Here's Looking At: Andruw Jones

It's been awhile since we've done a Here's Looking At (others), but with the news that Andruw Jones jacked a pair of dongers last night, including a walkoff job...in the bottom of the 9th...on a 3-2 count...with 2 outs...on his birthday...yeah, it was time to break it out again.

Jones, like many others, has been off to a hot start this year, hitting at a blazing .293/.408/.756 clip with 6 bombs  and even 3 stolen bases in his 41 PA thusfar. He'd been serving in a platoon at the DH spot with Mark Kotsay, which helps illustrate just how far the former 50-homer bat has fallen, but Kotsay has struggled from the outset of this season and Jones has (rightfully) been earning more playing time. But, of course, such a hot start is unsustainable; he's a career .258/.339/.490 hitter, and hasn't hit above .222 since 2006. He was above-average last season in Texas, though, flashing a good eye at the plate and decent pop (.323 OBP, .459 SLG) en route to a solid .338 wOBA (he's currently at .499). So how hard can we expect regression to hit Jones?

First, some important background. As Marc Hulet wrote yesterday, he looks like he left half of himself at home. Once a lithe, speedy guy, Jones was a 30-30 threat from 1998-2000, averaging 31 homers and 23 steals over those seasons. Oh, and he was 21 in 1998. No big deal. That combination of power, speed, and youth helped him earn$8.3MM in arbitration after that season, which was a record-high at the time. Aaand then went on to post a down year in 2001, mostly due to (what was presumably an) unlucky .269 BABIP. However, he still signed a 6-year, $75MM deal with the Braves after the season. A big part of that contract was on the strength of his defense; it was not out of the realm of possibility that he would go down as one of the best-fielding centerfielders of all time (he averaged nearly 2 wins a year with his glove alone from 2002-2007). And he made for a great story, too; this was a kid who got quick wrists by practicing his baseball swing with a sledgehammer, and who had his dad hit him fly balls on the dunes of his home in Curacao. Jones was the kind of kid you wanted on your team until he retired - and it seemed certain that he would do so with the Braves.

But that 2001 season that we glossed over...should not have been glossed over. Much was made of the fact that in 2001, Jones' conditioning became very poor; a common story was that, as a kid in the States with lots of money for the first time, his work ethic slipped and he spent most of his days eating McDonald's and playing video games. Remember that earlier picture of Jones? Well, he began to look more like this. And it would only get worse as the years went on. In the 2001 season, he stole only 11 bases and his strikeout rate skyrocketed from 15.2% to 22.7%. You may also recall how we referred to his .269 BABIP as 'presumably'  unlucky; as it turns out, plodding guys who strike out a lot and don't hit for a high average also don't have high BABIPs. Shocking, no? Jones' career BABIP is .276, which falls well short of the average hitters' BABIP that hovers around .300.

Jones has continued to head down that path for the rest of his career; he stole 8 bases in 2002 and never got higher than 6 in the following seasons. But he did make somewhat the best of it; his power flourished, and he never slugged lower than .488 from 2002-2006, In 2005, he had an MVP-caliber year with a .263/.347/.575 and 51 tater tots, including a June performance that is among the most torrid monthlong performances we've seen from a hitter.

And then the decline came quickly and mercilessly. In 2007, he struck out nearly a quarter of the time, while also walking less and seeing a sharp downturn in the power that had been 'prodigious' just two seasons ago. Yeah, he had a .242 BABIP...but in 2005, his best season, he had a .240 total. He began hitting fewer line drives (2% drop from 2006-2007) and more popups (3% increase) while also seeing fewer of his fly balls leave the yard (an astonishing 9% drop). All of that was a recipe for disaster, and the Braves did not see fit to retain his services after that season. The Dodgers did, though! To the tune of $18MM a year over two seasons.

Jones hit rock bottom in his first year with the Dodgers, posting a stunningly bad .234 wOBA. You want context? Well, had he qualified (he had only 238 PA), that would have been the single worst wOBA in the history of wOBA. Worse than Neifi Perez. Worse than Cesar Izturis. Worse than - heaven forbid - Yuniesky Betancourt. He looked utterly lost; the bat speed was gone, the patience was gone, the power was gone, and even his remarkable fielding instincts seemed to have left him. He was an $18MM shell of a player.

