Sunday, April 1, 2007

2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays Season Preview

I'm not going to one post per position, NO. Through the fine art of chicanery and a swathe of magic, ManRay has made it possible to slap the entire Tampa Bay Devil Rays preview into one, single post! Astounding, eh?

Manny Stiles presents... Your 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Yup, they're a REAL Major League Baseball team!

Let's take a look at what you're dealing with this season!

Manny Stiles – let’s get this business out of the way
As you most likely know, I am the guy who offered my services to ANY MLB team for the entire season for charity on ebay. The Devil Ray’s Team President Matt Silverman won the bid and made me a die-tough Devil Rays fan. Maybe even the ‘Most Unrealistically Hopeful Devil Rays fan’. Now, bear in mind… I’m currently (but maybe not much longer…) employed full-time as a stockbroker, I am the loving father of two beautiful children and a dedicated, faithful husband. Not to mention my “other stiles” – music and video production (at my in-home recording studio), exploring the spiritual realm (I’m also ordained and perform ceremonies) rooting for the Phoenix Suns in basketball, making the “World’s Best Fire Roasted Salsa”, amateur botany and other ‘life arts’; so it’s not like I have time to burn at the computer, I just do what I can (which is less than I am capable of due to my exceedingly ample laziness – Yes, I’m the busiest lazy ass in the biz).

Yeah, I’m a HUGE Devil Rays fan all of a sudden, but that doesn’t change who I am. You’re going to get random observations, in-depth fictional analysis and the tomfoolery and shenanigans you’re used to, but there will be times during the season when you’ll get legitimate journalism, quality player interviews and game reviews all with a twist of tomfoolery and shenanigans!

I will be meeting up with the team in several locations throughout the season, starting with a visit to St Petersburg THIS MONTH! I will be experiencing and reporting on the team from all aspects during a 3-game home stand versus the Cleveland Indians. Fun, fun!

Also, prepare yourselves adequately for the World’s Largest Running Game Blog (from the Trop!) on April 23, 2007, a nationally televised game on ESPN against the New York Yankees..

There will also be the matchup in June in my hometown of Phoenix that I will be attending, another ttrip to Florida in September and the possibility of me picking up a game or two at Anaheim (a mere 5 hour drive, so we’ll see).

Needless to say, it WILL be an exciting season and an incredible journey through 162 games.


This year's motto "It's MORE than just a game" is a bit perplexing but a motto nonetheless. I would have gone with "The Yankees Will Always Suck", "F U and the Red Sox too..." or "Let the AL East kiss our collective asses", but that's among the reasons why I'm not out there running a baseball team already. (Nor enjoying a career as a politician.)

It seems this will be the last season of the “Devil” Rays. The new ownership (more on them in a bit) wanted to exorcise the ‘Devil” and will be calling the team (most likely, nothing official) just the “Tampa Bay Rays” next season. Judging from the info you can find out there, they already got rid of the ‘Devil’. I don't think they care about the impact this will have on wiki-sites!

My guess is they will ignore my pleas and miniscule attempts to keep the ‘Devil’, go to something cooler or go out and ‘Win one for the Devil’ (see #60), but you can still VOTE for your moniker of favoritocity among other meanderful offerings.

New Ownership

You know, a lot of people live in the past too much. Get with the times, people! There’s NEW ownership in Western Florida and there’s a NEW, fresh way of approaching the game. 8+ years of aged veterans, flacid ticket sales and dreadful mis-management are a thing of the far, distant past and I’ll have NO MORE of that kind of talk. The Future is here AND still coming. The on-field and the off-field outlook is bright. Things are changing on the Gulf Coast and I’ll gladly whip the horses pulling this bandwagon. Hey, I guess it REALLY IS “More than just a game”!

Principle owner Stu Sternberg, one of the youngest owners in MLB is a former options trader, who was a partner of another trading firm then moved on to Goldman Sachs before retiring. He went from minority owner to majority owner of the “Worst Pro Sports Franchise in North America” in Fall 2005. Maybe it’s a news update to some, Vince Naimoli and his cheapskateness is long gone from the decision making process (rumors have surfaced that he may be brought back as an advisor. Calm down people, regardless of what happened AFTER, he’s the one who brought baseball to Tampa). Sternberg has the undeniable drive and love of baseball needed to succeed. He doesn’t seem afraid of making the business work and the product entertaining. He promises progressive thinking, bold changes and projects the team to win 50 games at home this year. He wants to move the past far, far behind what’s going on now.

