Yankees, Rays will play doubleheader on September 21st

The makeup game between the Yankees and Rays for their August 14th rain out has been scheduled as part of a doubleheader for September 21st, the Yanks announced this morning. The two teams will be playing another makeup game on the 22nd (because of this mess), so instead of playing one game in a 48-hour span as the schedule originally called for, they’ll play three. The rest of the regular season is brutal: The Yankees will make a west coast trip tonight and play 15 games in the final 14 days of the season. Good thing they have such a huge lead on a playoff spot.

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

A second half series between these two clubs is supposed to be important, it’s supposed to have major ramification on both the AL East and wildcard races. Instead, this one is just another series because Tampa has fallen out of it. This will be the third time the Yankees and Rays will play each other in a little less than a month, and right now New York leads the season series 5-4.

What Have The Rays Done Lately?

Tampa just swept a four game series against the Royals at home, and they’re 7-2 in their last nine games. Despite that, they’re just 12-13 since the All-Star break, and have fallen 9.5 games back in the AL East and 8.5 back of the wildcard. The Yankees need to win games for the sake of winning games, but there’s not much significance in specifically beating the Rays right now.

Rays On Offense

Photo Credit: Mike Fuentes, AP

With a .315 wOBA and a .153 ISO, the Rays have close to a perfectly average offense this season. The three centerpieces of their attack are Ben Zobrist (.279/.371/.498), Evan Longoria (.231/.329/.450), and (surprisingly enough) Casey Kotchman (.337/.398/.471), but they recently made a significant addition to the lineup: leadoff man Desmond Jennings. The hot shot prospect was called up about three weeks ago and has hit .333/.422/.597 with eight steals in 11 attempts in 19 games. He’s not really a .442 wOBA hitter, but he is quite good and a lot better than the dreck they were running out there in left field earlier this season.

As for the supporting cast, you have Johnny Damon (.262/.317/.387), B.J. Upton (.227/.309/.394), and Matt Joyce (.283/.345/.501, and he’s come back to life a bit of late). Robinson Chirinos (.250/.321/.354 in limited time) does the majority of the catching these days, though Kelly Shoppach will start against southpaws (.230/.337/.345 vs. LHP). Sean Rodriguez is a lefty masher (.274/.384/.505) and has been getting some regular playing time at shortstop (even against righties) because Reid Brignac (.193/.234/.219) and Elliot Johnson (.179/.242/.314) are terrible. Too bad Rodriguez isn’t much of a hitter against non-lefties (.175/.250/.263 vs. RHP). And then there’s Sam Fuld with his legendary .244/.309/.371 batting line, though I should note that he’s hitting .275/.362/.451 over the last month or so.

Rays On The Mound

Friday, LHP David Price (vs. CC Sabathia): The Yankees have seen Price three times this year, and he’s thrown one great game (7.1 IP, 2 R), one decent at best game (5 IP, 4 R), and one poor game (5 IP, 5 R). That’s actually in reverse chronological order, so he’s improved against New York each time out. Everyone knows Price’s shtick by now, he lives off his mid-90’s heat and will also throw a curveball, changeup, and occasional slider. His strikeout (8.68 K/9) and walk (2.14 BB/9) numbers are better than last season, but his homer rate (1.01 HR/9) is considerably worse. Price hasn’t been pitching all that well of late, with a 5.14 ERA in seven starts.

Saturday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. Phil Hughes): It took longer than expected, but the Yankees finally got their first crack at Hellickson the last time these clubs played, and he held them to two runs in seven innings. Remember he was supposed to start in the Bronx right before the All-Star break, but the game got rained out and Tampa skipped him. Hellickson is more of a command guy that a pure stuff guy, throwing his two and four-seamers right at 90 mph. His low-80’s changeup is his out pitch, and he’ll also mix in the occasional curveball. With strikeout (5.95 K/9) and ground ball (33.2%) rates that are less than stellar, Hellickson seems like a guy Yankee Stadium could eat alive. Tomorrow will be his first ever start there.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Sunday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. Freddy Garcia): Another guy the Yankees have seen three times this year, Shields has shut New York down the last two times he faced them (8 IP, 1 R and 7.2 IP, 1 R), though his first start against them was merely pretty good (7 IP, 4 R). He’ll live off that world class changeup, setting it up with a low-90’s heater, a cutter, and a curveball that he continues to use more than ever. Shields has allowed no more than one run in four of his last six starts (two complete games), but in the other two he’s allowed six and ten runs. I’d count on the good version showing up this weekend.

