, 3.72) at Phillies (Lee 2-2, 3.66)

7:05 EDT Rays (Shields 2-1, 2.14) at Orioles (Britton 5-1, 2.63)

8:15 EDT Brewers (Wolf 3-2, 2.39) at Cardinals (Garcia 3-0, 2.48)

10:10 EDT White Sox (Humber 2-3, 3.06) at Mariners (Hernandez 3-2, 3.21)

10:15 EDT Rockies (Jimenez 0-2, 7.20) at Giants (Cain 2-2, 3.28)

 

Yesterday’s Balks: 2

  • Chris Tillman of the Orioles against the Royals
  • Brett Anderson of the A’s against the Indians

MLB Daily Balk Morning Rundown 4/19

"The Freak" matched the great Christy Mathewson last night for the Giants

Best of Yesterday April 18

Dice-K shuts out the Blue Jays for 7 innings (1H, 1 BB, 3 K) and Jed Lowrie goes off again (4 for 5, HR, 4 RBI) for the Red Sox on Patriot’s Day at Fenway. Lowrie is now hitting .516 on the season.

David Price and the Rays shut out the White Sox. Price went 8 innings with 9 Ks and 2 BBs. Cult hero Sam Fuld went 4 for 4 to raise his average to .396.

Tim Lincecum was filthy on the mound for the Giants as he didn’t give up a hit through 6 1/3 until Carlos Gonzalez singled in the seventh. The Freak had 10+ strikeouts for the 29th time in his career. That ties Christy Mathewson for the most in Giants history.

The Giants Nate Schierholtz blasted a homer into the 3rd deck at Coors Field on Monday night. His brother, who is a cadet at the Air Force Academy, was at the game and tracked down the 467 foot blast.

Brewers rookie Brandon Kintzler got his first career win by pitching two scoreless innings as the Brewers win 6-3 in 12 innings. John Axford blew the save in the 9th for the Brewers, but manager Ron Roenicke feels that Axford’s control problems are fixable.

Joe Blanton finally pitched well for the Phillies as he went 7 innings and gave up 2 earned runs. His success will make it easier for the Phillies to trade him later in the season to free up money.

Kevin Correia of the Pirates pitched a complete game (3R, 2ER) to claim his third win of the season as the Pirates beat the Reds in 3 of 4 to win their weekend series.

The Reds Aroldis Chapman hit 106 MPH on the GABP radar gun. But that has been adjusted by more “accurate” readings down to 103 MPH. That’s still better than the mid 90s he was throwing last week.

CJ Wilson gave up 1 run over 7 innings as the Rangers beat the Angels 7-1. Wilson overpowered the Angels with 9 Ks and only walked one to go to 2-0. Adrian Beltre hit his 5th HR for the Rangers and is now tied for the AL lead in RBI with 16.

More inches of snow in Chicago on Monday, 1.2 inches, than runs scored at Wrigley during the Cubs 1-0 win over the Padres.

Carlos Zambrano has 10 Ks and only 1 walk in 8 inning of shutout ball for the Cubs. Tim Stauffer went 7 innings for the Padres. Tyler Colvin provided the walk off double for the Cubs.

Tigers Ryan Raburn alledgedly became the first player to hit the roof at Safeco Field in Seattle. He did it on a foul ball.

Ted Lilly threw 7 scoreless innings for the Dodgers in their win over the Braves 4-2. Lilly got his first win of the season.

AL News/Notes

The A’s reacquired pitcher David Purcey from the Blue Jays. Purcey had been traded from the A’s to Jays in the offseason and was designated for assignment last week.

The Yankees are going to be cautious regarding Alex Rodriguez’ injuries. That’s easier with Eric Chavez filling in the way he has so far this season (.467 AVG, 2 2Bs).

The Mariners OF Franklin Gutierrez is heading to the Mayo Clinic for tests to help figure out why his stomach is continuing to be an issue.

