The Rays return in 2007 with basically the same lineup that finished the 2006 campaign. That is not necessarily a good thing for a team that lost 101 games, scored the fewest runs and gave up the fourth most runs in the major leagues. What it does offer is a sense of stability and an opportunity for the young players to grow and show that another year of experience and maturity will help them take a step forward. Still, with most of the regular lineup set, there a number of questions concerning the Rays entering Spring Training.
- Who will be the regular first baseman? First base is the one position that remains without an obvious starter. There are several candidates to fill the very small shoes of the departed Travis Lee who had the worst OPS (.676) of any major league first baseman with at least 300 plate appearances in 2006. The obvious choice is Ty Wigginton who had a breakout season in ’06 with 24 home runs and numerous clutch hits, despite missing 40 games. However, Joe Maddon loves players with positional flexibility and Wiggy is the most flexible on the roster which means he will see plenty of playing time at other positions. Even if he is the regular first baseman, others will also receive playing time there, including Jorge Cantu, Jonny Gomes and Elijah Dukes, none of whom have ever played the position regularly in the past. Still, if Cantu or Dukes step up in Spring Training and show that they can handle the position, they could become the “starter” and Wiggy would be back to his role as super-utility man.
- Will the Rays buck Major League tradition and keep top prospects on 25-man roster without a regular position? Both B.J. Upton and Elijah Dukes enter Spring Training without a regular position. Upton finished ’06 as the starting third baseman but his glove work was no better than his stint at shortstop. Newly acquired Akinori Iwamura, will likely start the season at third base leaving Upton without a home. Every indication so far is that Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman will keep Upton on the roster getting him regular at bats at a number of different positions including third base, shortstop, second base and center field. The hope is that Upton will be able to concentrate on his offense while allowing his defense to develop naturally. Dukes is the bigger question mark. It appears that the team would like Dukes to be the fourth outfielder. His ability to play center field and considering the health history of Rocco Baldelli, there may be plenty of at bats there, but he would also see playing time at first base and DH. Friedman has stated that Dukes has little left to prove at the minor league level, which may be true, but the team may also quietly believe that Dukes may be better suited for the more structured atmosphere of a major league clubhouse as well as the close watchful eye of Maddon and the coaches.
- Who will fill out the starting rotation? The only other regular position that is up for grabs is the fifth spot in the rotation and possibly the fourth. Scott Kazmir is healthy and will resume his spot at the top. His shoulder stiffness in the second half of 2006 may have been a blessing in disguise. Without the injury, Kid K was on pace for 200+ innings which often leads to a fall-off the following season for a young pitcher. The other locks for the rotation appear to be Jae Seo and James Shields. If Casey Fossum is healthy he will be in the rotation and all signs are that he will be. That leaves one spot with a number of candidates, including J.P. Howell, Jason Hammel, Chris Seddon, Jae Kuk Ryu and Edwin Jackson. Our money is on Howell. He seemed to rediscover his fastball late in 2006 and has the biggest upside of the group. The hot candidate at this point is Jackson. Jackson is out of options and will be on the roster. Once a top starting pitcher prospect, Jackson struggled mightily in ’06. However, he is still young (23) and he pitched well in winter ball indicating that his days as a starter may not be over. Still, his biggest problem in ’06 was his control and despite strong overall numbers this winter, he still issued too many walks.
- What can be expected from Jorge Cantu and Jonny Gomes? Both Jorge Cantu and Jonny Gomes played most of 2006 at less than 100% and the drop-off from their 2005 numbers was dramatic. Cantu enters ’07 healthy and as the starting second baseman but may see time at first base and DH. Gomes will be the regular DH, but unless he can prove he can handle occasional starts at first base, he is likely to lose at bats to other players at DH. Look for both players to rebound in ’07, with Cantu the most likely to approach his ’05 totals. Gomes struggles in ’06 appeared to be due just as much to holes in his swing as to his injured shoulder. Cantu should receive 500+ at bats, but Gomes will more likely only see ~300, especially if Elijah Dukes is on the major league roster. We would be happy if Cantu hits .280-25-90, but don’t expect much more than .240-18-60 from Gomes.
- Will the Rays trade for more bullpen help? Of all the areas that the Rays could have used an upgrade, the most glaring weakness on the team is the bullpen. Last week the Rays picked up Jae Kuk Ryu for nothing more than a couple of low level prospects. While Ryu will contend for the 5th spot in the rotation, he is more likely destined for the bullpen. The team also signed Scott Dohmann. These moves are the equivalent of spitting on a forest fire. There is some talent in the bullpen, but unless everybody steps up the team will struggle once again late in games. Of course, they could get a big boost if the starting pitchers, who worked the fewest number of innings for any team in baseball, can work deeper into games in ’07. Still, Seth McClung allows too many base runners to be an effective closer and unless the team acquires more help, the Rays will continue to blow games late and will be unable to make a big jump forward in 2007.
