Tagged: Opening Day

Opening Day 2010

Well, well, well… I’m finally back, just in time for the season to start. I graduate from the University of Tampa next month and I have been caught up in all the pre–graduation work. Then I expect to move in July, likely out of my lifelong hometown of Tampa, for graduate school and possible employment. So updates here will likely be even more sporadic than they were last season

Back to baseball, we are just about in full swing. The Braves debut with most other teams on Monday and the Rays host their opener Tuesday night. (The night I happen to have a late can’t–miss class.)

I checked out Braves Spring Training on March 13 when they hosted the Blue Jays. Ricky Romero owned the Braves and Toronto won 3–0 behind untimely errors against Tim Hudson. The slightly–improved Champion Stadium looked great as usual, and we sat in the lower level for the first time. I was about four rows behind Frank Wren, right behind the plate. It was a bit hotter than expected due to the concrete and steel, but nothing like it would be today. That didn’t stop me from having chicken noodle soup catered to my seat. It was good too.

After the game we stayed at the Best Western Lakeside (my first night ever in a hotel room all to myself) and ate at Colorado House of Beef. I recommend the Colorado’s Best, a 14–ounce center–cut portion of New York strip steak. We may go back again next year.

Now on to the regular season. The Rays added both Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac to the Opening Day roster. I like the idea because both men are versatile and did very well this spring. Rodriguez particularly killed the ball. Hopefully Rodriguez carries it over into the regular season and earns some playing time. It seems like Brignac will get most of the second base appearances while Ben Zobrist will play right field. These three should get all the time they can because they are all better than Gabe Kapler. Nothing personal against the Jewish muscleman, he’s just past his prime.

Mike Ekstrom narrowly beat Joaquin Benoit for the final bullpen spot. This surprised me quite a bit; I see Benoit as the better pitcher. But Ekstrom was said to have better fastball command and he didn’t just miss a season injured. So he should hold over in a mop–up role until J.P. Howell comes back. I also like Andy Sonnanstine in the long relief spot, and I love former Brave Rafael Soriano as the closer.

The Rays are expected to possibly drop their payroll by $20 million next season. That’s quite sad for this market. As Tom Verducci said, we “failed the litmus test” last year when our attendance only rose by less than 1,000 fans per game. I’m as guilty as all of us, only having gone to two games. In our defense, the economy in this area sucks and only nine teams saw any increase in attendance in 2009 — ours was the sixth–best increase. In terms of cutting payroll, if we get Pena, Soriano and Burrell off the books, that’s about $25 million right there. If Crawford decides to unfortunately depart, that’s more than $10 million extra. We could actually sign one or two good players next offseason. Combine that with the rise of Desmond Jennings and other prospects, and we can still contend. Don’t count us out.

I wrote a spring recap/season preview for the Rays for my school newspaper. I basically talk about everybody there, and it would clog a lot of space on this blog, so the link is here.

On to the Braves, their starting rotation looks like the 1990s, chock full of stars: Lowe, Jurrjens, Hanson, Hudson, Kawakami. When Tim Hudson is the fourth starter on an underrated staff, you know you have something special. Tommy Hanson could win a Cy Young Award soon, and so could Jair Jurrjens. If they just keep up the pace and Derek Lowe stays in shape, the Braves could sneak into the postseason.

The talk of Braves camp is Jason Heyward. What an amazing talent. He has rocket power, a great batting eye, good speed and a cannon arm. He can be the next Ken Griffey, Jr., hopefully without the injuries and slowing down. He can make Braves baseball its most exciting since the late 1990s. Now if only Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus can rebound and Nate McLouth starts to hit.

The Yankees and Red Sox begin the season tonight. I’ll be cheering for the weather and the medical staff. Now we wait impatiently for our teams to begin the 2010 season. Every team — OK, maybe about 25 out of 30 — has hope for a championship. Let’s bring one down south.

Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

1-0 So Far

The Atlanta Braves soundly defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the opening game of 2009 by a count of 4–1.

Derek Lowe pitched an absolute masterpiece, going eight innings allowing only two hits and no runs.  He only had four strikeouts, but that’s just Lowe being Lowe.  He allowed zero walks as well.  Mike Gonzalez did allow a run before proving his worth with big strikeouts of Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez with the tying run on base.

