October 2011

More Answers than Questions (Thank Goodness) This Rays Offseason

At the precise moment on Friday night as the St. Louis Cardinal’s barrage of champagne corks began their ascent towards the heavens, 29 other Major League Baseball franchises heard only the undeniable audible signal that announced the beginning of their own rebuilding and tweaking process. These MLB clubs did not watch in awe and admiration as Cardinal fans and players took their ceremonial baths in bubbly, that precise moment beckoned each and every club to begin to unveil and move towards their own dreams of celebrating in November, 2012.

As the city’s faithful began their dancing beneath that mighty arch, baseball vistas from Seattle to Miami began their own quests to become the club’s to do that same celebratory display in November, 2012. With the first cork came the realization that the 2011 MLB season is in the books, and 2012 is there for the taking.

This morning as the Sunburns off last night’s celebration haze, the Cardinal faithful are rushing to outlets throughout their city for their World Series title mementos while the rest of the MLB is sprinting to possibly gain a sizable lead in retaining, replacing or reconstructing their squads to have the same experience in 2012. The off season folder have been plucked from their secretive hiding places and already things are in the works both behind the scenes and in plain view. The off season for everyone in Major League Baseball has officially begun.

Here in Tampa Bay, the Rays should have an pretty abbreviated laundry list compared to their 2011 off season “wish list”. Still a few additional key components have to be found, possibly tweaked or invited to re-sign with the young club to give the Rays that same competitive fire and drive that send them from bystanders to Wild Card darlings. Key decisions have to be made about certain rotation members tenures with the team. Certain arbitration-eligible players may find themselves without a team, and a few unexpected free agents might get an Spring Training invite to become a part of the Rays 2012 nucleus.

Already there is both optimism and pessimistic waves and valleys growing within the Rays Republic. Should the Rays offer another contract to DH Johnny Damon with possibly a $7 guaranteed payday plus the same attendance bonuses? Or should the club enlist the outside help of another high priced bat-slinger to bring a bit of intimidation and power to the Rays universe?

Will a few slots open up in the Rays rotation, or will pitchers like Matt Moore and the “Alex” duo of Cobb and Torres be shipped back to the minor until mid-May to stammer their arbitration clocks? The Rays scouting system and front office is bound to have to endure more than a handful of stressful and thought provoking skull sessions to decide if the Tall Texan (Jeff Neimann) or WD-40 (Wade Davis) have better talent and potential than the pitching trifecta punching their way through the thin glass ceiling between Triple-A Durham and the St. Petersburg clubhouse.

Will the Rays catching corps rebound with authority both at the plate and behind it with John Jaso possibly showing the same power and ability that made him a Rays darling in 2010, or will a bevy of Rays farm hand backstops like Jose Lobaton, Robinson “Honeynut” Chirinos, Nevin Ashley or the powerful bat of Stephen Vogt make Jaso possibly a Rays “dead man walking?

The glass ceiling between Triple-A Durham and the clubhouse in St. Petersburg could be broken by several players of these players and more this coming Spring. Could veteran C Kelly Shoppach’s September and post season heroics gain him another shot behind the plate with the Rays, or will the Rays decline his 2012 club option? I have a feeling one of these catchers will not be with the Rays come the mid-February report date.

Then there will be an endless bevy of flowcharts and statistical evaluations and scouting critiques to decide if Reid Brignac is the heir apparent at shortstop, or if infield journeyman Sean Rodriguez will be given a chance to unseat Brignac who was the Rays 2011 Opening Day SS. Some have said S-Rod gives the team more power and a consistent bat in the line-up whereas Brignac might have the deeper range and potential coming into Spring Training 2012. With a hot Rays SS prospect like Hak-Ju Lee and INF Tim Beckham still pushing their way up the Rays farm ladder, the current shaky foundation of Brignac will open discussions towards possibly having Rodriguez get more time in the 6-slot with the future only a phone call away in Durham come late season.

Then there is the biggest hot spot of them all, who will man the First Base bag for the Rays in 2012? Most might think current 1B Casey Kotchman will get a nice bump in pay from his $ 750,000 2011 salary to re-sign with the Rays, but that is pure speculation until the contract is sign, sealed and delivered. Even with First Base power behemoths like Pujols, Fielder and possibly Votto dangling on the lines, the Rays will not have a salary deviations to land a high priced acquisition, and Kotchman could be a bargain both in his defense and in his renewed vigor at the plate.

Possibly we will see the end of the “Sonny” era with the Rays. Andy Sonnanstine spent most of 2011 in Triple-A, and being arbitration-eligible again in 2012, might have worn the Rays colors for the last time. RP J P Howell also will enter the fray again, possibly also with the Rays on the fence to his ability to rebound from his surgery and again be the needed force in the Rays Bullpen. The Rays for once seem set at “leftie specialist” as both Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos should end any discussions of the Rays needing another hurler in that category.

Kyle Farnsworth seems destined to again shore up the back end of the Rays Bullpen with a $ 3.3 million 2012 club option on the books. But could the late season elbow stiffness possibly have the Rays a bit anxious of a possible Deja Vu circa 2008 “Percival” scenario? More Bullpen concern might be to see if Joel Peralta might like to remain a Ray, possibly with a extended 2-year deal.

From top to bottom, all 40 of the Rays current roster members will undergo a evaluation soon. With free agents making visits to the Rays complex, and some packing their gloves for other vistas, this Rays off season has begun. Fortunately there are more answers than questions this season, but that will not hinder Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and his staff as they find ample offense and suitable replacements for a few departing Rays. The 2011 season is officially in the record books, now comes the real fun for Friedman and his staff to bring the brilliance.

