Last year was a year of big firsts for the Tampa Bay Rays. New uniforms. New name. And a new habit: winning.

Also, fighting.

From their Spring training clashes with the Yankees to their June brawl with the Red Sox, the AL East’s big kahunas were put on notice early: no longer would the Tampa Bay Rays be the hapless losers of the AL East, finishing under .400 and wearing teal.

For some, their sudden kickassery was unexpected — “Bizarro Baseball,” Sports Illustrated called it, in a cover story that featured a cartoon Ray giving a Yankee the ol’ one-two. Yet that was just the tip of the “Rays Actually Good; Baseball World Stunned” media iceberg. For those who’d been paying closer attention, the question was never whether the talented young Rays would have a breakout season. It was when. At the very least, the last half of 2007 pointed to a much-improved Rays squad in 2008. For 2009, the question for this year becomes: will Tampa regress, as most teams do after worst-to-first seasons? Or could they actually improve ? (The latter is entirely possible, given their number of young, still-developing players.)

The Rays front office seems to be, sensibly, charting a middle course between these two extremes. According to Pythagoras, Tampa won an “extra” five games last year, which could have still been good enough to get them into the playoffs as the Wild Card team. Hence it makes sense that instead of making any splashy trades or expensive free agent signings, Tampa’s FO has set about collecting a few inexpensive pieces to round out their ballclub.

The most notable signing has been the signing of free agent slugger Pat “the Bat” Burrell. Though Burrell played left field for the Phillies, he will be DH-ing for the Rays. (There’s a reason they don’t call him “Pat the Glove,” and it’s not because it doesn’t rhyme.) The Rays managed to snag Burrell — 32 years old, hit 30 homers and OBP’ed .400 last year — for two years at $8 million a pop. That should be a considerable upgrade over last year’s main DH, Cliff Floyd (36 years old, OBP’ed .349 and hit 11 homers in 80 games last year), and plug Tampa’s main lineup hole.

On the field, Tampa’s main need last year was an every day rightfielder. The need for another outfielder became more pressing once it became clear that BJ Upton (recovering from shoulder surgery) would not be available to start the ’09 season — in the intensively competitive AL East, getting off to a slow start is not an option. So, for the short term, they picked up Gabe Kapler for an easy one-year, $1 million contract. For the long term, they traded for toolsy corner outfield prospect Matt Joyce, sending Edwin Jackson to Detroit. Joyce played in 92 games for the listless Tigers last year, but the feeling around baseball seems to be that he could use a chance to play every day in the minors before being called up again.

Added: Pat Burrell, Joe Nelson, Gabe Kapler, Lance Cormier

Lost: Rocco Baldelli, Trever Miller (and have yet to re-sign free agents Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, and Jonny “Fists of Fury” Gomes)

Projected lineup, rotation, and closer:

CF: BJ Upton
2B: Akinori Iwamura
3B: Evan Longoria
DH: Pat Burrell
1B: Carlos Pena
C: Dioner Navarro
SS: Jason Bartlett
RF: Gabe Kapler/Matt Joyce
LF: Carl Crawford

SP1: James Shields
SP2: Scott Kazmir
SP3: Matt Garza
SP4: Andy Sonnanstine
SP5: David Price

CL: Joe Nelson

Grade: A

I’m having a hard time imagining what they could have done better, except maybe reel in a few more relievers. But that’s nit-picking. The addition of Burrell helps address Tampa’s main weakness — an underachieving offense. But with Burrell, a full year of Evan Longoria, a healthier team than last year’s, and a lucky break or two, this offense looks more than a little intimidating. Defensively, the addition of Kapler as a backup only bolsters their already slick-fielding club. They have nice depth, with Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez ready to help out in the outfield. Pitching-wise, the Rays are still loaded with young guns. In the bullpen, they picked up Lance Cormier, and the signing of reliever Joe Nelson gives them some insurance for aging closer Troy Percival (who, it’s worth mentioning, is the only player on the team over 35). Short version: the Rays have taken a strong young club and, with some thoughtful tweakage, made it even stronger.

-Hot Offseason Action index –

8 Responses to “Hot Offseason Action – Tampa Bay Rays”

  1. Sarah, how is it that the Rays add Pat Burrell and a couple of bench players and they get an A while the Phils add Ibanez and a couple guys at the end of the bench/rotation and they get a C-? I am not saying that the Phils did as much as the Rays, by come on!

  2. Sarah Green says:

    Ah, the grading. Every year it seems to cause such controversy! I’ll leave Coley to explain his Phillies grade, since he wrote that post. But here’s how I defend my Rays grade:

    I start by asking myself a couple of simple questions:
    * What are the team’s key weaknesses?
    * How could the team improve those areas?
    * Given the team’s resources, what is the best they could realistically accomplish?

