During the off-season baseball pundits were quick to jump off the Tampa Bay Rays bandwagon, declaring them essentially dead in they hyper-competitive AL East. The loss of All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford, Gold Glove caliber first basemen Carl Pena and the gutting of their bullpen, including Rafael Soriano, who was third in the bigs and first in the American League in saves with 45 were said to be the death knells that heralded their immenent collapse and, most said, an obvious rebuilding year.
Theo Epstein, the stats-wielding wunderkind GM behind the turn around of the Boston Red Sox, didn’t believe the pundits. In an article on ESPN’s Red Sox Report Epstein echoed the words of Rays Skipper Joe Maddon. “I think the demise of the Rays is greatly exaggerated,” he said. “Even before those moves we never erased them at all from our radar. I think they’re uniquely positioned to lose some really good players and keep their status as one of the best teams in baseball, given the strength of their farm system and the players they have ready to step in. They lose Garza, they have [Jeremy] Hellickson to step in. They lose Crawford they have [Desmond] Jennings and [Matt] Joyce to step in. They’re going to be real tough.”
As much as I dislike the Red Sox, I admire the insight Epstein provided while most of the baseball world was preparing to write a requiem for the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays. That alone shows just how smart Epstein is, as if there were any doubts by now. The bullpen was considered their Achilles Heel and assured their fall from the elite in baseball. In fact, the Rays are currently sitting at 16-14, two games behind the Yankees in the AL East.
Bottom Line – The much-ballyhooed demise of the Rays bullpen has been badly exaggerated. Through May 4th the pen has pitched 81.1 innings and allowed 27 earned runs. That translates to a 3.01 ERA. Not bad for a bunch of replacements.
That being said, I thought it would be good to see how the ex-Rays have done so far this season and look at the players who replaced them.
Gone but not (totally) forgotten
Carl Crawford – Crawford was the most painful loss, simply because he had personified the team for so many years. The organization knew they couldn’t compete on the open market for his services, but watching him sign with the Boston Red Sox was truly painful. Pena’s replacement so far has been the surprising Sam Fuld, whose star has faded recently but whose defense has been a welcome addition to the team.
Crawford has struggled so far with the Red Sox, but his bat has shown some life recently. If you are a fantasy baseball player, the day to buy low on him has already come and gone.
Carlos Pena – Pena wasn’t as big a loss as many made him out to be. Yes, his power bat would be missed, but with the exception of his 2008 season Pena was more of a liability at the plate. The real loss was his glove at first base. Casey Kotchman has grabbed the job in his absence and while lacking Pena’s power, has excelled defensively and been a reliable bat in the lineup, currently sporting a .320 batting average and, more importantly, a .393 on base percentage. Pena continues to bomb with his new team, the Chicago Cubs, and I’m not talking about hits leaving the park.
Jason Bartlett – Bartlett was destined to be released the day he signed. The Rays needed a quality defender in the middle infield and the slick-fielding Bartlett was a perfect match. But with Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac and Tim Beckham waiting in the wings the 31 year old was a a bridge to the Rays organizational youth, and when his time came, they let him go. Bartlett’s defense has been missed, but his fill in Reid Brignac sports the same fielding percentage, .977, that Bartlett had in his last season as a Ray. So far this year Bartlett has five stolen bases, but his average is sitting at a lowly .222
Matt Garza – Matt Garza was probably the pitcher I miss the most. Known for his emotions and mercurial pitching, when he is on there are few better, as evidenced by his game on July 26th, a no hitter that my wife were priviledge to see, against Max Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers. Garza finished the season 15-10 with a 3.91 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 150 K’s. Garza started the season with a 12 K performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but also allowed 12 hits. He went on a funk, allowing 15 earned runs in his next four games, but his peripherals are there. He’s been mowing down batters at an insane rate, with 51 K’s on the year in just under 39 innings.
Rafael Soriano – Soriano had been one of those players with electric stuff but couldn’t stay healthy. He was a surprise signing by the Rays, who broke out the check book knowing he’d be a one-year acquisition. He stayed healthy and played a huge part in the Rays second AL East division title. Soriano has yet to adjust to the spotlight in New York and so far has an ERA of 6.57 and a WHIP of 1.784.
Joaquin Benoit – Benoit turned a career year into a career payday when he dialed up a 1.34 ERA, 0.68 WHIP season as the set up man to Soriano. For his career, which includes his stellar 2010 season, Benoit’s numbers were more pedestrian; 31-30, 9 Saves, 4.54 ERA, 1.35 WHIP. As much as he was a loss for the performance he turned in last year, any smart stat guy could have told you he’d have a regression to the norm and so far he is a huge disappointment. Considered a potential closer, his 8.08 ERA isn’t instilling any confidence early on.
Grant Balfour – The Sydney, Australia native had a solid year for the Rays and his aggressive nature on the mound is sorely missed. He’s done well so far for the A’s, turning in a sparkling 2-1, 2.08 ERA so far in 13 innings of relief for the Athletics. But he’s due for a letdown; his 1.54 WHIP and 16/10 K/BB are harbingers of a letdown.
