WTNYOctober 04, 2004
No Switch Needed
By Bryan Smith

Last week, I talked about the trials, tribulations, and future of Joe Mauer. We talked about the possibility of moving Mauers injured knee to third base, where the 20-year-old would see increased career longevity. A year ago, it would have been foolish to hint at Joe Mauer and B.J. Upton, once my top two prospects, playing the same position. Now, its quickly becoming a reality.

While it now appears the grounders Mauer was taking at third werent prepping him for a position change, the idea of having Upton make the A-Rod switch appears real. Lou Piniella, who promised to honor his contract in Tampa, has recently been boasting his 2004 shortstop, Julio Lugo. Called the spark of the team, Piniella will lobby to management to pay Lugo the upwards of $3 million hell command next year. And moving Julio to second does not appear to be an option, rather move the 20-year-old to the hot corner.

For much of the season, the Devil Rays split the .614 OPS Geoff Blum and immovable Aubrey Huff at third. Uptons arrival changed things, as once he showed his error-prone defense up the middle, Piniella shipped him further left. Blum also split time with Rey Sanchez at second (.617 OPS), shaping one of the worst combinations in the Majors. Luckily, the arrival of 22-year-old Jorge Cantu moved both Blum and Sanchez to the bench, where they should be destined until their retirements.

Before the season, not a lot of Major League production was expected out of Cantu or Upton. Cantu was a 22-year-old shortstop who had previously walked a total of 80 times in 1,979 total minor league at-bats. And Upton, while screaming of future success, only had 19 years and 105 at-bats above A-ball to his name. Despite having less career AA at-bats than Upton, Joey Gathright merited the highest expectations. And for good reason, because in 2003 the Devil Ray hit .334, and posted OBPs above .400 in both the California and Southern Leagues. But with an All-Star in left and the worlds most overrated centerfielder, Gathright didnt have much of a future with the team.

After 200 solid at-bats in AAA in 2003, Jorge Cantu began the 2004 season with the Durham Bulls. He would spend 98 games in the International League, before getting the promotion to the Majors. Cantu saw a power spike that led to a .274 ISO, even with the infielder hitting better than .300. Playing second, short and third, Cantu hit 56 extra-base hits, or almost one every six at-bats. His patience stayed pretty poor, as he walked just 16 times in 368 at-bats. But still, Cantu had posted his best OBP since 2000, and he presented a much better option than Rey Sanchez or Geoff Blum.

But as still remains the problem, B.J. Upton was never a better option for Lou Piniella than Julio Lugo. Not a better option, despite being a former #2 overall pick and harnessing five-tool attributes. Not a better option, despite an .878 AA OPS and .930 AAA OPS. So Piniella, always stubborn, moved Upton to third base, where he made just two errors all season. But take that with a grain of salt, as two errors still equals a low .914 fielding percentage.

And finally there was Gathright, who looked great after starting the season late with a hamstring injury. Gathright made an Upton-like tear through AA and AAA, but struggled a bit in the Majors. He did have a chance to play semi-regularly, with Rocco spending some time on the DL. I think, despite poor numbers this year, Gathright is ready to be a Major League contributor.

If the Devil Rays are seriously pondering a left side of Lugo and Upton, this will be a speed-first type team. Carl Crawford already adds an element to the game that few can match, and adding Gathright to that mix would make this the fastest team in the Major Leagues. To add Gathright, of course, would command the exit of fan-favorite Rocco Baldelli. Since writing a Devil Ray preview on Hardball Times, I have been open about my dislike for Baldelli. This came with a bunch of criticism from readers, but I still say that Rocco will not become a star.

But, there is no question his trade value is high. So when Carlos Beltran runs to New York City after the playoffs, exploit the same team that milked Brandon Backe for Geoff Blum. The Astros will have a big hole in center field, and would undoubtedly show interest in the cheap, but effective Baldelli. And, according to Ken Rosenthal, the Astros have shown a willingness to trade Morgan Ensberg. So screw re-signing Lugo and moving Upton, trade for Ensberg. They would also have the bargaining power to acquire one other Astro, thought doubtfully anyone significant.