    The Rays are a small-market team. But their biggest need was an impact bat — something that is usually quite expensive. I think of all the available DH-types on the market this year, Pat Burrell is the best fit for their team. First, he kills lefties, and the Rays needed a player who could hit lefties. Secondly, he’s younger (and certainly cheaper) than Manny, and also seems like a more upbeat, team-player kind of guy than Adam Dunn (which I think is important to consider when you have a young team). And they somehow signed him for $16 million for two years, when Philly might’ve had to pay him that much just for one year. Plus, since Philadelphia didn’t offer him arbitration, the Rays scooped him up without sacrificing a draft pick.

    Tampa’s second-biggest need was a corner outfielder. Now, this is a team built around pitching and defense, by and large, so you don’t want to just sign any aging glove and plunk him out there. I think they made some great, affordable moves by trading for a rightfielder (Joyce) who can be their long-term solution and grabbing a smart, defensively solid mentor-type (Kapler) who can help them in the short term.

    Finally, they needed a few backup closers. They didn’t get the best guys on the market, but again, this is a small-market team and closers are always insanely overpriced.

    For what it’s worth, I think the Rays were a better team than Philly last year anyway (World Series results aside) so they had less improving to do to start with. But if a team has filled all its main needs and I can’t think of anything they could’ve done better, I feel obligated to give them an A.

  3. Fair enough.

  4. cubfanraysaddict says:

    Great article/analysis…just one thing to add about the bullpen,
    The lack of bullpen additions is in anticipation that Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann (who is out of options), will be able to slide into the bullpen and be above average in that role, also with Wade Davis needing another couple of months in Durham, he could definitely go down the Joba path (not that he is close to him stuff wise), but in that he has control issues and a plus fastball which currently makes him better suited to just ‘mix-in’ the off speed stuff and the reliever role allows him to do that while mitigating those issues.

  5. Awesome article, but do you really see Crawford batting ninth? Granted, there’s little room for movement and the only spots possibly up in the air are the 2 and 9 spots in the lineup, but couldn’t you see Crawford throwing a hissy fit over having to man the last place and demanding the leadoff or 2-spot?

    Nice analysis on their offseason in general, though. That Burrell signing really scares me as a Sox fan.

  6. I don’t presume to speak for the person who wrote the Phillies review, but I think there are some differences between what the 2 teams did.

    1. Even if you think that Ibanez is Burrell’s equal as a hitter, the Phillies are committed to him for 3 years as a nearly 37 year old while Burrell’s contract, as a 33 year old is for 2 years. Plus, Ibanez will cost the Phillies $31.5 million while Burrell only will cost $16 million.

    2. Ibanez will have to play LF for Philadelphia, and he is not a very good one. Neither is Burrell, but that weakness is nearly irrelevant as he will primarily DH. In essence, the Phillies exchanged Burrell for Ibanez which is not really an upgrade, which makes them even more lefty oriented, and they are paying Ibanez more and for longer. The Rays replaced Floyd with Burrell, which at this stage of their careers is a greater upgrade and more appropriate to the Rays need for a RH bat.

    3. As for the couple of bench players, again I think that underestimates what the Rays have done. I think the Phillies added Park and Paulino. Park may play an important role on the pitching staff, but is unlikely to be a long-term solution for anything, and Paulino is simply a backup catcher. On the other hand, the Rays acquired at least one important bullpen piece in Nelson, which helped fill a need and also a long-term solution for the outfield in Joyce who is young, inexpensive, promising and with options.

    Note that I am not evaluating how good the players are, either Park or Nelson or Joyce. I am only pointing out that the Rays acquisitions are of a different sort than the Phillies and are not simply spare parts or bench players.

  7. the batting order is all wrong. Not sure why Bartlett isn’t ninth which he batted most of last season. And the Crawford being ninth is careless. Crawford is still a very talented hitter and will be batting 1-3 in any lineup in the Major Leagues.

  8. Sarah Green says:

    I can never really decide what to do with the batting order in these HOA posts: put it how *I* would like to see it, or put it how I think the team will *actually* do it. But it either case, putting Crawford ninth was not “careless” — I put Crawford ninth because I think the worst hitter should actually hit 8th. (In this case, I had that as the sort of up-in-the-air Kapler/Joyce slot, at least to start the season, though if/when Joyce settles in, I would prefer to see Bartlett batting 8th.) In my opinion, once the order has batted around, the 9th spot can serve as a nice table-setter for the leadoff man. To wit, more NL teams last year had the pitcher batting 8th. Sure, maybe the no. 9 hitter had to get over batting after the pitcher. But I do think it makes the team marginally stronger.

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