Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bullpen Matters

The season is merely 9 games old - and that there is still a lot of baseball left to play - and through the course of a season, ups and downs are inevitable, but right now, any Rays' fan has to be at least a little concerned about the bullpen.

Sure, it's 9 games into the season and the pen went through rough patches last year, but nothing like this.

Through the first 9 games, the Rays couldn't have asked for much better out of their starters: 54 IP while giving up a mere 25 earned runs - for an ERA of 4.17 - not great, but those numbers are skewed by the fact that Shields, Sonnanstine, and Niemann all gave up 5 runs in one game. The other 6 starts of the season, the starting pitching has really kept the Rays in the game.

The problem comes in with the bullpen. In those close games, right now, the bullpen is not working towards the goal of closing out the game. They seem intimidated, and less than zealous.

First, a look inside the bullpen numbers: zero wins and 2 loses, 24 1/3 innings, 15 earned runs for an ERA of 5.55. Sure, that number is only 1.38 runs per 9 innings higher than the starters, but the bullpen is supposed to be there to shut down the game. These pitchers are specialty pitchers, and should be able to pitch one inning of scoreless ball per night (on an individual level) and that just isn't happening right now.

Balfour looks like he needs to regain his fire. He has lost 6-8 MPH on his fastball over last season - that fastball that allowed him to average over 12 K's per 9 innings pitched! Without that fastball, well, Balfour is hittable, and it shows - as he only has 1 strikeout in 1 2/3 innings pitched while giving up 4 earned runs - that's an ERA of 21.60 for those of you keeping track - and that isn't even a good number for someone pitching class A ball.

Howell has given up too many hits, and while I don't know if it's been good hitting rather than poor pitching, that trend cannot last. Howell was masterful last season in stranding runners - this year, he is putting more and more runners on base - already giving up 7 hits, one hit batsman, and 1 walk in only 4 1/3 innings (for a WHIP of 2.077). This is a trend that needs to end quickly, or Howell, and the Rays, will be in for a long, long season.

Dan Wheeler also appears shaken, but in his defense, even last season he seemed to have that "deer in headlights" look about him - so it's hard to conclude if there is actually anything wrong with Wheeler - sans a home run he gave up in the 9th to the Yankees - he may be fine, but with only 1 2/3 innings of work, it's hard to say if this will be a growing trend.

Troy Percival is someone we all love! He's been a commanding presence in the Rays' pen, and was surely needed last season as this pitchers matured - and could be helpful this season if he can help pull the current bullpen leaders out of their collective funk. The problem is, Percival is also currently in a funk - having given up two runs in only 1 2/3 innings (ERA of 10.80). He did manage one save against Boston, but not without the fans being forced to endure a rally by the Sox. Also, he took the loss against the Yankees in the rubber game of that series - failing to get a mere 2 outs in the 9th inning before giving up the go-ahead, and eventual winning, run.

The bullpen, however, hasn't been without its highlights. Lance Cormier, Joe Nelson, and Brian Shouse have all been pitching well with a collective ERA of 2.03. All three of these pitchers weren't even on the Rays' roster last year - but they all look like they belong, and want to win games.

Do the guys that were here last season, think they are so much better now that they won? Do they fail to realize there is a target on their backs? Something needs to give in a big way - other wise, Cormier, Nelson, and Shouse will be over used - but at least the Rays can get some W's.

Chad Bradford has begun throwing again - limiting his action to the long toss. Soon, hopefully, he can get on a mound to make some throws, so he can get back in the pen that is imploding, and hopefully provide some added stability. Sadly, Maddon will likely send Cormier or Nelson to AAA Durham to generate the added roster space needed for Bradford's arm - and right now, that would be a mistake. If Balfour can't find that burning desire to go with a burning fastball, he should be that odd man out, but Maddon is too loyal - at least in times like these.

Yes, it is early in the season, and not yet time to mash the panic button - but every win counts over the course of a baseball season, and the bullpen cannot continue to give back masterful games by the starters. The Rays won a lot of one run ball games a season ago - mostly through perfection out of the bullpen as Howell and Balfour combined to strand a ridiculous amount of runners - they need to find that magic again, or those close wins from a year ago, will pile on in the loss column this season.

