Tagged: Matt Joyce

Late Recap of Rays FanFest 2010

Well, for the first time in my second decade of MLBlogging, I’m back. And just as it began in the previous two years, the 2010 Rays season kicked off with FanFest on February 20.

I arrived at around 8:30 at Tropicana Field, much later than that 7:00 arrival last year. The line was still short, maybe just a few dozen people. FOX 13 interviewed the first people who got there (they couldn’t do this last year?), then the doors finally opened around 10:10. It felt good to escape the cold winds, and just as good to escape into center field. I promptly gathered my cards for the autograph lines as I checked the schedule. My brother went out to FanFest for the first time since 2001, so we could double our autograph intake. I noticed that Table 2 featured Desmond Jennings and Dan Johnson at noon, then Carlos Pena at 1:00. I had both Jennings’ and Pena’s cards, so Table 2 it was. My brother headed off to Table 5 with a Matt Joyce card. Table 1 with Evan Longoria was not happening by the time we reached the lines.

So after playing the waiting game, during which time I pulled up several pieces of the field as souvenirs, it was time to approach the tables. Of course, they didn’t start right at noon, which I’m sure angered people in the Longoria and B.J. Upton lines. I had a good spot in line, about halfway up from the end where the line curves around. Plus it just so happened that many of those ahead of me were there to see Pena, while I was comfortable with Jennings. So I jumped ahead and took my shot. I talked to Johnson first, asking him how Japan treated him.

“They treated me well,” Johnson told me. “But I did more work there in two weeks than I did in a year here.”

We also agreed that Japan (where Johnson hit .215 with 24 home runs for Yokohama in 2009) promotes a vastly different culture. After he signed my program and I thanked him for the 2008 home run in Boston, I moved on to Jennings. I didn’t have many words, but he did sign my 2007 Bowman Sterling card. That will be money in the bank many years down the road — at least as long as Jennings himself cashes in on his potential.

After eating (expensive) Checkers food in the right field seats, I returned to the field and caught up with Jennings again. This time I visited the Metro PCS Call a Friend booth, where I had Jennings call my dad. They talked for a minute about everything Rays, and it made their days. Well, at least Dad’s.

At 2:00, it was town hall meeting time. This is always one of my favorite events, being able to listen to broadcasters and other notable names discuss the game and the team, plus asking them questions. The first round starred Dewayne Staats and Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. Roberts may be 83 years old, but his baseball memory remains perfectly clear. Plus he signed my program. A Hall of Famer’s signature is worth every dollar and every minute I spent at FanFest. Anyway, Roberts spent a lot of time on the differences between his era and today, and the dynamics of pitching. I asked him how far he thought baseball went to protect the hitter in today’s game. His first sentence spoke volumes.

“When I started, hitters didn’t even wear helmets.”

Then he made it a point to discuss the controversy over hitters wearing body armor at the plate, which never happened 50 years ago. He told a few more stories, littered with details — this guy knows the count on which he gave up a home run in a memorable game in 1954. And, of course, pitch count was a major point of contention. Roberts suggested that a pitcher’s mechanics determine injury risk more than the amount of throwing. He has a point.

After they wrapped up, 3:00 meant time for round two. Radio broadcasters Dave Wills and Andy Freed (whom I had spoken to earlier in the day) made their way up on stage at the Batter’s Eye Restaurant. Joining them was the man who will hopefully turn the Rays’ strikeout–prone, foul–bunting woes around: new hitting coach Derek Shelton. His focus is on situational hitting, which I think is essential to any championship team. In discussing this topic, Shelton made a valid argument.

“If Carlos Pena is up with a runner on third base, less than two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, I want him putting the ball on the ground. If it’s two outs and nobody on base in the same situation, I want him taking his three swings and trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Shelton’s main points were that it’s not striking out often, but striking out at the wrong times, that kills run production, and that they just needed to play to win the game. He also mentioned his work with most of the team’s hitters during the offseason, notably with B.J. Upton. He says Upton needs to cut down on the “moving parts” in his swing, and his extremely fast hands could do the work. He added that it could take as long as 18 months to recover from the shoulder surgery Upton went through in November 2008, which would explain his epic fail 2009 season. Speaking of which, Pat Burrell is also in shape and ready to hit under Shelton’s guidance.

