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2008 Tampa Bay Rays Ultramega Preview

They already "iced" the Devil, now it's time hell to freeze over! Watch out AL EAST!!!!


Yes, Yes… Welcome to 2008. Tampa Bay Rays pitchers and catchers report on Friday, February 15, Spring Training games begin March 1st against the Toronto and their regular season begins in Baltimore, March 31st.

You’ve had over two years of warning that they are just the Tampa Bay Rays now. The name change was intended to be implemented in 2007 including a new color scheme but MLB decided that they had too much merchandise and not enough time to allow it, so they made the team wait a year. Meanwhile, the team agreed with MLB’s decision and then promptly erased the word “devil” from just about everything - uniforms, tickets, apparel, even the announcers and media were encouraged to get a clue. So if you don’t get it by now, you’re not as knowledgeable about baseball as you say you are.

When principle owner Stuart Sternberg took over the Rays in late 2005 he immediately wanted to give the team a new image, a new attitude and most importantly a future. And that future is now.

Changing the logo and eliminating “Devil” from the name had less to do with superstition or religious favor and had more to do with common sense. First, it seems just about no one calls a Manta or Giant Ray a “Devil Ray” even though the fish (yes, they are fish related to sharks) have two “horns” on their head. Secondly, they want badly to shake the previous ownership’s horrendous track record of not having won more than 70 games in any of their first 8 seasons, shoving ill-fitted managers into running a young, building franchise and generally running a debacle of a baseball franchise.

Since the new ownership has come in they have installed some of the youngest, brightest minds in baseball including early-30’s something wunderkinds Andrew Friedman as General Manager and Matt Silverman as Team President. The management lowered costs of concessions (cheapest beer in MLB), made parking free at the stadium and was committed to making the fan experience the priority of the franchise.

The team reached out to community groups and began creating partnerships with local businesses. The Rays committed to making the area’s schools and youth programs a signature of the team’s new image and ingraining themselves on kids who can grow up to be life-long Rays fans. They also spearheaded a movement towards expanding their market exposure by breaking ground on a new Spring Training site in Port Charlotte to the south due to open in 2009 and hosting a home series (a sweep over the Rangers) in Orlando to the east. In 2008, they will host the Toronto Blue Jays in Orlando.

Next they initiated plans to resurrect and overhaul Tropicana Field from a dull slant-roofed warehouse into a multi-cultural and a many splendor-ed baseball cathedral. The playing surface was replaced by the innovative Field Turf II which reacts much more like real grass than turf was praised by the players. The exterior was upgraded and made more environmentally friendly with help from a local botanical garden. There were dozens of new fan interactive activities added to the concourse. The Ted Williams Hitter’s Museum was expanded and nearly doubled in size. And the upper concourse was redesigned to resemble Ybor City, Tampa historic cigar district and famed party hotspot.

They inserted former Angels bench coach Joe Maddon as manager in 2006 with the goal of eliminating the negative attitudes that were lingering from the past, teaching the young players how to play with professionalism and developing a core of very talented young players. While he increased the team’s record by 5 games from his first season, a lack of quality pitching severely hampered his ability to garner continuity.

In the meantime, during all of this building (note: I won’t use the term re-building because that infers there was something built to begin with) the Rays have finished dead last in baseball for the last two seasons earning them the distinction of becoming the first team with two consecutive #1 overall draft picks. The 2008 draft will also yield the Rays their fourth #1 overall pick in the last 10 drafts (Josh Hamilton - 1999, Delmon Young - 2003 and David Price - 2007), also a distinction as no team has ever drafted #1 four times in less than 15 years. They have drafted no lower than 8th since they began play in 1998.

2007 Season recap

Template:Manny Stiles/2008 Rays Preview Friday, April 6 was the high water mark in 2007. The Rays were 2-1, a half game over .500 and also a half game in first place of the AL East. By the end of April they were 5.5 games out and sinking fast.

2007 was the team’s 10th season in MLB and 9th last place finish in the AL East at 66-96. While their record was the worst in baseball in 2007, it tied the 1984 San Francisco Giants’ distinction for having the most wins by a team with the worst record in MLB. So while “last place” sounds bad, keep in mind there has literally been well over 100 baseball teams that had a season with less than the Rays 66 wins or .407 winning percentage.

Bad defense and horrid pitching defined the 2007 season for the Rays. While the offense was certainly competent enough, even potent at times the pitching staff put up historically bad results due to factors including bad luck, brutal defense and well… just plain sucking.

The pitching staff was brutal, setting franchise marks in several categories. They were also last in the majors in ERA (5.53), BAA (.290), OPS (.859), WHIP (1.71), Shutouts (2), and Saves (28). On a positive, they were second in baseball in Ks (1194) which is the 5th highest total for an AL Club ever. They also became the first team ever to finish last in ERA but first in strikeouts.

