Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
The decision to trade for Lou Piniella looks like the wisest move by the Devil Rays in their short history. Piniella seemingly had a bigger effect on his new team than even someone like Dusty Baker by changing the culture from one of perpetual last place thinking to one that acknowledges the current problems but believes the organization remains solid. Tampa's cadre of sophomores, rookies, and minor leaguers with impressive upside ranks with the best collections of young talent in the game. As long as they don't overpay for a multitude of free agents in a vain attempt to compete a year or two too soon, I expect them to emerge as a force in the American League within a few seasons.
Heading into 2004, Tampa's lineup possesses significant upside with Crawford, Baldelli, and Huff at the top, along with Toby Hall and/or Pete LaForest catching. Marlon Anderson, Julio Lugo, and Antonio Perez seem likely to share the middle infield positions, although super prospect B.J. Upton should be ready soon. I also expect the Rays to exercise Travis Lee's $2.5M option since if they buy him out for $500K, that only leaves them $2M to replace his offense and defense. As they already know he helps the young pitchers and fits with the team, they likely will keep him one more year and hopefully look to deal him towards the trade deadline.
Of course, third base and the clean-up slot remain black holes for Tampa. If they decide to keep the payroll low or spend on pitching, we could see Jared Sandberg and Damian Rolls return third while LaForest and Hall share DH. Watching Ben Grieve, Al Martin, Terry Shumpert, and Rey Ordonez depart in free agency only will hurt if the Rays don't find some way to replace even these players' meager contributions.
The idea that Tampa will sign multiple outfielders appears ludicrous to me, however if they can't lure Tampa native Gary Sheffield, adding Carl Everett looks like a great idea. Slotting him in right field improves the team defense while adding an All-Star switch-hitter to the middle of the lineup. Huff can shift to DH in the short-term until the pending arrival of outfield prospects like Jonny Gomes and Joey Gathright will push to him 1B as Everett moves to DH. Delmon Young will debut in a couple years, although the speed of the young outfielders should limit him to DH or 1B.
Yet this doesn't fix the third base disaster. The best alternative involves placing Huff back at third, allowing Crawford, Baldelli, Gathright, Gomes, and perhaps Josh Hamilton to share the outfield, DH, and 1B. I see no long-term problems up-the-middle with Hall and LaForest at catcher, Perez and Upton in the middle infield, and Baldelli or one of the other youngsters in center field. Unfortunately, the likelihood of the Rays emerging as a contender still remains low given that the Rays rank last in the division in payroll, big league talent, and front office acumen. Hopefully they wisely exchange a couple of outfielders for a top young third baseman like Chad Tracy or even Dallas McPherson. The Diamondbacks likely would accept Gathright or Gomes and a pitcher for Tracy, solving Tampa's biggest problem. Even if Tracy isn't a great fielder, he appears a good fit for this team given their excellent range at almost every other position.
Signing Huff, Crawford, and Baldelli to long-terms deals also makes much more sense than spending for more than one top hitter this winter. If Crawford and Baldelli continue developing plate discipline as expected, they will join Huff to comprise one of the strongest top-of-the-orders anywhere. Locking up the youngsters before the reach arbitration and free agency is perhaps the best move the organization could make this winter.
Only securing one free agent hitters makes even more sense after consideration the woeful state of the team's pitching. At least Lance Carter, Travis Harper, and Mark Malaska comprise one of the best young corps of middle relievers in the game. Carter is largely wasted as closer, and as Piniella wants an established short reliever anyway, shifting to middle relief shouldn't be a problem for him. Prospect Evan Rust also should break camp in the bullpen next year. If the Rays don't non-tender Jesus Colome, he still could develop into an impressive pitcher, so perhaps the team will stretch him more in long relief. Brandon Backe and any failed starters could fill a similar role.
I almost wish I didn't need to discuss the rotation given the problems with Tampa's starters. Aside from Jeremi Gonzalez and Victor Zambrano, both bottom-of-the-rotation arms at best, no one else pitched decently for more than a month in 2003. Doug Waechter burst into the majors with one of the most impressive debut starts in years, and he at least gives them on promising starter. I'd like to see Tampa leverage Joe Kennedy into a couple younger prospects with more upside, although keeping him as rotation filler or a reliever makes a lot more sense than the rumors I've heard suggesting they might non-tender him.
