Author: Matthew Pouliot

Evan Longoria

2013 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: is this the year Evan Longoria challenges for the MVP award?

Longoria has been one of the AL’s better players since bursting onto the scene as a 22-year-old rookie in 2008, but he’s yet to take that next step. While he’s never posted an OPS below .850 in five seasons for the Rays, he’s also never topped .900, and he’s been limited to 133 games and 74 games the last two seasons due to injury.

With so many question marks up and down their lineup, the Rays may need Longoria’s biggest year yet if they’re going to return to the playoffs after last year’s absence. All of the new acquisitions — first baseman James Loney, second baseman-outfielder Kelly Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar — were available because they’re coming off very disappointing seasons. The Rays aren’t going to get anything offensively from their catchers, either. The core group of Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist, Longoria and Matt Joyce will be counted on to produce most of Tampa Bay’s runs.

Longoria has two 30-homer and two 100-RBI seasons to his credit. He may well have gotten there again last year had he stayed healthy; he had 17 homers and 55 RBI in his 74 games. And the Rays likely would have made the playoffs had they gotten 150 games from Longoria. The uphill climb appears even more difficult this season with James Shields and B.J. Upton gone. Longoria coming through with a .290-30-110 campaign would make things a lot easier.

What else is going on?

  • The Rays thought enough of Wil Myers’ potential to part with Shields for him, but he didn’t enter camp with any chance of winning the right field job, even after he hit 37 homers between Double- and Triple-A last year. Like other Rays prospects before him, he’ll have to serve the obligatory season-opening stint in the minors to push back his free agency. The Rays’ needs will determine whether he’s up around May 1 or if he remains in Durham into June to guarantee that his arbitration eligibility is delayed as well.
  • With a .235/.297/.265 line in 34 at-bats, Loney isn’t showing anything this spring that suggests he’ll be a better answer at first base than he was for the Dodgers or Red Sox last year. He’ll enter Opening Day with the starting job, but the Rays need to keep an eye open for alternatives.
  • Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) are competing for Shields’ vacated rotation spot. Many believe the Rays will trade Niemann prior to Opening Day rather than keep both. They can afford to make the move because they have top prospect Chris Archer waiting in the wings in Triple-A. Odds are that Archer will turn out to be the real fifth starter come May or June.
  • Matt Moore’s emergence as a legitimate No. 2 starter behind Cy Young winner David Price is another big key for the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb should be rock solid, but it’s Moore who will determine whether the Rays have a very good rotation or one that ranks as the best in the league. The 23-year-old Moore, who was viewed by many as the game’s best pitching prospect a year ago, improved from a 4.42 ERA to a 3.01 mark in the second half of 2012.
  • 2012 surprise Fernando Rodney, new owner of the lowest ERA in major league history, has already quieted the doubters with an impressive showing as the Dominican Republic’s closer in the World Baseball Classic.

Prediction: Second place, American League East.

United States loses, baseball wins at World Baseball Classic

World Baseball Classic - Second Round - Miami - USA v Puerto Rico

Let’s face it: the World Baseball Classic’s uphill climb as an event worth watching wouldn’t gain any momentum if Team USA ran away with it.

That’s why it has to be pretty exciting for MLB to see Puerto Rico advance past the U.S. and join the Dominican Republic, Japan and The Netherlands in the WBC semifinals. While baseball hardly needs a boost in the Dominican and Japan, it’s standing in Puerto Rico and Europe figures to get at least a modest boost thanks to this month’s tournament.

In the short term especially, it’s money more than talent than MLB is hoping to gain from Europe. But getting Puerto Rican kids more interested in baseball would be a nice boon for the league. It’s no coincidence that all of Puerto Rico’s stars on the field Thursday were over 30 years old. The only actual position prospect on the team is the Twins’ Eddie Rosario. And while I like Houston’s Xavier Cedeno as a lefty specialist, none of the pitchers would seem to have grand futures in MLB, either.

Puerto Rico just hasn’t produced much major league talent since MLB put its prospects into the draft. MLB teams can no longer set up there and develop the players themselves, as they’ve long done in the Dominican Republic. A nice run in the WBC isn’t going to undo all of the damage, but it’s a little something to try and build on.

The Dutch island of Curacao is already producing talent and even more kids there could be inspired to pick up a baseball as Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar and Xander Bogaerts hopefully develop into major league stars. Throw in Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop and The Netherlands’ infield could well rival the Dominican group come 2017.

As for the U.S. team, well, this was probably the best way for it to go down; it was competitive yet far from dominant. One imagines that the U.S. players will hear it from the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in the clubhouse over these next several months. Whether that inspires a few more stars to suit up in 2017 remains to be seen; odds are the 2013 results will be largely forgotten a year from now. But I believe the next WBC will be viewed more favorably by the players. It’s not that we’ve gotten particularly high quality baseball from the teams, but we’ve seen a bunch of very competitive games and boisterous crowds. I think it’s the case that some of the guys who opted out — the Mike Trouts, Bryce Harpers and Prince Fielders — have watched these games and felt like they’re missing out.

