The Rays knew that things would never be quite the same when they walked out into the cold Philadelphia night air last October after losing Game Five of the World Series to the Phillies. They had lost the Devil from their name prior to last season, and shed their reputation as a bumbling, stumbling franchise during the season by winning 97 games and the American League East title. They then beat the White Sox and Red Sox in the AL playoffs before their remarkable story ended in a World Series loss to the Phillies. “I told our guys on the first day of spring training that things would be different now,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “I told them we would be looked at in a different light.”
That message was driven home when the Rays opened the doors to their new spring training facility in Port Charlotte, Florida last month and offered free admission to one of their workouts. More than 3,000 people showed up to Charlotte Sports Park just to watch batting and infield practice. There were many times during their first 11 seasons that the Rays barely had that many fans turn out for one of their regular-season games at Tropicana field. “It was really unbelievable, kind of overwhelming to see that kind of turnout,” Maddon said. “To think of where we’ve come from in such a short period of time is amazing.”
The Rays were coming off of the worst record in the major leagues last spring after going 66-96 in 2007. Now, they’re the defending AL champs, and the darlings of the Tampa Bay area. All of their home exhibition games are sold out, and it’s commonplace to see fans wearing Rays t-shirts and caps or flying Rays flags from their automobiles in an area where Yankees gear outsold Devil Rays merchandise less than two years ago.
Maddon was reminded of how differently the Rays are perceived in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area a few weeks back, when he attended an Elton John/Billy Joel concert at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa and was besieged by well-wishers. “People kept coming up to me, wanting to talk and shake hands,” Maddon said. “It was very nice, and I appreciated it, but it would not have happened at this time last year. A few people might have recognized me and nodded in my direction, but I doubt too many of them would have stopped to talk. So, it’s definitely different now.”
The Rays’ players have also become more recognized, and third baseman Evan Longoria, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, has become an iconic figure as seemingly every fan at Charlotte Sports Park wears a jersey or t-shirt with his name and number on the back. Maddon, however, doesn’t believe that his young team will get caught up in its newfound celebrity. “We have a good group of players, who are also good people and understand where they’ve come from,” said Maddon. “They know the hard work that it took to reach this point. They are not going to stop now. We’ve talked about it a lot. We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. We want to be the type of organization that can compete year in and year out in the American League East, and we understand how difficult that can be when you’re in the same division with the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, and Orioles.”
Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman only did some minor tinkering with the roster during the offseason, primarily taking steps to make the lineup stronger against left-handed pitching. The Rays had a .246/.330/.396 line against lefties last season, while hitting right-handers at a .267/.344/.434 clip.
The Rays replaced two of last season’s outfielder/DH types, Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd, by signing Pat Burrell for two years and $16 million as a free agent and trading left-hander Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for Matt Joyce. Burrell will be the primary designated hitter, and Joyce should get the majority of starts in right field. Burrell had a .295 EqA last season, while Joyce posted a .282 mark as a rookie.
One of the major reasons that the Rays made such a drastic jump in the standings last season is that they went from having the worst bullpen in the major leagues in terms of WARP in 2007 (-1.65), to the best in 2008 (15.52). However, understanding that relievers’ performances tend to be volatile, Friedman did not stand pat with his bullpen, signing left-hander Brian Shouse and right-handers Joe Nelson and Jason Isringhausen as free agents. Shouse had a 0.90 WXRL, and Nelson had a 0.87 mark, and though Isringhausen struggled mightily at -2.33, the Rays have taken minimal risk by bringing him into spring training on a minor league contract. “We didn’t make a whole lot of moves over the winter, but I really like the moves we made,” Maddon said. “We were focused on specific areas, and I think you can make a pretty strong argument that we’re a better team now than we were when last season ended-and we were a pretty darn good team in 2008.”
Expectations for 2009 are much different than they were in ’08, and the rest of the AL East is now well aware of the Rays. “I don’t think they were a fluke last year,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “They have too much talent, and a lot of guys who still have upside. They aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be right in the thick of things in our division. That’s how we look at it, and I’m sure the rest of the teams in the division feel the same way. Nobody is going to take them for granted.”
The Astros are having a historically bad spring. They’re 3-16 in exhibition play, with as many ties as victories. While the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons may be meaningless, the constant losing isn’t necessarily good for morale. In fact, it has Astros manager Cecil Cooper in a rather foul mood. “It’s kind of past frustrating now,” Cooper told Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle. “We say every day it gets frustrating, but it’s kind of past frustration time.”
The Astros’ offense has been anemic; they’re hitting .216/.280/.341 and scoring 3.0 runs per game through their first 22 games. Cooper tries to take solace in the fact that he does have some players in his lineup with good track records, such as first baseman Lance Berkman, shortstop Miguel Tejada, and left fielder Carlos Lee. “That’s kind of the bright spot you look for, when you know that some of these guys have some pretty good baseball cards whose stats on the back are pretty good, but it still doesn’t ease the pain,” said Cooper. “I don’t go home after the game happy. I’m mad until whatever time. I keep waiting. I wake up every morning thinking today’s the day. Sure do. Then about the eighth inning, frustration sets in again. Something’s got to give, and sooner rather than later.”
The hitting has been so bad that when the Astros announced this past Tuesday that they were holding a press conference at their spring training camp in Kissimmee, Florida the following morning, there was rampant speculation that hitting coach Sean Berry would be fired. Instead, the announcement was that third baseman Aaron Boone would miss the season because he will undergo heart surgery.
