Could the Rays Be Even Better?

Owen RangerContributor IMarch 1, 2009

The Tampa Bay Rays won 97 games last year and "arrived" a year or two earlier than most people thought they would. However, there is a distinct possibility that they could be even BETTER this year, maybe even a lot better. For starters, let's take a look at their core offensive players, only one of whom, new designated hitter Pat Burrell, is currently older than 30.

B.J. Upton: Upton played hurt most of last year and lost his power until putting on a blistering display during October. If he is healthy enough to at least return to his 2007 level (24 home runs, .894 OPS) and bats at the top of the lineup as manager Joe Maddon is considering, he will most likely be the most devastating lead-off man in the American League.

Carl Crawford: Crawford had his worst full season last year, missing over fifty games and seeing his numbers drop across the board. When he's in the lineup he does tons of good things for his team, and he and Upton together cover tons of outfield space on defense.

Carlos Pena: After a brilliant 2007, Pena started 2008 painfully slow. While he may not hit 46 home runs, or post a 1.038 OPS again, it is not unreasonable to expect a slight improvement over last year, especially if he's sandwiched between full seasons from the consistent Burrell and...

Evan Longoria: Longoria was a legitimate MVP candidate despite not playing in forty games due to his later call-up and a broken wrist down the stretch. If you project last year's numbers over a full season he would hit 36 homers and drive in 112 runs, in addition to being one of the best defensive third basemen in the game.

Scott Kazmir: Kazmir pitched hurt last year, missed a few starts, didn't feel comfortable using his breaking ball much due to the discomfort in his elbow, and still struck out 166 batters and posted a 3.49 ERA. If he's 100 percent, there's no reason not to expect him to post 200 or more strikeouts again—perhaps his ERA will drop with baseball's best defense behind him.

So five of Tampa Bay's best players can easily improve on their numbers from last year if they're healthy enough.  That's before considering the upgrade that many of their younger players (Upton, Longoria, Matt Garza, David Price) should experience as they approach their prime years. 

Burrell will also stabilize their lineup and give them a lineup with four serious home run threats (Pena, Burrell, Longoria, Upton) as well as extra base hit-machine Crawford.  They will also have some pop off the bench with Matt Joyce and Willy Aybar.

So long as their bullpen manages to hold onto leads (which shouldn't be terribly difficult with eight good-to-excellent defensive regulars behind them), Tampa Bay should challenge for 100 wins, and is still the team to beat in the American League East.