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2007 Team Preview: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

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[editor's note, by Jeff Sackmann] Starting today, Beyond the Boxscore will be running a team preview every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday until Opening Day. They'll be posted roughly in reverse order of 2006 winning percentage. Enjoy!

2006 W-L: 61-101 (5th place)

2006 Pythag W-L: 65-97

Coming:
Akinori Iwamura, Al Reyes, Stephen Andrade, Tony Peguero, Hee-Seop Choi, Jorge Velandia, Dustan Mohr, Yamid Haad, Scott Dohmann, Brendan Harris, Gary Glover, Jason Grabowski

Going:
Tyler Walker, Brian Meadows, Damon Hollins, Travis Harper, Travis Lee

The Devil Rays In a Nutshell:

Several savvy midseason trades last year made the Tampa farm system even more well-stocked than it already was. We'll see still more of the Rays' young talent hit the bigs this year along with Japanese import Akinori Iwamura. But despite the presence of such young stars and stars-in-embryo as Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Delmon Young, this is still a team a long way away from competing. The more immediate goal is booting the Orioles out of 4th place, and perhaps knocking at the door of .500.

Offense:

The Devil Rays had several very talented hitters in and out of the lineup last year, including Crawford, Baldelli, and Julio Lugo, but overall, the offense was putrid. Team OBP was .314, more than 10 points lower than that of the next-worst team (the Mariners) and almost 20 points lower than that of the Royals. Some of that is due to year-long slumps from Jorge Cantu and Jonny Gomes; the problem also stemmed from giving 180 or more at-bats to Ben Zobrist, Tomas Perez, Damon Hollins, and Toby Hall.

It has to get better, doesn't it?

There are, in fact, several spots where the Rays ought to get more production than they did in 2006. The most obvious place is right field, where Young is slated to take over for the four-headed monster that was Hollins, Branyan, Greg Norton, and himself. Overall, TB right fielders hit 255/310/485, kept that respectable only by Delmon's own contribution.

Two other offense-first positions--first base and designated hitter--are also prime areas for improvement. Travis Lee is largely to blame for the aggregate first-base line of 239/313/399, and the truly atrocious 224/326/424 from DH lies at Gomes's feet. There are other problem spots--catchers, second basemen, and shortstops all got on base at a 305 clip or worse--but 1B, RF, and DH offer the most realistic room for offensive increases.

Letting Lee walk away (the first walk he took since mid-August, incidentally) was a good start. It's far from clear, though, that the Rays will be able to take advantage of the opportunity to replace him. No other big-league team has an infield with more question marks to settle before opening day, and first base might be foremost among them.

Norton and Ty Wigginton were useful role players, though neither should be expected to replicate their 2006 production. A platoon isn't out of the question, but would still leave the Rays with one of the worst first-base slots in baseball. Hee-Seop Choi and Cantu (if Iwamura moves to second) are in the mix as well; unless one of them bounces back to career-year performance, though, Tampa's first-base situation won't be a strong point. On the other hand, it won't take much to improve on last year.

Perhaps the biggest question mark going into the season is what to expect from Iwamura. There aren't a lot of diminutive power hitters in the states, so it's difficult to see him pounding 30 or 40 bombs in Tropicana; I wrote an entire column simply trying to pin down a projection. In the end, I came up with a line of 292/348/446, not far from his ZiPS prediction of 288/350/453. That would be a substantial improvement over 2006 Rays second basemen, and a modest one over their third basemen. However, he's not going to save this offense single-handedly.

To put the D-Rays batsmen back to the middle of the pack, it'll take a strong campaign from Delmon, a solid bounce back from Gomes or Cantu, a respectable performance at shortstop (from Ben Zobrist, most likely), and the steady hand of Joe Maddon to get the most out of the questionable first-base and DH slots.

That's a tall order.

