Comment of the Week: Will Minor League Baseball seem to work in Tampa?

Bob & Jackie Washburn joined the conversation this week with a creative future use for Tropicana Field:

Just a thought, but considering that Tropicana was originally built without having a team, why not use it for a Rays farm team, maybe just single A to start with, after the Rays move to a new stadium. A case in point here would be the Atlanta Braves who have a farm team just outside Atlanta, only 30 or so miles to Fulton County Stadium. The Braves also ended their relationship with their farm team in Richmond (VA) just last year because Richmond wouldn’t enhance the facility.

This solves a couple of problems, one being the use of Tropicana, and another being to reduce the Rays costs in supporting their farm teams. I think everyone needs to make the necessary concessions here… I know we do, we being 2 super senior citizens who drive 3 hours each way from Melbourne Beach to see the games.

Keep up the good articles. Thanks, Bob & Jackie

First, complimenting my writing is always a good way to earn COW honors.

Second, while I responded that I don’t think a minor league team is the answer for a lot of different reasons, Bob’s idea had my wheels spinning. If memory serves (and we are going to have to rely on my memory alone because I can’t find any league-wide minor league attendance databases online), the Florida State League is either at the bottom, or near the bottom, in attendance among full-season minor leagues. I think that begs two questions:

1. Why doesn’t minor league baseball seem to work in Florida?;

2. Is that relevant to an evaluation of Major League Baseball in Florida?

As to the first, I have no idea. Part of the problem has to be the cities. Most of the FSL teams are in snow-bird cities like Port St. Lucie, Fort Myers, and Dunedin. The teams are in those cities because their big clubs train there. And their big clubs train there because they have fans there in the spring. But, when summer rolls around, those fans return to the big club’s home city leaving the FSL club bereft of support.

Also, the more permanent cities on the FSL circuit now have big clubs. I remember going to games at Al Lang (and Al Lopez) when I was kid. It was awesome. Pretty good crowds. Great parks. Good times. I especially loved (and I suppose still love – since it’s still standing) Al Lang. It is a real shame that we can’t find something to do with that park because it is a gem.

As to the second question, I think minor league baseball and Major League Baseball in Florida are unrelated. For one, they appeal to different crowds. Minor League baseball is a niche sport designed for purists that love baseball, prospect honks that have to the first to see a guy, and local families looking for a reasonable night out. Big League baseball has a broader audience.

In the final analysis, while the Rays might have killed my chance to take my son to a minor league game in town, I am ok with the tradeoff. If I really want him to have that experience, we’ll go spend a weekend in Charlotte County.

Thanks for the comment Bob and Jackie.

Comment of the Week

We’ve had some good discussion here this week without much serious participation from me. I try to respond to most comments but, there are some comments that deserve a little deeper reflection. So, I thought we’d try something new. I will pick one comment each week and respond to it at length in its own post. The comment of the week doesn’t have to be the most insightful or well-written comment. Just something that caught my attention.

The first honor goes to Travis who engaged Merrill in an interesting discussion about the Rays’ shortstop future:

[Hak-Ju]Lee is definitely closer to starting [at shortstop] then [Tim] Beckham, but I haven’t given up on him. Beckham started showing some promise leading up to the futures game, though it’s unlikely he’ll ever make Andy feel better about passing on Posey for him. Can you imagine this team with Posey?!

Despite the look of the roster, I think the Rays will be ok at shortstop in 2012 so, as long as Reid Brignac/Sean Rodriguez can combine to be good defensive players and replacement-level offensive players. Both are more than capable of achieving that. (This is based on the theory that most teams don’t get much offense from short but make up for it elsewhere).

That said, I am not totally convinced that Reid Brignac has been conclusively doomed to a lifetime as a replacement-level hitter and I am not ready to search for his replacement.

I try to throw out remarkably good rookie years and remarkably bad second seasons when looking at a ballplayer’s future. I can offer no scientific or SABRmetric justification for this practice but, am open to any mathematical refutation.