Could a Forced Payroll Ruin the Competitive Rays?

You know Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, Rays President Matt Silverman and Vice-President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman are anxiously awaiting the end to the 2011 post season. Possibly even before the fizzle leaves the last champagne bottle, and the last tinsel of ticker tape hits the pavement, there could be an announcement by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig about baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Unlike the NFL and NBA, MLB and the MLBPA have been working themselves into a fever trying to get their own deal finalize, in place and ready to implement as soon as the curtain is drawn on the 2011 Fall Classic. For some clubs around the MLB, this upcoming announcement could be met with both joy and sadness as elements of the overall agreement are opened to the public. Some teams could face hardships, other revisions of their anointed Winter of 2011 scenarios, but all will eagerly be awaiting the final draft of the document.

Even with all this positive energy surrounding some of the preliminary items already leaked to the public, there could be a potential dark side to the new CBA, one that could instantly help or hinder the Rays 2012 season blueprint. Potentially there have been talk of a minimal salary or “competitive balance” ceiling that every club will have to maintain within the season, possibly setting into motion 180 degree changes or implementations of a different roster formulation.

Not only will some of the smaller market clubs feel some pain, but it could stifle the first few weeks of free agency as teams readjust their expectations, circumvent their initial plans in place, and possibly even abandon some potential deals currently in the works behind the scenes.

Ever since MLB Commissioner Bud Selig spanked the Florida/Miami Marlins both verbally and in writing for their blatant funneling of luxury tax funds from the upper echelon MLB teams, there have been more than whispers about a reverse luxury tax, possibly taking money from clubs that do not do their due diligence to stay competitive or hide the money for another rainy payroll day. Teams like the Marlins, Rays, Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates fit this bill with payroll all coming in under $ 60 million dollars.

Amazingly the Marlins  led that small segment of the lower echelon of the MLB salary ladder with over $ 57 million in player salaries, while the Rays ($ 42.1 million) and Pirates ($ 42.04 million) were not the bargain basement dwellers when it comes to their club’s 2011 payroll. That honor ( if you call it that) went to the Royals who had a 2011 club payroll of just under $ 40 million.

Interesting enough, the Chicago Cubs ($ 134 million), Los Angeles Angels ($ 141.7 million), New York Mets ($142.7 million), Boston Red Sox ($163.8 million), Philadelphia Phillies ($165.9 million), and of course the New York Yankees ($ 207 million) all had the payrolls and revenues to have individually paid the salaries of all 3 of the MLB’s bottom 3 all by themselves. Some say that with the new CBA there will be a salary revolution, and teams from Tampa Bay north to Cleveland and west to San Diego will feel the fiscal vibrations first.

Winter payroll prep and roster plans are already formulated and signed, sealed and delivered for most of the MLB, but for clubs near the bottom of the fiscal food chain, the CBA announcement could be their blessing or curse for their preconceived forecasts for their roster makeup for the Spring of 2012.

If MLB does impose a mandatory $65 million dollar payroll bottom end for their franchises, this could both hurt or help the Rays. It would force a rethinking of the overall progress of the franchise as they reload as a competitive unit. With a slew of rookies and second years players possibly dotting the roster again in 2012, their collective salaries would be minimal compared to the high dollar salary of wily veterans or potential free agents. Sternberg has hinted in previous interviews that the low intake of revenues by the Rays during the 2011 season would be felt in the team’s player personnel makeup.

If MLB mandates a set bottom for payroll for the Rays would it help the likes of Johnny Damon or Casey Kotchman in getting a longer tenure with the Rays, or could it open avenues for the Rays to circumvent the system a hair and offer long-term deals to David Price, Matt Joyce and possibly B J Upton to put their 2012 mandated dollars to work without a huge influx of new personnel or expectations? If the Rays did fund a payroll of $65 million, would it have to take funds from other sections of the team like their development and scouting, or possibly from their promotional budget?

When Selig begins to speak at the microphone about the new CBA, the Rays Republic should be eager to read behind the words. MLB is set to transform into a new generation, and teams staying near the bottom rung of the MLB salary ladder could greatly be effected by the new agreement, and it provisions and expectations.

But right now the conversation might seem moot. Trite because the writing is not in front of us, the proverbial pen has not left the paper and things could change dramatically before the final document is sent to the printer. A salary cap might seem like a blessing to some within the Rays Republic to make Sternberg and his crew bring in vital cogs to the Rays machine for 2012, potentially circumventing our own farm system and clogging up the lanes again to the Major Leagues for so many of the Rays budding players.

I hope I am worrying about nothing, that a salary cap will not even be broached and voiced by Selig or the MLBPA. Then again, Selig’s 2012 rants towards the Marlins shows that MLB wants the bottom rung to move up farther away from the ooze of the muck. Problem is, will that cause a baseball evolution or slice into an already streamlined Rays payroll forecast for 2012….I can already hear the darkened clouds rumbling.

Hellboy Might Need a Handyman

I can imagine that Tampa Bay Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson will have a special carpentry project to complete in the near future. I can definitely imagine a particular DIY (do-it-yourself) project to be penciled in bold letters on the Hellboy’s off-season “Honey-Do” list.

I can visualize him now peering over expansive pile of timber with the same intensity and commitment he showed 29 times during 2011 as he took the mound. Bet he is even wearing a Rays game day cap on his head, with a pencil fashioned behind his ear. Just like sheriff Brody needed a “Bigger boat”, Hellboy is definitely going to be in the market for a trophy case addition soon.

