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October 15, 2010

On the Beat

Still a Rays of Hope

by John Perrotto

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When B.J. Upton popped out to shortstop to end Game Five of the American League Division Series with the Rangers, you could almost hear the window slamming shut on the Rays' chances of winning a World Series.

There is little doubt that the Rays will have a much different look next season. Owner Stuart Sternberg plans to cut the payroll from $73 million down to at least $50 million. That means such stalwarts as closer Rafael Soriano, first baseman Carlos Pena, and left fielder Carl Crawford almost certainly will enter free agency without the Rays making any attempt to re-sign them. Shortstop Jason Bartlett and a good chunk of the bullpen could also be gone.

The Rays came out of nowhere two years ago and won the AL pennant before losing to the Phillies in the World Series. After missing the postseason last year, the Rays bounced back to post the best record in the AL this season at 96-66 and there was a sense of urgency to win it all before the roster got stripped.

Though the Rays came up short of that goal with their first-round exit, they insist they are not about to go back to their old Devil Rays ways when they were the laughingstock of baseball and a regular punch line on David Lettermen's top-10 lists.

"You hate losing people you'd like to keep, no question," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But the exciting component is having this young group come in that is very talented and knowing that you can then again grow this group into something special. That's how I look it and I feel really good that this group can play very well next season."

The Rays will still have their franchise player in third baseman Evan Longoria, who led the AL with 8.8 WARP this season and is under club control through 2016 on a reasonable contract. The starting rotation will be intact, spearheaded by left-hander David Price (6.5 SNLVAR) and including Matt Garza (4.5), Wade Davis (3.7), Jeff Niemann (3.1), and James Shields (0.9). One of those five could be traded for some lineup and/or bullpen help as right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, named the minor-league player of the year this season by various media outlets, is ready to move into the rotation.

Hellickson should be a prime candidate for AL Rookie of the Year next season and so could outfielder Desmond Jennings, who is likely to take Crawford's spot in the lineup. The Rays also have a hard-throwing rookie in left-hander Jake McGee, who likely won't begin the season at closer but could be in the role by midseason. Catcher John Jaso (.288 TAv), infielders Reid Brignac (.253) and Sean Rodriguez (.264), and outfielder Matt Joyce (.301) are young enough to have some upside and figure to play larger roles in 2011.

"I like the underclassmen," Maddon said. "Nobody's really focused enough on the fact that we had all these young guys playing big roles in winning 96 games in this division. It doesn't happen very often."

---

The Braves' decision to hire Fredi Gonzalez to replace legendary manager Bobby Cox without conducting any other interviews seems odd if looked at strictly in the context of numbers. However, there is a back story about why Gonzalez, fired by the Marlins as their manager in June, was hired despite going 276-279 in three-plus seasons in Florida.

Gonzalez served as the Braves' third-base coach for four seasons under Cox from 2003-06 before being hired by the Marlins. He quickly became Cox's most-trusted lieutenant. When he was fired, Gonzalez jumped right to the top of the Braves' list to replace Cox, who had already announced he was retiring at the end of the season. Cox says being fired should not be held against Gonzalez.

"For some reason, the owner (Jeffrey Loria) down there didn't appreciate Fredi, but everybody in the front office, the coaches, the players, the fans did," Cox said. "It was sort of like a George Steinbrenner move, let's get rid of somebody just to get rid of somebody."

The Braves, though, feel that the Marlins' loss is certainly their gain.

"It was kind of a perfect storm," general manager Frank Wren said. "An upheaval in his life when it happened, but at the same time, it worked out very well for us."

Wren conducted his interview with Gonzalez in secret on July 2 the two drove from Atlanta to a lake cabin in Alabama for a six-hour discussion. Braves president John Schuerholz interviewed Gonzalez a few days later, then Wren and Schuerholz met with Gonzalez again in early September and made it clear he was their choice. Gonzalez said four other teams, including the Cubs, contacted him about interviewing for manager positions after that but he turned them all down.

"For me it was a really easy decision," Gonzalez said. "It's a hell of an organization. It's a good fit. You feel so comfortable that when the Cubs come calling, you don't want to waste people's time and money and energy flying you around the country to do these interviews. By that time I felt pretty good."

---

Nolan Ryan is not your normal team president. After all, what other club prez can boast of being a Hall of Famer, a 324-game winner and the all-time leader in strikeouts?

Rangers manager Ron Washington appreciates having such a valuable resource overseeing the franchise. In fact, Washington believes Ryan deserves much of the credit for the Rangers building their organization to the point where it is in the postseason for the first time in 11 years.

"He has presence," Washington. "He has credibility. Those are things that makes a big difference in everybody's thought process. He's been through the wars. He's been on the field. He knows exactly what the players are going through and knows what they are feeling when times are going well and knows what they are feeling when times aren't going well. He's got sensibility. He's an icon."

Much has been made of Ryan wanting the Rangers' starting pitchers to get into condition where they can work deeper into games. That hasn't happened yet, as Rangers' starters were 10th in the AL with an average of 5.9 innings an outing. However, the Rangers were fourth in the AL in runs allowed this season with a 4.24 per game average, and Washington believes Ryan's ideas have something to do with that.

"He's put a lot of presence on our pitching staff as far as the mindset of going out there and keeping the ball as long as you can, not going out there with looking over your shoulder, looking for help, take care of business yourself," Washington said. "Yet, he's matter-of-fact. That's the type of people that you love working with. I know I do. No secrets."

---

Kevin Long says he has his dream job as the Yankees' hitting coach. While Long certainly has plenty of talent to work with, the Yankees have put up some big numbers under his tutelage. They were first in the major leagues in runs scored with 5.30 a game this season.

"He's done a tremendous job," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He understands mechanics very well and he understands the swing very well. Teaching it to one guy might be different than teaching it to another guy and so you have to be able to communicate in a lot of different ways. He can do that."

There are some in baseball circles who believe Long could eventually evolve into a major-league manager. Girardi feels Long certainly has the intellect for that challenge.

"He's excellent at in-game adjustments," Girardi said. "If a guy is getting his foot down or his hands are not in the right spot or he's open too much, he's very good at pointing that out to a hitter and asking them to make a minor change, and they adapt."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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