In my opinion, first and second seasons don’t count because Major League teams don’t generally spend a lot of scouting resources on rookies. So, rookies have the advantage of unknown flaws and second year players have the difficulty of overcoming the flaws discovered during their rookie campaign. Good players, it seems, are the ones that can remedy the flaws identified by scouts.

Scouts found the hole in Brignac’s swing (right under his hands) and teams capitalized on it in 2011. I think a swing-hole (is that a term? did I just make that up?) is easier to correct than, say, poor command of the strike zone or, an inability to hit a certain pitch-type. (A friend once told me that, if he ran into Jonny Gomes in a dark alley, he’d just pretend to be a breaking ball so that Gomes couldn’t hit him.)

If Brignac has plugged the hole this winter, he’ll be more than solid at shortstop for at least the remainder of his arbitration years.

Either way, I wouldn’t buy any Lee or Beckham jerseys anytime in the near future. The Rays like to bring along prospects, particularly young prospects, slowly. Lee just turned 21 on November 4. He is talented but, I don’t think we’ll see him anywhere near the big club soon. Beckham is older but, has several lost seasons playing shortstop. I think his future is in centerfield which means, he needs to learn to play centerfield.

Point-Counterpoint: Where is the Future?

Yesterday, Steve Slowinski wrote a good piece at DRaysBay asking why Desmond Jennings, Jake McGee, et. al. are still starring for the Bulls.

I think Steve is hitting on something a lot of Rays fans are feeling but, what the heck, lets argue about it anyway!

Brendan takes the Point this week: Put them in Coach.

I take the Counterpoint: Leave the kids at the kids’ table.

Point-Counterpoint: Thank you for (not) Smoking

Point-Counterpoint is back in earnest this week with a heated (thank you, I’ll be here all week) debate about the Rays’ decision to exclude the signature cigar from their throwback Tampa Smokers jerseys.

Brendan takes the Point: Leave it Out

I take the Counterpoint: Baseball is not a Role Model

As always, let us know what you think. Unless you disagree with us. Then just keep it to yourself.

Point-Counterpoint: Under Review

Justin Ruggiano’s run that wasn’t in Detroit has brought the issue of instant replay in Major League Baseball back into our collective consciousness.

We kicked around the idea of debating whether or not baseball needs expanded review. But neither Brendan nor I wanted to argue against that proposition. So, this week’s Point-Counterpoint offers two competing views of what expanded replay might look like.
I take the Point: Let’s Adopt and Modify the NFL model;

Brendan takes the Counterpoint: Let’s use the eye in the sky.

Counterpoint: It Takes a Villain to Raise MLB

Mark, you sesame street watching, “we are the world” singing, triple ply with aloe softee.  Villains are a cornerstone of baseball. Some of the best players in history have been villains. Barry Bonds. Ty Cobb(at least according to Field of Dreams). Haywood from Major League.

Do you remember when Superman fought off the nice guy you were actually rooting for? Of course you donʼt…because Comic Books and movies need villains just like sports. How boring would Gotham be without villains?

I think the difference is, sports fans donʼt all have to agree on who or what the villain is.

To Tampa Bay Raysʼ fans, the Yankees and Red Sox are villains. Johnny Damon played for both the sox and the evil empire, and now heʼs our DH. Did we jump right in to that relationship and embrace him as one of our own or did we try to keep him away from us like we were Sarah Conner in Terminator 2? He looks like the same guy who was trying to kill us the last time he was around, and now heʼs trying to help us? Cue the Guns-n-Roses and letʼs run from this player, right? Nope. Heʼs no longer a villain, because he switched to the good side.

Tiger Woods. Brett Favre. Jordan. Eddie Martel, QB from “The Replacements”. The Iron Sheik. Ivan Drago. and now Lebron James who is one loss away from making tons of NBA fans extremely happy. (note…obviously since I wrote this he is now 0 losses away, and tons of NBA fans are extremely happy). Dallas jerseys sold in Cleveland this past week like Budweiser at a Nascar event. Lebron has proven to be as popular as a chaplain on a porno set. And you know whoʼs watching? Everyone.

