Fresh off the heals of one of the greatest comebacks in MLB history, the Rays were flying high after making the playoffs on the last day of the season. We asked two of DRays' Bay's managing editors, Jason Collette and Steve Slowinski, their thoughts on the team, its' future in St. Petersburg, and what's next for the team as a part of our ongoing 5 Questions Series.
On the Promotion of Prospects:
MLBDD: Every year it seems the Rays manage to reload with more high end prospects. However, there was some concern that the team held back players (like Matt Moore and Desmond Jennings) who might have helped them sooner in the name of reduced service time. Do you feel that this was the case, and do you believe these concerns were warranted?
JC: If you were to describe the Rays' handling of prospects from a poltical angle, they are more conservative than Jim DeMint. From the outside, it seems crazy to keep top talents down as long as the Rays do, but the track record speaks for itself as nearly every one that has come up has been able to stay up and contribute. If you flash back to 2009, everyone was screaming that the Rays were being cheap with David Price by sending him to Durham to start the season after what he did to help get the Rays to the World Series late in 2008. What most people overlooked was the fact Price spent most of that time in late 2008 throwing in relief with all fastballs and sliders. The team sent him down during Spring Training that season with developing an off-speed pitch as his primary goal. The team did eventually call him up, earlier that expected mind you, and he struggled throughout most of the first half of the season as his change-up was more of a chase pitch and something he was not comfortable throwing at any point in the count as he is these days. The Rays called up Price that season a bit earlier than they likely wanted to do and he did just make arbitration this season so he will exercise an out cause in his contract and will go to arbitration this off-seaosn rather than take the money that was in the final year of his deal that he signed coming out of the draft.
Desmond Jennings created a lot of debate to start this season, but the signing of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon was always putting Jennings to AAA since it the Rays do not like to call up top talents to play in reserve rolls and prefer they get the regular playing time that Durham allows them. About the same time the team would have called up Jennings, he banged up his wrist on a slide and had to miss some time which added another 2-3 weeks delay into his call-up. Once he was up, he stayed up and was a big contributor early and late while slumping mightily in between with high fastballs. Matt Moore started the season in Double-A and earned a promotion in late July to Triple-A. Outside one or two starts, he dominated each time out and the Rays eventually got him up in September which is the same model they successfully used with Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson in each of the previous two seasons. The easy response would have been to call up Moore to use in the bullpen down the stretch as the Rays suffered through the left-handed relief work of J.P. Howell and Cesar Ramos, but the team felt the fact he had never worked out of the bullpen was not conducive to September success in what ended up being a playoff chase.
In the end run, finances are going to be a factor when the Rays make personnel decisions due to the market and stadium limitations, but the organization's player devleopment track record speaks for itself.
My Thoughts: I felt like when these arguments that the team would have been better off to have brought either player up earlier was just looking at the results with the benefit of hindsight. If the Red Sox had managed to hold on, or the Rays had not won as many games as they had down the stretch, and this argument becomes moot. That said, they are very conservative with their prospects, and there's been a history for them that has shown this to be a good strategy. When you look at the number of prospects that the team has brought up and seen success quickly, their record speaks for itself.
Read about Jason and Steve's thoughts about the Matt Garza trade, who could be next out of Tampa, and the unsettled stadium situation after the jump...
On the Matt Garza Trade, One Year Later:
MLBDD: It's been a year since the Matt Garza trade, and it looks like it has been good for both teams to this point. How do feel about the return now, and is that different than you felt at the time? Is there one player in the trade that you are more excited about than the others?
JC: The return in the Garza trade was just what the team needed to fill gaps at all levels of the organization. Sam Fuld filled the need for a reserve outfielder with strong defensive abilities and his legendary status for a few weeks early in the season helped save what looked to be a very dismal season for the team. Brandon Guyer gives the Rays some flexibility in the outfield so that if the team trades B.J. Upton this off-season, Jennings can be shifted over to center and Guyer could be the opening day left fielder. Either way, his strong season in Triple-A all but assures he has a spot on the opening day roster. Robinson Chirinos was a disappointment defensively. He came over with good defensive accolades but his footwork and ability to throw runners out has a lot of room for improvement. Chris Archer's high-profile arm struggled to find the strike zone for the first half of the season but looked much better in the second half but the jury is still out whether he can stick it as a starting pitcher or move to a power reliever. Either way, he, Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, Moore, Hellickson, Price, Davis, James Shields, and Jeff Niemann give the Rays nine arms at AAA or the big league level that could pitch in any rotation in baseball right now with the exception of the Phillies. Hak-Ju Lee had a breakout season in the Florida State League before running into a wall in the Southern League but it gives the Rays another option if Tim Beckham's improvements in 2011 do not stick. The shortstop position has been a tough one for the Rays to develop internally and the extreme regression that Reid Brignac went through this year has not helped matters.
Garza was great when he was here, but his departure allowed Hellickson to start the season at the big league level and gave the Rays some needed positional prospects and some immediate help that was a part of 2011 success story in returning to the post-season.
My Thoughts: I thought that this trade was a steal when they made it given the availability of Jeremy Hellickson to take his place in the rotation, and the players on the field have definitely shown it to be so. The Cubs did alright given Garza's performance, but they are probably wishing they had the group of players instead of Garza right about now. The player that seems to be the biggest victory for the Rays is Lee, who sounds like he could be a Major League shortstop with solid defense and solid offense, a rarity in the minors right now.