The Angels are trying to do everything to get lefty starter Scott Kazmir back on track. Now he’s off to Arizona for extended spring training.

NL News/Notes

Jason Bay could return to the Mets on Thursday. Bay is scheduled to play in minor league rehab games on Tuesday and Wednesday.

After his leadoff homer on Sunday, the Pirates Andrew McCutchen now has seven leadoff homers in his career.

The Brewers aren’t ready to activate setup reliever LaTroy Hawkins yet despite rejoining the team in Philly. He might be activated on Wednesday or Friday. Also, RF Corey Hart is beginning an AAA rehab assignment on Tuesday and could be back in a week or so.

The Giants could activate OF Cody Ross on Tuesday if everything went well during his rehab start at AAA Fresno on Monday night. Rookie 1B Brandon Belt could be sent down when Ross returns according to manager Bruce Bochy.

The Braves reliever Peter Moylan has a bulging disc in his back and is looking to avoid surgery. The Braves finally moved Jason Heyward to the 2 hole in the lineup and dropped Nate McLouth to 8th in the order.

The Phillies lefty reliever JC Romero strained his right calf and could be heading to the DL. That will make fellow lefty Antonio Bastardo even more important in the Phillies bullpen going forward.

Dodgers rookie OF/1B Jerry Sands debuted with a double against Tim Hudson and the Braves. Manager Don Mattingly said that Sands, who started in LF, could see time at first base if James Loney struggles.

Streak of the Day

The Baltimore Orioles have now lost 8 straight games after starting the season 6-1.

Top Tuesday Matchups

6:40 EDT White Sox (Danks 0-1, 3.15) at Rays (Shields 0-1, 3.98)

7:05 EDT Brewers (Wolf 1-2, 4.32) at Phillies (Halladay 2-0, 1.23)

7:07 EDT Yankees (Burnett 3-0, 4.67) at Blue Jays (Drabek 1-0, 1.93)

8:40 EDT Giants (Sanchez 1-1, 3.24) at Rockies (Jimenez 0-0, 7.50)

Last night’s balks: 0

Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day Overview

Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day Overview

Manager: Joe Maddon  GM: Andrew Friedman

  Lineup:
1 2B Ben Zobrist
2 LF Johnny Damon
3 3B Evan Longoria/Sean Rodriguez
4 DH Manny Ramirez
5 1B Dan Johnson
6 CF BJ Upton
7 RF Matt Joyce
8 SS Reid Brignac
9 C John Jaso/Kelly Shoppach

 

Zobrist couldn’t replicate his 2009 career year, but his ability to draw walks make him a viable top or the order hitter. Zobrist played RF, 2B, 1B, and CF at least 10 games each. His versatility allows Maddon added flexibility to mix and match different lineup combinations. As long as his OBP remains near .350, he’ll produce enough to justify his spot in the lineup.

Damon is another high OBP hitter due to his ability to draw walks. While Damon isn’t the dynamic offensive player that he was a few years ago, he still hits for doubles and remains .270+ hitter.

Longoria is a potential MVP and at 25, will still improve his already impressive numbers. His power dropped last season but his OPS was only off by about .010 due to his increased batting average and slightly better eye at the plate. He’s always a threat get an extra base hit, as his 73 XBH last year and his 77 XBH in 2009 show. He’s going to miss a few weeks after straining an oblique in his side. Rodriguez will get the majority of the time and primarily fill in for Longoria. He’s much better against lefties and will be the regular second baseman against lefties when Longoria returns. The drop off from Longoria to Rodriguez is enough that the Rays could lose a few games in the standings due to the lack of production.

Ramirez hit well with the Dodgers last year but didn’t with the White Sox. The Rays are hoping that Manny can just concentrate on hitting for a small market team that doesn’t have media distractions or anything that could get Manny off his game. When focused, Manny still hits at a high level and walks a lot. If he gets 500 at bats, the Rays should have one of the better cleanup hitters in the AL.