It's frustrating, it's losing, it's baseball, and it happens. The real test will be in the bullpen breaking the trend. The real test will be to right the ship. If they can pitch half as good as last season, there shouldn't be any lingering issues with the bullpen as a whole. Only time will tell - and 9 games isn't nearly enough time to call the pen a failure and chalk the team up to its historical losing ways.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Season Through 6 Batters

I am not going to constantly update this blog before, during, or after every game, but one thing I have noticed during the first game of the season, is the horrible pitch selection through 2 innings - or more accurately, the lack of any kind of selection whatsoever.

Josh Beckett has had to use 16 pitches, 13 considered strikes thanks to the free swinging Rays, to collect the first 6 outs of the season.

Can someone please allow one first pitch to go past without feeling the need to take a hack at it?

So far, Iwamura was the only batter to take a strike - on the first pitch of the game, after that, all he did though, was strike out in 4 pitches.

Carl Crawford? He took a ball; then fouled one off; then on only his third pitch seen, grounds out to short.

Longoria? Fouls off the first pitch he saw, takes a ball, then proceeds to take a strike, and then strikes out swinging.

That made for a quick first inning, the second couldn't possibly be worse, could it? Not so fast my friend.

Carlos Pena gets up - the meat of the order - and, and, and - attempts to bunt, but the ball goes foul. He then fouls off the second pitch he sees, only to strike out swinging on the third pitch.

Okay, Pat Burrell is coming up, surely, he is a veteran at this point and realizes that the lineup as a whole needs to ensure Beckett works a bit, right? Well, no. All Burrell can do is fly out to center field on the FIRST PITCH that he sees.

Leaving the inning up to Matt Joyce to make Beckett finally work for his outs - problem is, Joyce also thought the first pitch he saw was a good one, and it was so good, he managed to pop up to Pedroia at second base.

Great start to the season guys. Can someone please learn the meaning of patience and make the opposing pitcher work for his outs? If the Rays can't learn this very basic concept, then they are in for a long, long season where they watch pitcher after pitcher throw 72 pitch complete games against them. By comparison, when C.C. Sabathia was taken out of the game for the Yankees yesterday, he had thrown into the 80's on his pitch count.

Dioneer Navarro steps in to lead off the third inning, takes a strike before grounding out on only his second pitch seen. I'm going to conclude this post now - hopefully sooner than later the Rays hitters can learn to take a pitch or two - especially when the opposing pitcher is in such a great rhythm, a rhythm that, thanks to lack of pitch selection, the Rays provide him with.

As I'm set to post this blog ... Gabe Gross battles 7 pitches, and earns a walk. Great at bat Gabe - now if the rest of the team can follow suit.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Day - Not So Fast

The Rays opening day game versus the Boston Red Sox - which was slated to be on ESPN2 - has been postponed due to inclement weather.

Meaning the Rays have to wait a full 26 hours before finally opening the season. After the long wait, the postponement is a likely disappointment, but the Rays and James Shields will be ready come 4:30 PM EST on Tuesday, April 7th - which had been a scheduled day off for the two teams.

After a long off-season filled with hope and anticipation, what is one more day to wait to see the defending AL Champions? It is definitely a disappointment, but not much can be done when mother nature intervenes.

Jason Hammel Dealt to Rockies

Jason Hammel was traded to the Colorado Rockies on Sunday as the Rays manage to work around the handcuff of having three pitchers out of options - and thus, three pitchers they would have been required to carry on the 25-man roster.

Those pitchers are Lance Cormier, Jeff Niemann, and Jason Hammel. With Hammel out of the picture, it appears, at least for now, that Jeff Niemann will take the role of 5th starter and Lance Cormier will fill in in the bullpen.

The Rays received right-hander Aneury Rodriguez in the deal. Rodriguez posted a 9-10 record with a 3.74 ERA, 139 strikeouts and 40 walks in 156 innings last season for Class A Modesto and is expected to be a AA-pitcher in the Rays organization in Montgomery.

The move was not unexpected for the Rays - knowing they could not retain both Hammel and Niemann going into the season, especially with David Price waiting in the wings. Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, said he had a good idea of the club's intentions for quite some time.

"Colorado was aggressive about Jason, and I felt early on like that was what we were going to end up doing," Friedman said. "It just took some time to work through . . . a couple of weeks ago, I felt confident that this was the move that was going to happen."

