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Springtime Storylines: Will B.J. Upton finally break out for the Rays?

Mar 24, 2010, 11:15 AM EDT

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  I started with the Yankees, so I bet you thought I’d go Red Sox next, eh kitty cat? But I pulled the string like Johan Santana, didn’t I? Is your mind blown?!

The big question: Will B.J. Upton finally break out?

Just because I don’t have an answer to a question doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of being asked. And truth is, I have no idea if Upton is going to do more in 2010 than he did in what was a very disappointing 2009. Disappointing in part because his 2007 regular season and 2008 postseason were so great. Disappointing because he’s obviously got power, plate discipline, speed and the defensive skills to be a game-changer, yet last year he was utterly flaccid, with the biggest concern being the drastic falloff in his walk rate.

Upton was coming off labrum surgery entering last season and, by all accounts, he’s working his tail off this spring.  If that translates to something approaching his 2007 production the Rays are going to be scary as all get-out. If he puts up another .241/.313/.373, the Rays’ offense — while still impressive — will remain a step or two behind their big brothers in the AL East.

So what else is going on?

  • The acquisition of Rafael Soriano changes the complexion of the Rays’ bullpen.  Soriano split time with Mike Gonzalez as the Braves’ closer last year, but he’s better than a lot of guys other teams will trot out in the ninth this season. He has a lot of mileage on that arm, however — Bobby Cox has a thing for treating relievers with a history of arm trouble as so much Kleenex — but if he stays healthy he moves J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier and Randy Choate down in the hierarchy, which improves things nicely;
  • Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are likely in their last go-around as Rays.  It seems like a foregone conclusion that Crawford will leave via free agency after this season. If you’re the Rays you probably keep him and accept the picks whether you fall out of the race or not. Pena may be a different story. He’s not exactly a sterling free agent candidate — there are a lot of big name first basemen coming available soon — so he could very well accept arbitration if offered.  The Rays will obviously need him in a race, but if they disappoint this year, he could be dealt;
  • Joba and Phil get all the press, but there’s been a much less-publicized fifth starter race in Tampa Bay between Wade Davis and Andy Sonnanstine.  Davis got shelled the one day I saw him this spring, but most folks think that he has the edge. Ahead of them, you can expect James Sheilds and Matt Garza to be solid. Jeff Niemann and David Price have tremendous upside — with Niemann having realized more of his than Price has thus far — so how the Rays pitching fares probably depends a lot more on those two than anyone. If any of them falter, Jeremy Hellickson is waiting in the wings.
  • Wild cards:  Even if Carl Crawford hangs around, it’s not beyond credulity to think that heir apparent Desmond Jennings will see some time in the Rays’ outfield, most likely in right if Matt Joyce and Gabe Kapler can’t cut it.  Late pickup Hank Blalock has turned heads during his brief time in camp and could make the roster, pushing Pat Burrell into a platoon situation at DH and shuffling the Rays bench.  Don Zimmer is still coaching, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen closeups of his ugly mug in the playoffs and, quite frankly, I miss it.

So how are they gonna do?

There are a lot of guys on this team that can be expected to take steps forward this year and none that I can think of who should be expected to take a major step back. Maybe Zobrist. They have a lot of premium talent that is just about major league-ready. Assuming nothing but the positive is a good way to find disappointment in this ugly world, but I think that the Rays are going to be a significantly improved team in 2010, and they were already pretty darn good.

Prediction: Second place in the AL East and Wild Card winners.  That’s right, ahead of the Red Sox in what I think will be the closest race in baseball this year.  Sox fans may now commence their whining. But save some, because I’m doing the Sox preview next and you don’t want to tire yourselves out.

  1. ThinMan - Mar 24, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    No whining from this Sox fan — but to quote from your Yankee preview, “predictions are for suckers.” I completely agree that the AL East is going to be the closest 3-way division race in baseball this year. Should be great fun to watch. Can’t wait for the games (you know, the ones that count) to start.

  2. Joe - Mar 24, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    Actually, I agree with the Thin Man. I think all three teams are close enough that you can predict any combination of 1-2-3 and have an equal chance of being right. A very good team will be sitting come October. I just hope it’s the right one. (That would be the Yankees).

  3. Yank Fan Dave - Mar 24, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    Yeah, I remember last year it was ‘cool’ to pick the Yankees as finishing 3rd in the AL East. All they did was win the world series and then upgrade the rotation and lineup.
    The real tragedy is that a team from the AL West and a team from the AL Central will make the playoffs, while not being as good as any of the three in the AL East. Better yet, the Oriels have a TON of young talent starting to mature. It’s time to take the 4 best teams and forget the ‘division’ nonsense.