`Also note that before the All-Star break they were worse (5.82 ERA, .295 BAA) than after it (5.21 ERA, .284 BAA) - due to some roster turnover (such as releasing Casey Fossum) – but still pretty bad. The staff was also BY FAR the worst in MLB in close and late situations (7th inning or later with a 1 run lead or tied, or tying run at least on deck) allowing over a full run more than 27 other teams.

The Rays had a team bullpen ERA of 6.16, allowing a collective .303 batting average to opponents. While closer Al Reyes was solid in the ninth inning, the staff allowed and an OPS of .988 with the bases loaded.

The team’s fielding percentage was tied for worst in the AL (.980) and they were 4th worst in baseball with 117 errors. They were on pace for one of the worst fielding seasons in history but tightened up their defense as the season came to a close. They were still one of the worst in the league.

The offense was a definite strength for the Rays. They scored their highest run total in franchise history (782), The Rays finished 6th in baseball as a team in HR (187), tied for 10th in AVG (.268)12th in OPS (.769) and 6th in SB (131) and had the 6th fewest GIDP (119). The Rays did set an AL record in team strikeouts with 1,324.

Considering that their home park favored pitchers (Home ERA 5.02, Away ERA 6.09) - which makes the pitching numb-ers numb-ing and the hitting stats slightly deflated (Home AVG .260, Away AVG .276) you can see why the Rays finished in last place.

Some positive notes

The Rays increased attendance in consecutive seasons for the first time and look to surpass the 2007 attendance in 2008.

Also in 2007, the team, courtesy of Team President Matt Silverman also “won” a particularBlogger for Charity” and in the process gained a very supportive fan, a loud, obnoxious voice and a general headache for fans of the rest of the teams in the AL East. You're welcome!

Before the season started I was issued many warnings by several loyal Rays fans to stop watching the games after the 6th inning. The Rays were known for establishing early leads only to watch them dissipate due to a combustible bullpen. I should have heeded the warning. I think I saw every game that Al Reyes (I started to feel like his personal bad luck charm) got beat up and I definitely appeared as the new Kreskin by accurately predicting many of the tape measure HR allowed by Brian Stokes and astounding the non-Rays aware people around me… I could have won a tidy sum if I were a more avid gambler.

2008 - Continuing to Move Forward

Although traditionally labeled as a “cheap” team, the new ownership has resources and financing to compete with the big boys yet have shown a willingness to build from within and not make frivolous and unnecessary moves that don’t make baseball sense.

A telling sign last year was how they stood pat on the Free Agent market while players such as Gil Meche were being signed to ridiculous contracts. The idea that signing a player of Meche’s magnitude would add a win per million of salary was not fiscally responsible or logical and the Rays took a beating with naysayers instead of wasting salary.

Their prudence is beginning to pay off. They re-signed the core players and extended several contracts, signed free agents and have essentially doubled their salary and surpassed the $40 million.

With new uniforms, a new waterfront stadium on the horizon, increased payroll and a genuine cohesion with the core players all buying into “the Rays Way”, the future has never been brighter or more hopeful for the organization. The farm system is one of the best in baseball and full of talented players from top to bottom. The Rays are also one of the youngest teams so they have a chance to grow together. The expectations are high but these things are relative… a 75 win season would be a major accomplishment for sure, but this group definitely has their sights set higher.

Management has stated several times that the model they are trying to emulate is that of the early ‘90s Atlanta Braves. The Braves were laughingstocks for decades before building around a core of scouting for young, talented high draft picks and solid starting pitching and making 15 straight postseasons. The Rays, following the Braves model have one of the most formidable 1-2-3 punches with Kaz, Shields and Garza and are hoping to ride those arms into many years of success.

There’s no reason to believe that the Rays won’t set a franchise record for wins in 2008 and may very well meet or surpass the elusive .500 mark and deliver the message that they are prepared to be a major player in the AL East, not just in 2008, but for the next decade or so…

The new uniforms

ManRays is ready for the games to BEGIN!!!

The Rays shifted to a new color scheme and logo that is somewhat simpler and much more aesthetically pleasing. They have kept the swimming ray as the symbol but it will no longer appear on the hats. Also added to the new scheme is a sunburst in the center of the R on ‘Rays’ on the uniform front. That dynamic helps shift a sense of rays being bottom dwelling fish to symbolizing the Sun that the Tampa Bay area is known for as well as the shining hope for the future.

The road uniforms will not say “Tampa Bay” on them as owner Stu Sternberg stressed that the team doesn’t want to represent just Tampa the city or Tampa Bay but the entire Gulf Coast region.

