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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Rays' 25 and 40 Man Roster Predictions

First, the predicted opening day 25-man roster:

Catcher: Dioner Navarro
First Baseman: Carlos Pena
Second Baseman: Akinori Iwamura
Third Baseman: Evan Longoria
Short Stop: Jason Bartlett
Left Field: Carl Crawford
Center Field: Bossman Junior Upton
Right Field: Matt Joyce
Designated Hitter: Pat Burrell

Catcher: Shawn Riggans
Utility: Willy Aybar
Utility: Ben Zobrist
OF: Gabe Kapler
OF: Gabe Gross

Starting Pitching:
Scott Kazmir
James Shields
Matt Garza
Andy Sonnanstine
Jason Hammel

Relief Pitching:
Jeff Niemann
Brian Shouse
Grant Balfour
J.P. Howell
Dan Wheeler
Derek Rodriguez

Additional to make up the 40-man roster:

SP David Price
OF Justin Ruggiano
SS Reid Brignac
OF Fernando Perez
RP Juan Salas
CP Troy Percival
RP Chad Bradford
RP Joe Nelson
RP Lance Cormier
2B Eliot Johnson
C John Jaso
SP Wade Davis
SP James Houser
SP Jacob McGee
SP Mitch Talbot

These predictions - especially that of the opening day 25-man roster - are based on a few assumptions that have been written about in previous posts - most notably, the fact that Derek Rodriguez needs to be placed on the 25-man roster to secure their spot on the Rays' 40-man roster as a whole. This is also the reason why I have David Price beginning the season at AAA-Durham which (this link) also explains the reasoning behind Hammel and Niemann being on the 25-man roster (and to an extent Gabe Gross, more to follow below).

As for Percival and Bradford I feel they will both start the season on the DL. Bradford certainly will be on the DL, and I feel, for management reasons, at the very least, Percival will find himself in that same boat due to the roster constraints previously remarked upon.

As for Joe Nelson and Lance Cormier, I feel they will not make the 25-man roster for reasons stated in the previous posts in the links above. I believe Joe Nelson will be a consistent contributor to the Rays this season, but as far as the opening day roster, I don't think he will make it, again, I feel this will be a management decision more so than a baseball decision. If Nelson does begin the season on the opening day roster, it might spell the end of either Hammel, Niemann, or Rodriguez as a Tampa Bay Ray - either that, or it means the pitching staff has suffered another injury during the spring.

I think most of the rest speak for themselves. I think one of the following of Gabe Gross, Matt Joyce, or Gabe Kapler could find themselves beginning on the 40-man roster but not the 25-man roster, which could lead to the end of Gross as a Tampa Bay Ray, as well. As I noted in the previous post surrounding David Price (link above), Gabe Gross is also out of options, and thus, could find his way on the opening day roster as well to ensure his security as a Ray; with that being said, Fernando Perez can easily find his way onto the 25-man roster in place of any one of the other 3-right fielders, but as I have written previously, I believe Matt Joyce and Gabe Kapler will platoon the right field duties eventually, leaving Gabe Gross as the odd man out.

Of course, this is all my speculation, but I think, as of right now, this is what I would look to begin the season with. Obviously, over the course of 162 games, things can and will change mightily, which is why having the extra arms and bats that can find themselves claimed by other teams on the 25-man roster makes the most sense, and so for now, I will stand by this roster.

Rays Add Southpaw Specialist

The Rays filled a much needed bullpen position yesterday when they finalized a deal for the services of southpaw specialist Brian Shouse.

Trevor Miller held down the position last season, but he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals this off-season, which paved the way for the Rays to add Shouse.

Shouse expects to be a much needed upgrade. The 40-year old Shouse appeared in 69 games last season for the Milwaukee Brewers where he amounted a record of 5-1 with a 2.81 ERA. He also held left-handed batters to an average of .180.

Shouse turned down arbitration with Milwaukee after making $2 million in 2008. In 422 career appearances, dating back to 1993, where he made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Shouse has compiled a 12-9 record with a 3.65 ERA.

"We're excited to add Brian to the organization," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman said. "He brings a lot to our bullpen. He's had a tremendous amount of success the last few seasons - especially against left-handers. He generates a lot of ground balls. He doesn't walk guys. He keeps the ball in the park, and we feel like he is going to help diversify our bullpen even more and strengthen it beyond where we were earlier this off-season."