People tune in for once in a lifetime talents whether theyʼre nice or not…but more people continue to watch when the guy is a d-bag. I hope Bryce Harper continues to blow kisses at pitchers and stare at his monster blasts, because that would mean heʼs still hitting monster blasts, and people will watch that hoping that heʼll be a good guy one day as well as being an incredible player. At the risk of making 2 references to the same movie…

People will watch, Mark. They’ll watch these games for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll rush in from their driveways, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll turn on their tvʼs as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, I won’t mind signing a baseball for you,” Bryce will say. “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be
so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. The one constant through all the years, Mark, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Mark. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will watch, Mark. People will most
definitely watch.

Point-Counterpoint: Does Baseball need Bryce to be ‘Bron

Two days ago, in the face of kiss-gate, Jeff Passan wrote this column arguing that Bryce Harper turning villain would be good for baseball.

I take the point on this: Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks.

Brendan takes the counterpoint: LeBryce would be good for the game. (Due to technical difficulties, Brendan’s post might not be up until later. No, those technical difficulties are not manufactured because Brendan keeps getting the upper hand in these little debates).


Live from SkyDome

Yeah, I know it isn’t called SkyDome anymore. But that was such a cool name, we shouldn’t let it die.

As many of you know, we here at The Ray Area have a Toronto bureau to bring you all baseball news from the frozen north, eh. Local stat analyst Chris Glover is a Toronto resident and always takes the opportunity to cross-country ski over to SkyDome when the Rays are in town.

He has offered to add a new element to the Rays-Jays experience this year by live Tweeting all three games.

So come by, check him out, send him your questions and he will send back all things Toronto. We know he’ll be busy. After all, he’ll have to send 3 Canadian tweets for every 2 American tweets because of the exchange rate.

UPDATE: Chris has a new Twitter handle. @Chris_RayArea

(P.S. Sorry about the Dudley Doright picture Chris, I just couldn’t resist).

Pitch Perfect

It can be tough to find new angles to talk about for any team in the off season, with the proposition getting harder when you root for one whose bigger moves include acquiring Jeff Keppinger and selling Russ Canzler. Luckily, the good folks at Brooks Baseball have added a treasure trove of new information revolving around the PitchFX tool used to track individual pitches. The tool allows us to review not only the movement, velocity and location of every pitch thrown, but also the outcome of each of those pitches. Using that data we can better understand our pitchers, predict future success or decline, or in this case, try and decide who has the best single pitch on the Rays rotation.

I was struggling with how to quantify what exactly constitutes a great pitch, and then the great Carson Cistulli posted this over at Fangraphs, which essentially aims to do a similar exercise for the best fastballs in the league. I’m going down a similar road of looking at a pitch’s outcome, it’s value per FanGraphs and how important it is within a pitcher’s repertoire to try and gain an overall ‘value’. In no particular order, the below pitches stood out for one reason or another:

James Shields’ changeup

”You think it’s a fastball, and then it’s gone”, Bobby Abreu on James Shields’ changeup.

This was the main reason I started looking at the information: to understand just how good Shields’ changeup is. I had the pleasure of watching Shields in person a couple of times last season (in Miami and Toronto) and each time he twirled an absolute gem, giving him a combined line of 18IP, 10H, ER, 25K, 2BB. Against Toronto it was Shields’ curveball that caused Bautista to put a hole in his own dugout wall, but over the course of those two contests it was the changeup which did the most damage.

Despite going to his changeup early and often (27% of all pitches thrown), Shields was able to generate swinging strikes an impressive 37% of the time. His use of the changeup has trended upwards over the past few seasons but he’s been able to maintain, and even improve, its effectiveness thanks to solid mechanics which have kept the vertical movement and velocity at steady rates since 2008.

