Sports Outside the Beltway

Rays, 2007 and Beyond

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays finished the 2006 season with the league’s worst record. Not exactly what they set out to do. A lot of things went wrong. Injuries kept offensive studs like Jonny Gomes and Jorge Cantu from progressing and injuries hit the pitching staff pretty hard. We never got to see Shinjo Mori. Scott Kazmir was shut down for almost the entire month of September. And Casey Fossum was lost to shoulder surgery. I don’t even want to get on the bullpen and the fact that the team lost the lead in over 60 games last year.

A few things did go right though. Carl Crawford showed glimpses of the power he is developing. Rocco Baldelli came back from missing a season and a half and tore up league pitching with a .302 average and .533 slugging percentage. Ty Wigginton was a diamond in the rough. Greg Norton provided a nice punch late in the year. Our farm system (although I’m tired of referring to it so much due to a lack of major league talent) is ranked numero uno by Baseball America and by ESPN’s Keith Law. And Scott Kazmir dominated the first 5 months of the season.

Those are just a few of the things that went right and went wrong with last season.

Now we can fast forward to 2007. In short, not much has changed. The Rays signed Japanese import Akinor Iwamura, traded for utilityman Brendan Harris, and let underachievers walk: Travis Harper, Brian Meadows, Tomas Perez, and Damon Hollins. The Rays signed relievers Al Reyes and Scott Dohmann, 1B Carlos Pena and Hee-Seop Choi, and catcher Raul Casanova to minor league deals with invites to Spring Training.

I know all the Devil Ray fans are getting pumped now (insert sarcastic tone)! But not to worry, the Rays are headed in the right direction (insert serious tone).

Now that the dismal 2006 season is behind us we can expect great things in 2007, right? Not so fast. Don’t get me wrong now, I think the team will improve and I’m not saying that because they finished last and have nowhere to go but up. I’m saying that because the Devil Rays future looks bright in 2007 and beyond.

The Rays have an incredibly talented outfield. Ranked by as the 8th best in all of the Majors the Rays could finish 2007 with the #1 ranked outfield. Carl Crawford is already a star. He continues to improve every season. If he was on almost any other team every house in America would know who he his. Rocco Baldelli has been slowed by injuries but has 2007 to look forward to completely healthy. Baldelli will bat first most of the season and should provide fire power at the top of the lineup. Delmon Young is a star in the making. He has all the tools a star needs. He is still unproven but he is one of the frontrunners for AL Rookie of the Year.

The Rays also have other young talent. B.J. Upton will be given a chance to play at 3B, SS, OF, and 2B. Ben Zobrist made huge strides in the Arizona Fall League but if he doesn’t pan out the Rays have SS Reid Brignac waiting to take the SS job. Jorge Cantu is coming back from injury. Dioner Navarro is a switch-hitting catcher with good plate discipline and is only 23. Akinori Iwamaru has exceptional talent. And Elijah Dukes, if he can stay out of trouble, is another 5-Tool outfielder. Not too far behind at 3B is Evan Longoria who should make his MLB debut sometime after mid-June.

You say, “all that sounds good but you can’t win without pitching.” You are absolutely right.

The Rays have Scott Kazmir. Everyone knows who this kid is. He has Cy Young Award written all over him. James Shields is emerging as a good pitcher. He has good command of his pitches and walks few. But other than those two the Rays are thin in young pitching talent. Jeff Niemann isn’t far from the majors. He has ace stuff but needs to prove that he can stay healthy if he wants to start in the Majors. The Rays are also loaded with talent at the Single-A level. Jacob McGee and Wade Davis look like they can be solid 2-4 guys in the Bigs. Jeremy Hellickson looks like he has the stuff to get Major League hitters out as well. But the Rays need this talent to emerge very soon. Only Niemann has pitched above A-ball. Look for the Rays to draft Vanderbilt lefty David Price with the first overall pick in this year’s draft. He is polished, has 3 plus pitches, good command, and a frame made for starting pitching. Not to mention that he just beat the #1 ranked Rice this past week. The Rays could have a rotation of Kazmir, Niemann, Price, Davis, and Shields by 2009. McGee would be in that rotation if Niemann is in the bullpen or if one of the other starters struggle. I would put money on that rotation if I was a betting man.

The Rays could be this year’s version of the Florida Marlins, but that would take everything going right. Actually, it would take everything going right and every player playing above expectations. The Rays could approach .500 this year, it’s not out of the realms of possibility. But a playoff spot looks like it won’t happen this year.

You can mark my words right here, right now: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays will be playoff contenders no later than 2009 and should contend for the AL Wild Card in 2008. Don’t sell this team short, if they were in any division other than the AL East they would be contending in 2007.

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