We at Razzball realize that exporting our views across the country has damaging consequences on the blogosphere.  To help make amends, we are reaching out to leading team blogs and featuring their locally blogged answers to pressing 2009 fantasy baseball questions regarding their team.  We feel this approach will be fresher, more sustainable, and require less energy consumption (for us anyway). The 2009 Rays Fantasy Baseball Preview comes courtesy of Cork Gaines from Rays Index.

1.  What kind of season do you expect from BJ Upton?  Watching him hit, he looks Alfonso Sorianoesque but last year’s stats – 9 HR, 30% Fly Ball rate – look more Carl Crawfordish.

When trying to project BJ Upton for the 2009 season and beyond, it is probably best to just pretend like the 2008 season never happened. Upton played most of the season with a tear in the labrum of his shoulder. Normally one of the quickest and fastest swings in baseball, Upton was clearly bothered by the injury. He wasn’t able to drive fastballs and admittedly laid off pitches in certain zones because he was worried the swing would cause further damage to his shoulder.

Upton had surgery on his shoulder after the season and should be 100% once he returns, but there are long-term concerns. This is not the first time he has injured his shoulder on a swing. That suggests that there is something wrong with his swing. Upton must either alter his swing, and risk losing some of his power, or maintain his swing, and risk reinjuring the shoulder.  Despite the injury, Upton still maintained a 19% LD% which suggests he was still hitting the ball well. He just wasn’t driving the ball over the wall. We saw in the playoffs what he is capable of once he was able to put the fear of swinging the bat out of his head.

I don’t think Upton is going to jump all the way up to Soriano-levels in 2009, but if Upton can stay healthy, he is a safe bet to hit 30 home runs. In 2007, Upton hit 24 even though he missed a month on the DL. And one of these seasons, he will get on a roll and go 40-40.

2.  Which Ray pitcher(s) do you think will be most affected by last year’s extended season?

Pitching coach Jim Hickey ordered the pitchers to not touch a baseball prior to January and Joe Maddon has already indicated that the starting pitchers will throw fewer innings in the spring. We can also assume that they will have very strict pitch counts in the first month of the season. Still, the long season and the shortened off-season are very concerning for a young pitching staff.

Of the four starting pitchers returning from the 2008 staff, Scott Kazmir showed a 7.8% decrease in innings pitched from 2007 to 2008 (including playoffs) and Andy Sonnanstine increased his innings by only 4.4%. James Shields increased his total by 11.6%, with all the additional innings coming in the playoffs. Shields does not worry me because he has proven to be a horse and is very efficient with his pitches. In his 37 starts (including postseason), he only topped 110 pitches once.

The one starter that scares us is Matt Garza. His innings total increased by 21.8%. And on seven occasions he topped 110 pitches in a start. Garza may have the best stuff on the staff, but he is in danger of a tired arm in 2009.

3.  Would you take the over or under on the following projections?

Carl Crawford 40 SBs: OVER. 2008 was Carl Crawford’s first season under 46 steals, a season in which he battled sore legs. Of course, he blamed the Field Turf at The Trop, but I expect him to come into the 2009 season with his legs better prepared.

Carlos Pena 35 HRs: OVER. Carlos Pena’s breakout season in 2007 came when the coaching staff finally convinced Pena that he did not have to pull everything. While he still won’t go opposite field, Pena has enough power to use the entire field and regularly hit home runs to straight-away center field. In 2008 Pena began the season once again trying to pull everything, hitting only 10 home runs the first two months and then missing a month on the DL. Once back he started using the entire field again and his home run totals took off. Look for him to not make that mistake again.

Evan Longoria 90 RBIs: OVER. This seems like a lock, although it could depend on where he is batting in the lineup. At this point I think he will be in the 5-hole with Pat Burrell behind him. With the speed and OBPs ahead of him, and Pat the Bat offering plenty of protection, RBI should come in bunches in 2009 for Dirtbag.

David Price 120 IP: UNDER. King David only worked 129.1 innings in 2008 (incl. playoffs), so it is unlikely the Rays will let him make 33 starts at the big league level. That, along with his need to refine his changeup and the depth of pitching in the organization, and I believe Price will spend the first two months of the season in triple-A.

4.  Last year marked career years for the main cogs in the Ray’s bullpen – Wheeler, Balfour, Howell.  Can they repeat it?  Is Wheeler going to last all year as the closer?

The Rays closer in 2009 will be Troy Percival, when healthy. But that means little in a Joe Maddon bullpen. Like most managers, Maddon has a blueprint in which certain pitchers pitch specific innings, and if he is available, the ninth inning belongs to Percy and the eighth inning belongs to Dan Wheeler.  But the “Aces” of the bullpen are Grant Balfour and JP Howell. Those are the guys that Maddon calls upon in what he considers the most important situations. And there are indications that Maddon is ready to add Jeff Niemann to that mix in 2009.

Percival was actually very effective early in the season before he started breaking down physically, but despite 28 saves, not once did he come into the game with the tying or go-ahead run already on base. Those situations were saved for Balfour and Howell.  In 2008, Balfour posted one of the most dominating relief seasons ever. The Mad Australian became just the fourth relief pitcher ever to strike out at least 11 per 9 innings, give up less than 1 base runner per inning and keep his ERA less than 1.70. The other three are a who’s who of dominating closer performances, including Eric Gagne (2003), Billy Wagner (1999) and Joe Nathan (2006). So it is safe to say that Balfour will regress a bit, but I don’t think it will be much.  Howell’s strength is more in his ability to work across innings. In other words, Howell is able to come into a game in the middle of an inning, retire the side and then go back out for a second inning after sitting. This gives Maddon much more flexibility in his bullpen.

