What were the big surprises coming out of Spring Training?
Well, the only big question marks heading into spring training were right field and second base. It looked like there were 5 or 6 players competing for playing time at one or both spots. Originally it looked like Ben Zobrist and 2 others would share the duties with Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce and Gabe Kapler competing. In the end, rather than 3 players in those spots, it will be 4 and Matt Joyce figures force his way in once he is healthy. The big surprises were just how well both Brignac and Rodriguez played both offensively and defensively. Birgnac looks like he finally figured out he is not a home run hitter. And everybody else finally figured out that Rodriguez is.
What is your biggest concern about the Rays entering this season?
The bullpen and the health of the team. With JP Howell out for the first month or two, the bullpen is all of the sudden not very deep. And a lot more of the high-leverage innings are going to fall on the shoulders of Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler. The Rays don’t need them to be great, they just need them to be consistent.
And like any low- to mid-payroll team, the Rays can’t afford longterm injuries to key players, especially the starting rotation. The team just doesn’t have the means to go out and replace those players. And while there are some good prospects waiting in the wings, nobody knows how those guys would handle being thrown into the middle of a pennant race.
Are there any potential breakout players on this team that the casual fan should be aware of?
Sean Rodriguez’ bat is the real deal. With the roster the way it is now, he probably won’t get more than 80-100 starts this season. But he will probably hit well enough that he will force his way into an everyday role next year.
Many people have compared the 2008 Rays strategy to that of the Orioles, do you see similarities between the two?
Monkey see, monkey do. There are definitely some similarities, but the ’08 Rays were something special. All of the Rays young players that year seemed to mature at the same time. That rarely happens and it is probably too much to expect. Like with any team, it depends on the starting pitching. Are they ready for 54 games against the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox? That can be draining after a while. And how many innings will management allow the young pitchers to throw? If there is a limit, then that is more innings on the bullpen. And even if the bullpen is good, it will wear down. But yeah, the Orioles finally seem to be building the team the right way that will be sustainable. I just hope realignment comes before the O’s are ready to join the party for good.
How does the Rays rotation stack up against the powers in the AL East?
One through five they are as good as anybody in baseball, talent-wise. But what they lack right now is that bigtime Ace. There is no Sabathia. No Beckett. Matt Garza’s stuff is as good as anybody in baseball and if he can keep his temperament under control, he can be that Ace. Price also has the talent, but I think he is still a year away. What the Rays staff has that others don’t is a very good possibility of throwing 1000 innings. The Rays do a good job of keeping arms healthy and all 5 are free to throw as many innings as possible this year. And if they do stay healthy, the bullpen will be much more of a weapon working 2-3 innings a night instead of 4-5.
How do you see the Rays finishing in the AL East?
They will win 90-95 games this year. That won’t be good enough to win the division, but 94 or 95 will probably win the Wild Card. I see the Rays and Red Sox within a game or two for the Wild Card with a week to go. May the good guys win.