Bullpen: Despite the continued success of Kyle freaking Farnsworth (2.56 FIP), Tampa actually has a bottom nine bullpen in MLB in terms of ERA (3.88), FIP (4.19), and xFIP (4.48). Joel Peralta (3.79 FIP) and Juan Cruz (3.57 FIP) have been fine in setup work, and Brandon Gomes (3.44 FIP) is starting to play a more prominent role. After those four you have three lefties are varying effectiveness. J.P. Howell has been terrible this season (5.60 FIP), which isn’t all that surprising since the guy missed a year and a half with major shoulder surgery. He does have value against same-side batters though (.217/.280/.283 vs. LHB). Cesar Ramos (4.98 FIP with no platoon split) has been sketchy, and hard-throwing Jake McGee’s dominant stretch after being recalled last month has came to an end about two weeks ago. He’s got a 6.01 FIP on the season.

Recommended Rays Reading: DRays Bay. If you want to catch one or all of the games this weekend, here’s some ticket info courtesy of RAB Tickets and TiqIQ.

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The Yankees and Rays played each other a little over a week ago, when the Bombers took two of three at home. That was supposed to be a four game series, but Mother Nature got in the way. This one will be a four-gamer, the dome will make sure of it.

What Have The Rays Done Lately?

Played a lot of innings, that’s what. The Rays and Red Sox played 16 innings last night, with Tampa coming out on the wrong end of a 1-0 score. Those two teams split the first two games of their series, and the Rays have lost four of their last five series. They’re 3-6 since the end of interleague play, and three of those losses were shutouts. They’re six games back of the Yankees in the loss column for the wildcard.

Rays On Offense

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Same set of guys we saw last weekend. The meat of the order is Johnny Damon (.275/.322/.420), Ben Zobrist (.266/.359/.474), Evan Longoria (.233/.317/.441), Casey Kotchman (.333/.393/.465), and B.J. Upton (.240/.422/.418), the guys that play every single day. Matt Joyce fouled a ball of his knee on Saturday that forced him from that game and kept him on the bench yesterday (other than a pinch-hitting appearance, when he fouled a ball off his toe), and his availability for this series is unclear. I’m sure we’ll see him at some point, either off the bench or starting. Either way, his excellent season line (.293/.353/.522) masks a .183/.236/.351 slump since the calender flipped to June.

Then you have everyone else. Sean Rodriguez crushes lefties (.306/.405/.556) but can’t touch righties (.169/.234/.297). Reid Brignac (.193/.236/.221) has kinda sorta taken the shortstop job back from Elliot Johnson (.209/.276/.357) with a recent hot streak (two multi-hit games in his last four contests). John Jaso (.255/.347/.371 vs. RHP) and Kelly Shoppach (.239/.363/.388 vs. LHP) typically platoon behind the dish. Tampa recently recalled third catcher Jose Lobaton, but he hurt his knee last night and could end up on the disabled list. Sam Fuld (.238/.296/.351) will make an appearance now and then, as will Justin Ruggiano (.259/.279/.439). The Rays have a pretty drastic home/road split, but not in the traditional way. As a team, they’ve hit .227/.296/.374 at Tropicana Field, but .258/.325/.416 away from home. It’s weird, the Trop has turned into a pretty extreme pitcher’s park over the last few years, suppressing offense to about 80% of the league average since the start of last season according to ESPN’s park factors. Don’t ask me to explain.

Rays On The Mound

Monday, RHP Alex Cobb (vs. A.J. Burnett): Uh oh, a rookie they’ve never seen before. At least this one isn’t a soft-tossing lefty. Cobb has made five spot starts for Tampa this season, all with generally good results. He gave up four runs in four innings in his debut, but he’s allowed no more than three runs in the other four games while failing to complete six innings only once. Cobb has struck out 19 and walked 12 in 29 IP, getting exactly 50% ground balls. He makes his living with a low-90’s two-seamer and a mid-80’s changeup that he’ll throw a pretty much any time. A high-70’s curveball is his third pitch, a mid-80’s slider his seldom used fourth offering. Cobb does have a pretty significant platoon split in both the majors and minors, which is odd given the changeup.