For the Rays, the addition of Shouse and his consistent performance over his career seems to be a step up over what Trevor Miller provided last season where Miller amounted a 4.15 ERA in 68 games - with a career 4.43 ERA in 519 career games.

The past three years, Shouse has amounted 207 games with an ERA of 3.22. Details of the contract were not disclosed, but is expected to include an option for the 2010 season.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dioner Navarro Loses Arbitration Hearing

Dioner Navarro took his case to arbitration yesterday, but unfortunately for him, the ruling was not favorable.

Navarro was seeking $2.5 million for the 2009 season after making $422,500 in 2008 (including a $10,000 bonus for making the All-Star squad). Meanwhile, the Rays only wanted to pay $2.1 million for Navarro's services for the upcoming season. The arbitrator ruled in favor of the Rays.

"It's never ideal to go to a hearing," Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, said, "but it is the process in place."

Indeed it is never an ideal situation to not see eye-to-eye with your players and to not be able to find some common ground in contract negotiations, but for baseball, the arbitration system works, and now Navi will report on Saturday with the other pitchers and catchers expected to make about $400,000 less than he had hoped for the season.

Hopefully, for Navarro, he is not discouraged by the loss and can put it behind him and produce even better numbers than last season when he batted .295 with 7 home runs and 54 runs batted in. Navarro was also third in the league in throwing out 35.7 percent of runners attempting to steal (throwing out 25 of 70 attempts).

The loss of the hearing might sting, but Navarro's has a tremendous upside, and in a few years, he might not be missing that extra $400,000, either that, or he can make up for it in upcoming contract negotiations. For now, the Rays defend their arbitration record of having never lost a single hearing in the team's history, and having won all three cases since Friedman became the executive vice president of baseball operations.

Chad Bradford Injured

Chad Bradford had surgery on his right (throwing) elbow last Thursday and likely will be lost to the Rays until at least May.

The submarine pitcher felt discomfort in the arm while going through his off season training program, which resulted in the surgery by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama where "loose bodies were removed" from the right elbow.

Bradford said he had hoped he'd be able to rest the arm and the discomfort would go away, but the more he threw, the stiffer it became and the more swelling he was forced to endure.

"I guess there is a sense of relief in that they found out what was wrong and they fixed it," Bradford said. "Now I just have to wait until rehab is over with and I'll be ready to go again."

The rehab is estimated to take three to four months.

The Rays acquired Bradford last season on August 7th from the Orioles. He made 21 appearances for the Rays and amounted a 1.42 ERA (18 of his outings were scoreless). Over all, last season with the Rays and O's, Bradford amounted 68 games where he posted a 2.12 ERA and a 4-3 record.

With Bradford missing the beginning of the season, the Rays already are opening up roster spots for Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann, and/or Derek Rodriguez. With Bradford out, look for Rodriguez to be in serious consideration to start the season on the 25-man roster, and thus, the Rule 5 Draft pick will secure his spot with the Rays. Rodriguez will likely fill the void left by Bradford for those first 2 months of the season - since he can be just as efficient at inducing the ground balls.

For the Rays, it's a blow, but could be a blessing in disguise since they now have the added roster spots, and when Bradford returns in May, he will have a fresh arm, and can potentially work additional games and/or innings. Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations had this to say, "focus on the positive, it's going to be a great shot in the arm for us when he is back. And to be able to add that quality of a reliever to the mix at that point."

Mr. Friedman is correct. So this should not be looked at as the Rays losing a great reliever, but as a positive in the long run. Too many good relievers to go around isn't a bad thing, and the Rays have just proved that there can never be a problem of "too many" when it comes to the pitching staff.

Let's hope Rodriguez truly can be as effective as I think he can be - and at least hold the fort down until Bradford's return.

Friday, February 6, 2009

David Price at AAA-Durham Again?

Oh decisions, decisions. Life is hard when you are on top. It seems that every decision you make will either develop one player, or lose another. It seems the vultures could be hovering around the Rays this spring - all in hopes to get one of their pitchers from them - and in all likely kicking themselves that they missed out on the opportunity for Grant Balfour last year; so you can guarantee they'll be hovering this go 'round.

