SweetSpot: Tampa Bay Rays

Zach Britton's gem O's latest surprise

August, 19, 2012
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The Orioles are the team that won’t go away. For months now, they’ve been predicted to, expected to, and they have no end of excuses for why they’re supposed to be long since out of the expanded wild-card picture already. Injuries, run differential, relative anonymity plus generally underwhelming performances from most of the people you have heard of -- the Orioles are supposed to be goners.

They aren’t gone, but they might be going places. On Saturday, it was Zach Britton’s bend-don’t-break stylings that were their latest “that’s not really possible, is it?” feat. Seven shutout innings against the Tigers make for some sort of Saturday night special, not bad for the latest transient solution in Buck Showalter’s constantly fixed-up rotation.

Go by appearances alone, and it seemed like Britton had no business matching zeroes with the Tigers’ Rick Porcello, allowing nine baserunners to Porcello’s four through the first six innings. But three 6-4-3 double plays were enough to keep his head above water. Porcello had retired 11 men in a row heading into the seventh, but so what? A pair of dink singles and Chris Davis’ three-run shot later, it didn’t matter what Porcello had done beforehand or how good he looked doing it, because the O’s had a decisive lead thanks to Davis’ just-enough bit of bopping, making Britton a winner.

That in itself might be a bit of a surprise, considering that Britton’s shot at pitching this year was no sure thing in March, when shoulder surgery seemed likely. But opting for platelet-rich plasma (or PRP) treatments put him on the shorter road to rehab, and he’s been the skippable, sometime-fifth starter for a team that barely goes a week without having to change something in its rotation.

The Orioles have managed to keep the identity of their rotation’s third or fourth or fifth starter a matter of a near-weekly surprise to everyone, including themselves. Some of that has been a matter of effective roster management by general manager Dan Duquette: Early in the season, the Orioles could afford to flip the optionable Tommy Hunter back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk, rostering him only when they had to. Despite that time spent shuttling back and forth, it says something about Baltimore’s lot that Hunter is now second on the team in total starts because almost everyone queued up ahead of him has broken down or pitched his way out of a job.

This yo-yo role Britton found himself in on Saturday, as he was called back up into the latest breach in the rotation after already blowing his initial call-up after the All-Star break, getting clobbered in five of six starts. In the Orioles’ ad-hoc rotation, he was back up because he was on the 40-man roster and had four days’ rest, and little else -- he was four days removed from getting chewed up by Charlotte, pitching through a split nail on his pitching hand.

Britton briefly dealt with the burden of being blown up too soon as a sign of better times to come in the spring of 2011, after he notched a quick eight quality starts in his first 10 turns as a rookie in the big-league rotation. But just like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, his success didn’t last -- Britton managed just five starts of six innings or more and three runs allowed or less in his last 18 turns in 2011, putting him well on his way toward a new entry on the Orioles’ list of mound disappointments. But like every other expectation for an Orioles setback, it seemed to merely set the stage for this latest improbable bit of heroics.

Where the rotation woes of the Yankees or the Red Sox get featured prominently, the Orioles have been scrambling all season. Only Chinese import Wei-Yin Chen has lasted the season. Chen plus Britton, Hunter, former Mariners prospect Chris Tillman and journeyman Miguel Gonzalez represent the latest front-five confection in a rotation that has already had to use 10 starters. Every day, the four non-Chens are all pitching for their jobs, because Jason Hammel is on the mend and due back in another two weeks.

Contenders aren’t supposed to start TBD in three or four rotation slots this late in the season, are they? But this comes on top of their playing TBNL in left field. Davis was briefly their answer there, but so was Nolan Reimold, Endy Chavez, Xavier Avery and Steve Pearce. They’re down to a Nate McLouth-Lew Ford platoon that would be entirely plausible if we were talking about a contender -- in the International League.

All of which is part of what makes the Orioles so entertaining. As they scrape to keep pace with the Rays in the wild-card chase, it might be hard to call them the underdog, but that’s only if you keep your eyes peeled on payrolls. It’s easy to root for the Rays -- every statistically savvy smart kid goes fanboy on sabermetrics’ poster team. And they’re supposed to beat Baltimore -- they’re supposedly smarter, and stocked up on the really good players you already know, like Evan Longoria and David Price. And yet the Orioles still will not go away. Fun, ain’t it?

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Mike TroutKelvin Kuo/US PresswireRyan Roberts might do a little dance, but it's Mike Trout who has a steal to celebrate.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

