Results tagged ‘ 2010 Spring Training ’

Could MLB Follow the NFL’s Lead and Form a “NASCAR” Division?


There has been a bit of a discussion lately about maybe taking the Boston and New York factor in the American League East and splitting them up into another division, maybe something as simple as swapping a team from the American League East and National League East to offset the goliath’s of that one division, which give no one else a chance to rise to the top.

But I have another idea. I have an idea that has worked for another professional sport in the United States to “level the playing field” a little more, and has produced a League Champion out of it.


People were a bit confused when the National Football League decided to invent another division situated almost exclusively within the Southeastern region of the country. The moment this region was even considered for a divisional alignment, or structuring of such an adventure, people began to call it the “NASCAR Division“.

And I really do not have a problem with that at all. Because even though that statement was effectively the rest of the country stereotyping this region, NASCAR is a symbol of this region….So it was a backhanded compliment to Southerner’s like me. And, yes, I have been known to attend the Daytona NASCAR races, and I do glance at the television on Sunday to see how the races are going throughout the day, but I am a outside NASCAR fan.


But the formation of this Southeastern division actually helped the entire NFL membership get closer to a level of league parity, which baseball might need to approach in the near future if it expects all 30 Major League Baseball teams to flourish and grow fiscally as well as physically. And this might be the right course of action if the MLB brass doesn’t want to see a revolving door of at least a couple of the top money payroll teams sprinting towards the Playoffs finish line every October.


Except for the odd twist of fate in the last few years that Colorado and Tampa Bay got their first shots to show their stuff in the World Series, the pattern of eventual winners shows that money buys Championships, not heart, home grown talent and determination. And maybe a fourth division in the American or National League would seem to throw the whole globe off its axis and we go wobbling through our orbits tumbling like a deflated ball among the Milk Way.


But I think we have already started that dizzying journey and have not recognized it yet. One team has been in the World Series the last three years, and granted, they have a great wealth of talent, but they also spent a boatload of cash each year to ensure they have that level of talent. That is why it is great to see teams like the Rockies and Rays make a stab at the big prize. And even when they do falter, it is not for lack of pride, courage or the will to win, but missing that million dollar piece that the top 5 payroll teams have secured with a contract with 8 numbers behind it.


So what did I have in mind to maybe change this? Well, first off, I would like to introduce the idea of taking one team from every division both in the AL and NL, but the AL West, which already is lopsided with only 4 teams. I actually think that division will be a shootout in 2010 and expect that division’s champion to be as tough as anyone in the 2010 Playoffs. And you might ask why I want to dissect a team from each division? To be completely honest, it would then make most of the other divisions a four-team division, with the NL Central lowered to five teams.


So you already know that I want the Tampa Bay Rays to be included in this new division, and with them in the AL, we can still hold onto the Designated Hitter rule. And I think this actually would produce a few more jobs for some of the guys currently on the bench of the three squads plucked off the NL divisions, thus making it more attractive for some of their guys to get more exposure. The Rays are prefect for this new division because of the new division will be rooted in the SE, and only one other city more Southern than St. Petersburg, Florida.

And because the Rays are considered a small market team, it gives them a bit of payroll flexibility knowing that they will not have to adjust and implode their own cash box every year to keep up with the Epstein’s and Steinbrenner’s of the AL East any longer.


The second team I would select would establish a great Southern rivalry like annual Florida-Georgia College Football game and could also be billed as the “Battle for I-75 Supremacy”. I am talking about seeing the famous Tomahawk Chop going on right next to the deafening sound of the multitudes of Cowbells. This expected rivalry could easily replace the lost revenues of either Boston or New York based just on the previous sell out crowds at Tropicana Field the last time these two teams faced off here.



The Atlanta Braves would be the perfect new nemesis of the Rays. And pop on top of this the addition of

17-18 games between the two teams, this would easily explode this rivalry towards the top spots within 5 years.

And you might question why I did not take the Florida (Miami) Marlins and want to place them in this division. Well, they are an instant Inter-League foe of the Rays, and I did not want to ruin that great relationship and also split up a AL and NL presence in the state of Florida. I think this state is better for the duo league presence, and I want to preserve that relationship just as it is right now.


Third squad to be added to this division would come out of the AL Central. Now I did not have to take any long period of time to think about this one because it came to me the moment I looked at the division. The Kansas City Royals would be my choice immediately based on the simple fact they are also a small market squad and would benefit extremely by being in the same division as the Rays.

And the relationship between these two AL teams is already formed, but it is also close enough within the geographical region of the Southern part of the country to make same day flights and televised games a viable options for both teams.


