The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are working hard to improve upon an atrocious season from a year ago, having made a few moves to improve the team while locking up one of the top young outfield trios in all of baseball. The only realistic goal for the Devil Rays at this point, however, is to finish anywhere except last place. Playing in the toughest division in baseball, the American League
East, with the lowest payroll in the game, is a real challenge. The Devil Rays don’t have the funds to go out and purchase the pitching they need to compete. Once again, 2007 will be a rebuilding year, and the Rays will struggle.
Ownership did open up its wallet this off-season, though, signing a talented infielder from Japan, Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura, a six-time Gold Glove third baseman in his native Japan, has averaged around 30 homers and 90 RBIs over the past several seasons overseas. However, it is unrealistic to think that his power numbers will translate here in America. Devil Rays fans should hope he hits around .300 and does not turn out to be a bust like another infamous Japanese infield import, Colorado Rockies second baseman Kaz Matsui. Iwamura should be the opening day starter at the hot corner, but could also see time at second or in the outfield, too.
Jorge Cantu will begin the year as the everyday second baseman, but if he does not improve upon his numbers from 2006, that may not last too long. Cantu had a breakout year in 2005, when he led the Devil Rays in home runs, but suffered a foot injury that led to a terrible season last year.
Ben Zobrist (Associated Press)
Ben Zobrist will begin the season as the team's starting shortstop. Zobrist, who came over to the Rays, along with pitching prospect Mitch Talbot, in the Aubrey Huff deal last July, is a solid defensive player. He does not bring much to the table offensively, however. The Rays' Team MVP in 2006, Ty Wigginton, who led the Rays in home runs (24) and RBIs (79), will most likely begin the season as Tampa Bay's everyday first baseman. Wherever Wigginton ends up, though, all depends on where Iwamura and Greg Norton end up playing. Wigginton has the potential to replicate last year’s numbers if he is given the opportunity to play everyday. B.J. Upton is expected to take on a super utility role similar to Chone Figgins of the L.A. Angels. Upton should make an impact in his first full season in the big leagues.
There is no question what the biggest strength of the Devil Rays is; the outfield. Carl Crawford is the fastest player in division, and perhaps in all of Major League Baseball. Crawford is consistently at the top of the leader boards in stolen bases and triples, but he should break out with better power numbers this season, I believe. He could hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases this year, becoming the first player in Rays history to do so, if he stays healthy.
Rocco Baldelli appears to finally be healthy after missing nearly two full seasons due to injuries. The Rhode Island native will roam center field at Tropicana Field on a regular basis for the first time since 2004. Baldelli and Crawford give Rays manager Joe Maddon an outstanding option at the leadoff spot. Both players rival any leadoff hitter in the entire game. If Baldelli does, in fact, end up leading off, Crawford will hit third and vice versa.
Delmon Young has come along way since the infamous bat toss last spring, and seems ready for his first full season with the club. If Young, the Rays' top-ranked prospect by Scout.com, can continue maturing both on and off the field, he is going to be a star. Elijah Dukes also has a tremendous amount of ability in his own right. Off-the-field issues have held Dukes back, however. Still, he should make the team as the fourth outfielder. Jonny Gomes appears to be fully healthy, too, but the question is whether or not he will be given enough at-bats to really contribute, perhaps as the Rays' designated hitter.
Scott Kazmir, the Rays all time strikeout leader at the age of 23, is one of the best lefty starting pitchers in all of Major League Base ball, period. Kazmir was able to win 10 games for the Rays in 2006 even though he missed an entire month at the end of the year to an injury. Kazmir is 20-17 in the past two years, which doesn’t seem to impressive on its own. When you consider that record came while pitching for a team that went 108-179 in that same time period, though, you may reconsider. If he was in Boston or New York, perhaps he would already have multiple 20-win seasons under his belt already. Reports have indicated that he has made a strong recovery from his shoulder injury, but durability remains to be the only question for him.
After Kazmir, there is a considerable drop off in talent and experience. James Shields, veteran Casey Fossum and Jae Seo have locked up rotation spots, with the final spot is up for grabs this spring--J.P. Howell, Edwin Jackson, Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot, among others, will compete for the last spot.
The Tampa Bay bullpen was horrendous last year and needs to improve for the Rays to even think about staying anywhere close to .500. Seth McClung has closer stuff, but has struggled in a number of roles for the Devil Rays. The closer position is his to lose headed into March, but needs to show more consistency than he did in '06, when he began the year as the opening day starter, yet finished 6-12 and in the bullpen.
Shawn Camp has looked solid so far in Spring Training. Camp, a George Mason product, was one of the top relievers for the Rays in 2006, finishing the year 7-4 with a 4.68 ERA. He should be one of the top arms out of the bullpen again this year, but consistency has always been an issue with him as well. Ruddy Lugo and Chad Orvella also need to be more consistent. It may sound crazy, but veteran Al Reyes, coming off of Tommy John surgery, has the chance to make an impact if he makes the team. Reyes, a non-roster invitee, enjoyed a breakout season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005, before suffering the elbow injury that cut his season short. All-in-all, as usual, Tampa Bay's bullpen will once again be one of its biggest crutches.
I hope the Devil Rays can put their struggles behind them, but the market in St. Petersburg makes it difficult to do so. It appears as if the organization is in a never-ending cycle: Fans won’t come to Tropicana Field if they don’t win, but they will never have the funds to win if fans don’t come. The marketing department’s promotional efforts to bring larger crowds to Tropicana Field, potentially creating larger revenues are crucial to the team’s success. In addition, the baseball operations department must continue to stockpile talent in the Rays' farm system who they can control for the long-term.
The newer management regime appears to understand this pivotal concept, evident by their drafts over the past three years. With a young core of players-- including Reid Briganc, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Evan Longoria and Jeff Niemann, among others -- perhaps the Rays could compete by 2010. Quality pitching will always be a question mark, though. The philosophy of generating pitchers internally has not worked for Rays in ten years, so why should fans expect it to work now? I remain optimistic, because the Rays talent is that substantial. The challenge will be locking the aforementioned players up when they become eligible for free agency, especially given the wacky state of the free agent of the market. I love having a Major League Baseball team to root for that is less than five minutes away as a student at Eckerd College. But if they can compete this year, it would make it that much better. Tragically, however, it seems as if success will only come to Tampa Bay after I graduate from college in 2008.