The Tampa Bay Rays off-season was one for the record books, in ways that no other major league team has ever endured – that being the departure of 16 players off of their 25-man roster via free agency, trades or retirement.
The Rays came into the off-season knowing that financial restraints would hinder any and all chances of re-signing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano or signing any top free agent available.
What wasn’t expected when things were all said and done was the departure of the seven members of the bullpen which included set-up man Joaquin Beniot and middle-reliever Grant Balfour – two key cogs to the success of the pen that was among the best in the majors in 2010.
Rebuilding the bullpen was VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman’s main priority… a closer, set-up man, a left-handed specialist and a few more arms headed the list. But there were other needs as well, which included another outfielder, preferably a left fielder, a first baseman and maybe a power bat to come off the bench or even DH.
A few nifty moves, which included two trades (Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett), provided the Rays’ with some bullpen arms that are ready for prime-time, additional monies to sign a couple more free agent relievers, a left fielder and a power bat. Mission impossible, became mission accomplished for the most part.
The highlight though to all of the off-season acquisitions had to be the signing of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.
Despite their ages, both players still feel that they can play at a high level and considering the cost, it was a no brainer to sign them. Ramirez becomes the primary DH, with a start in left here and there while Damon will handle leftfield.
2011 Rays Outlook
- The Bullpen
Gone: Joaquin Benoit (free agent, signed with Tigers), Dan Wheeler (free agent, signed with Red Sox), Chad Qualls (free agent, signed with Padres), Rafael Soriano (free agent, signed with Yankees), Grant Balfour (free agent, signed with A’s), Lance Cormier (free agent, signed minor league deal with Dodgers) and Randy Choate (free agent, signed with Marlins)
Arrivals: Joel Peralta (free agent from Nationals), Adam Russell (trade with Padres), Cesar Ramos (trade with Padres), Kyle Farnsworth (free agent from Braves) andJuan Cruz (free agent from Kansas City, minor league contract)
While Friedman was able to obtain relievers for the bullpen, he came up short for a closer. For the time being, manager Joe Maddon will have a closer by committee though there is some speculation that one can emerge from within – most often mentioned is Kyle Farnsworth.
As for the lefty-specialist, Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos (acquired in the Jason Bartlett trade from San Diego) are still competing for the role. McGee though seems natural to fill the closer’s role, but Maddon is apprehensive putting him pressured situations and wants to make sure that he can handle the rigors of a major league bullpen. Ramos on the other hand has been solid this spring, but is a stop-gap until J.P. Howell returns.
Adam Russell obtained from San Diego in the Jason Bartlett and penciled in as one of the relievers has been struggling of late. In eight innings, Russell has allowed 19 hits and four walks and has a 7.88 ERA – and has become a big concern for Joe Maddon. Russell is out of options and if he can’t turn it around in the final days of spring training it could be costly.
Joel Peralta and Juan Cruz (signed to a minor league deal) will both add a veteran presence in the pen. Cruz, who is coming off May 2010 shoulder surgery looks fit and has been impressive enough not only for a job in the pen, but for a key role – most likely as the set-up man.
Rounding out the pen is Andy Sonnanstine – the long-man and spot starter.
RHP – Kyle Farnsworth (closer)
RHP – Joel Peralta
RHP – Adam Russell
RHP – Andy Sonnanstine
LHP – Jake McGee
LHP – Cesar Ramos
RHP – Juan Cruz
- The Starters
Gone: Matt Garza (trade with Chicago Cubs)
The rotation will remain the same as last season with the exception of Matt Garza who was traded to the Chicago Cubs. The loss of Garza shouldn’t be felt as top prospect Jeremy Hellickson essentially takes his spot in the rotation, though as the teams’ fifth starter. Hellickson started four games last season for the Rays and allowed only six earned runs in 26.1 innings pitched in those starts.
Manager Joe Maddon named David Price his opening day starter and rightfully so as Price is the ace of the team. Following him in the rotation will be James Shields, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann.
Despite racking up a career-high 187 strikeouts, James “Big Game James” Shields wasn’t so big game as he allowed a career-worst in hits allowed (246), ERA (5.18) and home runs allowed (34).
LHP – David Price
RHP – James Shields
RHP – Wade Davis
RHP – Jeff Niemann
RHP – Jeremy Hellickson
Gone: Carl Crawford (free agent, signed with Red Sox), Carlos Pena (free agent, signed with Cubs), Jason Bartlett (traded to Padres), Dioner Navarro (free agent, signed with Dodgers), Brad Hawpe (free agent, signed with Padres), Gabe Kapler (free agent, signed minor league deal with Dodgers), Willy Aybar (free agent – unsigned), Rocco Baldelli (retired)
Arrivals: Johnny Damon (free agent from Tigers), Manny Ramirez (free agent from White Sox), Sam Fuld (trade with Cubs), Casey Kotchman (minor league free agent from Mariners), Felipe Lopez (minor league free agent from Red Sox), Joe Inglett (minor league free agent from Brewers)
As mentioned earlier, the biggest off-season moves were the signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. The key losses in Crawford, Pena and Bartlett may be felt defensively but on the offensive side of things, the Rays could be better.
- The Infield
Two-fifths of the starting infield is gone in shortstop Jason Bartlett and first baseman Carlos Pena. The loss of Pena will be very hard to duplicate defensively and maybe even offensively as he ranked within the top ten defensively in two of the past three years and did hit at least 28 homeruns in four straight seasons.
Pena’s shoes will be a hard one to fill, but Dan Johnson will be given every opportunity to hold down the fort. Many penciled in Johnson as the full-time first baseman, but the powers that be (Friedman and Maddon) have said that a platoon with Ben Zobrist is more likely.
The trade of Jason Bartlett opened up the door for Reid Brignac and while some say he’s better defensively and the team won’t lose much in that area, his offense has been questionable – especially hitting lefties.
Evan Longoria despite hitting a career low 22 home runs, still drove in 104, scored 96 runs and stole 15 bases – a career best. There is no reason to believe that Longoria will not duplicate offensively and defensively.
Rounding out the infield will be second baseman Sean Rodriguez who he brings power and speed to the position that has lacked over the years for the Rays – but most likely not in a full-time role. Ben Zobrist and Elliot Johnson could see time at second also.
The backstop remains the same with starter John Jaso and his backup Kelly Shoppach.
The biggest change comes in leftfield where Johnny Damon replaces Carl Crawford. Damon is no Crawford offensively or defensively, but he will be an adequate replacement until Desmond Jennings arrives.
B.J. Upton returns in center where he has excelled and his.988 fielding percentage in 2010 was tied for ninth in the league at his position. Offensively, Upton’s struggles at the plate haven’t gone unnoticed an
d all still are waiting for a return to 2007 when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs.
Rounding out the outfield in right will most likely be a platoon split between Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce. Zobrist will man right field when the Rays face left-handed starters.
Filling in at the outfield positions will be the versatile Elliot Johnson, who can play multiple positions (short, second as well), Sam Fuld and Manny Ramirez.
- Designated Hitter
Manny being Manny Ramirez… Ramirez signed for just $2 million could be the steal of the century and the best free agent signing of the off-season. If Ramirez can provide just some of his previous power and show decent offensive numbers while as a full-time DH will certainly be a blessing to a position that has seen 102 Rays hold in their franchise history.
From the left-side, Matt Joyce and others will occasionally fit the bill.
hornface.com’s 2011 MLB Season Preview
For more info: Tampa Bay Rays
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