Fourth team to be added would come out of the NL Central division and take their division down to four teams for the first time in a long while. And I thought long and hard as to if I wanted to realign the entire MLB a bit, or just select this one team and end the debate fast and furious on which of the Texas teams would get an invite to the NASCAR division. I thought the team that would get the most out of the move would be the Houston Astros. Not only would they be able to convert to the D H system easily, they have the talent in-house already to pop a great DH in the line-up as early as 2011.


And I also think that the teams on this divisional “wish list” also have great stadiums with a awesome home team presence, and would be totally conducive to building new rivalries and expanding their team concepts without minimal changes. But I also toyed with the idea of adding a fifth team to this division. I really thought long and hard about it, and even thought about all the positives and negatives. I am still up in the air about it, but I will discuss it here just to see if anyone else in on board with this idea.


If I did even attempt to take a team out of the NL West would I take our Expansion mate, the Arizona Diamondbacks , or would I venture up towards Denver and maybe try and entice the Colorado Rockies to come play in Florida 8+ times a year? This one was a hard decision, because each of these teams has the talent and the abilities to go for the top spots every year.

But I know that taking a team out of that NL West will give the teams currently developing great talent like the San Francisco Giants or San Diego Padres a chance to breathe a bit and strive to know they have a chance every year at the Playoff race. But I am torn to include either of them as a fifth team and make a new division lopsided like the NL Central. But this is just a blueprint in pencil on a bar napkin compared to anything that might be currently being discussed at the Major League level.


And maybe the dynamic duo of New York and Boston do not have to be split up, for competition’s sake. Maybe they can co-exist in their current high profile, high dollars payroll games and provide nice revenue sharing cushions for most of the team in this new division. Breaking up those two would be like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie taking the kids and moving to the far ends of the earth from each other.


Splitting those two teams apart would destroy 100 years of tradition and insults, plots and inside jokes that have been passed down for generations, and make them worthless but for a small handful of games a season. Some would say it would intensify the rivalry, but this is one that doesn’t need fuel to the fire, it is already white hot.

But it would also ruin a natural geographic alignment that the AL East would take on spreading from Toronto, Canada to Baltimore, Maryland and keep those divisional foes tight and more bonded towards defeating the other.


I like this division. It will have speed, defense and a ton of raw young talent. Most of the teams that would comprise this division have been great hotbeds of farm talent, and that talent would get a chance to rise to the top instead of each teaming trying to raise the bar and one-up each other to the umpteen time.

It would be a hotbed of base stealers, plus a great maturation oven for young pitchers just on the cusp of greatness. It is a division I not only would pay money to see at Tropicana Field, but also one I would definitely travel to other cities to see play our Rays. And that in turn, would help these small market teams keep their coffers filled to pay their young players to stay with their teams past their arbitration years….It is a “win-win” proposition.


Sean John or maybe S-Rod…Decisions, Decisions

You automatically got to like this kid. Really you have to, it is a moral imperative within the Tampa Bay Rays culture that when you give up a great left-hander like Scott Kazmir, you got to get to know his replacement, and at least give him a few games to settle into his new spotlight before you condemn or pledge your loyalty to them. Well, ladies and gentlemen, if the last couple of Rays Spring games is any indication, Sean John Rodriguez is already cool as a cucumber and slick as a fox, and an instant fan favorite.

And believe me the cliché’s are going to coming fast and furious if he does find a way to steal this last coveted roster spot away from the Johnson & Johnson brothers , or his close competitor, Reid Brignac.


But if you base his total roster chances on just Rays games over the last few days, it might actually be more like, when he steals that roster spot away. And it is not like he has not been in this kind of pressure situation before while fighting for a Major League spot. Rodriguez has spent a bit of time in the Big Show before when he was with the Los Angeles Angels, so this is not his first rodeo.

And that might be a side of Rodriguez we truly had no idea about before this 2010 Rays Spring Training season began. Most of us Rays fans might not have noticed the young guy manning the second base bag during the Angels first visit to Tropicana Field from May 9-11,2008 was the same Sean Rodriguez.


And we definitely did not notice Rodriguez sitting in the Third Base Visitor’s Dugout at Tropicana Field after being called back up from the Salt Lake City Bee’s when the Angels went through a rough patch with multiple infielders going down with injuries in early 2008. And there is an eerie set of similarities to his Spring start here in 2010, that might bode well for him making this team’s roster, if you really look at the numbers.

Back in Spring Training 2008 with the Angels, Rodriguez hit only one single in his 11 Spring Training games while hitting a double, a triple and solo Home Run with 3 RBIs. It is just a bit of an odd coincidence that he currently sports no singles while pushing a double, triple and 3 Home Runs across the board this Spring in three games for the Rays. Maybe it is a baseball omen to us to watch this guy over the next few weeks.


