Tuesday, March 30, 2010

AL East Q&A: Jonah Keri On The Rays

With real, live, meaningful baseballing action a mere 104 hours away, today we begin our quest to survey the landscape of the AL East. Over the course of this week, we'll be asking some questions of smart people who can lend their expert insights into the current state of the clubs the Yankees will be tangling with most often during the regular season.

First up, we are proud to welcome someone who as written for numerous reputable publications about baseball, basketball, football, dog shows, finance and (especially) Tim Raines. He's the editor of the Bloomberg Sports Blog, a consummate Canadian, the father of twins and the future author of the greatest book ever written about the Tampa Bay Rays (or the turnaround of any moribund expansion team into an AL Champ via shrewd financial and statistical maneuvering, for that matter). Folks, Jonah Keri is here to field our queries and kick this series off.


Fack Youk: To some, the acquisition of reliever Rafael Soriano and his $7.5M salary from the Braves seemed a little out of character for the organization. What's your opinion of the Soriano pickup? Important move that could put them over the top or too much to pay for a reliever?

Jonah Keri: No team in baseball has a better understanding of the marginal value of a win than the Rays do. For the Royals, there's no way Soriano would be worth $7.5 million -- not necessarily because the Royals are a small-revenue team, but because the two wins a strong Soriano season gives you don't mean anything in the standings for a lousy KC team. For the Rays, though, two more wins in the standings could mean the difference between going home and playing for their second AL pennant in three years. They needed bullpen help, they gave up virtually nothing to get him (Aki Iwamura, who was leaving anyway, was signed and traded for fungible reliever Jesse Chavez, who was in turn flipped for Soriano), and J.P. Howell's likely trip to the DL, though not something the Rays could have predicted, only underscores how much they needed a strong reliever at the back end of the bullpen.

FY: Considering that Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are both entering what is likely to be their final year with the team, is there a feeling within the organization that this might be Tampa Bay's best chance to make a deep run into the playoffs for a while?

JK: Not exactly. This is the last chance to win with this particular group of players - that's why the payroll has jumped to $70 million-plus, despite the team's continuing struggles with revenue streams. The good news for 2011 is that the Rays will gain a ton of payroll room with Crawford, Pena, Soriano and a handful of lower-priced veterans coming off the books. They have top prospect Desmond Jennings poised to replace Crawford and an army of great arms in the minors who could be ready by next season to bolster the bullpen. The Rays were lacking for first base options to replace Pena, so they acquired Matt Sweeney as part of the Kazmir deal and signed Cuban first baseman Leslie Anderson to a four-year deal. If both of those options fail, even if they carry a $50 million payroll in 2011, the market for one-dimensional boppers has cratered so dramatically that they should be able to sign a 30-homer guy on the open market to fill the void. The Rays are always balancing present needs with future needs, and they're always acutely aware of how much financial flexibility they have at any given time.

FY: Does their optimal starting lineup have Ben Zobrist at 2nd base with Matt Joyce in right or Zobrist in the outfield while Sean Rodriguez plays second?

JK: The answer is, maybe both. The Rays can always opt to start Rodriguez vs. lefties at 2B with Zobrist in RF, and Joyce in RF vs. righties, with Zobrist at 2B. On the other hand, I'm a big Gabe Kapler fan, and he's proven he can mash lefties (.276/.379/.552 vs. LH last year), so the best option might be to send either Joyce or Rodriguez to the minors and let the situation play out naturally. Right now, Joyce is battling an injury, so the smart money is on Rodriguez getting first crack at it with Joyce starting on the DL. The Rays would be the last team to overreact to spring performance, but Rodriguez's big spring performance certainly hasn't hurt his case, especially given his impressive minor league track record. There's also the possibility that Pat Burrell never regains his old form, in which case the DH spot opens up and all of the above can get ample playing time.

FY: Dioner Navarro, Pat Burrell and B.J. Upton all had surprisingly bad years at the plate in '09. Which of those guys do you think is the best candidate to bounce back this year and why?

JK: Definitely Upton. His 2008 shoulder injury was probably more serious than he let on and may well have negatively impacted his performance last season. He should be healthier this season, he's just 25 years old, and he's put up strong offensive numbers in the past. The beauty part for the Rays is that his defense is good enough to make him a valuable player even if he struggles at the plate. But I think he bounces back nicely with the bat this year anyway.