How about that Jordan Schafer?  He came up against Brett Myers and hit a home run in his first Major League at–bat!  He became the 99th MLB player ever to accomplish this, and the first Brave since the one and only Jermaine Dye back in 1996.  Not only did Schafer do it, he hit it to the opposite power alley in left center field.  In Citizens Bank Park.  It gets no better than that.

Brian McCann and the reformed Jeff Francoeur also hit early bombs in support of Lowe.  McCann’s was an absolute cannon shot into the second deck that followed a great at–bat from Chipper Jones.  Francoeur tagged Myers on the first pitch of the second inning on a line drive into the left field seats.  Sure enough, he was spraying the ball around all night.

Now the Rays will march right into Fenway Park and manhandle the Red Sox in similar fashion.  That is, if I have anything to say about it.  The Braves and Phillies meet again Tuesday night, weather permitting.  Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

Of Lineups and Pitching Rotations

Today is the big day in baseball… almost.  It’s the eve of Opening Night when the Braves maul face the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. So before it’s too late, here are the probable lineups for our Tampa Bay Rays and my Atlanta Braves for the 2009 season:

Rays Lineup:

1.  B.J. Upton, CF – Joe Maddon made the surprise announcement today that, upon his return, B.J. will be the Rays’ leadoff hitter.  Even though he led the league in times caught stealing in 2008 with 16, he stole 44 bases and walked 97 times.  Despite his 134 strikeouts last year, he still sees pitches and can be the guy to let his teammates gauge opposing pitchers.  With his power likely to return after labrum surgery, he could be like our Bobby Bonds.  Except hopefully he learns to run hard every play.  He should be a very good tablesetter.

2.  Carl Crawford, LF – Crawford is the ultimate baserunner in the game today.  Despite injuries slowing him down in 2008, he is back to hopefully steal 50 bases and hit .300 again.  (I would also like at least 10–15 home runs.)  Predicted by Buster Olney to be the MVP of this division, he is ready for a huge comeback season.  He and Upton will be running circles around the opposition.

3.  Evan Longoria, 3B – The 2008 American League Rookie of the Year should have no trouble hitting 30 home runs in season number two.  This is a great spot for him to drive in some runs.  What he needs to do the most is stay in shape, recognize pitches better and remain wise on the basepaths.  His defense really can’t get that much better.  We’re looking for some moon shots out of this spot.

4.  Carlos Pena, 1B – Who better to clean the bases up than Pena?  He rebounded from a horrendous start last year to hit 31 home runs, including a few game–winners.  As long as his timing is right, every outfielder better be prepared for some whiplash.

5.  Pat Burrell, LF – If Carlos can’t do it, then Pat can.  Continuing the alternating left–right–left batting order that will give opposing managers migraines is the powerful Pat Burrell, acquired during the offseason when the Phillies let him go.  He, too, can hit about 35 home runs and draw about 100 walks to compensate for a low batting average.  The 3–4–5 hitters will drive pitchers up walls.

6.  Dioner Navarro, C – The first–time All Star was the best contact hitter for the 2008 Rays with a .295 average.  Batting behind these guys, he will see good pitches for lacing line drives all over the field.  This could be another big RBI spot.

7.  Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler, RF – The lawfirm of Gabe & Gabe at your service.  Gross will face right–handed pitching, Kapler left handers.  Both are good for an occasional home run, and we all know Gross is always a prime candidate to win a game late.

8/9.  Akinori Iwamura, 2B – The former leadoff hitter will hit eighth against right handers, ninth against left handers.  Since June 2007, Iwamura had been doing the little things to set the table for the Rays offense.  He was in that spot over Jason Bartlett and Crawford because he sees more pitches (70 walks in 2008 to Bartlett’s 22 and Crawford’s 30), despite not being as good a base stealer and striking out over 100 times every year.  If he very slightly improves his batting average, home runs and baserunning at the bottom of the order, as well as keeping up his great defense, I’ll be satisfied.  The hitting eighth thing seemed to work well when he played with Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic, so he will be fine here.