Tuesday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. Bartolo Colon): The Yankees were supposed to get Hellickson last week, but he was scheduled to start the game that was rained out, so Tampa skipped him. This start will be his first since July 3rd, so 16 days off. Maybe there will be some rust. Hellickson is another fastball-changeup-curveball guy, but his stuff and command is a full grade better than Cobb’s, if not more. His underlying performance this year isn’t great (5.90 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 33.1% grounders), but he’s coming off a nice run of seven quality starts in his last eight outings. The Yankees haven’t seen him other than a handful of short relief appearances last season.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Wednesday, LHP David Price (vs. Freddy Garcia): Finally, someone we’re familiar with. The Yankees put ten men on base and scored four runs against Price last week (5 IP), and also scored five runs in five innings off him earlier this season. He lives off his mid-90’s two and four-seamers, throwing them a combined 70.7% of the time this season. A mid-80’s changeup and a high-70’s curve are his favorite two secondary pitches, and the high-80’s slider he used to dominate the SEC is basically a show-me offering these days. The Yankees have had some success against Price this year, but come on. You know how good he can be.

Thursday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. CC Sabathia): The Yankees didn’t have any success against Shields last week; he limited them to four hits and one unearned run in eight innings. It took an otherworldly effort from Sabathia for them to win. Shields throws three low-90’s fastballs (four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter) but doesn’t use them that often. Just 40.1% of his pitches are fastballs. His hellacious low-80’s changeup is his go-to pitch, and he’s using his high-70’s curve more often this year (21.4%) than ever before. A mid-80’s slider will make an appearances every once in a while. Shields has been both very good and very bad against the Yankees in recent years, and they’ve seen enough of him to know what’s up.

Bullpen: The Rays played deep into the night yesterday, so their bullpen is pretty taxed on the moment. Both Juan Cruz (3.70 FIP) and Jake McGee ( 4.84 FIP in limited action) have pitched in each of the last three days. Cesar Ramos (4.66 FIP), Adam Russell (5.08 FIP), and Brandon Gomes (4.01 FIP in limited action) have each pitched in the last two days. The trio of Kyle Farnsworth (2.86 FIP), J.P. Howell (5.97 FIP), and Joel Peralta (3.85 FIP) each pitched yesterday as well as Friday. Tampa has to send someone down to call-up Cobb in time for tonight’s game, and it’ll almost certainly be Gomes after the threw three innings and 48 pitches last night. They’re definitely stretched a little thin at the moment, but most days they’re set in the eighth and ninth innings while being a little hit-or-miss elsewhere.

Recommended Rays Reading: DRays Bay

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

It’s July 7th, but somehow the Yankees and Rays have only played two games so far. That was back in mid-May, when the Yankees were in the middle of that ugly six-game losing streak. They dropped the first game but rebounded behind Ivan Nova to win the second, and that’s it. These two teams are going to see a lot of each other in the second half, I guess.

What Have The Rays Done Lately?

Tampa has won just four of their last nine games, and they needed an Alex Burnett (who?) meltdown to avoid being swept by the Twins yesterday. They’ve been playing just a touch better than .500 ball for about a month now, but they do have the third best record (48-39) and fourth best run differential (+35) in the American League.

Rays On Offense

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Luckily for the Yankees, two of the Rays’ most important offensive players are battling injuries. Johnny Damon is expected to miss a few days with a left hand contusion after Francisco Liriano hit him with not one, but two pitches yesterday, and his .279/.327/.426 batting line will likely be replaced by Sam Fuld (.243/.304/.357) and/or Justin Ruggiano (.284/.308/.486 in limited action). Evan Longoria is playing with a nerve issue in his left foot, which is part of the reason why his season line sits at a pedestrian .243/.329/.471. No one likes to see anyone get hurt, but the fact of the matter is that those injuries have a tangible impact on the game.

