Rays Run and Gun Outfield
For a last couple of years, the Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the models people have used when they are considering re-tooling or acquiring players to fill their outfield slots. the team has used its draft picks and trades to fortify their outfield to be one of the youngest and fastest in the major leagues. And along those lines, they also have two of the best snipers in the outfield at gunning down runners from any angle or position. And the Rays have truly done it from the draft and the trades they have made in the last several years.
This first piece of the current Rays puzzle arrived in July 20, 2002, when Carl Crawford made his major league debut for the Rays. All this guy did his first five years in the majors was increase his batting average and rule the bases in the American League. His speed has kept catcher and pitchers at bay since he first stepped onto the bag at first. In his first 7 years in the majors, Crawford has 1,111 hits and 84 triples. That figures out to 12 triples a year and around 159 hits a season. And you do not want to even try and consider what he has done on the base paths. Okay since you really want to know, how about 302 steals, or an average of 43 a season.
He might not have the strongest arm in the league by any means, but if the ball is in the air, there is a good chance he can get to it before it falls to the turf. He has one of the quickest reads in the league, and has demonstrated his ability to leave his feet to make plays countless times on ESPN Web Gems over the past 7 seasons. He is the 2-time All-Star who hit a monster homer in the 2007 All Star game in A T&T Park. He is recognized by his peers and the media alike as the cog that turns the wheels in the Rays outfield. With his two injuries in 2008, he did not spent his usual time in the Rays outfield last season.
His hamstrings and quad muscles seem to not play well on the turf at Tropicana Field. And an odd finger injury shelved him for the last month of the 2008 year. A tendon on top of one of his fingers some how torn away from the tendon and it would flip and flap when he swung his bat. He tried to play through it, but it was no use. He finally opted for surgery, and made it back to the team in time to help the Rays in the 2008 playoff run. This off season he consulted a trainer to focus on his hamstrings and quads and strengthen this region and also learn better stretching and observe more adaptability to the stresses of playing on turf. He is feeling better than he as in a long time coming into the Spring Training, and his 2 triples in a recent game shows he is here to play in 2009.
With left field pretty sewn up for the year, we turn out attention to center field and the budding star that decided to try his hand outside of the clay and grass regions of the infield for his place in this squad. B J Upton has become one of the rising young stars in the outfield because of his graceful effort to gain ground an hard hit balls and make plays on them seem effortless and without stress. His long strides make him look like he is not running at full speed as he closes in on strongly hit balls even towards the gaps in the Trop. Some question why he plays so shallow in the outfield, but if you have watched the way he tracks the ball, you know he has the closing speed to get almost any ball hit within his range, at any time. What is great about Upton is the fact he wanted to try out this new position.
That fact that he has had a few problems adjusting in the past have also been mirrored by the fact he has a rocket in his right arm and can throw out anyone, anytime, from anywhere on the field. His play is still a work in development, but it is rare for a ball to be out hit to him in the field. His arm was fully on display in 2008, when he gunned down a total of 12 base runners in 2008, third in the American League. But where he is going to make the biggest impact in 2009 will be at the plate. Upton got off to a great start at the plate in 2008, but after suffering a separation of his shoulder in a series with Baltimore early on in 2008, he struggled a bit at the plate the rest of the year. But near the end of the year he found his stroke again and started to put up some power numbers that were very evident during the Rays playoff run.
During the 2008 off season, Upton underwent shoulder surgery to correct his problem and has yet to participate in Spring Training games for the Rays. He has been a recent participant in batting practice, but no tentative schedule is in hand for him to be back in the Rays lineup before April. But the absence of Upton from the lineup has given certain Rays players time to show their stuff in hopes of securing a fourth outfielder spot on the Rays 25-man roster. Justin Ruggiano, who the Rays got in a trade for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson back in 2006. Ruggiano was the “player to be named later” of that trade. His ability in the outfield has proven useful in the last year as he was the guy the Rays turned to when Crawford went down with his injury on September 19 of a groin injury.
