The Tampa Bay Rays are coming off their first successful season in the history of the franchise. Finally, they're not considered doormats with no vision of the future. Now the Pirates stand alone there. (Even the Royals are much improved!)
This club is scary in the pool of young talent they already hold, plus more on the way in the minor leagues. The Rays will compete for a very, very long time. But will they be able to withstand the Red Sox and Yankees assault in 2009?
PREDICTIONS: Shawn, Pat, Zach and I say the Rays finish second. Joe and Tim believe the Yankees will.
C DIONER NAVARRO | SHAWN RIGGANS
At age 24, Navarro finally put it all together and gave the Rays a top-notch offensive option behind the plate. Navarro didn't show power, but anyone would take a .295/.349/.407 line from a 24-year-old backstop. I like his chances of reaching double-digit home runs this year and establishing himself as an All-Star catcher. Think the Yankees would like Navarro back?
Think of Riggans as a Doug Mirabelli: low contact, high pop.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Navarro is one of the better young catchers in the league and is only just turning 25. While that doesn't bode well for his long-term future (breaking down earlier) it does mean he'll be among the better catchers for the next five years.
1B CARLOS PENA | WILLY AYBAR
Pena really turned heads in 2007, coming through with 49 home runs in what amounts as his career year. He slumped to a .249 average last year, which is commensurate with his Detroit Tigers year. Unlike Detroit, however, Pena has been able to provide value in his OBP. Good things portend for the future, given that he posted a .978 OPS in the second half, 200 points better than the first. He's one of the better first basemen in the game.
Aybar is a solid backup.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: I'm going push here—Pena's power is tempered by his average and K numbers. Youkilis has the better overall game and defense.
2B AKINORI IWAMURA
Iwamura made a successful transition to second from third last year and played in 152 games. Hitting .274/.349/.380, he lost power from 2007. He struggled out of the gate in April but showed impressive power the rest of the way before tiring starting in July. A better understanding of what it takes may allow Iwamura to leap over the .400 SLG line.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: D-Ped, and it's not particularly close.
SS JASON BARTLETT | BEN ZOBRIST
The Rays have come under fire for their adamant defense of Jason Bartlett, who hit a meager .286/.329/.361. The Rays and many people following them consider Bartlett the team MVP of 2008 due to being the linchpin behind converting the Rays from one of the league's worst defenses to one of the best.
Zobrist can play anywhere and may open the season as the starting center fielder for the Rays.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: The Sox' shortstop in flux situation makes this tough to assign. If it's Bartlett v. Lugo, I'm giving the slight edge to Bartlett. If it's against Lowrie, I'm calling a slight edge to the Red Sox. Since it'll most likely be a split between Lugo and Lowrie, I'll settle at a push.
3B EVAN LONGORIA
First off, props to Longoria for an awesome first name. Wish I had as great a name as that. Oh, wait, I do.
Longoria was supposed to be held off until mid-May last year to avoid Super-Two arbitration status, but a long-term contract took care of that, and he came right up in early April. He bashed 27 home runs and solidified himself as the cleanup hitter of the future. He runs bases smart (seven steals, none caught) and is a premier defender as well.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: You could consider Lowell the poor man's Longoria.
LF CARL CRAWFORD
Crawford actually regressed this year, posting a .275/.319/.400 while averaging roughly .310/.350/.475 the past two years. Hard to believe, but he'll be 27 this year, and entering his eighth major league season. He may never fully develop into the power threat he was once projected to, but I can't see him being this bad for the rest of his career.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: The 2007 Crawford loses to Bay. The career norm Crawford would beat Bay out thanks to stolen bases, doubles, and triples. Push is the safest bet.
CF BJ UPTON | GABE KAPLER
Upton hammered 24 home runs in 2007, his breakout year, while also hitting .300. He had quite a sophomore slump, as he sank to nine home runs although he did run the bases with more aplomb. As we're all painfully aware, Upton's power stroke returned in the playoffs. In fact, Upton's my pick to win AL MVP.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Jacoby's good...Upton can be great.