Recently Tampa Bay Rays rookie starter Jeremy Hellickson got the fantastic news back home in Des Moines, Iowa that he had been selected as the 2011 Baseball America M L B Rookie of the Year. Joining the ranks of Baseball America past R O Y winners such as Cardinals 1B Albert Pujols (2001), Diamondbacks SP Brandon Webb (2003), Tigers SP Justin Verlander (2006), Brewers OF Ryan Braun (2007), Tigers, Cubs C Geovany Soto (2008) and Giants C Buster Posey (2010).

Major League Baseball and the Baseball Writers Association of America (B B W A A) will not officially announce their respective National League or American League Rookie of the Year Award winners until November 14th but history is definitely tilted Hellboy’s way as 8 out of the last 11 M L B seasons, the Baseball America R O Y selection also heard his name announced as their respective league’s R O Y award winner in mid-November.

Hellboy also ended the National League’s 4-year grip on the award and Hellickson became not only the first pitcher to stake claim to the award, but also the first American League player to win the honor since Detroit Tigers rookie SP Justin Verlander back in 2006. This same Baseball America MLB Rookie of the Year honor eluded former Rays standouts Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Joe Kennedy, Rolando Arroyo, plus current stars 3B Evan Longoria and SP David Price. Interesting enough, former Rays 3B/DH Eric Hinske (2002) and SP Hideo Nomo (1995) won the same award, but not as Rays.

Amazing that Hellickson in his first full MLB season posted a .210 opponents batting average, which ranked 3rd in the MLB behind possible Cy Young candidates Verlander and Los Angeles Dodger hurler Clayton Kershaw. Didn’t hurt that the young Rays starter saved his best for later in the 2011 season as Hellboy bolstered a 2.64 ERA from the All-Star break to the end of the 2011 season, plus garnered a coveted American League Divisional Series pitching assignment.

Hellickson is definitely another reason to feel optimistic coming into the Spring of 2012 when he will not only have another year under his belt, but possibly possess even a few more tweaks to his pitching arsenal. With that in mind, maybe there should be a tweak to Hellickson’s DIY project plans, possibly re-configuring his carpentry plans to include an addition to his home. Got a feeling this is the first wave of many shiny pieces of MLB acknowledgment that Hellboy will receive in his career.

If you need help Jeremy, I am pretty good with a tape measure and a circular saw.

Relax Rays Republic, Friedman Already has the Best Job in Baseball

You’ve got to admit the job of being the Tampa Bay Rays Vice-President of Baseball Operations has to be one of the most challenging jobs within Major League Baseball. Your job requirements could change as drastically as the Florida weather, and even the most mundane situation could get blown out of proportions.

Is there any other  M L B GM position where you have to possess the patience of Job while doing your own daily battle with due diligence to keep both your player and payroll bubble from bursting…daily. Friedman’s obvious gift for multi-tasking might be the key to his game plan where he can constantly juggle his priorities and requirements with precision, while having to balance both wise and frugal prospects on a simultaneous basis keeping harmony within the Rays cohesive environment.

All the above completed, Friedman can check-off his daily “Honey-Do” list before throwing on his other important “ cap”, where he basically becomes a quasi-carnival soothsayer selling a dose of the magic that embodies the Rays dreamscape to a prospective free agent. Seems like an insurmountable bags of tricks to keep in harmony without dropping a single aspect, but Friedman handles each task like he has been doing it for 25-odd seasons.

I really do not blame the Rays boy wonder for checking out other  M L B landscapes, possibly kicking the tires on a few other General Manager vacancies. Sometimes the best job motivator is the chance to see that your present job is a cakewalk compared to another positions. Plus he does have a few waking moments before the final out of the World Series, and again back to the off-season rind of making the Rays competitive again for 2012 in that dastardly AL East competitive jungle.

On the surface all of the 29 other GM posts look inviting, but you never know what might be hidden just beyond the public’s view , hidden behind their logo or field façade. With teams in ownership renovations like Friedman’s hometown Houston Astros, there is bound to be temptation, possibly be some fantasy visions of building your hometown team into another stellar farm system behemoth and then watching as that franchise returns to newfound glory on your watch.

You have to let Friedman do the window shopping, gain some more outside ideas, possibly turning his own position into a more powerful weapon against his  M L B foes. Best motivation is an employee knowing he can grow and influence within his job while gaining and obtaining respect among his own business community. Friedman has done that and more during his short tenure with the Rays.

I feel that Friedman is as valuable a commodity to this franchise’s current and future success as David Price or Evan Longoria. Friedman (an ex-baseball player) might not hit Home Runs or finesse a slider over the plate, but his off-the-field performances out of the sight line of most fans has put his name solidly into the top echelon among M L B GM’s.

If Friedman ever went on the free market with an open and honest intention of leaving the Rays, it would become a M L B free-for-all. What team would not possibly shake their own tree bare and offer the moon to Friedman?

I definitely do not see any danger in Friedman’s recent “dinner date” with Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno. The Head Halo doesn’t seem to be fashioned from the same Carolina blue cloth as Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg. Moreno seems more like the type who would be looking over Friedman’s shoulder, possibly shouting his personnel intention with gusto, pushing that envelope to be a “on-hands” owner instead of letting his capable leader take the reins with in interaction. That by itself should be enough to stave off Friedman.

But there is something that might make some worry among the Rays Republic. The apparent yearly “open agreement” or contract between Friedman and Sternberg could be viewed as a quick release valve if Friedman wanted a quick departure from the Rays fold. Friedman has been on basically a free agent one-year revolving contract agreement since day 1, possibly earning more than we even imagine to run this franchise like a well oiled machine.

