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Keeping Up With the Uptons

April 20, 2010 Leave a comment

One is lanky, the other stocky.

One is graceful, the other powerful.

But for B.J. and Justin Upton, 25 and 22, respectively, that’s about where the differences end.

And unlike the Gwynn brothers, the Maddux brothers, the Guerrero brothers and even the Martinez brothers, the Uptons both have superstar and even hall of fame potential. Justin is poised to be an MVP any year now, and B.J.’s play in center field is third only to Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Cameron. I’ve been lucky enough to witness some of his dazzling catches live and can’t imagine anyone being better than he.

Though both have been criticized for their lack of maturity at times, their raw talent is undeniable. They were both drafted for their 5-tool potential, which they have achieved at the major league level.

Let’s cut them a little slack, too. Don’t forget that they both made their major league debuts at just 19 years of age. And that’s just the start of their striking similarities.

Both Uptons were first-round draft picks, B.J. was the second overall pick by the Devil Rays in 2002, then Justin the first overall pick by Arizona in 2005. They are the only set of brothers in baseball history to both be selected so high. And they were both infielders–both shortstops–but they were a little too raw to succeed as professionals, so they were both converted to outfielders. Hardly a bad decision.

Both had tremendous hype, Jason Heyward like. Both were touted to lead in their respective team’s upcoming crop of players, which included other hyped names like Stephen Drew (Diamondbacks) and Delmon Young (Rays), also first-rounders as well as brothers of major leaguers, albeit underachieving ones.

Most impressive of all, both B.J. and Justin Upton could have pursued professional football careers, but they both chose baseball. Their choosing America’s favorite pastime was no accident though, as their passion for baseball was as strong as their talent.

And it was a passion that started early. Their baseball careers have lasted as long as they’ve been alive. They’ve always been there for each other and have constantly encouraged each other to be the best that they can be. Even though they now drive Cadillacs and are financially set for life, they are hardly satisfied.

They’ve both had their breakout seasons, B.J. at 22 and Justin at 21. Though B.J. has struggled since, you can bet that the six-year, $51.25 million contract given to his younger brother as well as the comments of Justin having more upside will serve as his inspiration to bounce back.

Now, finally free from injury, B.J. is off to a great start for the 2010 season. One of my (not so) bold predictions was that he would be the first 30-30 player in Rays history.

And for which one is better? That’s only for time to decide. The sky is the limit for both of these guys, and watching them as they flourish in the majors will be nothing short of special.

Stay Hot, Rays.

April 19, 2010 1 comment

Everyone knew that the Tampa Bay Rays needed to start the 2010 season red hot in order to compete for a playoff spot. At 10-3, they sit atop the American League East with the best record in baseball.

But what’s most impressive is the four game sweep the Rays completed in Boston, the first in their history.

They outscored the Sox 24-9 and ripped their biggest investment, John Lackey. His line this morning was ugly (3.1 IP, 9 H, 8 ER). Josh Beckett was the only Boston starter to keep the Rays under control.

Carlos Peña and B.J. Upton continued swinging hot bats, both going deep multiple times in the series.

And if that wasn’t enough, the ever popular Pat Burrell got in on the action, going 5-for-13 with 3 extra base hits, including the game winning home run in the first game of the series. His batting average is up to a respectable .270.

Needless to say, this team is off to the fast start they hoped for. They look to prove that 2009 was the fluke, not 2008.

For the Red Sox, they’ll find a way to win. But they will have trouble playing catchup as the Rays did in 2009. They put their emphasis on pitching and defense in the offseason, yet they’ve struggled in both aspects.

The Rays, simply put, came ready to play. They are younger, healthier, more energetic and they are here to stay.

If they can take advantage of the less than challenging schedule these next two weeks, which includes three games against the struggling White Sox and seven games against Kansas City, they can establish a nice cushion going into the summer.

The Rays are once again ready to shine.

Categories: Rays Talk

Keys to the Weekend Series in Boston

April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

At first glance, it may seem that the Tampa Bay Rays are off to the hot start necessary to win in 2010.

Not so fast.

The Baltimore Orioles are mostly to thank for the team’s success so far, and if it weren’t for some shoddy defense and blown saves, the Rays could easily be sitting on a 4-5 record. An ugly series against the Yankees which included a near no-hitter from C.C. Sabathia also showed that this team is not nearly in midseason form.

But when the bats woke up late Tuesday and Wednesday, I became optimistic. If the Rays go into Boston swinging hot bats, there is no doubt they can win the series. Here are some more keys to the series.

Get on Beckett early. Tonight’s game will set the tone for the series. Naturally, Boston’s ace will be on the mound. But Josh Beckett isn’t the type to come out in shut-down mode right away. Historically, the 1st and the 7th are his worst innings. If the Rays can take advantage, they’ll rattle him and get him out early. If not, it will be a long night. Especially with Wade Davis on the mound (which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense**), it is important that the Rays establish a lead early instead of making the youngster match Beckett pitch-for-pitch.

