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The Atlanta Braves in 1990…the Kansas City A’s in 1967…the New York Mets in 1968…these were all teams on the verge of breaking out. Was it known at the time? Were people cognizant that these teams were about to put aside their former losing ways and ascend to a new level? To some extent, yes, it was apparent that pieces were falling into place before the great leap forward came.

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Can we now, on the brink of this new season, put the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays on that list? Was 2007 the last bit of calm before the Rays storm that is bound to come, or will it be 2008?

With several outstanding young players already on board and six of the top 40 prospects in the game, perhaps it is time to demarcate the old Devil Rays from the new Rays. With that, I thought it would be interesting to look at the team’s leaders in VORP at each position and speculate how/when/if that leader might change in the face of the team’s impending overall improvement.

Catcher: Mike Difelice, 10.8 (1999)

Since the Rays came into existence, 165 catchers have had higher single-season VORP figures than Difelice’s team-high 10.8 in 1999. Difelice had just 191 plate appearances that year. A total of 14 other Rays catchers have had more, giving them greater opportunities to advance that number. John Flaherty had 482 the very same year Difelice posted his team-best number. Since 1998, the Phillies have had 10 seasons from catchers with a better VORP than that, as have the Red Sox. The Dodgers, Braves, Mets, Yankees and Blue Jays have had nine each. The Orioles have had eight. Every team, save one, has had at least one catcher post a VORP higher than 10.8 between 1999 and 2007. The exception is the St. Louis Cardinals, whose high man in this time period is Yadier Molina, who posted a 9.4 last season. Before last year, the best Cardinal catcher season since 1998 was Eli Marrero‘s 2001 campaign, in which he spent a quarter of his games at other positions. The next-best VORP after that is possessed by Keith McDonald, who, in 2000, came to bat all of nine times, walking twice and homering three times. In fact, the last time a St. Louis catcher broke double figures in VORP was 1990, when Todd Zeile posted a 14.6. Zeile played 105 games at catcher that year and appeared at first base 11 times, third base 24 and left field once. That turned out to be the end of his catching career save for two token appearances with the Mets in 2004.

You would assume the Difelice bar is vulnerable, being set so low, but starting catcher Dioner Navarro had a negative VORP last year and his backup, Shawn Riggans, is fairly old and mostly untested at the major league level. Adding together the VORP of the Rays catchers since the team’s inception results in a total of -53.1. Someday, the Rays will draft, sign or trade for a significant catching presence, but until then, Mike Difelice can breathe easily. The team is going to have to grow around the position, rather than through it.

First Base: Carlos Pena, 68.5 (2007)

For the moment, this is the best Rays VORP ever, topping Aubrey Huff‘s 54.2 in 2003 and Fred McGriff‘s 52.9 in 1999, the previous bests for a Rays first baseman. I doubt highly that Pena is going to repeat this feat in 2008 or, perhaps, ever in the course of his career, but that’s probably beside the point. Everyone has to have a career year, and 2007 was probably his. If he puts up a 50-spot this season, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Second Base: Jorge Cantu, 31.2 (2005)

Had B.J. Upton remained a second baseman, this category would already be his. Akinori Iwamura is slated to move from third to second this season, and he’s an outside threat to top Cantu’s record.

Third Base: Aubrey Huff, 40.0 (2004)

Huff’s hold looks pretty weak considering that the number-three prospect in baseball is set to take over the job in 2008. At 22, Evan Longoria probably won’t challenge Huff’s primacy right off the bat, but he stands an excellent chance of besting the Huffer in the near future.

Shortstop: Julio Lugo, 42.5 (2005)

Was Brendan Harris ever going to have a season this good? Before being traded to the Twins and getting shifted to second base, he had a nice showing in his first full year in the bigs. He was 26, though, so it is possible he was never going to reach the Lugo Line of 2005 had he remained the Rays shortstop. A year older and coming off a season less impressive than Harris’ is his swap-opposite (or swapopp) Jason Bartlett, who is not a threat to unseat Lugo. Number 25 prospect Reid Brignac might someday, though.

