WTNYOctober 26, 2004
Sun in Tampa
By Bryan Smith

After asking you- my loyal readers- for some article topics, I have a full schedule in the coming weeks. I will touch on many of the topics, the Yankees, the As, an article on the games better starters. But the idea I found most intriguing came from Jeff, who asked, How good can [Tampa Bay] become?

While I often write overview review of systems, or comment on individual players, I dont recall profiling an organizations future in depth. To do so, well go position-by-position, and detail what lies down the road with the Devil Rays.

Before moving on, I should say that the Devil Rays are going to need a GM with more foresight than Chuck Lamar has to offer. Think someone with great focus on the farm system, someone along the lines of Frank Wren, Logan White, or best of all, Grady Fuson. And while Im not the right person to speak on Lou Piniellas credibility, Im not sure hes the right guy either. If there were only more Eric Wedges

And before I start, let my think raysbaseball.com, without which very little of this article could have been produced

Catcher: The more and more Toby Hall plays, the more and more he convinces me that he would be one good back-up catcher. This is a guy I loved coming out of the minors, but just has not produced thus far in the Major Leagues. I say this because in the last three seasons, Halls line has been very close to .255/.295/.375, a far cry from the .768 OPS in forty-nine 2001 games. But his catching abilities have improved since then, and while his 34.3 CS% is the lowest in three years, it is good for a back-up catcher.

Problem is, the Devil Rays have no real catching prospect that could take Halls reins. It looked as if Pete LaForest could be that guy, but bad defense and terrible offense this year have extinguished that belief. Both Brett Cordell and Shawn Riggans played well in the hitter-friendly Bakersfield this year, but neither is close to supplanting Hall. Hall, just turned 29, should be producing the same offense and defense until reaching free agency after the 2007 season.

First Base: Tino Martinez played the position surprisingly well in 2004, and despite his rumored love-connection with Piniella, should be gone next season. Aubrey Huff played the position in about 80 games this season, but his atrocious defense is better suited for the DH spot. Not only do the Devil Rays need a first basemen for 2005, but all the way until Wes Bankston is ready.

When will that be? Well after a fabulous debut in 2002, Bankston struggled in the South Atlantic League in 2003. The Devil Rays sent him back there this season, where he put together a .289/.390/.513 season and reinstated his future in this franchise. Also, the Devil Rays should consider moving Josh Hamilton to first when he returns, giving Bankston at least one competitor. No matter what, the ETA for either player is no earlier than 2007, where both should progress relatively slowly.

Second Base: This is where the infield debate begins. Should the Devil Rays keep Julio Lugo at shortstop, and move 20-year-old B.J. Upton to the hot corner? Should they move Lugo to second, keep Upton at short, and move Cantu to third? Should they sign someone other than Cantu for third? Is this debate for naught, because Sweet Lou has already made up his mind? Ill say True to the final, because it seems as if the infield next year will have Upton at third. So, we might as well treat the future as having that scenario as well.

Jorge Cantu is going to be here awhile, though his effectiveness in the Majors I will question. Can someone who was that bad in the minors from 2001-2003 be this good? Maybe, and the Devil Rays will be happy to give Cantu the opportunity. If not, there are not a whole lot of possible successors, with Rays Baseball listing Elliot Johnson (he of the .709 2004 OPS) as the clubs top 2B prospect. Expect Cantu here for much of the next 5 years, barring the acquisition of a veteran.

Shortstop: Julio Lugo has gone from being arrested in Houston, to being one of Lous favorite players in Tampa. Lou is going to be hard-pressed to give Lugo up, which really isnt that bad. This is a guy that after next season, could probably be signed to a deal like three years, $12 million. Sort of a lot for a team on a short budget, but remember, what Lou wants, Lou is going to get. Especially with that Met job still unfilled.

One interesting tidbit on Lugo is that he had an .859 OPS in 195 plate appearances in the two-spot, but just .699 in 257 appearances while batting sixth. Batting behind Crawford, Lugo can be an effective tool, and I think Upton fits best in the sixth spot anyway.

Third Base: B.J. Upton, lock and load. Hes going to be here, and hes going to be here for awhile. The long-term contract they discussed earlier this year is not going to happen, and Upton will be a free agent after the 2010 season. By that time, the team will likely need to decide on B.J. or Delmon, one of whom must become the face of this franchise.

Designated Hitter: Aubrey Huff was signed through his arbitration, which is exactly the type of deal that I support. He is signed through the 2006 season, by which he will be done with his twenties. Reader ZTigerX at his blog argues that Huff should not be re-signed after that, using logic that convinced me. So Huffs role will basically be to keep this team in legitimacy for awhile, before leaving and watching the team improve. His DH successor should become a little more apparent when reading through the depth the Rays have in the outfield, or the loser of the Bankston/Hamilton 1B battle.

Left Field: Im not going to preach to the choir, Carl Crawford needs to walk more. If Devil Ray coaches are not preaching this to their talented leadoff hitter, they should all be fired. Crawford is a very good player, with the potential to be more. As he enters arbitration, the Devil Rays should sign him through arbitration years, similar to the deal the Blue Jays gave Vernon Wells. When he hits free agency after 2008, the D-Rays will probably have to decide on him or Baldelli.

