Monday, April 9, 2007

Hope and Frustration Against the Blue Jays

We continued to learn about the Rays’ superstars-in-training during last weekend’s series against Toronto.

In the bottom of the second yesterday, Delmon Young roped Roy Halladay’s first pitch to left for a leadoff double. Young has been criticized for being too eager with the first pitch, and responded to that defiantly the other day within this Marc Topkin piece. His remarkable talent often allows him to compensate for the lack of selectivity, but with a career on-base percentage, including the minors, of .336, one wonders if there will be an adjustment period in the majors, and if Young will respond positively.

Elijah Dukes provided a patient contrast in the same inning. With Young on third, Dukes found himself in a 1-2 hole against Halladay. Easy, the ace must have thought, I’ll just get this rookie to chase. Doc wasted three pitches away; Dukes sat on all of them, drawing a mature walk. With an on-base percentage of .401 in Durham last season, Dukes has already shown exceptional patience for a player his age. Questions about his volatile temperament do not seem to extend to behavior at the plate.

Now for Kazmir, the third phenom in the spotlight yesterday. Mixing a diving slider and deceptive two-seamer with his standard mid-nineties fastball, Kazmir was lights-out in stretches. At one point, he set a team record by striking out six consecutive batters. He was exciting, he was focused, but he couldn’t win the game.

With two on and two out in the fifth, Reed Johnson homered, putting the Jays forever ahead and inalterably tainting Kazmir’s early dominance. Despite adding pitches, the Rays’ would-be ace still has a problem sealing games, keeping pitch counts down, avoiding deadly mistakes. He continues to develop; we continue to watch.

Overall, the Blue Jays series was rich in hope and frustration for Rays fans. The comeback on Friday night, spearheaded by Young and Upton, provided a thrilling home opener. The offense and energy showed up for every game, and Kazmir and James Shields pitched well. One wonders, though, if the bullpen will be every bit as problematic this year as it was in 2006.

Over in Yankeeland, Brian Cashman has been busy converting a talent surplus into a stockpile of young power arms. In the Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield trades, the Yankees obtained enough pitching to ease concerns about the bullpen and rotation. Some of those guys will stick and help the Yankees in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. The question remains for Andrew Friedman: who do you trade in an effort to do the same?

Last season, the Rays lost a league-record sixty games which they had led at some point. Think about that number, and imagine what their record might have been with a more consistent bullpen. As a team, they are further along than many think, but that bullpen…

Some good Rays reading from this morning:

Eduardo Encina writes of the Rays' efforts to turn around last year's abysmal road performance.

Edwin Jackson makes his case to remain the fifth starter tonight in Texas, as Mark Lancaster writes. This is exactly what I was talking about above: Friedman turned Danys Baez into a young power arm in Jackson before last season. Some arms work out; others don't, but you have to stockpile them. Jackson is still a work-in-progress, and it is no coincidence that Maddon has paired him with Josh Paul for his big night. Paul was instrumental in helping to develop Kazmir, Shields and Seth McClung last year.

Thanks to Patrick Kennedy at D-Rays Bay, an excellent Rays blog, for linking us.


raysfan02 said...

Let's hope Jackson has it tonight. Go Rays!

Ray said...

Good relief pitching is hard to come by, especially with a tiny payroll budget. I'm hopeful that the Rays will score more runs this year and take some insurmountable leads.

This is a great blog. Thanks for the effort. Go Rays!