Tagged: Starting Pitchers

What To Do With Percival and Kazmir

Instead of recapping the series the Rays split with the last place Oakland A’s (more on the epic finale later), I will contribute something of a little more importance.  Some of the series’ downfall was caused by two downtrodden pitchers: starter Scott Kazmir and closer Troy Percival.  What can we do with them?  Here are some viable options.

First, there is the case of Dontrelle Kazmir.  Excuse me, Scott Ankiel.  Regardless of his name, Kazmir has gone 4–4 this season, which is not even the worst record on his team.  However, his ERA is an alarming 7.69 and he has allowed seven earned runs in each of his last two starts.  29 walks and only 35 strikeouts in 45.2 innings will never get the job done for him.  Especially with his fastball only occasionally reaching 91 miles per hour, when he should be regularly hitting 94.  But it usually stays around 88.  His slider is as flat as cardboard.  He says he is 100% healthy, physically.  But there are mechanical and mental blocks so large a bulldozer couldn’t knock them down.

Joe Maddon has stated that he will stay with Kazmir, on schedule as he has been.  But I think he needs more evaluation and another solution.  I have two possible ideas.

One possibility is to move him to the bullpen.  He can work off to the side on his mechanics and get his head back in the game.  Pitching only one or two innings at a time, he can let it fly without fearing an early exit.  Barry Zito’s demotion to the Giants’ bullpen last season did him well.  Why not try it here?

The other option is to send him down to minor league rehab.  Kazmir would have to accept the assignment, but I think he should if he knows what the long–term effects can be.  He can be sent to AAA, or even AA Montgomery.  Jeremy Hellickson has pitched very well there this year, and once he returns from shoulder spasms he can go to Durham with either David Price or Wade Davis being called up to the Rays.  A stint in either AA or AAA would do Kazmir good as he can pitch pressure–free and get his old self back.  It may be starting to work for Dontrelle Willis.  Maybe we should go for it here if everyone will go through with the plan.

The other concern is Troy “Tank” Percival.  He was saved in today’s game, but only after he loaded the bases and fell behind every hitter into three–ball counts.  In 14 appearances, his ERA is 6.35 and opponents have hit .304 against him.  This from a guy whose career opponents’ batting average is .135.  He never seems to get through an inning easily, if at all.  He scares every Rays fan and has driven some to drinking.

After watching him blow games (he is 6–for–6 in save opportunities, but not without some heart attacks) since the middle of last season, I have come to the conclusion that he is a worthless hack.  Tampa Bay Rays management, it is now time that Troy Percival be released from the team, effective immediately.  A Kazmir move to the bullpen could hold the spot until the return of Chad Bradford.  Jason Isringhausen can lead a committee of closers.  We have depth with the likes of Wheeler, Balfour, Howell, Shouse and Nelson, all of whom have a better recent track record than Percival.  He is very replaceable.

With that out of the way, I will soon talk about that huge win today and what a lift Ben Zobrist brings to the Rays.

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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.

Focusing On The Positive

The Rays lost last night, 8-7 to the Yankees.  They had once been down 7-2, so there were some positives in this defeat.  Not that they can or should keep losing, but there should at least be something good coming out of what they do lose.  Evan Longoria hit his first Major League home run, Carl Crawford got his first of the season, and B.J. Upton hit his second in as many days.  The Rays are among the very top of American League teams in home runs, RBI, and runs scored.  They’re doing a great job offensively, so now it’s time for some pitching consistency.  We’re getting it from some guys, but we need at least one or two more (Andy Sonnanstine?) to catch up.

Speaking of pitchers, the Rays staff took batting practice today, with Edwin Jackson (high school outfielder) and James Shields (excellent high school hitter) actually hitting home runs.  Jim Hickey, the Rays pitching coach, has started batting practice a few weeks in advance of interleague play to get ready and have a little fun at the same time.  The pitchers practiced situational hitting and making opposing pitchers work against them, then took some home run swings.  I really like this idea for a myriad of reasons, many of which are located in the MLB.com article.  I think they should keep doing it, and maybe practice more bunting as well.  But from what I’ve seen, Jackson, Shields and Sonnanstine can hit well enough for pitchers.

In case I didn’t hammer it home yet, I’ll be there Friday night at Tropicana Field (Akinori Iwamura Poster Night) when the Rays take on Javier Vazquez and the White Sox.   The Rays currently project to start Jeff Niemann for the second time, and we can sincerely hope the results are equal to those of his first outing.  Until next time, go Rays and dethrone the Yankees.

