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General : : Crack The Bat
Rays’ Enviable Depth
Published: Thursday, December 31, 2009

In writing my last column, focusing on how the Roy Halladay deal may have a significant impact on the entire American League East division, I reminded myself just how deep the Tampa Bay Rays’ talent base is. With the Yankees and Red Sox making big money moves one after the other, the Rays have slowly but surely developed arguably the most impressive homegrown team from top to bottom.

That talent allowed them to burst onto the scene two years ago with a surprise visit to the World Series. That success didn’t continue last year, but they still finished on the sunny side of .500 and proved that they weren’t a flash-in-the-pan success story.

More talent is still on the way to help stabilize the active roster, and while the Rays aren’t making big noise this offseason, they have made a few shrewd deals to help address team needs.

The most notable of which is the acquisition of closer Rafael Soriano, acquired from the Braves for prospect Jesse Chavez, a right-handed pitcher the Rays received from the Pirates a month before for Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura was available via trade due to the emergence of Ben Zobrist last year, the acquisition of Sean Rodriguez (from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade) as well as the ascension of Reid Brignac from within their own system. All of these options of course point to the Rays’ depth, at just one position.

And adding Soriano immediately makes their bullpen that much better. Not necessarily by Soriano’s ability alone, but it also puts their other relief pitchers in better positions by returning them to more defined roles, roles they have flourished in the past.

For instance, J.P. Howell led the team in saves a year ago with 17. He can return to the versatile role he filled two years ago during the team’s run to the World Series, and gives the Rays a second, non-closing lefty out of their ‘pen along with lefty specialist Randy Choate. Dan Wheeler, one of the game’s best late inning set-up men, also can return to the role he thrived in two years ago with the acquisition of Soriano. In fact, nine different players recorded a save for the Rays last year, and of course I’m sure we all remember the key save David Price recorded two years ago against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

Now they have a defined closer, possibly their biggest weakness each of the last two years.

And Andy Sonnanstine should join the relief corp as well, providing a valuable arm to be potentially used as a swing man. He has started for most of his career, but doesn’t have the lights out stuff that his fellow rotation mates possess. Once again, he provides the luxury of depth, as he could spot start, mop-up or get the team out of a late-inning jam when the Rays’ other short relievers may not be available.

The rotation is where the Rays’ really get interesting. Their depth even allowed them to shed some payroll and trade the fragile yet immensely talented Scott Kazmir to the Angels late last summer, getting infielders Sean Rodriguez and Matt Sweeney, as well as left-handed pitcher Alex Torres, in return. Rodriguez, as noted above, could be in the mix for a job on the 25-man roster as a versatile infielder with pop in his bat, and Torres could be a mid-season call-up, providing depth in case of injury.

David Price is the prized jewel of the staff, the first overall pick from the 2007 draft that epitomizes a staff ace. And he doesn’t even have to technically be the ace with the presence of Jamie Shields, Matt Garza and Jeff Niemann. This quartet collectively went 42-37 last year with a 4.08 ERA, and are between the ages of 24 and 28.

Joining them towards the end of the 2009 season was Wade Davis, a 24-year old righty with a power repertoire that enjoyed success in six appearances over the last month of the season. That included a complete-game shutout of the Orioles in which he struck out 10 batters, just a taste of what this young man is capable of.

Iowa native Jeremy Hellickson, no stranger to Perfect Game events, may have to return to AAA to get his chance. He may be undersized, but he also may have the most well-rounded repertoire of the Rays’ impressive stable of arms. He has enjoyed great success over the past few years in the upper levels of the minors, and should have enough experience to enjoy a relatively smooth transition to the big-leagues once he gets his chance.

Adding to the depth are Alex Torres, as noted above, and fellow lefty Jake McGee, whose career has been side-tracked the past couple of years after he had Tommy John surgery during the summer of 2008. Prior to that it seemed as though he was on a similar progression as Wade Davis, and could provide a valuable arm at midseason either in the starting rotation or in the bullpen, where he may be a better fit long-term anyway.

The Boston Red Sox may have the best starting rotation one-through-five in all of baseball after they signed John Lackey, but I think even they would have to admit to being envious of the Rays’ current combination of depth, age and talent.

