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Highlights from chat with Marc Topkin

Times beat writer Marc Topkin answered your Rays' questions for more than an hour this afternoon during a live chat on Here are some of the highlights:

Q: Isn't it time for someone in the Rays' organization to nail Carl Crawford to the bench and let Gabe Gross play? What is Crawford anyway, 4 for 40 ? Yeah, that'll play huge in the playoffs !! Crawford's a dinosaur and we can't wait for him to "find his groove". Bench him. (Mike Robinson)

A: Be real. Crawford is not only one of the Rays' most dynamic players, but in all of the majors. He's going to have his slumps like anyone, but he is an impact player on both sides of the ball. And Gross' contributions are as much the result of being used in the right situations as anything, and not being overexposed.

Marc, many of us who experienced it think that this transition with the Rays feels exactly like when the Bucs and Lightning turned the corner from "perhaps decent" to "legitimate contender." I understand the Rays still have to keep winning, but the vibe feels very much like it did when the only people in the football world who knew Tampa Bay could defeat Green Bay were the guys in the Bucs locker room. Do you get a sense that this is how the Rays feel right now? And how long have they felt it, in your opinion? (Rick K)

A: There are some good parallels, and the common theme you often find in these kind of turnarounds is the confidence in the lockerroom. That is a HUGE part of the Rays' success, as much as any element on the field. This is a team that for so many years assumed it would lose (and often did) and now believes it can win every night. A lot of that is due to the work of manager Joe Maddon, as well as the front office.

A: There are several questions about potential trades and rumors of players the Rays might be interested in. With the July 31 deadline for nonwaiver trades approaching, you are going to hear more (and some may even be true!) ... Specifically, the Rays' three main targets are going to be starting pitching, an experienced late-inning reliever and a right-handed hitting outfielder. But, as Chris-Boston, asked about Colorado's Matt Holliday, I don't see the Rays going after that big of a name (or contract). Similarly, though they have great prospects to offer in trade, I don't see them making a big deal for Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia to have him for just a few months. More likely, as has been their pattern, they are looking at lesser-name guys (such as Dan Wheeler last year) who can make a big impact in the proper role.

What chance does Jonny Gomes have of being traded away? (Colin)

A: The fact that the Rays seem to be looking for a righthanded hitting outfielder -- and Pittsburgh's Xavier Nady is a name you keep hearing -- doesn't bode well for Gomes, since that's what he is. He has a big impact on the club with his attitude, which manager Joe Maddon values, and has awesome power, but it doesn't seem the Rays have much confidence to put him in the field. If the Rays make a trade and he wasn't included in the deal, he could also be sent to the minors.

A: The AL manager of the year, as Dan in NY asks, sure looks to be Joe Maddon. Ron Gardenhire has done well to keep a depleted Twins team in contention, but from where the Rays were, and the obvious impact Maddon has had on the attitude and their play, he has to be the big favorite at this point.

This is the most national media exposure the Rays have ever garnered. They seem to be ESPN's new favorite. What is Maddon doing to keep the team grounded and avoiding the "big head"? (Sully)

A: Sully is right about the unprecedented level of national media attention, which team prez Matt Silverman acknowledged in today's Times was beyond the point of over-saturation. The way Maddon is keeping the players from getting big heads is by sticking to the theme -- as boring as it is to hear (and to write!) -- that it's a long season, that they haven't won anything yet, that they have to play just as hard against the Royals as the Red Sox.

Do you see Maddon mixing up the starting rotation after the All-Star break when he can 'set' it again? Right now it's: Shields, Garza, Kazmir, Jackson, and Sonnanstine. What do you think about putting Sonnanstine in between Kazmir and Garza? That could mess with a team....power pitcher followed by change of speed pitcher followed by power pitcher.... (Bill)

A: Bill's question about mixing up the rotation is an interesting one, and since the Rays are one of the teams that gets a four-day All-Star break they can pretty much do as they please. While there is something to be said for putting Sonnanstine between the hard-throwers, there is also something special about going into a series, as they just did, with a trio of Shields, Garza and Kazmir in a row. They might stick with that.

Could we address the anemic offense? Only Navi is hitting over .300. I'm not trying to poo-poo the party, but a collective BA of, what, .270, isn't going to cut it in October. (Nathan)

A: The "anemic offense,'' certainly is a concern. In a way, that's what makes their record even more impressive is that they are 52-32 and most of their key players are having sub-par years offensively. To me, Carlos Pena is a key. He's not going to repeat what he did last year, but if he gets hot (and he has shown a few signs) he could carry the Rays for a week or two at a time.