RUN! Through the first 9 games of 2009, the Rays had 12 stolen bases. This year, they only have 8. That’s still a lot, but it seems like that aspect of their game has been somewhat absent. While the Red Sox have greatly improved on their defensive side of the ball, they have one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball in Victor Martinez. The Rays must take advantage with the amount of speed they have.

Starters must eat innings. Against the Red Sox, this may be a tall task. But the Rays need to avoid pitching Randy Choate and Mike Ekstrom AT ALL COSTS. Bullpen woes have been no secret, and stretching an already thin staff will be disastrous. Rays Starters need to bare down and get as many outs as possible against one of the weaker Sox lineups in recent memory.

Zobrist needs to start looking like a No. 3 hitter. As much as I like Zorilla, I have been against him hitting third since day 1. He has yet to hit for any power, he’s striking out more and his 2 RBI show his lack of run production. After the breakout year he had last year, it’s no secret that he is facing tougher pitching. It’s time he starts getting on base and stop making Evan Longoria lead off innings.

All of these things need to come together for the Rays this weekend. After they failed their first test against the Yankees at home, they will get a second chance to prove they are for real this weekend.

**Why starting Davis tonight is a mistake. The Red Sox have their best four starters scheduled to pitch against the Rays this weekend. This is no accident.

Typically, teams skip their 5th starters in April because of the amount of days off. With that said, Why not start Shields tomorrow and skip Davis? The day off yesterday gives our rotation the four days rest they need.

Nothing against Wade Davis, but starting him the first game causes two problems. First, it creates a mismatch. Instead of ace vs. ace to start the series, we will have ace vs. No. 5. Second, Starting Davis tonight will mean that David Price will not get a start against the Sox. Let me remind you that Price was the only Rays pitcher to handle the Yankees last weekend.

Categories: Rays Talk

Rays New Look Is Badass, and Pat Burrell, He’s Just Bad

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

As the Rays took the field this past Sunday, they unveiled their newest new look.

As we all know, they came out with entirely new uniforms back in 2008 when they got rid of those dreadful vests as well as the “Devil” from their name. Last year marked the coming out of the navy blue jerseys that seemed to be a favorite among players.

But 2010 is a little different. This year, they came out with the light blue jerseys. It is extremely significant because the new color is unique to every other team in baseball. Not that I don’t like the dark blue, but since at least 8 other major league teams have navy blue jerseys, it can get a bit unoriginal.

There are a couple of other things I noticed on this first baseball weekend.

This team lacks resilience. After the Rays were nearly no-hit on Saturday, I expected them to bounce back and play hard on Sunday. They didn’t. Instead of using the previous game as motivation, they came out flat. And they were simply overmatched.

I know I said in a previous blog that I see a sense of urgency with this team. While I’m not ready to retract that statement just yet, I do feel like they have some tightening up to do. Some of Maddon’s bullpen decisions have been atrocious, and the timely hitting hasn’t been consistent so far.

Sean Rodriguez’s nerves. I’d hate to knock on this guy, mostly because I am one of his biggest fans. But anyone can tell that he just looks really stiff out there. His defense has been solid, but I have yet to see him look comfortable at the plate. S-Rod showed us all what he is capable of this spring, but look for Reid Brignac to start taking away some of Rodriguez’s at bats unless he starts making some adjustments.

Pat Burrell… Well, you know. Pat Burrell is a good guy, and it’s hard to watch him play the way he does. The worst part is that he is trying. But I’m not sure how much longer fans will be able to watch him turn fastballs down the middle into double play balls.

For his sake and ours, I hope he can turn it around, but thats not likely. A look at his career numbers will show that April and May are his best months, so it’s not a case of simply having a slow start. Unless he can show that he can still hit (on a consistent basis), the boos will only get louder.

Forecast. Now, the Rays are set to go on their first road trip of the season. After a mediocre first home stand, they need to get in gear. The four-game weekend series in Boston may be the most important one in April. A winning road trip will put them in good shape for the quick start they need to have.

Categories: Rays Talk

Fans, Analysts Need to Let Go of 2008, Start Thinking About 2010

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

I lost a little bit of respect for Todd Kalas last night.

In his post-game interview, Kalas asked Rays third baseman Evan Longoria if this year’s team shows characteristics similar to the 2008 World Series club.

Kalas should know better than that.

But Longoria quickly responded, saying that the team is focused on 2010. You go, Evan. At least the players have the right idea.

That’s because athletes know how to live in the present. Of course, they want to get back to the World Series and repeat the magic they created in 2008, but they realize that was two seasons ago, and we need to do the same.

With that said, this year’s team looks really good, and the excitement is hard to ignore. They have two come from behind wins, and it seems like everyone is contributing (except Pat Burrell, of course). Their outstanding play in spring training added to the high hopes.

