Results tagged ‘ Evan Longoria ’

Taking Stock of the AL East

spt-121008-yanks-ichiro-scores.nbcsports-story-612The sharks are circling.

For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.

But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.

The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?

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Rays-Royals Swing a Blockbuster

iWhenever a team trades their best prospect and their best pitching prospect, the assumption is that they were just floored with an offer that they couldn’t refuse. After all, if Toronto’s #5, #6, and #10 prospects (according to Baseball America) could nab Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and John Buck, what could the consensus Minor League Player of the Year, Wil Myers, be worth? And what could Myers get you if you packaged him with other top prospects from one of the deepest, most talented minor league systems in baseball? It would have to be a killing, right? Like a David Price, or a Clayton Kershaw, or a Troy Tulowitzki plus more right? Well, if you were paying attention on Sunday evening, the Royals were able to turn Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard into James Shields, Wade Davis, and a player to be named later from the Rays. Quite frankly, that’s not exactly the most inspiring haul you could possibly get. In fact, I said as much a couple of weeks ago when rumors of a Wil Myers trade first surfaced. Here’s the basic gist of what I wrote:

“So unless the Rays want to trade David Price or Matt Moore straight up or the Mariners suddenly get the urge to deal King Felix away, the Royals need to stand pat. Those are the only types of players Dayton Moore should be looking for. No Jon Lesters, no James Shields types. While they are both good pitchers, they just won’t offer enough in return to justify trading away a potential future All-Star who’s going to be on a rookie deal.”

Well not much has changed in two weeks. I still believe Myers will turn into a perennial All-Star with multiple 30 homer seasons, and the only reason to trade that type of player away is if you can get a true #1 starter. And as much as I love James Shields, he isn’t a #1 starter. He might be the best #2 in baseball, but that’s not worth the haul Kansas City is giving up. Regardless of my own personal thoughts, one thing really stands out about this trade from Kansas City’s perspective: the franchise is all-in for 2013. There is no going back now. Kansas City’s front office must truly believe that the acquisition of Shields and Davis puts them in the running for the AL Central title, otherwise there is absolutely no reason to make this deal. Meanwhile, the Rays are the team looking past 2013, even though they won 90 games in last season, and you know what? They will probably be better off for it and that’s what makes this such a fascinating trade to break down.

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The Rays Revamp Their Defense

escobarthrowSince the day he was hired as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays back in December of 2005, Joe Maddon has preached an organizational philosophy that starts with pitching, strong defense, and aggressiveness on the base paths. The organization-wide changes took a couple of seasons to fully catch on, but by his 3rd season on the job the Rays were fully buying in to Maddon’s methods, particularly on defense. The 2008 Rays possessed the most efficient defense in baseball, turning balls put into play into outs at a 70.8% frequency, just one year after having the worst fielding team in baseball, ranking dead last in defensive efficiency at 65.2%. In terms of defensive runs saved, the 2008 Rays were credited by Baseball Info Solutions as being over 100 runs better on defense than they were in 2007. That kind of improvement led Tampa’s pitching staff to cut out 300 hits from their opponents, nearly 2 per game, and it produced the franchise’s first winning season ever.  Those Rays would eventually fall to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series, but even in defeat Maddon’s principles had taken hold of the franchise.

Together with Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, Tampa has been able to continue to excel on the defensive side of the ball since that pennant-winning season, frequently ranking among the top 5 in most team defensive statistics. But the 2012 edition was a little bit different. While the Rays were still one of baseball’s five most efficient teams in the field, it was more a product of a fantastic pitching staff and Maddon’s frequent shifting more than great team play in the field. The team actually led the AL in errors committed while ranking in the middle of the pack in most of the advanced range statistics. That kind of thing is bound to happen when you ask Hideki Matsui or Luke Scott to don a glove. The difference between having the 5th best defense and the first may not seem like a lot, but for a team on a limited budget with an even more limited offense, it may have been the difference between watching baseball in October and playing it.

Under Maddon’s leadership the Rays have made the playoffs three different times, and in each year they boasted one of the best defenses, by any metric, in baseball. Although last year’s unit was better than average on defense, they slipped in the rankings just a little bit,  which may be driving Friedman’s pursuit of better glove men. The Rays front office has already acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar and 1st baseman James Loney to meet those needs, and they are hot on the trails of an outfielder. Both, Escobar and Loney, come with excellent reputations with the glove that are backed up by most advanced numbers, and they should thrive behind a brilliant pitching staff.

