Tampa Bay Rays Outlook 2009: Can They Stay on Top in AL East?

Joel GreenContributor IFebruary 4, 2009

In 2008 the world turned upside down in the American League East division.  Unbeatable Boston and New York finished behind the previously inept Tampa Bay (no longer Devil) Rays.  Tampa nearly reversed their 2007 record, going from 66-95 to 97 wins and 65 losses and a two-game margin over the Red Sox in 2008.

Who left?

Although it may have seemed like the 2007 team and 2008 teams were radically different, we have seen that there was remarkable continuity between them.  Given Tampa’s conservative approach to an offseason following defeat, what approach have they taken after a brush with success?

Predictably they have been relatively quiet.  Gone are DHs Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, Rocco Baldelli, and Jonny Gomes, as are starter Edwin Jackson and reliever Trever Miller.  

Who is new?

Newcomers to Tampa this year include OFs Matt Joyce, Gabe Kapler, and Pat Burrell, as well as pitchers Joe Nelson and late season additions Chad Bradford and homegrown talent David Price.  

What changes in the outfield?

B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford appear to be fixtures in the Tampa outfield.  DH Pat Burrell is a right-hander, but like Floyd and Gomes before him, he is no asset with a glove on his hand; however, he should provide some stability at DH and allow manager Joe Maddon to be more flexible with his fielders.

Matt Joyce returns to Tampa after his rookie season in Detroit and will compete with Ben Zobrist, Gabe Kapler, Gabe Gross, Fernando Perez, and Justin Ruggiano for right field and spots on the now crowded bench.  Kapler and Gross are both journeymen, although Kapler is much senior; both would be assets on the bench or in a platoon.  Zobrist, a switch hitter with infield experience, also figures to stick as a first rate utility player.

With teams going to rosters of up to 13 pitchers, Perez and Ruggiano are going to have to impress this spring to stick around.

What changes on the infield?

On the infield, all seems set.  Switch hitter Dioner Navarro and backup catcher Shawn Riggans are both back.  As well, Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Aki Iwamura, and Carlos Peña seem entrenched in the infield.  Zobrist and Willy Aybar provide excellent replacements for spot duty and injuries at all defensive positions, with Zobrist able to cover short and the outfield, while Aybar covers the rest of the infield.

What changes on the mound?

On the mound, the Rays may be in trouble.  Although the four best starters of 2008 return, and hope to be augmented by rookie David Price, it is the bullpen where the questions will be answered.

Troy Percival suffered a series of injuries and setbacks at the end of last year, and although he has had a winter to recover, one year the soon to be 40-year-old reliever will find that he cannot restore himself to his previous condition.  If that happens this year, Maddon will have to find out if last year’s setup team has a closer in their midst.

Can they do it again?

B.J. Upton may have a monster season in store.  Plagued by injuries throughout 2008, he hit just nine home runs, only to hit seven in the postseason.  If the playoff edition of Upton is available for 2009 and beyond, the Rays will be an offensive powerhouse.

Of the rest of the regulars, only Peña is old enough to expect a decline anytime soon, but the Rays can hope that as he is only 30, it won’t start this year.

David Price showed awesome stuff in the postseason.  As with Upton, if that edition comes out for '09, the league will be that much more exciting.  However, it is in the bullpen and the depth of the rotation that the Rays have their weaknesses.

Where Boston and New York are seemingly set with Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon, Tampa has Percival.  If not Percival, then whoever is to take his place must prove himself under fire, and Maddon must replace him in the setup role.

Perhaps the Rays are up to it.  It may all come down to injuries, but that is where the big dollar teams in the Northeast have their best advantage.

The Yankees and the Red Sox both have seven major league starters on their rosters with good track records.  Of course they can’t start all seven, and not all seven will be productive this year, but the Rays will be hoping for a healthy season from everybody, while their competition will be looking for no more than two serious injuries.

It will be close and it will be fun, but I think the Rays are still one more year away from where they need to be to face the Big Two year in and year out.