By tracking the change in run expectancy before and after a single pitch, FanGraphs are able to generate a value for each pitch, which shows how many runs a player saved with a specific pitch type. Shields’ changeup scores highly by this metric (highest of all pitches in this post) with 17.7 runs saved, not quite up alongside Kershaw’s slider (22.9) or Verlander’s fastball (25.5) but very close to Halladay’s famed cutter (19.5). Indeed, only Hamels (29.3) and Hernandez (21.4) saved more runs with their changeup in 2011. Shields has developed his curveball over the past couple of seasons to the point where it’s almost as effective as his changeup, but you can be sure he’ll be leaning on his trusty change piece again this season as he aims to prove his 2011 line is more indicative of his true talent than 2010.

David Price’s fastball

Few players have leant on their fastball more than Price over the past three seasons, who threw it in one form or another 73% of the time. Indeed, if there is one criticism of Price is that he sometimes become over reliant on his heater, but he can move it around the zone well, which can sometimes be all he needs on a given night.

There’s a distinct joy to watching a pitcher simply blow opponents away and with a two seamer and a four seamer pushing 98mph, Price is as good as they come when he has his stuff working. Price threw 64% of his fastballs for strikes in 2011, generating 22% swinging strikes. Price’s two seamer ranked 11th by FanGraphs’ pitch value /100 measure, behind a list of solid pitchers who would all love to have Price’s secondary stuff.

Much like Shields, it’s the development of the rest of Price’s repertoire which will likely propel him to the next level, but it’s good to know that on any given night his staple pitch can often be all he needs.

Jeremy Hellickson’s changeup

By FanGraphs’ count, no qualifying pitcher threw their changeup more than Hellickson in 2011, accounting for 32% of all his pitches. Still, major league hitters didn’t show many signs of catching up with Hellickson’s off speed stuff as the season went on, with swing and misses holding steady (33%) while fewer and fewer balls were hit well (the line drive rate declined all year, while the GB/FB rate continued to rise).

Albert Lyu highlighted Hellickson’s changeup as one of the best three in 2011, alongside Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, and ahead of the aforementioned Shields and the likes of Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum. In terms of pure value delivered (wCH), the data backs up this claim with the changeup saving 17 runs, good for fourth place in the majors.

There’s been plenty of talk during the off season about whether Hellickson’s rookie success is replicable, largely revolving around whether he can continue to induce such a high rate of weak contact, or if he is getting ‘lucky’ with the outcome of balls hit in play last season. That’s another story for another day, suffice to say that Hellickson’s changeup could be one of the contributory factors as to why he may be able to sustainably induce weak contact, and may not face the kind of regression many are forecasting.

Joel Peralta’s fastball

Peralta probably isn’t the first name you’d expect to see on this list but his fastball success last season was undeniable. FanGraphs suggest Peralta saved around 14 runs with his fastball, fourth among relievers behind Jose Valverde, Jason Motte and David Robertson. On a per-pitch basis, he trailed only the great Mariano Rivera, who rarely uses his fastball these days.

Peralta is able to generate good movement on his heater (-4.68 horizontal and -11.07 vertical), while pounding the zone (68% strikes), which compensates for the lack of raw power in the pitch (average 91mph). Presumably the pitch becomes more effective if his opponent still has his bat on his shoulder, though the opinion of the umpires seem to disagree on the legality of the quick-pitch.

Matt Moore’s curveball and changeup

“David [Price] has good other stuff, but that one pitch Matt has is one of the better ones I’ve seen in the major leagues already, that left-handed change-up”, Joe Maddon on Moore’s changeup

As he progressed through the minors it was Moore’s slurve (he calls it a curveball but others categorise it was a slider) that won the most plaudits. Steve Carter at ‘Scouting the Sally’ described it as “’disgusting’ in the most endearing of ways” while Ben Badler, reporting on last season’s future’s game, defined the pitch as “knee buckling” and “already one of the best breaking balls at any level of baseball”. In his brief 2011 major league cameo, Moore threw 54 curveballs, inducing 41% swings, 55% of which whiffed.