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Rays of Hope

“You’ve got to believe it. If we didn’t learn anything from last year you have to keep playing until you’re mathematically eliminated. In the meantime, believe that you can — and I do.” – Joe Maddon, commenting on his belief that the Rays can still make the playoffs

If any team in baseball history can pull of miracle finishes in back-to-back seasons it would have to be the Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays. In 2011 the team sat 9 games back of a playoff spot on September 3rd before racing to a 16-8 finish to edge out the Red Sox and ride into the history books. Well, this year the Rays are vying to repeat history in what may turn out to be even more unlikely fashion. Tampa Bay is trying join the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers as the only teams to make up a 6 game deficit in the standings with 14 or fewer games left. Led by a strong pitching staff, a finally healthy Evan Longoria, and a surging BJ Upton, the Rays have already cut the deficit in half. And thanks to a potentially favorable schedule the rest of the way, they have the chance to do much, much more.

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Around the Horn: Previewing the Biggest Weekend in Baseball Thus Far

With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:

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Tampa Bay’s Pitching Staff: The Best in Baseball

It wasn’t so long ago in July, when the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting 10.5 games out of first place. They were a mire 47-45, slumping, and rumor had it that core players like James Shields and BJ Upton were on the trading block. GM Andrew Friedman, perhaps the finest GM in all of baseball, decided to hold onto his assets and see if the team had another 2nd half turnaround in it. Well, thanks to a red-hot Upton (.266/.316/.564, 14 HR, 37 RBI, 14 steals in 57 games) and the best pitching staff in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays look like one of the most dangerous teams in the American League heading toward the end of the season.

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Contenders, Pretenders Emerge as September Baseball Arrives – AL Edition

The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.

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King Felix Reigns Supreme

Yesterday Felix Hernandez threw the 23 perfect game in baseball history, dispatching the Tampa Bay Rays with a variety of perfectly located fastballs, earth-shattering sliders, and mind-bending curveballs. Watching him dispatch one Tampa Bay hitter after another was akin to watching Van Gogh paint his starry night or catching the Beatles during the recording of the White Album. King Felix turned one afternoon in Seattle, in front of his adoring court, into his personal thesis on pitching. Here’s just a few thoughts on what I saw: (more…)

Do the Rays Have Another Great Stretch Run in Them?

Exactly one year ago, August 8th 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays sat way back in the playoff race, a distant 10 games out of the Wild Card spot, playing solid yet uninspiring, baseball with a .522 win percentage. They finished a mind-boggling 32-17 (.653 win %) to pass Boston on the memorable final day of the season to win the Wild Card. This year’s Tampa Bay team is 57-52 (.523 win %) entering play today, while exhibiting the same good pitch/bad hit tendencies from a year ago. The Rays have also been missing quite a few key bats due to injury this season. Luckily the most important one of those injured hitters, Evan Longoria, is returning to action tonight, and could provide just the spark Tampa Bay needs to come out ahead of a crowded American League Wild Card field that features 7 teams jostling for 2 spots.

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Replacements at the Hot Corner

With the news that Pablo Sandoval is hitting the disabled list for the foreseeable future after fracturing his left hand for the 2nd straight year, the hot corner has been a war of attrition so far. Evan Longoria hit the DL for 4-8 weeks earlier in the week, as did Kevin Youkilis. The Giants, Rays, and Red Sox will all have to find some way to replace the production they are losing, and it won’t be easy because these are All-Star caliber players in their primes. Let’s break down the replacement strategy for each team.  (Ryan Zimmermann of Washington is also out, but he should return in a week.)

San Francisco Giants

Pablo Sandoval had been mashing the ball this season, hitting .316/.375/.537 with 5 homers and a team-leading 15 RBI. The Giants have a relatively thin lineup even with Kung Fu Panda, ranking 9th in the NL in runs scored, so this will be a lot of production for the Giants to replace.

San Francisco already has a very light-hitting infield, starting Brandon Crawford (career .207 hitter in 300 at-bats) at short and Emmanuel Burriss at 2nd with the injury to Freddy Sanchez. Burriss is a 27-year-old career minor leaguer who has received some playing time in the majors, but doesn’t quite have the bat to cut it, with 15 extra-base hits in over 600 career at-bats, an abysmal number.

Joaquin Arias figures to gain some playing time with the injury to Sandoval, but much like Burriss, he has been a journeyman minor leaguer with very little pop in his bat. In 273 at-bats scattered over the last 5 seasons he has no homers and only 20 extra-base hits. Ryan Theriot also will receive more playing time, but he’s also a punch hitter with very little power. The Giants struggled to score runs a year ago, ranking last in baseball, and with Sandoval out for the next 30-50 games; San Francisco could be relegated to the same fate again. If one or two of the infielders start hitting with some authority, the Giants could stay competitive, but that scenario isn’t likely.