But, with Ensberg in and Lugo gone, these are the players guaranteed of starting jobs next year:

C- Toby Hall
2B- Jorge Cantu
SS- B.J. Upton
3B- Morgan Ensberg
LF- Carl Crawford
CF- Joey Gathright
DH- Aubrey Huff

This would open up a lot of money for not just the re-signing of Jose Cruz, but possibly another player. With Tino Martinez off the books, would Richie Sexson consider playing in Tampa? In need of a power bat in the middle, maybe Piniella could convince owner Vince Naimoli to offer Sexson a three or four-year deal. I doubt offers will be fantastic for Sexson, which would work right into the Devil Ray plans.

And now, your 2005 Tampa Bay Devil Ray Opening Day batting order:

1. Carl Crawford- LF
2. Joey Gathright- CF
3. Aubrey Huff- DH
4. Richie Sexson- 1B
5. Jose Cruz- RF
6. Morgan Ensberg- 3B
7. B.J. Upton- SS
8. Toby Hall- C
9. Jorge Cantu

With that time, I would follow Lou Piniellas suit, and guarantee they would finish out of the basement. Not only that, but the above lineup could likely be had for less than fifteen million dollars. And once that Delmon Young character comes upcould we be saying, Your AL East Champs, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays?

No. But maybe third place?

Comments

Perhaps Baldelli is your version of McPherson...

Either way, I would have agreed with you last year, but he is certainly starting to look like a stud with his play this year.

This is a quick and dirty assessment of Baldelli's performance (and Crawford's as well) as compared to last season. While the walk rate is a serious concern, trading him and replacing him with Gathright isn't the answer. Gathright's stated goal is to have a .400 OBP in the majors, but he isn't likely to achieve that in his first couple years, and without that his bat is nothing. He has no power at all, not even enough gap power to get a lot of doubles and triples. Rocco may never be a star, but his power is improving, enough that I think he'd be worth more to the Rays in CF than Gathright. I do like the idea of getting Ensberg, but if getting him required inserting Gathright in CF next season then that's a problem. Maybe Houston will take Gathright and some other guy for Ensberg instead.

Even if the Rays' payroll increases up to around $40 million ($35 million is much more likely), getting Sexson as the power bat would be a real long shot. There are a few arbitration guys that the Rays will keep and have to pay more too, Huff's salary will be bigger too.

Cruz doesn't need to be re-signed, he's on a two-year deal and with a playing time incentive he earned this season he will be leeching $4 million off the payroll next year. Hopefully the Rays can find someone who will take him (if Lamar is smart and trys to trade him) this offseason, even if they have to eat some of his salary. Matt Diaz's viability as a major league regular is questionable, but I'd like to see him get a real chance to prove or disprove that (he was with the team for a month and only had 24 plate appearances), and Jonny Gomes deserves a shot too.

The problem with all this is simple....Lou Piniella doesn't like having a lot of young players. Towards the end of the season he was frequently talking about how hard it is to win with all these young guys, ignoring the fact that some of the offensive wounds were self-inflicted by playing guys like Geoff Blum, Damian Rolls, and Rey Sanchez. Cantu and Upton were benched far too often down the stretch in favor of inferior veterans, and Diaz never got any consistent playing time. Lou hasn't shown the least bit of interest in watch Diaz or Gomes might be able to do and even his early season interest in Gathright has waned. Couple that with the fact that Chuck Lamar is an idiot, and even obvious moves (like not re-signing Tino's veteran leadership) may not be made, even if they improve the team.

Great job on the article though, if only more people would realize that there are in fact a fair amount of positive and interesting things to talk about regarding the team.

I guess I should have previewed that first, I had assumed html would work in the post. The sentence "This is a quick and dirty assessment of Baldelli's performance" had a hyperlink to this:

http://ztigerx.blogspot.com/2004/10/theyre-so-fast-they-forgot-how-to-walk.html

Without it, that sentence doesn't make much sense.

I should have mentioned before writing this article that my theories are often very abstract, and I don't expect them to actually happen. God knows Vince Naimoli ain't gonna pay Richie Sexson what other suitors will.

As for Baldelli, I think he's a very hot and cold player that will have spurts of that throughout his career. He doesn't bring a certain role to a team, so his spot in the batting order comes in question. His defense is hardly the Dimaggio-type that was once described. He very well could blossom into a great player, but he still needs to convince me he's not Roberto Kelly.

I think Baldelli would be best suited in the 6th spot. His current offensive production certainly doesn't merit batting 3rd or 4th like he did this season.