Despite Losses, Still Plenty To Be Optimistic About
With roughly a month to go before opening day, I can honestly say that I’m comfortable with the new makeup of the Rays. Could it be better? Sure, things could always be better. Is this an ideal lineup? Probably not, but it can work. This off-season has seen so many free agency departures that some fans were probably wondering what would be left of the defending A.L. East Champions come April 2011. Well, the answer is – not a whole lot.
We knew he would be leaving, but Carl Crawford is now wearing a jersey that you hoped you’d never see him wear. Veteran slugger Carlos Pena and 2008 ALCS MVP Matt Garza were shipped off to the Cubs. Shortstop Jason Bartlett landed in San Diego. And last but not least, the entire bullpen was disbanded as Andy Sonnanstine was left to hold his hat.
Wow, right? Just take a deep breath because it’s not as bad as it may seem.
Garza is gone, but the rest of the starting rotation is intact; an impressive group that includes 2010 All Star David Price and impressive rookie sensation Jeremy Hellickson. Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann are back. And yes, “Big Game” James is still hanging around.
The bullpen has been a frequent discussion piece since it’s dismantling during the winter. Choate, Benoit, Soriano; we know what these guys contributed to the Rays division title. But, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. It’s time to move on. Peralta, Farnsworth, Ramos, McGee, Russell, Ekstrom, Sonnanstine, and Howell. That’s who we’re looking at. These are the guys that will make us or break us when it comes to relief pitching. Let’s hope that Howell can bounce back from injury. It would be nice to see him pitch as well as we’ve seen him pitch in previous years.
The infield is going to look a little different this year with Bartlett and Pena gone. However, Evan Longoria, the face of the franchise, will still be holding down the fort at third base. Reid Brignac will be an exciting player to watch as he replaces Bartlett at short. Sean Rodriguez is a solid second baseman. And it would appear that Dan Johnson is the clear-cut choice at first.
I’ve never been impressed with Kelly Shoppach as catcher – especially his work at the plate. But, John Jaso is coming along nicely and newly acquired Robinson Chirinos appears to be a solid pickup for the team. The verdict is still out on whether or not he has what it takes to claim the third spot in the depth chart over Jose Lobaton. Jaso and Shoppach will likely split time behind the plate as we progress through 162 games.
On a side note, nobody seems to be sniffling over the absence of Dioner Navarro in camp. Sorry Whiskers.
B.J. Upton will be back in centerfield and with all the talk of his work on mechanics during the off-season, let’s hope his bat shows up sooner rather than later. Johnny Damon will be the everyday starter in left with Manny Ramirez making cameo appearances. The only question is going to be whether or not the 37-year old Damon can make it through a full season. Only time will tell. He is no longer in his prime and he is not the fielder that Crawford is, but things could always be worse. Damon is a suitable replacement overall.
Don’t forget about utility man Ben Zobrist who will likely spend most of his time in right field. It remains to be seen how often we will see Matt Joyce in the outfield – among other positions. Zobrist has definitely proven he deserves to play everyday.
As mentioned before, Ramirez will see minimal time in leftfield but his normal role will be at the DH spot. Let’s face it. Manny may be 38, but this will be a breath of fresh air following Pat Burrell’s debacle of a stint with the Rays. Manny is entertaining and he’s one of the greatest sluggers in the history of the game. I truly believe he will help this young team as a leader and as a presence at the plate.
The dealing and shuffling of players aside, the Rays still have what it takes to be a winning team and compete in the American League East.