And indeed, it is the move that has happened. For now, Cormier will be in the pen, and Niemann will take the hill as a fifth starter. At this point, it is likely only a matter of time before Niemann gets pushed to the pen in favor of Price.

Niemann, who stands 6 feet 9 inches, has made great strides this spring in commanding his curve ball and keeping his fastball low. These improvements to his mechanics have made him the logical choice for the Rays' 5th starter. Now only time will tell if that decision will pay dividends.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Price Back to AAA Durham

David Price was sent back to AAA Durham yesterday, in a move that many expected - including Price himself. Price said he felt all along that he would be heading back to Durham no matter what he accomplished this spring, and the Rays organization finalized that sentiment on Wednesday saying the left-handed phenom was optioned back to Durham so his development could be better monitored.

It makes sense in many respects as to why Price, 23, is better suited to begin this season in the minors. No one doubts his potential, but there are a few lingering doubts when it comes to Price's personal developments:

For starters, the Rays would like Price to hone his change-up (which he was able to successful begin the process of this spring), show better command of his fastball, and work on his pitch efficiency, all in attempts to get him to pitch deeper into games.

Secondly, and most tellingly, David Price has maxed out in the course of his young life with 133 innings pitched - that total having been tallied while he was at Vanderbilt. He did throw 139 1/3 innings last season combined in the minors, majors, and playoffs, but that number is still a far cry from what is expected from a full time starter in the major leagues over the course of a full season (and dare we say, the playoffs, too?). The Rays are not yet ready to put that stress on Price's young arm.

"(We) went through it for the last two or three weeks at length and ultimately decided that - all things considered - this was the right move for David and, in turn, the organization," Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, said.

Another reason as to why it makes sense for Price to begin at the minor league level is because Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel, who are both out of options, become the leading candidates for the fifth rotation spot. Of course, being out of options means that if either Hammel or Niemann are optioned to triple A, that another club can claim that player - thus, on the business side of the ball, the Rays would do better to not send at least one of these players to the minors.

If you are a David Price fan, do not fret. Remember only one year ago when another young player was sent to Durham after Spring Training? That player, all he did, was get called up a month into the season, sign a mega contract only days later, and become the rookie of the year.

The baseball season is a long one. Many things can change through the course of the season for Price. Expect him to make an appearance in the majors within a month - and expect him to put himself in for serious consideration for the AL Rookie of the Year - just as Evan Longoria did last season.

It wasn't that long ago where the Rays made a similar spring decision - lest we forget - Price will be back, and he'll be better, and more mature, than ever.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Derek Rodriguez Back to the Sox

Derek Rodriguez, the Rule 5 Draft pick previously discussed here has been offered back to the White Sox, and they have accepted him - paying the Rays $25,000, or half the original fee the Rays paid to the Sox when the acquired him.

Apparently, the Rays just didn't have the roster space to retain Rodriguez' services. The deal will have little to no impact on the Rays' season.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Big Free Agents Signings - and What to Expect

Okay, we've all been through the big free agent signings before with the Rays - and historically, especially early in the history of the Rays, those signings rarely paid dividends.

Wilson Alvarez - 5 year $35 million contract, and all he did was compile a 17-26 record with a 3-year ERA of 4.62 - hardly worthy of $7 million per season.
Greg Vaughn - 4 years $34 million contract, and in his three season of work - compiled a batting average of .226, hitting 60 home runs, and knocking in only 185 runs. Hardly worth the $8.5 million per season.
Jose Canseco - signed a one year deal worth $2 million - but didn't even last that one season before being traded to the dreaded Yankees - he hit .257 with 9 home runs and 30 RBI's in 61 games that season.
Paul Sorrento - signed a 2 year 5.25 million contract with an option for a third year at $3 million - he never stood a chance for that option to be picked up. In the two seasons, he batted .229 with 28 home runs and 99 RBI's ... hardly the pop the Rays had hoped for in the signing.
Juan Guzman - signed a 2-year contract worth a guaranteed $12.5 million - he pitched exactly 1 2/3 innings with the club.

This doesn't even include such blockbuster trades as the acquisition of the likes of Vinny Castillo, but that argument is neither here nor there, for this post's sake.