Maddon’s recent comment about Moore’s change piece is particularly encouraging given that this wasn’t seen as a particular strength just a couple of seasons ago. During his brief cameo last season, Moore’s changeup featured substantial movement and induced swinging strikes an absurd 63% of the time. Indeed, he generated twice as many swinging misses as Wade Davis did with his changeup, despite Davis throwing four times as many.

It goes without saying that everything we take from Moore’s 2011 campaign needs to be tempered with a small sample size warning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least dream on 2012. If his changeup continues to develop to give him another weapon in his arsenal against righties, he could well enjoy the top couple of entries on this list next year.

Are there any other pitches we’ve missed here? Anything that you specifically look for on a nightly basis?


Closing to Open: What Game 162 tells us about 2012

[If you’ve been reading this site for any amount of time, you already know how talented Chris is. But, this post deserves a little introduction anyway only because it’s premise is so creative. I didn’t edit a word — even his British tendency to spell “defense” with a “c.” I generally dislike season previews because, we’re all just guessing, but this thing is just awesome. –Mark]

By Chris Glover

Sometimes a single season, game or even at-bat can serve as a microcosm for a wider reaching trend. The selection of a defensively skilled player over a lumbering slugger might signal a shift in a franchise’s priorities or a single plate appearance where a player looks composed and then clueless before belting the ball into the cheap seats might serve perfectly as a summary of his inconsistent career to date. For the Rays in 2011, their microcosm was Game 162. Every time you re-watch the game, or even just the highlights, you will notice an out that was so close to a hit, a walk that was so close to a strike out, or, of course, a hit that was so close to a foul ball (okay you probably noticed those two the first time round). It’s through that lens that we will review 2011 while raising, and hopefully answering, some questions about this team in 2012.

David Price goes 4 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 5 ER on 97 pitches

(or, who is the ace of this staff?)

Whatever happened in this game, it goes without saying that the success of the rotation is going to be the major driving force behind the Rays’ success in 2012. It’s amazing to think that Price may not be the best pitcher on the Rays staff, perhaps even as soon as this season. For what it’s worth, I’d suggest Price is still a little underrated and too much attention was paid to his 12-13 record last year – a measure which has little correlation to how well an individual player actually pitched. Price’s expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) (which is more predictive than ERA, which still relies on the quality of a pitcher’s supporting defence and a large slice of luck) was 3.32, better than Tim Lincecum (3.36), CJ Wilson (3.41), Ian Kennedy (3.50) and Jered Weaver (3.80) all of whom received top-six finishes in their respective Cy Young voting.

Price improved from 2010 in almost all (controllable) areas of his game, striking out more batters, walking less and generating more ground balls. It was really his inability to strand baserunners and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which hurt him along the perception of him being a true ‘ace’. Those two measures are generally thought to be outside of a pitcher’s control and improved luck will likely see Price take the ‘next step’ so many are waiting for.

The odd game like this from Price shouldn’t detract from another excellent season and another step on the way to becoming recognised as one of the top handful of pitchers in the league. What’s even more exciting, of course, are his partners in crime with Shields, Moore and Hellickson forming a potentially elite trio of their own. Some are expecting regression from Shields and particularly Hellickson, but there is a decent case to me made for each player being able to replicate last season’s success.

Shields actually decreased his strikeout rate and walked more batters in 2011 than 2010, with a lot of his success being due to an improved ground ball rate and some better luck with runners in scoring position and with his supporting defence. In truth, his pure ability probably lies somewhere between 2010 and 2011, but with an increasingly effective curveball being used to compliment his dominant changeup, we can be fairly confident that he should fall more towards last season than his poor 2010 campaign.