After a minor resurgence in Texas last season, here's where we find ourselves now. Jones remains a low BABIP, high power kind of guy, even if the power isn't what it was during the Braves years. He's currently posting a .273 BABIP, which is right in line with his career average, so while we could expect fewer balls in play to escape the fielders' gloves, the dropoff may not be significant - particularly given his obviously improved conditioning. He's striking out more often than usual, at a very high 32% clip, which could also shrink some in order to return toward his career average of 22.4%, so it's not like he'll start whiffing more often, either. He's hitting fewer line drives this season than last, and a lot more fly balls, and...ahhh, there's the culprit. A full 40% of his fly balls are leaving the yard, which is insanely high. He's also recorded a handful of infield hits, collecting them at an 11.1% rate that more than doubles his career 5% average.

So we can expect Jones' power to regress, as the average HR/FB rate is ~10-11%. He'll start recording fewer infield hits, which will drop the batting average, and the BABIP will drop as a result of more of those fly balls becoming outs. A combination of the Bill James, CHONE, Marcel, Fans, and ZiPS projections had Jones being a .221/.319/.422 hitter, which would put him right below a league average wOBA (.324 as compared to ~.330); the ZiPS projection for the rest of his season sees severe BABIP regression (down to .234) and has him hitting .220/.317/.450, for a .338 wOBA. Which, all things considered, is probably pretty good.

Now if you'll allow us to almost entirely disregard the unbiased, objective opinion of a projection system that weights Jones' performance against thousands of comparable players from throughout baseball history (an easier feat than it sounds like; just ask your local SABR-haters or an average member of the BBWAA), we think that Jones' improved conditioning and speed will allow him to to salvage some of that BABIP that he's got right now. He's not as quick and lean as he was in his younger days, but he also isn't playing the field anymore, at least until Ozzie Guillen gets some crazy ideas in his head and...oh...he's already played 8 games in the outfield. Well, never mind. But still. We know he still has some power; he showed it last season, and the projection systems liked him to have above-average deep sauce talent. Plus, he's playing in a weak division that features only a handful of good starting pitchers and some of the worst bullpens going, which should help. We're not saying he's going to be an All-Star or anything, but we think that at season's end, he'll be hitting around .245/.325/.460 to go along with some below-average-but-not-aggressively-so defense an excellent return on the $500,000 that the White Sox threw his way. Definitive judgment: passed. Godspeed, Andruw Jones. And happy belated birthday.


Chill Out, Dallas Braden

(post almost entirely stolen from The Blowtorch's 'Chill Out, Juwan Howard')

Chill out, Dallas Braden. You look like a pretty sweet bro. So why you gotta flip out on Alex Rodriguez like that? Dude was just trying to chill. Why don't you just go work on your 'stache and leave everyone well enough alone?

Chill out, Dallas Braden.


Jason Heyward

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Jason Heyward.


2010 Predictions Post

Because we just haven't gotten our fill of making incredibly inaccurate predictions, we've decided it's time to compile all those season previews and write out a proper predictions post. Or maybe we just wanted the chance to write that little bit of alliteration. SPRING BREAK!

Ahem. Onward and upward. Teams will be listed in their predicted order of divisional finish, and we'll throw out our projected record and beer choice for each. Think of it as a handy reference guide to all those other posts. Joke's on you if you read them all, we guess.

