Tagged: Joe Maddon

5 Things on Joe Maddon’s Spring Training To-Do List

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As the MLB offseason gradually comes to a conclusion and spring training nears, Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays know exactly what their priorities are this spring in order to put the best roster possible on the field for Opening Day.

With a handful of new names on the team this season, Maddon will have his share of tough choices to make when roster cuts and decisions come around in late March.

Here are the five main things that will be on Maddon’s spring training to-do list.

Put the Rotation Together

The Rays are heading into another season with a terrific starting rotation, which is both very deep and talented.

The three frontline starters are clear at the moment: David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore. After that, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, Chris Archer, and possibly even the newly-acquired Jake Odorizzi and Roberto Hernandez are all options to be the back two starters in the rotation.

Spring training performance is obviously going to play a large factor in deciding which pitchers make the rotation. Still, though, Maddon is going to have some very tough decisions to make before finalizing the roster at the end of March.

Construct Bullpen

Tampa has the keys for another successful bullpen in 2013. GM Andrew Friedman did his job picking up all the essential arms needed, now all Joe Maddon has to do is put the ‘pen together for Opening Day.

Right now the sure locks are Fernando Rodney (who will most likely take over the closer role), Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and Kyle Farnsworth. Lefty specialist Cesar Ramos and former starter Roberto Hernandez are other possible candidates, along with recent acquisitions Juan Carlos Oviedo and Jamey Wright.

The Rays are going to have only seven relievers on their Opening Day roster, so one of those eight won’t make the cut.

We can expect to see some great bullpen competition this spring in Port Charlotte, and it should be very interesting to see how the new veteran arms impact the team.

Figuring out the Second Base Situation

One position on the diamond definitely not lacking depth for the Rays this year is second base. Tampa Bay recently signed Kelly Johnson to a one-year deal to be their starting second basemen, but they still have two other second basemen on the depth chart without Ben Zobrist (who will reportedly still play “a lot” of second base).

Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez are still on the roster, and there are a few things that Maddon can do to make this work.

It’s likely that Rodriguez—assuming that he makes the 25-man roster—will play very little second base and be used more as a backup shortstop/pinch runner. Ryan Roberts would backup Johnson at second, but also be used at third and as a pinch hitter.

The Rays seem to be already planning on having Johnson fill in a little in the outfield as well, so Zobrist will probably get his share of playing time at second too.

Deciding What to Do With Wil Myers

Top prospect Wil Myers will be the Rays’ biggest storyline during spring training, and should bring a pretty good amount of attention to Port Charlotte.

As of now, the starting outfield looks like it will be Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist. The one outfield bench spot is up for grabs, but the Rays won’t want to start their No. 1 prospect’s season on the bench at the young age of 22.

Unless Myers goes on an absolute tear this spring, he’ll be starting the season with Triple-A Durham. But if he shines bright enough in the Grapefruit League, don’t be surprised to see Maddon stick him in the Opening Day lineup.

Ordering the Lineup

In recent years, the Rays have put out maybe the most inconsistent lineup in all of baseball. It seems like Joe Maddon manages to put together a different lineup every single game and has tried out ever possible order and combination possible.

Don’t expect to see much different in 2013. However, Maddon will still be on a mission to find which players he’s going to put in different parts of the lineup and what kind of pattern he might try to experiment with in April.

How Luke Scott’s Return Could Affect the Rays’ Roster Situation

Luke Scott, who has been sidelined with an oblique strain since July, is expected to be activated from the disabled list and rejoin the Rays this week. Scott, a designated hitter, probably wouldn’t be an everyday starter when he initially returns to roster as Evan Longoria is currently in the DH role.

Until the Rays decide Longoria’s hamstring is healthy enough to play third base again, Scott will likely platoon with Longo and serve as a pinch hitter.

The main question to be asked here is who will the Rays option down to make room for Scott on the 25-man roster. Sean Rodriguez—currently batting just .209/.275/.325— definitely seems like the most likely answer at the moment. The only other option really is Ryan Roberts, but the Rays are probably going to hang on to him because he provides more offensive production that Rodriguez. With the rosters expanding to 40 men on September 1, however, this minor league trip should only be a temporary one for Rodriguez.

Another thing to keep an eye on is how the Rays’ infield situation will work out once the roster move is made. Joe Maddon experimentally started Ben Zobrist at shortstop (first time since 2009) for four of the last five games, which strengthened the Rays’ offense by keeping the weaker bats of Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson—the Rays’ only other options at short—out of the lineup.

Hopefully there is more to this ‘experiment’, and Zobrist could see a lot more playing time at shortstop throughout the rest of the season. If he can hold up defensively at short—which he has done so far—the Rays can finally be able to put out the best possible lineup game after game. Monday night was a big step forward for Zobrist to become the Rays’ permanent shortstop for the rest of the year. He got the start with Alex Cobb—the most groundball-heavy starter in the rotation—pitching and performed well again.

So if Zorilla does end up making the transition back to short, his original position, how would the infield shape up once Scott returns? Jeff Keppinger could man third base while Ryan Roberts takes over second, or vice versa, and Elliot Johnson would be on the bench like he has been lately.

Against left-handed starters, however, the field could have a bit of a different look. Keppinger could possibly play first instead of Pena, who Maddon is apparently planning to start less against lefties. Elliot Johnson could get the start at short if Joe decides not to start Joyce, because  Zobrist would have to play right field.