Tampa’s offense has generally been reliant on two guys this season. Ben Zobrist is hitting .265/.349/.461 with the fourth most extra base hits (41) in the American League. We could see him play second or right or both in this series. Matt Joyce has a nifty .291/.352/.510 batting line, but that’s propped up by an early season hot streak and he’s hit just .160/.219/.298 since June 1st. A nagging shoulder issue has contributed to that somewhat. Casey Kotchman has been the mother of all surprises, sporting a .343/.401/.464 batting line while playing against both righties and lefties. B.J. Upton is the only other constant in the lineup, and he’s at .231/.318/.405.

The other lineup spots are one big revolving door. Sean Rodriguez (.323/.413/.585 vs. LHP) will platoon against southpaws, usually at second base with Zobrist shifting to the outfield. Elliot Johnson (.250/.388/.300 vs. LHP) will get some time at short as the offensively incompetent Reid Brignac (.187/.233/.217 overall) sees more and more time on the bench. John Jaso (.234/.288/.361 vs. RHP) and Kelly Shoppach (.222/.329/.333 vs. LHP) platoon behind the plate. As usual, Tampa will augment their offense with stolen bases, and the main culprits are Upton (20), Fuld (16), and Zobrist (eight). Damon (seven) will also run if he’s healthy enough to play.

Rays On The Mound

Thursday, RHP Jeff Niemann (vs. Bartolo Colon): The big (6-foot-9) right-hander just returned from the disabled list, missing just about all of May and most of June with a back issue. He’s been good (six shutout innings), bad (five runs in three innings), and good again (one run in six innings) in his three starts back, though all those games came against National League teams. Niemann’s fastballs (two and four-seamer) both sit in the low-90’s, mostly 91, and he backs them up with a curveball, a slider, and a little splitter-changeup hybrid thing that he’ll break out from time to time. The Yankees are familiar enough with Niemann and he’s a good matchup for them because he’s a big-time fly ball guy (39.9% grounders) and doesn’t miss many bats (5.63 K/9).

Friday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. Freddy Garcia): The rookie sensation has been more rookie than sensation so far. His shiny 3.21 ERA is backed up by underwhelming peripherals: 5.90 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 33.1% grounders, a 4.29 FIP, and a 4.45 xFIP. Hellboy will sit right around 90 mph with a two and four-seamer, and his go-to secondary pitch is a low-80’s changeup that fades down and away from left-handers. He’ll also mix in a curveball. Hellickson has given up seven homers total in his last five starts, during which he’s pitching to a 4.50 ERA. The Yankees have seen him before but not really: just 3.2 IP across a pair of relief appearances last season. That might be a problem.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Saturday, LHP David Price (vs. A.J. Burnett): Because he wasn’t good enough last year, Price has gone ahead and knocked close to two full walks off his walk rate while increasing his strikeout rate this year. He’s the opposite of Hellickson in that his ERA (3.56) doesn’t do his underlying performance justice: 8.85 K/9, 1.67 BB/9, 42.7% grounders, a 2.73 FIP, and a 2.86 xFIP. Price lives of his fastball, legitimately sitting in the mid-90’s, and he’ll throw it straight, with some sink, or with some cut in on righties. A low-80’s changeup has become his top secondary weapon, but he’ll also show a curveball and a wipe-out slider. The Yankees have faced him once already this year (five runs in five innings) and have seen him several times over the last few years, but Price is one of those guys where it might not matter. It’s frontline stuff and if he’s on, he can beat anyone.

Sunday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. CC Sabathia): Shields is in the middle of his best season ever, backing up his 2.47 ERA with a 3.07 FIP and 2.87 xFIP. He leads the league with six complete games, and he’s managed to get a handle on last year’s homerun trouble by upping his ground ball rate (45.3%). The improvement has to do with his curveball, which he’s throwing more than ever (21.1%) and in any count. Shields’ four and two-seamer still sits in the low-90’s, and of course he has that great changeup. The Yankees have seen plenty of Shields over the years and have already beaten him once this year (four runs in seven innings), but he’s certainly a tough assignment.