FY: The Rays won 97 games, the AL East and the AL Pennant in 2008 and then finished just three games over .500 in 2009. Which of those results do you think will more closely resemble their finally tally in 2010?

JK: I'd bet on closer to 97 wins than 84, though it might be close to the mid-point. In a lesser division, I see the Rays as having 95-win talent, maybe even slightly better. Andrew Friedman has called this the most talented Rays team during his entire tenure, and with the additions of Soriano and Kelly Shoppach and maturation of young players like David Price and B.J. Upton, I agree. When you play an unbalanced schedule against the two other elite teams in the American League, though, that's going to take a bite out of your record. At least the Jays could offer an opportunity for the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays to all make up for beating on each other all season.

FY: Last one: What do you think the AL East standings are going to look like when the regular season is over?

JK: Yankees, Rays (Wild Card), Red Sox, Orioles, Jays.

FY: Thanks a million for your time, Jonah.

JK: Sure, thanks for having me.

Injuries And Auditions: 4 More Days 'Til Opening Day

Good morning, Fackers. Yesterday wasn't a particularly good one for the Yankees, injury-wise. It was announced that Alan Horne, who already endured Tommy John surgery now needs surgery to repair an 80% tear in his rotator cuff. He hasn't been fully healthy since 2007 and considering that he'll be at least 28 by the time he pitches again, this looks like the official end for him as far as being a prospect is concerned.

More germane to the Big League club, word came out that Alfredo Aceves is day-to-day with a sore back, something that has been bothering him since last September. This comes on the heels of a poor outing against the Orioles during which he gave up 6 runs in 2+ IP. It's possible that the issue could keep Aceves off the Opening Day roster and make way for Boone Logan, but as of now it appears Alf will get another tune up this Spring and be ready for Sunday.

Most startlingly, Mark Teixeira was hit in the elbow by Jeremy Guthrie. He was in obvious discomfort and was removed from the game immediately after it happened. While the pitch hit Teix directly on the bone, tests revealed that the result is only a contusion and he should be back in the lineup later this week. He opts not to wear protection on his elbow because he's never felt comfortable with an elbow pad and feels like he stands far enough away from the plate, but this was one of the rare times that decision came back to bite him.

Franciso Cervelli was hit by Guthrie later on in the night but was able to stay in the game. However, that didn't keep Joe Girardi from angrily yelling at Guthrie from the dugout after the incident occurred. He explained later, "If you’re having a hard time commanding the fastball inside, I don’t think this is the time to work on it". Not in his back yard, apparently. BANANA, others might say.

Girardi will have something to take his mind of his ailing squad today, however. Switch pitcher Pat Venditte will make the trip to Big League camp and pitch against the Braves in a split squad game at 1:05 tomorrow. Eat your heart out, Tony LaRussa.

The manager said he's wanted to see the ambidextrous reliever "all spring". It's as if Girardi has looked over his entire kingdom and commanded, "Bring me this Janus-armed freak so I can see him for myself!" The manager also likened this clip of Venditte maneuvering for the platoon advantage with a switch-hitting Mets prospect to a "Laurel and Hardy thing" revealing that he is either A) significantly older than he claims, B) a huge nerd or C) both.

Venditte is considered a fringe prospect at best but has had unquestionable success at every level of the minors he's been asked to pitch in. He's currently slated to begin the season in High A-ball (where he finished 2009) but as Neyer points out, if Girardi likes what he sees, Venditte might find himself climbing through the farm system faster than he would have otherwise.

He throws over-the-top in the low 90's from the right - which is his naturally dominant side - and takes a lower arm angle from the left, topping out in the mid-to-high 80's. There are plenty of guys that have his stuff like that in one arm at a time and being able to pitch both ways doesn't mean anything if you can't get Major League hitters out, but tomorrow could be a turning point in Venditte's career. There's no guarantee that he makes it into the game, but with CC Sabathia being limited to 75 pitches and Joe Girardi's self-proclaimed interest in him, there's a good chance. (The game will be on MLB.tv). Let's hope Venditte faces a few batters, does well and Girardi likes what he sees. If all of those things happen, we might be one step closer to seeing "The Freak" in The Bronx.