Similar to Buster Olney's blog on ESPN.com, this post will link to you the latest baseball coverage across the web, specifically focusing on the Tampa Bay Rays.
There is a positive vibe around the Naimoli Complex this February, as the Tampa Bay Rays arguably possess the most depth and overall talent in camp this year than ever before.
In addition to dropping the “Devil,” the Rays acquired several talented newcomers this offseason, trading for a legitimate number three starter, Matt Garza, and a solid defensive shortstop, Jason Bartlett. The organization also added some much-needed veteran leadership, signing closer Troy Percival and free agent outfielder/DH Cliff Floyd, who should platoon with Jonny Gomes and oft-injured outfielder Rocco Baldelli in right field.
The media, especially nationally, has even noticed the Rays’ improvements, too. Just last week, Sports Illustrated writer Jon Heyman gave Tampa Bay the distinction of having the seventh-best winter.
Tampa Bay has been awarded the distinction as a team to watch in ’08 by many journalists, who note the Rays’ solid 1-2-3 punch—Kazmir, James Shields and Garza—at the top of the starting rotation and an improved bullpen, backed by Percival, who pushed last year’s closer, Al Reyes, into a setup role.
A weak ‘pen, though, has been a crutch nearly every season in the 10-year history of the Tampa Bay franchise, and, even with Percival, there is no telling how effective the Rays’ relief corps can become in 2008. Reaching the 80-win plateau is a realistic possibility for this team, and the Rays will certainly not again be the laughing stock of the AL East. But holding onto leads late in games, which has been so difficult for the Rays this decade, is key for a .500 season to make its way to St. Petersburg, finally.
With that being said, I am not fully sold on Percival, yet. The veteran right-hander established himself as one of the premier closer in the game in the late-90s with the then Anaheim Angels, where he formed a strong relationship with Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. He is 12th on the all-time saves list with 324, and hopes to add to that number over the duration of his tenure with the Rays.
This time last spring, however, he was preparing to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day for the Angels, and he has not recorded a save in more than two seasons. Percival failed in an attempted comeback with the Detroit Tigers in 2005, causing doubts about his future. He then sat out all of ’06, before signing a minor league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals following the All-Star break last July, when he posted a 3-0 record and 1.80 in 34 appearances.
Al Reyes (Associated Press)
Even with that success in his brief stint in St. Louis, he has still not proven that he can pitch effectively on back-to-back days while staying healthy for a full campaign. The power arm is no longer there, of course, and he is no longer the all-or-nothing strikeout pitcher who he was with the Angeles. If he can stay healthy and focus more on location and movement than pure stuff, though, perhaps he can provide the same spark that Reyes gave the Rays in the first half of 2007.
Percival is already emerging as a leader in the clubhouse and, regardless of his health status and effectiveness, his presence alone should pay dividends for an up-and-coming pitching staff. Whether or not he can man down the closer spot, though, is arguably the most important question surrounding the Rays; even more so than the status of third base prospect Evan Longoria.
Percival is out to prove that he can still close games, writes Bill Chastain.
He has a sense of humor, too, shown here in this video, where he pokes fun of the comparisons between Kazmir, Shields and Garza to the former Atlanta Braves’ trio of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, rocking their names on the back of his jersey.
More questions about the Rays’ pen:
How will Al Reyes handle his new duties, pitching in the eighth inning? Reyes was easily the Rays' top relief pitcher in '07, picking up 26 saves in his first year coming back from Tommy John surgery. Nicknamed "El Assenino," there is no telling if he will have the same mentality and swagger when not pitching in save situations. There are, of course, concerns about his health, too, as, like Percival, his 40th birthday is approaching fast.
If Juan Salas ever gets back into the country, can he become a force?
Will Brian Anderson make the producers of his comeback show happy, reaching the majors in the second half?
Will the addition of Trever Miller end up as one of the Rays’ most important offseason signings?
Corks Gaines has ten questions about the Rays that the local media, he says, are afraid to ask.
Gaines also recently penned a Rays’ preview for Deadspin.
Watching the 2008 Tampa Bay
Devil Rays will be like watching Natalie Portman in "Beautiful Girls." You know she is going to be hot when she grows up, but part of you wonders if it is OK to look at a 14-year-old that way. And when she does finally grow up and she is even sexier than you imagined, there is a part of you that still sees the 14-year-old and it makes you feel a little guilty. And yet, you can't wait for the Tampa Bay Rays first nude scene...Wait...What was I saying? Nevermind...
Evan Longoria is 1B, behind Jay Bruce (1A), as the best offensive young rookie in baseball, writes Childs Walker.
Former Sarasota High standout James Houser is enjoying his first major-league camp, writes Dennis Maffezzoli.
David Price, the number one overall pick of the 2007 draft, works out with the Rays (few days old), writes Roger Mooney.
Jesse Spector of the New York Daily News has not hoped on the Rays’ bandwagon, picking the Rays to win 65-to-70 games.
Carlos Pena continued to show how nice of a guy he is, joining former Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ fullback Mike Alstott as a spokesperson for the Tampa Bay Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.
And for those who are interested, here is some video footage of the 2008 AL Rookie of the Year.
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to Tyler Hissey@gmail.com.