After earning a Wild Card spot in the 2011 MLB postseason and sweeping the New York Yankees in the opening series of the 2012 season, the Tampa Bay Rays are yet again a contender in the American League East division.
Since clearing house—axing both their manager and general manager—the Boston Red Sox have declined. Frankly, Bobby Valentine's managerial resume isn't impressive, and the Sox's pitching has many holes.
Given the opening series this season between the Yankees and Rays, combined with the struggles and questions surrounding the Red Sox, New York should be more worried about Tampa Bay this season than Boston.
And here are three reasons why:
As we watched Jeremy Hellickson flourish into the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, it became evident that the Tampa Bay Rays now had a concrete pitching rotation.
Anchored by All-Stars David Price and James Shields, the Rays added rookie phenom and ROY candidate Matt Moore to the staff behind Hellickson to anchor the rotation.
Jeff Nieman—who went 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 2011—concludes Tampa's hefty rotation.
Shields led the Rays rotation last season, winning 16 games and posting a 2.82 ERA on his way to his first All-Star appearance.
He was followed by Hellickson, who was outstanding in his rookie campaign, earning 13 wins and posting a 2.95 ERA.
This past Sunday saw Hellickson throw 8.2 innings of shutout ball to earn the victory against the New York Yankees.
Price finished third on the Rays in terms of wins, going 12-13 with a 3.49 ERA while fanning 218 hitters.
Some of the big guns for the Yankees didn't fare too well against the Rays last season, as Robinson Cano hit .290, Curtis Granderson .203, Derek Jeter .286 and Mark Teixeira .268.
Tampa ranked No. 2 in the AL in lowest team ERA at 3.58 and looks poised to build upon that mark in 2012.
Carlos Pena's return to Tampa Bay was highlighted by an outstanding weekend against the Yankees.
Pena went 6-for-12 with seven RBI, including a grand slam in his first at-bat of the season and a walk-off hit to win the first game of the season against New York.
Combine Pena with a healthy Evan Longoria—who went 6-for-10 with one home run and one RBI against the Yankees in the first series of 2012—and the Tampa offense is ready to roll this season.
The Rays tacked on 18 runs against New York in the season-opening three-game series, attacking both CC Sabathia and Huroki Kuroda.
Tampa tacked on five runs on eight hits in six innings of work against the Yanks' ace on April 6 and then proceeded to accumulate eight hits on four earned runs against Kuroda the following day.
The Rays have a solid leadoff hitter in Desmond Jennings—he's a base-stealing threat every time he gets on base—and he collected 64 hits in 63 games last year.
Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Jeff Keppinger also add depth to a Rays lineup that I ranked ninth-best in the MLB heading into the season.
Tampa Bay swept the Yankees in a three-game series to begin the 2012 MLB season, and they did it convincingly with both pitching and offense.
More importantly, they came back on baseball's greatest closer in Mariano Rivera to steal Game 1 of the 2012 season.
The first two games of the season saw them score seven and eight runs, with big offensive performances from Carlos Pena, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott.
In the series finale, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson threw a gem to shut out New York by a score of 3-0.
Last season, after taking advantage of the Boston Red Sox's late-season collapse, the Rays squeezed into the postseason by winning the last five games of the season, including the final three against the Yankees.
The Yanks and Rays split the season series in 2011, each winning nine games and each making the playoffs.
It'll undoubtedly be a a close race in the AL East come September, and the Rays opening series confirmed what many believed heading into the season—they're a contender yet again in 2012.
Follow Pete Schauer on Twitter @Pete_Schauer