April, 14, 2012
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  • Austin Jackson scored a run in each of the Tigers' first six games this season. That was the longest streak by a Detroit batter to start a season since Darrell Evans crossed the plate in each of the first eight contests in 1986. And it's the longest streak by a Tigers leadoff hitter since 1939, when one of Jackson's center field predecessors, Barney McCosky, also scored in the first eight games of the season. In game seven on Friday, however, Jackson was on base only once (he walked in the eighth) and was stranded at third.
  • [+] EnlargeAustin Jackson
    Duane Burleson/AP PhotoAustin Jackson is having a solid season for the Tigers early on.
    The Red Sox managed to blow a three-run lead in the ninth and a two-run lead in the 11th in losing a wild one to Detroit on Sunday, 13-12. It was the first time Boston had scored a dozen runs and lost since May 31, 1970, when they were on the wrong end of a 22-13 slugfest with the White Sox at Fenway.
  • Alfredo Aceves gave up all three ninth-inning runs in Sunday’s game without retiring a batter, making him just the second Red Sox pitcher in the live-ball era to work zero innings pitched in each of his first two appearances of the year. Guido Grilli faced one batter each in the first two games of the 1966 season, and didn't get either of them out.
  • The Tigers used eight pitchers in that 13-12, come-from-behind win over the Red Sox. It marked just the second time in 70 years that Detroit had come back to win a game in which their starter surrendered seven-plus runs without getting through the third inning. Omar Olivares was the starter in 1997 when the Tigers rallied to beat Baltimore 11-8.
  • On Sunday, the Yankees managed just three hits -- all doubles. That same day, the Twins had just two hits as Jason Hammel posted the longest no-hit bid of the year so far. Both Minnesota knocks were doubles. It's the first time in almost three years that two teams have done that on the same day. But then … the Royals did it against Oakland (three hits, three doubles) on Monday … and the Athletics did it against Kansas City (one hit) on Tuesday.It's the first time since at least 1917 that there have been three straight days where a team had every hit be a double.
  • On Sunday, Jeff Samardzija (making just his sixth career start) was afforded the chance at a complete game. He had to be pulled after giving up a two-out homer that pulled the Nationals to within a run. Four days later, Matt Garza was en route to a shutout against Milwaukee, but was pulled after committing a two-out error that allowed the inning to continue. So the Cubs had two pitchers this week leave the game after 8.2 innings pitched.The Cubs hadn't had two pitchers work exactly 8.2 innings in the same season since 1995 (Jaime Navarro and Frank Castillo).
  • In Sunday's Cardinals-Brewers game, you could say the teams spread it around. In the 9-3 Milwaukee victory, the 12 runs were charged to eight different pitchers. In fact, every hurler who appeared in the game ended up with at least one earned run on his record.It's the first game in eight seasons where the teams combined to use eight or more pitchers, and every single one of them got charged with at least one earned run. The last time that happened was on Sept. 9, 2004, when the Royals erupted for a 26-5 victory over the Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader.
  • James Shields got called for a balk Wednesday on an illegal pickoff throw to third. That was in the bottom of the fifth -- after Justin Verlander had been called for his own balk in the top of the fifth.It was the first MLB game to feature balks by both teams in the same inning since Aug. 16, 2004, when the Rangers' Mickey Callaway and then-Indian CC Sabathia committed them in the fourth inning of a 5-2 Texas win.
  • In that same game, Verlander threw eight shutout innings before getting tagged for four runs and the loss in the top of the ninth. He became the first pitcher to throw eight scoreless innings, then surrender four (or more) runs in the ninth to take a loss since Tim Hudson did it for the Braves on Sept. 22, 2005. Hudson allowed a three-run homer to Shane Victorino of the Phillies for most of that damage before Macay McBride had to come in and get the final out.
  • In Monday's Yankees-Orioles game, Derek Jeter went a perfect 4-for-4 for the visitors, while Matt Wieters went a perfect 4-for-4 in the home dugout. It was the first game this year to feature two players with four-hit games.Since the start of 2010, there's been only one other MLB game where a player for each team went a perfect 4-for-4 or better -- and it was between the Orioles and Yankees. On July 30, 2011, Vladimir Guerrero’s 4-for-4 was the bright spot for Baltimore as the Yankees -- led by Robinson Cano's 5-for-5 -- demolished them 17-3.
  • In Yu Darvish's much-anticipated major league debut on Monday, he allowed five earned runs, four walks, hit a batter, threw one wild pitch -- and won the game because the Rangers spotted him eight runs.He's the first pitcher in the live-ball era to win his major league debut while giving up all of those stats (or worse). Even take away the wild pitch, and only one other hurler has hit five earned runs, four walks, one HBP and a win in his debut. That was the Blue Jays' Matt Williams on Aug. 2, 1983.
  • Jeff Gray of the Twins earned the first one-pitch victory of the season on Wednesday. Gray threw his one and only pitch to Peter Bourjos to end the top of the seventh, after which the Twins took the lead in the bottom of the inning. The Twins, conveniently, recorded the last one-pitch win last season, by Matt Capps on Sept. 23.
  • Speaking of pitching oddities, the Royals-Athletics game was finally called in the top of the eighth inning on Tuesday after its second rain delay. Aaron Crow, who had pitched the seventh for the Royals, was credited with his first career save. Technically, he does meet the save criteria set forth in the rule book, notably that of being the "finishing pitcher" in a game his team won.The last player to be credited with a save prior to the ninth inning was Tony Sipp of the Indians, who received one in a rain-shortened affair with Tampa Bay on July 23, 2010. That also remains Sipp's only career save.
  • On Tuesday, Freddy Garcia of the Yankees famously threw five wild pitches to tie the single-game American League record for such a thing. He was also the first pitcher to throw five-plus wild pitches in an outing of less than five innings. But two of those wild pitches scored runs for Baltimore. Another run scored on an error. That made the Orioles the first team in two years to score four-plus runs with one or fewer RBI. (The one RBI they did get came on a home run.)For the Orioles, it was just the second time since moving to Baltimore that they scored four runs on one or zero RBI. The other was in their inaugural year: On June 27, 1954, they scored three times on errors by the Athletics before finally walking off on an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th.
  • Oakland "walked off" in unusual fashion on Wednesday when Jonathan Broxton plunked Yoenis Cespedes and Jonny Gomes to force in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th. It was the first game to end with back-to-back hit batters since Sept. 2, 1966, when Stu Miller of the Orioles hit Al Weis and Tommie Agee of the White Sox in the bottom of the 11th. (I admit that Elias found this a lot quicker than I would have.) However, Gomes became the first Athletics batter to get hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in extra innings since at least 1947. (It had never happened in the Baseball Reference "play index" era.) It's also noteworthy that Oakland scored its two runs in the 12th without a base hit. The three runners ahead of Cespedes reached on two walks and an error.
  • Before Friday, there had been 36 double-digit strikeout games by teams this week (including seven games where both teams did it) but not one by a single pitcher. Max Scherzer's 11-strikeout outing on Friday afternoon broke that string.
  • In Wednesday's 17-8 eruption between the Giants and Rockies, there were four pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Mota, Jeremy Affeldt)who all gave up at least six hits and at least five runs. It's the first time that that has happened since July 17, 1998, when Seattle dropped an 18-5 score on the Royals at the Kingdome.(It is also very intriguing that, in that game, both teams posted a seven-run inning. Except I don't know of a good way to search line scores.)

