As the Tampa Bay Devil Rays travel to Orlando for their home series at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex against the Texas Rangers, it's the perfect time to summarize the Devil Rays season so far. Also, Rays Digest will be handing out the first ever monthly awards for April.
Headed into the season, B.J. Upton and Al Reyes didn't have guaranteed spots on the 25-man roster. Considering how valuable both players have been to the success (even if infrequent) of the team, that may surprise a lot of people out there. As well as being the top fantasy players -- this side of Carl Crawford -- on the Devil Rays through the first month of the season, Upton and Reyes have been producing consistently, and in clutch situations. Upton is currently leading Tampa Bay in all three triple crown categories with a .345 batting average, seven home runs, and 23 RBIs in the middle of the lineup. The former number two overall pick also has a .405 on base percentage and a team best .613 slugging percentage. Not bad for a guy who was expected to fill a Chone Figgins/utility role and prompted a “Where’s B.J?” section -- due to numerous starts at several various positions -- in the sports section of the St. Petersburg Times during spring training. Upton has had his fair share of troubles defensively -- at second base and center field in his first start there in Saturday’s loss to the Toronto Blue Jays -- but the elder of the talented Upton twins has also looked exceptional in several "Web Gem"caliber plays. He needs to be more consistent with from a defensive standpoint, but it's hard to make a case for a position player on the roster whose been more valuable than him.
Reyes, nicknamed “El Assenino”, is off to a scintillating start to his Tampa Bay career. In 17 appearances, Reyes is among the league leaders with 11 saves and owns a team-best 1.62 ERA. He has only given up three earned runs, one of which came off the bat of Alex Rodriguez during his incredible long ball stretch in the middle of April, in 16.2 innings of work. Again, those are fairly impressive statistics for a non-roster invitee who earned a spot in the bullpen during spring training. Somehow I don’t think projected closer Seth McClung, now pitching for Triple-A Durham, would be achieving similar success. The emergence of Reyes as the closer (even if it took a long time to become official) has been one of the most pleasant surprises for the organization in the past five years, arguably ever. Eventually, Reyes will come back down to earth, but the Devil Rays should look to ride the Al Reyes wave for the majority of the season.
The performance of Brendan Harris and James Shields' recent dominance on the mound have also been nice surprises for manager Joe Maddon.
With an impressive spring training, Harris impressed Maddon enough to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. After excelling in a limited role at the beginning of the season, he gradually began to gain more playing time. Before the season, if you told a Devil Rays fan that Ben Zobrist would lose his job as the Devil Rays' starting shortstop during the season, they might not be all that surprised. With the offensive progress being made in Double-A by top prospect Reid Brignac, the idea wasn't that far-fetched. However, if you told them that Harris would be the reason for a Zobrist demotion, you would get laughed out of St. Petersburg. Harris has earned the position with solid defense and a .319 batting average headed into tonight’s game against Texas.
Shields (3-0 3.10 ERA) has pitched better than any other starter in the rotation while establishing himself as a legitimate number two starter in the American League. In his best performance of the year last Wednesday, Shields tossed nine shutout innings against the Baltimore Orioles. Even though he didn't factor in the decision, it was one of the strongest outings by a starting pitcher in the history of the franchise. He will take the ball tonight in the opener Disney Series opener, looking to stay undefeated and earn his fourth win. Surprisingly, the right-hander has given Tampa Bay more quality innings than ace Scott Kazmir. Kazmir’s velocity has been down in several of his starts including some very poor outings earlier in the season. The young lefty is still 2-2 with a respectable 3.96 ERA in eight games.
I have officially jumped onto the Carlos Pena bandwagon. After seeing Pena’s all-out hustle when he slid into first base to beat out what proved to be the game-winning hit on Sunday, I think the former Detroit Tigers slugger’s increase in playing time is justified. Pena wasn't on the original 25-man roster when camp broke, but he was the first choice when the Devil Rays realized that Greg Norton would need knee surgery shortly before the season began. In a limited role at to start the year, Pena’s at bats were few, far between and his strikeouts outnumbered his base hits. But when Akinori Iwamura’s injury moved Ty Wigginton back to third base, the starting first base job was his for the taking. Pena started to show his famous power stroke in more of a prominent role. He is now tied for the team lead with seven home runs headed into tonight.
Jae Seo has struggled. This could possibly be the understatement of the century. Still, Seo solidified his spot in the rotation for at least a few more starts with a strong performance against the Blue Jays on Sunday. Before Sunday, where he scattered three hits over seven shutout innings to win his third career game in a Tampa Bay uniform, Seo was arguably off to the worst start of any pitcher in the game. Even after Sunday, he still has allowed 58 hits in 39.2 innings -- good for a 7.26 ERA. Casey Fossum hasn't been that much better. Neither has Edwin Jackson. A change in the rotation seems imminent and with a trio of aces dominating International League competition at Triple-A Durham, it could happen soon. It would be hard to imagine that Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann, and Andy Sonnanstine would be doing any worse than the incumbent trio of Fossum, Jackson, and Seo.
Even with the now annual team struggles, this year’s squad is different. They are fast, talented, and young -- a nice change from teams of the recent past. Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Elijah Dukes, and Delmon Young make up one of the strongest young outfield cores in all of baseball. Even though Baldelli and Young have struggled tremendously at the plate over the past few weeks, they continue to play outstanding defense, making highlight-reel plays on an almost nightly basis. Young, who has one of the strongest arms in all of baseball, is among the American League leaders in assists and is starting to strike fear into base runners like Ichiro Suzuki and Vladimir Guerrero do . However, both players have batting averages that are closer to the Mendoza line than .250. The pair needs to start hitting for the Devil Rays to succeed.
In legal news, Dukes’ lawyers are asking for his drug charges, stemming from a January incident, to be dropped. Even though they were delayed today, Dukes’ friend, who was with him in the car when the pair was pulled over in January for a loud music violation, testified in a plea deal that the marijuana found in the car was his. This means that the charges against Dukes should be dropped at the next hearing. Talk about taking one for the team.
The Devil Rays also made headlines recently -- again for the wrong reasons -- when when relief pitcher Juan Salas, who started his career as an infielder, but switched to positions because of his incredible arm strength, became the first big-league player to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. For the violation, he was suspended 50 games. The loss of Salas, one of the more reliable pitchers in the bullpen, will surely be noticed. The drug test does call into question his recent success, including his amazing scoreless innings streak in the minors last season.
The Devil Rays spent a few days ahead of the New York Yankees in the standings during the month of April, a rarity in the organization’s history. Now the Devil Rays find themselves in a tie for fourth place in the division with a 15-22 record. The Devil Rays still have there work cut out for them because they are now 11 games back of the division-leading Boston Red Sox, who now have the best record in all of Major League Baseball. In order to turn it around, the bullpen needs to improve dramatically (purposely failed to mention this). Perhaps, McClung may not be that bad of a fit in the bullpen after all. Hopefully, tonight’s game will be a nice draw and will truly help expand the market to the Central Florida region. Almost as concerning as the performance of Jae Seo, is the overwhelming lack of attendance at Tropicana Field so far this year. Andrew Friedman and Stuart Sternberg, who I'm told is a financial genius, have made continuous improvements to the overall fan experience at Tropicana Field. I honestly believe the organization is on the rise. Keep the faith. The fans need to come to see this.
Player of the Month- B.J. Upton- Clearly the favorite after a torrid start. Upton is currently leading the Devil Rays in all of the triple crown categories.
Pitcher of the Month- Al Reyes- Honorable mention to James Shields.
Who do you think should were the Player/Pitcher of the month for April? Let us know in the message boards.