The Astros aren’t yet ready to do surgery on their lineup based on spring training results, but Berry admits that he would like to see his hitters begin to produce since Opening Day is barely more than two weeks away. “We’ve been hitting a lot of balls hard, but yeah, you’re concerned when you’re not getting hits all the time, sure,” said Berry. “But this is a long spring. It’s time to get going now. I tell you one thing that I haven’t seen in a long time, is how many balls we’ve hit hard and gotten nothing to show for it.”
Cardinals‘ ownership has taken its share of heat in recent years from fans who believe that they do not have a payroll commensurate with one of the best-drawing teams in the major leagues. The projection this past week by Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Cardinals would open the season with a $93.2 million payroll, down from $101.8 million at the start of last season, isn’t likely to make the fans very happy.
The Cardinals, though, say that the bad economy has caused them to curtail their spending, and they’re expected to fail to sell three million tickets before Opening Day for the first time since the new Busch Stadium opened in 2006. Even the expected bump in revenue that should be generated by hosting the All-Star Game might not be enough to offset a drop in other sources of income. “It’s a challenging economic environment,” DeWitt told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s not unique to the Cardinals. Other clubs are feeling the same thing. We’re tightening our belts. There are a lot of factors. Right now we’re projecting a [drop in] attendance. Also, sponsorship categories, like automotive and financial, are not as strong as they were before. We’re seeing some slippage.”
Ownership was sensitive to the criticism last season from manager Tony La Russa, among others, for not adding help to the roster during the pennant race. The Cardinals finished 86-76 and in fourth place, 11½ games behind the Cubs in the division race and four games behind the wild-card winning Brewers. “We will have a payroll commensurate with revenue,” DeWitt said. “I think you have to have a strong payroll, and we do.”
The mass exodus of clubs leaving Florida to hold spring training in Arizona is already a fact, but now the Reds will be the next to leave. They are holding their final camp in Sarasota, Florida before moving to Goodyear, Arizona where they will share a complex with the Indians.
However, there have been rumblings all along Florida’s Gulf coast in the past few days that the Cubs may be headed west to east, as their lease in Mesa, Arizona expires in 2012. Sarasota and Fort Myers have been mentioned as the most likely destinations if the Cubs do decide to hold spring training in Florida for the first time in their history, and team president Crane Kenney says that the Cubs are open to leaving Mesa, where they have trained since 1979. They must let the city know by 2010 if they plan to leave. “We’ve been in touch with a number of municipalities and states,” Kenney told the Chicago Tribune. “We’d be the most desirable free agent on the market.”
While two-team complexes have become popular in recent years, Kenney said that the Cubs have no intention of sharing a camp with another organization. “I think the Cubs deserve to stand on their own,” he said.
No team has left Arizona for Florida since the Indians moved from Tucson to Winter Haven in 1993. Ironically, the Indians moved from Winter Haven to Goodyear, Arizona this year.
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Nationals are strongly considering releasing first baseman Dmitri Young, who has been slowed by back problems after being dropped from the 40-man roster over the winter, while Shairon Martis has jumped ahead of Collin Ballester in the competition for the fifth-starter’s job. … The Reds are willing to trade infielder Jeff Keppinger, who is out of minor league options and in danger of losing his spot on the bench to infielder Adam Rosales. … Joe Mather is no longer the clear-cut favorite to be the Cardinals’ regular third baseman until Troy Glaus (shoulder surgery) comes off of the disabled list. David Freese has also re-entered the picture, along with Brendan Ryan, Tyler Greene, Brian Barden, and Joe Thurston. … Emmanuel Burriss appears to have pulled ahead of Kevin Frandsen to be the Giants‘ starting second baseman. … Right-hander Seth McClung is the Brewers’ insurance policy, both as a starter if Braden Looper has to begin the season on the disabled list with a strained oblique, and as the closer if Trevor Hoffman is sidelined at the season’s start by a similar injury. … Leo Nuñez will likely get the bulk of the Marlins‘ save chances if Matt Lindstrom (shoulder) begins the season on the disabled list, though Logan Kensing might also be in the closer picture along with left-hander Renyel Pinto. … Russ Ortiz has all but locked up the fifth spot in the Astros’ rotation. … Livan Hernandez has pulled ahead of Freddy Garcia and Nelson Figueroa in the Mets‘ fifth-starter derby. … Claudio Vargas leads the fifth-starter competition in the Dodgers‘ camp ahead of Eric Milton, Eric Stults, and Shawn Estes. … Franklin Morales holds a slight edge over Greg Smith to be the Rockies‘ fifth starter. … Right-handers Jason Davis, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, and Virgil Vasquez are competing for the two open spots in the Pirates‘ rotation.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Blue Jays are close to signing right-hander Shawn Hill, who was released by the Nationals this past week. … Center fielder Andruw Jones is leaning toward agreeing to the Rangers‘ request that he wait until at least Monday before deciding whether to exercise his right to opt out of his minor league contract and become a free agent, while right-hander Kris Benson, likely to begin the season at Triple-A Oklahoma, cannot opt out of his deal until May 5. … Brett Gardner has outplayed Melky Cabrera to this point of the spring, but the Yankees aren’t yet ready to pick their starting center fielder. … Brandon Morrow will probably begin the season in the Mariners‘ bullpen, perhaps as a closer, as a shoulder injury has prevented him from building enough stamina to begin the season in the rotation. … The Tigers will likely decide between veteran left-hander Nate Robertson and top prospect Rick Porcello for the fifth-starter’s job, and they’re leaning toward using both Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney to close games. … Jason Hammel appears to have gained the edge to be the Rays’ fifth starter over Jeff Niemann, who is out of minor league options, and David Price. … Aaron Laffey, Scott Lewis, and Jeremy Sowers are still competing to be the Indians’ fifth starter.