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Big Rotowski: Rays of Hope

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More cowbell.

Viewers who tuned in to the Red Sox/Devil Rays tilt last Friday night were besieged by the kind of insane metallic clatter typically reserved for bovine conventions, or Saturday Night Live skits in which Will Ferrell attempts to lend his percussive excellence to a Blue Oyster Cult classic. Boston announcers Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy could scarcely be heard on several occasions, and commented that NESN's on-field microphones certainly were doing a spectacular job capturing the game's ambience (which resembled nothing so much as a rodeo for mentally-challenged clowns). In fact, the ruckus explanation is simple: the Tampa Bay Devil Rays gave away cowbells in a dairy promotion.

Nevertheless, in effort to figure out exactly what it is that the perennially-rebuilding Rays truly need, I do think we've stumbled on the answer. More cowbell.

It certainly isn't more prospects. In its major- and minor-league systems, Tampa has accumulated a war chest of future hitting stars that would make Don King covetous. Nevertheless, wunderkind GM Andrew Friedman and cohort Gerry Hunsicker did it again just before the trade dealine, picking up Joel Guzman and Sergio Pedroza from the Dodgers in exchange for their starting shortstop, Julio Lugo. Now, I'm not going to argue that the Rays shouldn't have traded Lugo. The man clearly has a heightened sense of his own baseball worth, and is expected to ask for a free-agent contract somewhere along the lines of five years and $40 million, which (if he gets it) will be far too much, to say nothing of his shaky public-relations past through bad behavior. And frankly, in a vacuum, the Rays got a really nice haul for Lugo – Guzman and Pedroza could both be regular major-leaguers, and Guzman still has the potential to be a fantasy stud. But deals don't happen in vacuums. Tampa Bay already has so many positional prospects, it's actually rather difficult to figure where these two guys might fit.

And for me, therein lies the rub. In the NBA, when a team like, say, the Boston Celtics get too young, too quickly, they are said to be throwing in the towel, and building for the future, because no team in basketball can win without experience. I'd argue that goes double in baseball. Lugo was one of the only guys with six full years of major-league service time in Tampa, and though it's perhaps a bit scary to imagine him a team leader, he certainly lent some stability. With Lugo, Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson and Aubrey Huff gone, light-hitting first baseman Travis Lee (nine) and fantasy star Carl Craword (four) are the only regulars with more than three years of major-league experience. We fantasy players get totally revved up when we think about big-hitting prospects who can become next year's fantasy sleepers, but let's face it: there are only so many hits, runs and wins available to a Devil Rays player. With B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes (maybe), Evan Longoria and Wes Bankston in the pipeline and probably ready to contribute in 2007, one has to wonder exactly what good Guzman and Pedroza do this organization.

Oh, sure, it's never a bad thing to deal a free-agent-to-be for prospects, and Tampa fans will surely argue that now the Rays can turn around and do what bigger-market teams do at midseason: get closer in the standings, evaluate their big-league needs, and deal a blue-chip prospect or two for a player in the prime of his career. Maybe. For me, the problem is organizational inertia. If you're always rebuilding, you're never built. And for we, the fantasy people, pursuing these young names as though they're really going to help our teams (I'm looking at you, everyone who took Young or Upton in this year's fantasy drafts) isn't healthy.

With all this in mind, then, I want to do a rundown of the leading positional prospects and players in Tampa's estimable system, so we can try and separate the wheat from the fantasy chaff, and figure out who's worth keeping on your fantasy radar screen for '07. This is certainly one of baseball's best developmental systems (a lot of very high draft choices will do that for you),and probably the top one worth knowing, because there are likely to be so many holes at the major-league level where young studs might get at-bats.

Carl Crawford, LF – Let's get the obvious over first. Rumors that the Rays were thinking of trading Crawford for Ervin Santana were clearly erroneous, at least from Tampa's side. Crawford is signed through 2008 with two option years after that, and his salary doesn't eclipse 10 million per year until '09; this is a great contract for a superstar, and he should be going absolutely nowhere, unless it's center field.

Rocco Baldelli, CF – When healthy, Baldelli is a great talent. Of course, that's the problem: he can't stay healthy. Now it's a hamstring. Since returning in June, Baldelli has produced a semi-queasy .778 OPS, with only five HR and 29 RBI in 186 at-bats, rendering him practically a fantasy non-factor this year. Baldelli, too, is a great contract considering his past production, and with team options, is probably wrapped up through 2011, unless his body won't allow it. With no major-league CF prospects behind him, he's the man; if he's hurt, Crawford takes over.

Delmon Young, RF? – Young is probably the best prospect still in the minor leagues, but his 50-game suspension for throwing a bat at an umpire earlier this year may cost him a September call-up. He hasn't hit for much power (six homers in 63 games after hitting 25 and 26 homers his previous two minor-league years), but he's still hitting .331 with an .852 OPS and 20 steals. Dmitri's younger bro probably has to be in the majors next year, and he should be a fantasy star almost right away.

