BST&N AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are missing a lot from last year, yet they'll still have many reasons to celebrate in 2011. (AP Photo)

As much attention and hype the rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees garners, it hasn’t been the “Evil Empire” that’s given Boston most of its fits in recent years.

Since scrapping the word Devil from their name in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays have boasted a 30-24 record against the Red Sox — crushing Boston’s dreams of becoming the first major league dynasty since the Yankees back in the ’08 ALCS. In the past three years, the Rays have passed both Boston and New York for the American League East crown twice. The Rays haven’t only been good, they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball. Much to the chagrin of Boston fans.

The bitterness only increased when the Rays signed two former Red Sox heroes back on February 1st. Months after the Sox signed two Rays players, Tampa star Carl Crawford and reliever Dan Wheeler, the Rays announced the signings of both Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon on the same day.

Major Additions: Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Kyle Farnsworth

Though the two players are in the latter stages of their careers and one shouldn’t expect them to deliver the same kind of production as they did in Boston uniforms, their contributions should not be overlooked. Particularly those of Manny Ramirez.

Since Ramirez was suspended for steroid use back in 2009, he’s failed to produce on the field. Last year, he was a shell of his former self — hitting .298 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs for both the Dodgers and White Sox. Yet, if you ask Rays’ manager Joe Maddon, Manny seems to be re-invigorated and extra motivated this year.

“He’s making a lot of statements, little subtle stuff,” Maddon told ESPNBoston’s Gorden Edes. “Running hard to first base, working his ass off on defense. One day he was playing, and was scheduled to be off the next day. After his second at-bat, he said, ‘How about if I play tomorrow?’ He put himself in the lineup. A couple of days ago, I gave four guys the day off completely. Don’t even show up, him being one of them. He was in the cage anyway, the next morning. He’s been awesome.”

Putting himself into the lineup seems like something Manny would never do in his time in Boston. This was a player who would consistently make up injuries to get out of games and would often go use the restroom in the middle of them. Yet, it doesn’t sound like Manny will be pulling those stunts in Tampa, despite making $18 million-less than he has over the course of his career.

“His comments have been that he’s made his money,” said Maddon. “He’s made his money, and now he just wants to compete and play.

Together again, Manny and Damon hope to bolster a depleted Rays lineup. (AP Photo)

He’s said that to me at least 15 times already. Manny is looking to re-establish himself after last year. He’s in better shape, he’s extremely motivated, I think he likes it here already, I think he’s digging it, I think we have a great staff to interact with him, I think we have a lot of things working in our favor here as well as where he’s at in his career right now to make it a good season.”

It also helps that Manny can feel comfortable alongside former Red Sox teammate, Johnny Damon. Every Boston fan remembers his long hair, beard and the grand slam in game seven of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona definitely thinks that Damon is going to be a huge lift to the 2011 Rays team.

“One of my all-time favorites,” Tito said about Damon. “One of the best guys you could ever have playing. As a manager, you can’t appreciate him enough. There were days he got the [expletive] beat out of him, and he’d call me in morning and say don’t not play me, and show up. He understood his obligation to play center field even if he went 0 for 4. I was impressed with him. He’s very dear to me. We loved him. Everybody who has been around him appreciates what he’s done.”

“Andrew [Friedman, the team's GM] and I were talking about [Ramirez and Damon] all winter, and how do you get ‘em?” said Maddon. “Part of it was you gotta wait. All these other guys were falling to other teams but these are the guys we wanted all along. There they are.”

The signings of Manny and Damon made a big splash in the headlines (especially in beantown). Yet if you ask most fans and media members, it’s still not enough to make up for what they lost this offeason. Most think that the Ray’s recent run of success has hit a serious roadblock.

Major Subtractions: Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Lance Cormier, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Fernando Perez, Zach Rosscup, Willy Aybar, Gabe Kapler, Dioner Navarro, Brad Hawpe, Rocco Baldelli, Chad Qualls, Dale Thayer

Being a small market team with a low budget gave the Rays only a short window to capitalize on their homegrown talent. Especially in the salary cap-less MLB. When the Red Sox swooped in and signed Carl Crawford, Tampa’s most feared weapon, to a seven-year, $142 million deal, there was nothing the Rays could do about it. Of the many players the Rays saw go in the off-season, Crawford was by far the biggest.