As for Hellickson, this time last year he was still ranked ahead of Matt Moore among Rays’ prospects and didn’t disappoint in his rookie season, coming in with a sub-3.0 ERA on his way to rookie of the year honours. Many are predicting some regression from Hellboy thanks to an unsustainably high strand rate (82%) and low BABIP (.223) but there is reason to believe that there are counteracting factors which should soften this blow, chiefly a likely improvement in his strikeout rate, which at 5.6 K/9 was well below the 9+ rate he had shown in the minors. ZiPS forecasts Hellickson to have a 3.6 ERA and an ERA+ of 112, which would rank him as a number two starter on 20 different teams.

Oh right, and then there’s this guy Matt Moore, uber-prospect, playoff winner and possible wizard. Some are already predicting him to be the pick of this talented bunch, a prospect that should terrify all in the AL East. Moore’s prospects deserve a post of their own, suffice to say we should all be very excited.

We can’t say that we won’t see pitching lines like Price’s in game 162 again in 2012, but it’s pretty safe to suggest they will be few, and far between. Luckily for us, on that historic night in September the Rays had enough to get over Price’s shaky outing, starting with a couple of typically well timed hits in the eighth.

James Shields warming up in the bullpen

(or, who’s heading there this season?)

With the game slipping away, we caught a glimpse of Shield warming up in the ‘pen, presumably to give him the 2/3 innings he needed to reach 250. While we won’t be seeing Shields in the bullpen anytime soon, it’s looking all but certain that two from Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb are headed there or down to Durham.

Davis has been vocal this offseason about not wanting to pitch in relief, and there’s nothing wrong with his attitude in that regard – he should want to stay in the rotation – while Niemann has been more diplomatic. The forecast models all pretty much have Niemann and Cobb pegged as 4.0 ERA guys, while they are less decided on Davis, with predictions ranging between 4.0 and 4.8.

Davis, whose changeup and curveball were both lit up over the past couple of seasons, may be more suited to the bullpen, where he could potentially crank-up his fastball to the mid-nineties and get back to the power pitcher he was when he cracked top prospect lists just a couple of years ago. Niemann has tended to struggle during the third and fourth time through the order though, so he too may well be suited for a long relief role. That would leave the inexperienced but impressive Cobb who will likely get a long look this March.

There are factors at work outside of just on field talent here, with Davis locked into a team friendly deal until 2017 (including team options) while Niemann will be subject to the potentially expensive arbitration process for the next couple of seasons. Niemann is however out of options, surely locking him in to a role in the majors in one form or another. It would be surprising if this race is decided just on the results of this month’s games, but it does appear to be a genuinely open competition and one which is only just beginning. Whatever the decision for opening day though, it’s likely all three of these guys will get starts this year due to injury, loss of form or scheduling.

8th inning: Damon blooper, Zobrist double, Kotchman hit by pitch, Fuld walks

(or, can the new arrivals replace the departed players’ production)

Has the start to an inning ever better reflected a team’s offense? An ugly blooper from Damon just crept past Eduardo Nunez’ glove before Zobrist lined the first pitch for a double, Kotchman took one on the hands to load the bases and Fuld held his nerve to walk in the first run on six close pitches. Damon, Kotchman and Fuld accounted for a total of six wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) last season and replacing that production was, and possibly still is, a major question heading into the new year.

Luke Scott and old friend Carlos Pena are the men charged with the task of replacing the departed Damon and Kotchman, and on paper, they look well placed to do that and more. While we can’t quantify Damon’s off-the-field impact, his work at the plate was uninspiring and Scott won’t have to do much to match, or exceed Damon’s production. The Rays’ got a combined .321 wOBA from the DH for the season, good for an 11th place ranking for the season and the 16 HRs from the position is hardly anything to get excited by.

Scott struggled himself throughout 2011 until being shut down in July but was still able to post an isolated power mark of .182, which would still have ranked 6th on the Rays in 2011. A return to his career average rate of .230 would have trailed only Longoria (.251) last season. ZiPS forecasts Scott for a .245 / .325 / .447 slash line with 16 HRs in just 378 appearances, not too dissimilar from Upton’s 2011 (.243 / .331 / .429 23 HRs) minus the speed (and of course defensive ability). Scott’s lack of extreme platoon splits (.339 wOBA vs L and .366 vs R) suggests he will get plenty of opportunities to get to the plate and his floor should be around Damon’s 2011 campaign providing he can stay healthy, with good power upside.