Cardinals intend to start Oscar Taveras in Triple-A

Oscar Taveras

With guys like Oscar Taveras, Michael Wacha and Matt Adams set to start out on the farm, one wonders if a collection of Cardinals’ minor leaguers might be better than the Astros this year.

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak made it clear today that Taveras, likely the best pure hitting prospect in baseball, would open the season in Triple-A rather than claim a spot on the St. Louis bench, adding that it had more to do with getting him regular at-bats than it did starting his free agent and arbitration clocks.

Taveras is hitting .302/.348/.535 with two homers and nine RBI in 43 at-bats this spring, but it would make little sense for the Cardinals to carry him on Opening Day. Carlos Beltran should sit once a week, but Matt Holliday is a full-time player and since Taveras and Jon Jay are both left-handed hitters, there’s no way to divvy up the center field job at the moment. The Cardinals also have Shane Robinson tearing it up this spring; he’ll likely be the fourth outfielder.

Taveras, Adams and second baseman Kolten Wong will likely form the backbone of a strong Memphis lineup this season. Shelby Miller is likely to lead the rotation initially, though he still hasn’t been eliminated from contention for a spot on the major league roster. As for Wacha, it’s not yet known whether he’s Double- or Triple-A bound. The 2012 first-round pick has quickly established himself as one of the game’s elite pitching prospects this spring.

Dominican Republic beats Kimbrel, U.S. to reach WBC semis

R.A. Dickey

Craig Kimbrel allowed a total of one double in 62 2/3 innings for the Braves last year. Maybe even more impressive, he allowed just one hit with a man in scoring position. He never allowed multiple hits in an inning.

On Thursday, he gave up one double and two hits with men in scoring position in the ninth to take the loss as the Dominican Republic defeated Team USA 3-1 to advance to the World Baseball Classic semifinals.

Team USA and Puerto Rico will meet in an elimination game Friday to determine who joins the Dominican Republic, Japan and The Netherlands in the semis.

Nelson Cruz opened the top of the ninth in a 1-1 game with a double to right. Giancarlo Stanton made a great play to cut the ball off, but he was forced to leave his feet to make the grab, allowing Cruz to proceed to second. After Carlos Santana moved Cruz along with a grounder to the right side, pinch-hitter Erick Aybar hit a line drive single to right to plate the go-ahead run.

Kimbrel bounced back to fan Aledjandro De Aza, but catcher J.P. Arencibia couldn’t complete the strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play as Aybar stole second. Jose Reyes then singled into center to make it 3-1, knocking Kimbrel from the game.

Fernando Rodney went on to pitch a perfect bottom of the ninth to seal the victory.

It was a bad time for Kimbrel to prove mortal after he fanned 116 batters in 62 2/3 innings last season. Still, it didn’t come as too big of a surprise for anyone who saw him struggling earlier this spring. Yet to find his breaking ball, he gave up four runs — three earned — in four innings, posting a 3/4 K/BB ratio, for the Braves before joining Team USA.

Until the Dominicans broke through, no runs had been scored since Hanley Ramirez’s monster homer to left off R.A. Dickey in the second. Team USA got its only run on Eric Hosmer’s bases-loaded walk in the first.

Team USA’s chances of advancing could now hinge on Ryan Vogelsong pitching well Friday. David Wright’s status is uncertain for the game after he sat out with a balky back Thursday, though he said he would have preferred to play. Willie Bloomquist went 0-for-2 with a sac bunt as his replacement. He also committed an error at third base.

Puerto Rico rallies in eighth to eliminate Italy from WBC

Puerto Rico's Giancarlo Alvarado pitches against Italy in the 1st inning of a 2013 World Baseball Classic game at Marlins Stadium in Miami

Puerto Rico scored three times in the bottom of the eighth to beat Italy 4-3 and keep its World Baseball Classic hopes alive on Wednesday night.

Italy was eliminated after losing its second straight game.

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo put Italy on the board in the fifth, delivering a bases-loaded double that plated three runs. That was all the offense could muster, though, and it proved to be insufficient after poor defense led to a run in the sixth and an awful managing decision and some additional lousy glovework opened the door for a rally in the eighth.

Puerto Rico had its big guns due up in the eighth, with Carlos Beltran being followed by Yadier Molina, Mike Aviles and Alex Rios. The obvious decision should have been to go to Jason Grilli, Italy’s one major league pitcher, with the hopes that Brian Sweeney or someone else could have handled the lesser lights in the ninth.

Instead, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez decided to save Grilli for the ninth. Chris Cooper, who had pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings, stayed in to face Beltran, walked him on four pitches and was pulled. Nick Pugilese then gave up a hit to Molina. Sweeney came in and retired one of the two batters he faced. Finally, Pat Venditte came in and surrendered the lead. With no ninth-inning rally forthcoming, Italy lost without ever using its best pitcher.

Puerto Rico will now face the loser of Thursday’s U.S.-Dominican Republic matchup. The winner of both games will clinch spots in the semifinals.