Six months ago, I was one of few people who saw something to like in the Devil Rays. They had some good young prospects, some decent pitching, and with the right plan, I was convinced they weren't as far away from winning as everyone was saying.
I was wrong.
While the Rays have some good young players, none of them are as great as the hype would suggest. The glow is coming off the oft-injured Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford showed nothing in his first stint in the majors, and despite being named Baseball America's Player of the Year, Rocco Baldelli still has plenty of holes in his game.
Worse, they have an absolutely brutal rotation. On the one hand, Joe Kennedy has a solid delivery and some success. But the workloads he's endured, and will no doubt face in the future, make his survival next to impossible. A young pitcher facing Mount Piniella without the cushioning effects of Bryan Price is a matter that may warrant inspection by Homeland Security. Kennedy gets the brightest of red lights based on context and comparable players.
That said, one positive that Kennedy has going for him is that despite his increased workload last year he was stricken only with a "tired arm," and not a "torn labrum." Now, I know what you're thinking: "Tired arm as a positive? Rubbish." But the fact of the matter is, it's true. Granted, compared to torn labrums, anything is positive. That aside, the data suggests that a tired arm is a good thing. It indicates that while the pitcher was overworked, he managed to keep his mechanics sound and avoid serious injury.
Think about it this way: Imagine that I asked all of you to go run a marathon. Now, some of you would be able to finish it, but the rest would probably drop from exhaustion after just a few miles, or just end up injured. Pitchers are no different. Some will fly through the season without problems; others will hit the wall with a tired arm; still others will end up injured. Once that tired pitcher catches his breath he's ready to go, and perhaps a bit closer to being able to run the marathon the next time around.
Kennedy is destined to be overworked this year because the bullpen is abysmal and he's perhaps the only pitcher than can be counted on for even 100 innings. The smart move would be to grab some cheap innings-eater types to take the workload off players who could actually help this team win in three years. Then again, smart moves have rarely been part of the Rays' gameplan. Steve Parris is the right type of guy, but his injury history makes him more likely to force more innings out of Kennedy and Dewon Brazelton than to sponge some up. Brazelton is a major worry. He's gone from a top pick to a top risk in light speed, a common occurrence in Tampa's organization. At the end of last year, the Rays were conservative with Brazelton, but he still had triceps problems, a condition that often portends UCL problems.
Delvin James could also enter the picture if he's fully healed from getting shot in his non-pitching shoulder. Early reports indicate he's suffered no lasting effects and should contend for a rotation slot or a long relief role. He's not on the list above, but he'd probably show up as green.
Being shot, I hope, is one of those fluke things that mean nothing in an injury history. For the Rays, it's not. Another rotation candidate, Nick Bierbrodt, was also shot, also at a restaurant. (Note to Rays: room service.) Bierbrodt was in the minors after losing complete control of his pitches, but reports indicate that Piniella has tabbed him for a starting slot, so we'll hope he can find the plate again. Still, past history plus the shooting plus Piniella equal a red light.
As bad as the rotation is, the position players look very healthy. Josh Hamilton has some major problems with his back and always seems to find a new way to be kept out of the lineup – we're not projecting him as a key member of the '03 lineup. I'm slightly worried about Toby Hall and the lack of a viable backup, but not enough to give him a yellow light. That's right, not one of the expected starters – even with multiple platoon or positional battles – gets a yellow light. Some of this can be chalked up to luck, some to the team's relative youth, and some to now-departed team trainer Jamey Reed. Dr. James Andrews remains as the team's medical director; his influence should help the team at all levels.
Even healthy, the best thing this team can do is collapse completely and cause new managing partner Robert Basham (no relation to the Reds prospect) to send Chuck LaMar and Cam Bonifay packing and start over. The best prospects coming up haven't been properly nurtured, and there aren't even enough of those flawed few to offer hope.