It is like this - Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann are out of options - meaning, that if they are not on the Rays 25-man roster, then either, or both, could potentially be claimed by other teams. Balfour was the odd man out last season, but luckily for the Rays, no one claimed him, and Balfour became vital to their impropable playoff run; so this year, you can bet it will be different come the end of spring training.

Of course, the Rays do have some options of their own around this fiasco - simply by starting David Price's season at triple-A Durham, they can use either Hammel or Niemann in the starting rotation, and likely use the other one in the long relief role, thus, ensuring themselves the extra arms throughout the remainder of this season. After a month, they can either shop around Hammel or Niemann in an attempt to gain the added roster space needed to bring Price up to a position he likely will never relinquish, a la Evan Longoria, or simple move one of them to the minors, thus paving the way for Price.

Of course, another option could be to begin Troy Percival on the DL - thus providing the extra space on the 25-man roster, and this would make sense, if there weren't so many pitchers on the Rays staff. Even with Percival on the DL, it will be hard to find enough roster space to spare (***update: Feb. 10th- especially with the newest addition of Shouse***), plus, the fact that Hammel and Niemann are suited for the starting role, that still leaves Price as the odd man out in the rotation. Oh the decisions to be made.

Yes, the decisions from the top are always tough, but wouldn't you rather have this dilemma rather than wonder who is going to fill the void of 5th starter? I'd rather have too many than none at all. It's a good problem to have, but don't be surprised to see David Price begin the season at Durham - it just makes sense for the team as a whole.

*** Note: Willy Aybar, Grant Balfour, Jason Bartlett, and Gabe Gross are all currently "out of options" as well - but Bartlett, Balfour and Aybar should all make the team easily. Gabe Gross, with the additions of Joyce and Kapler and already versatile Perez, could find himself in the minors to start the season, and thus, the potential for another team to claim him. However, I think the prime issue lies in the pitching decision. ***

The Derek Rodriguez Saga

The who-what saga?

A lot of you may not know the name Derek Rodriguez, yet, but you soon will.

Derek Rodriguez was selected by the Rays from the White Sox with the 19th pick of the 2008 Rule 5 Draft this past winter. What does that mean for you as a Rays' fan, and who exactly is, one Derek Rodriguez?

Well, if you have these questions, then you have come to the right place.

Derek Rodriguez was drafted in the 14th round of the 2005 amateur draft by the Chicago White Sox. He came into the minors as a starting pitcher, but the White Sox transitioned him into a reliever last season. The scouting report on Rodriguez is that he can throw from 3 different arm angles - a short-armed overhand, a three-quarter slot, and side-armed; he tops out at 93 MPH on the radar gun. He throws some variations of a slider and can even backdoor it on the left-handed batters.

But okay, so that is his scouting report, but what can he do on the field? Well, allow me to give you a brief statistical overview on his minor league career:

At the age of 23, in 2006 playing at the single A level, Rodriguez started all 27 games he appeared in, pitching 158 innings, where he gave up 164 hits while walking 48. He stuck out 122 batters that year with a WHIP of 1.34 and an ERA of 4.67. I could not find stats on his win-loss record for the year.

At the age of 24, also at the single A level in 2007, Rodriguez started 28 games, pitching 161 innings, where he gave up 164 hits while walking 55. He struck out 124 batters with a WHIP of 1.36 and a 3.69 ERA. He went 14-5 that season.

In 2008, at the age of 25, Rodriguez split his time between AA and AAA ball. This was the first time in his career that he was used as a reliever where he appeared in 49 games (1 start). He pitched 79.1 innings, giving up 54 hits while walking 33. He struck out 88 batters with a WHIP of 1.13 and an ERA of 3.29. He finished with a record of 5-2 with one save.

So, now that we have been properly introduced to the newest toy on the Rays' pen, what exactly does this mean? Will he make the club? Should he even be on the club?

Rule 5 Draft rules state that, if a player is not on a clubs' 40-man roster, he is eligible for the draft. Which means, Rodriguez was not placed on the White Sox 40-man roster. What this means for the Rays, is by drafting Rodriguez, not only do they have to invest $50,000 for his rights, but they also are saying that, essentially, in good-faith, they are going to have Rodriguez on their 25-man roster all season long - or risk losing the talent back to the White Sox for a return of $25,000 of that $50,000 investment.

Obviously, there is a risk and a potential reward here.

