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Playing Pepper 2011: Tampa Bay Rays

Posted on March 15, 2011 at 10:41 PM
Filed Under: Playing Pepper | Tampa Bay Rays
Two years ago, I started a series I called Playing Pepper, where I asked questions of bloggers of each major league team about the season to come.  Not only was that informative and entertaining, it led to the spawning of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.  With spring training coming up, it's time to get back into shape by again playing a little pepper.

Tampa Bay (96-66, 1 GA and first in the AL East; lost in ALDS)

The turnaround from outhouse to penthouse continued last season for the Rays, proving that '09 wasn't a fluke.  They were able to take the AL East title from the Yanks on the last day, capping off a great season.  Cliff Lee proved to be too much for them in the short opening series, but still there was little shame in their 2010 outing.

Can it continue, though?  In the offseason they started shedding pieces of that team that had been so successful and there's not a lot of room for missteps in the AL East.  To that end, I talked with Ben Ice of Rays Colored Glasses about what to expect out of these Rays.  You can follow Ben on Twitter to keep up with what is coming out of Tampa during the regular season.

Ben has been writing about sports since 2003 and is a four time finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writer Association awards.  He is the founder and former Managing Partner of RotoExperts, one of the fastest growing fantasy sports sites in the industry, and has recently joined the FanSided team to blog about his favorite baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Stick around as we talk a little about replacing a Rays legend.

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C70: What was your opinion of the Tampa Bay offseason? 

RCG: No matter how you slice it the Rays were in for a turbulent off-season. The amount of money paid to acquire the pieces of their bullpen by other teams shows just how smart the Tampa front office is in evaluating talent. Joaquin Benoit was an injury prone cast off who parlayed his (not even full season) success into a $15 million dollar + payday.  It may take some time for the new 'pen to mesh, but expect better than projected performance once again.   

The Matt Garza trade was heralded for getting a bumper crop of players like Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee, but watch out for Robinson Chirinos. I've been the band-leader for this player and I expect he will push for a spot on the 25-man roster this year. They brought in a lot of arms thanks to the decimation of their bullpen but there is a ton of talent they can control for years, much like what San Diego has done. Many pundits are down on Kyle Farnsworth, but if you look at his body of work over the past couple years, he could blossom (tell me you think Benoit had more talent...) in the Rays system. Digging Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez out of the bargain bin was simply icing on a very tasty cake. 

C70: Can Desmond Jennings at least begin to help people forget about Carl Crawford? 

RCG: The real hit was losing Carl Crawford, but there wasn't a fan around who didn't know it was coming. The Rays management showed a lot of class and guts. They could easily have traded him and received some value (not that the picks they eventually got weren't valuable) immediately, but they were in a pennant race and they chose to keep him around for the season. 

Desmond Jennings isn't Crawford. That isn't to say he can't eventually replace him, but look at it this way. If he starts out the way Crawford did in the majors, with 259 AB, two home runs, 30 RBI, nine stolen bases (out of 14 attempts) and a .259 BA, is anyone really going to think he can carry Crawford's jockstrap, much less replace him?  Jennings is a very talented player, but projecting him as another Crawford is a crap shoot. We can only hope. We also have to make sure our expectations are focused properly. This kid has an overly abundant amount of scrutiny focused on him. Right now, the smartest thing the team can do is send him down for a couple months, out of the limelight, and let him get his game on. If he performs, there is no reason he can't be an early (post June 1st) call up. 

C70: What are the expectations for Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon

RCG: Johnny is here for one bring the club house together when things get tough. The Rays have been crafty by bringing in these kinds of players, whether it was a Carlos Pena or Troy Percival or now Damon.  Manny on the other hand, is the real gem. When you have a guy who has the chance to be really special, like 600 home runs and (an outside shot at) 3000 hits, and he comes in motivated, you simply hope he'll keep it together and provide that offensive spark the Rays have lacked on a consistent basis. So far he has said all the right things. He came to camp early. He asked to play on days off. I think he'll do well with a crazy-like-a-fox manager like Joe Maddon. If he goes 20/80 this year he's a huge win for the team. And you know he'll be looking forward to playing against Boston. 

C70: Is there a Rays prospect that will make a significant impact this season? 

RCG: Robinson Chirinos may have been the real diamond in the rough out of the Garza trade. Converted to a catcher in 2008, all he has done in the minors is mash, getting better every year. He leads the team in total bases, home runs, and OPS this preseason and has the second most AB of any player. That tells me the Rays are giving him a serious look. He's already proven clutch, with a couple game winning hits, including a walk off home run against the Red Sox in Carl Crawford's first game against the Rays with his new team. 

Although he can't be considered a prospect, home-grown Casey Kotchman has really opened eyes in camp and may win the first base job many expected was Dan Johnson's. Johnson profiles a lot like Carlos Pena, without the glove, but Kotchman has the defense that the Rays really put a premium on and is hitting like he was always projected to. He won't bring the same power profile, but if he can hit .280 plus and play solid defense I like him to take the job. 

C70: What is your prediction on Tampa Bay's record and divisional finish? 

RCG: Well, considering our blog is Rays Colored Glasses lol...  Seriously, it looks like an incredibly competitive division, even more so than in the past. Boston, if they stay healthy, should run away with it. Then the Rays, who I think will battle with Toronto for the wild card, and the Yankees in the hunt but fading thanks to a starting rotation that won't scare anyone.  92 wins and second place is my projection.


1 Comment | Leave a comment

The Rays are hard to peg this season. They could win 92 games or 84. A lot depends on the rotation. Price is one of the best. Hellickson was dinged from the bullpen after being stellar as a starter. Hopefully, that didn't psyche him out. Now he has blister problems. We'll have to see what happens.

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