Johnson has been a big OPS guy in the past with Oakland and in the minors. His OBP was .343 despite only hitting .198 last season. The Rays are putting him at first base hoping that he’s able to get on base and hit for power. It remains to be seen how long the Rays can continue with a first baseman that has an atrocious average. Former Cuban defector and AAA 1B Leslie Anderson could be in the mix here as the season goes on.

Upton rediscovered his power last season but still only hit .237. The ceiling for Upton has been considered sky high but at 26, he’s still searching for consistency at the plate and his ability to get on base was better in 2007-2008 than it’s been the past two seasons. Upton could move to right field at some point this season to make room for top prospect Desmond Jennings. If Upton is unable to improve his offensive numbers, then the Rays will most likely look to move him either during this season or after the season as 2012 is the final year for Upton before free agency.

Joyce is another of the Rays low average, good power, high on base guys and will be in right field against righties. Joyce was pretty effective as he hada .837 OPS in limited at bats last year and could be pretty valuable if he gets 400-450 at bats against righties this year. Zobrist moves to right field against lefties.

Brignac has settled in as the starter at short with Jason Bartlett gone. With modest improvement of his .692 OPS, the Rays could use Brignac to improve to at least a .750 OPS, especially if he ends up in a platoon. Rookie Elliott Johnson is a candidate to share time with him if Brignac has trouble with lefties.

Jaso will hit either 9th or leadoff depending on who’s in the lineup. He’s a high OBP guy and will hit better than his platoon partner, Kelly Shoppach. Shoppach is the perfect complement to the lefty Jaso as he has solid numbers against lefties.

  Starting Pitching
1 LHP David Price
2 RHP James Shields
3 RHP Wade Davis
4 RHP Jeff Niemann
5 RHP Jeremy Hellickson

 

Price was one of the top 3 starting pitchers in the AL last season and should be in that group again this year. The next step for Price to become an elite starting pitcher is to become a 220+ IP guy. The true aces can pitch at a high level and do it over a lot of innings. With the depleted bullpen, Price might have to go deeper into games to ensure that he gets the winning decision.

Shields took a major step back last season after pitching well for three years. He led the AL in HRs allowed, earned runs allowed, and hits allowed. He did this despite increasing his strikeout rate. The Rays will have to make a major decision on Shields, whose contract increases substantially with high priced options starting next season. If he can’t turn around his numbers to be more in line with 2007-2009, then he’ll probably be moved at the July trade deadline or in the winter. This summer would be more likely if his performance knocks the Rays out of the race early.

Davis just signed a long term contract to keep him in place, with options, until 2017. That was a reward for a solid rookie season in which Davis won 12 games and had a 4.07 ERA. With plenty of room for improvement, this could be a very good signing. The Rays need Davis to improve his strikeout rate to be more in line with his minor league numbers and cut down on his walks as well. He gave up 24 HRs and will need to cut that down while his workload increases from 168 IP to around 200 IP.  

Niemann isn’t tough to find. He’s the 6’9″ guy. He’s been solid but not great with 13 and 12 wins each of the last two seasons with ERAs of 3.94 and 4.39. He also gives up way too many homers and needs to improve his K-BB ratio. Currently at just above 2 to 1, his K-BB ratio needs to improve to at least 3 to 1 and he needs to cut his HR allowed to become a top of the rotation pitcher.

Hellickson is the Rays top prospect and pitched pretty well in limited innings last season. Hellickson is a high strikeout, low walk pitcher who could be a 15 game winner this season if he can sustain his numbers in the majors. The key for all Rays pitchers is keeping the ball in the park and doing so would keep Hellickson’s ERA in the low 3’s or better.

  Bullpen
CL LHP JP Howell (DL)
SET RHP Kyle Farnsworth
  RHP Joel Peralta
  RHP Andrew Sonnanstine
  LHP Jake McGee
  RHP Adam Russell
  LHP Cesar Ramos/RHP Juan Cruz

 

Howell will lead the revamped bullpen when he returns. The hope is for him to be back in the bullpen by June. Howell was a very effective late inning reliever in 2008-2009 and if he returns to his pre-injury production, the Rays will have at least one bullpen question solved.  

