Twinkie Town Q&A On the Rays

Today I exchanged some questions with Rays Central and SB Nation's own DRays Bay.  I thought it would be fun to ask two blogs the same questions to see what they had to say.  Thanks to Eric (Rays Central) and Steve (DRays Bay) for their answers!  (You can also check out my answers at both places to their questions.)

Now that you've seen Jason Barlett and Matt Garza for a couple of seasons, how do you think they've progressed and what do you see in their future?


Rays Central:  Jason Bartlett was a key piece of the Rays World Series run in 2008 playing unbelievable defense. He posted career numbers last year (.320-14-66) and Rays fans thought he was poised to be a perennial All-Star. This year however he's taken a big step backwards with his bat. He is batting 60 pounds under his career average, then again so are many Rays.

Garza has been an anchor in the young pitching staff the Rays have this season. Matt is only three wins away from having a career season regarding win totals. He is a rock solid pitcher who should be bumping up around 17-18 wins by seasons end. He reminds me of a young John Smoltz, having watched his career from the start with the Atlanta Braves.

DRays Bay:  Both players have been great for the Rays - and I'm glad Delmon Young is finally working out for you guys, if only slightly - but they seem to be heading in opposite directions. Jason Bartlett is never going to reproduce his offensive explosion from last season and he's been trending downward on defense over the past few years, and he's getting expensive in arbitration now. My gut tells me he's already peaked and with Reid Brignac waiting in the wings, I think this is his last season with the Rays. Garza, on the other hand, is still on the way up. He's improved each of the past couple years (strikeouts up, walks down), and there were signs in the beginning of the year that he was going to take his game another step forward. He's hit some struggles here and there, but when he's on he can be the most dominant pitcher in our rotation.

What's in store for Carlos Pena going forward?  He's having a rough first half, and he's a free agent at the end of the season.


RC:  Oh Carlos. Rays fans would be so happy if he could just hit for his career batting average, .244. Carlos is either red hot or ice cold this season. Carlos and Carl Crawford are both free agents at the end of the season. The Rays will not be able to keep either one. I think that if the Rays continue to slide and are 7-8 games back in the wildcard race by the end of the month, both players will be traded. If the Rays are in the hunt then both players will play out the season and then leave at the end of the season. Crawford is going to be the biggest loss.

DRB:  As much as it pains me to say it, Pena's days in St. Pete are numbered. He's still walking and still hitting for power, but the shift is destroying any remnants of his batting average. He's been making some really weak contact at the plate, grounding into more groundballs than ever before this season, and his defense seems league-average instead of above-average. Unless he takes a significant pay decrease this off-season, his smiling ways will be moving on elsewhere.

Similar troubles but at a different point in his career, I think a lot of people keep waiting for B.J. Upton to repeat the year he had in 2007 when he hit .300/.386/.508.  Will he ever be the offensive force we all thought he'd be?


RC:  I think the latest incident between Evan Longoria and BJ was the last straw for Joe Maddon. Upton's attitude is wearing thin with a lot of Rays fans, especially me. After the weekend dugout brush up, Upton has not started, Super utility man Ben Zobrist has played center field. Upton is a tease. He'll make an eye popping defensive play and then fail to run out a ground ball on his way to first on the next at bat. Upton's contract is up after this season, and I fully expect the Rays to move forward without him. He is trade bait at the end of the month as well.

DRB:  With Upton, it's a matter of expectations. I don't think BJ will ever put up another offensive season like 2007, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have upside or value. His batting average in 2007 was inflated by a BABIP close to .400 and he hit an unsustainable number of flyballs out of the park, setting the bar very high - too high, it turned out - going forward. His power has begun to come back this season after having nagging shoulder issues the past two years - and his patience and speed have never left him - so I wouldn't be surprised if he finished the year with a line around .250/.340/.410 with 15 homeruns, 35+ doubles, and 40+ stolen bases. He'll never be a 25-30 homerun guy, but that offensive line still has a lot of value. He's an elite defensive centerfielder, and not a bad offensive weapon either.

Largely though, the Tampa Bay offense is pretty good in spite of a few disappointments.  Will the Rays be looking for anybody to bolster the lineup at the deadline to help them run with the Yankees?


RC:  The Rays might make some changes in the roster but I believe it will come from within rather than trading for anyone. The Rays have a very deep farm system. I expect to see SP Jeremy Hellickson very soon if Wade Davis continues to struggle. Hellickson is ready for the bigs but has been unable to break into the Rays lineup, but I fully expect that to change perhaps right after the All-Star break. Hellickson is 10-2 2.35 ERA in 99 2/3IP with 101K's. As far as bats go, another call up of Justin Ruggiano or Desmond Jennings would be in order. Jennings is believed to be the heir apparent to Carl Crawford when he departs.