Bullpen: As unit, the Rays are middle of the pack in bullpen ERA (3.65) but bottom ten in FIP (4.10) and next-to-last in xFIP (4.30). Kyle Farnsworth has been very good in the ninth inning (2.08 ERA and 2.81 FIP) but he doesn’t strike out nearly as many batters as he once did (5.97 K/9). Joel Peralta has been solid as the setup man (3.63 ERA, 3.51 FIP) and J.P. Howell (8.56 ERA and 5.59 FIP in limited action) is working his way back into things after missing more than a year with shoulder surgery. Juan Cruz has been surprisingly solid in the middle innings (3.13 ERA and 3.40 FIP).

The rest of the bullpen isn’t anything to write home about. Lefty Cesar Ramos has a 4.05 ERA (4.94 FIP) and a reverse split, and big Adam Russell (6-foot-8, 255 lbs.) has just 12 strikeouts against 18 walks in 31 IP. He lives off his 53.8% ground ball rate. Long man Andy Sonnanstine (3.31 ERA, 4.42 FIP) never really pitches. He’s thrown just 16.1 IP this year and has appeared in only four games (one spot start) since June 1st. Tampa is okay in the late innings, but the middle innings could get interesting if the Yankees knock their starters out early enough.

Recommended Rays Reading: The Process Report and DRays Bay

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Mike Carlson/AP)

The Yankees conclude their first tour of the AL East with a series against the Rays. In a way the Yankees couldn’t head down to Tampa at a better time. They could certainly use an escape from New York, and, well, it’s hard to imagine them playing any worse. If you’re going to turn things around, might as well do it against the team that leads the division.

What the Rays Have Done Lately

At 23-17 the Rays currently lead the East, but that doesn’t quite describe how they’ve played lately. They started the season 0-6 and 1-8, so it’s been quite a run back from the bottom. The best part for them, perhaps, is that the wins didn’t come in one burst — that is, it’s not as though they got lucky for a stretch. They have two five-game winning streaks, a four-gamer, and a pair of three-game ones. That’s enough to help smooth over a rough start. Though, to put an arbitrary end point on it, they are 3-3 in their last six, including 0-2 during the weekend. So there’s that.

Rays on Offense

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

While the Rays have scored runs at about a league average clip, they have seen some standout performances. For instance, Ben Zobrist is back into beast mode, hitting .288/.369/.568 on the season. To make things even crazier, since April 24 he’s hitting .394/.471/.718. He might not be as good as he was in 2009, but he’s also better than he showed in 2010.

Helping out, especially when they missed Evan Longoria for a few weeks, has been Matt Joyce. He’s currently at .368/.424/.615, and since April 28th that’s .463/.508/.870 in 63 PA. If that weren’t scary enough, Longoria is now back, and he hasn’t missed a beat. In his 52 PA since returning he’s hitting .295/.404/.568. That gives the Rays a powerful punch in the middle of the lineup. Even Casey Kotchman has helped out, hitting .341/.411/.424 (29 hits, 24 singles) in his 95 PA.

Yet for all the hot hitters the Rays have, they have little else going for them. John Jaso’s OBP is under .300, which is a problem, because Jaso’s sole value is in his ability to get on base. Reid Brignac’s batting average is not only below the Mendoza Line, but his OBP is approaching it, too. Sam Fuld has cooled down from his torrid start, while Johnny Damon still hasn’t gotten much going. Don’t be fooled by B.J. Upton’s line, though. He’s at .311/.354/.557 in his last 65 PA, and he’s probably a bit better than his overall line indicates. Tough stretches — Upton went 8 for 53 at one point — look worse on the stat line at this time of year.

Rays on the Mound

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

Monday, LHP David Price. While Price has no complete games this year, he has completed at least eight innings on four occasions, and has been generally awesome in those outings. This includes his previous two, when he took down Toronto and then Cleveland, combining to pitch 16.2 innings and allowing just three runs while striking out 17 and walking none. In fact, avoiding the walk has been the biggest change for Price this year. He has just nine of them in 57.2 IP, which is 1.4 per nine. Last year he walked 3.4 per nine.

The bad news is that doesn’t mix well with the Yankees, a patient team. The good news is that when they’ve faced pitchers whose weaknesses are their strengths, they’ve faltered. Maybe there’s reversal of fortune potential here?