While the Damon to Scott could be argued to be a potential lateral move, the change at first must be viewed as an upgrade for even the most pessimistic of Pena forecasters. While Kotchman’s 2011 will be tough to replace, it would be a huge stretch to suggest Casey was the man to do it when you consider the luck he had in blooping and bleeding his way to a .306 average (his .335 BABIP was 12th among all players with 500 PAs). Pena needs no introduction in these parts, though some caution must be noted about expecting a return of his 2007 vintage form. We can however reasonably expect something close to his 2008-09 production with perhaps a slight decline in power from the 30-35 to the 26-30 range to pair with a lot of whiffs, a lot of walks and a solid glove. There is some concern about Pena moving back to the offensively stingy Trop at his age, but the majority of his home runs last year would have cleared the fences in most parks, and it’s not like Pena is leaving a hitter’s paradise. Scott, Pena and a full season of Jennings might not generate too much attention around the league, but given what they are replacing they look like a great combination of high floor players with a good amount of upside.

8th inning: BJ Upton just misses out on a grand slam

(or, how will Upton do in what is probably his last season as a Ray?)

If the start of the 8th inning summed up what went right with the Rays in 2011, it might also sum up the fortunes of BJ Upton over his whole career. With the Yankees reeling and the bases loaded, Upton came to the plate to face Luis Ayala, who started him off with a slider middle and in which, well, didn’t slide. Upton didn’t quite get a hold of it, and with a “I was this close” gesture that summed up his career to some in Tampa, he showed how close he was to blowing the game wide open.

In this lowly blogger’s humble opinion, that viewpoint is a touch unfair, but understandable given Upton’s alternation between flashes of sheer brilliance and frustratingly wild swings. However, since Upton became a regular first teamer in 2007, only 11 American Leaguers have amassed more wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) and the list of those players behind BJ includes perennial All-Stars and perhaps higher rated players like Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton and Mark Teixeira.

The ‘contract year theory’ is one that is still up for debate and I don’t think we’re going to be swayed too much by the ‘best shape of his life’ stories from spring training, but there is always that lingering possibility that this is the year Upton ‘puts it all together’. Most projection systems have him settling in around the .250 / .340 / .430 vicinity, also believing that his 20+ HR power is for real. With his abundant talent you could suggest that he still has a chance to far eclipse these marks, but then there’s always the chance that he’ll just fall short once again. If nothing else he will be fun/maddening/exciting/frustrating to watch.

“There it is, long drive, deep to left . . . gone”

(or, how good can Longoria really be?)

When the team absolutely needed a big hit, there’s few players you would have wanted to step to the plate other than Evan Longoria, but just how good can he be? Despite battling through oblique and foot injuries for the whole season, Longoria still managed to put together a good season, finishing with a .244 / .355 / .495 line along with 31 HRs and a .251 isolated power mark. Given his struggles with injury and bad luck with hits dropping in (.239 BABIP last season), there’s no reason to think he won’t drag that average back to right around his career .275 rate while 30 HRs looks like the floor rather than the ceiling for Longoria’s impressive power.

There’s still a feeling that there’s more to come from Longoria despite the fact that he ranks behind only Albert Pujols in wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) since entering the majors in 2008. Admittedly, a lot of that value is derived from the unproven defensive statistics which make up that measure, but in Longoria’s case I don’t think there’s much of a gap between the stats and the eyeball test – he is one of, if not the, best defenders at the hot corner.

With a line-up that looks as dangerous as any the Rays have ever enjoyed, combined with a (hopefully) healthier season, there’s no reason Longoria can’t improve on his 6th placed MVP vote from 2010, and deliver his best season yet.

“Line shot down the left field line”

(or, do we need another excuse to watch this?)

There’s no real lesson or question here. Just that baseball is back and it promises to be another great season for the Rays.