DRB:  With the way the team has been playing this past month, they need something to help them out - pitching, offense, good luck charms, whatever. At the moment, we really need our batters to start hitting in runners on base. We've leaving men on way too often, and our offense has suffered as a result. I'd love to add Paul Konerko or Adrian Gonzalez, but I'd also take Cliff Lee in a pinch...

Jeff Niemann flies under the radar a little bit when people talk about the great, young pitching staff of the Rays.  What makes him so good?


RC:  I love Jeff Niemann. Rays fans would love to keep him under the radar but at 6' 9" that's a task. Niemann is very consistent. In his last 10 starts, he has gone no fewer than 6 innings. He had a break out season last year, recording 13 wins and that success has carried over into this year. His ERA (2.72) ranks 4th in the AL as well as his winning percentage. He ranks third in AL WHIP at 1.07. Right handed hitters are only batting .204 against Jeff. Niemann has also benefitted from great run support. In his last five wins the Rays have won by a combined score of 33-5.

DRB:  Niemann is about as boring a pitcher as you can find. He works slow and doesn't have overpowering stuff, making it very difficult to stay awake watching him sometimes. He has a wide repertoire of pitches - two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, slider, curve, change-up, and he sometimes flashes a cutter or sinker - all of which he can locate and all of which are effective to some degree or another. He strikes out some hitters (6.34 K/9), walks very few (2.54 BB/9), and gets an above-average number of groundballs (44.6%). He's nothing terribly special, but he's been consistently decent and that's nothing to shake your head at.

How do you see the AL East playing out the rest of the season?  What are the Rays' chances of fighting past at least one of their rivals and playing in October?


RC:  Well, as much as I hate to say it, I think the Yankees will take the AL East. Early on in the year, Tampa was playing at such a blistering pace I felt that they actually were peaking as a team way too early and lately the wheels have started to fall off for Tampa. Toronto has fallen into it's usual slump, they always seem to start strong right out of the gate and then simply fade away. Baltimore could get right back in the mix-just wanted to see if you're paying attention! The wildcard in the East is the Boston Red Sox. They were 8.5 games back early on and have guietly moved into second place, 1 game ahead of the Rays. They are a banged up team right now. Offensively, they are hitting lights out right now 2nd in home runs with 105 and leading the majors with 418 RBI's. The key to Boston is their pitching staff. They are near the bottom of the majors with a team ERA of 4.33. Buchholz and Lester are strong, Lackey has 9 wins and I fully expect the Red Sox to make a move for another starter as the trade deadline approaches. In order for the Rays to contend, they are going to have to start hitting the ball, something which has not a problem in the early going but as of late, The Rays have a .254 team BA and Tampa is leaving too many men on base, they have a horrible BA with RISP and they are going to need James Shields and Wade Davis to reverse their fortunes as of late. Shields has now lost 7 straight starts and has an ERA of over 7.00 in those starts. Davis has been equally as bad and as I mentioned previously, could be replaced in the rotation soon by Jeremy Hellickson.

DRB:  Oy, I try not to think that far ahead in the future at this point. This division and wild card race is going to be an absolute dogfight and I wouldn't be surprised if both races came down to the last week of the season. Every day that we win is a good one, and every loss by the Yankees and Red Sox a blessing. Luck will factor heavily into who actually makes the playoffs and who doesn't - who gets the big hit in the crucial game, who has the least amount of injuries, etc. - but I'd say that the Rays have just as good a chance of making it as the Yankees or Red Sox. These are three damn good teams.

Finally, how do you see the American League post-season shaping up at this point?  Any predictions?


RC:  Well, there is a lot of baseball left to be played and you never know which teams will get hot down the stretch and which ones the injury bug will hit. I think you can pencil the Yankees to be in the mix. I think the LA Angels will win out in the AL West, regardless of how hot the Rangers have been lately. Minnesota will win out in the Central. I think Detroit will fizzle out . I do have somewhat of a soft spot for the Twins as their spring training facility is just a few miles from my house so I do get a chance to follow them a lot. I think the wildcard race comes down to the Red Sox, White Sox and the Rays. Tampa wins out as the hitting returns.

DRB:  Rays all the way, of course! I think the Twins and Rangers make the playoffs, no question, and I think the Yankees and Rays make it from the East. From there, who knows?

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