Starting Rotation

Andrew Friedman and his staff should be commended for resisting the urge to shop for pitching this offseason. It would've been downright silly to sign a Miguel Batista or a Gil Meche to fill out the middle of the rotation. However, it's safe to predict that there will be weeks in which he'll wish he had.

Last year, the Rays got eight starts or more from ten different pitchers, only three of whom (Kazmir, Tim Corcoran, and the departed Mark Hendrickson) registered ERAs better than league average. Of the nine starters who will return, only Kazmir unequivocally deserves a spot in the rotation.

While the starting five will doubtless be young, they won't all be teeming with potential. Jae Seo, Casey Fossum, and Tim Corcoran will all be 29 or 30 years old--not so aged that we should be worried about them breaking down, but old enough that Rays fans can hardly count on a breakthrough from any of them. ZiPS projects Seo, Fossum, and Corcoran to have ERAs of 5.43, 5.31, and 4.81, respectively; that's a little better than it sounds, given that they'll be racking up those numbers against the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Red Sox, but it's still not very good.

Worst of all, one of those three guys may well be the #2 starter out of spring training. A few younger pitchers--J.P. Howell, Jamie Shields, and Jason Hammel, with Andrew Sonnanstine and Jeff Niemann right behind them--have more potential, but it's a stretch to count on any of them for even so much as 20 league-average starts. If the Rays are lucky, one of them will break out and settle in behind Kazmir; if they aren't, it'll be another long summer in St. Petersburg.

Making matters worse, the Rays can't expect to have a very strong defense. While losing Travis Lee will do wonders for the lineup, it'll hurt the infield. Zobrist may turn into a strong defender at the major league level, but he can't be counted on to do so immediately. If Iwamura is moved out of position, who knows how he'll do at second; if he isn't, Cantu will stay there. Unfortunately, we know how he'll do.

The outfield figures to be strong afield, but I fear that they'll be chasing down a lot of groundballs a stronger infield would've kept to themselves.

The Bullpen

Remember what I said about the infield having lots of question marks? That goes double for the relief corps.

Even for a high-profile role like closer, it's far too early to make any kind of reliable prediction. At various pre-season points last year, we might've pointed to Tyler Walker or Chad Orvella; this year, the same bets might go to Dan Miceli or Seth McClung. The high-potential, scattershot-performance Edwin Jackson may get another shot, as well.

After Miceli, the closest thing the Rays pen has to a sure thing is Ruddy Lugo. If Al Reyes stays healthy, we can put him in the same category.

To a great extent, how the Tampa bullpen performs will depend on manager Joe Maddon. He'll have plenty of arms to choose from--some of them even have potential. But knowing which ones to trust will be a major challenge, right up there with figuring out how to get league-average production from first base.

In addition to Orvella, McClung, Jackson, and the starters who don't make the rotation, Maddon's list will be a long one, including Stephen Andrade, Juan Salas, Jeff Ridgway, and Shinji Mori. It's always possible that someone like Chuck Tiffany or Marcos Carvajal will put it together, as well.

As you can probably tell, I don't have a clue which six or seven pitchers will go "north" with the club; anybody who claims they do is probably lying. Making things more complicated, there are only a handful of guys, probably limited to Miceli, Lugo, and Shawn Camp, who have a legitimate claim to a job. Maddon has his work cut out for him.

All Together Now

Every year, there's reason for optimism about the Devil Rays. Maybe not pennant-quality optimism, but "This is the year we'll break 70 wins" optimism. Once again, the core of Crawford, Baldelli, Young, and Kazmir will offer that hope, but there are still enough gaps in this team that I'd have to take the "under" on 72 wins.

Even if everything goes right--Baldelli stays healthy, Elijah Dukes stays out of trouble and contributes, a couple of starters turn into legit big-league options--it's tough to imagine this team breaking the .500 mark. Between the gaps in the lineup and bullpen and the high-powered competition in the AL East, the Rays are at least another year away from winning 81 games.