The Tampa Bay Rays have been the laughing stock of baseball for a lot of years. They've annually picked in the top five in the June draft, they've never finished over .500, and they've never had a sniff of contention.
Tampa Bay, owing partially to having those high draft picks, but also owing to the fact that they've focused heavily on player development, has a stable of young, unbelievably talented players that any team in the majors would love to have. Some of it is still very raw; hell, some of it is still in the minors. But make no mistake, the Rays have a whole lot of talent, at pretty much any position you want to look.
Luckily, the Cardinals will miss the Rays' two most talented pitchers. Neither James Shields, one of the great young right-handed pitchers in the game, nor Scott Kazmir, the frighteningly talented lefty with the brand-new contract, will pitch in this series. Even so, the Birds will have their work cut out for them if they hope to hang with Tampa, a team that comes to STL while in the middle of an American League East dogfight with Boston.
Offensively, the Rays bring speed, power -- and plenty of each. Their outfield is one of the more intriguing groups you'll see. Carl Crawford is one of the most exciting players in baseball, possessing all five tools in spades. He's a little like Jose Reyes of the Mets, but a whole lot more consistent.
The Rays are actually thinner in the outfield than they thought they would be. This past off-season, they traded away two exciting up-and-coming talents to try to shore up some of their weaker points.
They moved Delmon Young, formerly the number-one prospect in all of baseball, to the Twins, in return for starting pitcher Matt Garza.
They also traded Elijah Dukes, whose physical skills have been regularly overshadowed by his anger and behavior issues, to Washington.
The Rays felt comfortable making both moves, in large part because of the presence of players like Crawford and Rocco Baldelli. Baldelli is, quite possibly, the most physically gifted of all the Tampa players, period. The problem with Baldelli, as you may know, is that he has never, to date, been able to stay on the field and out of the trainer's room. Earlier this year, Baldelli was actually diagnosed with a rare disorder that affects his mitochondria, reducing his ability to create energy. It is this disorder that has largely caused most of his other physical ailments, as his muscles often lack the fuel to perform, leading to constant pulls and strains. Baldelli's condition is quite serious, and it's unclear whether he'll be able to return to the game at all. It's unfortunate, because when healthy, Baldelli is truly an amazing athlete to watch in action.
The last member of the Tampa Bay outfield is a guy by the name of Upton; perhaps you've heard of him.
B.J. Upton, to be more specific, the elder of the two Upton brothers, the highest-drafted siblings in the history of the draft. (B.J. went number-two overall to the Rays in 2001; Justin Upton went number-one overall to the Diamondbacks in 2005.) Upton has just as many tools as Crawford, with maybe a bit more power, thanks to his tremendous bat speed.
Overall, when you look at the Rays' outfield, you're seeing one of the most impressive collections of pure athletic talent in all of baseball.
Much like its outfield counterpart, the Tampa Bay infield is brimming with talented young players. Largely composed of homegrown players, the infield is also relatively cheap, a lesson most other teams would do well to learn. Evan Longoria provides the most star power here; the rookie third baseman recently signed a long-term deal with the team that could keep him in Tampa well into the next decade.
The deal itself was cause for surprise, as the two sides agreed to terms before Longoria had even 50 major league at-bats. Still, Longoria definitely looks like the real deal at third. He's one of the better pure hitters you'll see, hitting for both power and average, and making it look easy in the process. He's solid but unspectacular defensively. He's a little like David Wright of the Mets, but a little less polished with the glove.
Akinori Iwamura, the Rays' Japanese import, mans second base. He came over as a third baseman and played at the hot corner last year for Tampa, but slid over to second this season to make room for the aforementioned Mr. Longoria. Iwamura offers well-above-average offensive production for a second baseman, even if he's not hitting quite as well this year as he did last season. He gets the job done on defense, too; at the very least, he doesn't hurt his team in the field.
At first, the Rays have a slugger by the name of Carlos Pena. Ladies and gentlemen, Carlos Pena is a beast. He hit 42 home runs last year, prompting the Rays to lock him up in a deal in the off-season, and even though he's struggled to the tune of a .212 batting average this season, he still has eight homers already. He's not a complete hitter like a Longoria, though. Pena is purely a masher. In the middle of as talented a lineup as the one the Rays run out there, Pena is a force to be reckoned with.
Probably the least-known member of the Rays' infield is their shortstop, Jason Bartlett. Bartlett was another piece of the trade that sent Delmon Young to Minnesota. He's a defensive specialist, who makes his living playing on the fast tracks of the American League domes. Bartlett offers modest offensive production but plays solid defense and provides the Rays a great deal of leadership and maturity in the clubhouse.
At catcher, the Rays feature the talents of one Dioner Navarro, a switch hitter who's currently batting .387, with a .425 on-base percentage, in 75 at-bats for the year. He's only 24 years old. I don't think I have to say much more.
On the pitching side, things get a bit more promising, though not a whole lot, for the Cardinals. Tonight they'll face Andy Sonnanstine, a 25-year-old righty. Sonnanstine is 5-1 on the young season, despite having an ERA a shade over 5.00.
Even with his struggles at times, Sonnanstine has the stuff to be a successful pitcher; he's still a work in progress.
The Rays' prize acquisition of the off-season, the man they traded away Delmon Young for, is Matt Garza. Garza, also right-handed, only 24, was a first-round draft pick by the Minnesota Twins in 2005. He flew through the minors, reaching the major leagues in late 2006, a prelude to an inconsistent 2007 that nonetheless saw him make strides as a pitcher.
So far this season, Garza has been mostly effective, posting a 3.86 ERA in his first six starts, but the story this year for him has been his control, or the lack thereof. He's walked as many batters as he's struck out, (14) and he's struggled to go deep into games owing to high pitch counts, with only 32 innings in his 6 starts.
Nevertheless, Garza is a pure power pitcher, capable of throwing consistent mid-90s heat, with a knockout breaking ball. Much like the rest of the Rays' team, Garza has all the talent in the world; it's just a matter of him maturing and putting it all together.
And really, that's what we'll see this weekend from the Tampa Bay club. We're going to see a ton of young, exciting talent the Rays have amassed through intelligent drafting and canny acquisitions.
This Tampa team is very much a rising power, with only inexperience holding it back. If the Cardinals are truly committed to becoming an organization that builds a team through player development and scouting, they should take a good look across the field tonight.