The point is, in the past, the Rays have tried. They have put big money out there for big names in attempts to reap big rewards, but that just hasn't been the case. So, what can we expect this season, after multiple free agent signings? Are any of those signings going to be huge busts like the above? Let's hope not - but in all honesty, only one can actually nab the tag of "bust" anyway, but we can still hope for the best. Today, I will attempt to shed some light on the free agent acquisitions of this past offseason and predict how I believe each can fare in their new uniform.

We'll start with the obvious acquisition that could potentially feel the most pressure - Pat Burrell signed a 2 year $16 million dollar deal. He is 32 now (will be 33 on October 10th) and has a career batting average of .257 (he hit .250 last season) but for his career he has averaged nearly 28 home runs per season - not too shabby from what would likely be the Rays' DH this year, and Burrell also will walk - or in other words, force the pitcher to work against him. Since Burrell will not be asked to bat clean-up for the Rays, I believe he will work well on this team, and hit near or above his career average for home runs. He may be on the cusp of actually being worth the $8 million per year, but I think he will prove to be a major contributor for the Rays - and an upgrade from the DH position over that of season's past.

The only other position player they added this year via free agency is Gabe Kapler (they traded for Joyce) who is set to earn just a notch above $1 million for 1 season. Kapler is 33 (will be 34 on August 31st) and has a career batting average of .273 (he hit .301 last season). Kapler is expected to fill in spot duty in right field, and could potentially fill in the duties on limited basis in left. He will bat toward the bottom of the order, when he bats, but he provides a good contact hitting pinch hitter - having only struck out an average of 41 times per year for his career. He will be worth the $1 million dollar price tag - simply because, baseball salaries are absurd, and a million for a bench player seems more the norm than ever.

As for the pitchers:

The Rays signed Joe Nelson to a one-year $1.3 million contract. Nelson is expected to fill the middle relief innings - in order to get the game to the likes of Balfour, Howell, Wheeler, and, if healthy, Percival. Nelson is 34 (he will be 35 on October 25th) and has spent considerable amount of time in the minors in his career (only having 4 seasons of major league experience - of which only 2 are full seasons). Nelson's career ERA is 4.09 (2.00 last season) with a record of 4-2 (3-1 last season). I would not be surprised to see Nelson begin the season in Durham, in order to make roster space for those pitchers (Hammel, Niemann, and, to an extent, Rodriguez) that are out of options.

The last free agent signee of the off-season was a recent addition - in Brian Shouse. Shouse signed a one year, $1.55 million dollar contact with the option of being retained for the 2010 season. Shouse is 40 years of age (he will be 41 September 26th). He has a career 3.65 ERA (2.81 ERA last season) with a record of 12-9 (5-1 last season). Shouse will fill the void of left-hand specialist for the Rays - a position held last season by Trevor Miller. He will pitch in many different situations, both starting innings and squashing threatening innings. He will be a good fit in the Rays' pen - and is essentially the cloned left-handed version of Chad Bradford - the two combined can easily get 6 quick, easy, ground-ball outs - which is something any team can relish.

So four free agents - at least 3 will make the team from camp - all 4 likely could, but all 4 will be major contributors for the Rays in '09. In my opinion each provides an upgrade from what was already in place, except maybe Nelson, and one could argue the same for Kapler (depending on if you see him as a replacement for Rocco Baldelli or Johnny Gomes).

Shouse is a major upgrade from Trevor Miller of a season ago - where his ERA was hovering in the 4.50 range. Also, Burrell is an upgrade at DH, over the likes of Cliff Floyd - not that I dislike Floyd, but his numbers have declined in resent memory. Kapler, though I don't particularly think is an upgrade over Rocco Baldelli (he would be an upgrade over Gomes on the bench though) is in good shape and should provide, at the very least, health - I do wish Rocco luck in Boston - but wish for the worst for the team. And Nelson, if and when he makes the team, will take over the middle relief role - and by that, I mean the middle innings, and in short term situations giving Balfour and Howell a day off when needed. However, depending on how many relief pitchers the Rays enter the regular season with, I do feel Nelson can be the odd man out - of course, with the injury to Bradford, he may just make the team, at least for now.

The free agents are in. Camp has begun. The season cannot come soon enough. For these Rays, the mantra is '09 > '08 - and for the fans, let's hope that certainly rings true.