We could see all these possibilities happen in the next couple of weeks, but things will be different when Longoria eventually returns to the hot corner. Against right-handers the infield would be the same except either Roberts or Keppinger would play second with Longoria at third. Against lefties Keppinger would probably start at DH instead of Scott, and Roberts would get the start at second. And once the rosters expand in September, Pena (and possibly Joyce) could be relieved of their duties at their respective positions against left-handers.

We know how Joe Maddon and the Rays love their matchups, so don’t be surprised to see any of these possibilities.

In conclusion, Zobrist becoming the Rays’ main shortstop is the key for them fitting as many key bats into the lineup as possible per game. Defense is obviously crucial as the shortstop position, but with Johnson owning a .970 fielding percentage and Rodriguez having a .959 percentage (both below the league average) at short, the move couldn’t be much of a downgrade.

It’s going to be really nice to see the Rays go from having maybe the worst shortstop combo in baseball to having a middle-of-the-order switch hitter as their shortstop.

Rays Update: Moore Struggles in Loss to Boston

The latest Rays news and notes:

  • The Rays hosted the Red Sox yesterday in a sold out and televised game at Port Charlotte. Matt Moore squared off against Clay Buchholz in his first spring start, and was hit pretty hard by the Boston bats. Moore allowed 4 earned runs and 3 walks in just 2.1 innings pitched, setting the tone for the 8-4 loss. Some notable Rays performances included Kyle Farnsworth (one scoreless inning of work), Evan Longoria (2-3 with a home run), Desmond Jennings (two hits), Luke Scott (1-4 with an RBI), and Jose Molina (RBI single). Click here for a full boxscore.
  • The Rays have an off-day today, so next up is the Florida Marlins in Jupiter Tuesday.
  • The Rays apparently have a new catchphrase for the 2012 season. Joe Maddon came up with ‘MoRmentum’, which means ‘more momentum’. Maddon says momentum will be a key factor to the Rays’ success this year.
  • The Rays made their latest round of cuts yesterday, optioning five more players down to the minors. Among Sunday’s cuts were Tim Beckham, Matt Bush, Dane De La Rosa, Brandon Guyer, and Steven Vogt.
  • Rays beat writer Bill Chastain writes about reliever Jake McGee in his recent MLB.com article.
  • Bill Madden of New York Daily News praises the Rays’ rotation, claiming it’s the deepest staff in all of baseball.

Rays Update: Rays Fall To Boston, Injuries Healing

The latest Rays news and notes:

  • The Rays have won two of their last five games, which also included a tie. Yesterday, the Rays lost to the Red Sox 5-0 in another frustrating offensive effort. Wade Davis had a rough start, allowing two earned runs and walking four batters in 2 2/3 innings of work. Offensively, the Rays collected seven hits and left 22 men on base. The Rays now fall to a 2-6 spring training record. Click here for a full boxscore.
  • The Rays’ injuries continue to make forward progress. Evan Longoria (bruised hand) will likely play his first game today against the Pirates. David Price suffered a bizarre injury during Thursday’s game, hurting his neck while toweling off. Price will probably pitch his next scheduled start, but his between-starts bullpen session was pushed back to today. Yesterday he said he felt “almost normal.” Matt Moore (mild abdominal strain) seems to have fully healed, and is scheduled to start Tuesday. Brandon Gomes (offseason back surgery) is set to play today’s game, possibly along with Luke Scott (offseason shoulder surgery). Kyle Farnsworth, who’s being handled cautiously after elbow soreness last year, will make his debut Monday. The most concerning injury for the Rays is probably Sean Rodriguez’s sprained left index finger. Rodriguez will most likely return in the next few days, but he’ll have to play with pain for at least three more weeks.
  • Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported Friday that James Shields will be the Rays’ Opening Day starter.
  • Reid Brignac now has a son, Reid Michael, who was born yesterday. The birth came less than a month after many found out that Brignac was dating Playboy model Lauren Anderson.
  • Skipper Joe Maddon will shave his head for charity. Maddon will do the shaving publicly at Charlotte Sports Park before an upcoming game against the Phillies.

2012 Season Preview

20120305-152438.jpgAnother exciting year of Tampa Bay Rays baseball is right around the corner. The Rays seem confident and ready for a successful 2012 season, and it’s easy to see why. After a memorable 2011 season, the Rays return to Tampa with another very talented group. The front office got the job done this offseason, reeling in three key pieces while only losing two big names from last year. The Rays replaced their 2011 first-baseman/DH combo — Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman — with the big bats of Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. They also filled in the huge catcher hole in the roster, picking up veteran backstop Jose Molina. As the Rays return with filled gaps and arguably the best rotation in baseball, they are definitely serious contenders for a title. They hope to finally get over the hump in 2012, after being defeated by the Texas Rangers two straight years in the ALDS. Here’s an outlook of what to except from the Rays this year.

The Rotation

If one thing’s for sure, the Rays have one of the most talented starting rotations in all of baseball. Last season, the Rays had arguably the best rotation in the league, and this year it’s expected to get even better. Phenom rookie Matt Moore is the newest addition to Tampa’s pitching staff, and will likely find a spot in the Opening Day rotation. However, the Matt Moore hype is not the biggest topic amongst the Rays’ starters this spring. All eyes will be watching the battle between Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis for the fifth spot in the rotation. Having a rotation that’s six starters deep is a great problem to have for any team, and will provide the Rays will security throughout the season. The winner of the battle between Niemann and Davis will probably come down to whoever preforms better during spring training. Although exhibition games have not yet started, my early prediction goes to Niemann here. Both hurlers are qualified for the job, but better numbers and more experience will likely give Niemann the edge in this competition. Also, Davis may suit the long reliever role better than Niemann. Davis doesn’t eat up inning like Niemann does, and Niemann hasn’t had much success throwing out of the bullpen in the past.