The team’s depth among hitters begins in the middle infield, where Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist enjoyed career years as the team’s primary shortstop and second baseman respectively. After Bartlett you have young prospect Reid Brignac, who, like Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson, has been brought along slowly but surely, and has enjoyed success the past two years in the upper levels of the Rays’ system. A left-handed batter, he could be the primary backup at either shortstop or second base, or could even be returned to AAA for regular playing time ready to be summoned due to injury or ineffectiveness on the big-league roster.

Sean Rodrgiuez, again as noted above, provides the same type of depth. Ben Zobrist’s versatility allows him to possibly be an option for the team’s opening in right field, where he played 59 games in 2009.

Third base is completely owned by Evan Longoria, the team’s next franchise player and one of the best young stars in the game today.

Across the diamond at first base is Carlos Pena, who becomes a free agent after the 2010 season, which may be enough to motivate the young man to post numbers that are more similar to his comeback 2008 season than the ones he put up a year ago (which still weren’t bad). If the Rays are lacking in any one area it is with impact power bats, as after Pena, and designed hitter Pat Burrell, the team doesn’t have many internal options, at least with the same kind of power potential, to replace them. They do have enough pieces to move around to make it work, as Zobrist’s versatility allows him to fill in at either corner infield spot, as does utility infielder Wily Aybar.

Carl Crawford has been the team’s franchise player almost since the team’s inception, however, they stand to face to lose him after the 2010 season if they are unable to lock him up long-term.

He could be quickly and somewhat seamlessly replaced by Desmond Jennings, a tremendously gifted athlete that profiles in a very similar fashion to Crawford, with an exciting blend of power and speed.

That profile also suits B.J. Upton, a converted shortstop who now is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game. He has yet to find the consistency to match his impressive 2007 campaign, but he’s still plenty young, and he may be poised for a breakout season like the one his brother Justin enjoyed with the Diamondbacks this past year.

Right field is the one position on the field that appears to be open to competition. Desmond Jennings could be handed the job, as he doesn’t seem to have anything left to prove in the minors. However, like Brignac, he may also return to AAA for regular playing time where his depth may be better served. As noted above, Ben Zobrist could play the position, and you also could see a platoon of Matt Joyce, the forgotten prospect the team acquired for Edwin Jackson (who enjoyed a breakout season for the Tigers this past year and has since been dealt to the D-Backs), and Gabe Kapler. Joyce posted good numbers at AAA last year as a left-handed hitter, and Kapler has hit left-handed pitching as a right-handed hitter much better during his entire career.

Similar to Aybar on the infield, Fernando Perez provides depth in the outfield with the added benefit of speed and solid defense to be a defensive replacement and/or pinch runner late in ballgames.

Behind the plate the Rays acquired Kelly Shoppach from the Indians, where once again their pitching depth allowed them to deal right-hander Mitch Talbot, to give them a solid catching tandem along with incumbent starter Dioner Navarro.

Going back to the team’s biggest organizational weakness, which would be impact power hitters, the team made sure to address this early and often in last year’s draft. After being unable to sign their first two picks, LeVon Washington and Kenny Diekroeger, they went above slot for their next three: Five-tool outfielder Todd Glaesman, slugging catcher Luke Bailey and mashing first baseman Jeff Malm. And after loading up on bats, they also went well above slot to sign a quartet or promising arms including left-hander Kevin James in the ninth round, as well as right-handers Andrew Bellatti (12th), Matt Swilley (21st) and Marcus Proctor (30th).

This talent haul complements an already strong system that also includes notable prospects such as former number one overall pick, shortstop Tim Beckham. They also already stand to gain as many as four extra, early compensation picks among the top 75-80 overall selections in next June’s draft.

Not only does the depth give the Rays internal options to round out their roster, but it also gives them valuable commodities to trade. However, most to all of their depth perfectly complements current team needs, and since they also have a limited payroll to work with, they seem unlikely to add pricey vets. However, that could change if the team is still in the playoff hunt at midseason.

Can this team compete with the Yankees and Red Sox? Absolutely, and they already proved that during the 2008 season. Any time you project a small market team and how they stack up against a large market one you also talk about the limited margin for error. While that remains true in Tampa, the margin for error is diminished when you scan the organizational depth from top to bottom. Even positions where there isn’t a clear-cut starter there are three to four internal options to choose from, and of course you can never have enough good pitching.

The thoughts and opinions listed here do not necessarily reflect those of Perfect Game USA. Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and Brewerfan.net, and can be contacted via email at pebert@brewerfan.net.