Well, they're here—the carrots at the end of the stick, the Three Gorillas in the American League East.
The Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox look like enormous, rampaging beasts who will run roughshod through the rest of Major League Baseball while recovering from titanic clashes with each other.
Baseball rarely shakes down according to specs, but it's really tough to see how the mere mortals of the MLB world can deal with these guys on a daily basis. Even if you make every effort to see the gaps in armor and soft underbellies.
Obviously, injuries can erode even the widest talent gaps and we've already seen important pieces go down for Boston (Dustin Pedroia) and New York (Alex...Rodriguez—that's it, sorry, had to look that one up).
But all three organizations have so much talent...
Anyway, on with it.
If you've been reading these previews, you've probably noticed that I tend to work my way up from the bottom of the division. Not always, but it's been a general trend.
See where I'm going with this?
Yeah, I don't think the Tampa Bay Rays will return to the postseason in 2009.
It's nothing against them and it's absolutely unfair/inconsistent/etc. as their trip to the World Series is the primary reason I'm going with the Philadelphia Phillies as the overall favorite in the National League. Not only that, all those unsightly adjectives apply even more appropriately since denying Tampa it's incumbent credit goes against my general ethos in regards to professional sports.
As a rule, I firmly believe you've got to dethrone the champ before you can become the favorite. So, yeah, dropping Tampa behind two other teams is weak sauce.
In my defense, the Rays play in the same division with the Original Evil Empire and Evil Empire II. That right there is the definition of exigent circumstances. If the Phils faced off against the OEE and EEII 35-plus times a year, I'd be going against them as well.
Plus, nobody expected Tampa Bay to arrive last year.
Usually, when a team emerges early or unexpectedly to enjoy years of dominance, there's a hiccup along the way. The 1996 Yanks won their first Winter Classic in almost two decades, then stumbled in '97 before annihilating rebel bases in '98, '99, and 2000.
The New England Patriots stunned the National Football League by taking out the Greatest Show on Turf in 2002, then face-planted in '03 before taking two more Super Bowl titles in '04 and '05.
Even the great UCLA basketball dynasty under John Wooden lost the 1966 title after wins in '64, '65. The legendary program then claimed the trophy from '67 through '73.
To complicate matters, the Rays are relying on a ton of youth that's now had an entire offseason to consider just how cool they were in 2008. Maybe the ultimate failure in the WS motivates them to greater heights, but I think the premature success finally catches up to them and the struggle a bit with the newfound celebrity.
Ugh, I feel a little ill having typed that last part because look at this roster:
Projected starting lineup
First base—Carlos Pena
Second base—Akinori Iwamura
Third base—Evan Longoria
Left field—Carl Crawford
Center field—Bossman Jr. Upton
Right field—Matt Joyce/Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler
Designated hitter—Pat Burrell
This is no longer a team that must wait on prospects. Consequently, I'm not gonna waste too much time/space dissecting them. The No. 2 and No. 4 prospects are in camp because both play shortstop, which is the most vulnerable spot in the lineup.
But neither 19-year-old Tim Beckham (No. 2) nor 23-year-old Reid Brignac (No. 4) is doing much of anything yet. Ben Zobrist is also there to give Bartlett a little incentive.
Right field is the other question mark and you can through Justin Ruggiano's name in there as well. It'll probably be a platoon situation until somebody stakes a permanent claim. When/if that happens, the rest of those guys will form a capable bench with the likes of Morgan Ensberg, Zobrist, Willy Aybar, and Adam Kennedy.
Somebody named Ray Sadler is crushing exhibition pitching at the moment, but he's already 28 and doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar.
Ace—James Shields (R)
Second spot—Scott Kazmir (L)
Third spot—Matt Garza (R)
Fourth spot—David Price (L)
Fifth spot—Andy Sonnanstine (R)
Here's were I start feeling really nauseous. That is an ironclad rotation ace through the finsky. What's even more impressive is that most of the Rays' top prospects are pitchers, two are in camp, both are getting starts, and they're doing pretty well.
In fact, if you were to base it totally off Spring Training starts, you'd say that Price isn't going to be the young gun in the rotation (no starts yet).
That honor would be going to 23-year-old righty, Wade Davis. He is Tampa's No. 3 prospect according to Baseball America and he's gotten three exhibition starts to mixed results. Or maybe another top prospect, 26-year-old Jeff Niemann.
That young righty has seen two starts, 11 exhibition innings, and surrendered a single run. He may even unseat Sonnanstine although that seems unlikely since Andy will only be 26 in a several days and showed supreme composure in '08.
Regardless, the starting rotation has layers upon layers of talent and none of it's aged beyond Shields' 27 years.
Closer—Troy Percival (R)
Set-up—Dan Wheeler (R)
Set-up—J.P. Howell (L)
Set-up—Grant Balfour (R)
Set-up—Chad Bradford (R)
Set-up—Brian Shouse (L)
Set-up—Joe Nelson (R)
You can see why picking the Rays to finish out of the money has me feeling so vomitous. How, in the name of all that's holy, can that NOT be a playoff team?
Honestly, that right there is a World Series favorite in any other division in baseball. No doubt about it.
The weakness—if you want to call it that—can be found in the guys wielding the maple and ash.
It looks like B.J. Upton, who hit .273 with 37 doubles, nine home runs, 85 runs scored, 67 runs batted in, 44 stolen bases, an on-base percentage of .383, and an OPS of .784. With one arm.
Bossman Jr. will be 25 in August so there's no reason to think he won't be right as rain once he's back from offseason shoulder surgery that figures to keep him on the shelf for possibly a week after Opening Day.