9/8.  Jason Bartlett, SS – Rounding it out is last year’s team MVP.  Bartlett rebounded with a .389 August and ended up hitting .286 for the season with 20 stolen bases.  Maddon likes speed at the bottom of the order, and I think it’s a big plus.  With him hidden down here, there are absolutely zero easy outs in the Rays lineup.

Braves Lineup:

1.  Yunel Escobar, SS – Here is a guy who can be a big catalyst starting games off.  He draws the occasional walk and does not strike out often, and has shown strong contact hitting ability during his first two MLB seasons.  He can run, but needs to refine those baserunning skills (2–for–7 base stealing in 2008).  He can at least hit double–digit home runs, hopefully, bringing a little power to a team that needs it.  Escobar is a good well–rounded player and the right choice to lead off.

2.  Kelly Johnson, 2B – The former leadoff hitter will settle for second now.  Johnson is usually good for about 15 home runs and 10–15 steals a year, so he is certainly multi–talented.  He runs up pitch counts too, though he runs into more frequent strikeouts.  His tendency to swing at the first pitch occasionally ran him out of that leadoff spot, though he’ll be fine hitting between some very good players.

3.  Chipper Jones, 3B – No doubt about this one.  He won last year’s batting title at an amazing .364.  As long as he plays at least the vast majority of the season, he will be a huge run producer as he always has been.  Best case scenario, he puts up more huge totals and locks up his Hall of Fame spot.

4.  Brian McCann, C – The best offensive catcher in the game throughout 2008, McCann is nearly guaranteed to hit .300 with 20 home runs.  He and Chipper will have to consistently produce as they have proven they can to make the Braves winners.  I see another big season from these guys.

5.  Garret Anderson/Matt Diaz, LF – Anderson will likely bat here when he plays, which will be more often than not.  Diaz may be dropped one or two spots.  Anderson can hit at about a 15 home run pace, especially against right handers.  Diaz is coming off of an injury riddled season and could become a .300 hitter again.  They might be overlooked, but they will burn those who don’t figure it out.

6/7.  Jeff Francoeur, RF – Bobby Cox looks to be experimenting with hitting either Francoeur or Casey Kotchman sixth.  In Francoeur’s case, he needs to elevate his game now to get his reputation back.  A horrible 2008 gave him a gravesite, but he need not dig into it yet.  His new batting stance and renewed attitude have given him new life this Spring, as he hit .328 with seven walks and only six strikeouts, a miracle by his standards.  He has been spraying line drives, two of which resulted in home runs.  He can bounce back to at least 20 this year and earn some respect.

7/6.  Casey Kotchman, 1B – A solid contact hitter who rarely ever goes down on strikes, Kotchman hit turn almost any pitch into a hit.  He has .300 potential and should reach 15–20 home runs.  Add that to very good defense at first base, and we have ourselves a competent replacement for Mark Teixeira.

8.  Jordan Schafer, CF – Yes, it is official.  Bobby Cox and Frank Wren have announced that 22–year–old Jordan Schafer will start the 2009 season in center field for the Braves.  The five–tool star of the future, he will start as the eighth hitter as he learns on the big stage.  Schafer hit incredibly well this Spring and led the team in stolen bases.  If he can just make contact more often, he will be a dynamic player here very soon.  Good luck, Jordan.  And
sympathies to Gregor Blanco, who was surprisingly sent to AAA Gwinnett.

9.  Pitcher’s Spot – Self explanatory

Rays Pitching Rotation:

1.  James Shields – Big Game James set the world on fire last season, winning 14 games with a 3.56 ERA and coming up big in the postseason with their only World Series game victory.  Having pitched 215 innings in each of the last two seasons, he can save the bullpen for late or even give them a rare night off.  That deadly changeup will be back in full force and beating everyone else’s aces.

2.  Scott Kazmir – Despite his inability to pitch after the sixth inning, Kazmir was reliable with his 3.49 ERA last season.  He can do better, as he proved in 2006–07.  As his prime years hit, he will finally figure everything out and potentially become a Cy Young Award winner.

3.  Matt Garza – The savior against the Red Sox in last year’s postseason, Garza is back in the third spot this year.  He put up a perfectly good 3.70 ERA and finally learned something about controlling his anger on the mound.  A more level Garza can bring himself up to an elite status.  Any upgrade from last year would be good for now.