He brought in Team President Matt Silverman, his former underling/protégé in the Mergers and Acquisitions Department at Goldman Sachs. Silverman is a Harvard grad. So to say that Stu and Matt have an idea of what works and what doesn’t in the business aspect would be a major understatement. These guys aren’t afraid to go “outside the box” or approach issues with forward thinking and fresh perspective. I would also say Silverman is a risk-taker (He brought me on board, for instance)

10th Anniversary

And a beautiful patch at that!

At least they didn't go all stupid with the word “anniversary” and smartly chose “10 Seasons”. WAAAAY back in 1998 the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Devil Rays joined the leagues and June 18th, 19th and 20th in Phoenix, Arizona they get to go head to head. Yes, I’ll be there taunting the locals (who are all from someplace else anyway)!


First Base
First looks like Ty Wigginton’s job by default. He’s got some decent pop and will be doing a lot of batting cleanup and he might see some time at second base or third base (fantasy alert, he’s eligible at all bases). Ty brings energy, hustle, grit and the closest thing to veteran leadership this team has. Wiggy will lead by example and will make sure the clubhouse is focused and that players get muddy and bloody in giving every ounce of effort.
Others who could don the big mitt: Greg Norton (currently on the 15 day DL) and who the hell knows who else? I guess ANY one!

Second Base
Well, Jorge Cantu is out and BJ Upton might have found a position, after all. In a somewhat surprising move, Cantu was sent to the minors and (of course) has demanded a trade. He was sent down in favor of Jonny Gomes. Everyone knew there was a logjam of bats in the outfield and a trade was imminent, but moving Cantu may have been the best option. He’s a middle infielder, has some value in a trade after topping 120 rbis just two years ago.

Upton is an interesting case. He was penciled in as a Chone Figgans-like role player this season. Drafted as the “Next Alex Rodriguez”, Upton finally has an opportunity to excel and dominate at a position that may make his many imminent All-Star appearances even easier to achieve (How many great second basemen are around?). He’s still young, still uber-talented and may even have a chance to “just play baseball” instead of dealing the convoluted and jarbled mess of his fielding prowess.

Upton can also play other positions and could even end up at third or outfield eventually. I think second is a nice fit for B.J. and for the team at this point. He’ll be backed up by Brendan Harris and Ty Wigginton on occasion. Maybe even Jorge Cantu will stick around, patiently work his way back/get an opportunity due to injury to the bigs.

Ben Zobrist won the job at short. He came to the Rays in the Aubrey Huff trade last season and has a slick glove. He’s no Kevin Stocker! B J Upton may see some time at short as well along with utility infielder Brendan Harris.

Third Base
Japanese Import Akinori Iwamura will get the call at third. With all the hype surrounding Dice-K and Kei Igawa in the AL East, Iwamura could be a pleasant surprise. He doesn’t come with the same pedigree as other Japanese imports, but once he settles to life in the Bigs, that could easily change. Ultimately, he may just be keeping 3rd warm for super-prospect Evan Longoria. Backing him up will be Upton, Wigginton and Harris.

Another long-touted prospect, Dioner Navarro will get the majority of the workload behind the dish. He’s currently dealing with nagging injuries but looks a sure bet to start Opening Day with Josh Paul backing him up. Shawn Riggans and Raul Casanova are down in Durham ready to go if need be.

If you read an article that talks about 'best outfields' that DOESN'T mention the Devil Rays, throw it away (if it's online, chuck your computer)

Baseball’s Most Exciting Player, Carl Crawford returns to patrol leftfield. At 25 years old, he needs 65 hits to become the franchise’s all-time hit leader. Crawford is always a threat to join the ultra-exclusive 20-20-20-20 club (20 each - 2Bs, 3Bs, HRs and SBs) Of course, there’s a lot of speculation that he is headed towards free agency. I think he’ll get locked up with a long-term deal sooner than later. He is the face of the franchise. Jonny Gomes might see some time in left as well, along with Rocco Baldelli and others.