Center Field: Rocco Baldelli offers more of the same, with a lot more power potential than Crawford. Hes not the player everyone thought a year and a half ago, but hes probably better than I normally give him credit for. With the huge number of outfield prospects in this system, most of whom can play center, I think Tampa should trade Baldelli before they have to start paying him big arbitration dollars. Hell hit arbitration after next season, and start making big dollars after the 2006 season. In one of those years, he should go.

Right Field: Jose Cruz Jr. was a good signing for this organization, and signing more players like him on short deals would be a good move. But, if he thinks of himself as more than a placeholder, hes greatly confused. Delmon Young has this job the second hes ready, which should be Opening Day 2006. In Albert Belles first full Major League season, he hit .282/.323/.540, and Delmon is very capable of that his rookie season.

Outfield Replacements: The first and most ready is Joey Gathright, who could probably be ready by midseason 2005. But, what he will produce in the Majors, isnt much. If you average his AA and AAA numbers, Gathright hit about .330/.390/.380 this season, and both the batting average and on-base percentage will drop in the Majors.

Next is Elijah Dukes, who I wrote about in this article. Dukes is immensely talented, and the most eligible of these three players for the centerfield spot. He played well in Bakersfield this year, and would be best suited to be the Opening Day starter in 2007, after Delmon Young has already established himself. While he must show more power, Dukes does have 25-25 potential.

Finally, the least advanced is Jason Pridie. While older than Dukes, like Bankston, Pridie spent his second season in the South Atlantic League. And again, like Wes, things improved the second time around. But a kid who cant top an .800 OPS the second time around, while also posting a BB/K of 37/114. I think Pridie is drastically overrated, and WAY behind Dukes and even Gathright in prospect rankings.

Some are going to say Matt Diaz or Jonny Gomes here, but I dont think these players have much of a future with this organization. Bench spots maybe, but Im not as much of a buyer here as a lot of guys.

Offensive Recap: I have 2009 circled. B.J. Upton will be a free agent after 2010, but Young and Dukes wont hit the Majors until 06 and 07 respectively. While we dont know who will be at catcher or even short in 2009, I really like the start of Bankston, Cantu, Upton, Crawford, Dukes, Young, and Josh Hamilton.

Starters: This is where things start to get uglier, but not as bad as I expected. By the end of the season, the D-Rays had a pretty established rotation of Mark Hendrickson, Rob Bell, Dewon Brazelton, Jorge Sosa and Scott Kazmir. All five should be back next year, which isnt the most exciting proposition to D-Rays fans. This fivesome had a 4.89 ERA in 480.1 2004 innings, which isnt as bad as it could be. What is terrible, is the groups 5.13 K/9, with the first three I mentioned posting a combined K/9 of just 4.37. Yikes.

As for their free agencies, Bell and Sosa will hit the market after the 2007 season, Hendickson after 2008, Brazelton after 2009, and Scott Kazmir wont be a free agent until post-2010. I should say, that I believe the worst two of the bunch are Bell and Hendrickson, who will be out of the rotation and non-tendered before if opportunities present themselves. I like Sosa, Brazelton and Kazmir, though I doubt Sosa will be around after 2007. So really, only Brazelton and Kazmir are the mainstays here.

So who can replace the other three? Well, the first name I should mention is Jeff Niemann, the Devil Rays 2004 first-round draft choice. Niemann remains unsigned, but there is no question that this signing (more on that at a later date) should begin a domino effect among the first-rounders. But believe me, Niemann can use all the time off that the Devil Rays will give him. If he returns to his Sophomore form, Niemann has ace-caliber stuff, and should be ready in 2007. Its impossible to project his career quite yet.

After Niemann, the next best name is Jason Hammel. Hes always had solid HR/9 numbers, and his K/9 saw a rice in 2004. The tall, recently-turned 22-year-old, throws pretty hard, and improved both his control and secondary stuff this year. Hammels ERA was below 2.00 in the hitter-friendly California League, and he should be in the Southern League next season. I like his numbers, and Hammel could be ready in 2006, likely causing Bells exit.

Joining Hammel in AA will be Chris Seddon, who will be repeating the level. After an amazing seven starts in high-A, Seddon hit a wall in AA, though he improved as the season went on. A Montgomery season-ticket holder gave me a great description of Seddon, which I posted back in July. Overall, it said that Seddon is lanky, throws in the high-80s, with solid secondary pitches. The club may challenge him with a promotion to the International League, and either way, he could be in the rotation by mid-2005.

So, ideally, the Devil Rays will open the 2007 season with a rotation of Kazmir, Niemann, Brazelton, Hammel and Seddon. Bell and Hendrickson will likely both be non-tendered in a year, and Jorge Sosa will be traded before making big arbitration dollars. This rotation should be well-established by 2009, the Devil Rays season.

