Tampa Bay Devil Rays owner Stuart Sternberg indicated earlier this month that the first two weeks of the season could make or break the Rays. If it is true that a team cannot win anything early, but that they can lose a lot, then these first two weeks could determine if the Rays still have a chance for a respectable season and a shot at .500. With nine of their first 12 games on the road, where the Rays went 20-61 in 2006, the results of the first two weeks could go a long way to setting the tone for the season and any successes or failures the team will experience in 2007. So now that the Rays have completed their first 12 games, let’s take a step back and see what we have learned about this incarnation of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
- Pitching, pitching, pitching. 6.20 ERA. We could really stop there and move on. The pitching staff is just not getting the job done. The team ERA is the worst in baseball, by more than a run. The staff has actually done a decent job, by cutting down on the number of free passes (despite Edwin Jackson’s performance on Saturday). As a team they have given up the third fewest walks in the American League, but they have been hittable. As a team they have allowed nine more hits than any other major league team. Most of the problems can be found in the middle relief. Ruddy Lugo and Shawn Camp have combined to give up 25 base runners in 5.2 innings which have led to 13 runs and an ERA of 20.65. If we remove Lugo’s and Camp’s “contributions” the team ERA is a little better at 5.36. however, that would still be the worst in baseball so we can’t lay the blame completely on Camp and Lugo. We have seen signs of promise. It seems simple, but when the Rays starting pitchers are able to pitch into the seventh inning and hand the game over to Brian Stokes and Al Reyes the team has been successful. The Rays are 5-2 in games where the starting pitcher works into the seventh inning. They are 0-5 in the rest of the games.
- Right now, James Shields is the Devil Rays best pitcher. Scott Kazmir is the ace and deservedly so, but he will not be a true #1 pitcher until learns to trust his stuff and start throwing fewer pitches and working deeper in games. On the flip side, James Shields continues to surprise us. His stuff is good, but it is not great, but he lacks in that area he more than makes up for. When Shields is on the mound, he has a presence to him. He always looks like he has the game under his control and never appears to get fazed. He is also consistent. When Shields takes the mound we expect him to go 7 innings and give up less than 4 runs. With this offense, that should be enough on most nights. We do not have the same confidence in any of the other starters, including Kazmir. Every time Kid K takes the ball, we worry that he will have 110 pitches in the 5th inning and have to come out of the game.
- The Rays will score runs. Only one team in the American League (Toronto Blue Jays) has scored more runs than the Rays (62) or a higher batting average (.279). And the Rays have not had the privilege of having six games against the Royals and D-Rays pitching staffs (as the Jays have). The Rays also lead the all teams with 19 home runs. The Rays have three players tied for 5th in the AL with 3 home runs and Akinori Iwamura and BJ Upton are 1-2 in the AL in hitting.
- Akinori Iwamura is the real deal. In the first two weeks Iwamura has been the team’s MVP. Muu-Rah’s glove has been all we expected and more. Offensively, he has been exactly what the Rays have needed. All he does is find ways to get on base. He had a hit in each of his first 9 games and leads the AL in hitting. And those aren’t even his best offensive numbers. In the first 12 games he has 12 walks and a .540 OBP. He will also steal 30+ bases this season.
- Delmon Young is already one of the best hitters in baseball and he isn’t even that good yet. Delmon Young is picking exactly where he left off in 2006. .347-3-10 is a pretty good line for a rookie in the first two weeks of the season, but it could be so much better. Imagine how good he will be when he learns pitchers and learns how to wait for his pitch. Eventually pitchers are going to stop throwing first pitch strikes and if Young can lay off those pitches, he see will a lot more hitter’s counts and hitter’s pitches.
- The Rays have lots of great athletes with poor fundamentals. These are the moments when we bang our head on the desk. Too many times this season the Rays have mental blunders that have cost the team runs. In this most recent series with the Twins, We saw a player fail to get down a sacrifice bunt, base running gaffes and plenty of fielding mistakes. Twice, the team failed to turn what should have been a routine double-play, extending innings for the Twins.
- The Rays may be the fastest team in baseball, but they are the worst base stealing team. Tampa Bay is 4th in the majors in stolen bases (11), but they have only been successful on 50% of their opportunities. We suspected that Carl Crawford would steal fewer bases in 2006 if he was in the 3-hole, but we didn’t expect this. So far in 2007 he is only 2-5 on steal attempts, including the first game of his career in which he was caught twice. He is on pace 27 steals. Iwamura is 3-5 and Delmon Young is 0-2.
- BJ Upton is still a work in progress. Upton fooled us all when he committed only one error in 58 spring innings at second base. In 77 regular season innings he has already committed 5 errors in only 56 total chances. His strong play in the spring led Joe Maddon to scrap his plan for Upton to be a “super-utility” player and make him the most-days second sacker. The good news is that Upton seems to have rediscovered his swing and is second in the AL in hitting. As long as he keeps hitting Maddon will find a place for him in the lineup, but with Upton’s renewed defensive struggles, Papa Joe may have to revisit his earlier plan.
- Brendan Harris may start stealing time from Ben Zobrist. Brendan Harris is hitting (.300, 2 hrs). Ben Zobrist is not (.186, 1 hr). BenZo has also committed 2 errors already while Harris has been dependable in his limited playing time and displayed a much stronger arm. There is a lot of pressure on BenZo this season. As Evan Longoria continues to tear up the lower levels, the team may be force to find a spot for the Dirtbag in 2008. Most likely that would be at third base which mean Iwamura would have to find a new home at short stop or second base. Reid Brignac is also lurking not far behind.
- Al Reyes and Brian Stokes have stabilized the bullpen. The Rays will continue to blow leads, but fewer will occur in the 8th and 9th inning. For the first time since Danys Baez was the Rays closer, we have confidence with a lead at the end of the game. We
still are not sure if Reyes will be able to work back-to-back games very often, which means Stokes is going to get save opportunities this season. It will be interesting to see if Stokes can be as successful with the extra pressure of the 9th inning.
- Edwin Jackson will win 20 games one of these years and it will probably be with another team. Edwin Jackson may be the single most frustrating player in baseball. His fastball is electric. It just explodes out of his hand, regularly hitting 96-97 on the gun. But he still seems to have no idea where the ball is going. His plan appears to be to aim at the middle of the strike zone and hope it hits a corner. On some nights he will find the spots and he will be effective and will give the Rays a chance to win. On other nights, he will look like Nuke LaLoosh. With Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and JP Howell knocking on the door, we doubt that the Rays will be patient enough to hang on to Jackson long-term. One of these years, everything will come together for Jackson. He will find his zone and he will be great almost every time he goes to the mound and he will win 20. And if it is with another team, we will be fine with it, because we know he will be a one-hit wonder.
- So far the Rays seem to have more mental toughness in 2007. This may be the single most important trait of the 2007 Devil Rays. In the second half of the 2006 season, the Rays went approximately 0-232 on the road. In most of the games, the Rays lost the game before the first pitch was thrown. Whether they were tired or frustrated by another losing season the team appeared to lose focus in the second half. That led to a number of losing streaks. A loss in 2006 like Saturdays blowout at the hands of the Twins would have led to a 5 or 6 game losing streak. This time the team bounced back with a solid win. We will have to wait and see if the team can stay focused all season.
The Rays are an unimpressive 5-7, but considering the team’s schedule over the first two weeks, it could have been much worse. So far the team has not lost anything yet. Still, the 2006 Devil Rays fell apart after all-star break. If this young team can avoid prolonged losing streaks, continue to improve, and stay focused on the prize, they still have an excellent shot at .500.