Who will be the key player for the Rays in 2009 and why?
Remember the Hot Stove season two years ago? Rays fans had “catcher” at the top of their non-negotiable off season list. Jarrod Saltiamaccia was considered by many to be an affordable upgrade over Dioner Navarro given the team’s ridiculous payroll constraints. Even after a strong second half in 2007, much of the Hot Stove chatter last year centered around whether Navi would regress to the mean in 2008. It was just too hard to believe that Ned Coletti’s cast-off could become the glue that held a surprising Rays break-out team together over the course of a long and improbable season. Navi did just that, picking up where he left off in 2007 and swapping the “Fat Catcher” moniker for “All Star” along the way. Let me make a case for Dioner Navarro’s respectable though probably not dazzling stats, combined with his intangible leadership qualities, making him the Rays’ Key Player in 2009.
1) His pitchers have come to trust him behind the plate. Navi knows the staff, he calls a great game, and until his hamstrings began to take a pounding during the dog days of summer, he was a rock defensively. Maddon told him to learn his job or face the music. He made no excuses. He didn’t shrink from the challenge. He embraced it. Navi didn’t want to fail and equally, he wanted to prove Ned Coletti wrong for jettisoning him in favor of Russell Martin.
2) His teammates not only trust him with a bat (save for maybe Carl Crawford) they’ve come to expect a clutch hit from him in key situations. Off to a dismal start in 2007 he changed his approach. In fact, he changed too much too often and got worse before he got better, but one lucky hunch was picking up teammate Greg Norton’s bat. The change helped him keep the ball out of the air and use the whole field. Prior to the ‘07 All Star Break, a 2-on-2-out situation with Navi coming to the plate had much of the Trop’s paltry crowd hailing the beer vendor to dull the inevitable pain. Navi showed in 2008 that what he lacks in pure power, he more than compensates for with situational hitting. From both sides of the plate. With that new bat, his .314 RISP led all Rays regulars in 2008. His .295 average would have landed him on the position leader board, but for costly plate appearances of a DL stint. As the months went on, somehow you just knew that Navi would bloop a liner over an infielder’s head or burn their shoelaces driving one through at least once a game. His home runs may be few, but they’re memorable.
3) He has earned the fans’ respect as a team leader. The Rays had emerged atop the AL standings in April and May. The world was waiting for them to implode in June. The Garza incident was a coming out party of sorts for Navi’s new found leadership role. Skeptical fans thought it was only a matter of time before Matt Garza started up with the Mr. Moody antics that made him easy for Minneapolis to trade. Matt kept it together pretty well for the first few months of the season, but flared the trademark temper in the dugout during the Texas series in June. Navi took him on in a televised shoving match. It was a pivotal moment for the 2008 Rays, symbolizing the No “I” in “Team” approach that was beginning to define them.
4) He earned the respect of baseball. Red Sox Manager Terry Francona named Navarro to the 2008 All Star team while many waited for Navi to crash back to earth. At the time, he ranked first in the AL with a 38.1 percent caught stealing percentage, a .998 fielding percentage, and the third-best staff ERA in the majors (3.60). His .318 batting average was second among AL regulars. Navi ended up carrying the position’s biggest load both offensively and defensively as the third and final catcher during the memorable 15 inning game. He showed he was no fluke.
5) Pudgito made lemonade out of lemons. Navi’s trade to Tampa Bay had a silver lining. The opportunity to be home. Dioner’s wife had recovered from a cerebral aneurysm that doctors gave her only a 5% chance of surviving. His family escaped major injury in a hit-and-run rollover accident shortly after the trade and his infant son had a kidney removed in September 2006. Not surprisingly, he came to camp out of shape in 2007 and took a pounding from the press and from the team. Adversity only seemed to make him tougher as he set out to prove everyone wrong. 2008 tested him again. His mother also suffered a cerebral aneurysm and Navarro sliced two fingers on his throwing hand as grabbed a net to break a fall in the New York Visitors’ dugout in April. Following that short DL stint, he played nearly every game until his hammies began to ache in August, no doubt contributing to his less than stellar base running stats. When backup catcher Shawn Riggans ended up on the DL late in the season, Navi gutted out a grueling post season schedule. Even a worn out Navarro managed a .293 playoff average. Now that’s tough.