Shelton answered my question about which young player would break out by explaining Upton’s progress and saying he would be that guy. Dave Wills told me this last year too, so maybe it’s not a lock. My brother asked Shelton about Kelly Shoppach, with whom he worked with the Cleveland Indians. He said Shoppach was “closer to 2008” than his injury–riddled 2009 season. 2008 was when he hit 21 home runs and rendered Victor Martinez nearly irrelevant. He also loves Tropicana Field, a rarity in this league.

That ended my 2010 Rays FanFest on a high note. The autographs were an automatic win for us, and of course talking to these people up close and personally is a rare treat that should always be capitalized upon. The only problems: the people running the show had little sense of timeliness, and there is no possible way to do everything one can do in seven hours. They need to make this a two–day event. Overall, I would say FanFest hit the line between B+ and A–.

I will end here by announcing my annual journey to Champion Stadium in Kissimmee to see the Braves. It is happening March 13 when the Braves face the Blue Jays, who I saw there in 2007. Hopefully Jason Heyward gets some playing time. He’s rated the number–one prospect, ahead of Stephen Strasburg, and has already sent shockwaves around Braves camp. Hopefully he and Jennings become the game’s two most dominant outfielders.

Until next time, go Rays.

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Rays Take Angels Series

The Rays returned home this week and returned to last week’s form, winning two out of three games from Joe Maddon’s old Angels team despite losing the opener.

They lost the first game 4–3 as James Shields only surrendered two earned runs out of four total. Carlos Pena made his sixth error after having made two in 2008. Despite a Ben Zobrist eighth inning home run and solid relief work from Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and J.P. Howell, the Rays fell to Jered Weaver and Los Angeles (of Anaheim).

The bats came out in droves in game two, picking up a lackluster performance from Jeff Niemann (3.2 IP, 5 R, 4 ER) to beat usual Ray killer John Lackey 9–5. Pena and Willy Aybar homered off Lackey while Zobrist (7) and B.J. Upton (18) picked up stolen bases. Lance Cormier rescued Niemann with more than two innings of shutdown relief. Jason Isringhausen, Joe Nelson and Dan Wheeler showed their A–game as well as the Rays evened up the series.

The rubber game was the best of both worlds: the bats kept on swinging, the pitchers kept mowing the Angels down. Evan Longoria snapped an 0–for–19 stretch with a towering home run off Centerfield Street, his 14th this year and the first of four Tampa Bay home runs. Carl Crawford (5), Dioner Navarro (4) and Pena (19) also hit home runs. Crawford added his 35th stolen base, on a pickoff throw no less, and Gabe Gross stole two for the first time since… ever. He went 3–for–4 with a walk, pacing the bottom of the order.

David Price needs to keep his pitch count down, though he doesn’t give up runs. He walked six batters in just 4.1 innings, but also struck out six and allowed just two hits. He kept his team in this game, but needs to stop walking everything that moves and just get outs. The bullpen, as it did for Niemann, came to the rescue as Balfour, Choate and Nelson struck out six more hitters and only allowed four baserunners. The Rays won 11–1 and won the series.

Now with the Washington Nationals, the worst team baseball has seen in years, in town, it may be the perfect time to give the bullpen a break. Matt Garza starts tonight against rookie Craig Stammen. And no, Stephen Strasburg will not be seen in this series.

Now on to roster moves: Pat Burrell is returning for the Nationals series. This is a team he should be familiar with, having played in their division for several years. His strained neck may finally be healed, though he was 1–for–13 with six strikeouts in his low minor league rehab. In exchange, Matt Joyce was sent back to Durham. I think it’s unfortunate because this guy can drive an extra–base hit off anyone, but the fact that he was hitting .188 and needs to play everyday somewhere justifies the Rays’ decision. Hopefully we see him in the AAA All Star Game (vote for him here) and back up here by September. The way Gabe Kapler has slacked off, somebody needs to pick him up.

Jason Bartlett will be rehabbing with the Charlotte Stone Crabs this weekend. As speed is a key asset to his game, his ankle injury has been treated with great caution. Hopefully he burns everyone out on the bases and shows up in Colorado ready to pierce the thin air with bullets.

In the Draft, the Rays took Fred McGriff’s distant relative LeVon Washington with the 30th overall pick. A high school middle infielder currently healing a shoulder injury, Washington runs faster than Tim Beckham and projects to be a high average hitter with decent power despite his small frame. He compared himself to Jose Reyes, which I would say is accurate.

They also selected Georgia high school catcher Luke Bailey in the fourth round. A first round talent coming off Tommy John surgery, this guy could be a steal in the long run. The Rays took a big gamble on Bailey, and I see it ultimately paying off. That surgery works miracles these days.