Decisions…

As the season nears, there are more Spring Training headlines than ever before flying out onto the Internet, ESPN, and every other possible source.  Decisions are being made as to who will be on Opening Day rosters.  A few of them are…

-Javier Lopez, the former Braves catcher, retired yesterday after Bobby Cox informed him that he would not make the team out of training camp.  (Corky Miller is the leading candidate for the backup catching job.)  One of my favorite players of the Braves’ division title era, dating back to his home run in Game 2 of the 1995 World Series, he set the world on fire with 43 home runs only five years ago, then wasted away in Baltimore before a decent effort in his final comeback attempt proved unsuccessful.  He seems like the type of guy who, in retirement, can become a coach of some sort, maybe a Minor League instructor.  I think that would be his best career path at this point.  Lopez had some very good years, but it’s time for him to move on.

-John Smoltz could, if extreme caution prevails, start the season in the same boat as Scott Kazmir, on the disabled list.  He may be ready to pitch next week, but at 40 years old, they’re treating Smoltz like a young fragile arm.  He wouldn’t miss enough time to make it too significant if he doesn’t start the season.

-Without Kazmir, the Rays have announced that James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson, and Jason Hammel will form the starting rotation for about the first week of the season.  Upon his return, Kazmir should take the number one spot and drop Jason Hammel into his projected long relief role.  This looks to be the correct order for this rotation, and it should remain this way judging by what I’ve seen.  Sonnanstine has forged ahead with a 0.64 ERA this Spring, and could be a nice fourth starter in 2008 behind the big three of Kazmir, Shields, and Garza.  No other injury problems have surfaced, thankfully.

-Evan Longoria…no announcement yet.  This concludes your required Evan Longoria update, brought to you by your Tampa Bay Rays.

-Troy Percival is locked in for the Rays’ bullpen, but he got hammered today, giving up seven runs in one inning to the Cincinnati Reds.  He came in with a huge lead, so maybe he pulled an Al Reyes and played it soft until it suddenly got close.  Or maybe he just got destroyed.  Probably both.  This was one game, but it can’t continue next month and beyond.  Though, in this one, the offense bailed him out and won the game.

More decisions as they are made and announced.  Speaking of announcements, the Tigers are expected to tell the world that they have extended Miguel Cabrera’s contract and paid him what he wanted: 8 years, $153.3 million.  The former Marlins third baseman is thankfully out of the Braves’ division, and now ready to turn the large field of Comerica Park upside down.  I would like to see him live up to the hype, as I’m a bit of a Tigers mark dating back to their 2006 World Series run.  So, until next time, go Rays.

David Price And Home Plate Collisions

As our favorite international Rays blogger previously discussed, 2007 first overall draft pick David Price owned the Yankees in his Spring Training debut in today’s game at Steinbrenner Field.  This MLB.com article on his performance made the front page of the website, and with great reason.  After he hit the first batter he faced, Tampa Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, with a 2-2 pitch, Price rebounded by striking out Shelley Duncan looking, then ringing up Jason Lane with three fastballs, hitting up to 99 miles per hour on the radar gun.  Utility infielder Wilson Betemit struck out on a changeup to end the inning in style.  The Yankees crowd actually gave Price a standing ovation following the 17-pitch, 11-strike seventh inning.   And who can blame them?  Price struck out three consecutive Major League hitters with an overpowering fastball, a dominant low slider, and a nice changeup.  Everyone on all sides had rave reviews of the young left hander out of Vanderbilt.  This is nothing short of great news for Rays fans everywhere.  This guy has amazing potential and can really go places sooner than later.  This showcase can be ours if the Price is right.

And now for a rant of sorts.  In the ninth inning of the Rays’ 4-1 defeat of the Yankees, infielder Elliot Johnson crashed into Cervelli trying to score on Willy Aybar’s double.  The defensive-minded Cervelli did a great job of blocking the plate and held on for the out, but broke his left wrist in the collision.  Cervelli’s wrist was casted at St. Joseph’s hospital, up the road from my college and across the street from my place of birth.  Anyway, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, a former catcher, actually had the nerve to criticize the Rays for showing a little effort on the field.  "I think it’s uncalled for," Girardi said. "It’s Spring Training. You
get people hurt, and that’s what we’ve got–we’ve got Cervelli hurt.
I know they had an incident four or five days ago. I’m all for playing
hard, but I don’t think it’s the time when you run over a catcher in
Spring Training."  (The incident he refers to is Carl Crawford barreling over Houston’s Humberto Quintero in last Wednesday’s game.)  Joe Maddon’s point of view made a little more sense: "I loved the hardball.  We’re playing it hard, we’re
playing it right. It was a bang-bang play at the plate. I couldn’t tell
exactly where the catcher was in regard to the plate. He was trying to
score a run right there, and that was part of the game."  That’s right, Mr. Yankee Manager: we’re playing it hard, we’re playing it right.  Just because you want to keep your $200,000,000 payroll in check doesn’t mean you have to actively encourage laziness.  No player should ever be criticized for effort, especially one fighting for a spot like Elliot Johnson.  Yes, it’s unfortunate that Cervelli was injured on the play, but it was just part of the game–it’s high risk, high reward out there, even in March.  Even the injured catcher said, "It’s part of the game. Maybe [it was] adrenaline or something like that."  So, Joe Girardi, you can shove that opinion right back where it came from and just let us play.  You think you have a sense of entitlement just because you’re a Yankee.  Well, in that regard, you’re no different than us or the Pittsburgh Pirates.  So quit the overprotection of your players and just let baseball be played out in all its glory.