The new stadium

The Rays struck a deal a few months ago to build a new, futuristic open air/retractable roof dome for a mere $450 million on the waterfront of St Petersburg due to open in 2011. It will be constructed on the site of their present Spring Training site, Progress Energy Park at Al Lang Field. The deal was struck with private funding, business partnerships and minimal impact on local and state government. It helped that the Rays already had the site acquired.

The new stadium will include a fabric roof that will appear as a giant sail when up and opens to the bay in rightfield (“Crawford Cove??”). While there is some concern about Florida’s muggy weather affecting the experience designers say the air circulation will diminish the effects of humidity during the muggiest days.

The location is closer to the revitalized downtown St Petersburg area that was supposed to blossom around Tropicana Stadium, which is brisk walking distance from the new site.

Detractors of the new stadium are mostly reiterating the existing complaints of having the team play in St Pete. It is across a long bridge from the city of Tampa and many people hoped the team would move into Tampa proper. It just wasn’t feasible nor is it really necessary. As they say “Build it (and put a winner in it) and they will come”.

While the Trop is better than public perception assumes a new stadium will allow the Rays continue to reinvent their image and by 2011 the Rays could be perennial contenders.

The offseason deals

Shawn Camp and Jorge Velandiarefused assignment becoming free agents

Camp had been a favorite whipping boy for Rays fans to cast blame. His sinker rarely sank and his curve hangs more than Ron Jeremy. Other than allowing over a hit and a half per inning, allowing some humongous Home Runs and securing an ERA that wouldn’t be good if it was a mortgage rate, he was pretty awful as a Ray. He was picked up by Toronto and Tampa Bay fans will be sure to thoroughly enjoy seeing him come into games to pitch batting practice.

Velandia put up some crazy numbers in the last weeks of the season but will have a near impossible time sustaining his hot streak over a season. I haven’t heard what team has picked him up, if any…

Traded Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie to the Minnesota Twins for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett

On the surface, most people assumed this deal was simply a way to ship out a bad seed in Delmon Young. I believe this was a matter of trading talent to get talent. The Rays definitely needed decent pitching more than a decent rightfielder. Young played all 162 games with the Rays last season and finished second in AL ROY voting. There were incidents that were blown out of proportion by the media but he is a solid player who is constantly striving to improve his game.

The 24 year old Garza should be the #3 starter for years to come and has demonstrated his potential to keep base runners from becoming runs and keep his team in a game.

Harris and Bartlett both had poor years in the field and racked up the errors. While Harris produced more at bat than Bartlett in 2007 it seemed he was playing more above his potential and Bartlett was underperforming. The Rays got Harris off of waivers and turned him into a shortstop that will not only bridge the gap to Reid Brignac but also could become a solid producer in his own right.

Signed Free Agent RHP Troy Percival

Percival knows Coach Maddon from their days together in Anaheim. He will step in as closer and his experience will ease the team. Percival is another solid veteran addition. Much like Al Reyes, whom he will supplant as closer, Percival is returning to form after elbow surgery late in his career.

Dealt Brian Stokes to the Mets for cash

Stokes was a sacrificial lamb on too many occasions last season. He has scary stuff and plus velocity but gets nightmare results. He demonstrated on several occasions just how far a 97 mph fastball can be hit when it is left up in the zone to a MLB hitter. He was clearly in over his head. I called this deal simply “another Rays fleecing of the Mets”.

A 1.85 WHIP, 1.4 K/BB ratio and 7.07 ERA don’t lie. His seven losses were all of the bloodcurdling/cuss-inciting variety.

Traded Elijah Dukes to the Washington Nationals for minor leaguer Glenn Gibson

This move did have more to do with personality and talent. I know the Rays were very supportive of Elijah Dukes and they drooled over his enormous talents. He wasn’t as refined as Delmon Young coming into the season but was regarded as having a higher ceiling of potential due to his sheer natural abilities. He has a crazy strong but unbridled arm, awesome size and power and the most amazing natural batting eye I’ve ever seen. His pitch selection and plate patience is unreal.

BUT, the Rays clearly did him a favor by getting him far away from the issues of playing in his hometown area. Dukes grew up in a poor section of Hillsborough and never could seem to escape his past which gave him problems in his present. The messy divorce as well as statutory rape allegations got him put on the inactive list for most of the season so he would not be a distraction. The Rays assisted him as much as possible and tried to make it clear that the image being painted of him by the media was not the truth.

Several times there were reports from the divorce proceedings of Dukes disobeying restraining orders, having arrest warrants issued, using steroids and illicit drugs meanwhile when it all came out in the end, his ex-wife was shown to be a liar and a Class I gold digger.

Dukes played in the Dominican League before getting a favor from the Rays and allowing him a fresh start far from the ills of his hometown.

Gibson is the son of former MLB reliever Paul Gibson and has been noted for having very good movement on his off speed pitches and was rated as having the best changeup in the Nationals’ farm system.