But this impressive start at the plate has also given him a bit of a quick jump on Brignac, who also is trying to keep up with the white hot Rodriguez, and it is going to be a complete thrill to see which of these hitters blinks first and let’s the other get a bit of an advantage in their race for the last utility spot on the Rays 25-man roster.

And Rodriguez knows a lot about these Rays from his 5 game played against them in 2008. He was the field for all three games during that early May series when the Rays swept the Angels here, and was witness to seeing the Rays eventually winning 6 out of their 9 games against Angels that season.

But even more telling that Rodriguez might be developing the emerging cult following, not unlike fellow Rays infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist with the instant accumulation of inspired nicknames that are beginning to be heard in the stands at Rays Spring games. Already we have heard at least two nicknames rushing to the forefront, with one really taking a quick liking to him.

There has been the “S-Rod” moniker which might have evolved more for his recent rush of power and uncanny ability to brush off the media attention, or maybe the one I heard at George M. Steinbrenner Field yesterday when someone asked “Sean John” for his autograph.


The last one actually had me chuckling a bit because I was looking over my shoulder for one of those goon interns of Sean “P. Diddy /Puff-Daddy” Combs instantly coming out of the woodwork trying to smash the “alleged” trademarked name infringement “Sean John” down into the clay of the infield and quickly silence that moniker from the lips of autograph seekers on the rails that game.


But there was no lightning quick response to the name, and I actually think Combs would be proud to share that patented name with a young baseball guy who just might have the style and panache to pull off a theft of this second base job and roster spot without much of a hitch. Heck, maybe if Rodriguez keeps this up he will have a Fed Ex package waiting for him with some signature Sean John wear inside them…You never know.

But seriously, this second base gig is going to be one of those spots in this 2010 Rays squad that you either own or rent in 2010. If Rodriguez makes it difficult for Rays Manager Joe Maddon to not pop his name on the lineup card in marker, he might just be an inter-changeable piece along with Zobrists and his traveling glove collection in 2010.


But some people worry that Rodriguez has only played third base and second most of his professional career, and has not concentrated his efforts toward maybe relieving Rays starter Jason Bartlett at some point in 2010. Again, this might be one of those finer points that Brignac has shown he can be effective at that position that makes this competition go long into Spring Training.

And even if most people have not seen Rodriguez play the outfield, he did play leftfield against the Yankees on Friday and looked pretty comfortable out there. But then again, he did play a lot of outfield in his All American High School career.


This entire competition between Rays Spring Training invited players to hold a competition for that coveted last spot in the Rays roster for a infield slot is quickly becoming a two-man affair. Elliot Johnson is doing everything he can to get his name included, but Brignac and Rodriguez are putting on a show at the plate and in the field that is dwarfing everyone else right now.

And if either of these two can force Maddon’s hand in the next week or two, this competition might even be over before the Rays take on their Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls in a friendly match up in Durham, North Carolina on April 3,2010.



Some have questioned Rodriguez’s lack of full season experience to only a total of 71 career Major League Baseball games and a regular season average of only .203 with 8 doubles, a triple, 5 Home Runs and 14 RBIs. That could be a instant pause for Maddon and the Rays to consider, but Brignac also has only appeared in 35 Rays game and has only produced a .250 batting average with 8 doubles, 2 triples, a solo Home Run and 6RBIs.

This race is far from over, and it might come down to the Rays deciding if they want power or consistency in their hitting out of this spot in 2010. If they take the power angle, Rodriguez would get the early nod, and even based on experience, right now might be the guy who has the most to lose with a few bad outings. Sean Rodriguez is a great budding star that could play a significant role for the Rays if he develops the way they want him to over the next few weeks.

If he does, then he will definitely be in that Rays Opening Day lineup, and hopefully we can get him an appropriate nickname that might not upset a fashion icon, or even a certain player also in this division sporting the A-Rod moniker. But if Rodriguez keeps playing and producing at this level this Spring, then maybe they would not mind sharing some homage time with a guy who could help lead the Rays on the field.

Reminiscing Before the Rays Spring Opener

Chris Litherland/Sarasota Herald-Tribune

It is about two hours before we again get to hear that first “official” thump into the catcher’s mitt to signal the official beginning of another fantastic Major League Baseball season for the Tampa Bay Rays. And it is great that Mother Nature decided to participate today with a nibbling cold breeze circling through the stadium, and the warming heat from that big orange ball in the sky are both making this first day of real baseball tingle, just like an early childhood Christmas morning.