Q: What are your thoughts on maybe trading Brignac for an everyday right handed right fielder while signing Bartlett to a long-term deal??? With Beckham in the mix, Brignac could be tradeable now and we could get a very high return on him. (Ray F)

A: Brignac could well be part of a trade - or at least trade discussions - as the Rays have Bartlett now and top draft pick Tim Beckham expected to move quickly through the system. There's no need to sign Bartlett long-term as the Rays have his rights for three more seasons, though doing so could help since they will have to pay him at arbitration prices.

There have been a couple of questions about moving Jeff Niemann to the bullpen, but I don't necessarily agree, at least at this point. It seems like Niemann has been around forever (drafted in 2004) but with assorted injuries he still hasn't really been able to establish himself. Closing takes a state of mind as well as special skills, and Niemann still seems more suited to starting. It was interesting that when they needed a reliever this week they didn't bring up Niemann and instead decided to try Mitch Talbot. And maybe Niemann's name will come up in trade discussions.

I loved it last night when the umps called Lugo on his dirty slide. That would not have happened last year, nor early in the season. Winning in spite of the umps, and the national attention is getting them fair calls. (Winston)

A: The call on the Lugo play last night was absolutely right, as he went wide of the base, he came up into Bartlett, AND he used his arms. And I agree with the post that the previous events, and perhaps Maddon's comments about them, raised the "awareness" of the umpiring crew to those type of plays.

What's the story with Rocco? Why was he in the dugout last night, and how realistic is it that he will be a factor this year? (Dan in NY)

A: Dan in New York asked about Rocco Baldelli, who is always a popular topic here at Heater Headquarters. Baldelli is working out with the team this week, after spending the previous two playing with the Class A Vero team. Both the Rays and Rocco are hopeful he will feel well enough -- oversimply, he has a rare condition that causes muscle fatigue in his legs -- to play later this season. He may be limited to DH and pinch-hit duties, though some hope he will also be able to return to the field, at least on a limited basis. The scenario I keep coming back to is that he comes back as a DH/PH in September and helps the team win a game or two, which would be a remarkable story in a remarkable season. And
what do you think about his beard?

Q: If Rocco's beard keeps him strong the let it grow. Baldelli's bat and glove would be like adding a top free agent to this team. (Dave)

A: You're right about Rocco returning being similar to adding a free agent or making a trade. And that's why -- unless the Rays know for sure that he won't make it back -- that I don't think you'll see them make a big trade, or give up too much, for a righthanded hitting outfielder. (And if they do, that would be a sign Baldelli won't be back.)

A: As soon as Pena signed that big deal -- $24.125-million over three years -- there were two themes of questions: would the pressure of the deal affect him, and would he produce as well knowing he was going to get paid? With some players, those are both very valid issues. But with Pena, I don't think his problems this season are the result of not trying hard. If anything, he might be more a product of the first question, that because of the contract he is trying TOO hard. But, as I said earlier, if he gets in a groove, he has some pretty rough months to make up for.

Q: How is the idea that the Rays still aren't taken seriously around MLB, especially die-hard Yankee and Red Sox fans, playing in the locker room? Does it wear on the players that they are going to have to go out and prove themselves every night? I have read columnists comments like: Just wait until October and stuff like that. (Clearwaterfred)

A: In short, they seem to be motivated by it, adopting a approach sort of like, "whatever, we'll show them.''

What can we expect from Kazmir? I brought up the question to my wife yesterday that maybe Kaz is not handling the pressure this year too well. Any thoughts? (Dan in NY)

A: I'm of the opinion that Kazmir will be fine. Physically, he was fine last month when he strung together all those wins, and there's no reason to think he won't be able to do that again once he has better command of his fastball. I don't think, as someone suggested earlier, that he's being overcoached, just that he needs to find a comfort zone where he can throw more strikes, and thus throw fewer pitches, earlier in games. When he starts falling behind hitters early, as he did last night, it's usually going to be a short night.

A: As we wrap up here, I'll try to answer a couple quick ones. Dale Thayer has put up some impressive numbers at each minor-league level but there are several relievers in front of him it seems -- Scott Dohmann, Kurt Birkins, Juan Salas (when healthy). ... Fuentes is a free-agent after this season, which is why he will be available. ... Talbot is probably just a short-term fill-in assuming Al Reyes comes back from the DL next week.

Thanks for all the questions -- lots of different issues and ideas raised, which makes it fun and more interesting. Sorry if we didn't get to everyone. Keep checking 'The Heater' for daily updates about the red-hot Rays, and we'll try to do this again soon.

[Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 12:36am]


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