(Amy Sancetta/AP)

Tuesday, RHP James Shields. If I’ve grown sick of one sight this season, it’s the Yankees swinging over off-speed and breaking pitches. It’s not as though this is something new, though. Last year they did that a lot, against Shields in particular. The one game that comes to mind is August 1, 2010, when he struck out 11 Yankees in 7.1 IP. There was also his 6.1 IP, 8 K game in September. On the bright side, the Yanks did knock him around most of the other times they faced him, so he’s not unbeatable.

As with Price, Shields has avoided walking batters this year, just 13 in 60.2 IP. His strikeout rate has settled somewhere between last year’s and his career, and he’s actually getting more ground balls and, therefore, allowing fewer home runs. He has also completed two games this year and has gone into the eighth on three other occasions. While Price is the ace of the staff, Shields isn’t far behind with the way he’s currently.

Bullpen: Looking at the Rays bullpen in the aggregate, they have a slightly lower ERA, but higher FIP and xFIP, than the Yankees. Of course, they’ve pitched 14 fewer innings, which wouldn’t be a huge margin if the Yankees hadn’t played fewer games. While things have certainly gone well so far, forgive me if I don’t have a ton of confidence in a bullpen helmed by Kyle Farnsworth. It might not be the worst in the league, but part of the reason it’s so good is that the rotation has made it less necessary. That’s the mark of some great bullpen work, really.

Recommended Rays Reading: The Process Report and DRays Bay.

2011 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

These aren’t your grandfather’s Devil Rays anymore. Since losing the Devil, the Rays have won the AL East twice in three seasons, including last year by one game over the Yankees. The front office, led by acting GM Andrew Friedman, continues to squeeze valuable water out of the payroll rock with some help from manager Joe Maddon, who is willing to buck convention more than any other skipper in the game. Nine players from Tampa’s 25-man ALDS roster will be playing elsewhere this season, and a tenth (Rocco Baldelli) moved into a front office role. They’ve proven adept at rebuilding on the fly, but a roster overhaul of this caliber might have been too much at one time.

If you want a full preview of the 2011 Rays, I highly recommend purchasing The Process Report 2011, the best $15 you’ll spend this spring. The 103-page document includes in-depth articles and player profiles written by the brightest minds on the Rays’ blogosphere. In the interest of full disclosure, our own Joe Pawlikowski contributed an article about former Yankee and new Ray Johnny Damon. Think of TPR11 as the Mariano Rivera of season previews while what you see below is more … Kyle Farnsworth.

Strengths

It wasn’t long ago that a three-game series against the Tampa franchise meant good times for Yankees hitters, who routinely pounded inferior pitching staffs. Things have changed now, and the Rays’ starting rotation is the backbone of the club. David Price broke out and became one of the very best pitchers in the game last season, a hard-throwing lefty with strikeout stuff that has not yet reached his 26th birthday. Number two starter Jamie Shields is one of just eight pitchers that have thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last four seasons, so if nothing else he provides innings. He fell victim to some back luck last year (.341 BABIP, 68.4% strand rate), but his 3.55 xFIP was his best ever. Still just 29-years-old, a rebound is possible, if not likely.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The three and four spots go to 28-year-old Jeff Niemann (4.18 xFIP last year, 4.35 career) and 25-year-old Wade Davis (4.61 xFIP as a rookie last year). Matt Garza takes his three straight years of 180+ IP to Chicago’s north side and in steps young Jeremy Hellickson, who is arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. The soon-to-be 24-year-old had a fine big league cameo last year (3.83 xFIP in 36.1 IP), and is just the latest product from the game’s premier player development franchise. Right-hander Alex Cobb (2.80 FIP in Double-A last year) and left-hander Alex Torres (3.47) are next in line and will start the year in Triple-A. Behind them in Double-A will be Matt Moore, Alex Colome, and Nick Barnese. All five of those guys represent some of the better prospects in the game’s second best farm system.

Now that we’re past the starting rotation, we have to talk about Evan Longoria, arguably the best all-around player in baseball. His 19.6 fWAR since 2008 trails only Albert Pujols (25.3) and the now-hobbled Chase Utley (20.9). Still just 25, Longoria has three seasons of .370+ wOBA’s, .210+ ISO’s, and 10+ ADR’s (aggregate defensive rating) to his credit all ready. Plus he packs some serious heat. Simply put, he’s a superstar of the first order and the best player in the division.