4.  Andy Sonnanstine – The ultimate contact pitcher, Sonnanstine bumped himself up significantly last season and managed to win 13 games.  He does not throw very hard, but this prevents the 460–foot home run from coming out of his arm.  His good offspeed pitches throw hitters off.  This guy can be another hidden surprise.

5.  Jeff Niemann – The Rays are slow about deciding this spot officially, so I’m making that choice here and now.  I selected Niemann over Jason Hammel because he was more of an investment (fourth overall Draft pick in 2004), he is more unique (6’9″, 280 pounds, big overhand delivery) and he was dominant for the majority of the Spring.  I think Niemann has more potential than the similarly–talented Hammel.  So he should take this spot and, hopefully, hold onto it serviceably until David Price shows up within the next few months.

Bullpen: Troy Percival (Closer), Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Joe Nelson, Brian Shouse (plus Chad Bradford and Jason Isringhausen once injuries are healed)

Braves Pitching Rotation:

1.  Derek Lowe – Without Tim Hudson for most of the season, Lowe assumes the official ace role in Atlanta.  He was the prized acquisition of the offseason, stolen right out from under the Mets.  He had a 3.24 ERA in 2008 and has pitched consistently well for each of the last few seasons.  The big sinkerballer should prove to be a major upgrade and help make the Braves strong contenders again.

2.  Javier Vasquez – This was another offseason gem from the mind of Frank Wren.  Vasquez had a mediocre 2008 with his ERA at 4.67 while losing an amazing total of 16 games.  Pushed away by the White Sox after this, he has something to prove and has been better before, so he can likely return to older form.  Hopefully that ERA is under 4.00 and he wins 16 games this time around.

3.  Kenshin Kawakami – Yet another newcomer joins the rotation.  He went 9–5 with a great 2.30 ERA last year in Japan, and even hit eight home runs there during his career.  He usually has good control and gets hitters out through bad contact.  We shouldn’t see too many baseballs flying over his head.

4.  Jair Jurrjens – Well, there is at least one constant.  Jurrjens broke out last season with a 3.68 ERA while winning 13 games.  He also doesn’t like to give up home runs and makes hitters chop the ball into outs.  At his age, he can easily step his game up to another level.

5.  Tom Glavine – The wise man is back and he better be improved from 2008.  But that’s not too much to ask.  In 13 starts, he went just 2–4 with a 5.54 ERA, his worst since his 1987 call-up stint, which also read 2–4, 5.54 (nine starts).  This Spring he has looked like the vintage Glavine the Braves need, throwing strikes all the time and getting quality outs.  If he even steps back 2–3 years, it’s an upgrade.  We will need him to be the Hall of Famer we know he is one more time and hold the fort down until Tommy Hanson debuts.

Bullpen: Mike Gonzalez (Closer), Rafael Soriano, Peter Moylan, Jeff Bennett, Blaine Boyer, Jorge Campillo, Buddy Carlyle, Eric O’Flaherty (What, no Boone Logan or Manny Acosta?)

The season starts tomorrow and Monday, so be there or be excommunicated.  Permanently.  Until next time, go Rays and go Braves.

Rays Home Opener And Then Some

Good evening Rays fans everywhere…finally, I am here in the aftermath of the Rays home opener from Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.  It turned out to be a bitter 6-5 loss to the Seattle Mariners, which may have been tainted–more on that later in this post.  It was a fun and exciting experience to be there (could have been better with the Rays winning, of course) that featured home runs, standing ovations and many interesting personalities.  Some notes from the April 8th game:

-The loudest ovation during pre-game ceremonies was actually for, of all people, a former NFL star.  Recently retired Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott was on hand to throw out the first pitch before the game.  Come down to Tampa (or St. Petersburg) sometime and see just how beloved he really is.  I can be considered among the large crowd that believes that Jon Gruden misused him.  But that rant is for NFL season.

-The loudest player ovations were for Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Akinori Iwamura, Scott Kazmir, and James Shields.