Farnsworth was solid last season after four seasons of subpar results. He’s now 35 and he’s going to be in the back of the bullpen to begin the season but his history should have the Rays proactively searching for late inning alternatives if they want to remain in the AL East race this season.

Peralta pitched well for the Nationals last season but has never been a highly reliable contributor to a major league bullpen. At 35, that’s unlikely to change, despite last year’s performance.

Sonnanstine was a starting prospect that is now working middle relief and spot starting. He’ll have a job until somebody better comes around.

McGee is a top prospect that is projected as a potential closer and the sooner the better for the Rays. McGee is a lefty who blows away hitters consistently and had great control numbers and kept the ball in the park in the minors. His development as a reliable late innings pitcher could be the biggest key to the Rays season.

Russell comes over from the Padres for Jason Bartlett. He’s been rather unremarkable in parts of three major league seasons as he’s dealt with a high walk rate. Ramos will probably be a long man and lefty specialist with limited upside after coming over from the Padres. Cruz is at the back end of the pen to provide innings and provides little to no upside.

  Farm Prospects who could help in 2011
1 OF Desmond Jennings
2 LHP Alex Torres
3 1B/OF Leslie Anderson

 

Jennings is the Rays top everyday prospect and should get the call as soon as a need arises in the outfield. His major league success could make it easier for the Rays front office to eventually trade Upton. Torres is the next in the line of solid starting pitching prospects that the Rays have churned out. He could see action later in the summer or could be used as trade bait if the Rays need to make a deal to win the AL East. Anderson is a Cuban defector who hits fairly well at AAA without much power. He could get a look at first if Johnson has problems reaching base.

Three Questions:

1. How will the revamped Rays lineup replace Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena?

  • The Rays are trying to address that void with Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Dan Johnson and others this season. If Manny and Damon can hit close to their recent production levels playing about 80% of the time, a lot of the lost production will be replaced. Then it comes down to the others in the lineup, like Pena’s replacement, Johnson, to make up the rest. In addition, with the questionable quality of the bullpen, the Rays might need to have a more powerful offense this season to achieve similar results.

2. Can the starting pitching sustain or improve their performance without solid #2 starter Matt Garza?

  • The Rays replace Garza with Jeremy Hellickson and the rookie might be better than Garza already. But another factor is how David Price adjusts to a slightly increased workload. To be a true ace, Price will need to increase his IP to around 220 if healthy. James Shields had a terrible season last year and needs to revert to his previous form. Wade Davis had a nice enough rookie season to warrant a long term commitment, but he’ll have to continue to prove his worth. Jeff Niemann has the potential for more, but he’s performed the same for two seasons and that might be who he is.

3. Will the Rays bullpen solidify or torpedo their postseason chances early?

  • The Rays bullpen could be a major issue this season as almost all of their relievers are new to the team. With the exception of the injured JP Howell, nobody stands out as a reliable option to close right now. Maybe rookie Jake McGee fulfills his potential quickly and takes the reins in the 9th inning early in the season. But even if that happens, there very little depth in the pen and the Rays don’t have any other major league ready prospects to put in the pen.

 

Projection

The Rays offense should be solid all season barring some major injuries or a lingering one to Longoria. Their pitching could be another story as they need steady improvement from their young starters to offset the lack of depth and quality backing them up in the bullpen. McGee almost has to grab the closer’s job and do a very good job for this team to be successful. Maybe Maddon can sort of “do it with mirrors” for the first half of the season. If the Rays can stay close, they might be able to take on some salary to bolster the bullpen. When the story of the Rays season is told, most likely the bullpen performance will tell the story. If it becomes settled, then the Rays will play meaningful games into late September and maybe get a playoff spot. If the bullpen struggles, then the Rays will struggle to finish with a winning record.