Among other 2003 Rays' starters, Rob Bell, Jason Standridge, and Jorge Sosa all seem to belong in the bullpen. Chad Gaudin and Dewon Brazelton need more seasoning, and although Jon Switzer stayed in relief after his promotion, he deserves another couple of months in the minors to refine his starting stuff.
If Tampa truly wishes to exceed .500 in 2004 for the first time in franchise history, they need to divide the rumored payroll increase among an impressive hitter like Carl Everett, a top short reliever like Tom Gordon, Rod Beck, or LaTroy Hawkins, and at least one quality starting pitcher. Trading for a reliever with Houston or Los Angeles isn't a bad idea, but given the number of quality free agents available, signing Tim Worrell, Ugueth Urbina, Armando Benitez, or even Jose Mesa makes more sense than dealing prospects for relief pitching.
Assuming the club signs Everett and Gordon as rumored, adding a couple of quality starters, preferably groundball pitchers who will benefit from the Rays' defense, will provide the needed buffer until guys like Brazelton and Switzer are ready in a year or two. Like Travis Lee, these pitchers also look like good trade chits for the team to add prospect depth at the deadline. Cory Lidle easily looks like the best choice, and he might be amenable to deal in the neighborhood of $6M over two years. Miguel Batista, Jeff Suppan, John Thomson, Ismael Valdes, Sterling Hitchcock, Glendon Rusch, Brett Tomko, Jamey Wright, and even elders like Rick Reed and John Burkett all could help this team. Tampa easily should be able to offer one of these pitchers the best deal out there in a depressed market. With the multitude of interesting options available, I see no reason why the Rays can't obtain Carl Everett and three quality pitchers for under $20M.
So if Tampa can add a few veterans on medium-length deals at tradable salaries, lock Huff and perhaps a couple others into long-term deals, and thereby allow prospects like Upton and Switzer needed development time, this off-season easily could rank as the best in team history. Despite the mistakes made by Chuck LaMar in the past, this winter presents him with a fantastic opportunity to build on the momentum generated in 2004 and propel the franchise out of last place for the first time.
Matt Diaz, 25, OF-R
He possesses unimpressive plate discipline and relatively little power, however Diaz's solid batting averages throughout his minor league career strongly suggest he could post decent numbers if given a full-time job. While I instead expect to see him as no more than a platoon player over the next few years, Diaz's low profile and moderate upside could make him a good bargain next year. Consider taking a chance on him if he breaks camp in the majors, although you otherwise should avoid him since the Rays' outfield glut minimizes his chances as a reserve.
Visa problems cost LaForest the first two months of the season, but he resumed crushing the ball when he returned, and if he remains at catcher, his AAA numbers suggest an impressive long-term upside. While he displays better patience and power than Toby Hall, LaForest isn't as good a defender as Hall and his lower contact could drag down his batting average. Perhaps Tampa should have left him at third base instead of converting him to catcher. Fortunately, LaForest owns enough power and overall skill to earn a regular job in the majors, and a platoon of LaForest and Hall appears particularly intriguing. Although you shouldn't spend a draft pick on LaForest unless Tampa gives some sign of committing to him behind the plate, target him during Dollar Days, particularly if he qualifies at catcher in your league.
A fairly stunning late-season debut, coupled with impressive command in the upper minors, should make Waechter a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate next year. He almost certainly will spend the year in Tampa's rotation, and if his command slightly improves, he easily could earn double-digit roto value. The Rays' improving defense also limits his potential downside, however his weak groundball rate will keep his ERA higher than we'd like to see. While Waechter appears a fairly good gamble for a few bucks in the spring, don't approach $10 since his lack of experience above A-ball leaves him vulnerable to unexpected demotions after poor outings.
Scott Autrey, 22, RH Starter
A 7th round pick in 2002 out of the University of North Carolina, Autrey didn't miss a beat despite a mid-season double promotion. While his unimpressive hit rates and weak strikeout rate suggests he probably will shift to the bullpen in the near future, any starter who relies on great control yet remains effective at AA should continue succeeding in a rotation. Autrey doesn't warrant much fantasy consideration now he should spend almost all of 2003 in the minors, however he could reach Tampa for a cup-of-coffee and might merit a low FAAB bid if he appears set to stay with the Rays in 2005.