He might have played only 7 games at the major league level in 2007, but his catch off the bat of Rod Barajas late in the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at home will be remembered for a long time. He went full bore into the left field wall catching the ball just as me hit the plastic of the outfield wall. His bat was not his strong point during the 2008 season, but so far this spring, he is hitting .269, with a .423 Slugging Percentage. He has combined for timely hits and has 2 stolen bases this spring. He will probably get a long look by the Rays after the recent injury to Fernando Perez. Ruggiano might get the call to start the season with the Rays during the first road trip as Upton gets in game shape to take over after the Rays return home on April 13th.
Fernando Perez has everything the Rays love in a out fielder. He had blazing speed on the field and the base paths, and he hit with intelligence. He came up late in 2008 and rallied the Rays with his base running abilities in the playoff run. He got 14 starts in 2008, 10 in center field for the Rays. In 2008, he was picked by Baseball America as being the fastest man in the International League. There was some talk around the dugout that he might have been able to supplant Gabe Kapler for the Rays right-hand platoon partner with Gabe Gross for right field in 2009. But his recent wrist injury will side rail him for at least three months with a dislocated wrist. This will put an end to the chatter in the stands for him to break camp with the team in April. With Perez in the lineup, the Rays would have had the fastest outfield in the majors.
If you consider that Crawford stole 25 bases and Upton had 44 last year. Then if you factor in the 5 bases Perez stole in 23 games ( could be a total of 35 bases in 161 games) , you might have a trio who could steal over 125 bases in a single season. That would make the team threat anytime either of these three hit the base paths. But before his injury, Perez also was not lighting up the Spring Training scoreboards with hits or stolen bases. He might have only had 19 at bats, but he is hitting a lowly .211, with 2 stolen bases this spring. But another face had emerged out of the darkness and might be on the Rays radar right now.
In a recent two-game home-and-home series against the Boston Red Sox outfielder Jon Weber was trying to make a name for himself on the base paths for the Rays. In that series he garnered 7 RBI’s in two games, with a timely home run and a 3-run dingle. Weber has been very effective in the field this spring and also is hitting .364, with 10 RBI’s and 5 stolen bases. He is making an outside run at making the Rays decision difficult for him to be sent down to Triple-A this year based on his spring numbers. But if his numbers are making the Rays salivate for their depth, the recent slump of Gabe Kapler is making them question his signing.
Gabe Gross, who the Rays acquired on April 23, 2008 for minor leaguer Josh Butler, played in 78 games for the Rays in 2008. His bat and his outfield play were the reason for many of the Rays late innings triumphs, and his arm became a great weapon for the Rays. In one game against the Seattle Mariners at home, he was the first player to gun down Ichiro as he tried to stretch a double into a triple. He also combines to throw out a total of 5 base runners, which was second on the team. He is currently hitting .308 after getting off to a rocky start this spring. He is currently tied with Pat Burrell for the team lead with 6 walks this spring. Gross will be with the team this season in right field barring an injury. Who will be his combo mate might still be up in the air.
Another name that could be fit into the mix is super utility man Ben Zobrist. In recent games he has been a late inning replacement in center field as a insurance policy this year. He has regained an awesome power stroke and could be another guy who could help the team get over the first week absence of Upton by filling in for him until the home stand. No one can discount his abilities in the outfield where he played 3 games there in 2008. Last year was his first playing the utility role and he appeared in the outfield a total of 12 times in 2008. But his new power might be his ticket to getting more playing time this coming season. He hit 10 homers in only 189 at bats. This is a new addition to his game, which has always included solid defense on the diamond.
So the Rays are pretty set in the outfield in 2009. There are other names that have made huge strides for the team in spring training this year, but they might not get a chance to break camp with the big club. Another name to keep an eye on is Ray Sadler, who is currently playing a lot if the outfield for the Rays and is hitting a nice .316, with 3 homes and 7 RBI’s. But he probably a guy looking in from the outside of the current outfield package. All indications show that the Rays will have a great outfield in 2009. There is talk that Upton might have his breakout year this season following his off season surgery. He is capable of a 30-30 season, but his swing and his power will need to stay consistent during the year. Crawford, who feels fast and truly healthy this spring might also spell doom for catchers and pitcher this season. This unit has a huge upside of potential, and they might be the trio of outfielders’ to be feared both at the plate and in the field this year. But for the Rays to even consider making a run at their 2008 record, or another shot to the post season, this outfield unit has to play above its 2008 level.