With the 349th overall pick, the Rays selected Alex Koronis, a junior pitcher from The University of Tampa, which of course is my school. He might not sign because he has another year of eligibility, but he has been the Spartans’ go–to guy out of the bullpen, according to coach Joe Urso. He can close games, pitch in long relief, or even start and go the distance. I interviewed him for a newspaper piece not long ago, and I can tell you he’s an interesting character and a good guy. So whether or not he joins the Rays, he’ll go on to a bright future.

Now let’s beat those Nationals and not continue our legacy of playing down to inferior teams. I like how Kevin Kennedy brought that up after last night’s game. Until next time, go Rays.

Rays Winning at Home

The Rays have won four of their first five games on this homestand, beating Minnesota the first two times around and giving the Kansas City Royals the same treatment. This is a great sign right before a huge road series with the Yankees.

The starting pitchers are finally turning it around. They have all had winning stuff. Jeff Niemann pitched the best game of his career tonight — a two–hit shutout, no less. He was nearly untouchable, even with the huge lead. The bullpen has looked good, though I would still relegate J.P. Howell to middle relief.

The offense is picking it up, even without Jason Bartlett. Ben Zobrist hit a grand slam tonight, already the fourth of his career. Matt Joyce finally got his call–up and immediately made his case to play right field everyday. He has hit two long home runs in the last three games. B.J. Upton is finally over the Mendoza Line. Carl Crawford… well, somebody finally caught him stealing. But he is still on fire at the plate.

This post was made to show that I am still following the games, and finally regaining a little confidence in this team. Hopefully they don’t turn around and tank in New York. Until next time, go Rays.

Salvaging a Split in Baltimore

The Rays played one subpar game, then a horrible one before finally saving themselves in the finale of their weekend series at Camden Yards.

They narrowly lost the first game 5–4 when Akinori Iwamura, who couldn’t hit with two outs in the ninth inning with a firing squad in front of him, struck out to end the game.  Evan Longoria’s two home runs and Dioner Navarro’s line drive shot off George Sherrill were not enough to save Andy Sonnanstine, who uncharacteristically ran into walk problems early in the game.  The second game started and ended with Jeff Niemann, who made a case for David Price by surrendering five runs in the first inning, including a grand slam to Melvin Mora, whom I honestly thought wouldn’t be in the league by now.  They lost 6–0, the end coming when with two runners on base, Jason Bartlett — guess what? — struck out to end the game.

Before I get to the last game, I would like to address a few things that Joe Maddon and everyone else knows have been going wrong with the Rays.  They have been striking out too much, especially with runners on base.  They have left the bases loaded on multiple occasions with nothing to show for it.  They have left a small town on base during their first six games, which has Maddon telling his team to stop striking out and hitting meaningless flyouts.  They could really use some better situational hitting.

The Rays got their hitting in general rolling Sunday with an impressive 11–3 win.  After they left two men on base in the first inning, Carl Crawford lifted a three–run triple down the right field line to open up the scoring.  The Rays later got home runs out of Ben Zobrist on a line drive over the high right field wall, Jason Bartlett on a smash into the center field seats (you read that correctly), Evan Longoria on a line drive into the left field stands and Carlos Pena on a high fly ball just over that right field scoreboard.  James Shields was masterful, giving up only three hits and no runs in seven innings before leaving due to the huge lead.  After a scoreless inning from Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour loaded the bases with nobody out and allowed two runs before mercifully being pulled.  Although a third run later scored on a double play, J.P. Howell got out of the inning and the game with a comfortable win.

Longoria has been killing the baseball in the first week of the season.  He is hitting .481 (13–27) with five home runs and only three strikeouts.  He also took an opportunity to steal a base yesterday, which I consider a nice bonus.  Now he just needs some lineup protection to keep up the pace.  Despite my previous knocks on him, Iwamura has been producing well so far.  His three hits in the last game make him 8–22 on the season, and he already has four walks and three stolen bases.  Crawford finally stole a base yesterday and is hitting .308.  Pena hasn’t been that great, but he has hit two convincing home runs.  Jason Bartlett hit .391 on the opening roadtrip.  So there have been a few big bats that just need to keep it going.

Speaking of which, another big bat is scheduled to return tonight.  B.J. Upton, the team’s center fielder and tablesetter, is coming back into the lineup for the Rays’ home opener.  The team optioned Matt Joyce to Durham to make room for Upton, who will bat leadoff and (hopefully) hit home runs and run circles around everyone.  He can be an additional spark plug who can give this team more critical wins and push them into another playoff race.  We’ll see how he is when he takes the field.  I can see it only going uphill from here.