NL East:

1. Phillies: 91-71, Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout
2. Braves: 88-74, Yuengling
3. Marlins: 79-83, Abita Christmas Ale
4. Mets: 76-86, Dos Equis
5. Nationals: 69-93, Schlitz

NL Central:

1. Cardinals: 89-73, Stone Face Ale
2. Cubs: 84-78, Lumpy Dog Light Lager
3. Reds: 82-80, Abita Amber
4. Brewers: 77-85, Miller High Life
5. Astros: 71-91, Lone Star
6. Pirates: 69-93, Steel Reserve 211

NL West: 

1. Rockies: 93-69, Coors
2. Dodgers: 87-75, Anchor Summer Beer
3. Diamondbacks: 82-80, PBR (we already regret this pick as Brandon Webb is struggling to get healthy)
4. Giants: 82-80, Cuddly Panda Porter
5. Padres: 65-97, Blue Moon

NL Divisional Round: Rockies over Braves, Phillies over Cardinals
NL Championship: Rockies over Phillies

AL East:

1. Yankees: 95-67, Westvleteren 12
2. Rays: 94-68, Natural Ice
3. Red Sox: 93-69, Samuel Adams Boston Lager
4. Blue Jays: 78-84, Alexander Keith's IPA
5. Orioles: 70-92, Oak Aged Dark Lord Imperial Stout

AL Central: 

1. Twins: 87-75, Molson Canadian Lager
2. Tigers: 83-79, Heineken
2. White Sox: 83-79, Goose Island Honker's Ale
4. Indians: 68-94, Great Lakes Brewing Co's Blackout Stout
5. Royals: 62-100, Negra Modelo

AL West:

1. Mariners: 86-76, Fat Tire
2. Rangers: 85-77, Shiner Bock
2. Angels: 85-77, Stone's Arrogant Bastard Ale
4. A's: 77-85, Sam Adams Light

AL Divisional Round: Yankees over Mariners, Rays over Twins
AL Championship Series: Rays over Yankees

World Series: Rockies over Rays

As we were writing the Rockies preview, we got progressively more excited about their chances. They can pitch (a legit ace in Ubaldo Jimenez, the return of groundballer Aaron Cook, the possible return of former ace Jeff Francis, an improving Jorge de la Rosa, and a very strong bullpen even without Huston Street) and hit (there's a good chance that they can best league average at all 8 spots on the diamond, with a few possible star turns from guys like Troy Tulowitzki and the young outfielders) with anyone. We don't like the Yankees' lack of depth, but admit that they're still the clear favorite to take it all this year, and, again, have a like fetish for the Rays. So now you know exactly why we'll be wrong, instead of the less definitive 'oh, you were wrong.' Oh, and for fun, let's take a crack at the seasonal awards, so we can dig an even deeper prognosticative hole:

AL MVP: Evan Longoria (runners up: M. Teixeira, A. Rodriguez, K. Youkilis)
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez (runners up: Z. Greinke, J. Lester, B. Anderson)
AL RoY: Brian Matusz (runners up: S. Sizemore, W. Davis)
AL Manager: Don Wakamatsu (runners up: J. Maddon, R. Gardenhire)

NL MVP: Albert Pujols (runners up: T. Tulowitzki, J. Werth, J. Upton)
NL Cy Young: T. Lincecum (runners up: D. Haren, R. Halladay, J. Johnson)
NL RoY: Jason Heyward (runners up: B. Posey, S. Strasburg)
NL Manager: Bobby Cox (runners up: T. LaRussa, C. Manuel)

Season Preview: Washington Nationals

Opening Day! Opening Day! Let's get the Nationals out the way!

But first, a sidenote: if Obama is throwing out the first pitch at the Nationals game tomorrow, then does that mean that today's Red Sox-Yankees affair isn't actually 'Opening Day?' Because can you really start the season the day before the Prez gets to toss out the first ball? Wait...don't answer that.

As we were.

