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General : : Crack The Bat
Rays Need Enviable Depth
Patrick Ebert        
Published: Monday, December 20, 2010

A year ago I wrote a story that focused on the depth the Rays boasted in their talent-rich system, ranging from the big-leagues down to the minors.  Remember, at that point in time both the Yankees and the Red Sox were considered the teams to beat in the American League East, and many felt as though the Rays would fall short of making the playoffs at the end of the 2010 season.

Of course their talent depth led to yet another impressive season that included a postseason berth.  However, they lost to the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs after reaching the World Series in 2008.

The Rays 2010 payroll had increased nearly $30 million since that ’08 season, although that relative spending spree has since come to an end with the Rays needing to significantly cut payroll heading into the 2011 season to make ends meet.  What goes up, must come down.

Now that the Rays are dealing with some difficult departures, they really are going to need to rely on what I dubbed ‘enviable depth’ a year ago to remain competitive heading into 2011.

Key Departures

Carl Crawford has been the face of the Rays franchise, and he added insult to injury when he joined the Rays division rival, the Boston Red Sox, for a huge seven-year, $142-million deal.

Carlos Pena may have hit only .197 during the 2010 season, but he still slugged 28 home runs while providing solid defense at first base.  He was a fixture in the Rays’ lineup since 2007 when he enjoyed a breakout seasons with the then-Devil Rays when he hit 46 home runs and drove in 121.  He signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs.

You can write off almost the entire bullpen from the 2010 season.  A group led by closer Rafael Soriano that also included Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier, Randy Choate, Joaquin Benoit, Chad Qualls and Grant Balfour was extremely effective last year.  This group combined for an astounding 420 games, an average of 60 games per reliever the Rays most likely stand to lose this offseason.  No matter who the team has in its system to take the place of any of these pitchers, that much turnover is bound to lead to some hard knocks.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett was moved to the Padres for a package of four players, three of whom could help address the need for bullpen arms.

While they aren’t gone yet, the Rays cost-cutting may not be done, as they are rumored to be interesting in moving one or both of starters Matt Garza and James Shields as well as centerfielder B.J. Upton.  Garza and Upton are due for big raises via arbitration.

The Replacements

Should Garza and/or Shield be moved, Jeremy Hellickson is ready to make his mark, who finished the 2010 season with the Rays at the big-league level, although he was left off of the playoff roster.  He went 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA during that time, appearing in 10 games and making four starts.  The Rays were patient with his progression, as he made 103 starts and threw 580 innings before making his big-league debut, which tells me he should be as ready as he needs to be to continue to make a seamless transition at the highest level.

A year ago it looked as though replacing Crawford might be the easiest task the would Rays face this offseason.  Outfielder Desmond Jennings was considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball after the 2009 season after he hit .318/.401/.487 between the AA and AAA levels.  He looked to have a similar skill set to Crawford as a dynamic athlete whose game was built around his game-changing speed.

The 2010 season didn’t go quite as well, as the Rays’ depth in the outfield and their patience for progressing prospects pushed Jennings back to AAA Durham to open the season.  His .278/.362/.393 line wasn’t terrible, but between that and hitting .190 in a cup of coffee in Tampa at the end of the season may show that he isn’t quite as polished as Hellickson, and may need one last tune-up at the AAA level.

Matt Joyce could be the team’s option for left field should Jennings be deemed not ready to be handed the torch to quite yet.  Joyce has received increased playing time as the team’s fourth outfielder last year after being acquired from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson two years ago.

Reid Brignac may not offer the steady defense that Bartlett did at shortstop, but he should come close to matching, and may exceed Bartlett’s production at the plate.  Brignac appeared in 113 games as a utility infielder this past season, making 39 starts at second base and 36 at shortstop.  He was a career .282 hitter in the minors with a little bit of pop, so he should be able to improve on his .254 career average with added experience.

Left-handed short reliever J.P. Howell likely will be joining a bullpen full of unfamiliar faces to open the 2011 season.  Howell missed the entire 2010 season due to shoulder surgery, but was rock solid in both 2008 and 2009, and was a huge part of the Rays’ success during their World Series run in ’08.

Helping with the transition will be righty Andy Sonnastine, who has developed into a reliable swing-man, with the ability to chew up some long innings, or even make a spot start when needed.

Another right-hander, Mike Ekstrom, made 15 appearances during the 2010 season, both early, and late, spending the middle of the season at AAA.

As noted above, three projected relief pitchers were acquired from the Padres in return for shortstop Jason Bartlett.  Adam Russell has spent the past several seasons bouncing between a big-league bullpen and the minors, and was part of the prospect package the White Sox used to acquire Jake Peavy.  Fellow righty Brandon Gomes has yet to throw a pitch at the AAA level, but could be promoted more aggressively after posting a 2.24 ERA over 116 appearances the last two years at AA.  Lefty Cesar Ramos, who the Rays drafted out of high school before he attended Long Beach State, could give them a second, solid lefty out of the ‘pen along with Howell.

Another lefty, Jake McGee, could be another internal option.  He has filthy stuff, particularly for a left-hander, and may eventually settle in as the team’s closer of the future.  More than likely he serves in a set-up role, and its possible the Rays return him to AAA to continue his progression as a starter and/or to give him more experience overall.

Rays Enviable Talent

Even with some significant changes this offseason, the Rays still have an incredible base of talent on their big-league team, a core that most teams would be thrilled to have.  The starting pitching should remain a team strength, as David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis will keep the Rays competitive, and one or both of Matt Garza and James Shields may be retained.

Third baseman Evan Longoria is one of the brightest young stars in all of baseball, while John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, Dan Johnson and Ben Zobrist will also return giving the Rays at least five familiar faces to their everyday lineup.  Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce may also be in that conversation given how much playing time they received last year, and the Rays very well may hold onto B.J. Upton.

Consolation Prize

As noted in previous columns, the Rays figure to have quite the haul on draft day next June, and while they’re slashing payroll they may need to slash a little more just to be able to sign all of the extra picks they are going to receive once all of their free agents officially depart.

Crawford, Soriano and Balfour are type A free agents, which could net the Rays two first-round picks each.  They also have four type B free agents in Joaquin Benoit, Chad Qualls, Randy Choate and Brad Hawpe, which would give the team four more sandwich picks should they all sign with other teams.  That’s a possibility of 10 additional first-round picks, which in total will likely require in excess of five million dollars to sign.

All of those picks will help supplement an already strong system, although as noted above several of their top prospects (Hellickson, Jennings and McGee) may become fixtures at the MLB level.

There is more talent on its way, and pitching continues to be a strength in their minor league system.  A pair of promising lefties, Alex Torres and Matt Moore, could be knocking at the door at the AAA and AA levels respectively next season, and power righty Alex Colome will likely be one step behind Moore.

There are a few potential big bats in the system, including former Aflac All-Americans Justin O’Conner and Josh Sale, although most of those bats are several years away from making an impact.

Should the Rays fail to make the playoffs next season, which I’m sure most would consider a near certainty, the excitement of a potentially re-loaded farm system will fall short from a team playing in October.  Even if they do fall short, it may not take long for them to re-load for another run in the next two to three years.  However, this is a forceful reminder of not only how difficult it is to make the playoffs, but how few teams have the endless monetary window necessary to retain the level of talent the Rays have become so adept at developing.

The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA.  Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and 5 Tool Talk, and can be contacted via email at pebert@5tooltalk.com.