First, Rodriguez has not pitched a single pitch at the major league level. Secondly, obviously, there is the potential to lose $25,000 on the deal. Thirdly, someone else on the Rays, if Rodriguez were to make the team and remain on the roster, would be out of the big leagues.

Of course, the payoffs are as such - Rodriguez's numbers have been solid, and his scouting report says he induces numerous ground balls - so Rodriguez may be a good fit for the Rays pen a la Chad Bradford. Can you imagine, having two sidearm pitchers coming out of the pen that induce ground balls? That would definitely give some more stability at that position in middle relief innings. But also, yes, if Rodriguez does, in fact, work out for the Rays and remain on the 25-man roster for the season, then not only has the $50,000 investment paid off, but it seemingly has paid off well - since Rodriguez would have to prove his worth to remain on the 25-man roster for the full year - if he's that good, then he is welcome any day of the week on the Rays.

A potential $25,000 loss for the upside of this kid was definitely worth the risk, and I think Andrew Friedman knew what he was doing when he went and made this Rule 5 Draft decision.

8 days until pitchers and cathcers report, and I, for one, will be keeping my eye on Derek Rodriguez' progression. If he can hold down the fort, he has a good chance of being a major league baseball player - more importantly, he has a chance to give something substantial to the Rays organization. I wish him luck, and hope this is one deal that pays huge dividends for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Lineup

Well, speaking of optimism - the remainder of the Rays team is scheduled to return to training camp on February 18th, and there are many reasons to feel hopeful about the Rays bats, and you don't have to go much further than the top of the order:

Akinori Iwamura - an excellent talent - maybe not the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball, but he is very consistent at being on base; what more could you ask for in a number one?

Carl Crawford - might have had a down year last season, but is very capable and has tremendous speed - look for a rebound of sorts for Crawford this year.

B.J. Upton - if his shoulder is full healed - and all the reports seem to be that it is - look for a monster year out of Upton - much like the Rays had expected from him last season.

Carlos Pena - what can you really say about him? He'll strike out, yes, but he is efficient when he has to be, and he can hit the baseball, probably harder than any other Ray.

Evan Longoria - I try not to get too high on Evan, but it's hard not to. He is a tremendous talent and should only be able to improve from here. Yes, pitchers may have learned how to pitch to him after the playoffs - but honestly, pitching in the league as a whole is thin, and he will have plenty of chances to crush the many mistakes he'll see this season - the future is bright here.

Top 5 hitters have tremendous talent. Look for batters 3 through 5 to push the 30 home run mark each - if not more. I was one of the biggest proponents of "get Upton out of the lineup" last season, but wow, come playoff time, was I ever happy to have him in there. I think Maddon knows what he is doing, and I think that shoulder really affected the way Upton approached his game; this year could be a break out season for Bossman Junior.

But okay, 5 batters a lineup does not make, so what about the rest?

Pat Burrell - he has been quite consistent in his approach to the game (averaging almost 28 homeruns over the course of his 9 year career). He may not be the fastest player to grace the baseball diamond, but if he can also approach or surpass the 30 dinger mark, his speed won't be much of a factor (he could also simply knock in the runners before him, and have a tremendous season with never scoring a run himself).

Dioner Navarro - back to back extremely slow batters probably isn't the best idea, but better to bat these two side by side before getting back to the speed at the top of the order. The speed won't be a liability here either, since Navarro is such a great talent in other areas of the game.

Matt Joyce/Gabe Kapler - I don't know who the starting right fielder will be yet, or if they will platoon or not, but I think these two men can handle the role and handle it well. I look for Joyce to "win the job" and play about 2/3 of the games in this role. I look for him to push his home run total into the 20-25 range - which would easily bat in those two slow runners before him. Kapler will prove to be a very capable reserve here.

Jason Bartlett - he proved last year that he is a capable hitter - he actually would have led the Rays in batting average (.286) if he had the minimum number of plate appearances - which would have been quite the task for a man bringing up the rear more often than not, but what that did, was provide a spark for the top of the order. Bartlett also brings some speed to the table, so look for him to swipe about 20-30 bases - perhaps he can steal another taco for America as he did in the World Series?

Overall, the lineup looks solid. Now, if only the Rays can avoid the major injuries, this has a chance to be another promising season - and of course, all assuming the pitching doesn't melt down (i.e. the bullpen late in games). So time will tell, but on paper, anyway, I can't wait to watch this lineup do some damage to opposing pitchers.