Lineup: Ryan Zimmerman is the star here, and deservedly so; he is not only an elite hitter but can pick it with the best of 'em. Adam Dunn, on the other hand, has the second-best bat on the team, but negates much of that advantage with an abysmal glove. Josh Willingham - when healthy - has had his moments, and Nyjer Morgan took a huge step forward last season; his bat almost caught up to his glove. We doubt that he repeats that season, though, which leaves the Nationals with a pretty impotent outfield; Willie Harris is, for some reason, the starting right fielder. Back in the infield, the Nats aren't bad up the middle, with promising rookie Ian Desmond manning shortstop and aging vet Adam Kennedy holding down the keystone. We'd be more comfortable with this group if we could perfect time travel and get a more developed Desmond and a younger Kenned; without looking, we'd say Adam Kennedy hasn't posted a wRC+ over 100 since 2003. (Upon review: he did it last season. Whoops. But that was his first time since 2005. Moral victory. It's our blog, after all.) The corpse of Ivan Rodriguez will rely on the starting catcher's gear to hold his bones together, which is a bad strategy on several levels (particularly if literally true). Jesus Flores will be around in a year to wrest the job from Pudge II's cold, dead hands, but for now, the Nationals are paying a premium for a guy who is a lock to hit like a replacement player. So in retrospect...we guess they're not actually all that much better than you'd expect.

Rotation: The loss of Jordan Zimmermann and the refusal to start Strasburg in the minors (a move we support, mind you) make this group a  lot less promising than it would otherwise be. Jason Marquis continues to ride the gravy train of last season's 15 wins; he managed to parlay that into an All-Star appearance and a multiyear deal, which we guess is pretty impressive. And also soul-crushing, but still impressive. John Lannan, the team's Opening Day starter, managed a 3.89 ERA despite striking out, like, 3 batters per 9 (who needs fact checking?); if he can keep tossing 200 innings of ~4 ERA ball, then that has to be considered pretty good for this squad. Scott Olsen and Garrett Mock - particularly Mock - have great stuff, but haven't shown an ability to harness it effectively (or, in Olsen's case, to keep his head on straight and throw strikes at the same time). Neither has the upside they once did, but there's some promise yet to be found there. J.D. Martin is also listed on the official team depth chart, despite the fact that he was reassigned. Washington Nationals: on the ball!

Bullpen: Matt Capps was a great upside play; the Pirates released him after he struggled last season, and the Nats snapped him on a minor-league deal. Capps had been good prior to last season's breakdown, and with the variability of relief pitching, it's easily within reason that he'll rebound to have one of his better sesons as the closer here. Tyler Clippard, whom we confused with Chase Wright, is not actually the guy best known for serving up four consecutive tater tots to Red Sox batters, but is a former Yankee - and so is Brian Bruney. Which has to mean something, right? Well, no, but they are both pretty good pitchers. Jason Bergmann is in the 'pen, which meanst the team will have at least one of its '...nn' pitchers. Sean Burnett was pretty good last season, and we think that he, Bruney and Bergmann should start their own 'Killer B's.' Miguel Batista, auteur extraordinaire, was not very good last season. Nor is it likely he will be this season. But he could lobby to join the Killer B's, if they're nice. It'll be like when Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were declining badly, but people kept calling them that.

Overall: Put simply, the Nationals aren't going to be very good this year. But there are signs of improvement, and talented prospects on the horizon. We're not saying they're going to compete any time soon in what is a pretty loaded NL East, but they will cease to be laughingstocks. Probably. Anyway, a core of Zimmerman, Strasburg, Zimmermann and Flores is not too shabby, and if the youngn's grow up quick and the vets get old slow, they could coast above .500 sometime.

Predicted Record: 69-93, 5th place NL East

Beer: Schlitz. Schlitz disappeared for a time, but came back to store shelves in 2008 to much fanfare despite being a pretty mediocre beer. The Nationals disappeared for a time, but came back to D.C. in 2005 to much fanfare despite being a pretty mediocre team. We just never learn.


Season Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Real baseball starts tomorrow. Thought you should know. Today: the Toronto Blue Jays. Tomorrow, the world.

