Friday, February 25, 2011

Can Tampa Bay Raise Expectations for 2011?

If 2008 was a miracle, then 2010 was destiny. Having added Rafael Soriano as the closer to fortify one of the best starting rotations in the big leagues, coupled with key off- and pre-season signings of Jason Bartlett, B.J. Upton, John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, and Ben Zobrist (among others), the Tampa Bay Rays had lots to be excited about. Anything less than a playoff berth would've been a disappointment. This time around, it was different. No longer could the Rays sneak up on the Yankees, Red Sox, and practically everyone else in baseball. They had to play like an elite team, and they did, but not without some bumps in the road. Sure, the Pat Burrell experiment didn’t work out. And yeah, "Big Game" James Shields lost his mojo as the season wound down. But the Rays scratched and clawed their way into the postseason and, ultimately, the number one seed in the AL playoffs, having won the division on the final day. Unfortunately for them, the Rays ran into a rested, hungrier version of themselves in the Texas Rangers. During the American League Divisional Series, their offense fell flatter than day old soda. In a heartbreaking five-game series, which saw the road team win every game for the first time, Tampa Bay could not come through in the clutch. Season over. Destiny denied.

Once the offseason rolled in, the dominoes started to fall. The first to go was Joaquin Benoit, the Rays' 8th inning setup man, who signed a 3-year deal with the Detroit Tigers. First baseman Carlos Peña signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs, and starting pitcher Matt Garza joined him a month later. Shortstop Jason Bartlett was (eventually) traded to the San Diego Padres. Sparsely used catcher Dioner Navarro literally walked away from the team, and he was later picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Several key relief pitchers like Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler, and Rafael Soriano signed deals with other teams. To cap it off, long-time Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli officially retired at the age of 29 due to a chronic medical condition that severely limits his physical capabilities to play professional baseball at full strength.

But all that paled in comparison when outfielder Carl Crawford, arguably the face of the Tampa Bay franchise since he made his major league debut in 2002, signed a 7-year, $142 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, a key divisional rival. So much for Crawford being an Angel in the outfield at Anaheim.

However, the Rays didn't stay dormant while gathering around the hot stove. They signed one-year deals for pithcer Kyle Farnsworth, and outfielders B.J. Upton, Johnny Damon, and Manny Ramirez (among others).

For Tampa Bay, it's a sobering conclusion to end what was the 2010 season.

Clearly, the one saving grace keeping them from being just another average team last year was their pitching. Franchise records were broken in wins (David Price with 19) and saves (Rafael Soriano with 45). Their 3.78 ERA was the second best in the American League, and it was the best among all playoff teams in the AL. And after getting no-hit four previous times in franchise history, the Rays finally turned the tables against Detroit at home in July on ESPN with Matt Garza on the mound, of all people.

The only lingering problem all season for the Rays was their offense. It was putrid, to say the least. As a whole, they batted 0.247, which ranked next to last in the American League and tied for 26th (out of 30 teams with the Houston Astros) in all of baseball. They easily had the lowest team batting average amongst all playoff contenders; in fact, the team with the next lowest batting average was the World Champion San Francisco Giants, who batted 0.257. Now, one hundredth of a percentage point doesn't sound like much but, in many cases, that small discrepancy can be the difference between playing in late October and watching it on TV. Twice they were victims of no-hitters, including the perfect game tossed by Dallas Braden back on Mother's Day. (They came within one out of losing a third no-hitter back in August to the Blue Jays at Toronto.) In doing so, they became the first team since the 2001 San Diego Padres to have been no-hit twice in the same season, the first team to win and lose a no-hitter in the same season since the 1991 Chicago White Sox, and the first team to be involved in three no-hitters in the same season since the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers. That's not a piece of history they ought to be proud of.

The Rays' volatile off-season coupled with a inconsistent 2010 campaign has, in many aspects, shaken the foundation of this franchise to its core. This crescendo of hits (or lack thereof) and misses ultimately boils down to one question: can Tampa Bay compete in 2011? In short, yes. Yes they can. But to do so, they're gonna face extraordinary circumstances.

The Rays have a young, experienced nucleus at the helm, highlighted by AL Cy Young runner-up David Price and three-time All-Star Evan Longoria. Let's also not forget a few other noteworthy rookies to keep an eye on this year, including Jeremy Hellickson, who became the first pitcher in 90 years to go at least six innings and yield three hits or less in his first three starts, and outfielder Desmond Jennings, a practical carbon copy of Carl Crawford.