At the ripe old age of 25, the Rays have a veteran catcher with playoff experience, boxes full of those new bats, and a seasoned pitching staff. Look out for the 2009 Rays and Dioner Navarro, the glue that will keep them together as they bask in the glow of their American League Championship. And try not to fry under the heat lamp of their first World Series.
My pick for the player to watch in 2009 is David Price. This is going to be a compare-and-contrast between the previous two years’ young, up-and-coming pitching phenoms.
Joba Chamberlain was drafted in 2006 out of Nebraska, first round (#41 pick), and jumped to the big leagues as a late callup in 2007, burning the league as the Yankees’ setup man. He pitched 24 IP in 19 games, striking out 34, walking only six and giving up just one earned run—a homer on September 16, which led to a win. He finished with a 2-0 record, a save and 8 holds.
Then came the 2007 American League Division Series. He came in with an out in the seventh on Game 2, and preserved a 1-0 lead as the Yankees tried to equalize the series. Then came the eighth inning. A freak of nature on an unusually warm Cleveland night: mosquitoes swarmed the field, especially Joba. The result: Joba cracks. He gives up a leadoff four-pitch walk to Grady Sizemore, then a wild pitch, a sac bunt and a second wild pitch allow Sizemore to score. Joba blows the save, the Yankees lose the game, and ultimately lose the series in four games.
When I saw him throw that fateful second wild pitch, I thought to myself: “This is the kind of experience that makes or breaks careers before they start.”
He came back in 2008, and ultimately wound up starting. He put up good numbers, including a 2.76 ERA in his 12 starts, but with the Yankees’ anemic offense, he got unlucky, with decisions few and far between: just 3-1 as a starter. A rotator cuff injury resulted in him taking August off, and by the time he got back in September, he was relegated back to setup, with the Yankees already hopelessly out of the playoff picture behind the resurgent Red Sox and the surprising Rays.
And the connection comes to David Price. Drafted #1 in 2007 out of Vanderbilt by the Rays, he rose quickly through the minor-league ranks. He was brought up in time to be eligible for a potential postseason run, but was used sparingly. He gave up 3 ER in 14 IP, 12 K to 4 BB, with a start on September 22 where he went 5 1/3 IP with 1 ER and 4 hits for no decision.
He wasn’t called up for the postseason until the 2008 ALCS. He played in four games. He cleaned up the mess in the 9th as a power outage led to a Game 1 loss. Then he held on in the 11th inning of Game 2 to get his first major league victory. He didn’t come back until Game 7, when he came into the game with a 3-1 lead, but the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the 8th. He struck out J.D. Drew. Then in the 9th, after a leadoff walk to Jason Bay (eight pitches, great battle), he struck out Mark Kotsay and Jason Varitek, then made Jed Lowrie ground out to Aki to clinch the Rays’ first World Series berth.
In the World Series, he appeared in Game 2 and Game 4. He gave up a run to screw up a shutout in the 8th inning of Game 2 (he had a 4-0 lead, we won 4-2), but other than that he did another fine job in a valiant losing effort.
The front office has such confidence in him, that he has been penciled in as a starter to begin 2009. Of course, a lot of things can change. But we’ll see if his experience leads to success in his true rookie season. We’ll come back at the end of 2009 and compare Price’s rookie season to Joba’s.
My pick for the 2009 Key player is BJ Upton. Bossman Junior played most of the season with a torn labrum, which limited his power numbers. He only hit nine homers last season, as opposed to the 25 bombs he had in the 2007 campaign.
This proved to be BJ's breakout year, even without his power element. Beej showed that he can be a key factor without his power. He put up a good average at .273 and showed that the Rays have more than one option on the basepaths than CC. Upton stole more bases than Crawford this year with 44 robberies.
BJ had his moments this year. His head was not in the game and even got benched for it. BJ got his head back in the game and hustled again, and did not jepordize the pennant race.
He got back to the Upton we saw in '07 just in time for the playoffs. He found his power stroke and blew away most. BJ jacked a total of 7 bombs by the end of the postseason. He was outshined by Longo, who set the record for homers in a postseason by a rookie.
Upton recently got that shoulder patched up and he should be ready by the start of next season. This means that he can get back to his normal self so watch out for BJ in the 2009 season.