The team defense as a whole has been a strength for several years and figures to be one again in 2011. Losing Carl Crawford definitely hurts, but they’re still very strong up the middle with Reid Brignac at short, Ben Zobrist/Sean Rodriguez at second, and B.J. Upton in center. Maddon also has a deep and versatile roster at his disposal, allowing him to take advantage of platoon matchups and defensive shifts and what not. That farm system also provides a friggin’ ton of ammo for trades, and Friedman has shown a willingness to make huge splashes.

Weaknesses

As I said earlier, the Rays’ roster took a really big hit this winter. Crawford is the best player in franchise history, but he left for Boston. Carlos Pena fled for Chicago. Say what you want about his poor 2010 season (.196 AVG, .326 wOBA), but he hit at least 28 homers for the fourth straight year, and that will be missed. In their place will be old buddy Damon (coming off a .340 wOBA with Detroit, his lowest in the last seven years) and old nemesis Manny Ramirez (his .382 wOBA last year was excellent, but his second worst since becoming a full-time player). Both are on the wrong side of 35, but Tampa didn’t bring in either guy expected them to perform like they did three or five years ago. Either way, going from Crawford and Pena to Damon and Manny is likely to be a three or four-win downgrade, maybe even five.

The rest of the lineup, beyond those two and Longoria, is almost like a patchwork group. Zobrist won’t ever have another .408 wOBA season like he did in 2009 again, but his career .346 OBP and .168 ISO are fine marks for a guy that can legitimately play seven positions. B.J. Upton is now two years from free agency and it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll turn into the megastar everyone though he would after a stellar (.387 wOBA) 2007 campaign. His .317 OBP over the last two years won’t get the job done, even when combined with 40+ steals. Dan Johnson’s late season heroics over the last two years are well-known, but his big league career features a decidedly un-first baseman-like .333 wOBA. Brignac has some pop but is in there more for his glove than his bat, and the catching platoon of John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach is fine as long as they have bats in their hands and not gloves. I like Matt Joyce as a breakout candidate, but he’s a bit of a question mark until he actually does it.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

And then there’s the bullpen. The Rays lost almost everyone from their relief corps over the winter, with the one holdover being the forgettable Andy Sonnanstine. The dominant late-game trio of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour has been replaced by Kyle Farnsworth, Adam Russell, and Joel Peralta, a step down no matter how you look at it. Dan Wheeler goes from righty killer to Red Sox, Randy Choate from lefty killer to Marlin. Those two will essentially be replaced by a pair of rookie left-handers: Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos. A couple of guys named Mike Ekstrom, Rob Delaney, and Brandon Gomes provide the depth. Russell and McGee have big-time arms but are unproven, and will be thrust in high-leverage spots this summer. That’s not to say it can’t work, but I’m sure Maddon and fans alike will be reaching for the Tums much more often this year than last.

Of course, the team’s biggest weakness is it’s financial situation. Payroll shrunk down to something like $45M after topping out at close to $73M last season, and it’s not because ownership is cheap. The franchise simply can’t sustain anything higher. Tropicana Field has some appeal in a grungy “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” kind of way, but it’s poorly located and the attendance totals reflect that. When the star players start calling fan attendance “embarrassing” … yeah it’s bad.

Overall Outlook

There’s no question that the Rays lost a lot of firepower this offseason. Crawford is irreplaceable, but remaking an entire bullpen and finding suitable offensive fill-ins in a single offseason is a minor miracle. Are they as good as last year? Almost certainly not, but Tampa is still extremely dangerous and very capable of winning the division. They have two bonafide stars in Price and Longoria plus a strong supporting cast, not to mention the deepest and most talented rotation in the division. Don’t kid yourself, Maddon’s club is a very real threat to the 2011 Yankees.

Book Review: In Tampa, an Extra 2% edge

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the least heralded success stories in sports of the past decade. In 2007, it was business as usual for the then-Devil Rays. They went 66-96, good for their ninth last place finish in ten seasons as a Major League club, and just under 1.4 million fans watched Alberto Reyes rack up 26 saves.

Since then, the Rays have won the AL East twice and made the World Series once. They’ve dethroned the league’s two richest teams and still sport a solid young core of players that make them a perennial threat in the American League. They don’t have a new stadium and still draw under 1.8 million fans per season. Yet, the Rays have become the latest small-market success story. How?