The Rays play their first home game tonight at Tropicana Field, kicking off Championship Week against the New York Chokees Yankees.  The pennant is raised tonight and championship rings are to be given out tomorrow night.  Scott Kazmir beating Chien–Ming Wang would be a great start.  Until next time, go Rays.

Rays Win 2 Out of 3 Over Red Sox

The Tampa Bay Rays rebounded from an Opening Day mishap to take two out of their first three games of the year in Fenway Park.

Evan Longoria came up huge in the second and third games with a home run in each game and three hits in the finale.  He also had two RBI in the first game.  After an atrocious start, Carlos Pena took the much–hyped Jon Lester 420 feet out to dead center field to assure victory in game two.  Jason Bartlett continued striking out too much, but getting hits whenever he did make contact.  That safety squeeze play by him and Gabe Kapler made Lester completely clueless.  Matt Joyce and Shawn Riggans also hit home runs in that third game, each one critical as the Rays edged out a 4–3 win.

Pitching was also effective in this series, despite the rocky start by James Shields.  Shields’ career home ERA was 3.21 and his road ERA was 4.82 entering this season.  He can just never find a routine away from Tropicana Field.  Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza were each excellent in their own ways en route to victory.  How they held the Red Sox to one run apiece is almost beyond me, but they are great pitchers, so they can figure out even the best of lineups.  Joe Nelson was good, though a little scary.  Lance Cormier held the fort down well in the first game. Grant Balfour was looking strong, especially with the changes to his style — he is now painting 94–95 mile an hour fastballs on the corners as opposed to firing 97 MPH over peoples’ heads and drawing futile swings.  He also mixes in an occasional curveball, which was actually called a “plus pitch” by people who worked with him at Durham.  Troy Percival still scares me, but he did manage to earn the save in the final game despite Jason Varitek’s home run.

A good start for Tampa Bay, indeed, but a tragic start on the West Coast.  22–year–old Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, hours after pitching six scoreless innings against the Oakland A’s, died in a hit–and–run traffic accident in Fullerton, California.  Adenhart had been projected as a top prospect for the Angels and could have been great within a short time.  But now the team and his family have lost him to a senseless drunk driving crash.  Hopefully there is justice for all when the ensuing case wraps up, but the pitcher and the man lost, as well as the lives of two others, can never be replaced.  R.I.P. Nick Adenhart.

As life and baseball move forward, the Rays travel to Baltimore to face the Orioles three times before coming home for the first time in 2009.  Baltimore just won their opening series against the Yankees, so they should be taken seriously.  If the Rays do that, they are in good shape.  Until next time, go Rays.

Braves News: Anderson Traded, Jones Signed For Life, Plus Rays News

There has been major news out of Atlanta Braves camp in the past 24 hours.

First off, Josh Anderson has shockingly been traded to the Detroit Tigers.  Anderson, expected by many to start in center field, was given away for Minor League sidearm pitcher Rudy Darrow.  He was out of options and, at age 26, not the most attractive prospect.  He had been surpassed for the center field job by incumbent starter Gregor Blanco and top prospect Jordan Schafer, who has hit .373 this Spring.  Anderson’s inconsistency and limited batting power likely drove him out of Atlanta.  Blanco has a good skill set of speed, range and getting on base, while Schafer is a possible five–tool star of the near future.  I think Schafer should start this year at AAA Gwinnett because his lack of higher–level experience calls for more seasoning.  Blanco can hold down the fort until he is ready.  But the Braves may start Schafer from day one based on his play so far in camp.  Who knows?  Only time and the legendary Bobby Cox will tell.

Atlanta also signed its franchise player, third baseman Chipper Jones, to a three–year contract extension with an option for 2013.  This keeps him with the team through his 41st birthday, at which point his career will likely be over.  With the defection of John Smoltz to an enemy camp, it was important for the Braves to sign Chipper for the rest of his career.  He will forever be a Brave, figuratively and now literally.  Now let’s see him play at least 130 games and win another batting title.  That will send him straight to the Hall of Fame, where he belongs.

In Rays news, the team has made no decision yet on the future for reliever Jason Isringhausen, who was signed to a Minor League deal coming off of some injuries.  He does not want to go down to Durham and has the option to leave, placing the ball in his court.  Joe Maddon wants to keep him with the team by any means necessary.  I think he should stay, at least at the beginning of the year.  That kind of veteran depth is critical in the bullpen.