Now let’s take a look at the guys in front of the fifth starter. It may just be the best starting quartet in the MLB, as the Rays feature a lineup of four All Star caliber pitchers. James Shields, who had a career year last season, will likely be the Opening Day starter. It’s hard not to award him with the #1 spot after the ridiculous numbers he put up in 2011. “Big Game James” finished third in the Cy Young voting after posting a 2.82 ERA with 16 wins and 11 complete games. It’s hard to except those kind of numbers out of Shields in 2012, but you can still count on him to have another good season. Fellow All Star David Price will likely follow Shields in the rotation. The 26-year-old southpaw had an off-year last season, finishing with a below .500 record and a 3.49 ERA. Price has already proved he’s an ace-type pitcher, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he explodes with a huge season in 2012. We can expect to see Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson in the #3 hole to start the season, which really shows just how scary the Rays’ rotation actually is. Hellickson quickly established himself as one of the top pitchers in the league in just his first full big league season, posting a 2.95 ERA through 189 innings pitched. This season’s ROY winner could very possibly pitching right after him, as Matt Moore seems like a likely fit for the fourth spot. Of course, we all remember Moore’s big league success during his brief stint in the majors last year.

Starting Pitching in the Organization

The Rays are stacked with arms down in their farm system. There are three starters that could make a big league splash this season; Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, and Chris Archer. Cobb already proved he can be an effective starter at the Major League level, when he started nine games replacing the injured Jeff Niemann. Cobb went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in his rookie year. He’s never been considered a top prospect, but I think he’s a bit underrated by scouts. Alex Torres, on the other hand, is a pretty high ranked prospect, as he’s a member of the Rays’ top 10 prospect list. 20120305-151621.jpgWith the crowded rotation, Torres hasn’t really got his chance with the Rays yet, but he does have eight innings pitched out of the bullpen under his belt. There isn’t any good chances that Torres will start games in 2012, but he’ll probably contribute to the ‘pen during the season. Chris Archer, the organization’s #3 prospect (according to MLB.com), could also pitch out the bullpen by the end of the 2012 season. Archer is still developing in the minors, in hopes to become a frontline starter type pitcher in the majors. However, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in the near future, as the Rays simply don’t have a spot for him in the rotation. Still, his excellent fastball-slider combo could make him an effective reliever, and give the Rays a huge boost in the late innings.

The Bullpen

Here’s how I predict the bullpen will look like at Opening Day:20120305-152852.jpg*Correction: For the middle relief role, I intended to put Jake McGee rather than Josh Lueke. 

As you can see, the bullpen will look a little different than it did last season. The 8-9 inning combo will probably be the same, with Kyle Farnsworth as the closer and Joel Peralta as the setup man. The front end of the bullpen will definitely look different, though, as some of the Rays’ new acquisitions will likely find some spots in the ‘pen. The long relief role will obviously go to whoever loses the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation; I’m assuming either Davis or Niemann. I’m also predicting there will be two lefties in the ‘pen, considering how Maddon seems to like having at least two left-handed arms in contrast to just one. J.P. Howell will likely get the ‘lefty specialist’ role, and Jake McGee may take over the middle relief spot. Burke Badenhop, another new face, will probably end up as the bullpen’s groundball guy. With Adam Russell no longer with the Rays, it’s important to have a reliever in the ‘pen to go to when you’re looking specifically for a double play. As for the ‘right-handed specialist’ or the ‘one-out right-hander guy’, Fernando Rodney seems like the best fit for that spot.

But of course, there will be some spring competitions within the bullpen. Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, Dane De La Rosa, Matt Bush, Alex Torres and Cesar Ramos all have shots at a bullpen spot throughout the season. Keep your eyes peeled for Gomes and Lueke, as a good enough spring training performance might earn them a spot on the roster.

The Infield

20120305-151614.jpgThe Corners:

First Base- Carlos Pena will be manning first base for the Rays this season, just as he did from 2007-2010. There is some depth at the position, as utility infielders Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez can both fill in at first. Zobrist, who can play every position outside the battery, actually fields the position decently. That’s definitely good to have in mind in case of an injury. Outfielder Matt Joyce can also be added to the depth chart. Joyce has started his first base practice this offseason, and may continue to work on it throughout spring training.

Third Base- Evan Longoria will be the Opening Day third baseman for the fourth straight year. The Rays do have some depth at third, with Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson. Zobrist also has the ability to play the hot corner, but it’s really the last role he has to worry about.

Up The Middle:

Second Base- “Zorilla” will be the Opening Day second baseman, continuing to provide the Rays with great defense at the position. Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Keppinger and Elliot Johnson will all backup Zobrist at second throughout the year.

Shortstop- The shortstop position is the biggest question mark for Opening Day. Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Keppinger and Reid Brignac will have a three-way battle this spring for the starting role. The early favorite seems to be Rodriguez, but Keppinger and Brignac will definitely give him a run for his money this spring. Both Brignac and Rodriguez are good defensively, but Rodriguez gets the edge because he’s the better offensive player overall. Keppinger is a bit below average defensively at second base, but he’s probably a better contact hitter than the other two. His lifetime batting average of .281 is a lot higher than both Brignac’s and Rodriguez’s career averages. Still, my prediction is that Rodriguez will get the Opening Day shortstop gig.