Lineup: There's not a lot of exciting talent here, but this is a fairly productive group of hitters. Adam Lind and Travis Snider are the excellently pedigreed hitters who should hit well enough to overcome their defensive shortcomings - they will spend time at LF and DH. Vernon Wells is hoping that his annoying trend of alternating good and bad seasons continues, since he was terrible last year - but with that contract weighing him down, it's gonna be tough to man CF effectively, or swing a bat. Jose Bautista, whom we did not know was still alive (that's why we write the previews!) is apparently going to be in right field, but he's 30 and has a career .729 OPS so don't get your hopes up, Nucks. The infield is cornered by Edwin Encarnacion and Lyle Overbay, both of whom are near-certainties to be league-average and also get hurt. Alex Gonzalez and Aaron Hill will be the double play combo, and while Gonzalez is no good, Hill had a monster season last year. If he can repeat that - and it's not very likely - then this team actually has a decent middle of the lineup, which will be exciting. John Buck, who improbably slugged .484 in 200 ABs last season will don the tools of ignorance, and hopefully play well enough to keep Jose Molina on the bench. Brett Wallace should be up before too long; he's a hitter in the Lind/Snider mold, albeit somewhat more athletic, and catcher Travis D'Arnaud will hopefully take over for their uninspiring catching duo at some point, though it may not be soon.

Rotation: Obviously, this group looked a lot better with Roy Halladay running out there every fifth day, but they're not an altogether bad unit. Shawn Marcum has struggled with injuries in his brief career, but he has excellent control and could be a real force if healthy. Ricky Romero, the slight lefty, has also...y'know, really, just about all Blue Jays pitchers have gotten hurt but have some real talent. So feel free to re-read the Marcum comment and apply it to Romero and Dustin McGowan. Brandon Morrow is a very intriguing prospect acquired from the Mariners, and he'll man the 4 spot. Morrow was effective as a reliever, but hasn't demonstrated much as a starter. The fifth spot will likely go to Marc Rzepczynski, whose name we still have trouble spelling even after writing more about him than probably anyone who doesn't write for Drunk Jays Fans, but Brandon Tallet and Brett Cecil will likely get some starts as well. Top prospect Kyle Drabek may be along to help things out eventually, but probably not for any substantial amount of time this season.

Bullpen: Jason Frasor is the closer here, and while he's somewhat uninspiring, he's a pretty good hurler, so they could do worse. Scott Downs and Jeremy Accardo are also good late-inning options. Jesse Carlson, besides looking absurd in this MLB.com picture, is a fairly mediocre option, but he's probably better than a guy like Shawn Camp, who isn't good for much besides getting groundballs. Oh, and Kevin Gregg is likely to see lots of innings, too...but he's terrible, so Jays fans had better hope that's not the case.

Overall: The Blue Jays are, unfortunately, the least inspiring squad in a division of heavyweights. Obviously, they're not competing with the unholy trinity of Sox/Yanks/Rays, but they're likely behind even Baltimore in the race for fourth-best team - not necessarily this season, but in terms of future prospects. There's some good young talent there now, and more coming, but they're still a lesser version of the O's - and that's even if they can finally keep their promising rotation healthy for once.

Predicted Record: 77-85, 4th place AL East

Beer: Alexander Keith's. Har dee har, choosing a Canadian beer for the only Canadian team in MLB. We're just phoning it in at this point. But like the Jays in their loaded division, Alexander Keith's tends to fall by the wayside when talking about Canadian brew; in the minds of the many, they are hardly worth noticing next to, say, Molson and Labatt. But there's definite quality in this Blue Jays squad - it's just that, like Keith's, you have to work a little to find it.


Season Preview: Texas Rangers

Just two days remain til Opening Day, and they are a Friday and Saturday, respectively. Which is pretty sweet. Anyway - lineup, pitchers, record, beer. It's not quite GTL, but it'll have to do. Up next: the Texas Rangers