The Giants have also called up Conor Gillaspie, a 25-year-old 3rd baseman in the minors, and he could see quite a bit of playing time as well. His bat doesn’t have near the power Sandoval’s has, but he may be able to hit for a solid .270-.280 average while playing solid defense. Ideally for San Francisco, Gillaspie is able to lock down the 3rd base role and provide some good at-bats for an offense that sorely needs it.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox may have a bigger problem with Youkilis, than they do in filling 3rd base for the next couple of weeks. Boston called up slugging 23-year-old Will Middlebrooks, who was Baseball America’s 51st ranked prospect coming into the season. Middlebrooks is a pull hitter with big power and a solid batting eye. His early production at the plate in Triple-A has been staggering this season, with a .333 batting average and 9 homers in fewer than 100 at-bats. Scouting reports don’t care much for his defense, with the consensus being that he doesn’t have much range and is a little bulky in the field. If Middlebrooks comes up to the bigs and can hit for some power, I think the Red Sox will be fine with a few flubs in the infield.

The bigger concern at this point is the 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis. This season’s injury is a bulky back, which may explain his complete lack of production at the plate. He’s hitting a measly .219/.292/.344 with almost no power. He has completely lost the ability to drive the ball the other way, and is grounding out to the left side of the infield more than ever. This will probably be the 4th straight season that Youkilis fails to play in at least 140 games. Dating back to the All-Star break last season, Youkilis is now hitting .205 in his last 200 at-bats. Is this just an extended slump, or the beginning of the end for the 3rd baseman?

Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays have one of the deepest rosters in baseball, so overflowing with talent that many potential major leaguers are left in Triple-A or sent to the bullpen. Longoria was in the midst of the finest season of his young career, positively mashing the ball for a .329/.433/.561 slash with 4 homers and 19 RBI. This kind of production is impossible to replace, especially when you factor in Longoria’s plus defense and leadership, but the Rays will try.

Tampa Bay already plays the mix-and-match game in their middle infield, starting 5 different players at 2nd base this season, and 3 different players at short. This rotation of players includes, Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, Reid Brignac, and Will Rhymes, and will probably be asked to cover the 3rd base position as well. Zobrist has been playing about 2/3 of his innings in the right and will probably remain in the outfield, so the other 5 players will be asked to cover the 3 remaining infield positions.

The only problem is that none of these players hit much, meaning the offense will probably suffer. Keppinger is off to the best start, hitting .273 but he isn’t much of a power or speed threat, Rhymes has 4 total at-bats, and the other 3 players, Brignac, Rodriguez and Johnson, are all hitting under .200. Tampa ranks 5th in the AL in runs scored so far, and that number is sure to suffer without Longoria. Luckily Tampa is off to a fantastic start, playing .680 baseball, and has a deep, talented rotation to fall back on. Expect the Rays to remain competitive for the next 2 months, despite Longoria’s absence.

Around the League:

-I’m currently watching the Mariners take on the Rays in the 5th innings, and this may be the least I have seen Tampa use the defensive shift this season. The only hitter they are using a definite shift on is Justin Smoak, who’s naturally 1-1 with a walk and a hard line-drive single. The lack of shifts may also have something to do with Seattle’s lineup, which is entirely left-handed. The reason: Tampa pitcher Jeff Niemann has extreme lefty/righty splits, with opposing lefties hitting .306 and righties only hitting .098 so far. Its worked so far, Seattle has scored a little more than usual with 3 runs already.

-Jered Weaver threw the best game of his career last night, no-hitting the anemic Minnesota Twins in a 9-0 victory. Weaver absolutely dominated, allowing only 2 base runners to reach while striking out 9. Its the 2nd no-no of the season, and there is a good chance 3 or 4 more will happen this season. Congrats to Weaver on his performance.

-Two players over 40 hit walk-off homers yesterday. Jason Giambi hit a 3-run, pinch hit shot to win the game for the Rockies. Not to be outdone, Chipper Jones hit a mammoth 2-run blast to give the Braves a win in a wild 15-13 affair over the Phillies. Jones only has 55 at-bats this year but has really made them count, hitting 4 homers and driving in 14 already. Its great seeing him continue to deliver big hits for the Braves, despite injury and age, at the end of his illustrious career.

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