New starting centerfielder Elijah Dukes will get to make his debut as a starter in Yankee Stadium. A legendary sign of things to come? Many people question his character, and for ‘’almost valid’’ reasons, but there’s no reason to question his ability. Dukes looked like a Monster and played like a Monster in Spring Training. Maybe there’s more to this kid than suspensions and Baby’s Mamas. Upton (there he is again) could see some time in CF as well as Rocco Baldelli.

Right Field
Tools, tools, tools. Delmon Young, the impending 2007 AL Rookie of the Year (you heard me, DiceDub) and future Hall of Famer will start in right, may see some DH time. Young is known for his patience at the plate like Manny Stiles is known for his avoidance of sarcasm. Young set one of the highest percentages of pitches swung at in baseball history last year. He swung at over 61% of pitches offered. I think he may surpass last year’s ONE walk (which probably came on a full count when he was distracted by a heckler, an umpire or a heckling umpire). He WILL learn plate patience as the season progresses and teams start to take note of his “dangerous” bat. Young also has the distinction of getting HBP in his first at-bat and hitting a HR for his first base hit. He will be backed up in the field on occasion by Jonny Gomes and/or Elijah Dukes

Designated Hitter
Looks like Rocco Baldelli will be the primary DH to start the season. He’s still nursing a tweaked right hammy.. I’m not sure if he’s being dangled as trade bait, if they’re trying to keep him from getting hurt in the field, or (most likely) Dukes really is THAT good. Whatever. Baldelli can hit and is nice insurance if someone in the outfield goes down to injury.

Jonny Gomes will also take his cuts from the DH role and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the other outfielders to DH as well as Wiggy and Upton on occasion.
Too many bats ‘’can’’ be a good thing!

Let’s be honest. Every team has a weakness. Since baseball is comprised of 90% pitching and defense and the other half is luck… The Devil Rays have a slight conundrum. The starters have promise and the bullpen has questions. So as one can comfortably surmise, the Rays will go as far as their pitching staff will take them. (Hush those “Uh-oh’s” right now!)

Scott Kazmir could be the next Steve Carlton. Not just because he’s a lefty, but because people think he’s the only starter on the staff capable of putting up wins and could take a run at Carton’s ’72 season where he won HALF of the teams games. Sorry, but Kazmir would have to win 40 or so games with THIS team to make that occur! Kazmir is dominant when healthy and should be a mainstay for years to come (and to rub in Mets fans’ faces). He needs 14 wins to become the franchise’s all time wins leader.

South Korean native Jae Seo who finished the season 1-8 with the Rays (during the atrocious 2006 second half debacle) isn’t going to be dominant, he’s been prone to the long ball and racking up losses, but he’ll eat innings. For a team that had exactly ZERO pitchers over 150innings last season, innings eaters are needed. He came over in the Julio Lugo trade from the Dodgers last year along with Dioner Navarro.

Jamie Shields is a big righty that showed a ton of promise as a rookie last year, showing good control 104-38 K/BB before succumbing to nagging injuries, and projects as a solid #2 pitcher for years to come.

Casey Fossum is yet another Devil Ray that spent a chunk of his career on the “Top Prospects” list. Unfortunately, he’ll never live up to the lofty expectations, but he’s a crafty veteran and a lefty to boot. The career WHIP loitering around 1.5 and career 2-1 K/BB isn’t going to frighten many, but one of these years he’ll put it all together, right?

Did I say this team is loaded with former “can’t miss” prospects? Remember when Edwin Jackson was considered untrade-able? Well, he’s the Rays’ fifth starter now. Yeah, you think he’s SO washed up right? Well, he’s a whopping 23 years old, so I think the projections aren’t out of reach quite yet… That being said, he ‘’was’’ out of options so maybe the insertion at starter was just a way of not outright releasing him? I hold hope. Sometimes guys like Jackson just need the opportunity to get on the hill and work. Here’s his chance!

