Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pena Hits Two Home Runs to Support Kazmir

Amidst the Tampa Bay Rays' slow start, Carlos Pena is mashing the ball. Yesterday, Pena clubbed home runs off of Trevor Cahill and Dan Giese of the Oakland A's to help Scott Kazmir earn his third win. The first baseman has eight home runs and 21 RBI in his first 67 at-bats. The Rays have to be excited to see the big lefty continuing to improve. He is quickly establishing himself as one of the most potent lefties in the AL East given the decline of David Ortiz. If the Rays are going to right themselves, they are going to need Pena to continue being productive.

Evan Longoria is also tearing the cover off of the ball to the tune of five early home runs and 16 RBI. Akinori Iwamura, Ben Zobrist and Jason Bartlett are getting on base very well. But B.J. Upton, Gabe Kapler, Dioner Navarro and Pat Burrell are all underperforming. Upton and Navarro have been absolutely atrocious, and they are both very important to the team. What made this team so strong last season was the everyone-can-be-the-hero mentality that they took to the ballpark every day. The Rays offense needs to get in sync so that all the pressure isn't on their big two power guys.

But the bigger problem with this team has been pitching. Scott Kazmir and James Shields have been playing almost up to their skill level. Shields is 2-2 with a 3.67 ERA and a stellar 1.11 WHIP. Kazmir is 3-1 with 3.97 ERA and a decent 1.32 WHIP. But Matt Garza, the unsung hero of that rotation last year, is off to a slow start at 1-1 with a 4.58. His WHIP is actually better than Kazmir's at 1.27, so it is somewhat safe to assume that his numbers will improve and that there is not a larger problem except for luck. But his 10 walks in 19.2 innings are simply too much.

The back end of their rotation is another story. Andy Sonnanstine is having a lot of trouble pitching effectively this year. He is 0-2 with a 5.74 ERA and a ridiculous 1.53 WHIP. It may be that his stuff is not effective enough to survive another tour through the league. When they got rid of Edwin Jackson this offseason, they decided to stick with Sonnanstine's control over Jackson's ace-type stuff and unpredictability. But Sonnanstine is averaging around four walks per nine innings right now, which is way too much for someone with his stuff.

Jeff Niemann has had similar problems. He has compiled a line of 1-2, 5.40 ERA, 1.50 WHIP. He is walking just under 4.5 men per nine, and giving up nearly two home runs per game. You have to wonder how long David Price is going to stay in the minors if Sonnanstine and Niemann don't hit their stride, because it is very hard to win games like the two of them are pitching right now.

The bullpen is probably the biggest concern, as it was last year. J.P. Howell is off to a solid start with a 2.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. So is Brian Shouse, who has a 1.59 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. After that it gets ugly. Newcomer Joe Nelson has been the next best thing with a 3.52, but his 1.43 WHIP is too high. Lance Cormier's numbers are 4.09 and an unacceptable 1.82. Troy Percival hasn't pitched much, but he has a 4.91 ERA and a 2.18 WHIP. Grant Balfour has walked six men in 5.1 innings, his ERA is 8.44 and his WHIP is 2.06. Dan Wheeler has given up three home runs in 5.2. His ERA is an unsightly 11.12 to go along with his 1.59 WHIP.

If some of these guys don't straighten themselves out [If I'm the manager, I'm looking at Wheeler and Balfour, and it's not a warm gaze] the Rays are going to have a tough time holding leads this season. Joe Maddon needs to hold a clinic on strike-throwing or something, because pitchers that walk a lot of batters don't win much in the major leagues. Unless they have A.J. Burnett-type stuff and can overcompensate. And of course unless their managers have pacemakers.

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