- Will Harris, Betting
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After 10 years of futility, the Tampa Bay franchise is shaking things up. Now entering its 11th season, the club has lost at least 90 games each season and has finished out of the AL East basement only once. But a busy offseason saw a change of the team's name -- the team has dropped the "Devil" and is now known merely as the "Rays" -- a new logo, new colors and lots of new personnel.
The big offseason move was the six-player deal that sent outfielder Delmon Young, infielder Brendan Harris and minor league outfielder Jason Pridie to the Twins in exchange for starter Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and relief prospect Eduardo Morlan. The deal leaves the Rays with Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Rocco Baldelli manning the outfield, while Jonny Gomes and newcomer Cliff Floyd split time at designated hitter.
In the infield, Bartlett takes over for Harris at shortstop, Carlos Pena returns at first base and Akinori Iwamura moves from third base to second, making room for top prospect Evan Longoria to debut at the hot corner. Dioner Navarro returns at catcher, while new acquisitions Eric Hinske and Willy Aybar fill key backup roles.
Garza joins Scott Kazmir and James Shields at the front of the rotation, while Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson are the most likely candidates to fill the fourth and fifth slots. While the Garza trade made most of the headlines, the Rays spent quite a bit of effort shoring up what has been one of the game's weaker bullpens. Troy Percival' s unlikely 2007 comeback earned him a two-year deal as the team's new closer. Al Reyes will set him up, with Dan Wheeler returning to work the seventh inning. Trever Miller was signed to fill the glaring void at left-handed relief specialist.
Ballpark: Tropicana Field is one of Major League Baseball's two nonretractable domes (the Metrodome in Minneapolis is the other) and one of only three facilities still using artificial turf (Metrodome and Toronto's Rogers Centre). In recent years, the Trop has played close to neutral in all major offensive categories despite traditionally poor pitching from the home team and frequent visits from some top-hitting offenses in the AL East. Expect the dome to continue to play that way.
Top sleeper: Jackson has thrown 272 major league innings that span parts of five different seasons, and to say that he hasn't experienced much success would be an understatement. His career ERA is a lofty 5.64 and his career WHIP is an ugly 1.72. With the exception of his 22-inning debut season back in 2003, Jackson has never even posted single-season numbers in those categories better than 5.45 and 1.67. There are, however, signs of progress. Jackson's primary issue has been poor control, but his walk ratio is on a three-year upswing. Jackson, a sixth-round pick in 2001, was rushed to the majors by the Dodgers, then continued his baptism by fire in the Tampa organization, traditionally one of the worst franchises in the majors at developing pitchers. His numbers have been artificially inflated by low strand rates for four years running, and last season he showed enough progress in his strikeout and walk rates to remain in the rotation for the entire season. Still only 24, Jackson and his live arm have a high ceiling as he slowly learns his craft. The breakout might not be imminent -- he's a sleeper only in deep or keeper leagues to start the 2008 season -- but it's coming.
Intriguing spring battles: The back of the rotation is the most unsettled area for the Rays heading into spring training. Jackson and Sonnanstine are the incumbents at the No. 4 and No. 5 spots, but they will be challenged during the spring by J.P. Howell, Jason Hammel and a trio of top pitching prospects in Jeff Niemann, Jacob McGee and Wade Davis. Hammel closed 2007 with a strong September to put himself in the club's '08 plans. Both he and Howell, whose skills far exceed his surface stats, should make the team in some capacity. Of the three prospects, Niemann is the oldest and the only one with Triple-A experience. Jackson and Sonnanstine should start, but keep an eye on the others, especially Howell.
Trainer's room: As usual, Baldelli is the injured Rays player of note. After a great April last season, his chronic hamstring issues flared up again, costing him the majority of the season. Monitor reports from spring training before drafting the oft-injured outfielder. Cliff Floyd also is a perennial injury risk and should not be counted on to produce full-time at-bat totals, even while logging most of his action at designated hitter.
Platoons: Initially, Jonny Gomes will only spell Floyd at designated hitter against left-handers, but given the injury history of Floyd and Baldelli, Gomes isn't a bad bet to accumulate 400-plus at-bats by season's end. Gomes boasts big-time power, but can't hit right-handed pitching (career .223/.310/.436, as opposed to .292/.396/.537 against lefties). More playing time for Gomes will mean more home runs, but at the significant expense of his batting average.
Future closer: He will start the season behind both the 38-year-old Percival and the 37-year-old Reyes, but Wheeler is the Rays' best reliever and top short-term option for saves speculation. In the longer term, however, Morlan wears the closer-in-waiting mantle. The 21-year-old is one of the top relief prospects in the game and should be drafted in keeper leagues if he makes the team out of spring training. Otherwise, track his progress.
Fantasy stud: Crawford is a base stealing superstar with a plus batting average, but don't be surprised if he also tops 20 homers. His power indicators are on the rise, and at age 26, he's a first-round talent in the prime of his career.
Backup to watch: Hinske is a forgotten man after wasting away on the Boston bench the past two seasons, but the 2002 Rookie of the Year is only 30 years old and still has skills worthy of substantial playing time. His plate discipline, batting eye, and fly ball rate are all on a three-year upswing, and his solid power is intact. Hinske even has decent speed. His only real skill deficiency is an inability to hit left-handers. He can play all over the diamond, too, and if a Floyd injury should leave him in a platoon with Gomes at designated hitter, there's big profit potential here considering his low price tag.
Prospect to watch for 2008: Longoria looks ready for the major leagues, but there's no sure thing he'll begin the season on the Rays' roster. And the Rays might just make that decision before spring training games begin. The idea is to reduce the pressure on Longoria instead of assessing his performance against spring competition. Assuming Rays management comes to its senses, which of course is a dangerous speculation, Longoria should remain with the big club and be an above-average regular as a rookie. The 2007 Southern League MVP has legitimate power, bat speed and plate discipline. He has a shot at a breakout rookie campaign as impressive as Ryan Braun's debut last season.
Prospect to watch for the future: The Rays have an impressive assortment of young arms that includes the aforementioned McGee, Niemann and Davis, all solid starting pitching prospects. But the most impressive is their No. 1 overall pick in last year's amateur draft, Vanderbilt ace David Price. The 21-year-old left-hander is a polished starter with excellent command and at least three plus offerings in his diverse arsenal. He has yet to pitch in pro ball but could move as quickly as Tim Lincecum did with the Giants.
Baserunning philosophy: The Rays have been a running team under manager Joe Maddon and they should once again be among the league's top base stealing clubs in 2008. Crawford certainly will have the green light, as will Bartlett and Upton. Backups like Hinske and Justin Ruggiano also could contribute a handful of steals on the cheap.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.
Will Harris previews the Tampa Bay Rays from a fantasy perspective, noting that there's more to like here, especially in terms of young talent, than there has been in past seasons.