In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays went from perennial cellar-dwellers to beasts of the east, becoming the first team since 1997 not named the Yankees or Red Sox to win the American League East division crown.
Given the Rays' short but rich culture of losing, winning the east would have been enough to please the Tampa Bay faithful, but they didn't stop there. Tampa Bay would keep winning, going all the way to the World Series before finally falling to the Philadelphia Phillies. Needless to say, the Rays were the feel good story of the league in 2008.
So what teams, if any, have set themselves up for a similar surprise run in 2009?
(Note: This list is in no particular order).
No. 1 San Francisco Giants, 72-90 in 2008
Key additions: Randy Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Jeremy Affeldt
Key losses: Omar Vizquel
The San Francisco Giants may have the best chance to duplicate the miracle turn around of the 2008 Rays. The Giants seem to have followed Tampa Bay's blueprint for success, building around young players with tremendous upside, like Pablo Sandoval, and young starting pitching, highlighted by 2008 NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.
The Giants have also added a few veteran leaders with World Series experience in Edgar Renteria and Randy Johnson. Both players are on the downside of their careers, but should still be serviceable at worst.
The Giants still do have some question marks. They are in desperate need of middle-of-the-order run producer. Relievers Brian Wilson, Jeremy Affeldt, and Bob Howry are all serviceable, but the middle relief remains a question mark. Will Noah Lowry bounce back after missing all of 2008 with two surgeries? Will Barry Zito remember how to throw strikes?
No. 2 Oakland Athletics, 75-86 in 2008
Key additions: Matt Holiday, Jason Giambi, Russ Springer
Key losses: Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street
The other team in the Bay area, the Oakland Athletics, made plenty of moves, and appear to be taking a win now approach. The A's traded their two big name starters (Harden and Blanton) before last season's trade deadline, and traded their big name reliever, Huston Street, this off-season to Colorado for Matt Holliday.
The Holliday trade is a huge gamble for the A's, since he is scheduled to become a free agent after the season. If Oakland isn't in contention by the trade deadline, he could be traded again. If it is proven that his number were really just a product of Coor's field, he may prove to be untradeable. Jason Giambi has also returned to help anchor the middle of the line-up with Holliday.
The starting rotation is young and unknown, other than ace Justin Duchscherer. The bullpen is solid with closer Brad Zeigler, Joey Devine, Jerry Bievens, Mike Wuertz, and new addition Russ Springer.
The three big questions surrounding Oakland are: What can be expected out of Jason Giambi? Will Holliday hit in Oakland, and how long will he be there? And finally, can this team stay healthy at all?
No. 3 Cincinnati Reds, 74-88 in 2008
Key additions: Willy Taveras, Ramon Hernandez
Key loses: Jeremy Affeldt, Ryan Freel
The Reds might be at the top of this list if they didn't play in the same division as the Cubs and Cardinals. The Reds added Willy Taveras and his 68 steals in 2008 to play centerfield and bat lead-off. With Taveras at the top of the line-up, Brandon Phillips gets moved to the middle of the order with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.
Ramon Hernandez was signed to add verteran stability at catcher, and some production toward the back of the order. This line-up as a whole is very young and will strikeout a bunch, but if the young bats continue to improve, they could be one of the better offenses in the division.
The pitching staff is where the Reds strength lies, especially if Aaron Harang returns to form. With Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Micah Owings filling out the rest of the rotation, the Reds will go into games with a chance to win every night.
If last year's top prospect, Homer Bailey, rebounds from a disappointing season, the Reds could have six good starting pitchers. David Weathers is still a serviceable set-up man, and Francisco Cordero may be the most underrated close in the game.
The only question the Reds have is with the youth of this team. Is all this young talent ready to blossom? If it is, then Cincinnati could be thinking playoffs.
No. 4 Kansas City Royals, 75-87 in 2008
Key additions: Mike Jacobs, Kyle Farnsworth, Coco Crisp
Key loses: Joey Gathright, Ramon Ramirez
The long suffering Royals faithful have a chance to be watching meaningful games in September this year, something that hasn't been part of a Royals' season in a long time. The Royals played very well down the stretch last season, and even post the best record in baseball for the month of September.
This is another team with rising talent everywhere. Shortstop Mike Aviles hit .325 as a rookie last year, and projects to be the number three hitter this season. Mike Jacobs was added to play first base and bat in the middle of the order with Jose Guillen. If Jacobs can raise his .247 average and cut down on his k's, this could end up being a very underrated line-up.
The pitching is decent, now that Zack Geinke has started living up to his potential. Gil Meche is a serviceable number two, but if Brian Bannister doesn't bounce back from his sophomore slump, than the Royals will find it tough to compete.
The bullpen was solidified with the addition of the veteran Farnsworth, and the re-signing of Horacio Ramirez. Joakim Soria is an absolute stud. Soria, who may be every bit as good as more well known closers like Nathan and Papplebon, was second in the AL with 42 saves and had an ERA of 1.60.
The big question for the Royals, is pretty much the same question that most borderline playoff teams face. Do we have enough pitching? even if Bannister returns to form. The Royals will be competitive, but may still be a pitcher or two away from making a serious run at the playoffs. They will be a team that nobody wants to play in September, though.
No. 5. Cleveland Indians, 81-81 in 2008
Key additions: Kerry Wood, Joe Smith
Key loses: Franklin Gutierrez
Of the teams on this list, the Cleveland Indians were the closest to making the playoffs. The Indians also did an excellent job at addressing their needs in the offseason. The offense was good last year, and may include the best all-around player in the game in Grady Sizemore. This team should have no problems scoring plenty of runs, especially if Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner are healthy and return to form.
The bullpen has been a weak spot for the Indians for some time. Cleveland 's two biggest moves this off-season looks as if it has solved the problem. First, the Indians picked up side arm-er Joe Smith, who was the only reliable pitcher in the Mets' pen last season.
The Cleveland signed Kerry Wood. Wood, in his first year as a closer in 2008, was healthy for the first time in a long time and ended up saving 34 games for the NL Central Champs last season. He could be the move that puts the Indians over the top.
The big question for Cleveland is the rotation. Can Cliff Lee build off his 2008 Cy Young award winning season? Is Fausto Carmomna finally healthy? And after those two, who pitches?
Which, if any of these teams can pull off what the Rays did in 2008? Each of these teams have many of the elements that mad Tampa Bay successful last season. The Rays proved last season, that anything is possible. And like they say, that's why they play the games.