-Prior to the game, I checked out some of the stadium’s features and attractions.  I tried out “You Make The Call,” where fans can create their own commentary of historic Rays moments.  I chose Carl Crawford’s 2007 walk-off home run, and proceeded to pull out this amazing commentary that everyone around me loved…only to find out that it didn’t record.  I’ll just have to try it out again later–I think I can pull that rabbit out of the hat again.  I also watched some Baseball Trivia, with a very hyperactive and humorous host who interacted well with both the kids and adults.  She gave me an “air hug” when, after mentioning my Braves bias, told her I was also a huge Rays fan.  She also encouraged the crowd to mercilessly boo the Yankees, then gave everyone air high fives.  These and other little events made her my favorite Tropicana Field employee.  I’ll be sure to stop by there again when I go back.

-The fans right down the row from me asked me if it was a good time to be a Rays fan.  This was because they just got into baseball and adopted the Rays as their team, because they recently moved here from the United Kingdom.  (I could tell by the accents even before they told me.)  I, of course, told them (a husband, wife and two young daughters) that it was a better time than ever to jump onto the Rays bandwagon and that they picked the right team.  This was their first game, and it wasn’t really a bad one.

-During Willy Aybar’s second at-bat, right before he tied the game with an RBI single, a fight broke out in the crowd behind the left field foul pole.  A woman in a green Devil Rays shirt looked to be swinging on a guy who either A) cheated on her, B) hit on her one too many times, or C) told her Richie Sexson was better than Carlos Pena.  It looked like an old Jerry Springer scene as fans and security ran in as quickly as possible to break it up and/or watch the spectacle.  After a few minutes, a section of seats was entirely empty following arrests and ejections.  (This section later re-filled.)  Then Aybar tied the game.  That was a fun inning.

-The Rays hit two home runs during this game despite the loss.  Shawn Riggans just barely cleared the left field wall on a line drive that I thought may hit the wall for a double.  It was a little surprising to see it turn into his first Major League home run.  So congratulations to Shawn Riggans.  Then Carlos Pena hit an undisputed shot deep into the right field seats for his own home run–my first correct prediction in Home Run Beat the Streak.

-As you probably know by now, B.J. Upton was denied a triple by the combination of his right shoe falling off and notoriously questionable umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.  I’ve had a problem with Wendelstedt since 1998, when he tripped over his own foot and ejected John Smoltz because he somehow thought he did it.  This marks his third incorrect call in as many series this season.  I had a perfect angle on that play, and despite Adrian Beltre’s attempt to block third base, he moved to catch the relay throw.  Upton was safe by about two feet.  The crowd rightfully erupted into boos, and the situation even escalated into Joe Maddon being ejected.  Then the crowd, myself included, refused to get off Wendelstedt’s back and booed him continuously for the next half inning, and then intermittently for the remainder of the game.  He definitely screwed that call up and cost the Rays an opportunity to tie the game, which they lost by one run.  Now we know why he has never worked the World Series.

-Matt Garza left in the third inning with what is described as “radial nerve irritation,” and is on the 15-day disabled list.  If Edwin Jackson continues pitching like a Cy Young Award winner (don’t let this be his jinx), then the Rays can afford to take precautions with him as well as the soon-to-be-returning Scott Kazmir.

Well, once the Rays beat the Mariners 7-0 behind Jackson’s eight inning, two-hit dominance, I was finally motivated enough to write again.  That and the fact that I was busy with college work preempted this entry, but here it finally is.  I now have temporary plans to go into the TBT Party Deck (formerly known as The Beach) to watch the Rays face the Chicago White Sox on Friday, April 18.  I’ll be there with a few friends, all Rays fans, ready to return to the excitement that is live Tampa Bay Rays baseball.  I’ll have Opening Night pictures uploaded soon, and until then, go Rays.