By the way, Johnson’s comment?  "I’m not trying to hurt anybody, especially in a Spring Training game.  I hope he doesn’t lose his job. But I’m trying to show
these guys what I can do. I’m just trying to score the run. Looking
back on it, I’d have to say I’d probably do the same thing…With the time that I had there, the instinct was to slide and be out, or hit him and see if I could pop the ball loose."  It’s called strategy, New York, look it up.  I’ll be back with more Spring news as it comes out, as the Rays continue rolling through the Grapefruit League.  Until next time, go Rays.

2008 Pitching Rotations

Hello, it is now that time to analyze and project the Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves pitching rotations for the upcoming season.  2007 saw both teams being forced to mix it up during the year due to injuries and lackluster play.  Now I believe both teams have improved on this end and fixed their rotations, but whereas the Braves had more questions about their batting order, the Rays have more pitching openings.  Not wasting any more time, here are the 2008 pitchers for these teams:

Tampa Bay Rays:

1.  Scott Kazmir – The ace of the Rays staff since his 2005 rookie year, Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts with 239 in 2007.  His ERA has been 3.77, 3.24, and 3.48 the last three years, very respectable for a starter in this era.  The 2006 All Star is the best known face of the Rays pitching staff, and with good reason.  Though he still gives up a few too many walks and has high pitch counts that restrict has innings of work, and is at risk of arm injury, the Rays are taking no chances with him and he has still proven time and time again that he is a legitimate force on the mound, one of the top left handed pitchers in the game today.  He can beat anybody else’s ace.

2.  James Shields – This man is the clear-cut right handed staff ace, and fits in well at number two behind Kazmir.  Shields was the Rays’ best pitcher during parts of last season.  12-8 with a 3.85 ERA, despite giving up 28 home runs (even Johan Santana allowed 33 HR), he walked just 36 hitters in 215 innings of work while showing near-pinpoint command.  With a bullpen that won’t blow as many of his games, he is bound to become an even better pitcher as his prime years hit.  He can strike guys out with his devastating changeup and complimentary fastball.  Give him the ball in the big game, and he can take it.

3.  Matt Garza – Acquired from Minnesota in the Delmon Young trade, Matt Garza is one of the better young pitchers in the Major Leagues and a lock at number three.  In 16 games (15 starts) for the Twins in 2007, Garza showed his potential with a 3.69 ERA and 67 K in 83 innings, added to a similar stat line in AAA.  He is ready for the big time now, and he will no longer have the pressure to be a top guy as he could have in Minnesota without Santana.  He is like Kazmir in that he will use his fastball and slider to strike guys out, and he also has the determination to throw smarter, not harder, to get out of trouble.  Now with three legitimately good starters, the Rays are much closer to contention with the big dogs in the American League East.

4.  Edwin Jackson – Now this is where it gets difficult.  There are several guys battling for two rotation spots, and nobody knows who will get them yet.  But I’ve decided to put Edwin Jackson in at number four, and I have my reasons.  He had a bad season in 2007, 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA, but considering that it was 7.77 at one point, that says something of his natural ability.  He shut out the Texas Rangers and rolled through the powerful Yankees late last season, and if he can command his mid-90s fastball, he can get guys out.  He had a good start to Spring Training, and I think he can’t get any worse from this point on.  Only 24 years of age, he is still a prime prospect as a starter.  Early projections only have him getting slightly better this season, so he can be shuttled down to number five if need be.  He’s also out of options, which basically forces the Rays to keep him on the team.

5.  Andy Sonnanstine – This was also a very difficult decision, with guys like Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell also vying for this spot.  But of all three, it was actually Sonnanstine who had the best 2007 season (6-10, 5.85 in Tampa Bay; 6-4, 2.66 at Durham).  He has the least bullpen experience of these guys, making his possible transition more difficult.  Hammel and Howell have not proven enough potential as starters to justify earning this spot.  In more good news, Sonnanstine’s projections have him improving to maybe a 4.70 ERA in 2008.  I think he could be a very competent fifth starter–maybe not like the Boston Red Sox fifth starter, but a useful one anyway.