The Catchers

The Rays filled in a big roster hole this offseason when they signed veteran backstop Jose Molina. Molina will be Opening Day catcher, but he’s not able to play more than 80-90 games this season.. Unfortunately, the Rays are pretty weak catching wise behind Molina. Rookie catchers Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos, along with veteran Chris Gimenez, will battle this month for the Opening Day backup role. All three have little offensive ability, as well as little experience (especially Lobaton and Chirinos). It’s hard to say who gets the early edge here, but I think it goes to Gimenez. The thing that stands out with Gimenez is versatility. His ability to play the corner outfield and the corner infield is what may separate him from Lobaton and Chirinos in the end. When it’s all said and done, Gimenez is going to have to perform well enough during spring training to earn himself the backup job.

The Outfield

Left Field- Rookie Desmond Jennings will most likely be the Opening Day starter in left field. Sam Fuld will be backing him up all season long, as playing left field is what he does best.

Center Field- Luckily for the Rays, they will enjoy another season of B.J. Upton playing centerfield every day. Sean Rodriguez, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, and Matt Joyce could all potentially fill in at center if needed.

Right Field- Matt Joyce will be the Rays’ starting right-fielder, and will be backed up by a pair of talented outfielders throughout the season. Both Ben Zobrist and Sam Fuld will fill in at right when needed.

The DH

Luke Scott will be the Opening Day designated hitter, which is a change from his usual starting outfield role. Sam Fuld is technically the backup DH, but if Scott were to be injured Maddon would probably put Fuld in right field and let Matt Joyce play DH.

The Bench

The Rays will have four bench players to round out their Opening Day 25-man roster. One of the bench spots will obviously be a backup catcher, so that narrows it down to Lobaton, Chirinos and Gimenez. Again, my prediction is that Gimenez will win the backup spot. There will be to infield bench players on the Opening Day roster, making a competition between Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Jeff Keppinger (assuming Sean Rodriguez gets the starting job). My prediction is that Elliot Johnson will be just edged out here, meaning Brignac and Keppinger will start the season off the bench. That leaves one outfield bench spot, which will most likely go to Fuld.

The Minors

20120305-151627.jpgThe Rays don’t have a big list of position player prospects that could arrive in 2012, but there are two names that immediately jump out. Outfielder Brandon Guyer made his MLB debut last season, during his short 15-game stint. Guyer hopes to get more playing time this year, and probably will if he continues to put up offensive numbers in the minors. Guyer hit .312 with 61 RBI and 16 stolen bases for AAA Durham in 2011, which was the season after he hit .344 with 58 RBI and 30 stolen bases in Class-AA ball. Still, the Rays’ crowded outfield is what’s getting in the way of significant playing time for Guyer.

Shortstop Tim Beckham could also get some playing time this year as a September call-up. The former #1 overall draft-pick has slowly progressed in the minor leagues, and could get his first MLB stint if he continues to improve this year. Beckham hit .271 with 12 homers and 70 RBI through his 131 games with both AA Montgomery and AAA Durham.

Season Predictions

Team MVP: Evan Longoria

Team Ace: David Price

Rays players in MLB Awards (Regular Season): Matt Moore (ROY), Evan Longoria (Gold Glove), Joe Maddon (Manager of the Year), and Evan Longoria (Silver Slugger).

Rays’ 2012 Record: 97-65

Rays’ 2012 AL East Finish: 1st place; tied with the New York Yankees’ record but will win the division by head-to-head record.

Rays’ 2012 Postseason Finish: Win World Series

I truly believe this is the season the Rays are finally going to pull it off. I look at it this way: the Rays had a great team last year, and they clearly have a better roster coming into 2012. With the full-season addition of Desmond Jennings, the outfield has improved. With the addition of Carlos Pena and more depth in the infield, it’s safe to say that a great infield has got even better. With the 2012 return of Matt Moore, an unbelievable starting rotation should be even more incredible. Barring any key injuries, the Rays flat-out have a better ball club in 2012. I see the Rays getting over that ALDS hump this year as inevitable.

As for the player predictions, you may be a bit surprised by my choice for team ace. Price has already proved he can be one of the top pitchers in the league, and I believe he just had an off-year last season. Whoever will be the Rays’ top pitcher in 2012 will likely not be the best starter by much at all. James Shields, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson all have the potential for huge seasons this year.

The Five Main Questions Heading Into Spring Training

20120222-204157.jpgThe wait is finally over; Spring Training is officially underway! The long offseason has finally come to an end, which means baseball will soon return to Tampa Bay. As the Rays prepare for another successful season in 2012, there are some questions yet to be answered. Take a look at the five biggest questions coming into Spring Training.

Who will take over the the fifth spot in the rotation?

Having an overcrowded rotation is probably the best problem a team can have. With the addition of phenom rookie Matt Moore, the Rays’ position in the MLB arms race is higher than ever. The front four in the rotation is pretty predictable. Expect to see James Shields in the number one spot, followed by Price, Hellickson, and Moore. Of course, all eyes will be on who wins the last spot in the rotation. Although there is really four candidates for the fifth spot (Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb, Wade Davis, and Alex Torres), the decision is likely going to come down to two players. It appears as if Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, who were both part of the Rays starting rotation last season, will battle it out for the job this spring. It should be fun to watch, as Joe Maddon’s decision will most likely be heavily based off their Spring Training performances. Niemann pitched nearly 50 less innings than Davis last season, but there statistics were still pretty similar. Niemann finished the year with a 4.06 ERA and an 11-7 record, while Davis posted a 4.45 ERA with an 11-10 record. The numbers show that Niemann has been the more effective pitcher in the past, but that’s something he’ll have to prove this March. It’s hard to predict who will get the No. 5 role, but I think the early edge probably goes to Niemann. Again, we’ll just have to wait and see how they fare during Spring Training. As for the three pitchers who will be kept out of the starting rotation, they’re still valuable reserves on the roster. Almost never does a team go through a whole season without an injury to one of their starters, which means that they’ll have their chance to step in and contribute during the season. While the starting five are healthy, the reserve starters will likely help strengthen the bullpen. Whoever is edged out out of the rotation — Niemann or Davis — will become the team’s long reliever this season.

