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Tampa Bay Rays need more home runs this year

Evan Longoria, congratulated by Manny Ramirez after a home run against the Pirates on Saturday, is the only player on the Rays’ current roster who had more than 20 homers in the majors last year, with 22.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Evan Longoria, congratulated by Manny Ramirez after a home run against the Pirates on Saturday, is the only player on the Rays’ current roster who had more than 20 homers in the majors last year, with 22.

SARASOTA — In Tampa Bay, the lesson was learned early that slugging it out was probably not going to be a good idea. You might have first noticed it during "Hit Show," or perhaps it was the year Ben Grieve was hitting cleanup.

Either way, the Rays were never going to have the resources to match New York and Boston home run for home run. After 13 years of trying, Tampa Bay still has never finished a season with more home runs than the Yankees.

So Andrew Friedman's Rays went in another direction. They valued defense. They stocked up on starting pitching. They built a team around the concepts of run prevention and quality at-bats. All of which have been wildly successful the past three seasons.

And yet, it's not enough. Not by itself.

The Rays cannot live on the margins alone. For no matter how good your pitching and defense might be, you still need to have power hitters to survive in the AL East. You still need to be able to score runs in bunches, at least occasionally.

And this season, that challenge may be greater than ever for the Rays.

The only guy on the current roster who hit more than 20 home runs in the big leagues last season was Evan Longoria, and he topped out at 22.

The Rays have guys with home runs in their future (B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce), they have guys with home runs in their past (Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon), and they have guys somewhere in between (Ben Zobrist and Dan Johnson).

But other than Longoria, they do not have any sure bets.

"I think that part of our team is underrated, that power potential. And it is potential, but it's definitely there," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's not like these guys have to bump and grind to hit home runs."

For an inning or two Tuesday, Tampa Bay looked plenty powerful. Kelly Shoppach, Ramirez and Upton hit home runs against the Orioles that cleared about 400 feet and the centerfield wall.

So it's not inconceivable to imagine Upton, at age 26, replicating the 24 home runs and .508 slugging percentage he had a few years ago. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Joyce, if given 400 at-bats for the first time, approaches 20 home runs.

Ramirez is far removed from his days as an AL home run champion, but he is still capable of clearing walls. And among Durham, Japan and Tampa Bay, Johnson has averaged close to 30 homers the past three seasons.

"They're strong enough and talented enough and at the point of their careers that they're definitely capable of that, if they're right," Maddon said. "I like B.J.'s mechanics a lot right now, not just a little bit. And Matt Joyce always looks good. Manny looked great the other day. Dan Johnson is really going to project a lot like Carlos Peña.

"With the right number of at-bats … I can see a lot of these guys hitting 20 home runs this year."

The truth is, when it came to power, the Rays were a fairly average outfit last season, and that was before losing Peña and Carl Crawford and their 47 combined home runs. They were replaced by Ramirez and Damon, who combined for 17 homers in 2010.

Meanwhile, the Rangers spent $96 million to sign Adrian Beltre coming off a 28-homer season. The White Sox splurged on Adam Dunn and his 38 home runs to the tune of $56 million and invested another $37.5 million in Paul Konerko. The Nationals horribly overspent on Jayson Werth, and the Orioles coughed up $8 million for Vlad Guerrero.

The point is, the Rays are never going to be able to buy themselves an elite power hitter. They will have to find one on the scrap heap, the way they did with Peña. Or they will have to draft one, the way they did with Longoria. Or they will have to trade for a prospect, the way they did with Joyce. Home runs are too valuable, and home run hitters are too marketable.

And so the Rays will always be scrounging around for the right power supply.

"This team is not built for us to rely on home runs to score runs," said hitting coach Derek Shelton. "The Rays have been built on pitching, speed and defense. We have been able to score runs different ways, whether that's stealing bases, walks, bunting guys over. The fact we have all of those components makes us much more well-rounded."

Home runs might not be indispensable, but they're not inconsequential, either. In the past three seasons, the Rays had winning percentages of .686, .580 and .688 in games in which they hit a homer. In games without a home run, they dropped to .433, .380 and .415.

There's no question they need home runs to survive. Probably not as many as the Red Sox, and certainly not as many as the Yankees.

But if this season is to be a success, they're going to need a player or two or three to step up and hit more home runs than they did in 2010.

Another open spot

Carlos Peña has taken his bat to Wrigley Field, which means the Rays will have a new home run leader for the first time since 2006.

YEAR PLAYER HR

2010 Carlos Peña28

2009 Carlos Peña39

2008 Carlos Peña31

2007 Carlos Peña46

2006 Ty Wigginton 24

2005 Jorge Cantu 28

2004 Aubrey Huff 29

2003 Aubrey Huff 34

2002 Aubrey Huff 23

2001 Greg Vaughn 24

2000 Greg Vaughn 28

1999 Jose Canseco 34

1998 Fred McGriff 19

Tampa Bay Rays need more home runs this year 03/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 10:07pm]
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