Jonny Gomes, RF? – Here's where the fun starts. Gomes began 2006 like a house afire, drilling 14 homers by May 17 but only six since, while seeing his average plunge to .217. He's also had wicked shoulder tendonitis, which hasn't allowed him to play the field at all, so he's been strictly relegated to designated hitter. In this organization, that's not going to get it done, and neither is 105 strikeouts in 346 at-bats. I can see Gomes getting forced out, or platooned, as early as next year.

Elijah Dukes, RF? – Dukes may have made this logjam a little easier by pulling a nutty (standard operating procedure for Rays' prospects, evidently) on a teammate and other team officials, and getting suspended for 30 games just last week. Evidently he was tired of Young getting all the bad press. Dukes is still another incredibly talented, athletic player who'd be an above-average right fielder without all his off-field problems. At age 23, he's a year-and-a-half older than Young, and they'd basically be vying for the same position. Dukes is probably readier than Young from a skill perspective, but it's hard to imagine him being rewarded with a trip to the bigs in '07 after all his bad behavior.

Sergio Pedroza, RF? – Pedroza was a third-rounder out of Cal-Fullerton in '05, and is actually only a few months younger than Dukes, and more than a year older than Young, and he's still playing in high-A. He certainly won't be ready for the majors at the beginning of '07, and good heavens, is there ever a complete blockade at his position. But he's certainly more mature than the guys ahead of him, so you never know.

B.J. Upton, 3B – Once the game's most touted prospect, Upton has lost a bit of fantasy luster because of his struggles at shortstop. Arm strength was never the problem with Upton; it's always been his lack of accuracy. That makes me wonder whether things are going to be better for him at third, but the Rays really do seem committed to making him the man at the hot corner (he's in the bigs right now, and as we've been telling you for weeks, must be owned in all leagues). His bat and legs would've made him an elite fantasy guy if he played a middle-infield position; at third, his steals will make him valuable, but he won't top the leading hitters in power categories. Still, he's here to stay.

Evan Longoria, 3B? – Tampa's 2006 first-round pick absolutely blistered his way through high-A Visalia (1.020 OPS with eight homers and 28 RBI in 28 games) and was recently promoted to Double-A. Though his unfortunate name invites Desperate Housewives metaphors that will no doubt have clever wags clucking their tongues around sports-writing nation, this Long Beach St. product is better quicker than anyone could've imagined, and the Rays may have gotten themselves an absolute steal with the third overall pick. I haven't seen him play live, but from what I hear, it wouldn't be a shock to see him major-league-ready some time in '07. But where would he play?

Joel Guzman, 3B? – Beginning to see my point? Another failed shortstop who changed positions (in the Dodgers organization), Guzman was formerly L.A.'s absolute No. 1 untouchable prospect, but he stagnated at Triple-A this year. He's never going to be a high-average player, but he's got 40-homer potential, provided the team can deal with all the strikeouts. He's a more athletic Gomes, really. But where does he play? First base? Maybe. Center? Doubtful. Right? No room.

Ben Zobrist, SS – The unfortunate consequence of Upton's move to short is that the Rays don't really have a viable major-league shortstop in the organization. Zobrist doesn't have the fielding range, and as a 25-year-old acquired in the Huff trade from Houston, he's not the long-term answer. He won't run, and while his minor-league hitting numbers were impressive and surprising, I can't see that continuing.

Jorge Cantu, 2B – He's limited to arbitration over the next few years, so unless the Rays decide to lock him up long-term, he's probably going to play for a series of one-year deals on the cheap, which, as with Crawford and Baldelli, makes him very, very valuable. He broke his foot early this year and has never recovered, and it's possible his 28-HR, 117-RBI season last year was a mirage. True, he's better than he's shown this year, but I wouldn't be shocked to hear that second base becomes a refuge for one of the other major-league-ready infield prospects blocked at another position (Longoria? Upton? Guzman?). Tread lightly, though if he returns to form in '07, Cantu will likely be a fantasy steal.

Wes Bankston, 1B – Believe it or not, Bankston is yet another third baseman, though he was recently promoted to Triple-A Durham and moved back to his natural first base position. There's no way the Rays could ever justify allowing Bankston to field at 3B in the majors, and I really think 1B could become the domain of someone like Guzman, or Gomes, or Dukes (or Upton, or … you get my point). Regardless, Bankston is still only 22, and though he missed six weeks with a strained oblique this year, he topped 100 RBI in A-ball in '04. He's got 20-homer potential, but I don't think Bankston makes the team in '07.

Dioner Navarro, C – Navarro is such a little guy. Listed at 5-foot-10, he's more like 5-foot-8, and while he's a fine defensive catcher, he's not ever going to hit for enough power to make him a valuable fantasy asset. He'll probably improve his batting average, but that's about it.

Can Tampa really enter '07 with an outfield of Crawford-Baldelli-Young, and an infield of, say, Upton-Zobrist-Cantu-Guzman? Does Gomes DH? Do Dukes, Longoria and Bankston continue to take a back seat? Maybe. I think, though, that the Rays simply have to unclog some of this talent. Getting Guzman is awesome, it really is. But go sign a shortstop, go sign a big-time first baseman. Too much youth will kill you, and it'll also limit the fantasy effectiveness of guys like Upton and Young, guys for whom we've been waiting with bated breath for what seems like a decade.