Are the Rays GM rewards enough to keep Friedman satisfied, or will he eventually bolt for greener pastures in the future? What could be the tipping point that would send Friedman salivating towards another adventure, much like Raymond stalking a Kayem hot dog? There have been hints, but no real solid evidence that Sternberg might have a future spot in his ownership group for Friedman. That his escalating “retirement fund/401-K” may actually be a future small plot of ownership in this franchise Friedman has sweated bullets for, and seen pop post season celebratory champagne bottle while toeing the fine line of a shoestring budget.

Could that prize dangled in front of him be the motivation that keeps him here…or finally be the motivating factor that sends him packing?

As a former financial wizard, the Rays job is the optimal position to show your fiscal versatility as well as your salesmanship savvy by bartering against your M L B peers and coming up with deals that accent the positives. Friedman is considered by so many around baseball to be the keystone to the Rays quick rise to success, and their not so distant future. You wonder why Sternberg doesn’t lock up his top non-rostered prize with a long-term deal, or a vocal acknowledgment of Friedman’s extended involvement with the club.

Honestly, Friedman possibly has his VP position until he no longer wants it. He has banked enough clout and prestige not only with the Rays organization, but with M L B to possibly be the top choice for any and every future GM opening for the next generation.

Seeing Friedman going on dinner dates with other owners produces a bit of Rays Republic stress, but it also might empower Friedman to solidify within himself he has the perfect job, with a franchise that respects and admires his tools and his artful ways of doing things. Plus he has the bonus of having an owner who is open to change, stays out-of-the-way and let’s Friedman keep producing those stellar results. Why would he go anywhere else?

No Excuses for Opportunities Missed

Is it only me, or does it seem that more and more this generation is becoming a “excuse” dependent generation. Seems like daily there is someone or something thrown against the wall as a solidified “reason”, or possible outside influence or environmental hazard that evokes a failure or a justification for lose. Who in their right mind would have though the current demise of Red Sox Nation would be somehow find its abyss within a bath of beer and fried chicken?

Why is it we, as a Baseball Nation, do not revolt but instead act as symbolic enablers giving ballplayers the leeway for ignoring the basic human responsibility traits we ourselves have to adhere to or face punishments from public ridicule to criminal confinement. Why do we let the ballplayers our kids idolize take the short path of giving excuses to proceed their misguided rants and finger-pointing as their internal “excuse monster” looks for another victim or folly to blame instead of themselves.

Failure is a destructive force that can not live on it’s own merits, it needs the seeds of negativity to flourish grow and destroy the positives before it. I understand totally that the Tampa Bay Rays came within a few inches on two seperate occasions during the Red Sox last two contests of seeing the balance shift towards the Red Sox, possibly burying these soiled moments and excuses for another time.

By now you have heard the recent smattering of excuses from the Red Sox Nation for their late season collapse. Even before their uniforms hit the floor, the banter and fingers dissected the once harmonious Boston clubhouse, pushing some members towards the door and other cowling away from the media hoping it was all a nasty dream.

Some took the low road immediately and started to point their bony finger towards the Red Sox’s anemic rotations woes, kinks in their defensive armor, or the visual sense of emotional suicide as one-by-one of members of the Boston roster realized their mission was lost. Others took to poking holes in the fragile Boston dike which finally succumbed to the pressures and stress and released all its pent up fury drowning more than the sorrows of their faithful.

Losing a chance at the postseason on the last day, pretty much on the last play of the season brought to the surface all of the vented anger of 180 days, plus exposed to the sunlight the true unapologetic emotions of some highly regarded current Red Sox icons. It might take longer than just this off season to repair and mend this currently divided Boston clubhouse.

Casualties have begun to mount as Red Sox Manager Terry Francona threw himself on the Boston sword, taken a boatload of the blame and pressure upon his weary shoulders. This is not the way Red Sox Nation ever thought they would see their beloved “Tito” leave Fenway.

General Manager Theo Epstein, the sculptor of this current Red Sox empire is also trying to get a far away from the impending carnage as he can, possibly heading to the Windy City to take on another rebuilding project in the Northside of Chi-town. Here is a GM that most consider one of the brightest young minds in baseball doing everything short of giving up money and limbs to obtain a speedy exit stage right out of the Boston bubbling lobster cauldron.

Rumors of members of the Red Sox pitching staff eating fried chicken and drinking alcoholic beverages while watching the dismantling of their season in front of them has been met by spiraling commentary from both sides of the spectrum. What reasoning was there for someone deep within the inner circle of Red Sox Nation to unclench their hand from over their mouth and spewing out the “inside scoop”, ruined the air of trust and privacy of the clubhouse domain.

These game day actions have sent some within Red Sox Nation spiraling downward without a safety net, wondering if the rips in the fabric of the hallowed Red Sox mystic might be unrepairable. Why is it someone decided to pull the curtain back and expose the inner workings by the wizards of Yawkey Way possibly forever tainting the magic. When did the mantra “what happens in the clubhouse, stays in the clubhouse” become moot?

Instantly this accusation of pitcher’s enjoying an adult libation with fried foods has been vaulted atop the expanding Red Sox “excuse” pile, providing new justifiable set of factoids for their team’s dismal September. The essence of this unimaginable and incurable “sin” by some within the sanctum of the 2011 Red Sox have thrust up this viable excuse for those within the Red Sox Nation to decide for themselves if it is another reason for their failure and eventual fall from grace not with a bang, but with a H-bomb type implosion.