Lineup: Let's start with the outfield. Julio Borbon is getting a chance to put his wheels to work as the full-time center fielder; best case is that he hits for average and gets on base well while stealing plenny bases. Flanking him  are Josh Hamilton, whose talent and injury history are well documented, and Nelson Cruz, who possesses a great power-speed combo. Cruz, though, will have to overcome what we're sure is an enormous mental hurdle in order to perform despite incessant ridicule from his teammates about his appearance in ESPN Magazine's Body issue. Oh, and Vlad Guerrero could see some time out here - though we'll have to, like, light a candle for him, since we're fairly sure that anything beyond DHing would straight up break him at this point. David Murphy is a decent backup, though. As for the infield, Michael Young posted his best season in years while transitioning to third base; his replacement, Elvis Andrus, wasn't much with the stick (though he's barely legal to drink), but was a 3-win player based on his strong defense. Andrus' double play partner is one of the best second basegentlemen in the league; Ian Kinsler has an above-average power/speed combo (we feel like this word gets thrown around a lot with the Rangers) for anyone, let alone someone manning the keystone. Chris Davis will get another shot at the first base job; he has mammoth power, but his contact skills are, to put it very charitably, lacking. Best case for him is a .260 average to accompany his 45 tater tots - and he's going to have to approach the best case in order to stave off Justin Smoak. Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden are a catching duo that has underwhelmed to this point, but Salty still has time to make good on his top prospect status, and Tegarden is a defensive whiz - which helps compensate for his below-average bat.

Rotation: This could either be a very strong or a very weak group. Yay firm predictions! Scott Feldman's peripherals suggest that he was far better than his poor ERA suggested, and Rich Harden could put together an enormous season if he stays healthy. Which we're pretty sure is verbatim what every single baseball scribe has written about him since he broke into the league. Ugh. And if the organization is serious about converting C.J. Wilson to the rotation - a decision we simply cannot support - then he'll be the number three starter. He could be decent, we suppose, but he's blocking the far more talented Neftali Feliz. Rounding out the rotation are Colby Lewis - Carson Cistulli's cause celebre - for whom we have high hopes and southpaw Matt Harrison, who could easily be a league average sort of gentleman. Plus with Feliz and assorted other young talent potentially ready to step in, there's plenty of depth for an already talented group.

Bullpen: Finishing games is what Frank Francisco does, and he does it pretty well. He'll be the closer this season, provided he manages to refrain from decking another fan with a thrown folding chair. Neftali Feliz, injustice though it may be, will likely be joining Francisco as a late-inning guy, and should be just as electric as he was last season. Darren Oliver was great for the Angels last season, but he's nearly twice as old as us and doesn't do as well against lefty hitters as you'd expect from a southpaw. Chris Ray is the former Baltimore closer, who had electric stuff prior to Tommy John surgery. Regaining his control has been a struggle, but he's a guy to keep your eye on. Darren O'Day and Dustin Nippert present little in the way of things to complain about; they're perfectly serviceable guys to chew up some innings here and there. Good group overall.

Overall: This is the year that most people predicted the Rangers would be in competition, though this squad surprised most people by being neck and neck with the Angels throughout most of 2009. They're improved, for sure, but the lineup doesn't have much depth and we have our concerns about the young pitchers holding up during what should be a season-long divisional dogfight. They're probably a better team than the Mariners overall - and certainly so when accounting for the wealth of young talent in the farm system - but for some reason we think the M's are juuust going to squeak out the divisional title.

Predicted Record: 85-77, 2nd place AL West

Beer: Shiner Bock. Shiner Bock is a beer that seems to aspire to the darkness of a true bock, but doesn't quite get there - it's far less full-bodied than most bocks, but is still delicious. Similarly, the Rangers are a team that has realistic championship aspirations, but they're not quite on the level of the Big Eastern Three. Both Shiner and the Rangers have come upon a winning formula - Shiner makes a tasty beer, and the Rangers develop phenomenal talent - but it's going to be another year before the Rangers are a serious World Series contender, and it'll take some recipe changes before Shiner Bock becomes a real Bock.


Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

3 days left. Hitters. Pitchers. Predicted Record. Beer. TAMPA BAY RAYS.

