After a very successful 2008, where the young Rays finally broke through and got all the way to the World Series, only to lose to the Phillies, the team has stocked up by improving several of the pieces that were missing in 2008, which should help them be even better in 2009.
Additions: OF/DH Pat Burrell, OF Gabe Kapler, RP Brian Shouse, RP Jason Isringhausen, RP Lance Cormier, RP Derek Rodriguez (Rule 5 Pick), RP Joe Nelson, 2B Adam Kennedy, 3B Morgan Ensberg, OF Matt Joyce
The Rays have managed to try to keep the bullpen strong, signing RP Brian Shouse to replace Trever Miller, who signed with the Cardinals. RP Joe Nelson and possibly RP Jason Isringhausen will be very helpful in trying to help close games, as there is no set closer yet at this time, pending what happens with RP Troy Percival.
Adam Kennedy will be good AAA insurance in case Akinori Iwamura struggles or gets injured, and Morgan Ensberg could be a good depth signing in case of Evan Longoria or Willy Aybar getting hurt.
The addition of DH Pat Burrell gives them another right-handed 30 HR threat, and he can occasionally play the outfield as well. Gabe Kapler is also helpful for bench depth, as he proved last year in Milwaukee. OF Gabe Gross may be in danger of losing his spot if he struggles in Spring Training.
OF Matt Joyce is expected to play every day in RF and brings the Rays the young, cheap RF they needed to fill the void after trading Delmon Young to the Twins for Matt Garza.
Meanwhile, Delmon Young has struggled in Minnesota and is potentially trade bait.
Now for their lineups.
SP Scott Kazmir 12-8, 3.49 ERA, 1.27 WHIP (likely No. 2)
SP James Shields 14-8, 3.56 ERA, 1.15 WHIP (he should be No. 1)
SP Matt Garza 11-9, 3.70 ERA, 1.24 WHIP
SP Andy Sonnanstine 13-9, 4.38 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
SP David Price or Jeff Niemann (out of options)
This could be one of the strongest rotations in baseball and will easily contend against teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays.
There are still some questions on the fifth starter role, as there are questions whether David Price should start in AAA or the majors. Jeff Niemann is also out of options, which could affect the decision. Also, there is a chance one of these pitchers (likely Niemann or Sonnanstine) could be trade bait later in the season, as there are more pitchers, such as Mitch Talbot, Wade Davis, and others, in the pipeline.
CP Troy Percival
RP Grant Balfour
RP Dan Wheeler
RP J.P. Howell
RP Joe Nelson
RP Brian Shouse
Long RP Jason Hammel or Jeff Niemann or Lance Cormier
ON DL: Chad Bradford (out until June)
With Chad Bradford's injury, there is room in the bullpen and starting rotation to carry both Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann. In addition, it is questionable whether Troy Percival will start healthy or on the DL. If not, there will be a closer-by-committee, although Jason Isringhausen should be considered as well, depending on his health after surgery last year.
Joe Nelson and Brian Shouse have been added, replacing Chad Bradford (out three months) and Trever Miller. Otherwise, few changes have been made to the bullpen, which should allow the Rays to remain a strong team.
2B Akinori Iwamura
LF Carl Crawford
CF B.J. Upton (expected to start on DL, recovering from offseason surgery; a return is expected in the second week of April)
1B Carlos Pena
3B Evan Longoria
DH Pat Burrell
RF Matt Joyce
C Dioner Navarro
SS Jason Bartlett
With the additions of Burrell and Joyce, this lineup will be made even more dangerous than last year, with the power threats of Pena, Longoria, Upton and Burrell.
Whether Matt Joyce claims the RF job will depend what happens in Spring Training. Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez are also in the mix.
Regardless, this is a fast team, with Upton, Crawford, Iwamura and Bartlett able to rack up huge SB totals, especially if certain pitchers/catchers are unable to throw out baserunners.
Such examples of teams unable to throw out baserunners include the Yankees pitchers and their catcher, Jorge Posada, or the Red Sox pitchers and their declining catcher, Jason Varitek. (As you may recall in the Yankees preview, I wrote previously that there are questions about Posada's ability to throw out baserunners, and I am still convinced he can recover at age 37.)
C Shawn Riggans/John Jaso/Michael Hernandez
UTIL Ben Zobrist
IF Willy Aybar
OF Gabe Kapler
A versatile bench, with both Zobrist and Aybar able to play multiple positions and having decent offensive power as well. Gabe Kapler will add some outfield versatility, able to play all three positions, and has decent pop in his bat. Catching is still a question, with competition for the backup job between Riggans, prospect John Jaso, and late season acquisition Michael Hernandez.
Unlike the Yankees, who have no depth or versatility on their bench, the Rays could have the best bench in the majors.
With much of the team back from last year, plus some very good additions, the Rays will contend again and will have a very decent shot at returning to the World Series.
95 wins, in playoffs, potential World Series contender.