Why is it the Red Sox  players and their sulking Nation of fans feel the need to push out excuses, find reasoning for the September madness? Couldn’t it have been as simple as key games got away from them by pitchers not suited for these pressure situations? That their rotation was inadequate to battle the American League East foes over that last month. Why does there have to be a boatload of reasons for the failure instead of just the plain truth they had the weapons, but some night still found themselves under the Executioner’s axe.

I will leave you with a quote I once wrote in a paper in Composition in college: “Every organization has holes in their ever flowing fabric, but the one that mends and sews those holes with vigilance and confidence sees them hold when times are harrowed and fingers begin to wag and point.” Maybe that is something all of us need to remember.

One Word Describes the 2011 Rays…Determined.

I was sitting somewhere last night and someone asked me one word that would describe the Tampa Bay Rays 2011 season. Instantly the thesaurus and dictionary capillaries went into overdrive. Images and events seems to transcend into my mind, clicks, bells and even a foghorn going off silently in my head until the one word seemed to shine bright…almost angelic to the forefront.

That word is determined.

That just seemed to fit this young crew of Rays this season. Baseball experts projected them fighting possibly for the third slot in the American League East, but rarely a soul found the courage to pronounce them “Wild Card” darlings. Rays Manager Joe Maddon instilled the mantra “Find Another Way” deep into their collective psyches to show that the road to success this season would be determined by their own want and aspirations.

When the Rays announced their 2011 Most Valuable Player during their last home stand, you could have effectively split the trophy into 25 parts for each night it seemed a new hero, a determined athlete who wanted to celebrate not postulate came to the rescue of this Rays squad. From the Rays starters to the Bullpen, From First Base to the Right field corner this team was a determined unit, with each player having their shares of defining roles in this season.

It was simple inspirational to me to see the eternal youth of Johnny Damon steals bases, turn singles into extra base hits, show a excited and zestful leadership that turned the volume up on this team. Even guys like Sean Rodriguez, Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer and Alex Cobb made impressions, showed their potential and raised the bar throughout this season. From veteran to rookie, this team seemed happy and content with passing the cap every night for someone else to lead the way to victory.

The confidence and the character displayed by the Rays rotation seemed to cement this mentality. They always pitched as if no lead was safe and minimal runs were needed. Even when their offense sputtered and shook, the Rays hurlers stepped up their game, produced amazing results and tried to make the bridge between starter and Bullpen one built on success not teeter-tottering towards the abyss. Always determined, the Rays all posted more than 10 wins, and Rays records seemed destined to fall nightly.

Even with Evan Longoria fighting injury and inconsistency, this team found other ways to produce, induce and collect runs, hits and amazing plays. I always think it shows the true spirit and merits of a team when their key figure has a bad night, or series and the guys around him rally and pull together to produce outstanding results. Sure Longo might have lost a few National followers with his down season, but locally, we saw his heart, his character tested and the end result was a determined athlete wanting to again get to that high level of expectation.

From the All-Star break on, Longoria found his rhythm, found his groove and along with the rest of the Rays, found a way to bypass the expectations and the naysayers to celebrate Mumm’s style. B J Upton has taken a lot of strife and ridicule over the past few years for his base running gaffs and his seemingly lack of hustle, but this season he showed his bat still has the goods, and his defense is up there with anyone in the Major Leagues.

When the going got tough, Upton stepped up his game determined to make more than a few broadcasters whisper, make more than a few teams fear his bat, his speed and his skill in the field. He might not have had an All Star season, but Upton did have a season worth remembering. His stats might not glow bright into the night, but his timely strokes and impressive defense kept the Rays in games when most fans around the ballpark thought the Rays would flounder. Upton became a clubhouse leader, even if the rest of the stadium didn’t know it.

The essence of this 2011 Rays team was based purely on determination. Every game they seemed to be the underdog, and they pulled out magic. On the road they stepped up their game to historical heights, almost seeming like they were possessed on the road while bedeviled at home. When their home record finally reached the .500 mark, they began to watch it also soar as high as their post season aspirations.

The 2011 edition of the Rays is firmly in the books, their legacy is bound not by their win and loss record, but by the feats and accolades of determination, spirit and never giving in to the temptation of failure. Truly the word “determined” fits this team like a glove from the exploits of Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach to the mystical magic of Matt Moore this Rays squad might have started their own simplistic dynasty built on the sole virtues of eluding defeat, embrace success and showing determination can be the virtue that rewards those willing to sacrifice, strive for the brass ring, and willing to endure.

Maybe the 2012 Webster’s Dictionary will include the 2011 Rays Team Photo…..seems only fitting.

Re-casting Possible for the Rays “Young Guns”?

It always amazes me when people make posters like this. It is creative, very well thought out in the ways of design, but the content sometimes makes a lot to be desired. It is not that I do not consider the Tampa Bay Rays pitchers that this artist selected for his poster to not be “Young Guns”, I just think a couple of pitchers who also made an 2011 appearance missed the photo cut.

Gazing at the poster several images of 2011 came rushing back to me, which several being possible final curtain calls for a few Rays. Some showed their magic in 2011, while some may have shown a bit of a bad slide, possibly signing their own visas for exit from the Rays universe. Still it is wild that this one photo to the right was presented on the first day Rays pitchers’ and catchers reported in Port Charlotte, Florida, and one person presented on the poster was not even among those assembled.

Rays phenom Matt Moore did not even report until the Rays minor league player’s strolled into the Southwest Florida community, but won a spot on the poster. It would be futile to not consider this southpaw a future staple in the Rays rotation, possibly making his next appearance after May 2012. Still it shows the defining depth and promise of the Rays hurlers that a guy not even selected for a Major League Spring Invite makes such a prominent figure on the poster.