Re-signed James Shields to a 4 year deal including 3 consecutive one year options

A very creative deal in which Shields negotiated the terms himself. It keeps him as a Ray for 7 years at a VERY reasonable price. Shields said the commitment from the team was worth way more than the money and they obliged.

Josh Wilson (waivers) and Evan Meek (minor league Rule V) both picked up by Pittsburgh Pirates

Minor moves that have little impact. Wilson is versatile and can play anywhere in the infield. He even made an appearance on the mound this past season.

Meek was a fun guy to talk to in Arizona Fall League action. Apparently the players of the AFL only talk about 2 things non-baseball – women and food. Ahhh, to be 24 again! I shared my intimate knowledge of the local cuisine and in one exchange, I explained to him the subtle differences between the various sandwiches of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

One of my favorite AFL moments came when Meeker was ejected for off-handedly saying “you suck” to himself when he misplayed a ground ball and just missed getting the runner at first. The Ump thought he was saying it to him and ejected him from the game. He was very surprised…

As he came to the dugout and sat in the tunnel to the locker room, where I was sitting, a coach astutely explained to Meek that subtleties of using the proper possessives with the word “Suck” and Meek caught on - it was hilarious – (paraphrase) “I can say ‘I suck’, ‘That sucks’, ‘We suck’ but not ‘you suck’, ‘suck it’, ‘suck me’ and probably not ‘I want to suck you’; got it”.

It was funnier than it reads…

Claimed LHP Kurt Birkins off waivers from Baltimore

Baltimore let him go and the Rays quickly picked him up. They need as many lefthanded arms as they can get in the lefty heavy AL East and not having decent lefties in the pen killed them last year. If he contributes even a minor amount, it’s a good deal. Judging from the recent past, the Rays have done quite well for themselves on the waiver wire.

Traded Jeff Ridgway for Willy Aybar and minor leaguer Chase Fontaine

Ridgway has been in Tampa Bay’s farm system for 7 years and getting Aybar for him should be an upgrade for the team. Ridgway was an odd man out with the plethora of arms coming into Spring Training and Aybar will be Maddon’s all-purpose guy for 2008. If Longoria isn’t ready, Aybar will fill the gap at third until he is.

Signed free agents RF/DH Cliff Floyd and LHP Trever Miller

It was no small secret the Rays were in the market for a lefthanded hitting OF in free agency to make up for letting Greg Norton (snicker, snicker) walk (Norton signed with the Seattle Mariners). It was also widely assumed they were looking for that lefty bat to be attached to a veteran leadership type of player. While the names were swirling I was crossing my fingers they weren’t looking at Tampa native and 82 year old lefty veteran Luis Gonzalez. And they weren’t. If they WOULD have signed Gonzo (I like him as a person, good guy – my wife used to work at the gym he would frequent with ultra-hyper Eric Byrnes and he was always a great guy in person and exceptionally nice to my kids – but he’s waxed toast as a player), it would have reeked of the old Technicolor Devil Rays. They took the right direction in signing Cornelius Cliff Floyd.

Floyd will get more favor in the clubhouse and also brings a piece of hardware to the team – a ring from 1997 to tantalize the youngsters. (Troy Percival and Eric Hinske are the only other players with a World Series ring)

Trever Miller is another lefty pickup and a former Ray. His addition to the clubhouse has a definite value in another sense. By bringing in former Rays from the lean years, the new guys can see these veterans’ appreciation for the new ownership. This move adds value not seen on a box score.

Re-signed Carlos Pena to a 3 year deal

Destroying franchise records of all sorts after making the team out of Spring Training last year as a non-roster invitee AFTER he was a final cut then re-added to the roster due to Greg Norton’s injury, Pena was a clubhouse leader with his amazingly positive attitude and genuine thankfulness to have one last shot to prove his self. This deal HAD to get done. Not only did they need to keep him in St. Petersburg for production but also for public relations. Letting him walk after a 46 HR season would have crushed the team in the court of public opinion.

Re-signed Al Reyes

After a solid first season and fine leadership the Rays re-upped Reyes to fill the setup role in front of Free Agent Troy Percival. Reyes is better suited as the 8th inning guy and will help shorten the game.

Avoided arbitration with Scott Kazmir, Jonny Gomes, Dan Wheeler each getting one year deals

All three deals were struck without arbitration and essentially gives the Rays a year to prepare for a hefty raise for Kazmir and to decide whether or not to give Gomes or Wheeler a longer deal.

Invitees to Spring Training include: 3B Evan Longoria, SS Reid Brignac, IF Eric Hinske, IF Andy Cannizaro, C Mike DeFelice, OF John Rodriguez, RHP Scott Munter, LHP Brian Anderson, IF Fernando Perez and C Josh Paul

Tomorrow: Part II - The players and positions