Lineup: There's talent everywhere, and if B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro (or Kelly Shoppach steps up) this could be one of the best lineups in the league. Evan Longoria is the centerpiece and mans the hot corner with aplomb to boot. Across the diamond, Carlos Pena has enormous power and can take a walk with the best of them. He's not getting any younger, true, but he should have another couple of seasons left in him, particularly if his hands are healed from last season's broken fingers. The double play combo features Jason Bartlett, who's a passable gloveman and saw an obscene power surger last year (expect that to regress, but for him to remain above average for an SS) and either Ben Zobrist or Sean Rodriguez, depending on how the team feels about the latter's spring, we guess. Zobrist had a monster year last season, leading the AL in WAR, and while we don't expect him to repeat the feat, he's certainly an excellent hitter; seasons like his '09 don't happen on a pure fluke. Rodriguez, acquired from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade, posted 1.000+ OPS in his last two minor league seasons, but both came in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, so we don't expect him to flash the same power. He's got a good eye and can make contact, though. As for the catcher spot, Dioner Navarro seemed to have broken out in 2008, but was one of the worst players in the AL last season. He's got to remember how to work counts and not swing at dumb pitchers. Kelly Shoppach boasts big power, especially for a catcher, but has yet to prove himself in a full season's ABs. As for the outfield, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton are superlative athletes, though only Crawford has had sustained success. Upton showed his potential in the '07 playoffs, but regressed horribly last season. He's at least a plus defender who can steal bases with the best of them, so hopefully the success of his younger brother Justin pushes him to figure it out for a full season. If Zobrist doesn't man second base, he'll be the right fielder; expect to see some combination of Matt Joyce and Gabe Kapler there otherwise. Joyce has some promise, but we'd like to see them give Desmond Jennings or Fernando Perez an extended run over there for as long as they've got Crawford and Upton in the other two spots.

Rotation: This is a wildly talented group. Matt Garza and James Shields are practically fixtures atop the rotation by now, and while they've not been dominant, the potential is there for them to be ace-level this season. And the trio of Jeff Niemann, David Price, and Wade Davis are all oozing with potential, particularly the latter two. Niemann should be good for a 4.00 FIP, which in the loaded AL East is nothing to sneeze at. People seem to have forgotten about Price after a disappointing go of it last season, and while he has a lot to prove w/r/t his control, the strikeout stuff is still there. Davis has been one of the team's top prospects for awhile now, and we're excited to see him get his shot. He doesn't have Price's proclivity for strikeouts, but commands his pitches better, and is effective at limiting home runs. The projection systems have him coming in around a 4.00 FIP also, which is particularly impressive for a rookie.

Bullpen: The addition of Rafael Soriano to the back end of the pen helps a great deal, as the Rays were conspicuously lacking in a true lockdown arm. Soriano should provide that, and he'll have a good setup corps in LHP J.P. Howell and RHPs Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler. Balfour struggled with his control last season, and Howell was injured, but a return to form from both of them makes the late-inning pitching a legitimate strength. Andy Sonnanstine lost out on the competition for the fifth starter job, but should make for a capable long reliever - or at least trade bait. Randy Choate and Lance Cormier were effective last season, though neither is much of one for strike 3. The most interesting guy here is R.J. Swindle, the soft-tossing lefty sidewinder. He may feel like a gimmick, but ignore the fastball that couldn't even dream of hitting 90 on its most ambitious days and look at the fact that he posted a 2.21 ERA in 6 minor league seasons - while striking out a sparkling 9 per 9 and walking less than 2. GIVE THE MAN A CHANCE.

Overall: We picked the Rays to win the World Series last season and B.J. Upton to win the MVP. While the former was a convenient excuse to post a picture of Rachael Ray from her FHM shoot awhile ago, the latter was just poor predictive ability colored by our love for young talent hat could set the world on fire - a love that we still have, apparently, because everything about the Rays screams 'contender' to us. They can hit, they can pitch, they can field, they have one of the best front offices in the game, and the farm is bursting at the seams with young talent. If the Yankees sustain a few injuries, this division is, in our mind, theirs for the taking.

Predicted Record: 93-69, 2nd place AL East

Beer: Natural Ice. The plight of MLBers on a low salary has been made public by the Rays' Fernando Perez in a shocking and insightful brief documentary piece. So they can't afford to be spending lots of money on a beer becoming of their talent level - or a Carl Crawford becoming of their organization's talent level, if all the indications are correct. Natty Ice is cheap but strong enough to befit a team that can hit with the best of 'em but shells out cash like Jeffrey Loria after dropping his revenue sharing check on a new yacht.


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