Who will win the battle at short?

The shortstop position is one of the big topics for the Rays this season, and it’s a big question of how much production can come from there in 2012. The competition for the shortstop job features three candidates: Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, and the newly-acquired Jeff Keppinger. Like the rotation battle, the candidates are going to have to prove themselves during Spring Training. Rodriguez, who can play pretty much every position besides pitcher and catcher, seems to be the early favorite entering Sprig Training. Rodriguez put up the best offensive production out of all the Rays’ shortstops last year, batting .223 with eight home runs and 36 RBI’s. He also has good speed on the bases, collecting 11 thefts in 2011. His defense is maybe a bit above average, and he has proven to be a consistent fielder at short. 20120222-204202.jpgBrignac also has similar plus sides to Rodriguez. His defense is at least as good as Rodriguez’s, and he’s probably just as much as a threat on the basepads. Besides his speed, Brignac has pretty much no offensive value. That’s main reason why his odds don’t look good for the shortstop job. Brignac finished the season with a low .193 average and just 15 RBI’s. As for Jeff Keppinger, he could earn himself a starting role with a strong Spring Training performance. He’s going to have to hit well for average, as his defense, power, and speed are not going to cut it. Keppinger is less than average defensively at shortstop, and plays a lot more games at second. A lifetime .281 hitter, Keppinger mostly adds offensive value to the roster. The Rays have a defense-oriented infield, but I believe Keppinger could possibly get the shortstop gig if he can convince the Rays that he is offensively stable enough. Still, Rodriguez seems to be the best fit for the job at the moment, and is probably the best prediction to play shortstop on Opening Day.

Who Will Be a Part of the Bullpen?

The battles for the rotation and shortstop spots may be the biggest storylines for the Rays this spring, but there will also be a heated competition for the bullpen. The Rays made multiple moves to reinforce their bullpen this season, now we will have to see how Maddon will piece them together. The closer role and setup man role are pretty predictable for 2012, as Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta look like they will return to their respectable spots in the bullpen. That leaves five more spots in the bullpen, with at least eight serious candidates. New right-handed additions Burke Badenhop and Fernando Rodney will likely find themselves a spot in the bullpen. The long reliever of the ‘pen would be however loses the Davis-Niemann battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. So, that leaves just two spots left in the bullpen. I’m assuming Maddon will want two lefties in his bullpen, bringing multiple names into the picture. The Rays showed a lot of confidence in J.P. Howell this offseason, which makes me predict that he’ll become the team’s left-handed specialist in the ‘pen. That leaves two main names who will likely fight it out for the middle relief role; Jake McGee and Josh Lueke. Even though McGee had a better statistical season last year, I think Lueke will be the one on the Opening Day roster. McGee is younger, and the Rays may prefer that he continues to develop in AAA Durham. However, McGee could be one among a handful of players who will be called up to contribute in the bullpen throughout the season. Brandon Gomes, Dane De La Rosa, Alex Torres, and Cesar Ramos could all potentially find themselves just outside the bullpen as well. Here’s how I predict the bullpen will look at the start of the regular season:

Can Matt Joyce Develop into a First Baseman?

Matt Joyce did not conduct his usual offseason workouts this winter. For the first time in his big league career, the 27 year-old Tampa-native is trying out the first base position. The All-Star outfielder is possibly considering becoming a first baseman. Even though Carlos Pena will be manning first base for the whole season, it’s always good to have the idea in mind. Offensively, Joyce is an adequate hitter for the position, and he’s still developing. In just his first big league season, Joyce batted .277 with 75 RBI’s and 19 home runs. Joyce’s power is something that will help him fit in at first, if he were to continue to pursue the position. Obviously, the biggest adjustment for Joyce would be defensively. Being an outfielder for his whole MLB career, Joyce would have a lot to learn in order to master the position. Joyce is one of many outfielders who have tried the move to first, and it hasn’t been much of a success story. Knowing Joyce, though, I believe he can complete the transition if he’s truly determined. Last offseason, Joyce worked to improve his baserunning and defense, and the results were great and very noticeable throughout the 2011 season. Joyce has terrific work ethic, and he’s one of those players who will do what it takes to achieve his goals. Joe Maddon may make team orders, but at the end of the day it really depends on whether Joyce is willing to put in the hard work or not.

Which Prospects Will Stand Out This March?

Besides Matt Moore, there are a handful of Rays prospects who have a lot to prove this Spring. Shortstop Tim Beckham is one of those names. Beckham, who’s ranked the Rays’ fourth-best prospect (by MLB.com), has a crucial year coming up ahead of him. The former first-overall draft pick has disappointed a bit so far in his minor league career, considering the extremely high expectations put on him since the beginning. Beckham compiled a .271 average with 70 RBI’s and 17 stolen bases through his 131 games last season, during his time with AA Montgomery and his brief stint with AAA Durham. It may not be the big numbers that stand out among scouts, but he was only 21 in 2011. He made a lot of progress last year, specifically improving in his defensive game. Many scouts say he may not have a big league future at the shortstop position, but Beckham is making efforts to prove them wrong. Even if Beckham won’t be an MLB shortstop, I still believe he has the potential to be a solid big league player. Any way you look at it, this is a very important Spring Training for Beckham, and I doubt he’ll disappoint.