  4. Alan - Mar 24, 2010 at 12:39 PM

    Upton has avoided using it as an excuse, but he’s suggested here and there that the shoulder was never 100 percent last year. And someone on this forum once noted (in answer to my question) that joint repairs generally take a year to fully heal. I’m gonna go out on a limb and answer “yes” to that question — I really think he wasn’t just weakened but frustrated, and that it messed with his approach.

  5. APBA Guy - Mar 24, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    Good to see I’m not alone in thinking that the top 3 AL East teams will finish in some unpredictable order. Everybody has offense, with the Sox having a touch less. Everybody has starting pitching, with the Rays having a touch less. And everybody has bullpen, with the Sox a little stronger. Everybody has defense, with the Yankees having a touch less.
    But the real key is the health of the top starting pitching. If Dice-K comes back strong and Beckett and Lackey are healthy, the Sox make the playoffs because the Rays starters have to all progress to match that. Niemann, Price, Garza, Shields and Davis would all have to get better. That’s a very tall order.
    But, the Yankees starters all have to pitch as well as last year, and for Burnett and Pettitte, that could be a challenge.
    It’ll be fun to watch all three of those teams pound the A’s when they come to the Mausoleum. Maybe we can have a ceremony officially passing the “Genius GM” mantle form Beane to Friedman when the Rays are here.

  6. Old Gator - Mar 24, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    Then again, the inherent injustice of the present system has a certain charm to it. In addition to being much like the prevailing realities of life itself, and making it easier for fans to identify thereby with the entire ethos of Major League Baseball, having the deck stacked against the other worthy teams is what reminds you that most of the Brahmins of Baseball are Republicans. Inherent injustice, and its maintenance at all costs, is one of their hot buttons, even without death squads. As long as it doesn’t deprive them of anything. To hell with the other teams in the AL East. They want a share of the gold, well, just let ’em play harder.

  7. Old Gator - Mar 24, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    More to the point: will that morbidly obese predator drone cruising the artificial skies of the Morlock Dome go into radio control arrest yet again and crash-dive the infield in the middle of a critical play? And will the umpires, after watching the replay a dozen times, know what to do about it? And will their decision piss everyone off in equal measure?
    Even more to the point, will the people of the Tampa Bay area – perhaps the only constituency in all of major league sports so allergic to the monstrosity in which their team is condemned to play that they would vote for a bond issue to build a new stadium somewhere where everyone can get to it (a floating island in the middle of the Bay, perhaps – like the Kansai airport in Japan) – ever get a less repulsive venue? What’s a few billion dollars, more or less, when community morale is at stake?

  8. ThinMan - Mar 24, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    Yank Fan Dave,
    Taking the best 4 teams from the league might require, you know, re-balancing the schedule. God, I would really love to see a Red Sox season schedule that didn’t have them playing 18-19 games each against the Yankees, Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays. It gets old seeing the same 4 teams over and over and over and over again.

  9. Yank Fan Dave - Mar 24, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    The deck is already stacked against them by the unbalanced schedule. Could you imagine the Yankees win total last season if they could drop some AL east games in favor of more A’s, Royals and Twins?
    As a fan I would rather see well-matched teams play intense playoff series, as opposed to the little warm-ups we have seen in recent seasons, regardless of my capacity to identify with they ethos.
    Most often in life and in baseball, “the little train that could” ends up rolling downhill and backward until it runs completely out of steam or crashes. Who needs to see that in the playoffs?

  10. YankeesfanLen - Mar 24, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    Have no use AT ALL for some kind of kinky schedulae. Here we have self-described playoff-caliber battling each other time after time for four hours apiece.
    Suspect the Universe will have trouble with the Orioles again this year, made up for by a Halladay-less Blue Jay team.
    Give me those 76 games the way they are, the Universe will rest vs AL Central.

  11. Old Gator - Mar 24, 2010 at 1:21 PM

    I know. I watched my beloved Feesh roll over and die in the 2003 postseason (and have you noticed how much Scrooge McLoria resembles Thomas the Tank Engine?). Thank Buddha they play all those games at night now. My poor undead Feesh couldn’t have even come out of their coffins until sunset.

  12. Andy L - Mar 24, 2010 at 3:37 PM

    Red Sox fan here. Nothing bugs me more than when people get riled up and angry because some writer picks against their team. SHUT UP. Someone’s opinion has no bearing on whether or not your team does well. My favorite was when Joe Sheehan picked Rays over Phillies two years ago, and after the Series a commenter from Philly demanded he apologize.
    So no, no whining. I want the Sox to win this year and hope they do; the Yanks and Rays are very good teams as well. If the Sox take the division, I won’t drive to Ohio with a printout of this article to make you eat it.

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