    By the way, on their next two games on Thursday and Friday, the Giants promptly had two pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain)carry no-hit bids into the sixth inning. The only team to have bids in consecutive games last season was also the Giants. That happened on May 8 and 10 by Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum.
  • The Orioles and Blue Jays combined to hit seven home runs in Baltimore's 7-5 victory on Friday. All were solo shots. It's the first game with seven-plus home runs that were all solo since a July 20, 2010 game at Camden Yards between the Rays and Orioles.
  • There's always one guy left out.In the 10-9 "pitchers’ duel" between the Twins and Angels on Thursday, 17 of the 18 starters recorded at least one base hit. Howard Kendrick was the lone collar, going 0-for-4 plus a walk.

    It's the first nine-inning game this season to have 17 different starters record a base hit. There were three games last season where all 18 did.
  • Minnesota got a four-hit game from Denard Span and three-hit games from Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Danny Valencia. It's the first time the Twins have had four players with three hits, including at least one with four, since they dropped a 20-1 score on the White Sox on May 21, 2009.

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
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Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.

Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.

Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.

Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.

Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.

San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.

Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?

Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.

New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.

San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...

Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.

Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.

Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.

Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.

Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.

New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.

On the same day 82-year-old Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch decided to go all-in on Prince Fielder and a World Series title chase, the San Francisco Giants showed some fiscal responsibility by reportedly agreeing with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum on a two-year, $40.5 million contract. The deal means the two sides will avoid going to arbitration this year and next, his final season before hitting free agency.

This is absolutely the correct approach in handling Lincecum. There is no need to negotiate a long-term deal with a pitcher two years before he's a free agent. Pitchers are risky creatures as is, so why take the risk before you have to? This gives you two more seasons to chase your own World Series title with Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain (if the Giants sign him past 2012).

There seems to be a mindset that teams need to "get something" for a player if they might not be able to sign him to a long-term deal when he becomes a free agent. But why does this make sense if you have a chance to win? The Brewers could have traded Fielder before last season, knowing he was unlikely to stay in Milwaukee, but instead went for it and actually strengthened the club instead by acquiring Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. They made the playoffs and gave themselves a shot at the World Series. It was the right call. The Tampa Bay Rays are taking a similar approach this season with B.J. Upton.

Compare that to the Minnesota Twins with Johan Santana in 2008. They traded Santana for a package of prospects that didn't turn out, but the biggest problem with that trade is that the Twins ended up missing the playoffs when they lost a tiebreaker game to the White Sox. With Santana, they win the division. And once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen; who knows, the Twins may have won the World Series with Santana.

I did a chat earlier on Tuesday in which somebody suggested since the Phillies might not be able to afford Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in 2013 (Hamels will be a free agent) that maybe they should look to trade one of the three. What? Of course not. You go for it in 2012 behind those guys and if you lose Hamels, so be it.

Next season, you'll certainly hear cries that the Giants should look to trade Lincecum. Get something for him while you can. Or you can try and win another World Series title.

The Giants may decide that Lincecum won't be worth that $100 million investment in the future. Maybe they'll try to sign him and he'll bolt, like Jose Reyes with the Mets. But there's nothing wrong with trying to win now.

Especially when you don't have to spend $214 million to do it.

Rays still have hope

February, 3, 2011
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In the wake of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon being officially introduced as members of the Tampa Bay Rays' organization, manager Joe Maddon appeared as a guest "The Big Show" on WEEI on Tuesday. Alex Speier reports that Maddon had kind words on the Boston Red Sox's offseason during the appearance:
As for the AL East, Maddon understands that the Rays are a long shot to repeat as division champions, and pointed to the off season work by the Red Sox as a big reason why that is the case.