Bullpen: Troy Percival (Closer), Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, Gary Glover, Scott Dohmann, Trever Miller, Juan Salas, Grant Balfour (Maybe Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell)

Atlanta Braves:

1.  John Smoltz – There was little guesswork involved here, and why should there be?  I (and some others) may not agree with his personal views and beliefs, but that’s an off the field rant for an off the field place.  For the Braves, John Smoltz has provided ace quality pitching dating all the way back to 1989.  He was 14-8 with a very nice ERA of 3.11, one of the league’s best, in 2007 at age 40.  Through Tommy John Surgery and team overhauls, he still has it.  Many people still don’t see him falling off this season, myself included.  He’s seen the biggest of pressure situations and pitched through the worst of times, so there is little doubt about his talent and composure.  A first ballot Hall of Fame probability, Smoltz should continue his excellence as he anchors the mound in 2008.  He can still beat any other pitcher out there, including Johan Santana.

2.  Tim Hudson – Another ace quality guy and once a member of the A’s "Big Three," Tim Hudson enjoyed a renaissance in 2007, going 16-10 with a 3.33 ERA.  As a veteran much like most of this pitching staff, Hudson has been there, done that, so to speak.  He is a true star who has been unfortunately overlooked during his Atlanta tenure.  He’s not much of a strikeout pitcher, but he keeps the ball on the ground (just 10 HR allowed last year) and leaves the work to a good defense.  His 224.1 innings last year also proves that his pitch-to-contact style works well to buy time for his bullpen.

3.  Tom Glavine – Welcome back, Tom.  After spending five years with the enemy in New York, he has returned home to finish off his amazing career.  Though he has fallen statistically and his fastball has lost velocity in recent years, Glavine still possesses a solid changeup that can get the best hitters out.  He had a down year for the Mets in 2007 with his ERA at 4.45, but he has rebounded from off years before (1991, 2004), so with his leadership and experience, why couldn’t he do it again?  He has nothing left to lose, and he’s back home where he belongs.  I think his downfall last year can be attributed to his horrific ending to the season (his ERA was 3.88 before his final three starts), a little injury trouble, and the fact that maybe he just didn’t want to pitch for the Mets.  (He took $5 million less to return to the Braves.)  Glavine still has his ability to get people out and pitch 200 innings.  I think he can still anchor a trio of left handers on the back end of this rotation and have at least one more good season.

4.  Chuck James – James showed the world what he had to offer in 2006 (11-4, 3.78), but hit somewhat of a sophomore jinx last year, going 11-10 with a decent 4.24 ERA.  The staff’s young gun at 26 years of age, James should be a very reliable fourth starter for Atlanta in 2008.  A little pressure can be taken off by the three veterans in front of him and the strong bullpen–arguably the division’s best–behind him.  So there is the potential for James to be a very solid pitcher in this role.

5.  Mike Hampton – The wild card of the staff because of his well-documented injury troubles, Mike Hampton finally looks to be ready to return to active duty this year.  He was very effective last time he pitched for the Braves in 2005 (3.50 ERA in 12 starts), and he has made significant strides going into 2008.  Provided his talent stays with him, he would make an excellent fifth starter to scare other teams’ fourth and fifth guys, and even go head-to-head with some aces.  It finally appears as if he is back and here to stay.  Not much of a strikeout pitcher, he, like Hudson, is adept at keeping the ball on the ground.  Maybe not so much at the plate, however–Hampton is a secret weapon as a hitter, with 15 career home runs and a .242 batting average to his credit.

Bullpen: Rafael Soriano (Closer), Peter Moylan, Mike Gonzalez (Upon return from arm surgery), Will Ohman, Manny Acosta, Tyler Yates, Royce Ring

That just about covers the Rays and Braves probable pitching rotations for the 2008 season.  I think both teams stepped it up and improved from last year, especially Tampa Bay with Matt Garza and still-improving young arms.  They’re very different, but can both contend on their best days.  Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

Scott Kazmir Out Two Weeks

It could have been worse.  It’s only the beginning of Spring Training, so there is sufficient recovery time.  After his last warm-up pitch on Tuesday, Scott Kazmir left the mound with discomfort in his left pitching arm.  Thankfully, this was only diagnosed as a left elbow strain, and the prognosis for Opening Day is now as good as before.  Everyone seemed to know after the initial pain died down that this was nothing serious, although now precautions should definitely be taken to make sure it doesn’t get any worse.  Remember Francisco Liriano?  Well, thankfully the Rays want to keep him out of action for two weeks, then get him back in there still 2-3 weeks before the season starts.  Good to take no chances with him and make sure nothing happens again.  We still have James Shields and Matt Garza for some early Spring Training games.