Last season didn’t exactly start the way Joe Maddon wanted. A brutal schedule early in the season crippled a team that seemed destined to be contenders for another run at the World Series. A year later, the Rays are hoping that 2009 was nothing more than a hiccup in the building of a champion.
Key Arrivals- Rafael Soriano, Kelly Shoppach
Key Departures- Gabe Gross, Akinori Iwamura
For the first time since 2004, this staff won’t be anchored by Scott Kazmir, who was traded to the Angels last year. That means that “big game” James Shields will take the honor at the age of 29. The hope is that he steps up and leads a staff that was the strength of an American League champion. The combo of him and Matt Garza is very strong and normally would be the best in their division, except Beckett-Lackey and Sabathia-Burnett both trump them. After that, the Rays have three young arms that they just keep pumping out of their minor league system.
Jeff Niemann won a team-high 13 games last year and was one of the few players that exceeded expectations for the Rays last year. As far as the four and five spots in the rotation, there are some pretty big question marks.
David Price is slotted as the number four spot, but the former No. 1 prospect is at a serious crossroads. Yea, his stuff is filthy, but his style involves way too many pitches. He works too deep into counts, and foul tips seem to get him to 100 pitches after three or four innings. He might actually be a bigger mystery than Wade Davis, who has the fortune of being hardly heard of.
Davis showed promise last year, surprising some with a fastball reaching 95 mph and a curve that has the ability to have the bottom drop off it without notice. He could be a star in the making, but there will almost certainly be a growth period. The Rays will have to be patient with him, but what if he starts out with a few duds? Do they pull him or let him fight through it, like you are supposed to with rookies? These are all questions Maddon will be forced juggle with as a manager with playoff aspirations and as one trying to bring along prospects at the same time.
The lineup that dazzled in the 2008 playoffs suffered the same setbacks that the pitching staff did. In 2008, B.J. Upton seemed to be on the verge of super-stardom, Evan Longoria became a superstar in the first month of the season, and Dioner Navarro elevated to being one of the top catchers in the American League. Fast forward a year, and Longoria is the only one not being threatened by fantasy baseball managers.
The few absolutes here are Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist, Carl Crawford and Longoria-I know I talk about Longoria a lot, but that is because he is good enough to win the AL MVP award this year. All four of those guys are solid producers and will lead the offense. However, the other five spots are mysteries.
Matt Joyce will be joining the big leagues again after spending a year in AAA to share the duty of right field with Gabe Kapler. That fight for position would normally be big news if the one between Shoppach and Navarro wasn’t just as important.
Even if you want to talk about the three players not under heat, you should be worried. Upton took a major step backwards last season and was rumored to cause in-house issues during his struggles; Pat Burrell saw career lows in hits, doubles, RBIs, home runs and total bases; and Carlos Pena was so bad at getting on base, that he actually had more extra-base hits that singles. When your batting average is .227, that isn’t a good thing- it is a sign of an extreme flaw in hitting philosophy.
With the addition of Soriano, the Rays got the closer they have been trying to find for three years. The funny thing…that gives them the ability that they are tied for third in the AL East for the best closer. Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera are both better, and Baltimore’s new closer Mike Gonzalez is just as good.
As critical as I just was, the Rays have just gone from a mediocre bullpen, to a great one. JP Howell and Dan Wheeler form a duo of great set up men with Grant Balfour expecting to make a comeback to his form in 2008. This ‘pen is as deep as they come and is probably the best in the AL.
Two years ago, the Rays gave us a beautiful gift, the ability to see someone other than the Yankees or Red Sox winning the AL East (the first time since 1997). Now, the team sits in a very precarious situation. The team is in a totally crappy stadium, which means they are hemorrhaging money and can’t keep the payroll they have unless they are kicking ass. If the team gets off to another slow start, the Rays could hold a fire sale of big contracts like that of Crawford, Burrell and Pena. For the small market teams in the MLB hoping to have an example of a team that can compete with the bigger markets, I really wanted to say the Rays were on their way up, but I don’t see it happening.
89-63 3rd in the AL East