After winning two American League titles in the last 3 years and a trip to the 2008 World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays have been dismantled but there is hope for the Tampa Bay faithful. Before I go into the current state of the Rays, let me recap the players that have left the Rays:
- Juaquin Benoit (RP) to the Detroit Tigers
- Carlos Peña (1B) to the Chicago Cubs
- Carl Crawford (LF) to the Boston Red Sox
- Jason Bartlett (SS) to the San Diego Padres
- Rafael Soriano (RP) to the New York Yankees
The Rays also made an 8-player trade with the Chicago Cubs during the beginning of January. Here are the details on that trade: the Rays sent starting pitcher Matt Garza, outfielder Fernando Perez and another minor leaguer to the Cubs for prospects pitcher Chris Archer, outfielder Brandon Guyer, catcher Robinson Chirinos, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and outfielder Sam Fuld. For more information of the prospects received by Tampa Bay in the trade, read Steve Slowinski's article A Look at the Matt Garza Haul: Archer, Lee, Chirinos, Guyer and Fuld from Draysbay.com.
So what does this mean for the Rays. Here's the bad news first. The positions of 1B, LF, SS, 8th inning reliever and closer are seriously depleted. In dealing Garza, Rays traded their number two starter leaving a big hole after number one starter David Price. But no need to fret, there is hope of the horizon.
- Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez
It was made official today: The Rays have signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. As it was reported by Joe Smith of the St. Petersburg Times in his article Introduction of Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon 'an exciting day' for Tampa Bay Rays:
Ramirez, who will make $2 million, is expected to be the full-time designated hitter. Damon, who will earn a base salary of $5.25 million, will likely be the primary leftfielder and potential leadoff hitter; Manager Joe Maddon said he hasn't set settled on a batting order yet.
I know there are those fans of the Rays that have doubts about Ramirez. The footage of his antics in Boston are readily available and it seems as if he has not been the same since his 50-game suspension for the usage of performance enhancing drugs, but don't forget, Ramirez is considered to be one of the best right handed hitters in the history of the game. Will Ramirez be the dominating force he was when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers? Probably not, but I think Manny is still good enough to hit between .280 and .310 with 30-40 HRs and 100 RBI. I believe that Ramirez will help to fill the hitting void that was left with Carlos Peña's departure. Maybe the change of scenery and a return to the division where he put up career numbers will do him good.
In terms of Damon, we all know his deficiencies in terms of his arm strength but after seeing him play on the Yankees from 2006-2009, I can say that Damon is a solid player who will play everyday if you let him and his demeanor is perfectly suited for the Tampa Bay Rays. Will he play everyday? I don't believe so, but Damon will provide insurance and guidance for super prospect Desmond Jennings, who is slated to take the place of Carl Crawford. If Jennings' performance is not up to what is expected of him this season, Damon can be plugged into any position in the outfield and he is still a threat on the base paths providing opportunities for run scoring by sluggers Longoria and Ramirez. I think in terms of both Damon and Ramirez, the positives outweigh the potential negatives.
- Casey Kotchman
The Rays have also signed first baseman Casey Kotchman formerly of the Seattle Mariners. I believe that Kotchman will platoon at first with Dan Johnson who was resigned by the Rays during the winter meetings in December. In 414 at-bats, Kotchman hit .217 with 9 HRs and 51 RBI. Kotchman had 90 hits (20 2B/1 3B/9 HR) with 57 strikeouts and 35 walks. His OPS was .616 (.280 OBP/.336 SLG). Kotchman's strength lies in his fielding abilities and as Ramirez will do with his hitting, Kotchman will help fill the defensive void left behind by Peña's departure.
- Reid Brignac
I believe that super utility player Reid Brignac will become the everyday shortstop. Having played at the majority of his games at second and short, Brignac will be paired with second baseman Ben Zobrist to shore up the middle infield for the Rays.
- The Bullpen
I think this is the area where the Rays have helped themselves out the most. Granted, it'll be hard to replace Benoit and Soriano was arguably the best 8th inning and closer combo in baseball last season. But the bullpen was shored up somewhat with the signings of fireballer Kyle Farnsworth (3-2 with a 3.34 ERA, 55 hits, 61 strikeouts and 19 walks for a WHIP of 1.144 in 60 games with the Kansas City Royals and the Atlanta Braves) and Joel Peralta (1-0 with a 2.02 ERA, 30 hits 49 strikeouts and 9 walks for a WHIP of 0.796 in 39 games with the Washington Nationals last season).
Farnsworth and Peralta join a bullpen that already includes J.P. Howell, Jake McGee, Andy Sonnanstine, Cory Wade, R.J. Swindle and Mike Ekstrom. I'm not sure if Tampa's bullpen can match those of division rivals Boston and New York but even after losing Benoit and Soriano, I think the Rays bullpen can be consistent enough to help keep games close.
- The Prospects
Based on MLB.com's recent Top 50 prospect list, the Rays have the following players in the top 50:
- #2 Jeremy Hellickson
- #11 Desmond Jennings
- #27 Matt Moore
- #47 Chris Archer
As I mentioned earlier, Jennings is seen as the heir-apparent to Carl Crawford in the outfield. From what I've read, Jennings is deemed to be a five-tool player similar to Crawford with better patience at the plate. Matt Diaz of Roto-Hardball describes Jennings as so:
While Jennings has a long way to go to reach Crawford's big league status, Jennings has shown throughout his minor league career to be a more ideal lead-off hitter than Crawford. Jennings has a career BB% of 10.6% (1831 PA), compared to Crawford's minor league career (5.4% in 1855 PA). With Jennings ability to hit for a high average and the ability to be patient and take walks, he will have tons of opportunities for SB's.
Pitcher Jeremy Hellickson has seen some limited major league experience. In 10 appearances (of which 4 were starts), he went 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA. He gave up 32 hits with 33 strikeouts and 8 walks for a WHIP of 1.10 36.1 innings pitched. It is believed that Hellickson will move into the starting rotation joining David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis.
It is also believed that there will be some limits placed on Hellickson similar to those placed on Yankees starter Phil Hughes this past season. Matt Diaz of Roto-Hardball describes it as so:
Look for the Rays to monitor Hellickson's 2011 workload a bit. He has never gone more than 152 innings in his minor league career, so expect somewhere from 150-170 innings out of Hellickson in 2011. Likely to pitch out of the 5th spot in the Rays rotation, Hellickson could win 10-13 games while posting solid ERA, WHIP, and K totals. He is one of the early favorites for AL Rookie of the Year.
Do I think the Rays can will 96 games like they did last season? No, I think it'll take some time for the new players and the prospects to gel around stalwarts Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and David Price. Will they be at the bottom of the American League East? No, I still believe that the Rays are better than the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles. I think the Rays will provide some tough challenges for both the Red Sox and the Yankees and compared are better than most of the other teams in the American League. Maybe if the gelling takes place faster than expected and Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon have comeback seasons the Rays can contend for the Wild Card this season. Otherwise, 2012 would be a more realistic goal for a rise to the top for the Rays.