It looks like Evan Longoria, who hit .272 with 31 doubles, 27 bombs, 67 runs, 85 RBI, a .343 OBP, and an .874 OPS despite only 448 at-bats in '08 due to injury and falling prey to the business side of baseball. Not only that, the 23-year-old phenom plays a superlative hot corner.
Just unreal leather at one of baseball's most difficult positions.
It looks like Carl Crawford—.273 with 12 doubles, 10 triples, eight big flies, 69 runs, 57 RBI, 25 SBs, a .319 OBP, and a .718 OPS despite missing the last seven weeks with a torn finger tendon and struggling with hamstring issues until the final shutdown. This will look like a typo, but it's not—Crawford turns 29 in August i.e. he's still in his prime so expect him to rebound from injury with a vengeance.
Remember, this is the vulnerable part of the club.
Carlos Pena's two years of productive average were probably smoke and mirrors, but his power is for real and he gets on base—24 doubles, 31 homers, 102 RBI, a .377 OPB, and an .871 OPS. Most teams will take that in a pinch. From your fourth most dangerous hitter.
New acquisition Pat Burrell brings more of the same. He only hit .250 in 2008, but he mashed 33 doubles, 33 taters, scored 74 runs, tallied 86 RBI, reached base at a .367 clip, and finished with an OPS of .875. You might see a bit of a decline since he's 32, switching to a more pitcher-friendly park, and seeing new pitchers.
But that line has been a staple for Pat the Bat, so don't bet on it.
Dioner Navarro is a 25-year-old, switch-hitting All-Star catcher. I'll take it.
What's that you say? He hit .295 with 27 doubles, 43 runs, 54 RBI, a .349 OBP, a .757 OPS, and only struck out 49 times in 427 ABs last year? Even better. Sure, he's not gonna hit for power—Jimmy crack corn and I don't care.
Akinori Iwamura and Jason Bartlett are pretty similar although Iwamura offers a bit more power while Bartlett provides considerably more speed. Neither is remarkable in any capacity, though Bartlett may have been a 30-plus swipe guy had he not injured his knee in the middle of the '08 campaign.
The right field situation is too cluttered to parse out at the moment. The Gabes (Gross and Kapler) are capable back-ups, but have proven to wear out under the strain of a starting gig. Matt Joyce and Justin Ruggiano are pure potential at this point.
So that's what an Achilles' heel looks like atop the AL East. Huh.
Even compared to a rugged lineup like that, the Tampa Bay pitching staff is clearly the strength of the team.
I've already covered the most disturbing thing about the starters (if you are the opposition), that being the maturity and development well beyond their very tender years.
James Shields (27), Scott Kazmir (25), Matt Garza (25), and Andy Sonnanstine (soon-to-be 26) all registered 2008 WHIPs below 1.30 and only Sonnanstine's earned run average was north of 4.00. Only Sonnanstine's K per nine innings was south of 6.00.
The guy not included above, David Price, is the youngest (24 in August) and has the best stuff. Plus Tampa's got more arms on farm that are even younger. Good grief.
The other half of the staff is no less staggering despite the absence of a terrifying closer.
Troy Percival is well-removed from his glory days in California/Anaheim/Los Angeles and he is a series of injuries waiting to happen. But he only blew four saves in 32 chances last year. His peripherals were decent and, in an ideal world, they'd be better.
But, for a closer, all that matters is that save percentage and Percival's (87.5 percent) was damn fine.
Of course, part of the reason Percival looks so underwhelming is because of the arms around him. The bridge from the starters to the closer in Tampa might as well be an 85-degree uphill grade for opposing "drivers" to climb (2008 stats):
J.P. Howell—1.13 WHIP, 2.22 ERA, 92 Ks, 39 walks, six HRs allowed, 89+ innings pitched
Dan Wheeler—0.99 WHIP, 3.12 ERA, 53 Ks, 22 walks, 10 HRs allowed, 66+ IP
Grant Balfour—0.89 WHIP, 1.54 ERA, 82 Ks, 24 walks, three HRs allowed, 58+ IP
Chad Bradford—1.25 WHIP, 2.12 ERA, 17 Ks, 15 walks, three HRs allowed, 59+ IP
Joe Nelson—1.19 WHIP, 2.00 ERA, 60 Ks, 22 walks, five HRs allowed, 54 IP
Brian Shouse—1.17 WHIP, 2.81 ERA, 33 Ks, 14 walks, five HRs allowed, 51+IP
Bradford spent most of the year with the Baltimore Orioles, Nelson spent its entirety with the Florida Marlins, and Shouse did so with the Milwaukee Brewers so those numbers may be misleading, but I doubt it.
The worries regarding a genuine stopper as the keystone to this dynamite 'pen look a little fabricated. Howell, Wheeler, and Balfour seemed to handle the role decently plus David Price has yet to get a spring start.
With Niemann pitching so well, it's conceivable Tampa uses Price in the role he played to much acclaim last postseason (closer) while seeing if the other young buck can shore up the resulting hole in the rotation. Some will say that's a waste of talent, but that's a little myopic considering a reliable closer may be more important than a vicious third/fourth starter.
Not is, may be.
In any event, I don't see a whole lot to worry about in the bullpen. Nor with the rest of the team if observed in a vacuum. There just aren't serious flaws.
Which is why it's no stretch to say this would be the best team in any other division in Major League Baseball.
The offense is its obvious weakness, but it's got the kind of brute strength that accidentally kills puppies. The starting pitching has redundant talent like few modern rotations have ever seen and the bullpen looks about as prone to generosity as Manny Ramirez.
But there are three shades of perfection fighting for two spots. One must lose.
Unfortunately, I think that means the Tampa Bay Rays may just be the best team in the history of Major League Baseball to miss the postseason.
On the bright side, the 1993 San Francisco Giants will happily concede the title.