Originally a fourth round pick of the Rays in 1997, Belitz headed for Oakland in the Jim Mecir trade and then joined Colorado in the Jermaine Dye deal. After a few unimpressive seasons split between AAA and the majors, he returned to Tampa during 2003 to post his first promising numbers since 2001 with Sacramento. He deserves little attention from fantasy owners right now due to his emerging career as a journeyman, however once Belitz establishes himself as a reliable lefty in the majors, his solid command will make him a good option as roster filler or a low-risk Dollar Days pick.
Increasing control problems limit Benedetti's upside, however his mostly successful AA debut suggests he should enjoy at least a few productive seasons in the majors. Wait until he secures a roster spot in the big leagues before rostering him, however he should merit fantasy consideration no later than 2006.
Bowers still hasn't reached the majors despite three straight relatively productive seasons at Durham for a Tampa organization in need of reliable lefty relievers. While he re-signed with the team as a minor league free agent a year ago, I hope he departs this winter since Bowers' skills strongly suggest he can enjoy a long career in some team's bullpen. He'll merit consideration as roster filler as soon as he earns a regular role in the big leagues.
Although his advanced age and occasional control problems suggest Fortunato needs at least one more year of seasoning, his overall dominance could force him into the majors at any time. Exercise caution here since he could experience WHIP problems, but if he maintains his strikeout rate with the Rays, Fortunato could earn a significant late-inning role very quickly.
Gardner simply must find a new organization if he ever wants to spend significant time in the majors. His excellent control and good strikeout rates depict a reliever capable of pitching effectively in a big league bullpen. While his homer problems are worrisome, they don't obscure his other skills. Like Durham teammate Ced Bowers, Gardner finally needs to leave Tampa this winter in the hope of finding a team willing to focus at his upside rather than his weaknesses.
Even with four future OF/1B/DH slots essentially guaranteed to Baldelli, Crawford, Huff, and Delmon Young, I expect Tampa to find room for Gathright given his prodigious speed skills. While he possesses almost no power, he owns fairly good plate discipline, which gives him the opportunity to maximize his BA/SB upside. Plus, inserting him between Crawford and Badelli will give the Rays unparalleled outfield range. Drafting Gathright still is a mildly risky proposition due to the competition he faces among Tampa's young outfielders, but his potential stolen base totals make him a necessary selection in the middle of most AL-only minor league drafts.
A 34th round pick in 2001, the 5'10" youngster excelled in the Sally League in 2002, posted very good numbers in the California League in the first of this year, and then pitched a perfect game in his AA debut with Orlando. After his late-season promotion to the majors, Gaudin limited both lefties and right-handers to a sub-.700 OPS, and his 20:8 K:BB in 25.2 IP with 21 H and 3 HR over 12 games out of the Tampa bullpen puts him in competition for a major league job next spring. Of course, Gaudin should head back to Orlando for a few weeks before continuing his starting career at AAA Durham, but he should secure a regular role with the Rays no later than 2005. While Tampa's pitching depth makes him a bad minor league pick, Gaudin merits endgame consideration if he breaks camp in the majors since he ranks with the brightest pitching prospects in the system and should enjoy an extended big league career.
A promotion from A-ball resulted in a dramatic drop in Gomes' OPS and a sharp decrease in his walk rate, however he demonstrated better overall baserunning skills and improved his contact rate from .61 to .67. Unfortunately, a .67 contact rate still is quite poor for AA, and even continuous improvement of his power and speed skills over the next few years won't guarantee him a starting job. Gomes needs a trade to an organization with little outfield depth to receive a fair shot at developing into a regular. Tampa simply lacks the necessary playing time given their other prospects and young veterans like Baldelli and Crawford, and since we don't know where Gomes will land, I can't recommend him as a minor league draft pick for next spring
The decision to leave Haines in the minors despite increasingly effective and dominant performances over the last four seasons in the upper minors ranks with the dumbest moves of this organization. Aside from probably unimpressive scouting reports, I see nothing in Haines' history to suggest he won't continue succeeding in the majors. As soon as a smart organization frees him from Tampa, Haines should emerge as a perfectly reliable middle reliever, and if he maintains his strikeout rates, I wouldn't be shocked to see him closing within a couple years.