“The combination of what the Red Sox did in regards to getting both Carl [Crawford] and Adrian Gonzalez -- Gonzalez is one of the better hitters in baseball -- that to me is pretty severe right there,” said Maddon. “And of course Bobby Jenks right there in front of those two guys, that really shortens the game. You got to beat the Red Sox in six or seven innings and hold on because it’s going to be difficult to beat them if you get down to the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. So I really believe the Red Sox made the most ground regarding their acquisitions.”

It's true the Red Sox made two huge acquisitions, trading for Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford. They also sustained two pretty big losses: Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre signed elsewhere as free agents. Among the two pairs you'd probably rather have the former in 2011. They also did a nice job of strengthening their bullpen, so the Red Sox did get better this offseason. This is more than some would say of their two primary AL East competitors.

It's also true that the Red Sox were a very good team in 2010, and though they won only 89 games and finished third in their division, by at least one measure they played a quality of baseball bested only by the Yankees. That, plus the offseason improvements Theo Epstein was able to swing, plus the expectation that they'll field a healthier team makes the Red Sox the favorite to win their division in 2011.

Still, the Yankees have talent and flexibility, and you know they aren't ready to concede the division. Neither are the Rays, who could be a young player making unexpected contributions away from another 95-plus win season. The AL East isn't won in December, and at this point we should expect 2011 to bring another entertaining race among three of the best teams in baseball.

By the way, I wouldn't call the Rays a "long shot" at this point. Manny Ramirez has hit .293/.414/.501 in 751 plate appearances over the past two seasons, and if he doesn't turn into Pat Burrell, Ramirez should provide more offense than Carlos Pena did last year. Matt Joyce raked in the minors and majors last year and there's enough to like about what Dan Johnson and John Jaso showed to dream a little. If they can get something from Jeremy Hellickson, Jake McGee, Chris Archer, and Desmond Jennings, they could be very, very good.

Peter W. Hjort III writes Capitol Avenue Club, a blog about the Atlanta Braves.

Damon, Ramirez give Maddon options

January, 22, 2011
1/22/11
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Did anyone see this coming? (Actually, yeah, sort of.)

Introducing the Tampa Bay Rays' latest acquisitions:
    A couple of former Red Sox are reuniting in another American League East city.

    The Tampa Bay Rays have agreed to one-year deals with free agents Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, sources confirmed to ESPN.com.

    Damon agreed to a one-year deal worth $5.25 million plus incentives and Ramirez one year at $2 million, according to SI.com. Both deals are pending physicals. Damon will likely play left field and Ramirez designated hitter.

    --snip--

    Ramirez and Damon played together for years in Boston and helped lead the Red Sox to the 2004 World Series title. Both colorful characters are past their prime, but if nothing else they could at least provide an attraction at Tropicana Field for a Rays team that drew just 1.86 million fans last year.

That would be a lot of fun for everyone, if the fans flocked to Tropicana to see these old Red Sox (etc.) go for the glory one more time.

But the fans didn't flock to Tropicana after the Rays nearly won a World Series. It's hard to imagine them flocking to see a couple of ex-Red Sox, old or young or in between.

I think this is simply the product of a management team that's grown accustomed to relevance, and isn't willing to just punt a season until absolutely necessary. Remember, this is a franchise that finished ahead of the Red Sox and the Yankees in both 2008 and 2010. And now they're just supposed to give up? When the Yankees have three legitimate starting pitchers and one of them is A.J. Burnett and nobody other than the Yankees and the Red Sox seem like good bets to win 90 games?

Would you give up? I wouldn't, and the Rays quite obviously haven't.

They're not fanatical about it. The Rays sort of gave up in late August 2009, when they still had a weak shot at getting into the playoffs. They looked at the odds and figured they would have to keep Scott Kazmir and get really, really lucky. So they traded Kazmir, and wound up winning 84 games.

But considering the young talent on the Rays' roster, January is just too early to give up.

Now, everyone's going to wonder how JohnnyBeingJohnny and MannyBeingManny are going to fit into the Rays' lineup. Wasn't Desmond Jenning supposed to take over in left field? Won't Manny just up and quit if the Rays ask him to platoon?

Sort of (but only sort of) and yes, probably.

Sort of, because Jennings didn't actually play all that well last year and the Rays probably aren't convinced that he's ready to play every day for a contending club. And yes, if anyone even mentions platooning to Ramirez, he'll probably make Derek Bell's Operation Shutdown look like Craig Counsell at the peak of his awesome powers.

Manny's the DH, and Damon's the left fielder. But how many games will Manny play, realistically? The Rays' first baseman right now is Dan Johnson, who I like but has hit nine home runs in the majors since 2007. Is Johnson the answer? Maybe. He's not the worst Plan A in first-base history. But you sorta need a Plan B and maybe a Plan C.

Well, Johnny Damon's not the worst Plan C. He seems small but he's actually listed at 6'2", and he's been fooling around at first base for years. Granted, you don't really want him playing first base and he might not get a single inning there this season. My point is that Damon does give the Rays some flexibility, able to play three or four positions even if none of them all that well.