But there is something that is bothering me about this poster. Something that today might not seem relevant, but could make the whole idea of the poster moot possibly even before the 2012 Spring thaw. I consider the duo of “Alex’s”, Torres and Cobb to have a prominent place in the Rays plans coming into 2012, possibly making their Opening Day debuts this season for the Rays.

That immediately raises the question on who I truly think might be airbrushed off this poster, possibly wearing different colors as the mid-February date approaches. The first pitcher that might get a new MLB address for 2012 could be right-hander Jeff Niemann. It is nothing personal, Niemann has shown great signs of brilliance on the mound, it is just that his risk factors in regard to injury setbacks and his up and down productivity make him a suitable pitcher to find another home for 2012.

Some people might be amazed that the “Tall Texan” has made 83 career starts for the Rays, but most of us are transfixed on his last 2011 start, in Fenway Park where Niemann was matched up against Red Sox hurler Jon Lester and Neumann posted up his 11th victory of the season. Niemann posted a 8-2 record on the road this season in his 12 starts, pushing him into the top 5 road records in the major leagues, including winning 8 of his last 9 road decisions.

Usually that kind of pitcher would not even be on the cusp of trade chatter, but the Rays have a bevy of pitchers trying to break through the barrier between the Triple-A Durham Bulls and a place on the Rays 25-man roster. 2012 might be the season where the Rays get significantly younger, and Niemann may only be the first to mosey into the Florida sunset. Niemann has had a good enough career and 2011 season to possibly get the Rays an up-grade in a few needed areas for 2012. I would put him at the top of the Rays list of available players come the Hot Stove season, and a pitcher more than a few teams covet.

The second member of the Rays current “Young Guns” who might need to worry is also Niemann’s hunting and fishing buddy Wade Davis. Even though he might have signed a salary respectable contract before the 2011 season, that could be a great tasty morsel to a struggling team with limited payroll looking for a viable starter with MLB experience. I guess I put Davis on this list because I consider the two “Alex’s” to have more up-side for the Rays in the near future than Davis, this is not about his present record or his injury in 2011.

Still, Davis is another Rays pitcher who has some valuable MLB abilities and could come at a respectable trade cost to another team. Worst thing here is that Davis would be a marked man in 2012 no matter what in reality. With the firm possibility that Moore will spend at least a few months in Durham before possibly making another visit to the Rays roster, Davis looks like a man firmly on unstable ground with no lifeline within reaching distance.

Even after posting a 8 inning, 2-hit start against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 25th, Davis might not have done enough to have teams kicking his tires this offseason. Davis won his last 7 starts of the season at Tropicana Field plus Davis posted double digit win totals over his first 2 Rays seasons, but it might not be enough to let WD-40 squeak by with a 2012 spot in the rotation. Davis may be in the same row boat as Niemann right now with financial numbers and the possibility of younger starters beating on the Rays doors being the catalyst for a trade, not his abilities.

Most would think I would have selected James Shields as one of the “poster boys” to be in the most jeopardy for 2012. If you thought that, you would not be totally wrong. Shields will possibly be dealt by the Rays, but it seems more logical for him to be separated from this team by the end of July, not this off season. With Moore, Torres and Cobb all having limited game experience, having a starting trio of David Price, Shields and Jeremy Hellickson to start 2012 makes the Rays an instant contender.

Shields 2012 salary would be a huge reason for his departure, but he also showed this season he has the drive and ability to still be a top flight pitcher and a value commodity for the Rays to start 2012. By the end of July, with free agency possibly on the horizon, the Rays might be more likely to trade Shields while his value is high to a contender outside the American League.

The poster is another reminder of the deep and promising rotation the Rays should be able to push up against their Major League Baseball adversaries for the next 5-8 years. Every one of these pitchers have the abilities and the skills to dominate and take a win from the clutches of any team, at any time. It is a rare and unique thing for the Rays to have such depth, but it is also a tragedy that some of their pitchers may ultimately experience their career peaks not wearing a Rays uniform.

Lost Some Respect for You Stu.

Everyone knows by now that I am a homegrown product of the Tampa Bay area. That I sweat suntan oil and bleed Orange juice along with a bit of a Southern twang. I take the comments and the rants towards this region very personally, as if it was an old friend, and I would defend this region to my last breathe.

Maybe it is my “native” instinct to get rattled and upset when someone has the gumption to shake the trademark Florida “status Quo” tree and a few coconuts fall on my head. Possibly I can be labeled as stubborn and opinionated since I have always taken anything spoken by someone who has traveled from above the Mason-Dixon line with a bit of apprehension. Possibly I fit the stereotype to a “T”, especially a Rays “T”.

It broke my heart to hear the comments by Sternberg while the Rays postseason corpse was still warm. Maybe it was my upbringing that such discussions should not be made during a “wake” period. It did not seem like the right moment, or the place to pull the attendance skeleton out of the closet and thrust it to the forefront.

Out of respect for the outstanding job his Rays had done since they first reported in mid-February, Sternberg should have left that door shut tight. This was a time for Sternberg to accent the positives, give us all time to reflect, for him to sign the praises of future encouragement or possible enlightenment, not use words like “disappointment” and “frustrated” bringing to light a negative vibe within the region.

It was the time to push enthusiasm to the dome’s ceiling, not bring this highly volatile subject/ Rays dirty laundry to the table. It smelled entirely as a businessman’s move, not one I would have expected from someone who claims to be a “sports fan who is an MLB owner”. What seemed to make it all worse is the pure fact it has firmly opened the door for the National media to again take turns trouncing the Rays franchise, drown it over and over again with negativism.