Due to the impossibility of projecting the future of a bullpen, I wont get into that. But I should highlight Chad Orvella, who went a few weeks without allowing a hit. Orvella has great control, a trait that is never the first strength associated with closers. There is a possibility that Kazmir will come in and take the closers job, but you have to believe in Orvella, who has a career 11.9 K/BB rate.

As Ive said, 2009 is the Devil Rays year. Everyone will be established then, with few players making huge dollars. Hopefully, Crawford will be re-signed with the team until 2010, when the team will need all their resources possible to make decisions on Upton v. Young and Scott Kazmir. This team has the makings, to me, of 90 wins. But, that will take a lot of things to bounce right, and Ill probably be hurt from these same comments.

Will 90 wins ever win the AL East? If anything, I think 2006 and 2007 will be the times to hit the Yankees, as Steinbrenner already has $143M and $84.45M committed respectively. But if these players are developed correctly, an art the Devil Rays appear to be learning, this team could compete with any Yankee team.

Thats all for today, and Ill be back tomorrow with comments on the Yankees, Justin Verlander, Jason Kubel and more

Comments

Don't discount Pridie. I liken him to a younger version of Steve Finley. He'll need to bulk up a tad, but he profiles as an above-average centerfielder with outstanding range. I don't put much credence in his bb/k ratio because he's been working on the mechanics of his swing (he's moved his hands on the bat and is learning to use his hips more). Next year will be tne ultimate test in Hi A.

Hey, do you know anywhere on thw web that clearly and concisely explains how draft signings work and how long that goes on, including how long they have to be in arbitration? I have an idea as to how it works but i'd love to see exactly what's happening.

Don't forget Seth McClung. He experienced some success as a starter and was a favorite of Lou's before he had surgery. He was back throwing in September. He will have a role somewhere in the future.

Great work Bryan. I agree with the majority of what you said. I don't like Piniella a whole lot either, he doesn't trust rookies enough and has too much of a win now mentality. I think he's necessary for the team right now because the Rays need a strong manager to keep Lamar from messing things up. Lamar has the right plan but is an idiot, Piniella has a less-attractive plan but is generally fairly smart about personnel. Sometimes it even seems efficient.

I don't see Toby Hall lasting until the 2007 season unless his hitting improves greatly (and barring a complete overhaul of his hitting mechanics, it won't). He'll make too much in his second and third arbitration years. Although some teams have a liking for good defensive catchers who don't hit and Piniella considers good offense just a nice bonus from his catchers, he has never seemed to like Hall very much.

Oops, one more thing. I think 2009 is a little pessimistic for contention because I expect the Rays will sign a couple good free agents for the pitching staff or the lineup. The payroll should keep going up for the next few years (especially as the team gets better and people come to the games) and most of the young talent should still be cheap enough for some money to be spent for a mid-level guy or two

That was a hack job. I think Doug Waechter is a huge oversight on your part. Whether most people like it or not, he is a big part of their rotation plans going forward.

Josh Hamilton's career is most likely finished, and while there may still be a glimmer, he is not an automatic like you seem to imply in your article.

You are also severely underestimating what Joey Gathright could become. He has the potential to be a player that can change the face of a game on any given day. You really can't evaluate him like every other prospect because his skill set is so unique.

And finally, Elijah Dukes? Relax man, he has only played a year in single A. Annointing him the opening day starter in 2007 is jumping the gun big time.

While I don't like to acknowledge uncourageous posters like "john fickels", I will respond today.

Waecther, in my opinion, is hardly an oversight. This was a guy with an ERA over 6.00 in 14 starts, and his best shot is in the bullpen, which I didn't mention. If I did, he would have come up, along with Chad Gaudin and Seth McClung.

Hamilton is a huge question mark, and maybe I didn't make that obvious enough in this article. But from the ESPN magazine feature story on him, and given his great skillset, you can't rule him out quite yet.

What's wrong with saying Dukes could be the 2007 starter? Read any prospect evaluator, BA or John Sickels, and they make predictions on A-ball players too. That's the game.

Gathright changing the face of a game on any given day? At best he'll be a guy with a very good OBP that can put himself on second at will, as well as scoring from first on any double and from second on any single. That's a valuable leadoff man, not a game-changer.

oh come on, whats wrong with posting as john fickels, the alter ego of everyone's favorite prospect evaluator.

seriously though, waechter's problems were mainly injury related, and it's not logical to ignore his track record and write him off based on one injury plagued season. there is some potential there. he was only 23 last year, and despite the misleadingly high ERA, hitters still only hit .252 off him. and all 70 of his innings were logged as a starter - 14 starts in all. it doesn't look like tampa considers him a reliever.

ill grant you dukes but id still like to see what any hitter does in AA before i can call him a major league regular.

and ZTiger, about gathright, if a guy has the potential to hit .300+, get on base at a .400+ clip and steal 70 bases a year, he can change the game at will. think dave roberts in the alcs, but on a day to day basis.

Please don't forget about Uber-prospect Reid Brignac, he should be in Tampa around 2008 in some form.