Of course the Rays have a lot of guys like that. Some managers are thrilled with one Super Utility Player. Joe Maddon's got a couple of them in Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez. And he's going to need some utility, considering Johnson's history and Jennings' youth and Manny's being Manny and all the rest.

There's no reason to think Maddon can't take all these guys and figure out what do with them. Granted, he's never had to manage Manny Ramirez. If he can do what he's always done and get along with Ramirez ... Well, he might have the Manager of the Year Award locked up by the All-Star break.

Rays don't need a new home, but ...

December, 27, 2010
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Tony Lee asks which team most needs a new stadium, and doesn't have much trouble coming up with the answer. Lee's big finish:
    All but eight of the 30 current stadiums in use in the majors were opened in the last 20 years, but those that are older are not going away anytime soon. That list includes the historic gems of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, the beloved Dodger Stadium, refurbished and perfectly satisfactory homes in Kansas City and Anaheim, the soon-to-be-replaced Sun Life Stadium in Miami and Toronto’s behemoth of a ballpark. Only the Oakland Athletics, who have called Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum home since 1968, have any real momentum toward moving to a new park, which could occur as early as 2015 in nearby San Jose. If and when that move takes place, the Rays would once again stand alone. They would be the only team in baseball not playing in either a retro ballpark such as Camden Yards or Yankee Stadium, a "retro-modern" park such as Angels Stadium or Target Field, one of the retractable-roof stadiums such as Rogers Centre or Chase Field, or an ancient classic such as Fenway or Wrigley.Tampa Bay has cowbells, but little else. In the AL East, that lack of panache is even more glaring.

It's clear that you don't need a good ballpark to compete. The Rays have perhaps the worst ballpark, and over the last three seasons they've won 10 fewer games than the Yankees, five fewer than the Phillies, two fewer than the Red Sox, and more than the other 26 teams in the major leagues.

Can they keep doing that in their ballpark? Maybe not. But doing it for three years in a lousy ballpark is a lot better than doing it for zero years in a good ballpark. Which is what the great majority of teams have actually done.

But yes, to continue getting a performance on the field that matches their intelligence in the front office, the Rays will probably need some help. Maybe that's a new ballpark, or a change in the revenue-sharing system that rewards success, or expanded playoffs. Something, though.

All that said, here's a question that's a lot tougher ... Leaving aside the A's and the Rays, which other team will be the first to get a new ballpark? One would assume we're looking at least a decade into the future and perhaps two, which probably makes the question not just tough to answer, but practically impossible.

Will Rays' fate be decided next week?

December, 2, 2010
12/02/10
10:39
AM ET
John Romano's worried that the Rays' fate in 2011 might already be set by the end of the Winter Meetings next week:
    As of now, the Rays are still contenders in the American League East.

    Even without Carl Crawford. Even without Rafael Soriano. Even without Carlos Peña and Joaquin Benoit. There are scenarios out there where the Rays can find enough cheap relievers and one or two bats to remain capable of 90-plus victories.

    Which is precisely how they will proceed going into next week's winter meetings in Orlando. They will look for the perfect deal. They will try to find the perfect player on the margins. They will operate as if a pennant is still within reach.

    And if that doesn't work, they should be willing to go in a completely different direction.

    If it looks like their best deal is to strip down and go longer-term, the Rays should not hesitate to put themselves in position to contend in 2012 or '13. Even if it means taking a couple of steps backward in 2011 to do it.

Sorry, but I don't see that happening because I think the guys who run the organization are just too bloody smart to reach Opening Day without putting a roster together that's capable of winning 90 games. And if you can win 90, you can win -- by dint of luck or acumen -- 95, and get into the playoffs.

The math is actually pretty simple. The relievers the Rays lost are replaceable, as nearly all relievers are. Carlos Pena, wasn't actually a good player last season. I don't think Willy Aybar is a part of the solution, but it can't be that hard to find somebody who hits right-handed and plays first base, and a Dan Johnson / somebody platoon would at least approach Pena's production.

Which leaves the big question of how to replace Crawford. Almost every day, the Rays began each game with two of the six or eight best players in the American League. That's a huge edge. Now one is gone, and they're not going to come up with anyone just as good. It's my contention that to get close the Rays have to trade Jason Bartlett and one of their six starting pitchers. With the caveat that David Price is obviously untouchable, I would argue that it really doesn't matter which of the other five they trade; they should just deal whichever of them brings the most talent back.

One more caveat: If "the most talent back" includes (or consists entirely of) very young players who aren't ready to do much in the majors, maybe that's a deal still worth making, in which case maybe it really would become time to think about 2012.

Only in that event, though. Even in the absence of Crawford and those other ex-Rays, the franchise still sports one of the more talented rosters in the majors, along with one of the more talented collection of front-office executives. Right now, I wouldn't give these Rays more than an outside chance of finishing ahead of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Let's check back in a week, though. And then again on Opening Day.

Should Rays trade their No. 3 starter?

