Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thoughts on Rays First Half

The All-Star break is upon us, which means that half of the baseball season has come and gone. The Rays ended the first half of the season with a major league worst record of 34-53. The Rays looked to be making strides early this season, but they are 4 games worse this season than last year at the break. The Rays looked to be on track for a solid season and had fans excited until going 5-20 in the last 25 games before the break. The Rays were only 7 games below .500 at the time and many felt they could be over .500, but they went into the tank. There were some good and bad things that happened for the Rays over the first half, more bad than good, and while the Rays record is horrible they did show some signs of life.

Good Things From First Half

Off season Moves - Carlos Pena and Al Reyes were signed for very little money and were not expected to contribute greatly to the season. Pena was a guy who has always had talent, he was drafted 10th overall, but had never realized it. Reyes was coming off of two Tommy John surgeries and was signed in hopes he would provide a veteran presence to the bullpen, but no one thought he would be the closer. In a move that surprised me and I thought made no sense, the Rays traded a relief pitcher for an infielder named Brendan Harris. Harris became the starting shortstop early in the season after Ben Zobrist proved to be highly ineffective. Harris was once an Uber prospect in the Cubs system and was actually compared to Albert Pujols by some scouts. While he is not Pujols, Harris has looked very good for the Rays. Akinori Iwamura was not as heralded as Dice-K or even junk pitcher Kei Igawa by the American media during the off season, but he has proven to be talked about in the same sentence. Aki was known for his defense, but has shown he is capable of all helping in every phase of the game.

Pena, who was optioned at the end of Spring Training, leads the Rays in home runs, RBI, and slugging. Pena has also provided some much needed defense at first base that the Rays lost when Travis Lee left. Reyes has emerged as a dominant force as closer, and the only viable option in the bullpen. Without Reyes the Rays would have a much worse record than they do now and that has been proven by their record since he went on the DL. Harris has been the most consistent Rays hitter all year long and is the only Ray hitting over .300 at the break. Harris has shined on defense as well as offense this year and has proven to be a great deal for the Rays. Aki struggled in Spring Training and some scouts even said he was a bust. Aki came out and showed that his glove was as good as advertised and he can hit. Aki is a major spark plug on the offense and was severely missed when he was out with an oblique injury.

Youngsters - The Rays decided to start their young prospects in hopes that they would draw people to the field and also help the team to start winning. The fans did come out to see them and they did make it interesting for the majority of the first half. BJ Upton looks to be a natural in Center and a also a great second baseman. Delmon Young has shown that he may have the strongest arm in the league and his bat is starting to come around towards the end of the first half. Upton and Young have both shown that they can play in the majors and will be an offensive force going forward. The two young stars are highly touted prospects and are showing that they deserve to be in the majors. James Shields has evolved into the staff ace and has shown that he will be a force in the rotation for years to come. Shields has learned he does not have try and strike everyone out and uses his pitches effectively and with purpose. Andy Sonnanstine has shown that he could be an effective back of the rotation starter and just needs more MLB seasoning. Sonny throws strikes and stays around the strike zone, which is more than we can say for other pitchers on our staff.

Bad Things From First Half

Blowpen - This may be the easiest thing of all time to diagnose as being a bad thing. Outside of Al Reyes and Jay Witasik, who has a 4.82 ERA, everyone in the blow pen has over a 5.00 ERA. Shields would have at least 5 more wins if they could ever close out a game. It is sad that when you the Rays go to the pen you know that they are going to give up at least 2 or 3 runs and most likely more than that. The Rays have tried just about everything to alter this pen and get something going in relief, but nothing is working. They have moved starters to the pen, they have demoted and promoted relievers, and they have signed a FA in Jay Witasik. Nothing the Rays have done so far is working, maybe they should move Josh Wilson to the pen, he looked good in his one inning. I could go on and on about this subject, but we all know its the worst pen that has ever been assembled.

Navarro - The most important position for helping out the pitchers is the catcher. You need only to look at the Tigers after the signed Ivan Rodriquez to see what a good catcher can do for a pitching staff. Navarro was supposed to have great defense and call a great game. Navarro has shown none of these things as most runners steal on him with ease and he seems to call a horrible game. The staff ERA is lower with Josh Paul, Raul Casanova, or Sean Riggans behind the dish. Well if you are not a great defensive catcher you make it up with offense, right? Well not Navarro who is batting a hefty .177. Again Paul, Casanova, and Riggans are all hitting better than Navarro. I think we have seen enough of Navarro to know that he is not the catcher we thought we were getting from the Dodgers.

Starting Pitching - When your relievers are going to blow the game you need to make up for it with starters pitching better and going deeper into games. Outside of James Shields the rotation has been inconsistent at best and garbage at worst. The Rays did make some moves by demoting Jae Seo and sending Casey Fossum to the bullpen and replacing them with Sonnanstine and JP Howell. While Sonny has shown that he can be an effective back of the rotation starter, Howell has gotten worse with his outings and is now been sent to the bullpen. Kazmir was supposed to be the ace, but he has been inconsistent and is struggling to find the strike zone. Without solid pitching the Rays have been left out to dry game in and game out.

Injuries - The Rays have been plagued by injuries in the first half of the season that have effected all facets of the team. Rocco Baldelli has been out most of the year, again, with a hamstring injury. Due to Rocco being out the outfield has been moved around and there has been no continuity. Also, losing Rocco's bat in the lineup is not what the Rays needed. Upton has missed significant amount of playing time and that has hurt the offense as well as the outfield defense. Aki missed around 6 weeks when he was really looking good and his loss was felt immensely on defense and at the top of the lineup where he is the spark plug to get the offense jump started. Al Reyes has now joined the DL ranks leaving the bullpen without its only reliable arm.

The Rays have had ups and downs all season and as you can see the bad far outweighs the good, and the record indicates it. The Rays have a lot of work ahead of them and they need to show not only the fans, but the players they mean business.

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