Leftfield: Carl Crawford, 41.1 (2006)

Crawford has been around so long it’s sometimes hard to remember that he has just entered his prime. His age 22-25 seasons were very consistent, as he put up WARP3s in the narrow band between 7.8 and 8.7. One would like to think that he has a career year coming his way in his age 26, 27 or 28 seasons. Whether or not he’ll be in a Tampa Bay uniform for all of those is another matter, of course. His EqA has gone up every year he’s been in the majors, so another rise could see him better his 2006 VORP. Another 25 to 30 walks per year would make a world of difference, too, but that’s an old saw when it comes to Crawford.

Center field: B.J. Upton, 46.9 (2007)

Let’s see: he’s 23 years old and has the best mark in team history despite appearing in just 129 games last year. I’d say he’ll not only better it–perhaps even in 2008–but go on to challenge Pena’s ’07 mark for the best VORP in team history in a not-too-distant season. Number 18 prospect Desmond Jennings is a few years away yet, and, if he pans out, will make a nice complement to Upton.

Right field: Aubrey Huff, 54.2 (2003)

Huff’s mark seems safe for the time being. Rocco Baldelli is A-1 on the depth chart for ’08, but he hasn’t played a full season in four years. While he’s still just 26, we have to remember that this is a player with a .324 career OBP. He pretty much has to hit .300 to carry his weight. I think our initial impression of Baldelli is colored somewhat by the context in which he arrived. The 2003 Devil Rays were starved for talent and attention and Baldelli seemed like an exciting young player, albeit with a hole in his swing and a distinct lack of discipline. Five years later, the team has great young talent lurking all over the place and Baldelli is going to have to make a huge jump in his game to make himself look relevant in the face of all of it. Still, though, if he stays healthy and hits like he did in 2006 (.300 EqA), he won’t better Huff’s 2003 mark, but he will be a viable part of the offense.

Designated Hitter: Aubrey Huff, 35.2 (2002)

This is another one of Huff’s three leads that is safe for the time being, especially if the Rays go with the platoon of Cliff Floyd and Jonny Gomes at DH this year. Provided Floyd is healthy–and after the injury history he’s had you hold your breath even watching him go to the water fountain for a drink–he and Gomes seem like the perfect yin and yang. Their career OPS+ marks versus righties favor Floyd, 104 to 86, and versus lefties favor Gomes, 134 to 88. Unfortunately, the righthanded batter always gets the short end of the bat handle in platoons, which means the Rays will be counting on the unhealthier guy for the bulk of the playing time. Huff played quite a number of games in the field in ’02, so if you want to give this team record to Jose Canseco and his 33.7 mark in 1999, I wouldn’t argue with you about it. That mark is safe as well, unless Gomes gets a lot of playing time and manages to better his excesses of 2005. Predicting further down the road when the right man will show up for the designated-hitter job is a hard business, of course.

Starting Pitcher: Rolando Arrojo, 59.0 (1998)

While they didn’t come close to unseating Arrojo, Scott Kazmir (47.2) and James Shields (45.4) posted the second- and third-best marks in Tampa Bay history in 2007. With both of them returning to the top of the rotation and David Price (number-six prospect and number-one overall draft pick in 2007), Wade Davis (number 15) and Jacob McGee (number 40) working their way through the minors, it’s just a matter of time before Arrojo finally begins moving down the team leader board.

So, while the leaders at each position are not going to change overnight, they will continue to be picked off in short order. On the field, we’re going to see an immediate improvement in the Rays’ fortunes. This year will be the year the team finally breaks the 75-win barrier, for instance. Seasons of .500 baseball are sure to follow. Like a lot of you, I’m sure, I still can’t wrap my head around the team ever wedging its way into the playoff picture with the Yankees and Red Sox (who are also sitting pretty in the prospect department) in their division. I do believe there is going to come a time where the owners in St. Petersburg, Baltimore and Toronto demand some sort of rotating realignment so that their teams have a chance to play out from under the New York/Boston juggernaut once in a while. That’s a hassle for another day, though. In the meantime, the Rays are projecting to be one of the more fun teams to watch in the near future.