Opening Day Victory Is Ours

Welcome Rays fans and all other interested parties to my Opening Day celebration.  This day is very much cause for one.  The Tampa Bay Rays looked like that…”Devil” word…early before returning to new form and soundly defeating the Baltimore Orioles, 6-2.  Kevin Millar’s two-run double put James Shields in an early 2-0 hole, but much like Tim Hudson for the Braves in last night’s game, adjusted and found himself afterwards.  Meanwhile, the offense took the lead in the presence of owner Stuart Sternberg with three third inning runs, which came in part on the strength of Carl Crawford’s first stolen base of the season and a B.J. Upton two-run single.  Eric Hinske led off the fourth inning with the Rays’ first home run of 2008, a solo blast to right field.  (He played right field for the suspended Jonny Gomes, and as I’ve predicted, he delivered.)  Willy Aybar was 1-for-4 at third base as I now hope he proves me dead wrong about him from my preseason predictions.  Dioner Navarro and Jason Bartlett added RBI singles in the sixth inning.  As much as it’s important for the big bats to produce, it’s always rewarding to see the bottom of the lineup contributing.  In the eighth inning, Baltimore looked to rip into the lead with Brian Roberts stealing his second base of the game off Al Reyes, but a controversial interference call against Melvin Mora ended the threat, and the Rays won easily.

Shields had a nice day overall (7 IP, 2 ER, 5 H, 3 BB, 2 K), with Trever Miller, Al Reyes and Dan Wheeler closing it out well with no runs on just one hit.  The defense turned three difficult double plays, and only one hitter (Akinori Iwamura, at 0-for-5 but with a walk and run scored) was hitless.  All around, this game showcased a lot of the Rays’ potential and put them in the win column.  They did a bit of everything, and already began to look like a well-oiled machine on the field.  They hit, ran, played defense, pitched, and came back from early trouble very effectively.  It could not have gone much better.  Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Braves and Pirates are, as I’m writing this, deadlocked at 9-9 in the 12th inning.  Atlanta made a five-run comeback in the ninth inning just to tie it.  I’m seeing very strong late-inning heroics out of them so far in terms of bailing out their pitchers and keeping games alive.  Now it’s just time to close the deal and win. More on those results and other news as they filter in.  Until next time, go Braves and Rays.

UPDATE (4/1/08): Hey, a front page featured post, thanks MLBlogs.  This marks my second trip into the top headline, the first coming in August 2007 after Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run.

0-For-1 So Far

Hello everyone, and welcome to the hangover from Opening Night.  I’m sure just about everyone here knows by now what happened in the opening Braves-Nationals game.  The Braves lost 3-2 after a valiant effort to tie it in the ninth inning and a strong pitching performance all around (after the first inning).  From my comment on http://www.bravesblog.net:

“Nice game, but not great since the Braves lost. Hudson dominated after
the first inning and it took a great effort just to tie the game. Peter
Moylan looked great for his 1 1/3 innings until Ryan Zimmerman turned
on the inside tailspin and hit that line drive home run. One pitch was
all it took. The Braves showed their potential, but the Nationals got
their victory night. Now it’s just time to go home, return Tom Glavine,
and get on track against the Pirates.”

My sentiments exactly.  Moylan didn’t even throw a bad pitch, Zimmerman just swung for the middle of the plate, made solid contact, and managed a home run into the first row.  And even though it’s only his third season, Zimmerman now has four career walk-off home runs and now his first game-winning RBI of 2008 after having 18 in 2007.  On a team as overall bad as his, that’s certainly an accomplishment.  If, one day, he’s hitting in front of David Ortiz with the bases empty and the season on the line, just walk Zimmerman and take your chances with Ortiz.  He’s a huge big game threat.

But isn’t karma a (female dog)?  Elijah Dukes injured his hamstring and is now on the disabled list.  I generally don’t like applauding one’s injury, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll use this time to straighten things out.  Maybe he’ll work on the pilot for “My Name Is Elijah” for NBC.

Well, now that Atlanta just has to bite the bullet and return home winless, it’s time to look forward.  The Braves return Tom Glavine against Pittsburgh’s Ian Snell, and more true to the direction of this particular blog, the Rays throw James Shields against Baltimore’s Jeremy Guthrie.  Guess who I see winning that one?  Until next time, go Rays.