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
6:10
PM ET
Roger Mooney on what might be the Rays' biggest move this winter:

    See those trade rumors involving James Shields? Not sure I'm buying them.

    Yes, he was far from "Big Game James" down the stretch and in the ALDS. And yes, Jeremy Hellickson gives the Rays six starters, perhaps making one expendable. But that doesn't mean it's time to trade one, especially one like Shields.

    Shields is the workhorse every team craves.

    --snip--

    Besides, what would you offer if you were trading for Shields? Would you give up a left fielder with major-league experience for a pitcher whose numbers have declined during the past two seasons?

    The Rays were impressed with how well Niemann pitched in relief during the regular-season finale and Game 2 of the ALDS. Maybe that's a solution to an overcrowded rotation, especially since the Rays bullpen could be nearly emptied by free agency.


The best reason to trade Shields?

You (probably) have to trade somebody.

It's not a matter of money. Three years ago, Shields signed a long-term contract that's exceptionally team-friendly; he'll earn $4.25 million in 2011, followed by reasonably priced club options in 2012 and '13. Matt Garza's the only Tampa Bay starter who's going to be looking for gobs of money anytime soon.

It's just that you probably have to trade something to get something. The Rays need relievers, they need a first baseman, and I'm still not quite sold on Desmond Jennings as Carl Crawford's replacement. As things stand now, the Rays have just one big bat (Evan Longoria, naturally) and one just isn't enough. Not in the American League East, especially.

There are workarounds. You find a catcher who gets on base. You put together a strong platoon in right field. You find a guy who can play five positions and hit some, too. But there's really no substitute for someone who bats in the middle of the order every day and creates runs.

Yes, it's wonderful to have six starting pitchers. But in the absence of Crawford and Carlos Pena, it just seems like a luxury the Rays can no longer afford.

Rangers turn tables on Rays, steal Game 5

October, 12, 2010
10/12/10
11:19
PM ET
When Tuesday night's game is remembered, it will be remembered mostly for Cliff Lee's sparkling performance -- nine innings, 11 strikeouts, just one run -- which lowered his career postseason ERA to 1.44 in seven starts.

Deservedly so.

The real story of this game, though, was larceny. Plain and simple. The rest is just details (granted, some of those details could have mattered quite a lot, especially Ian Kinsler's two-run homer in the ninth).

In the first inning, Elvis Andrus scored from second base on a grounder to the first baseman. Andrus was stealing third, and just never stopped while Carlos Pena was tossing to David Price, who was covering first base and doesn't have eyes in the back of his head. It was a heads-up play but one (I think) most fast players would have made; the key was the steal.

In the fourth inning, Nelson Cruz scored after stealing third base when Kelly Shoppach's throw sailed into left field. What made the play so interesting was that Cruz should have been on third base already; he would have been, if only he had hustled out of the box on his long drive to center field, scant seconds earlier. But again, the key was the steal, which seemed to take every involved Ray by surprise.

In the sixth inning, Vladimir Guerrero scored from second on a near-double play because David Price paused, just long enough, to express his opinion of the first-base umpire's call.

How unpredictable is baseball? It was the Rays who relied so heavily this season on daring (and effective!) baserunning. How did Tampa Bay finish third in the American League in scoring this season, with just the eighth-best OPS? Two answers: clutch hitting and baserunning.

Baseball Info Solutions tracks what they call Net Bases Gained, which essentially counts stolen bases and other bases taken, then adjusts for outs made on the bases.

Tampa Bay finished the season at +196, tops in the major leagues.

Oakland was second at +144.

Nobody else topped 100 bases gained.

The Rays, always on the lookout for any small edge to be found, have actually discovered a fairly big edge. And they've essentially had it all to themselves.

Until tonight, anyway.

Except the Rangers' aggression on the basepaths wasn't completely out of character. The Rays led the majors in bases gained. The A's were second. And the Rangers, +96, were third.*

* Do I need to mention that all three teams are sabermetrics-friendly? And that a criticism commonly hurled at sabermetrics-friendly teams is that they do NOT care about baserunning?

The Rangers can beat you with Lee and C.J. Wilson. They can beat you with Cruz and Josh Hamilton. And they can beat you with their legs. Especially if you're not paying attention.

Tonight's managers spurn platoon edge

October, 12, 2010
10/12/10
4:22
PM ET
From Marc Topkin, news about tonight's lineups:
    Manager Joe Maddon went mostly right-handed in his lineup tonight, but did opt for lefty Dan Johnson at DH over Willy Aybar. Kelly Shoppach will be the catcher.

    Maddon had said on Monday that he likely would go back to his righthanders, such as Shoppach and 2B Sean Rodriguez, but hadn't decided on the DH. Part of that was Johnson's ability to work tough at-bats even against lefty pitchers, such as Texas' Cliff Lee. And also that Maddon likes the flexibility of having the switch-hitting Aybar on the bench for a pinch-hit opportunity. In Game 1, the Rays used Rocco Baldelli, but he is no longer on the active roster.

As I've written, Maddon's cupboard is utterly bare when it comes to a DH who can hit lefties (which was true even before Baldelli went down). I don't know that Johnson is the best choice among bad choices, but I don't know that he's not.