20120222-204210.jpgHak-Ju Lee is another top prospect who received a Spring Training invitation. The Rays are hopeful the 21-year-old Korean-native is there future shortstop. Lee, who was acquired in the Matt Garza trade two offseasons ago, ended his 2011 season in AA Montgomery after spending most of the year at the Class-A+ level. He finished the year with a .292 average along with 30 RBI’s and 17 stolen bases. Lee features great speed as well as plus defense, and is expected to make major progress in the minors this season. Although Lee will most likely not be joining the Rays in 2012, he should be a fun player to watch at Spring Training. It will be interesting to see if Lee and Beckham will have themselves a bit of a private battle throughout the spring.

Brandon Guyer, another youngster acquired in the Matt Garza trade, may have the most important Spring Training out of all the Rays prospects. The 26-year-old will have to play some quality baseball if he wants to break into the Rays’ crowded outfield. Guyer batted .312 with 14 homers and 16 stolen bases through his 107 at-bats with AAA Durham last season, displaying his power-speed combination. Even with the good numbers, it will be hard for him to find a decent amount of MLB playing time this season. With B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, and Sam Fuld taking over the outfield, he’s going to have to impress this March if he wants the big league shot he deserves.

With the exception of Matt Moore, there will be three main prospect pitchers to keep an eye on during Spring Training. Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, and Chris Archer will all have a lot of work to do this spring in order to prove they have what it takes to join the Rays’ talented rotation in the future. Cobb has the most MLB experience out of the three, going 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in his nine starts last season. He has also been successful in his minor league career, and has improved year by year. Alex Torres will need to follow Cobb’s path and improve his numbers if he wants a future as a Rays starter. Torres’ stats weren’t bad last year, as he went 9-7 with a 3.08 ERA through his 27 starts at AAA Durham. Still, some things have to be fixed, and I’m pretty confident Torres will make progress doing so during Spring Training. As for Chris Archer, the Rays hope he can start the spring where he finished off. Archer, who is ranked the third best prospect (by MLB.com), ended his minor league season strong after having some struggles earlier in the year. It’ll be a big season for the 23-year-old hurler in 2012, and it should be interesting to see how he starts along side the rest of the Rays’ pitching talent. I think this may be the year Archer really shines and shows off his high potential.

A Review of the Rays’ Offseason

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Baseball’s long winter is finally coming to an end. Today, pitchers and catchers will report to camp, concluding the four month offseason in the return of our national pastime. As expected, the financially-limited Rays didn’t make too much noise this winter. Coming into the offseason, there were a lot of questions regarding the multiple holes on the roster. The Rays knew they had to address the open spots at DH, first base, and catcher. Fortunately, the front office was able to fill in the holes during the winter, in efforts to bring back another successful season to Tampa Bay. Although the Rays did not make a huge splash in MLB’s Hot Stove frenzy, they have a pretty good amount of new additions joining the club this spring. Here’s an evaluation of every single Rays offseason move.

Club Options

Back in October, the Rays were met with their first main task of the offseason. A decision had to be made on whether the Rays were going to exercise their club option on James Shields, Kyle Farnsworth, and Kelly Shoppach. The Rays picked up the options on Shields and Farnsworth, but declined Shoppach. By exercising Shields’ option, the Rays will be paying him $7.5 million in 2012. Farnsworth will be making $3.3 million during the 2012 season, which is $700 thousand more than he made last season. Shoppach, who’s now a member of the Boston Red Sox, recieved a $300K buyout by being declined. To recap the Rays’ decisions on club options, they were able to bring back their ace and closer from last season. Both Farnsworth and Shields were obviously a huge part of the Rays’ success last year. At 35-years-old, Farnsworth may of had the best season of his 13-year career with the Rays, posting a 2.18 ERA with 25 saves and a 5-1 record. Shields also had a career year, leading the Rays’ pitching staff in 2011 with ridiculous numbers. Shoppach on the other hand, was a disappointment. The backstop batted an atrocious .176 average while driving in just 22 RBI’s. Although he did much better down the stretch and his defense was not bad, it’s easy to see why the Rays decided not to keep Shoppach, even with their catching situation.

Overall Grade: A

John Jaso-Josh Lueke Trade

Even after signing Molina, the Rays surprised everybody by parting ways with another backstop. This time it was John Jaso, who was traded to Seattle back in November. In exchange for Jaso, the Rays recieved relief pitcher Josh Lueke and cash considerations (or a player to be named). Lueke has one year of big league experience under his belt, after pitching 32.2 innings out of the Mariners’ bullpen last season. He posted a high 6.06 ERA while struggling through his rookie year. Lueke’s under-par numbers may not be the biggest concern the Rays have about him. Lueke’s criminal past is something the Rays are very aware of. While playing in the Rangers’ organization in 2008, Lueke was charged with rape and would serve jail time. The Rays seem confident that Lueke’s legal trouble won’t be an issue in the future, and believe that he can help reinforce the bullpen. As for losing John Jaso, he probably won’t be missed much in Tampa Bay. The 28-year-old saw a big decline in his offensive numbers last year, while continuing to struggle defensively.

