The Tampa Bay Rays—formerly known as the Devil Rays, but more on that later—have always been the laughingstock of the MLB. Even the Montreal Expos—ahem, sorry, the "Washington Nationals," have fared better.
The Rays have been beaten worse than a punching bag before a Mike Tyson fight. Worse than people pulled over by the LAPD. Worse than Elijah Dukes' wife—allegedly, of course. Worse than Vince McMahon after Stone Cold Steve Austin gets through with him. The list goes on and on.
But the new-look Rays are off to a fresh start. They have abandoned the "Devil" in their name and are now simply the Rays. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of people more than little rays of sunshine—too many sunrays can cause health hazards.
And were Devil Rays really threatening? I mean, stingrays are the scary ones. They took out the Crocodile Hunter himself. But Devil Rays? Nothing too scary about them. According to Wikipedia, there was a villain named Devil Ray who fought the Justice League.
But Devil or no Devil—the name is not what is going to scare the rest of the league.
After suffering a decade of humiliation in the AL East—averaging 97 losses and finishing higher than last only once—the Rays have made a flurry of moves this offseason, and raised expectations among the fanbase.
What has the Tampa faithful so excited? All those years a the bottom have made this team a haven for young prospects who want to play. Not only do these prospects want to get in the game, but they can actually hold their own in the Big Leagues.
The cornerstone of the Rays was called up at age nineteen. He is twenty-seven now and an eight-year vet. Carl Crawford is the main reason the Rays are looking so good right now. He is the kind of player all MLB teams look for. He leads by example, encourages, plays all-out every day, and is a face for a franchise.
Crawford draws comparisons to Tony Gwynn, Tim Salmon, Craig Biggio, and countless others who played every at bat for one franchise. He also has no plans to leave.
But now, Carl Crawford no longer has to do all the work. The front office actually put money into contracts this off-season and the team looks new and improved because of it. Look at Tampa Bay roster in 2000, when the Yankees won their last World Series, shown here. Only a few names stand out, but nothing spectacular. It is a bunch of veteran guys eating a payroll of a poor team.
Now look at the 2008 projected roster. This team is built to succeed.
Carlos Pena had a break-out year that he hopes to build on. Dioner Navarro is going to make a name for himself soon and has the staying power to be an anchor for the Rays.
Shortstop duties will be handled by the soft hands of Jason Bartlett, acquired in the trade that sent Delmon Young to the Twins. He has spent most of the off-season working on his defense, hoping to improve his .967 career fielding percentage.
Second nase is now in the reigns of Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura was the starting third baseman last year but the Rays shifted him to make room for the man creating the biggest buzz in the Rays organization and in the MLB.
That man is Evan Longoria. And although he shares a striking resemblance in name to the beautiful actress and wife of Tony Parker, he will soon make people recognize his name first. His beauty is contained in the way he plays—with a strong swing and solid defense.
Scouts say Longoria is a much better defensive player than Ryan Braun—but despite his supreme defense, Longoria is not projected to produce offensively as well as Ryan does (no one may ever match what Ryan did last year as a rookie). However, Longoria will not start in the majors on opening day.
The Rays want to win but front office is still stifling when it comes to money. By keeping Evan in the minors for the first two weeks of the season, the Rays will keep him from being a free agent for one more year. The longer he stays in the minors, the better the chances of the team winning any arbitration cases in the future.
Until Longoria gets called up, look for Willy Aybar and Joel Guzman to handle the hot corner.
The outfield is also full of talent. Center field is fully in the hands of B.J. Upton now. He was platooned as a second baseman and center fielder but now will be full time in center field. Left goes to Carl Crawford.
Right field is Rocco Baldelli's to lose. And he can lose it by being injured as he often has in the past. Baldelli has the potential to be a spark plug for his team—if he can spend an entire year off the disabled list.
At designated hitter the platoon of Jonny Gomes (against left-handers) and Cliff Floyd (against right-handers) will be solid.
The pitching staff is coming together nicely. With a solid one-two punch of James Shields and Scott Kazmir, the Rays hold a devastating right-left combo. Each of the pitchers is getting better every year and both could easily be the ace of this team.
Matt Garza makes for a nice number three. He was also acquired with Jason Bartlett in the trade with Minnesota. He is a great young pitcher with great stuff. Andy Sonnanstine should end the season as the teams number four pitcher. A highly-touted prospect, look for him to have a few rough outings and a few spectacular ones.
The final spot in the rotation is up for grabs, with Edwin Jackson being the early-on favorite.
The bullpen was the weak point last year, and although great strides have been made this offseason, it will still be subpar. Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, and the rest will offer decent relief that should get the job done but often will not.
However, the new closer is the great Troy Percival. He is providing great leadership, not only in the bullpen, but for the team as well. The Rays made an excellent choice in signing him, because he will lessen pressure on Carl Crawford to be the team leader.
Percival will get the saves as he always has—but his age is catching up to him, so he will get roughed up once in awhile, and may spend time on the DL.
Finally, take a look at the minor league affliates of the Rays. Tampa Bay has a great farm system that they built on many high first-round draft choices. Many players on the Rays roster came up through the system, and were not brought in via trades or free agency. This is a great sign for a struggling club.
A look at the top ten prospects shows that the Rays are set to contend soon. Also an in depth look at that page will show how each of the Rays' first-round choices in the past ten years have done. Six out of the ten are still in the Rays system and four are projected starters. David Price was the first pick of the Rays this past year, and after he tears up the minor leagues expect to see him in the Rays' starting rotation in 2010.
The Rays are young and talented and their success will rest in the hands of manager Joe Maddon. Many believe he can do it. A thirty-one-year employee of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim prior to becoming the manager two years ago, Maddon has the indications of a great manager, and under his direction his young team the Rays will shake up the league.
Finally in a show of confidence for this team, the management have proposed a new stadium for Tampa Bay—and many of the locals, including state officials and the mayor, have embraced it. under what looks like some sort of wind-sail roof, the state of the art, waterfront stadium, will draw crowds and be an immediate upgrade from Tropicana Field. The new stadium looks great and could be one of the most engaging parks in the future.
Look for the Rays to make a splash this year. They will be in the hunt for the playoffs and if they were in the National League they might pull off a wild card somehow. The Rays, however, are in the tougher American League.
They will be a name up until August, but will fizzle out due to inexperience. They will finish third in the AL East and be primed and ready to go in the future. 2008 may not be the year for the Rays but the future is coming to Tampa Bay.