Meanwhile, most of the Rays' everyday players are unsung heroes and relatively unknown outside the Tampa Bay area and their hometowns, such as Reid Brignac, Ben Zobrist, and Wade Davis. Anyone? My thoughts exactly. Its like a solar eclipse over who the Rays are and what they're about.

To have even a puncher's chance of competing this year, it's evident that the Rays need to be more disciplined at the plate. I don't care that they ranked third in runs scored with 802 last year. When the team batting average for the regular season is 0.247, the highest paid player (Carlos Peña) is batting under the Mendoza line, and only one guy is batting over 0.300 (Carl Crawford at 0.307), there has to be some cause for concern. A discrepancy of this nature cannot be good over the long haul.

This year's rotation also leaves a lot to be desired. Probable starters include David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis. But they all come with question marks. How will Price rebound after being outdueled by Cliff Lee in the opening and decisive games of the ALDS? Is Hellickson the next big thing, or is he a major league fluke? Has Shields lost his edge à la Scott Kazmir? Can Niemann and Davis continue to post solid numbers in the back order?

Even more puzzling will be Tampa Bay's bullpen. Aside from everyday position players, the Rays have lost several important pieces critical to both their playoff runs two of the last three years, as mentioned above. The task at hand will be to reassemble a bullpen with young, inexperienced arms in the hope that they'll be able to keep the Rays ahead or around in tight ball games. It's a pitch that'll give manager Joe Maddon fits as Opening Day gets closer and closer.

Of course, it doesn't help that the media's perception of the team is mediocre at best and indifferent at worst. ESPN frequently (and erroneously) mentions that the Rays play in Tampa, but they actually play in nearby St. Petersburg a county over. Their stadium, Tropicana Field, is often mocked for it's unorthodox design (with the catwalks being the main culprit) and is referred derisively as an over-inflated pillow and a misplaced oil drum, among others. Their free ticket giveaway for the final regular season home game was a checkered affair. The promotion was lauded as a smart idea to get the fans out to the stadium in a tough, economic market, yet loathed as a poor business move. Go figure.

It's even more debilitating when the Rays simply aren't drawing in enough fans to watch one of the best teams in baseball day in and day out. Consider this. In the three years since Tampa Bay changed their moniker and became a perennial playoff contender, they drew 1,780,791 fans in 2008, 1,874,962 in 2009, and 1,864,999 in 2010. Sounds like a lot of people, until you realize that in those three years, the Rays ranked 12th, 11th, and 9th out of 14 teams in the American League, respectively. Adding all those figures divided by 3 (seasons), then divided by 81 (home games per regular season) gives a mean attendance of about 22,719 fans. That means, during the past three years, the Rays played their home games in a stadium barely 60 percent full. By comparison, more than double that many people would rather watch the nearby Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that's saying something, considering the Bucs’ season-long issues with home blackouts and major cuts to their payroll. But I digress. And it didn’t really help that the Rays’ biggest stars, Price and Longoria, lambasted fans for not showing up during a critical playoff run this past September. Forget friendly fire, that's some serious heat they're spewing.

Speaking of payroll, the Rays will be short upwards of $20 million this year from last. This was an inevitable move by the management, even if Tampa Bay had gone all the way and won the World Series. It was this decision that caused the mass exodus of players to leave the Rays like they were a plague to their careers. It's hard to blame them, especially when needy big market teams have more than enough money (which Tampa Bay has a fraction of) to buy their services.

Worst of all is the competition that Tampa Bay has to compete within their own market. Many baseball fans in Florida are fair-weather fans – literally and figuratively. They like to cheer for the best teams outside of Florida because those are the teams they grew up on. Many transplants come from other big league markets, such as New York, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Atlanta. Historically, of course, the Rays have been horrendously bad until just a few years ago, so it gave these people all the more reason to stick by the teams they left to come to the Sunshine State. What loyal fans. Many theories exist to explain this anomaly, including one that the original owner, Vince Naimoli, was not a fan favorite and turned many people off about the new franchise. But it doesn't help that some of these "fans" living in Florida are not true fans of their teams at all. They're only in the state of Florida because of it's relatively warm weather year 'round and no state income tax. Again, I digress.

This year will mark the fourteenth season in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays. And, as anyone who went through adolescence will know, the teenaged years are often a frightening time to make a name for one's self out in the big, bad world.

As such, heading into their first Spring Training game tomorrow and yet another marathon season of professional baseball about a month from now, here's hoping Tampa Bay can give all their fans something to be sunny about in 2011.

Statistics courtesy of The Baseball Cube.

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