Of Spring Training and Other Random Bits of Ephemera (Part One)

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Can you feel that extra spring in the collective steps of every MLB baseball fan? Yes friends, baseball is back and we couldn’t be happier! The Rays pitchers and catchers have found their way down to Port Charlotte, while the position players aren’t far behind.

The Rays had another active off-season, and we’ll discuss that below. Tampa Bay also has some interesting moves to make before the opening day roster is set in stone, and we’ll discuss those moves as well. If you’ve followed X-Rays Spex during the off-season, much of this may be old hat. Whatever the case, consider this to be a Spring Training primer of sorts. Today we’ll talk about pitching and catching. We’ll follow that with a discussion on the state of the outfield, among other things.

The Rays made some moves this off-season, some more surprising than others. As expected, the Rays traded James Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliot Johnson to the Kansas City Royals for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and three others. Tampa Bay also traded Burk Badenhop to the Milwaukee Brewers for Raul Mondesi Jr., a minor leaguer who frankly hasn’t shown much promise. We had an opportunity to say our final goodbye’s to Carlos Pena who was picked up by the Astros, while we almost got the chance to do the same with Luke Scott. The Rays inevitably opted to re-sign him for $2.5MM less than he would have made had the option in his contract been picked up. You can’t win them all I suppose. Not surprisingly, BJ Upton made bank in Atlanta, and the Rays chose not to re-sign Jeff Keppinger who now finds himself on the south side of Chicago.

They also Rays re-signed Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth, two integral pieces of the bullpen, and picked up Fernando Rodney’s contract option. Finally, Tampa Bay acquired three players (James Loney, Yunel Escobar, and Kelly Johnson) who look to add a heaping dose of defensive prowess to and already excellent infield. With the exception of the Scott and Badenhop moves, the Rays made some pretty impressive strides to bolster their lineup.

Though Tampa Bay is seemingly stronger, there are still a few lingering questions that will, ideally, be answered by the time Joe Maddon fills out the 25-man opening day roster.

Pitching

One lingering question is what the starting rotation will look like in 2013? Additionally, what will the bullpen look like as well? The Rays have a rather large hole to fill following the James Shields trade. Shields not only mowed down opposing batters, but he ate up a lot of innings, averaging 6.9 innings per start in 2012. Tampa Bay had two pitchers with at least 200 innings and strikeouts nestled nicely beneath their belts; David Price and James Shields. Price, who averaged 6.8 innings per start in 2012, noted that the rest of the rotation (himself included) are going to have to step up and fill the void left in Shields’ wake. In 2012, Alex Cobb averaged 5.9 innings per start. To that end, both Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson averaged 5.7 innings per start. Whoever fills that spot in the rotation, be it Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, Chris Archer, or Roberto Hernandez, will need to be a workhorse.

Personally, I like the idea of Alex Cobb getting a spot in the rotation. I’d also like to see Jeff Niemann, again, battle it out for a starting spot. Alex Cobb had a few rough outings last season, however, he also had many stellar moments. Furthermore, his 58.8% ground-ball percentage combined with a 68.5% left on base percentage support the idea that Cobb is a a contender to fill one of the holes in the starting rotation. What’s more, stats guru Bill James has projected that Cobb could increase the number of strikeouts to 8.09 K/9, while also decreasing his HR/9 to 0.70, his ERA to 3.73 , and his FIP to 3.29. In my mind, Jeff Niemann may be better suited for the bullpen. He has been an injury risk the last three seasons, and limiting his time on the mound could bode well for the tall righty. When you consider the other pitchers vying for a spot in the rotation, pitchers that are willing and able to do an effective job, it becomes evident that there may be someone better suited to work the first six or seven innings every five days. Frankly, I think it’s high time that Chris Archer gets a chance to prove himself. With Davis out of the way, Odorizzi presumably starting the year in Triple-A, and Hernandez filling Badenhop’s role as the ground-ball specialist, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Archer could very well steal away Niemann’s coveted spot.

As for the bullpen, the folks over at the Process Report project that the pen could look something like this:  Jake McGee, Brandon Gomes, Jamey Wright, Joel Peralta, Cesar Ramos, Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, Dane De La Rosa, and Josh Lueke. I agree with the first seven names on the list, though I think you could easily replace De La Rosa and Lueke, with Niemann and Hernandez, at least to start the season. According to the Process Report,

(He’s) expected to compete for a role in the 2013 bullpen. He struck out more batters than innings pitched in Triple-A, but also permitted 102 baserunners in just 68 innings of work in what was his third straight season pitching at the level. Works with a fastball, splitter, and breaking ball. Changed spots on the rubber in-season. In a perfect world, he assumes Farnsworth’s 2013 role next season but there’s work to be done here first.

That’s all the validation that I need. Moving on.

Catchers

The Rays have a plethora of catchers to choose from going into Spring Training; Robinson Chirinos, Chris Gimenez, Jose Lobaton, Jose Molina, Stephen Vogt, and non roster invites Craig Albernaz, Mark Thomas. Jose Molina undoubtedly has the primary catcher position on lock, which leaves one or two spots open on the opening day roster. There is a three way competition between Chris Gimenez, Robinson Chirinos, and Jose Lobaton in my opinion.

The Rays could have/should have targeted a catcher in the off-season. And as much as it pains me to say it, AJ Pierzynski could have been a viable option on the free agent market. But whatever the case, the Rays have the seven players above to choose from.

Jose Lobaton is on the hot seat. He’s been in the bigs for the better part of the last two seasons, and as the Rays Rant noted,

Lobaton is in that (back-up catcher) position right now, and he’s not the kind of guy the Rays would [or at least should] like playing 65+ games for them. Lobaton posted a .222/.323/.317 line last year with very little power while throwing out just 16% of would-be base-stealers.

Robinson Chirinos seemed to be the obvious choice for back-up catcher last season, but a concussion incurred at the end of Spring Training left him on the DL for all of 2012. From an offensive point of view, Chirinos really isn’t very different than Lobaton, and I think Gimenez might be the winner leaving Spring Training, with Lobaton and Chirinos battling it out for the other assumed open spot behind the plate.

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