I agree this situation merits a move towards letting the “rubber meet the road”, but why on that day. Why is it that this subject had to be vented while in the background you see Rays Manager Joe Madden shaking hands with a Rays trainer and players and staffers stuffing moving boxes with gear. Could this subject had waited at least until the dust had settled and emotions were not so tainted towards negativity? I would think that would be the “Rays Way”?

I have to admit this video might have just further alienated some fans within the Rays Republics who want to be at Rays games, and feel terrible daily they can not be there because of monetary restraints. I know for a fact that some yearn to be in the seats Stu, but can’t for fear of losing their bare necessities in life. Sure you can say a TBT Deck seat is $5, but what if you do not have that $5?

Way to thrust the dagger deeper into my Rays heart less than 24 hours after watching the Rays again fall to the Texas Rangers in the American League Divisional Series. I know you were speaking from the Rays businessman’s side and not as a Rays fan. Why could you not focus on the pure fact 30,000+ members of the Rays Republic filled your stadium on 2 weekday contests on particularly hectic October sports dates.

The Monday late afternoon Game 3 of the ALDS came just hours before a Nationally broadcast of “Monday Night Football” held just 25 miles away. Rays fans did not hesitate to sell out that ALDS contest fast and furious even though some wanted to attend both contests. Then the Rays Republic was subjected to a early afternoon matinée for Game 4 that frustrated some, and alienated others due to the Rays marketability compared to the Yankees historic mystic. Why no applaud that collective showing of the support and pride of this region for the Rays. Instead you picked it as a moment to drive the knife deeper, inflict a little more pain and suffering, submit us all back into the realization that baseball is a business and you are a business man.

Not even a day after your comments Stu, National media talking heads have pushed their slanted agenda’s to purge this region of it’s baseball lifeline. Rip the baseball heart out of this community like it was a piece of trash and stomp on it until it is left lifeless and limp. Whispers have emerged that the Tampa Bay baseball market is dead, that the regional apathy is so severe it pales in comparison to the rest of the MLB franchises. Yet, 30,000+ sat in your stadium when they could have spent their money in other areas of entertainment.

I understand the Rays attendance fugitives fell 15% under your estimated wants and needs for the franchise, but there is reasoning for it. People in regions with double digit unemployment and finicky employers have make a choice. It is not personal, it is a decision I know I personally did not want to make. If I could have lived in a box and still paid for my Rays tickets, it would have been a done deal with no hesitation.

I’m not saying the Rays descending attendance issue is not important and it surely merits a microscopes view,but your present timing sucks. You lost a lot of those bonus points I have attributed to you Stu over the past 5 years. I understand your want to bring this to the surface, but not at a moment like that with the carcass of your team’s defeat still vivid in our mind’s eye. Timing is everything in business. If you bring a product to market too early or too late you can find yourself in a financial tailspin completely out of your control. This was not a PR nightmare, but you did not make any more new Rays friends, and possibly lost one Rays fan who used to breathe this team like oxygen and lived and died by their play.

Just sayin’.

Removing the Stinger Slowly

Now matter how it happens, it still stings. Right now it feels like the barb is stuck deep within my heart and is twisting, bringing about another bout of painful remembrances. No matter if it was through a blaze of glory or just simply a laying down of the weapons of battle, seeing defeat come swiftly and stare you straight in the face is a biotch. This morning the air is not cleaner, the grass is not greener and another chapter in my Tampa Bay Rays life has been slammed shut by a bunch of Rangers.

It is not like I didn’t know this day might happen, I just wanted to linger, for a possible long savoring of the moment when the lights finally dimmed and the reality of the season was stuffed into our frontal lobes. I wanted to scream “This is not fair”, but in reality it is how the game is played and champion are born.

Sure I dreamed of a long long walk in October for the Rays, but somewhere the gears and the forward inertia just seemed stuck in slow motion. The reality was the one dark spot surrounding this otherwise bright and illuminating Rays squad dealt them their death card. It was not for the lack of effort, for the twisting of fate in the non-existent wind in Tropicana Field, but a lack of solid contact consistency.

For again the demonic invention of the “swing and miss” haunted this Rays club. They fought back this darkness at moments, but could not exterminate its festering and accumulation. It’s carnage bringing about an untimely end to the joy and excitement of the game for another season. Baseball is done for me for 2011. I will not hibernate, hide in sorrow or fester in the replaying of misdeeds and missed opportunities.

I plan to relish the affirmative over the coming months. Pull out the festering darkness and bring a new lantern forward for 2012. For the 2012 season will mark this franchises 15th season, and that is something worth a lofty celebration homage right now. As Rays Designated Hitter Johnny Damon packs his gear to surrender to the realization of another year categorized, there is hope he might again enter the Rays clubhouse doors in the Spring of 2012.

Even with this gloomy ending hanging over their shoulders right now, this young Rays club have nothing to fear. The experience of not only the post season, but battling the cursed critics deposing of this squad in early September, throwing down those verbage bonds and emerging as a unified band of brothers.

This early exit, this unforeseen post season journey has matured this team, bonded them forever and shown all of us in Tampa Bay that fighting for what you believe in will be ingrained in this Rays culture for a long, long time. Some might say I am waxing a bit too poetic right now, but that is what is flowing from my cranium. I am not emotionally deceased right now, only morally bankrupt and need a moment to myself.