The Very Worst Part Of You Is…Gone

The title of this post will most likely be my first and last Linkin Park reference on this blog.  I don’t even like that song, and there are only a few that I do listen to.  Well, that’s about enough for now about listening to alternative rock bands–time to discuss listening to the fans.  Baseball fans, fans who will deride a team’s bad decisions as quickly as they’ll cheer their victories.  Tampa Bay Rays fans have had great reason to be among the most critical for the team’s tenure in Major League Baseball.  Overpaying people, not paying people, charging too much for stadium amenities and parking (until 2006), trading away anybody good or above the age of 29…but now this year is where the pessimism finally starts to subside.  In its place is cautious optimism about the future of the franchise as it begins coming together and producing more winning.  I am here right now to, more specifically, highlight the worst components of last year’s Devil Rays (that’s what they were at the time, I don’t owe Stuart Sternberg a dollar) that have since been catapulted off the face of the Earth.  Or to Washington.  But here they are:

-Cheap Contracts: GONE.  Carlos Pena got three years and $24 million, and James Shields got seven years and up to $44 million, the highest-paying Rays contract since the days of the “Hit Show” (put an “S” in front of that and that’s what they became) in 2000.  The payroll nearly doubled thanks to these contracts and those of free agent signings Troy Percival and Cliff Floyd.  Keep on spending as much as necessary, and the profits will pay off in the long run.

-Locker Room Distractions: GONE.  Toxic outfielders Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young were traded during the offseason in arguably two of the best transactions made by any team this year.  Young was sent to Minnesota in a six-player trade that brought in starting pitcher Matt Garza and switched shortstops.  He didn’t produce as much as we would have wanted to see last season, and worst of all, he was a problem child and a locker room detriment.  At only 21, his sense of entitlement got out of hand and he didn’t always play with full effort, prompting Joe Maddon to bench him in the last game of the year.  The only reason he brought him in later was because he had played every other game during the season.  With a surplus of outfielders, he suddenly became expendable, and off he went.  Speaking of which, Elijah Dukes was sent to the Nationals for a minor league relief pitcher.  I think Washington may have given up too much.  Dukes couldn’t stay above .200 or out of courtrooms during his brief Tampa Bay career.  This man has so many off the field problems that it’s amazing he’s not in jail.  I see him as the Adam “Pacman” Jones of baseball, in that he can never find a way to escape trouble with the law, with women, etc.  And he’s not even that great of a player, so he’s nowhere near being worth the baggage.  Have fun losing to the Braves.

-Late Inning Bullpen Troubles: GONE.  Or so we hope, at least.  The Rays sold Brian Stokes to the Mets for a bottle of Gatorade, then let Shawn Camp go to free agency.  That eliminated two holes in the bullpen right out of the gate.  They might not have had baggage off the field, but if Elijah Dukes was the nicest guy on Earth, I would still have him in AAA.  So the Rays re-signed Dan Wheeler for a full season and acquired the recently un-retired Troy Percival.  Add left-hander Trever Miller into the mix, and put these guys with the likes of Al Reyes and Gary Glover, and here we have an actual Major League bullpen.  Maybe only a few, if any, long-term solutions in that mix, but with the high amount of prospective pitchers currently in the Rays organization, any missing parts should be filled in quickly.

-No Third Starter: GONE.  Matt Garza is locked in as the third starting pitcher behind Scott Kazmir (at whatever point in April in which he returns) and James Shields.  Last year, it was Kazmir, Shields, and please cancel the next three games.  Now we have Garza at number three, and it looks like an improved Andy Sonnanstine can be an effective fourth starter.  Now it’s down to Edwin Jackson and possibly Jason Hammel to round it out.

-Catcher Not In Shape: GONE.  After Dioner Navarro showed up out of shape and hit .177 in the first half of 2007, he reportedly came in ready to play and in excellent shape for 2008.  He had a nice Spring Training that helped his cause.  If he hits .260, it will be satisfying.  .280, it would be great.  .300, he may need to be examined.  But I think, at the very least, he’ll have a much-improved season as he could be one of the keys to winning this year.

Now that we have a solid everyday lineup for the most part and an all-around improved pitching staff, get ready to see the dawning of a new era for Tampa Bay Rays baseball.  This was yet another in a long series of season preview posts that, honestly, are getting old as Opening Day is coming upon us.  It’s not long before we can begin watching and talking about the actual season.  Well, besides those two games in Japan.  In the end, the Rays will feel so numb when they realize what they’ve done, that they’re somewhere they belong, and that they were able to bleed out what was crawling in their skin.  OK, so that will be the last of the Linkin Park references.  Until next time, go Rays.