With Crawford on their side, the Red Sox could rest easy. Last year, the speedster hit .324 with nine RBIs and two homeruns and eight stolen bases against Boston. The addition made the Sox much better and the Rays much less of a threat.

Red Sox fans would’ve been happy with just that. However, the Rays went ahead and made themselves even more vulnerable to Boston — trading Matt Garza to the Cubs back in January.

This still looks weird. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Garza was a bona-fide Red Sox killer, holding a 9-4 record with a 3.58 ERA against Boston. When Garza was on the mound, the Rays held a 15-5 record. Now, he’s in Chicago along with former Ray Carlos Pena.

However, those players don’t make a contender and they don’t tear one apart when they leave either. Despite the fire sale of an off-season, there’s plenty of great players left on the Rays roster and the franchise has proven its ability to groom talent in the farm system. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein for one isn’t discounting the Rays.

“I think the demise of the Rays is greatly exaggerated,” he said. “I think they’re uniquely positioned to lose some really good players and keep their status as one of the best teams in baseball, given the strength of their farm system and the players they have ready to step in. They lose Garza, they have [Jeremy] Hellickson to step in. They lose Crawford they have [Desmond] Jennings and [Matt] Joyce to step in. They’re going to be real tough.”

Offense:

If you were to ask St. Petersburg Times Rays’ beat writer, Mark Tompkin, the Rays lineup would look like this on opening day:

John Jaso, C
Johnny Damon, OF
Evan Longoria, 3B
Manny Ramirez, DH
Dan Johnson, 1B
B.J. Upton, OF
Matt Joyce, OF
Ben Zobrist, IF/OF
Reid Brignac, SS

With Carl Crawford gone to Boston and Pena to Chicago, it’s hard to say what to expect out of this Rays lineup offensively. Evan Longoria is their best hitter and Tampa will be relying a lot on the aging Manny and Damon to support him.

The Rays have never been a team that got by on their hitting (remember all the no-hitters pitched against the Rays last year?). Their most powerful offensive weapon was Crawford, who helped the Rays lead the majors in steals last season (172), however with his departure you’d have to assume that number will go down. Instead, Tampa has relied mainly on their great pitching and defense to win them games while managing to be efficient at the plate (last season the Rays ranked 27th in the majors in hits but third in runs). Thankfully for them, they’ll be sending a strong rotation to the mound once again in 2011. Something that’s led to so much of their success in recent years.

Pitching:

“The starting rotation is certainly a big part of our optimism,” said Rays’ executive vice president Andrew Friedman, reported by John Romano of the St. Petersburgh Times. “Not only that, they’ve been a big part of our past success when you look back at 2008, 2009 and 2010, and the fact that they made as many starts as they did. That our starters have been healthy, for the most part, I think speaks volumes about their makeup and their work ethic and their competitiveness, as well as our training staff.

29-year old James Shields is now the veteran on the Tampa Bay Rays rotation, and the only pitcher left from their run to the World Series. Yet that’s not to say that’s a bad thing for Tampa. They’ve got their young ace and last year’s All-Star game starter David Price who posted a 19-6 record in 2010. Behind him the Rays will also be featuring last season’s Minor League Player of Year, Jeremy Hellickson. If Hellickson follows up his big performance from last year, he could wind up taking the AL Rookie of the Year award as well. The Rays will also feature Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. It’s a lineup that’s maybe not as flashy as say, Philadelphia, but it still gives Tampa confidence heading into the 2011 season despite the big turnaround on their roster.

“That one thought helped me through a lot of this process this winter,” said Joe Maddon. “Knowing that we were going to have those five guys, and that they are as good as they are, and they are as competitive as they are, and they are capable of setting us up for success in this division. If you don’t have that rotation, honestly, all of this other stuff really would have bothered me a lot.”

“It’s everything to us,” added Friedman. “We don’t have the resources to go out on the market and sign Cliff Lee, so we need to have depth one through five. Very capable starters who can pitch innings and get swings and misses.”

Looking Ahead/Prediction:
Due to their pitching, I don’t expect the Rays to fall too far from grace. They won 96 games last year and I would predict them to win 89 this year — finishing third in the AL East and out of the playoffs. They have enough talent to still give teams like the Yankees and Red Sox fits, but not enough top-tier talent to take them over the edge and become a legitimate threat for the World Series.

Check out BST&N’s other AL East Previews:
Baltimore Orioles

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