Overall Grade: C+

Acquiring Jose Molina

Once the Rays cut ties with both of their main catchers from 2011, it was imminent that they were going to find a backstop to fill in that big hole on the roster. The Rays took their first dip into free agency, and emerged with veteran Jose Molina. The 36-year-old was signed to a one-year deal including an option for 2013. Molina will be paid $1.5 million this season, and $1.8 million next year if the Rays exercise his option. He batted a career-best .281 last year through his 55 games with the Blue Jays. His defense and experience is what’s most attractive to the Rays, as Molina has a gun of an arm behind the plate. Molina threw out 36.5% of runners attempting to steal during the last four seasons, which is the MLB’s highest percentage during that span. Throwing out baserunners was one of the Rays’ weaknesses last year, and Friedman did a good job of addressing that by signing Molina.

Overall Grade: B+

Matt Moore Contract Extension

The contract extension of phenom Matt Moore was probably the highlight of the Rays’ offseason. The Rays were able to pull of a great move, locking up baseball’s most hyped-up prospect long-term. With the ridiculous potential that he has, the huge eight-year contract extension they signed with Moore is a bargain. Moore is guaranteed $14 million through five years, and has an additional three years of options. If Moore plays through all eight years of his contract, the overall value will be worth around $40 million. It’s a lot of money for a team like the Rays, but it’s well worth it considering the type of player Moore is. Below is a breakdown of Moore’s eight-year deal (courtesy of spotrac.com):20120219-090959.jpg

Overall Grade: A+

Burke Badenhop Trade

The Rays made their second offseason trade for a relief pitcher back in December, when they traded minor league catcher Jake Jefferies to the Miami Marlins in exchange for Burke Badenhop. “The Hopper” posted a 4.10 ERA and a 2-3 record out of the ‘pen last year, and owns a career ERA of 4.34 through his four big league seasons. As for the Marlins’ side of the deal, the Rays didn’t give away much at all by trading minor leaguer Jake Jefferies. The 24-year-old backstop has never made is a career .254 hitter, and has never made it past the Class-AA level.

Overall Grade: A

Signing Fernando Rodney

The Rays continued their emphasis on bullpen help when they signed veteran right-hander Fernando Rodney to a one year deal. This time though, they picked up a bullpen arm via free agency. The Rays signed the 34-year-old to a one-year deal worth about $2 million. Rodney struggled with his control last year during his season with the Los Angeles Angels last year, resulting in some disappointing numbers. He posted a 4.50 ERA with just three saves. Rodney has had success in the past, however, saving 37 games with Detroit in 2009. He has been on a downslide since then, but keep in mind that the Rays seem to have the magical touch of reviving relievers who are past their prime. Hopefully, Rodney can continue that trend and be solid arm in the bullpen this season.

Overall Grade: B-

Non-Tender Deadline Deals

The Rays had tender choices to make on seven arbitration-eligible players before the deadline last December. B.J. Upton, J.P. Howell, Joel Peralta, Jeff Niemann, David Price, and the newly-acquired Burke Badenhop were all tendered. The one player non-tendered was Andy Sonnanstine, who is now a Chicago Cub. The only unpredictable news that came out of the Rays’ non-tender deadline deals, was the tendering of J.P. Howell’s contract. As the deadline loomed, there was a big question whether Howell would be a Ray next year. The organization’s steadfast belief in Howell prevailed, and J.P. will get another shot to return to his top form with Tampa Bay.

Luke Scott Acquisition

With Johnny Damon a free agent, the Designated Hitter role was one roster hole the Rays knew they needed to fill in. They did exactly that, picking up veteran slugger Luke Scott off the free agent market. The 33-year-old was signed to a one-year deal worth $5 million, including a 2013 option worth $6 million ($1.5 buyout). Scott has spent the last four seasons in Baltimore, ending his tenure there with an injury-riddled 2011 season. Before 2011, however, Scott established himself as a consistent 20+ homer guy with the Orioles. He also owns a career line of .264/.349/.494 and a 162-game average of 79 RBI’s. Scott is the kind of quality hitter that the Rays need, and the stats definitely show that. His powerful left-handed bat fits perfectly in the meat of the Rays’ lineup, and is exactly what the Rays lacked last year.

Overall Grade: A-

Arbitration Deadline Deals

As the January arbitration deadline drew near, the Rays had six arbitration-eligible players to negotiate with. B.J. Upton, David Price, Burke Badenhop, Jeff Niemann, Joel Peralta, and J.P. Howell were all looking to work out a deal to avoid an arbitration hearing. Everyone except Jeff Niemann was able to agree to a deal, which resulted in just one player entering an arbitration hearing. Below are the details on all five of the deadline deals. Note that all projections are from MLBTradeRumors.com’s Projected Arbitration Salaries list.

  • B.J. Upton- $7 million; $7.6 million projected.
  • David Price- $4.35 million; $7.8 million projected
  • J.P. Howell- $1.35 million; $1.4 million projected
  • Joel Peralta- $2.175 million; $2 million projected
  • Burke Badenhop- $1.075 million; $1.1 million projected

As you can see, the Rays did an outstanding job of negotiating before the deadline. The Rays agreed to a deal that was cheaper than the projected salary of every player, except for set-up man Joel Peralta. The highlight of the deadline deals was Price’s salary agreement, where the Rays saved some big bucks. Price will earn $4.35 million this season, in contrast to the $7.8 million that was projected. They also worked out a pretty good deal with Upton, keeping his 2012 earnings at just $7 million. As for Niemann’s arbitration hearing earlier this month, that also went well for the Rays. Not surprisingly Niemann lost, resulting in an agreement of $2.75 million. The salary is $350,000 less than the projection, and $450,000 less than the Niemann asked for. The penny smart Rays continue their undefeated arbitration record, as they’re now 6-0 (5-0 under Friedman).