Saying “goodbye” even to a grand season where you see your squad bashed the expected and transverse beyond the realistic is one to always remember. 3 out of the past 4 years I have had these same emotions at this juncture, and the pain of realism has not damped one iota.

In the end I did not stand and clap at the end of yesterday’s contest to salute the Rangers defeat as their celebration upon our AstroTurf felt like someone pulling their swords out of our Rays lifeless carcass, I stood and applauded the 33 men who fought from April’s dismal start to Evan Longoria’s solo shot to get the post season party started in full gear.

Even though right now a air of sadness envelopes this Tampa Bay region and within the Trop. Feel proud this team pulled off what was previously thought to be impossible. Have pride in the fight and determination of this Rays crew to not buckle to convention, but thrust forward into the darkness still hoping for a shade of light, a renewed vigor, a embracing kiss from fate, destiny and hope that all is possible if you believe.

Been a long season patched together with grit, patience and the bonding of a group of guys I admire and trust will again in 2012 have that same internal fire and pride to again take us on another glorious ride. It is a ride I will dream and relish until mid-February when we can start it all over again.

It still stings like a barb twisted deep within me. Still has that poison coursing through me reminding me of the down turned faces and absence of smiles when the final card was dealt. I am slowly easing that barb out of my heart and replacing it with a new zeal and zest for the revival of these Rays again in the Spring of 2012. This wound will heal, the pain will subdue and again in a few months, we will fall in love with the game and this motley crew of Rays….and do it all over again.

It’s Fight or Flight time Rays

I really can’t fathom this sometimes the Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde offensive personalities of this Tampa Bay Rays offense. It is almost as if this team gets pushed into a quasi-schizophrenic monotone existence almost bordering on the surrealistic imagery usually associated with a Salvador Dali painting. It is a confusing unfolding dramatic battle somewhere within this team’s own soul between their powerful nature and their anemic second cousin.

This Rays offense have plunged themselves into this same kind of topsy-turvy tailspin so many times this season, and at the most inappropriate times that it almost sends me screaming into the dark Florida night. There has to be a simple and logical reason for this faltering of the wood meeting white rawhide ball.  Their simply has to be a finite swirling solution for this repetitive Rays offense malaise.

Is their offensive woes so complex we, the Rays Republic have collectively questioned the real and unreal visions in front of us. Do we need to do a vocal stadium-wide therapy session, submit to a group discount electroshock, or possibly take a dose of our own self prescribed mental toughness medications. Why can’t the answer be as simple as just buckling down to the reality that the Rays sometimes just fall back into old habits, even with all their best intentions.

Since the Rays pushed 9 runs across Home Plate in Arlington, Texas this team somehow found their path back into that darkened region where average pitchers toss lightning bolts like Ranger co-owner Nolan Ryan. Swinging strikeouts, hitting the ball weakly and not taking advantages of mistakes by the Texas hurlers is the symptoms of this failing aliment. If these Rays want to again play another game, they have to resolve this issue before 2 pm today, or begin their packing for the off season.

Since the American League Divisional Series format began in 1995, 36 teams have fallen behind 2-1. Of those 36, 7 American League teams have come back to win the series in 5 games. Also working against the Rays is the realistic fact that even though 7 teams climbed the post season deficit and got into the winning groove, no American League squad has accomplished this since 2003 ALDS when Boston trailed the Oakland A’s, then came back to win Game 4 and Game 5 to secure their destiny towards their eventual World Series journey.

The step up by the Rays has to be now since they have now lost 4 consecutive post season contests in Tropicana Field, all against Texas in the ALDS. ( 3 in 2010, 1 so far in 2011). The Rays are a dismal 5-7 all-time under the dome in the post season. Maybe it is a good thing the Rays play under a off-white dome. That way they can not see the dark clouds assembling outside and fight until the last swing or pitch.

Texas is starting to become the Rays kryptonite in the post season. In their combined 8 meetings in ALDS play over the past two seasons, the Rays are 3-1 with 26 runs and 21 extra-base hits in 4 games at Arlington and in their 4 games at the Trop, they are 0-4 with 5 runs and 6 extra-base hits. The Rays have to call upon the Home Run Tiki Gods who have been at the forefront of their 19 Home Runs in their last 8 games. It is the highest HR output by this team since June 9-17. 2009 when they hammered an identical 19 in a middle of the season spurt.

Right now this Rays squad has to truly embrace their 2011 mantra of “Finding Another Way” to grab hold tight and force a possible Game 5 situation. The opportunities will not simply appear like magic for the Rays. Their Game 5 road will be littered with few defining challenges.

Game 4 has to be the final test to see just how resilient the Rays can be with their back firmly against the wall. Falling towards a 2-1 series deficit is not a joyous and vibrant situation, it tends to feed more on the impending darkness, surging towards the cliffs edge then the high-fives of celebration and acknowledgment of success.

Every pitch, every swing, every single motion in this game by the Rays will be examined, defined and held up for criticism if they fail. Success breeds a short memory for misdeeds A napping offense will get the Rays only a tee time on a Tampa Bay area golf course instead of a return visit to Arlington, Texas for a potential Game 5.

To put it mildly, it is “Put up (runs) or shut down ( for the season)” time for the Rays. No more second chances to get back into the rhythm, any stumble, falter and the dark cloud will ascend quickly above the Trop, possibly hastening an end  to the Rays 2011 season. Rays need to shake off the darkness today, this club has to thrust towards the sunshine, the light the essence that got this team to this stage. If not, the end will come swift and hard even if we do not want to admit it. I personally am not ready to begin the off season. Go get yourself some glory Rays.