Last week, I provided a season preview for the New York Yankees.
With the Blue Jays in full-scale rebuilding mode and the Orioles…err, being the Orioles, the Tampa Bay Rays would seem to be the only other true competition threatening the Red Sox in the American League East.
In 2009, a year after the franchise’s first ever AL East Championship and World Series appearance by way of a 7-game ALCS with the Red Sox, the Rays fell dramatically back to Earth; they finished third in the division with an 84-78 record, putting them 19 games back of New York and 11 back of Boston for the Wild Card.
Compared to their AL East competition, the Rays had a quiet offseason. However, they boast a roster full of players who two years ago were up-and-comers that put up breakout numbers. After some regression last year, the Rays could go either way in 2010. If the group lives up to the potential they clearly have, the Rays could be serious competition this season. And that if might not even be a big one.
It is outright odd that the Rays scored more runs in 2009 than they did the year before. The club that won the American League Championship in 2008 seemed at the time to feature nearly superfluous offense, but in looking back, the lineup at large performed better last season.
Carlos Pena saw his batting average dip last year but was still extremely productive. He remains a critical part of the lineup and at this point is a lock, so long as he stays healthy, for 35 home runs and an impressive on-base percentage. Third baseman Evan Longoria is the face of the franchise and should continue to mash. These two make up a very strong heart of the lineup for Tampa.
Left fielder Carl Crawford is in a contract year and is coming off a very strong 2009. He’ll easily steal 50 bases and should hit over .300. Crawford is also good for double digit home runs and his production remains integral to the Rays’ success. Ben Zobrist is coming off of a huge year playing all over the diamond. He’s expected to settle into second base this year, though the club won’t be afraid to move him back to right should he be needed and should prospect Sean Rodriguez make a good case for the roster. Offensive regression should be expected but the numbers will certainly be more than palatable for a second baseman. In 2009, he hit a remarkable .297/.405/.543 without ever having a position at which to call himself the regular. Zobrist figures to bat fifth.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett, too, had a big year and will hit leadoff. Again, regression should be expected, but Bartlett can run and is at the very least offensively capable; he’ll likely outhit most AL shortstops at the least.
The lineup’s success relies primarily on comeback years from center fielder BJ Upton and designated hitter Pat Burell. Burell was signed to a two year deal before 2009 and did not come through. He’s been a reliable power hitter throughout his career and will have a chance to at least provide some pop hitting seventh. Upton, meanwhile, has been regressing since he put up an .894 OPS in 2007. In 2008, he was still very useful. Last year, he killed the Rays. Upton’s promise has long been talked about and he’s certainly shown glimpses. As a center fielder, even modest offensive numbers with a high stolen base count would be acceptable, but the Rays will be hurting if he provides a sequel to last year’s disaster.
Former top Tigers prospect Matt Joyce will get his first opportunity to play regularly in right field. He suffered an injury earlier this spring and is still “50-50″ to make it for the season opener, but he figures to be a part of the club’s plans. Dioner Navarro will be pressured by newly acquired power hitter Kelly Shoppach at catcher; between the two, one should provide solid production as a backstop. Hank Blalock‘s star has been falling for years, but he was a suave pickup and he’ll likely get a chance to provide some punch off the bench. A consistent power threat, the Rays will be happy to have him around in the event of injury, in case Burell struggles, or just as a pinch hitter.
Some members of the lineup will see some regression, but others should bounce back. If not, they have decent options to replace those not producing. Look for the Rays’ lineup to be a potent one.
The Rays’ rotation is strong but is, at least not yet, dominant. Big Game James Shields has earned his nickname but is not an ace. Matt Garza‘s strikeout numbers took a big leap in 2009 and he may be ready to take another big step this season. Jeff Niemann had a very impressive rookie year and Wade Davis hopes to follow in his footsteps in 2010.
David Price, though, is the guy that may prove to be a crux. After a remarkable late season run in 2008, Price took some bumps in his rookie year. He boasts extremely high upside, however, and has already been on a big stage (recall that he closed out Game 7 against Boston a year and a half ago). Strikeouts weren’t hard to come by for the left-hander and his walk rates were decent as well. This could be a big season for Price. If it’s not, the Rays may look to upgrade here in the summer if they remain in contention.
Andy Sonnastine is a good guy for the club to have stashed away and will likely make his fair share of starts throughout the season. His skill level is debatable, but he’s seen success before and should be a useful member of the pitching staff in some capacity.
The Rays’ traded for former Braves’ closer Rafael Soriano and will put him right at the back-end of their bullpen. He’s a very talented pitcher coming off his first full season finishing games, wherein he struck out 102 batters in 75.2 innings. While JP Howell was effective last season, this is a big move for the Rays insofar as it bumps everyone down a spot and effectively makes the bullpen at large much stronger.
In addition to Howell (who will open the season on the DL, but shouldn’t miss more than a month), Dan Wheeler is back for his third season in Tampa. In the two years previous, he has provided very reliable middle relief and should be expected to again. Randy Choate and Lance Cormier also return following effective, if unremarkable, years.
Australian righty Grant Balfour was the bullpen’s most important piece in 2008 when he posted an ERA under 2, but fell off last season.
Middle relief being as inconsistent year-to-year as it is, the Rays’ are certainly willing to give him another chance. There is an argument to be made that Balfour suffered from some serious bad luck a year ago. If his numbers find out somewhere between their 2008 and 2009 editions, he’ll be another quality member of the Rays’ otherwise strong bullpen.
This aspect of the team is, perhaps, its strongest. Navarro has worked well with the pitching staff and Pena and Longoria are both very highly regarded defensively; Pena struggled, say the numbers, last year, but had two very strong seasons before, and his scouting reports still shine. Bartlett’s a bit erratic, but he doesn’t kill the team. Zobrist’s sample size at second is still fairly small, but his numbers are off the chart; if he’s as good as the numbers say, he could help cover up for any of Bartlett’s shortcomings. At large, the infield defense should be well above average.
Upton and Crawford are likely the best left and center field duo in baseball; both cover a remarkable amount of ground and Upton’s arm is amongst the game’s strongest. Balls that hit the ground between these two deserve to have done so. Joyce is regarded as a capable defender; Gabe Kapler is a part of the Rays’ bench and can step in for defensive duty if needed.
The Red Sox and the Yankees have gotten much of the press this offseason, and with reason. The Rays, though, should not be dismissed too easily. This is a team that won 97 games two years ago and has plenty of players that could take big steps forward. They are strong in all phases and should at least provide annoyance for the titans of the Northeast. I am, to a fault, a conservative predictor and expect the team to finish third in the division, but in no way do I expect them to do so quietly and would not be at all surprised to see them surpass this timid expectation.