Johnny Damon, Many Ramirez

Springtime Storylines: Did the Rays lose too many guys?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: A team that always has to try 2% harder, the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: Did the Rays lose too many guys?

It’s hard to say otherwise, isn’t it?  Gone are Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Jason Bartlett. It was a pretty mass exodus.

That said, not all of those departures are critical. A couple of those guys — Pena and Bartlett — didn’t contribute a whole heck of a lot in 2010, and their replacements — Dan Johnson and Reid Brignac — don’t represent a ton of falloff.  Likewise, I’m of the mind that Jeremy Hellickson will be an improvement over a somewhat overrated Matt Garza.

But losing Carl Crawford will be a toughie. To say Johnny Damon is a step down from Crawford defensively is criminal understatement. There is no escaping the fact that losing a player the caliber of Crawford — to a division rival no less — could be a mortal wound.

And actually, the defections from the bullpen seem to be the most critical loss for the reigning AL East champs. Kyle Farnsworth, Jake McGee, and Adam Russell all have their charms, but to suggest that the bullpen will be anything other than a profound weakness seems like unwarranted optimism to me. I know Rafael Soriano. I watched Rafael Soriano pitch. You, Mr. Farnsworth, are no Rafael Soriano.

So what else is going on?

  • While the bullpen seems like a nightmare, you have to like the rotation. Neither David Price, James Shields nor Jeff Niemann are dominant pitchers, necessarily, but all are workhorses, with Price an ace.  I think Shields will bounce back from a rough 2010 and while Wade Davis was a bit sketchy at times last season, he was a better pitcher in the second half, and that bodes well.  Hellickson may be the key to the group, though. One expects rookie pitchers to struggle, but I just have a feeling that he’ll bring more to the table than your typical rookie pitcher.
  • Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon are the big imports this year. I’m somewhat optimistic regarding both of those guys. Ramirez was hampered by injuries in 2010, but when he played he was still effective, even if his power was down.  He has seemed energized this spring and has something to prove back in the AL East so I expect good things from him, even if it’s not as good as vintage Manny.  Likewise Damon’s falloff in Detroit was not as sharp as it may have seemed. He went from a lefty hitter’s haven in Yankees Stadium in 2009 to a tough park for him in 2010 which killed his power numbers, but he should provide some decent production. At least on offense.
  • I predict a B.J. Upton breakout every year. I’ve yet to have my predictions vindicated.  I shall nonetheless, once again, predict a B.J. Uption breakout year.  Please feel free to remind me of my folly come October. Thanks.
  • While the Rays are going through a ton of changes this year, the fact that Joe Maddon is in charge may mitigate some of the disruption.  He’s a smart guy who is not married to any one strategy and, because of that, will be far more willing to make changes on the fly if and when the best laid plans of the winter go astray.

So how are they going to do?

Not well enough. Ultimately there are just too many holes to fill. For the Rays to make noise, every uncertainty — of which there are a lot — will have to break in their favor.  Manny and Johnny need to flash something akin to their production of old. Three of their starters will have to show improvement from last year, one — Price — will have to more or less maintain his production, and a rookie starter will have to excel in the AL East.  Finally, a bullpen of misfits will have to coalesce into something grand.  That’s a tall, tall order.

I think they’ll be respectable and, if the Yankees suffer some sort of disaster, they can compete for the wild card.  But I think the long haul of the season will be too much for them and I predict a third place finish.

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.

Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery could share Cubs’ rotation spot in 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Mike Montgomery #38 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon hasn’t selected a fifth starter for his 2017 rotation yet, but told reporters that he could envision left-handers Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery sharing the spot throughout the year. Neither pitcher was stretched out to the full 200-inning threshold last year, Maddon added, and suggested that the two could alternate innings out of the rotation and bullpen as needed (via MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat).

Anderson, 29, was acquired by the Cubs in January on a $3.5 million deal. He’s coming off a rough 2016, during which he underwent back surgery and missed all but 11 1/3 innings of his last season with the Dodgers. His last full, healthy year in the majors yielded a 3.69 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 5.8 SO/9 over 180 1/3 innings with Los Angeles in 2015.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is vying for a rotation spot after pitching almost exclusively from the bullpen during the second half of the Cubs’ 2016 run. The 27-year-old lefty put up a 2.82 ERA, 4.7 BB/9 and 8.9 SO/9 over 38 1/3 innings for Chicago last year, returning in the postseason to post a 3.14 ERA during the Cubs’ championship finish.

Maddon also mentioned the possibility of throwing a sixth starter into the mix, which would help prevent his other starters from getting overworked too early in the year. Either way, Anderson and Montgomery are expected to get a lot of looks early in spring training as rotation spots are finalized in the weeks leading up to Opening Day.