Scouting the competition: The Devil Rays
The Tampa Bay Devils Rays (66-96) again finished in last place this season, which is where they usually reside in the American League East. But the future for this morbid franchise looks bright, with outstanding young talent on the roster and more on the way.
Joe Maddon will return as the manager next season, and that's good for the Devil Rays to have some stability in the dugout. But the decisions of who Maddon will have to play next season will be made this winter and should be interesting.
The big question is how the Devil Rays will mix in some needed veterans with their outstanding young talent. They've also got to figure out which of their young players might be ready to contribute in 2008.
The starting rotation has two fantastic arms in Scott Kazmir and Jamie Shields. Kazmir continued to show he's one of the best young arms in the game and give Mets' fans nightmares. But Shields was a big surprise with a 12-8 record in 31 starts and an amazing 36 walks in 215 innings.
So those are two solid young arms, one a lefty and one a righty, for the Devil Rays to build their rotation around. There are plenty of options to round out the top five.
Edwin Jackson had a full season in the rotation and his second half gave the Devil Rays hope that he could do a Shields-like jump next season. Andy Sonnanstine also showed promise at times in making over 20 starts. And Jason Hammel made the jump to the bigs in June and joined the rotation.
But Tampa Bay must figure out if any other young pitchers can make the leap to the majors next season or if they need to bring in a veteran starter to bridge the gap. They are no longer in a position where they have to trade some position players in order to get pitching, since plenty is on the way.
David Price was the top pick in the June draft, but since he signed late it's tough to know how close he could be to making the jump. Price will probably need at least a half a season in the minors, but when he gets to Tampa Bay he could join Kazmir and Shields to form one heck of a trio.
The tougher questions revolve around three pitchers who performed very well in the upper levels of the Tampa Bay farm system. Jeff Niemann is perhaps the closest of the three after a solid season in Triple-A Durham. The tall (6'9") right-hander was 12-6 in 25 starts in Durham with 123 strikeouts in 131 innings pitched.
Jacob McGee is a six-foot-three lefty who was 8-6 in 26 starts with AA Montgomery. He had 175 strikeouts in 140 innings pitched. And Wade Davis, another tall kid at 6'5", was 10-3 overall with a 2.50 ERA in 27 starts between High-A and Double-A. He had 169 strikeouts in 158.1 innings pitched.
Any one or all of these three young pitchers could contribute to the Devil Rays in 2008. It's just a matter of letting them prove in spring training if they are ready or not and to gauge how long it will be before they can be an option. It's very possible that the Devil Rays' could have an abundance of starters twelve months from now that could lead to even more interesting decisions.
The Devil Rays' bullpen was decent at times and sometimes downright pathetic. Al Reyes emerged as the closer and decent. He will be back in 2008 for a cheap ($1 million) salary. Dan Wheeler was acquired from the Astros for Ty Wigginton and struggled with an ERA over six, but he did have 12 holds and has the experience that is needed in the pen.
Gary Glover had a decent season as a set-up man. He and Wheeler are both arbitration-eligible this winter. Scott Dohmann had a solid second half to become an option for next season. Juan Salas was okay in his rookie season and could get a strong look next spring. But the Devil Rays could use some help in the bullpen, particularly if the rotation is counted on as a strength next season.
In looking at the position players, it'll be interesting to see if Tampa Bay upgrades at catcher. Dioner Navarro is still young (24 next February) but really struggled at the plate. Josh Paul and Raul Casanova are both free agents, so they at least may want to bring in a veteran backup receiver.
Carlos Pena was a pleasant surprise and could be the American League's Comeback Player of the Year. It was always strange how Pena dropped off so far after some decent seasons in Detroit, but no one could have expected him to hit 45 home runs and drive in 120. The Devil Rays might want to lock him up to a long-term contract.
Second base will be interesting next season. Jorge Cantu is gone and the position was just a revolving door all season. B.J. Upton played 48 games there, but he seemed much better suited in centerfield.
The Devil Rays are talking about moving third baseman Akinori Iwamura to second next season, mainly to make room for hotshot prospect Evan Longoria. Iwamura had a good rookie season and they believe he can make the move to second base. You might see them bring in a veteran to give some depth at that position.
Brendan Harris was a journeyman infielder before he finally blossomed this season in Tampa Bay. He'll get the first shot as the shortstop next season, with Josh Wilson and Ben Zobrist also options. Reid Brignac is not a prospect in the Longoria mold, but after hitting 17 home runs and driving in 81 in Double-A he is an option for the future.
Longoria looks ready to make the jump. He hit .299 with 26 home runs and 95 runs batted in between Montgomery and Durham. Since the Devil Rays have shown no hesitation in giving young kids a chance at the big league level, it would almost be a shock if they do not pencil in Longoria for third base to start the 2008 season.
The outfield is packed with youth and talent. Carl Crawford in left, B.J. Upton in center, and Delmon Young in right are perhaps the best young trio in baseball. They could be there for the next five years and provide the Devil Rays with power, speed, and defense.
Jonny Gomes and Elijah Dukes provide depth. The Devil Rays are not sure what to do with Rocco Baldelli, who played in only 35 games this season. His big injury this season was a strained hamstring, and they are still not certain if he'll be back and healthy next year.
The Devil Rays simply need to continue to let their young talent mature and develop into solid big leaguers. The tide could soon be turning, but it will be interesting to see if they compliment these young players with veterans to help take this franchise to the next level. Remember when the Braves brought in Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream in 1991? Well they may not need that type of veteran infusion, but a few on the pitching staff and on the bench may be beneficial.
You wonder if the Braves will re-visit the Rocco Baldelli situation. After another injury- plagued season, Baldelli's career has even been rumored to be in jeopardy. But the Braves had interest last winter and could see if he could be had for a cheap price. If they can get some medical reports to support a belief Rocco could play next season, then it might not be out of the question to believe Baldelli might be an option to replace Andruw Jones if he leaves as a free agent.
Might the Braves check to see if the Devil Rays would trade some pitching for an infielder, either Kelly Johnson or Edgar Renteria? Well if they decide to keep Yunel Escobar for second base, Johnson might interest the Devil Rays. But the price for Jamie Shields would be more than Johnson, and the Braves may pursue a more veteran option for their rotation.
Tampa Bay loved Chuck James and Yunel Escobar last winter when the Baldelli talks were going on, so it's not out of the question for some discussions to take place between the two teams.
Tuesday: The Pittsburgh Pirates
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.
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