No Regard

May 17, 2008

The Rays are for real

Filed under: MLB — Tags: , — hoyler @ 5:05 pm

Don’t even take the time to think about how Tampa Bay has worked its way to the top of the American League as of today, May 17.

This isn’t some riddle begging to be cracked; these aren’t the 2003 Kansas City Royals or the 2005 Baltimore Orioles, annual AL doormats that rode to early summer contention on the wave of an absurd string of one-run wins and an unsustainable offensive start, respectively.

This doormat is rising up, and they aren’t going back to that status, not this season, not next season, not for a long time.

If you are looking for reasons to believe in Tampa, look at last night’s 3-1 win at St. Louis and keep your eyes on the mound.

There, you’ll find Andy Sonnanstine, who pitched eight innings of one-run ball, allowing only an eighth inning home run to Chris Duncan en route to his sixth win of the season.

95 percent of baseball fans will look at the name (Andy Sonnanstine), the record (6-1) and the ERA (4.53), and immediately write him off as a fluke. He’s the epitome of this hot start: The anonymous guy putting up numbers not consistent with the experts winter predictions. Due for a precipitous fall, just like the Rays.

But those of us who have been following this team for the past few years know that this is what Sonnanstine is capable of. We see the consistency in his starts; the fact that if you take out his terrible April 14 outing against the Yankees (7 ER in 3.1 IP), his ERA would be a much more palatable 3.66.

We know he’s posting the same statistical patterns in 2008 that made him easy to project as a future No. 3 or 4 starter in the AL when he was in the minors in 2007 and 2006. He doesn’t walk anybody, with just 11 in 57.2 innings this season, after posting 73 walks in more than 386 AA and AAA innings in ’07 and ’06 .

The old (Devil) Rays would have been forced to slot “Sonny” as the staff ace or No. 2, leaving him to battle with the best of the AL start after start. These Rays don’t have to do that, though, so he’s more likely to post a record like this year’s (6-1) as opposed to last year’s (6-10).

These Rays are able to slot two true aces at the top of the rotation, starting first with the emerging face of the franchise, righty James Shields.

Shields, like Sonnanstine, cruised through the minor leagues posting numbers that foreshadowed his future major league success. In five minor league seasons he posted a shade below eight strikeouts (7.86) per nine innings compared to just 2.18 walks. In his three seasons in the majors, he’s posted almost exactly the same numbers, with 7.52 K/9 and 1.98 BB/9.

Yet, it still seems like the nation has no clue that Shields is not only a true ace now, he’s going to be one for the forseeable future. This is not a pitcher getting by on luck or great defense or an absurdly low home run rate. His May 9 complete game one-hitter against the Angels, far and away the greatest single performance in Rays history, may have been his arrival as a proverbial ace to the avid baseball fan, but it won’t hit the casual fan until they see him on the mound in Game 1 of a division series this October.

After Shields throws in Game 1, the guy who defines the beginning of the franchise’s turnaround will take the mound in Game 2. In July 2004, the Rays stole 20-year-old left-handed phenom Scott Kazmir from the Mets for, essentially, Victor Zambrano. A month later he was in the Rays rotation, where he’s been for the last four seasons making 99 starts. Kazmir is the best pitcher in franchise history to this point, and while Shields has started to emerge as the guy doing the interviews and getting his picture with the “Are the Rays for real?” stories being penned throughout the country, it’s “Scotty Kaz” that remains the fan favorite in Tampa Bay. He just signed a long-term deal that will keep locked up through 2011, but I think he may be the one to get traded if David Price, Jacob McGee and Wade Davis emerge from consensus Top 50 prospects to bonafide major league starting pitchers. For now, though, Kazmir is a great complement to Shields, a power lefty whose only glaring problem is the occasional battle with walks. He’d be the No. 1 starter on at least half the teams in the majors.

Matt Garza is more Kazmir than Shields, a hyped prospect of whom the world was expected from the moment he made his major league debut. As I type this he’s having his worst start since his 4 HR in 2.1 IP debacle against Seattle last year as a member of the Twins, as he’s allowed 10 hits and seven earned runs in 4.1 IP against the Cardinals.

Because of his pedigree as a first round pick in 2005 (Fresno State, 25th overall) and his almost 4/1 K/BB ratio in the minors, the Twins expected Garza to make a Francisco Liriano-like impact upon full-time entry into the rotation last season. He didn’t, failing to dominate the way he did in the minors while reverting back to the form that plagued him early in college, as he allowed far too many hits to be effective start-to-start. Still, he was just 23 years old, but the Twins didn’t seem ready to deal with his minors-to-majors adjustment period. His supposed attitude problems came to light when he was dealt last November as the centerpiece for Delmon Young in a rare “challenge trade,” where two potential superstars are dealt for each due to “other” circumstances, which in this case were the attitude problems of both. If you ask me, the Rays came out on top here; Delmon’s horrible pitch judgment will limit his long-term power development, as evidenced by his .321 slugging percentage this season.

Prior to today, Garza had strung together three quality starts against AL East rivals Baltimore, Toronto and New York, so he was due for a bad one. As he continues to build arm strength after his elbow nerve problem in April, he’ll develop into a great No. 3 starter this season and a likely No. 2 long term. There have been no reports of attitude issues since he’s come to Tampa.

I mentioned Price, McGee and Davis in passing, but the Rays have baseball’s most fertile farm system for arms right now. If even one of those three meet their potential, they’ll be in a position to unseat Edwin Jackson (who could also be very good trade bait if he continues to perform as he has this year) by next summer. For now, the Rays can handle themselves with what I believe is the American League’s best rotation from 1 through 5. Should their bullpen, led by Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler and JP Howell, stay consistent, Tampa will earn one of the four playoff spots in the American League, regardless of whether their offense improves beyond its current production level.

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