Lance Cormier – Cormier was simply bullpen fodder. His career 5.01 ERA and 1.63 ERA show borderline skills easily replaced.
Dan Wheeler – Like Balfour, Wheeler was a hard one to lose. Wheeler could sometimes be wild, but he was able to step in any situation and get the job done. Another refugee to the Red Sox organization, his season has been a rough go so far for the Red Sox.
Randy Choate – Choate is a journeyman pitcher, much like Cormier but with a better skill set who was the Rays left handed specialist out of the bullpen. He’s faired well so far with the Florida Marlins but again was not a difficult player to replace.
Chad Qualls – Qualls a bullpen arm that I had high hopes for. He was called upon in many high leverage situations in his career and had aquitted himself well. The Rays took a chance on him after his season was lost in 2009 with a patellar dislocation that forced him out for the balance of the year and part of the 2010 season before the Rays traded for him. His 2010 season was forgettable as he posted the worst ERA and WHIP of his career. In hindsight he probably hadn’t fully healed from his injury. SO far he has pitched well for the San Diego Padres
Manny Ramirez – Manny may have been the best $2 million investment the team made. While the team was shocked to learn about the violation and subsequent suspension that ended his career, it was the defibrilator the team needed. Since Manny left the team Tampa has gone on a 16-7 tear and are now back in the hunt in the AL East.
Johnny Damon – Damon was paid more, and now we know why. Although no longer the player he was early in his career, Damon’s positive influence has been a god-send in the club house and his performance on the field shows he still has some gas left in the tank. Damon has made several crucial plays to lead the team in the absence of Evan Longoria, and should continue to be a leader on the team now that Longoria has returned from the DL.
Sam Fuld – No conversation could be complete without Fuld. He was a last-minute throw in for the team when they traded Garza to the Cubs and the diminutive outfielder has already provided enough spark to energize the team for some time. While he has slumped at the plate lately his aggressive style of play and willingness to sacrifice himself for the team has been a huge boost.
Casey Kotchman – I felt throughout spring training that Kotchman would win the job out of camp, but Maddon doggedly stuck with Dan Johnson. Once Manny was released Kotchman was called up and is now in a platoon with Johnson. Johnson has power, but his ability to put the ball in play has always been questionable at the pro level. If the Rays do go shopping around the All-Star break, a power-hitting 1B will likely be high on their list.
Kyle Farnsworth – Most people felt that Farnsworth was a reach, and at best suited for low to middle leverage situations. Farnsworth has responded with five saves in six chances as well as two wins and has a sparkling 0.87 ERA to go with a 0.77 WHIP. Many expected him to be little more than a place holder, and his role as the team’s closer is anything but assured with J.P. Howell expected back soon, but if he continues to pitch like this he’ll be hard to dislodge from the ninth inning.
Joel Peralta – Peralta had a career year with the Washington last year and was one of the acquisitions that concerned me. Call me a geek but when I see a guy whose stats show a statistical outlier(see Joaquin Benoit) I fully expect a regression to the mean. So far Peralta has defied the odds.
Jake McGee – Many saw McGee as Tampa’s closer-in-waiting and young southpaw certainly has a bright future with the team. The Rays sent him down to get some polish as he struggled early in the season. With the current performance of the bullpen, McGee’s return may be delayed until after the break. We’ll know more once we see how he responds to the demotion.
Brandon Gomes – Gomes was called up when Alex Cobb, brought up for a spot start against the Los Angeles Angels, was sent back down to the minors to continue getting work. Gomes, part of the Bartlett trade, acquiited himself well in his first performance, a two inning stint against the Blue Jays on May 3rd. In four years with the Padres minor league affiliates Gomes has shown solid skills, including a career 10.1 K/9 ratio. His performance with the Durham Bulls, Tampa’s AAA Affiliate, was equally spectacular as he struck out 22 batters in 13.1 innings. I can see Gomes being eased into the closer rotation at some point depending on how things go with Farnsworth and Howell when he arrives.
Juan Cruz – In his 11th year Cruz was a key addition to the Rays bullpen. His career stats are all over the board, including some forgettable years with the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals, but he’s also been in the closer mix in the past, most recently with the Royals. He has a wild streak in him that makes him unreliable for high leverage innings but has the stuff to be a solid middle innings pitcher and so far, while walking more batters than I’d like to see, has managed to keep runs from scoring.
Cesar Ramos – Ramos, another piece of the Bartlett trade, is more journeyman lefty specialist (See Randy Choate) and most likely to lose his job when Howell comes off the DL.
Adam Russell – The imposing righthander stands 6’8″ and was yet another former Padre the Rays brought in to fill the deleted bullpen. He has pitched well so far with the Rays and owns a career 3.93 ERA, which closely matches his 4.11 ERA in the pros. A solid but not spectacular addition that provides depth, Russell has been a solid contributor so far.