In his second season at Orlando, Minix improved his strikeout rate from 6.5 to 7.9 K/9 and his walk rate from 3.8 to 1.6 BB/9 while experiencing only minor increases in his hit and homer rates. We need to see if he can echo these numbers at AAA Durham before giving him any fantasy consideration, but Minix could earn a cup-of-coffee next fall with a strong 2004 performance, placing him in line for a regular role in the majors the following year.
Rust demonstrated solid command at the highest rungs of the minor league ladder, so he should enter spring training with an excellent chance of breaking camp in the majors. His minor league history suggests he should continue to post solid strikeout rates, and with no obvious downside, Rust appears essentially ready to strengthen Tampa's middle relief corps. Don't draft him since we need to see him post decent skills after a few big league outings, but Rust likely will look like decent roster filler by May.
The 2001 second rounder posted nice overall numbers in his AA debut, however his unimpressive dominance doesn't give him as much long-term upside as other pitchers in the system. He certainly needs a year of AAA before Tampa should give him additional consideration for a big league roster spot. Of course, Switzer should join their rotation in 2005 if he echoes his AA stats at Durham, however until he demonstrates solid skills at the highest levels of the system, he merits little fantasy attention.
Pittsburgh will regret passing on Upton for the next two decades as this kid ranks among the game's elite prospects. Upton demonstrated shockingly good plate discipline for Charleston by compiling a .15 walk rate and .79 contact rate. A 69% SB success rate also indicates excellent long-term speed skills. Committing an error nearly every two games indicates his fielding reliability needs significant improvement, however he still displayed sufficient skill to warrant a promotion, an event that led to two stunning developments. Tampa skipped Upton past high-A to AA Orlando, and Upton then maintained an acceptable .76 contact rate while pushing his walk rate over .15 in 105 at-bats. Then he turned 19 near the end of August. The Rays again displayed complete confidence in Upton by assigning him to an AFL taxi squad, and he again responded, posting a .250/.400/.250 and a 6:4 BB:K in 24 at-bats while committing no errors in seven games at shortstop. Imposing a normal development curve on Upton would be an exercise in futility following the events of his debut season, yet even normal development over the next few years would place Upton on a succession of All-Star teams. Considering his speed, Upton offers even more long-term upside for fantasy teams than Joe Mauer, and as the Rays might promote him to Tampa as soon as next summer, this winter likely will be your last chance to acquire Upton without dealing half your team.
The former Enger Veras still qualifies as an intriguing prospect after a strong showing in his AA debut. While he didn't post a great strikeout rate and his walk rate also remains elevated, strong hit and homer rates combine to suggest he should maintain this performance in a full year at Durham. However, if he can't fix his command deficiencies, Tampa simply will convert him to the bullpen since his skill set suggests the potential for a successful career in relief. Expect to see Veras challenging for a spot in Tampa's pen by mid-2005, although he needs to demonstrate good qualitative marks in the majors before you should consider him for your team.
Normally I see no reason to discuss a player who hasn't accumulated any professional statistics, but all scouting reports on Young indicate he's a special player who could move quickly through the Tampa system. His early AFL numbers also look promising, and if he even develops in similar fashion to older brother Dmitri, he merits significant consideration in minor league drafts next spring. Of course, despite the fact that the publicity surrounding him means that he won't last another year in most leagues, you probably should let another select Young since we simply don't know how much development time he requires.
B.J. Upton probably ranks as the best long-term prospect in the game due to his seven-skill upside, ability to play shortstop, superb SB potential, and Tampa's willingness to run all the time. Delmon Young and Joey Gathright offer nearly as much potential fantasy value. A respectable crop of young pitchers led by Doug Waechter and Chad Gaudin also should stabilize the Rays' pitching staff. I don't see great depth in the system right now, however Tampa's mix of solid short-term and outstanding long-term prospects makes them a welcome resource for fantasy players.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Minnesota Twins(Restovich, Mauer, Crain, Balfour, Bartlett)
1. B.J. Upton, SS
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