I recently posted this on Facebook in the blog for the Tampa Bay Rays Fan application. Apparently if I'm not too late, I might be able to win a prize (a nifty icon on Facebook!) for it. I figured you guys might enjoy it as well...
"Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out."
For years, this quote from Ernest L. Thayer's immortal "Casey at the Bat" was very fitting for the Devil Rays franchise. If you slightly changed the last line, just imagine how many different situations it applied to:
"But there is no joy in Tampa - mighty [insert name here*] has struck out."
* Choose one: Aubrey Huff, Jared Sandberg, Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco, Vinny Castilla, Ben Grieve, Toby Hall, Jorge Cantu, Joey Gathright, Elijah Dukes, Dewon Brazelton (struck out as a pitching prospect), Lou Piniella, Josh Hamilton (damn the Reds!), etc.
If you couldn't get my drift or you've been in a coma for the last ten years, the Devil Rays sucked. No ifs ands or butts; they’ve been utterly atrocious ever since they first joined the league ten years ago in 1998. Through a combination of bad luck and a horrendously bad front office, the Devil Rays managed to bungle their way to a 645-972 record (a .399 winning percentage), losing over 100 games in three of ten seasons. They’ve become masters at being “forgettably bad” – not bad enough to become lovable losers like the 1962 Mets or 2003 Tigers and not good enough to justify people actually liking them. Instead, they’ve just wallowed in the moldering bog of suckiness, swallowing any player with actual talent and turning them into Dewon Brazelton.
After the 2005 season, though, everything started to change. Vince Namoli and his cronies left town after eight loooong years (sound familiar?), bought out by the baseball equivalent of Barack Obama - Stuart Sternberg. While Sternberg wasn’t nearly as elegant or good looking as Barack Obama, Sternberg came in very inexperienced but preaching about, “dramatic change for this organization.” Him and Matthew Silverman (President/GM) reshaped the team’s infrastructure and started pampering to their fans, enticing them with free parking and many new upgrades to Tropicana Field. Even if the team on the field wasn’t much different the next year, the mindset in the front office had definitely changed. “There are teams that spend quite a bit of money and don't have much success,” Sternberg said, “There are teams that spend a bit less and have a lot of success. We just want to have success.”
Now, if Obama could be as successful turning our country around as Sternberg and Matthew Silverman (president/GM) has been turning the Devil Rays around, I wouldn’t be surprised if within three years, we all have global health care and Iraq has a settled, stable government. Ever since Silverman took over, the Devil Rays have significantly improved to the point where this off-season, they finally shed themselves of their cocoon and for the first time ever, became a major league ball club. They invested money in free agents needed to make the team better, they signed key players to long-term contracts, and they finally committed to the idea of winning now. No more of this “winning-in-five-years” crap, thank goodness. And what better way to symbolize this change than by changing their team name, logo, and uniforms? Oh, and they released plans for a new stadium. In short, the Devil Rays and their ten years of suckiness are no more. The Rays, gay burst of sunshine and all, are here to play and they mean business.
In the end, though, how much can we really expect from the Rays this season? Sure, they front office may have added Troy Percival, Cliff Floyd, Trevor Miller, Jason Bartlett, and Matt Garza this off-season, but how much does this all translate into in terms of wins? If we’re just evaluating in terms of these off-season moves, potentially, not a lot. We’ve already seen both Cliff Floyd and Matt Garza go down with injuries this year, while Bartlett and Miller haven’t exactly lived up to expectations yet. Regardless, PECOTA (currently the most reliable stat-based projection system) predicts that the Rays will go 88-74 this year, ending up in third place in their division. PECOTA has a reliability of around 4 games, meaning that it’s normally only ever off by plus or minus 4 games. Where is this coming from?
Two words: defense and pitching. The Rays were absolutely horrible last year in terms of both defense and pitching, actually hitting the realm of historically bad in terms of defense. According to Baseball Prospectus, the 2007 Rays had a .662 defensive efficiency rate, the lowest they have on record. All this means when turned into other stats and juggled a little bit is that last year, the Devil Rays, “…were nearly six percent worse than the league average at converting balls in play into outs.” Ouch.
Also, the Rays had horrible pitching. Heck, their Opening Day rotation last year included both Casey Fossum and Jae Seo; I don’t know about you, but that certainly looks like a winning combination to me (irony alert!). Their team ERA was 5.53, while their bullpen ERA alone stood at 6.16. Their pitching staff let up 944 runs, which is over 50 runs higher than the next closest team. Granted, their pitching couldn’t have been helped by their historically inept defense, but I still don’t think Edwin Jackson’s 5.76 ERA was completely a result of bad defense.
Now, the addition of Bartlett, the promotion of Longoria, the development of Upton in centerfield, and shifting Aki to second base all bolster the Rays’ defense. To what degree is debatable, as Bartlett hasn’t been perfect at short (though he is a definite step up over anyone else we’ve ever had at short) and Upton still has a lot to learn. There was also a recent article published at Baseball Prospectus that goes into some detail why they believe PECOTA overestimates how much improved the Ray defense will be this year. Even if the Rays’ defense isn’t incredible this year, though, it’s still got to be much better than last year.
In terms of pitching, the pitching depth that the Rays have in the minor leagues is finally starting to manifest itself in the majors. Over the first 18 games of this season, the Rays have been without their staff ace Scott Kazmir, but they still have a 4.04 team ERA and a 2.93 bullpen ERA. This improvement even without Kazmir (and Garza, for that matter) stems from one main thing: minor league depth. The Rays farm system has been ranked for the past two years in a row as the best system in all of baseball, and the results are finally now beginning to appear in the majors. Flamethrower J.P. Howell seems to have finally found his niche as the long-relief man in the bullpen (2.53 ERA in 10.2 IP), while Jason Hammel has managed to turn his potential into results for the first time (1 W, 4.26 ERA, 19 IP). Even Edwin Jackson has finally strung together a couple good starts, though whether this success is temporary is up for debate. Top prospect Jeff Niemann was just called up from AAA and if he strings together a few more solid starts, it may be tough to send him back down. So whatever way you look at it, the Rays are finally in a good place for pitching. Maybe Jackson and Hammel won’t keep pitching as well as they currently are, but it seems like the days of Ray pitchers with 6 ERAs are long gone. Oh man, and speaking of pitching, I can’t wait for David Price to arrive on the scene next year…
So when all is said and done, PECOTA’s prediction of 88-74, while optimistic, might actually hold true. At the very least, you can make a solid argument as to why the Rays could potentially put up that record. Personally, I’m predicting the Rays to finish with a season record at 81-81, plus or minus 3 games, with it being more likely they’ll end up on the minus side. PECOTA’s prediction is just a tad too optimistic even for me, one of the world’s largest optimists. I think the Rays’ defense is going to better, but not as good as PECOTA predicts. Aki is going to need time to adjust to second base and we’ve already seen Upton misplay some balls in the outfield this year. Our pitching staff I have more faith in, though I am very skeptical of Edwin Jackson’s early success and feel that we should trade him while his value is high. We have enough pitching depth and I would much rather give Niemann 30 starts right now than Jackson.
However the Rays turn out this year, though, I think there’s something everyone can agree with – this is going to be one hell of a fun team to watch. Whether it’s going to be Pena blasting a homerun, Crawford stealing bases like crazy, Kazmir striking out people left and right, Longoria being damn sexy, or Johnny Gomes swinging for the fences, it's going to be a wild ride. So excuse me while I go turn on the game. Jackson’s on the mound, so let’s keep those fingers crossed. Go Rays!