This season, certainly could bring as much magic as last, but to say the least, the ride should at least be a fun one.

*** Note: I did not forget Fernando Perez as potential to win the job in right field because I think Perez will be used more often in spot duty to relieve fatigued players and/or late in games as a pinch runner/batter. I think he will thrive in this position and add another dimension to the overall productivity of the Rays. ***

9 Days Until Pitchers and Catchers

Now that football has officially come to a close (be honest, you don't really consider the Pro Bowl - football, do you?) it is time to turn our attentions to baseball.

Baseball has a grueling and often times demanding schedule. It takes a lot of discipline to make it through the 162 game schedule, and if you are one of the lucky 8 teams to make the playoffs, then the season is only just the beginning.

But the journey begins, every spring - when the pitchers and catcher report to training camp. This year, that day happens to be Valentine's Day - February 14th. If you make the World Series, your season can easily consume the year. As of February 14th, the baseball world will begin focusing, well, on baseball - and it will consume us for eight and a half months until the very last pitch of the World Series.

Of course, this blog isn't about baseball, but the Tampa Bay Rays. What a ride it was last year, and I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the pitchers and catchers to report.

Sure, a lot has taken place this off season - from the acquisitions of Matt Joyce, Pat Burrell, and Gabe Kapler (all three outfielders, though Burrell is expected to fill the void at designated hitter) to the losses of Eric Hinske, Jonny Gomes, Trever Miller, Cliff Floyd, and, of course, Rocco Baldelli. These changes can be viewed both positively and negatively, but in all honesty, only time will tell if the off season maneuvering will pay off or not, and I do not wish to argue the merits of these changes in this post.

Because let's face it, this post is about optimism and speculation. This post is about a new beginning. This post is about a continued rise. This post is about baseball's return.

I, for one, hope Scott Kazmir can return to the dominate force he was early in the 2008 season (after returning from injury). I hope he can find his location on his slider. I hope he can keep his pitch count down. And I hope he can pitch well into the 7th inning more often than not.

I hope James Shields can continue on the consistent pace he has shown over the past two season - where he has pitched identical innings (215) with nearly identical ERA's (3.85 in 2007 and 3.56 in 2008). I hope the fire he showed during the playoffs can make a reappearance every 5th day for him throughout the grind of the regular season.

I hope Matt Garza can continue to improve. I hope he can remain consistent as he shoulders increasing amounts of innings (3.69 ERA in 2007 in 83 IP and a 3.70 ERA in 2008 in 184 IP). I hope he too can focus through the season as he mastered his game plan throughout last years' playoffs.

I hope Andy Sonnanstine can continue to have the unbelievable control that he possesses (37 walks in 193 innings). I hope he can find a way to be more consistent. I hope his curve ball can continue to be perfectly wicked in movement and location.

I hope David Price can become what everyone wants him to be. I hope he can improve and improve quickly and dramatically. I hope the grind of the season does not wear on his young arm. I hope he can prove just as unhittable this season as he did in the playoffs.

As for the bullpen - I hope, and I don't know if they can, but I hope they can be as dominate as they proved to be last season. I hope they can strand just as many runners on base and in scoring position. I hope J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour can continue their brilliance of pitching out of tight situations. I hope the Rays can find a closer (I do not feel Percival has much left in his tank to be effective for the entire 162 game season). I hope, if that role falls onto Dan Wheeler he will gain a burning fire that is needed to be an efficient closer in the game of baseball. I hope Chad Bradford can continue in the consistent fashion he has always known.

Mostly, I hope that Joe Maddon handles the pitching staff with care - in that Howell, Bradford, Wheeler, and Balfour aren't put into the horrendous situations they found themselves last season. I hope Maddon can recognize when his pitchers are becoming fatigued, and when it is time to take the baseball from them, before they get into trouble and have to rely heavily on the bullpen - the bullpen that was so masterful last year - and would be hard pressed for a perfect, repeat performance as such.

And for the catchers - I don't fully understand arbitration, but I hope the hearing goes well with Dioner Navarro - and I hope his future with the Rays will be long and prosperous.

Nine more days - and the season begins. Full of so much promise. Full of so much potential. Full of so much hope.

I'm ready, are you?