I really like the Rays. They were a lot of fun to root for in 2008, once the Twins were eliminated, and again this year, though that didn’t last nearly as long. They might have been the best team in the majors, for all the good that did them, which is really something coming from an area the average citizen of which is only dimly aware that big-league baseball continues to be played after March.
But all good things that aren’t backed by unlimited funds must come to an end, and there are a lot of changes in store for the Rays. Things to think about this offseason:
1. Who’s Still Around?
Everybody knows that Carl Crawford is as good as gone. Carlos Pena too, probably, although he’d be quite a lot cheaper to retain after a .196/.325/.407 2010. Relievers Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour are probably gone, and Joaquin Benoit already is. But there are rumors (or maybe more like facts) that the Rays have been playing with money they didn’t really have for a while now, and that there will have to be significant cost-cutting measures soon. Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, James Shields and B.J. Upton are all rumored to be on the block. All but Shields are in the late stages of their arbitration years, when players start to get pricey even though they’re still essentially indentured servants. Shields is in the last guaranteed year of a contract that also contains three pretty reasonable club options for 2012-14, which might make him close to the most attractive one of the bunch to some teams, even after his disastrous 2010 season.
Not all that is going to happen, of course. It’s hard to see them moving Upton so soon after losing Crawford, and if they trade Garza, they probably won’t trade Shields (and vice versa). But this might well end up being the one team that changes most from the end of 2010 to the first pitch of 2011. Not very often that that team is also the best team from the year before, but there you have it.
2. How Does that Infield End Up Looking?
B.J. Upton, if he’s not traded, will play center, Desmond Jennings will slide nicely into that Carl Crawford LF-who’s-really-a-CF role, and Matt Joyce has right (possibly in a platoon with Justin Ruggiano, a righty with a career .860 minor league OPS). DH is more or less an open question, but the infield situation is…shaky.
You know who will play third, of course, and short is a simple question of whether they decide to keep Bartlett, in which case he’ll play there, or not, in which case Reid Brignac will (and judging by 2010 and the direction in which Bartlett’s career appears to be trending, I’m not sure that’s not an improvement). But the right side is a bit hard to figure out. If Pena leaves, they’ve got just two players on the roster who spent more than 20 innings there last season: Ben Zobrist and Dan Johnson. Johnson’s pretty much DH-only at this point, but it seems like a terrible waste of Zobrist’s talents to make him the first baseman. He doesn’t really hit enough to play there unless he reverts back to 2009 form, and his glove is just wasted there.
Zobrist is a plus defender at almost any position, and with the outfield apparently pretty full, he’d be a great fit at second. At second, though, the Rays have Sean Rodriguez, probably an above-average overall starting second baseman, plus switch-hitting minor leaguer Elliot Johnson, who put up an impressive 2010 at AAA Durham and could step in if Rodriguez continues to look helpless against righties (Rays Indez likes them for a platoon, but that seems rather extreme to me for what was probably a small-sample-size blip in lefty/righty splits for Rodriguez). So Zobrist is pretty much relegated to first base, which really devalues a good asset. In a perfect world, I think, they’d either (A) trade Zobrist for a legitimate first baseman of comparable overall value, or (B) bring back Pena (or some other capable first baseman) and get Zobrist 600 plate appearances flitting around the diamond as needed, primarily 2B and RF. But the perfect trade partner isn’t always (or even usually) out there, and the Rays don’t seem to have the money for option B. So you’re probably looking at Zobrist-Rodriguez-Longoria-Bartlett/Brignac. Which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but it sure seems like it could be better.
3. Can They Compete Anyway?
I think so. This team will miss Crawford, as any team would, but with Jennings, they’re as well-positioned to replace him as they could possibly be. He has a lot of the same skills (more patience, probably a little less power), and might be able to cover even more ground in the field. Pena hadn’t been giving them much anyway, and they’ll still have at least five good starting pitchers out of their current six (David Price, Shields, Garza, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson) to go with very good defense and, in Longoria, possibly the best player in the American League. They’d have to see slight bounce-backs from Upton, Zobrist and Shields and a modest improvement from Brignac to offset the losses of Crawford and a big part of the 2010 bullpen, but none of that seems like too much to ask. And it would help if they could recapture some of that 2008 magic and find a cheap-as-free reliever or two off the scrap heap who can put up a 2.00 ERA in 60 innings or so.
Anyway, competing in the AL East is an awfully hard thing to do, and there will come a time, very possibly soon, when the Rays just won’t be able to do it anymore for a while. But barring a big, sudden firesale, I just don’t think that time is 2011.
Addendum: our SweetSpot Network Rays blogger, Mark, who obviously knows a lot more about all this than I do, has written a little response over at his site, The Ray Area. Go check his site out (now and on a regular basis in the future)!