On the Unresolved Quest for a New Stadium:
MLBDD: The quest for a new stadium seems to be at an impasse, and ownership sounds very frustrated about this. How do you think this resolves itself, and how long do you think the team will continue to play at the Trop?
JC: I have always maintained that the Rays will not be in the Tampa Bay area by 2020 if a new stadium is not in place. Everyone recognizes the need for this as the team moved into the structure nearly eight years after it opened and it lacks most of the modern amenities other stadiums have today. It is 500 percent improved from the days of the former ownership and there is something to be said about watching baseball in 72 degrees all season long and anyone that is familiar with Florida summers can attest to that. The lack of the new amenities are prohibiting a bigger investment from coroporate sponsors and it is those corporate dollars that fuel ticket sales revenues. Couple that with the stadium's location which is on the extreme southwestern edge of the Tampa Bay area and you have a perfect storm for attendance woes. We recently did a fan survey that had over 500 responses and location was just as much of a factor as the economy when it came to reasons why fans did not go to more games.
In the end, it is going to take ownership as well as political leadership from all over the bay area to work out what is best for the area. There has been glacial-like movement on the issue since the team unveiled the since-dead waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg and time is running out. The team's attendance was down for a third straight season this year despite the team winning 90 or more games for a third time in four season and making the post-season in the same frequency. "Win and they will come," does not work in this market right now as its economic struggles are unique to other areas given that tourism and construction are major factors in the economy and are also two things that slow down considerably when a national economy suffers.
My Thoughts: It's a tough situation, especially considering that the team is under lease with Tropicana Field until 2027. It seems that the only way that the city of St. Petersburg will allow them out of their lease is if they build another stadium in St. Petersburg, which also seems to be a non-starter. Until someone comes up with a solution that pleases enough of the involved parties, they are going to be stuck there.
On Trade Candidates on the Roster:
MLBDD: Every offseason it seems that some veterans on the Rays become rumored to be traded, and this year it seems James Shields and B.J. Upton are the candidates. Do you believe that either of them will be traded, and what moves would you like to see the team make for 2012?
SS: I'd love to give you a definitive answer to that question, but it's so tough to say. Last offseason, I would have told you going into it that Matt Garza was a virtual lock to get traded; this offseason, though, I don't think there are any players on the Rays that are "locks" to get dealt. They do need to trade at least one starting pitcher to free up room for Matt Moore, but depending on what sort of offers are out there, I could see them trading Niemann instead and holding onto Shields for one more season. In my mind, it all depends on how the trade market shapes up.
The same can be said for B.J. Upton. The Rays could get a good return for him this offseason, but on the flip side, they are short on impact bats in their system and might want to hang onto Upton in order to help boost their 2012 offense. My gut says that they end up trading him, but the Rays are going to want to get some sort of impact bat back in any trade. They need offense badly, so whoever they trade, they're going to be focusing on getting at least one young hitter in return.
The Rays have two glaring holes in their organization right now: first base and DH. All of the other positions they have at least some sort of talent coming up through the minors or already at the major-league level, but they lack big hitters at the top of their system. Considering how strong their system is in pitching, I would love for the Rays to make some sort of trade this offseason to acquire a hitter along the lines of Billy Butler, Logan Morrison, or Brandon Belt. I know...dream big, right? The Rays have the trading chips to pull of a big deal, though, and I'd love to see them do it.
My Thoughts: The one good thing about 1B and DH is that at some point, one of the prospects are likely to force themselves in that direction. That said, I could see a very good matchup between Kansas City and Tampa with James Shields heading to KC and Billy Butler heading to Tampa as a part of a deal. Whether that can get done or not, time will tell, but I like that idea a lot.
On the Massive Draft Class of 2011:
MLBDD: The team had 12 picks in the first 89 selections in the June draft. How do you feel the team did with their picks, and is there one player in this draft class who really jumps out at you as a breakthrough candidate in 2012?
SS: I'm no expert on the draft, but I like a lot of the names the Rays got in the draft this season. They mixed their draft picks well, taking both easy and hard signs, and both players that will rise quickly through the minors and some that will take time to develop. I wasn't blown away by the draft at the time -- I still wish they'd been able to get one big hitter -- but it's grown on me a lot. The Rays played it a bit conservative with their picks, choosing not to go pure upside with every pick, and I can't fault them for that.
In particular, I think there are a couple players that have the potential to rise quickly through the Rays' system: Mikie Mahtook and Lenny Linsky. Mahtook is an outfielder and is making his debut at the AFL currently, which suggests the Rays are going to start him out in Charlotte (A+) to start next year. He's one of those players the Rays love: athletic, good makeup, and a well-rounded player. He can rake with the bat and he's extremely entertaining to watch, so I'm hoping for big things for him next year.
As for Lenny Linsky, I'm mostly enamoured with him because he supposedly has closer-material pitches and at 21-years-old, he has the potential to move through the system fast. He finished the year in Single-A, and I can't help but envision him as another Jake McGee-type pitcher coming on up. We'll see if that holds true in the end, but I'll definitely be keeping my eye on him next year.
My Thoughts: It will be interesting to see how well this draft class develops over the coming years, but having that many picks and the organization's track record leads me to believe that they are likely to get a few solid prospects out of this group. So far in the AFL, Mahtook is hitting .257/.325/.257, but has 4 stolen bases in 9 games.
Thanks again to Jason Collette and Steve Slowinski of DRays Bay for taking the time to answer our questions.