Hate to admit it to the baseball world, but I am a sentimental old fool when it comes to the game of baseball. Some say I am too emotionally and mentally attached to the game and that has produced some interesting flashbacks over the last few days. To me, it is just a reminder or a mental revisiting of some past Rays Spring Training Grapefruit moments that stand out in my mind. And there has been a bit of a revolving continual flashback video within my mind’s eye recently that hopefully will diminish with Guthrie’s first pitch. But they are great moments to me, and ones that always bring a smile to my face.

More than a few times the moments of 2003 involving Rocco Baldelli kept flashing in my mind. How during that season he set the bar high for Rays rookies to follow him and started that path by winning the 2003 Al Lopez Award given to the top Rays rookie during Spring Training. We saw his brilliance on the field that March and began our love affair with him and Carl Crawford to be a formidable force to be reckoned with for many years to come. Seeing Rocco yesterday at the Rays complex dressed again in a Rays overcoat brought back those emotions.

But even with a head nod from Rays reliever Dan Wheeler yesterday in the rain-reduced workouts at the Rays complex, another vision came of the young Wheeler being one of the only members of that first Rays Draft class to make it all the way to the top beginning with his fantastic Spring Training back in 2000 when he also won the Al Lopez award for the then D-Rays. It brought back times of seeing someone like Travis Phelps who was drafted so late in the 1998 MLB Draft you would think he would be a scout or in another line of work instead of coming into Rays games as a reliever and reminding people around Tampa Bay that confidence and talent can get you what you desire in life if you mix in a healthy dose of determination into the equation.



And not everything rushing through my mind has been a good time. There was a moment on March 19,2005 right after seeing possible future Baseball Hall of Fame member Roberto Alomar trotting off the Progress Energy Park infield for the last time with his head down that it donned on me he might have just made his last Major League Baseball play, and then within a few hours notice, Alomar announced to the baseball world he was retiring from the game due to vision and back problems. And the duo night’s announcements of both Alomar and outfielder Danny Batista leaving the game on the same date left some of us gasping and wondering if the team might be cursed.



But then memories like 2008, which was the Rays last season training in St. Petersburg, Florida come to my mind. Visions of Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir predicting while he was rehabbing an elbow injury that the playoff was the goal of the 2008 team. And maybe set into motion during that Spring Training quote nugget during a Spring Training interview out at Rays Namoli complex, this team formulated their foundation and cemented their confidence for the entire season. Instantly this team began to win those 1-run games that Spring.


And combined with emotional games against the Yankees in which Yankee farmhand Shelley Duncan was dishing out some baseball justice, this team came together on the clay and dirt of Progress Energy Park. And that cosmos of emotions built up right up until the March 23,2008 game against the Cincinnati Reds when the team played their last Spring Training game ever in the stadium where they had held every Spring Training game since 1998. For they were going to relocate 80 miles Southward the next Spring in the seaside hamlet of Port Charlotte, Florida taking over a refurbished former Spring home of the Texas Rangers. And that last sell-out game held a bevy of emotions that overflowed into the grandstands and grassy berms.


Even if the Spring Training game have been transported to our South, the Rays team taking the field today know what is ahead of them. With Rays Manager Joe Maddon discarding the mathematics and bringing on the abbreviated, we are entering a new Rays era. “What’s Important Now” is the new mantra. Maddon chatted a lot with Ken Ravizza, the Rays performance consultant and sport psychologist who actually came up with the Rays new possible T-shirt phrase, breaking the Rays Manager’s string of number-induced team slogans. Staying in the “present moment” is going to be key in the way the Rays play this Grapefruit season.

Breaking from the untold failures of the Rays past has been accomplished. This new Spring edition of the Rays will again try and control the controllable from today’s game throughout 2010, with an earmark to correcting past inferiors and mental stop signs. The team seems to be focused towards the immediate future, and what each and every one of them can bring to the table. I commend them for the early acknowledgment of what has to be trimmed and better defined for this team to again taste champagne in October.


But I am also a student of the past, and I personally know that sometimes you have to go back to review the past before you confidently step forward. So today as Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett steps into the batter box against Guthrie there is a heightened sense of renewal in the air here in Sarasota, Florida.

There is new orange paint surrounding Ed Smith Stadium, but there is also a crispness that only a great Spring Training baseball game can deliver, and a refreshing rebirth in “The Rays Way” this Spring that should lead to lofty heights and great results. And with that, it is time to watch some last minute preps toward seeing baseball for the first time in 2010. I am excited, reminiscent of the past, and also eager to see the future…Play Ball!