For the most part, I don’t have much to say about this group as I haven’t seen much of them.
Shawn Camp is solid enough to get 70-80 appearances, Ruddy Lugo is Julio’s lil’ bro, Juan Salas is not to be confused with Walter Johnson. Brian Stokes may close some games. Gary Glover and Al Reyes both made it into the ‘pen as a non-roster invitees.

Jae Kuk Ryu may be best known (if known at all?) for his ability to kill endangered birds with his accuracy, but also adds more depth and dimension to the relieving corps.

What's not clear (to me at least) is who the closer will be but it looks like we're gonna see the "bullpen by committee".

Former closer/flamethrower Seth McClung was also shocked (like Cantu) to be sent to the Minors.

In the Minors
There’s a stockpile of talent on the horizon! Tampa Bay has always been a team of highly touted prospects (Josh Hamilton, Toe Nash, Dewon Brazleton, etc) but the next wave has begun to pay dividends. ELEVEN players on the opening day roster were never on an opening day roster before!

The Devil Rays have SEVEN of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects for 2007, including Opening Day starters Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. But along with the aforementioned Evan Longoria, there is also stud shortstop Reid Brignac, and pitchers Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jacob McGee on the slate as well.

Durham Bulls fans will also enjoy watching off and on Big Leaguers J.P. Howell, Seth McClung, Joel Guzman, Wes Bankston, Hee-Seop Choi, Dustan Mohr, Jason Grabowski and Carlos Pena. It remains to be seen what will happen with Jorge Cantu.

Coaching Staff
Joe Maddon came in to clean up the damage done by “Semi-Sweet” Lou Piniella. Piniella was a hard-assed hot head that spent too much time looking for Steve Lyons' wallet where Maddon is a positive energy, teamwork oriented kind of guy. His overuse of the pronoun-oriented catch phrase “we-us” may be corny to some, but it’s refreshing. Isn’t there enough negativity in pro sports already? I think he’s a good fit for a young team with a bright, hopeful future.

Bill Evers – Bench Coach
George Hendrick – First Base Coach
Tom Foley – Third Base Coach
Jim Hickey – Pitching Coach
Steve Henderson – Hitting Coach
Bobby Ramos –Bullpen Coach
Don Zimmer – Senior Baseball Advisor
Dave Martinez – Special Assistant

Overall, the team is pretty right-handed (bats and arms). Maybe that’s not a bad thing in the AL East, but typically, balance goes a long way and provides options. The team is very young and clearly focusing on building their foundation and getting things headed in the right direction with anticipation for a prosperous future. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibilities to envision the Rays as top contenders for years to come. But conventional wisdom says that won’t happen THIS year. Manny’s unrealistic hopefulness says “It’s not impossible”. Plenty of teams… OK, a few HAVE gone from worst to first. But those teams didn’t play in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.

I still (assuredly) believe without a doubt that this IS a better than .500 team. Whether they surpass .500, we will see. But I’m betting/banking/counting on/guaranteeing this IS the squad that achieves the first +70 win season in franchise history.

Delmon Young – Rookie of the Year, also gets 100+ RBI
Scott Kazmir and Carl Crawford – AL ALL-Stars
Carl Crawford – 20-20-20-20 AND a +.300 AVG
Scott Kazmir 18+ wins, sub 3.60 ERA, 200+Ks (and Cy Young contention)
Wigginton, Crawford, Dukes, Young and Upton all to reach 20 homer plateau.
Rays win more than 50 games at home, just as Sternberg projects.

Final Record 86-76, 3rd place AL East (9 GB)

Go Devil Rays! And don’t forget to check out Devil Rays Universe often to follow the improbable tale of the Tampa Bay Rays and Manny Stiles’ new fanatical obsession that started for charity!
Less than a day until we start beating the crap out of the Yankees again!

Opening Day lineup:
LF Carl Crawford
SS Ben Zobrist
DH Rocco Baldelli
1B Ty Wigginton
RF Delmon Young
3B Akinori Iwamura
C Dioner Navarro
CF Elijah Dukes
2B BJ Upton

SP Scott Kazmir

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