In the end, the individual performances may not be as great, but with the addition of Niemann and Joe Nelson, the depth of the bullpen is greater and there shouldn’t be much of a letdown.

5.  The 1996 Yankees World Series run was bittersweet for me as Don Mattingly didn’t get to experience it.  Did you feel the same in 2008 with Aubrey Huff?

HA! Let’s just say I still feel worse for Donnie Baseball. In the winter after being traded away, Huff signed a contract with the O’s and remarked that it would be refreshing to finally play for a team that has a chance to win. Since then, Rays fans boo Huff lustily, the Rays have won the American League pennant and the Orioles haven’t had a winning season since 1997.

  1. Freak says:

    “I believe Price will spend the first two months of the season in triple-A.”

    What? Noooooooooo.

  2. Grey

    Grey says:

    @Freak: FWIW, I don’t agree with that.

  3. @Freak: I agree with my man Cork. Price through 18 IP in AAA last year after 57 in AA. A team as good as the Rays doesn’t want/need to rush a pitcher like him. I see him getting his first start around late May/early June….

  4. Very nice job, Mr. Gamble. For some reason, I am attached to the Rays, and often have daydreams where I pick, oh, 10th in a 12-team snake draft and get both Longoria and Upton.

    I do resent your suggestion that we forget what Upton did in ’08 because I OWNED UPTON IN ’08. Shoulder tear, shmoulder shmear.

    Does that mean I wouldn’t draft him again? It does not. And, yes, I’m going after Price. I CAN’T HELP MYSELF.

  5. @Baron Von Vulturewins: Hey…I just asked the questions and let the expert on the Rays – Cork Gaines of RaysIndex.com – take care of the answers.

    I’d love to have Longoria and Upton on my teams but not sure if I’ll rank them high enough. Longoria is projected as a .260-.265 hitter by CHONE and ZiPS (he K’s 27% of the time – that doesn’t help). His projection is at about 30/100 with < 10 SB. I’m hearing 2nd round for him where that feels like 4th round #s (I’ll take Aramis instead…). As I said in the article, I compared Upton’s swing to Soriano but the big difference b/w the two is Upton hits a LOT of ground balls. Soriano hits 48% FB and 28% GB. Upton is almost the reverse. So here’s the quick math on him….if he gets 500 ABs, he’ll K 125 times. Out of the 375 ABs, he’ll hit maybe 1/3 FBS. With 125 ABs, he’d need to hit 20% HR/FB to get to 25 and that’s a VERY high rate (Soriano at 16%). So I’d draft him as a .270/18 HR/35 SB guy which would also probably be around 4th round. Doubt he’d last until then either…

  6. I have been saying all offseason that Price was going to start in AAA. With Hammel and Niemann both out of options and Nelson, Balfour, Howell, Percival, Shouse, Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Sonnanstine that gives you 11 pitchers right there. Price still needs to work on his changeup and AAA is the perfect place to do it.

  7. And of course I’m leaving out Wheeler

  8. I agree with Cork about King David, for the most part.

    The main reason being that Jeff Niemann is out of options, so I believe the Rays will give him a shot at the #5 spot in the rotation at the beginning of the year, if for nothing else than to bolster his trade value, which has diminished for the former Top 5 selection.

  9. IowaCubs

    IowaCubs says:

    I think the Rays would be wise not to pull a Dusty Baker/Mark Prior and destroy their organization’s most prized (get it? hehe) asset, though the fantasy owner in me is shocked to hear the truth.

    I saw Jeff Niemann pitch in the 2003 College World Series when he played for Rice. The guy is like 6’10”, 290 pounds. He’s like Shaq with a glove and a year’s supply of Taco Bell coupons from Grey.

    Great analysis, Cork… I enjoy reading you over at MLBTR, too.

  10. IowaCubs

    IowaCubs says:

    @Rudy Gamble: So you’d say a good comp for Upton this year would be Matt Kemp? Your projections are eerily similar to his numbers last year.

  11. @IowaCubs: Yes, I think Upton and Kemp are similar except I like Kemp more for average and Upton more for speed (neither profile as great HR hitters based on GB/FB ratio).

  12. Baron Von Vulturewins

    Baron Von Vulturewins says:

    @Rudy Gamble: Whoops. That’s what I get for not reading the intro. Good work, Cork!

    I know both Longo and Bigs-Ups* are overvalued going into the draft — i.e. valued at what people think they’ll do, not what they just done did. But man can’t live by ADP alone. I have been/would hate to be burned by saying, “Ha ha! You fools reach for that guy while I wait for my undervalued sleeper oops he just got picked two spots before me now I am stuck with Adrian Beltre for six months I hate my life.”

    *patented nickname

  13. Baron Von Vulturewins

    Baron Von Vulturewins says:

    @Baron Von Vulturewins: Should read “Big-Ups.” an’
    t even get my own patented nicknames right.

  14. big o says:

    why someone would waste a high draft pick on a kid , with shoulder problems , is beyond me .

    they bring in a rays expert to lay down the truth , and you guys ain’t listening .

    in all actuality , he probably needs 6 more months to heal than the up-coming season affords him .

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