My idea of trading either Jason Hammel or Jeff Niemann may be coming to fruition.  Multiple teams are interested in each pitcher.  They are both out of options and one will likely be expendable before the season starts.  The San Diego Padres are interested in either one of them.  The Colorado Rockies have been after Hammel since last year’s trade deadline.  The Pittsburgh Pirates have talked about bringing in Niemann.  Why not?  They need some kind of help.  As long as we get something in return (first baseman of the future?), it is a great idea.

Despite a late–inning implosion leading to an 8–7 loss to Boston, three Rays who needed home runs smashed them today.  Matt Joyce, Gabe Gross and Jon Weber all went deep in the narrow defeat.  Joyce needed to start proving himself worthy of a Major League spot in B.J. Upton’s place at the start of the season, and this is a good start.  Meanwhile, Weber has done exceptionally well so far in Rays camp.  I think they should consider him for the final roster spot.  He is 31 years old, so what more can he do in the Minor Leagues?  He has decent speed and power, and has been bringing it for a month straight.  If Joyce starts at AAA and Weber begins with the Rays, I have no complaints.  Weber can finally try proving himself to MLB teams and Joyce can touch up his game a little more.

I also believe that Adam Kennedy would make a nice addition to the team if there is an open spot.  He can play multiple infield positions and bring a variety of talents and leadership to the Rays.  The shocking Tigers release of Gary Sheffield, who has 499 home runs, to make room for Anderson has sparked discussion of the Rays bringing him in at a $400,000 price.  It’s a nice deal, but he is past his prime and there is no room left.  That’s about all that is fit to blog today, but more will definitely come soon.  I will be posting my lineup and pitching rotation predictions before Spring Training ends.  Until next time, go Rays (and Braves).

Moves and More Moves

Since I was last here discussing the Trever Miller Cardinals signing (which has since been finalized), the Tampa Bay Rays have even further altered their landscape for the 2009 season and beyond.  It has not only changed the face of the team on the field, but off of it as well.

The big move I wanted to mention first was the departure of color commentator Joe Magrane.  After 11 years of making Rays TV broadcasts interesting, Magrane is leaving his long–time employers to become an analyst on the new MLB Network.  It would likely be a dream team of him and the great Matt Vasgersian doing the studio show.  (Can’t they work the World Series broadcasts too?  They’re infinitely better than Joe Suck Buck and Tim “Curveball, Fastball… Or a Curveball” McCarver.)  The Rays TV presentation now has a huge void to fill in his absence.  From the way he could analyze the pickoff moves of left handed pitchers to his becoming a “homer” for his team at just the right times, Joe entertained and informed Rays fans thoroughly during the team’s first 11 years in baseball.  Good luck finding a replacement who has the same chemistry with Dewayne Staats and Todd Kalas.  (Kalas himself?)  Rays TV will never be the same again.  Neither will FanFest — meeting Joe there last February was one of the highlights of the event for me and many other Rays enthusiasts, and he was excellent in the question/answer session.  Plus his daughter is a very talented singer who performed at some of their games and may also prove difficult to replace.  Anyway, good luck to Joe in his next great endeavor.  I’ll be watching.

Now when it comes to players, the Rays have not signed a ΒΆΒΆ $abathia type of free agent or made any blockbuster trades, but key moves have been made.  Most notably and recently, just last night (December 10), the team traded starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to the Detroit Tigers for 24–year–old corner outfielder Matt Joyce.  I heard a lot about Joyce and his potential during last season, his first in the Major Leagues with the Tigers.  Within a year or two, he can be a 25–30 home run hitter with hopefully a .270 or higher batting average.  A) It’s better than what they had, and B) At least this deal has good long-term potential, rather than just being a one–year bridge to the unknown.  So I can’t complain.  An added bonus is that he apparently has a cannon arm in the outfield.  He had a full 20 outfield assists in 2007 at AA Erie.  His totals in other seasons have also been respectable.  One more incentive for Joyce to play here is that he was born in Tampa and played at Armwood High School, in addition to Lakeland–based Florida Southern College.  (Sidenote: Florida Southern happens to be the arch rival of my new school, The University of Tampa.)  So he will now be truly playing at home.  Welcome to the team.

On the other end of the deal, Edwin Jackson’s trade opens up a starting rotation spot for David Price.  Even better is the fact that the Mets didn’t get him.

I’ll be back when the Rays make any more big moves.  Until then, go American League Champion Rays.