But it does get tiresome hearing analysts ask if the Rays can “get back to their 2008 form,” or if the Rays can execute in what may be their so-called “last chance to win,” suggesting that all hope will be lost once Crawford and Peña are gone.

The fact is, the team has not left that form. In 2008, no one had a career year. It was the group coming together night after night that created the magic. Last year, it was a problem of consistency. 2010 can be the the best year of the three.

Though we are only two games into the season, I can see a sense of urgency that I didn’t see last season. I can see the leadership. I can see that the team is ready to go all the way. That’s what was missing at the beginning of last season. Once the Rays started to get into a groove, it was too late.

The Rays have the young talent. But more than that, their young guys are quickly becoming leaders. This weekend will be their first test when the Yankees come to town. And with Saturday’s game to be televised nationally, they will have their first chance to show the country that they are for real.

Categories: Rays Talk

I’m Not Sure How to Put This, But… Evan Longoria is Kind of a Big Deal

April 7, 2010 1 comment

I’m sure he has many leather-bound books, and I bet his apartment smells of rich mahogany.

He graces the cover if this year’s MLB 2K video game, and he stars in New Era’s latest television commercial.

Don’t be surprised if he is on your next box of Wheaties.

Never has Tampa Bay had an athlete as dynamic and as marketable as Evan Longoria. He might arguably be the most marketable player in all of Major League Baseball.

And the best part? He’s not a Yankee. He’s not a Red Sox. He’s not a Philly, not a Cub, not even a Dodger. He’s a Ray.

Longoria is just one cool dude.

But let’s not forget, he’s a pretty good baseball player, too. His home run last night against Kevin Millwood traveled 473 feet–the third longest in Tropicana Field History. And his do-or-die defensive play in the top of the ninth shows that he excels all facets of the game of baseball. Many notable analysts from ESPN and MLB Network predicted he will win the American League MVP.

A case can be made that the ever-popular Longoria is also the best player the Rays have had in the organization’s short history. If things workout, he will be wearing a Rays uniform through the 2014 season.

But some are afraid the team will have trouble building around him, especially since they are expected to lose Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña after this season. Some also wonder if his fate will be the same once he hits free agency.

But Evan Longoria is that guy. He’s the franchise. He’s our Derek Jeter, he’s our Albert Pujols, he’s our Joe Mauer. He’s the guy that’s simply irreplaceable. The Rays have a very special player, and they need to keep him around.

Let’s look at a few stats, shall we?

In only his second season, Evan Longoria was only one of four players in the American League with at least 30 HRs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored. I could add in a few more stats and narrow the list even further, but I don’t want to go all Buster Olney on you guys.

At just 24, he’s been to a World Series and two all-star games. He has a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award. Oh, yeah, and that Rookie of the Year thing, too.

Whatever the Rays need to do to keep Evan Longoria around, they’ve got to do it. This guy sells tickets by himself, and he makes the players around him better. The longer he’s a Ray, the longer they can win.

Matt Garza Must Emerge as Staff Ace in 2010

April 6, 2010 Leave a comment

I vividly remember fan reactions when Delmon Young was dealt for Matt Garza.

One friend told me, “Dude, the Rays just made the dumbest trade in history.”

Sure, there were other players involved, but at that time, Garza for Young seemed to be the focus of the deal.

Many did not understand. Mainly because they had no idea who Matt Garza was. They didn’t know that he was a first round draft pick, or that he won the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year Award in 2006.

To them, it was another case of The Rays trading top talent for nothing.

But the real baseball fans in Tampa Bay knew all about Matt Garza. And I, for one, was ecstatic when I heard the news.

His signs of brilliance in his first big league season in 2008–especially in August and September–was anything but a surprise to me. Hearing, “You were right about this guy” never got old.

But after a step sideways last year, I was left wondering if he could truly be an ace.

Now, his third year, it’s time for him to put it all together. We all know what he can do when he’s on. But we also know what he can do when he’s off. He has been criticized in the past for being mentally weak.

So, why am I singling out Matt Garza? The answer is in his makeup.

There is no question he has the most electric stuff on the staff and perhaps in all of the American League. His increase in K/9IP (6.2 in 2008 to 8.4 in 2009) shows that he’s only getting better.

But what about the others?

There’s no doubt that James Shields is a horse. He is durable, competitive, and good for a solid 200+ innings a year. But at age 28, I feel like he has hit his ceiling, and he’s as good as he’s going to get. Not that that’s a bad thing.

As for Niemann, Davis and Price, they will have their chances to shine. I am just not ready to rely on any of them as aces just yet.

But Garza has what it takes right now. And if he breaks out, he has the chance to be the guy for the Rays in 2010, and put the team in position for another trip to the fall classic.

Categories: Rays Talk