Overall Grade: A+

The Return of Carlos Pena

Bringing back Carlos Pena to Tampa was probably the offseason’s most exciting moment for the Rays and their fans. With Casey Kotchman a free agent, the Rays were in desperate need of a first baseman. They found their man (our re-found) in Pena, signing him to a one-year deal worth $7.25 million. Pena spent four years in Tampa Bay (2007-2010), compiling a total 144 homers and 407 RBI’s with a line of .238/.368/.516/. He played one season with the Chicago Cubs last season, batting .225 with 28 home runs and 80 RBI’s. Pena’s big-time power is something the Rays really could of used last year. If Pena can continue his homerun-hitting consistency, his presence in the lineup can make the Rays a scary good team.

Overall Grade: A-

Signing Jeff Keppinger

Picking up someone to add to the middle-infield was apparently one of the Rays’ tasks this offseason. The Rays signed veteran Jeff Keppinger to a one-year, $1.525 million deal. Keppinger, who owns a career line of .281/.332/.388, is a pretty solid contact hitter. He’s not impressive on the base paths, defensively, or power-wise; but he has the ability to get on base. The Rays are looking forward to his right-handed average-hitting type of bat in the lineup. Keppinger also has some versatility; filling in at shortstop, second (main position), and third base.

Overall Grade: B

Russ Canzler Trade

In a trade that surprised many, Rays’ farmhand Russ Canzler was traded away to the Cleveland Indians for cash considerations. Canzler had a terrific season at Class-AAA last year, earning him the International League MVP award. He batted .314 with 83 RBI’s and 18 homers last year for AAA Durham. Despite good numbers throughout his minor league career, Canzler has never been considered a high-ranked prospect in either the Rays’ organization or the Cubs’ organization. The reason why he was traded to Cleveland was solely because he has no spot on the Rays’ roster. Canzler simply does not fit in on the Rays defense-based infield. Canzler can also play some corner outfield, but he also has no defensive value there. As for the DH position, that too is occupied with signing of Luke Scott.

Overall Grade: C

Joe Maddon Contract Extension

Skipper Joe Maddon’s three-year contract extension is the most recent news of the Rays’ offseason. This move may of been the biggest no-brainer of them all, as keeping Maddon was an absolute must-do. The two-time AL Manager of the Year will be paid about $6 million over the course of three years. Considering how much Maddon means to an MLB team, it’s one of the biggest bargains you’re ever going to see in the business. The Rays are going to love getting used to seeing Joe Maddon around, if they aren’t already.

Overall Grade: A+

Minor League Signings

The Rays signed a total of nine players to minor league contracts this offseason. Below is a list of all of them.

  • OF Jesus Feliciano
  • INF Matt Mangini
  • 1B Juan Miranda
  • LHP Jhonny Nunez
  • INF Will Rhymes
  • RHP Romulo Sanchez
  • C Chris Gimenez
  • OF Brad Coon
  • OF Jeff Salazar

Players to keep an eye out for:

  • Matt Mangini- The former first-round draft pick, owns a .321 with 104 RBI’s and 20 home runs through 175 games at Class-AAA ball. Mangini plays first base and third base.
  • Juan Miranda- The 28 year-old first baseman possesses raw power, but his just .226 through his 111 career MLB games. Miranda also hit 37 RBI’s and 11 home runs in his four seasons of big league experience.
  • Will Rhymes- The 5’9″ second baseman has spent his whole professional career with the Detroit Tigers’ organization. Rhymes has established himself as a good contact hitter, owning a career line of .283/.341/.370 through his 83 big league games and a career .291 average in the minors. His defense at second is maybe average, and his speed is pretty good.

Overall Grade: B

Overview

If one thing’s for sure, the Rays have to be satisfied with themselves entering Spring Training. The Rays were successful in filling in all three of their main roster holes; catcher, first base, and DH. Not only were they able to get the guys they needed this winter, but they also did plenty of bargaining. For a small-market team like the Rays, making penny-wise deals is crucial during the offseason. The Rays set a perfect example of how financially-limited teams should operate, by doing a terrific job of negotiating free agent acquisitions and contract extensions this winter. However, I don’t think it was a perfect offseason for Friedman & Co. The Rays may of whiffed at a few possible trades that should of been made, which would of traded away their surplus of pitching for a bat. One example of where the Rays could of been more aggressive was trading for top prospects Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal, who were both on the trade block and were perfect fits in Tampa. Instead, both of those big bats ended up in San Diego after a five-player swap with the Reds. Another player the Rays might of missed out on was Anthony Rizzo, who was traded to the Cubs last month. Looking at the players Chicago had to give up to acquire Rizzo, the Rays likely will regret not snagging a phenom first-base prospect like Rizzo. Back to the bright side of things, the Rays did avoid one trade that wouldn’t be such a smart idea. Despite trade rumors throughout the whole offseason, the Rays were able to hang on to B.J. Upton. Many will argue that trading away the Rays’ centerfielder is the right choice, but Upton is actually a big part of an offense that’s lacking. Along with Upton, the Rays were able to keep (or replace) all their main offensive figures from last season.As for the rotation, all the starters from last year will be back in Tampa this season, with addition of Matt Moore’s superstar talent.

At the end of the day, it’s hard not to say the Rays’ front office got the job done this winter.

Overall Grade for the Rays’ Offseason: A-