Coincidentally, Ron Washington has almost exactly the same problem at first base. Rookie Mitch Moreland, a left-handed hitter, gives the Rangers decent production against right-handed pitching, but righty-hitting Jorge Cantu hasn't done anything against anybody this season. And like Maddon, Washington is foregoing the platoon advantage in favor of the guy who's actually hit some this season.

I just hope nobody lets Washington get away with claiming that he's saving Cantu as a pinch-hitter for a key moment in the most important game in franchise history.

Yes, the Rays really can play this game

October, 9, 2010
10/09/10
10:03
PM ET
Nothing is inevitable. Except death (probably) and taxes (unless you've got a really good accountant).

Definitely nothing in baseball is inevitable.

But after the Rangers made the Rays look ridiculous -- twice -- didn't a sweep seem almost inevitable? Didn't it seem almost impossible that the Rays might eventually win this series?

The Rays won 96 games this season, playing in baseball's toughest division. They finished third in the American League in scoring and second in ERA. Their offense probably isn't that good -- I know they've run the bases with great flair this season, but the eighth-best OPS in the league just doesn't mean you've got the best offense in the league -- and some of their pitching prowess is irrelevant in a postseason series. But the Rays are, you know, really quite good. If they're not better than the Rangers in a Division Series, they're really, really, really close. And so you wouldn't expect them to get swept.

Which isn't to suggest they couldn't have been swept. Before this season, 11 of the past 20 Division Series lasted only three games. We wouldn't expect those numbers considering the qualities of the teams involved. But it's a funny game, and funny things happen.

Speaking of funny things, it would be foolish at this point to discount the Rays' chances too heavily. Game 4 is essentially a toss-up. Let's give the Rays a 45 percent chance of winning that one. If they do win, Game 5 is a Game 1 rematch, again in St. Petersburg. Cliff Lee's better than David Price, so let's give the Rays a 45 percent chance of winning that one, too.

Leaving aside the psychology of the thing (but their heads seemed just fine in Game 3), the Rays now have something like a 1-in-5 chance of winning this series. And if they win Game 4 ...

My point is that good teams lose two games in a row all the time, and sometimes they lose three in a row, too. When these things happen, they don't really tell us anything we didn't already know.

Rays better than this, but too late to matter

October, 7, 2010
10/07/10
5:58
PM ET
From Baseball Tonight Live this afternoon:
    As much as I wonder how Rays got to 30 games over .500 in best division, I marvel how Rangers never got to 20 over in worst division.

Well, let's review ... In the first two games of their most important series (so far) of the season, the Rays have
  • scored one run,
  • given up 11 runs,
  • made three errors (should be four, actually),

  • and
  • watched their manager get ejected.

  • It's hard to look like a good team when you're doing those things.

    Even if you are a good team.

    [+] EnlargeJoe Maddon
    AP Photo/Chris O'MearaJoe Maddon and Tampa Bay have been frustrated by the Texas Rangers in Game 1 and 2.
    Which the Rays are.

    But this series has not, it should be said, played to their strengths.

    One of the Rays' strengths is the depth of their starting pitching. With the exception of David Price, they didn't have any real stars in the rotation. What they did have, throughout the season, were five starters who could have pitched for practically any other team in the majors.

    Matt Garza threw a no-hitter this season. Jeff Niemann won a dozen games. So did Rookie of the Year candidate Wade Davis. James Shields' ERA was certainly inflated, but posted a superior strikeout-to-walk ratio. On the rare occasion when one of those guys couldn't answer the bell, the Rays could turn to Andy Sonnanstine or rookie Jeremy Hellickson, both of whom acquitted themselves well.

    I'm sometimes guilty of exaggeration, but I don't think it's exaggerating to suggest that the Rays this season enjoyed the services of six and perhaps seven legitimate major league starting pitchers.

    That's a lot. Specifically, it's three or four more starting pitchers than you need in a Division Series.

    The Rangers, meanwhile ... Well, rotation depth was not one of their strengths in 2010. They opened the season with Scott Feldman and Rich Harden in their rotation. Feldman finished the season 7-11, with a 5.48 ERA; Harden 5-5, 5.58. They did get good work from C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis -- neither of whom, by the way, started for them in 2009 -- and of course Cliff Lee joined the Rangers in July.

    The point, though, is that if the Rangers had been able to rely on just the starters they'll use in this Division Series, they would have won more than 90 games. Conversely, if the Rays weren't able to utilize their No. 4 and 5 starters throughout the season, they wouldn't have won 96 games.

    Another of the Rays' strengths is their ability to handle right-handed pitchers. With the emergence of catcher John Jaso, the additions of outfielder Matthew Joyce and DH Dan Johnson, and the general nature of Carlos Pena, the Rays are simply better equipped against right-handers than left-handers.

    So of course they have to face two of the league's toughest left-handers in their first two games.

    Aside from playing at home, the deck was stacked against Tampa Bay in the first two games. On top of that, they simply didn't play well.

    And the result is ... Well, you saw it as well as I did. Now the Rays are in a deep hole, and nobody in Texas is going to throw them a rope.

