The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are in a shortage of quality starting pitching, but they have more talented young outfielders than there are Starbucks in St. Petersburg. Considering there is basically a Starbucks on every street corner nowadays, you may think I am joking, but I am surprisingly not. The Rays have six potential All Star outfielders in camp this spring, but there are only four Starbucks locations in St. Pete.
Clearly, the Rays top outfield prospect right now is Delmon Young. Young, the Rays first overall pick in the 2004 draft, is best known to most moderate baseball fans simply as the guy that threw the bat at the umpire. Still, some scouts are calling him the right handed version of a young Ken Griffey Jr. Will he end up being that good? Probably not, but the possibility alone gives all Devil Rays something to smile about, a rarity in the past 10 years. Young is the consensus top prospect in baseball for a variety of respected baseball publications and is a strong candidate for the American League ROY. To do so, Young needs to become a more selective hitter, adjust his attitude off the field, and feed off the other young talent surrounding him in the clubhouse this year.
Most baseball fans know about Carl Crawford, the triples and stolen base king, who would be a marquee player nationally if he wasn't playing in such a small market. In my opinion, Crawford is going to have his best season yet in 2007 because he looks ready to hit for more power. Also, Crawford will have a better lineup around him to work with which will improve his RBI and runs totals. Rocco Baldelli is finally healthy and will be a mainstay in center field. The Baldelli, Crawford, Young trio will roam Tropicana Field this year and now give the Devil Rays one of the most formidable outfields in all of baseball.
But what about the other young outfielders that need to play? Do you send them to Durham to receive at bats?
I personally think B.J. Upton is going to end up playing center field in the long run. I also think he will be a star there for many years. In 2007, Upton was expected to take on a utility/Chone Figgins role before emerging as the starter at second base.
Then, there is Elijah Dukes. Dukes is arguably the most talented outfield prospect in the organization, but his off the field issues have raised eyebrows too many times. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Dukes was a two sport star in baseball and football at Hillsborough High School in Tampa. Before being drafted by Tampa Bay, Dukes signed a letter of intent to play football at North Carolina State University. Scouts all agree that Dukes has a plate discipline that is far advanced for someone of his age. He has arguably the best plate discipline of any of the Devil Rays talented young players. Amazingly, for someone with Dukes talent, he is not even in Baseball America's list of Top 50 prospects. After a strong March, Dukes made the Devil Rays 25 man roster as the fourth outfielder. With the logjam the Devil Rays have in their outfield, will Dukes ever get the opportunity to play everyday? Dukes homered in his first at bat of the season against the New York Yankees on Opening Day, but has struggled recently in a DH role.
Then you have to think about other position players that could play the outfield among other positions this year.
Jonny Gomes is a primary outfielder, but could just throw his glove out for this year because the only role he will be filling is as the designated hitter. Akinori Iwamura is a solid defensive infielder, but has the versatility to play the outfield as well. Greg Norton could fill in at a corner outfield spot, but will platoon in the DH role with Dukes or Gomes when he returns from the disabled list. At this point, Gomes, who only has 10 at bats, looks to have fallen out of the organization's future plans. Gomes, one of the Devil Rays most popular players, blasted an American League leading 10 home runs in April of 2006. Gomes' rare playing time has led to an uproar on the internet: FREE JONNY GOMES.
The Devil Rays have six legitimate outfielders, but, arguably, only one legitimate starting pitcher. Why not make a move for a pitcher using any of the following outfielders as bait? Their philosophy is to generate pitching internally, but it has not worked in the past. Although the Durham Bulls have one of the strongest rotations in all of AAA, why should fans expect it to work now?. A talent like Scott Kazmir is few and far between as far as pitchers go. Even more so for the Rays, an organization whose first round pitchers over the past ten seasons have combined to win just 23 games at the big league level for the team. With the majority of their prospects making the major league minimum, Baldelli and Crawford locked up for a few more years, it is time to make a deal for some pitching. Honestly, with the inflated market, what are the chances they resign any of their outfielders in three of four years anyway? Don't even mention Kazmir. If Crawford was a free agent this off season, he would be expecting similar money to Gary Matthews Jr. (10 million a year) and Kazmir would be worth more than twice as much as overpaid Kansas City Royal, Gil Meche.
It's nice to think about Kazmir, Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and the current outfield bringing post season baseball to Interstate 275 in the next five years, but odds are, the nucleus they are building the organization around, will not be in tact any way because of logistics. I have heard new team president, Matt Silverman, is a financial genius, but it is going to take one to secure a lot of the young talent in the organization.
Where will Kazmir be in 2010? What about Rocco Baldelli? Upton? I hope they will be Rays, but unless there are drastic changes financially, the Rays will not have the funds to keep any of these players. Can you say Montreal Expos of the early 1990s?
There is no question, the surplus of outfielders need to be dealt with in a way that is beneficial to the goals of the organization. The Rays need to take risks, but they can only go up from the point they are at now. Right now, as the laughing stock of the AL East, they have nothing to lose. However, they could gain more credibility with their fans and people in the Tampa Bay area by attracting another front line starter by giving up a player like Baldelli or Upton. This will let Rays fans know that management is serious about the future, but also the present and will help increase the crowds at the Trop.
Imagine if Josh Hamilton was having the same spring he is having with Cincinnati for the Devil Rays. The government might have had to intervene for a monopoly of outfield talent.