The how is the subject of Jonah Keri’s latest book. Entitled The Extra 2 %, Keri’s book explores, as the lofty subtitle says, “how Wall Street strategies took a Major League Baseball team from worst to first.” With a new ownership group in place that was willing to experiment and push the envelope, the Rays took advantage of their position at the bottom of baseball’s economic pecking order to dig for advantages. Luck played no small part in it, but the Rays have something that works, for now.

To set the stage, Keri spends the first few chapters exploring the tortured history of baseball in Tampa Bay. The sprawling metropolitan had always appealed to Major League Baseball more as a threat than as an actual landing place for a team. Whenever a successful franchise needed a new stadium, it would threaten a move to St. Petersburg. The White Sox did so in the early 1990s; the Mariners followed suit a few years later; and the San Francisco Giants were apparently this close to shacking up in the Trop.

Yet, despite the fact that St. Petersburg went so far as to build a stadium — an ugly one at that — without a tenant, Major League Baseball never graced the area with a team. Miami got its franchise first, and it took the threat of a lawsuit that would have rocked baseball from its lofty perch atop an antitrust exemption to see the Devil Rays enter the world.

When they did, it was a spectacular disaster. Vince Naimoli was the wrong man to own the team, and Chuck LaMar was the wrong general manager. The club burned draft picks by signing bad free agents. They wasted other picks by avoiding top talent in the name of “signability.” Sometimes, they landed the right guy; Carl Crawford stuck. But Jason Standridge and Dewon Brazelton are a testament to the disaster.

Keri’s narrative picks up the Extra 2 % when Stuart Sternberg, a baseball fan and Wall Street guy, buys the club from Naimoli. He brought Matthew Silverman and Andrew Friedman with him. Together, these three guys changed the franchise. They changed the way it does business; they spruced up Tropicana Field as best they could; and they began to search for the edge — the Extra 2 % — that would allow the Rays to remain competitive in the rich American League East.

Unfortunately for Keri’s book, the meat of the Extra 2 % is a proprietary one. James Click and Josh Kalk, two former Baseball Prospectus writers, are among the top figures working behind the scenes, but the Rays, who cooperated with Keri only at the end of his reporting, keep these minds away from the press. A certain part of the Extra 2 % is still a secret.

Yet, that doesn’t leave the book lacking, and Keri provides deep insights into the Rays’ process. He talks with Silverman and Friedman about their baseball arbitrage process, and while he doesn’t go inside the Rays’ draft room, he explains how the club is working to identify baseball talent on the cheap while selling high and drafting wisely. The Extra 2 % comes from the organization’s idea that they have to be that much more diligent than their competitors. The Devil Rays might have missed out on Albert Pujols in the early 2000s, but that’s a mistake the current regime will not make again.

Ultimately, the book is a great read, and I can’t recommend it enough for Yankee fans of all stripes. We might envy the Rays their recent success and no longer view them as the pushovers they once were. But that doesn’t make them an unlikeable franchise, and Keri’s book humanizes a franchise long scorned by the baseball cognoscenti.

The end of Keri’s book, on the current stadium, left me wanting the more than isn’t there yet. Tropicana Field is ugly and out of the way. It’s in a town with very high unemployment, and while the Rays have the highest TV ratings in the game, they can’t get fans to come. They also can’t force the area to fork over public funds for a new stadium.

So my question still remains: Can the Rays maintain their success? Keri says they can, but I’m less optimistic. (Perhaps, that’s my inner Yankee fan speaking.) Their payroll this year is much lower than in recent seasons, and their bullpen and lineup approach resembles something of a band aid. They will rise and fall on their arms, but as the young guns grow up, can they keep winning? The cast of The Extra 2 % came of age at a time when the Rays had the right guys making the right Number 1 draft picks. Success comes at a price, and in 2011, we’ll learn if the Rays can sustain success of it small-market wins are merely cyclical.

Editor’s Note: Jonah Keri is a good friend of mine, and his publisher supplied me with a review copy of the book. Joe and I are also mentioned by name in the Acknowledgements. Still, this review is an impartial one.