    Aybar can't save Rays, but Shields might

    October, 7, 2010
    10/07/10
    2:42
    PM ET
    OK, so the Tampa Bay Rays definitely win the award for Biggest Roster Problems After Just One Game:


      The Tampa Bay Rays removed designated hitter/outfielder Rocco Baldelli from their American League Division Series roster Thursday and added Willy Aybar.

      The move was announced before the AL East champions faced the Texas Rangers in Game 2 of their first-round series.

      Baldelli went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts against Cliff Lee in Game 1. His career has been derailed by a string of injuries and a condition that causes muscle fatigue.

      --snip--

      Manager Joe Maddon said "cramping ... the same things that's bothered him to this point" surfaced again during Wednesday's 5-1 loss to the Rangers. The Rays announced the 29-year-old was removed because of "left leg fatigue," which is a symptom of mitichondrial disorder.


    The Rays look completely lost right now. As I wrote Wednesday, Baldelli never had any business being on the roster in the first place. Not that Aybar's much better. After dumping Pat Burrell, the Rays had more than five months to find a decent right-handed hitter for this slot, and didn't do it.

    So now they're stuck with Aybar, who didn't hit much at all this season, in a slot that's usually reserved for players who can hit. With another left-hander going for the Rangers Thursday, Joe Maddon has (reasonably) benched Carlos Pena ... and essentially replaced him with rookie Desmond Jennings, who was just decent (at best) this season in Triple-A. Third-string catcher Dioner Navarro, upset about being left off the Division Series roster, has left the club and presumably isn't coming back.

    Which will be a problem only if John Jaso or Kelly Shoppach gets hurt. But, still.

    Fortunately, there's little wrong with the Rays that can't be fixed by James Shields pitching a good game Thursday. I've probably overrated Shields some in my recent writings. He does sport a 5.18 ERA this season, mostly because he's been hit-unlucky and because he's given up 34 home runs in 34 games.

    Shields also sports one of the better strikeout-to-walk ratios in the American League. If he can keep the ball in the park, he'll probably win. If he gives up one home run, it's a toss-up. If he gives up two home runs, the Rays are in big, big trouble. And Aybar probably won't be able to fix things.

    Rangers' Cliff Lee never really went away

    October, 6, 2010
    10/06/10
    4:44
    PM ET
    The Texas Rangers' 5-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the ALDS suggests one thing you might not have known (or might have forgotten), and one thing Joe Maddon and his bosses might not have known.

    What you might not have known is that Cliff Lee is still an outstanding pitcher.

    You knew it last fall, when Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the postseason, beating the Yankees twice in the World Series.

    You knew it earlier this season, when Lee went 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA and an impossible (14.8!) strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts with the Mariners.

    But you might have forgotten, later in the season. After getting traded to the Rangers, Lee went just 4-6 in 15 starts. His 3.98 ERA with Texas was nothing special.

    Lee did give up 11 home runs in those 15 starts. Otherwise, though, he was still pitching brilliantly. His 10.3 strikeout-to-ratio for the season is the second highest in major league history. Granted, that ratio slipped some after he joined the Rangers. But even his 8.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio with Texas would have been good enough to lead the majors this year; Roy Halladay's 7.3 mark is No. 2, and nobody else is close.

    The point? With all the talk in recent walks about Felix Hernandez and Halladay and David Price and CC Sabathia, the best pitcher in the major leagues in 2010 just might have been Lee. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the Rangers have grabbed the early lead in this series.

    I'll bet Maddon and his bosses knew all that, though. What they don't seem to have known is that Rocco Baldelli is almost certainly miscast as a DH in a big game.

    This week, the lefty-heavy Rays need someone to serve as designated hitter against the Ranger's left-handed starters, Lee and C.J. Wilson. That someone was supposed to be Pat Burrell, but Burrell played so poorly for the Rays that he got released months ago. The next option was Willy Aybar, but he's played so poorly for the Rays that he was left off the Division Series roster. Hot prospect Desmond Jennings hasn't been so hot this season. Gabe Kapler's forgotten how to hit.

    Which leaves Baldelli, who opened the season as a member of the front office, returned to playing in the minors, and was activated by the Rays a month ago because, well, it's hard to say. In his 23 minor-league games this summer, Baldelli struck out 22 times and walked twice.

    Baldelli made the Rays' Division Series roster because, well, again it's hard to say. He's played in only 10 games since joining the big club, and batted .208/.240/.375. It's entirely possible that the Rays' scouts have seen something in Baldelli this season that doesn't show up in the numbers. It's also possible that they've let sentiment get the best of them.

    Or maybe Baldelli really was the Rays' best option. Which does not speak particularly well of the Rays' front office, considering that decent right-handed hitters grow on trees.

    Literally, I mean. There's actually a common tree -- native to Southern California but also found in parts of Texas and Florida -- the fruit of which is right-handed hitters who can give you league-average production against left-handed pitchers. All you have to do is stand under one of these trees in June or July, and wait.

    Apparently the Rays were too busy this summer to attend the annual harvest, and just couldn't find the right-handed version of Dan Johnson. Which is how you wind up with Baldelli starting an important game against one of the best pitchers on the planet.

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