- Is Dioner Navarro ready to step up offensively? Dioner Navarro is the most likely Ray to have an offensive breakout in 2007. We don’t mean to suggest that Navarro is ready to put up Pudge Rodriguez numbers but what about Paul LoDuca numbers with a little more power? Navarro is only 23 and already has parts of two seasons under his belt. In addition he has an excellent contact rate and strikeout to walk ratio for his career (72:51). Those type of numbers from a young player are often good indicators of future success.
His 2006 numbers projected over an entire season were only .254-12-56. For the first time in his career he enters the season as the clear cut #1 catcher. With his experience and without the pressure, look for Navarro to boost his numbers into the .290-20-80 range.
- How will Akinori Iwamura’s game translate to the Major Leagues? The only major off-season acquisition came to the Rays via the Japanese posting system. Akinori Iwamura’s signing actually raised more questions than it answered. What position will he play? Where will B. J. Upton find playing time? There appears to be little doubt that Muu-Rah is a major league talent. All indications are that he will be a gold glove caliber third baseman, but his bat may not produce enough runs for the hot corner. He showed signs of power in Japan, but is more likely to be a gap hitter in the U.S. which means second base may be his future home. While we have a general idea what the rest of the lineup is capable of, Muu-Rah is the biggest offensive question mark entering Spring Training.
- Will 2007 be Rocco Baldelli’s breakout season? 2007 will mark the first healthy Spring Training for Rocco Baldelli since 2004. It seems like he has been a member of the Rays for a decade so it is difficult to remember that he is still only 25 years old. After struggling to find his stroke after missing the first two months of ’06, Rocco hit .323 with 11 home runs in August and September. And while he will never be the base stealing threat many had hoped, he did still 7 bases in the final two months. If Baldelli can stay healthy (a big IF), this could very well be the season that he jumps up and establishes himself as one of the best outfielders in baseball. .300-25-110 with 20 stolen bases is not an absurd expectation.
- How good can Carl Crawford be? Carl Crawford has four full seasons on his resume and in each of those seasons he has improved his batting average, home runs and RBI with at least 46 stolen bases. The only aspect that may be lacking from his game is power. He did hit 18 home runs in 2006, but many don’t ever expect a player with C.C.’s speed to be a power hitter. And while he is one of the fastest men in baseball, most people that don’t follow the Rays closely don’t realize how big Carl is. At 6’2″ and 220 pounds he has the size to hit for power. And despite playing most of ’06 with a sore wrist, in one stretch he did hit 11 home runs in 30 games. Crawford will likely be the Rays’ #3 hitter in ’07 which means more opportunities to drive in runs and fewer opportunities to steal bases. Crawford’s numbers in ’07 are more likely to look like .315-25-110 with closer to 40 stolen bases. Despite being snubbed last year, he is not likely to be overlooked for the mid-summer classic this season.
- How good can Delmon Young be? We worried about Young’s transition to the major league level because he is a free-swinger and rarely draws walks. In the minors he had a 284 to 97 strikeout to walk ratio and those numbers were worse with the Rays (24:1). Still, for such a free-swinger, we saw an amazingly patient hitter. Pitchers regularly pitched him away and time after time he rocketed line drives to right field. Still, that translated to only three home runs in 126 at bats despite hitting .316. He also only had 14 home runs in 570 AAA at bats. For all the talk of this can’t-miss prospect and his impressive debut in ’06, many have noted the lack of home runs at the AAA and major league levels. Rest assured, the power will develop. Those that saw Delmon regularly at Durham noted that as a line drive hitter, he would have hit many more home runs if the Durham ballpark did not have such a high wall in left field. We have never seen such a patient and intelligent hitter at such a young age. Look for Young to start the ’07 season much like ’06, taking what pitchers give him. The home runs will come as he becomes more comfortable.
- When will Jeff Niemann make his major league debut? The Rays are desperate for a #2 starter to compliment Scott Kazmir and once again it looks like Jeff Niemann may be that pitcher. After missing the fist half of 2006 following minor shoulder surgery, Niemann returned and dominated at the AA-level. Nobody doubts that Niemann has major league caliber stuff but at this point the team wants to make sure he has rediscovered his mechanics, especially the touch on his breaking balls. If Niemann dominates in Spring Training, it will be tempting to give him the 5th spot in the rotation, but the team will be patient and send him to Durham for 10-12 starts with a mid-season promotion in mind. Look for Niemann to be throwing from the Tropicana mound by July.