RF MATT JOYCE/GABE GROSS
Joyce is a new face, and will platoon with Gabe Kapler in right, while Gross will be released. (At least, that's the impression I have so far; the situation is not settled.) The lefty has impressed the Rays with his power (he hit 12 HRs in 242 AB last year for the Tigers) and looks to be another long-term outfielder in Tampa. He has options remaining, so the Rays may go with Gross in the short-term.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Drew is the certain thing, so I'm going with a win here. However, it's definitely feasible that the pairing of Joyce and Kapler could outproduce Drew.
DH PAT BURRELL
This is one of the more under-the-radar moves that happened this offseason. I think this could pay huge, huge dividends. Thirty-homer men are in short supply, and now the Rays have someone who will definitely hit at least 30 along with Carlos Pena...and Longoria and Upton could reach that level as well. Having that bona fide threat agitating right in the middle of the lineup really deepens it and gives it some force.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Gotta go Big Papi here, but the impact that Burrell will have on the Rays lineup will be significant.
SP SCOTT KAZMIR | JAMES SHIELDS | MATT GARZA | ANDY SONNASTINE | JASON HAMMEL/JEFF NIEMANN
Kazmir is a fireballing lefty who seems to shut down the Red Sox every time he pitches against them. If he could trim up his command, he could be a Cy Young winner. Until he does that, he'll merely be very, very good.
"Big Game James" Shields makes up for Kazmir's walks by not throwing many. He is a horse that keeps his team in the game more often than not. He will be 27 and should produce what he has the previous two years: over 200 innings and a mid-3.00s ERA.
Garza just finished up his first full year in the bigs after lodging half-seasons the previous two years with the Minnesota Twins. He profiles as a harder-throwing Shields, albeit with a higher ceiling. It's possible he regresses a bit this year after the workload of 2008, but I like his potential to take a leap forward.
Sonnastine rounds out the top four, and he's another pitcher that gave the Sox trouble. He's a soft-tosser with solid movement and pinpoint control and is a great complement to Kazmir and Garza's heat. Giving up 212 hits in 193.1 innings means he's generally reliant on the defense behind him. That hurt him in his 22 starts in 2007 where he posted a 5.48 ERA.
David Price should be here, but he was optioned to the minors for "baseball" decisions. Not sure whether or not to believe that, but he'll be up sooner rather than later (let's all hope for later). In his place, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann are fighting for the final spot. Both are out of options, so one will have to be traded unless the club opts to go with 12 pitchers and forsake Matt Joyce or Gabe Gross.
Hammel has pitched the most in spring training, amassing a team-high 25 innings and a 3.96 ERA while walking nine and whiffing 18. Niemann has 15.2 innings, walking six, whiffing 10, and posting a 6.32 ERA. On numbers alone, Hammel is the choice. On potential, Niemann is the choice.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: This is a very solid rotation, one of the better ones in the league. However, I'm not sold on their "stopper" status. When we hand Beckett the ball as an ace, we expect to win. Lester's quickly assuming that mantle and John Smoltz, of course, is the epitome of stopper. The Rays have loads of potential, but pale in comparison to the Red Sox—for 2009 only. If/when they bring Price up, they may gain the edge, but not now.
RP DAN WHEELER | GRANT BALFOUR | J.P. HOWELL | BRIAN SHOUSE | JOE NELSON | LANCE CORMIER
Wheeler was a former Ray that found himself in Houston then came back and is now one of the better setup men in the game. Has a chance to be a closer for a few years.
Balfour throws gas, and lots of it—58.1 IP, 82 whiffs. Wow. Only question is if his newfound command can stay. If it doesn't, he goes back to being a fringe reliever.
Howell was converted to a relief role and sparkled. It's possible he returns to the rotation at some point in his career, but for now he's a shutdown lefty. He's their Okajima. Shouse is a new import and will serve as the lefty specialist.
Joe Nelson, he of the Vulcan changeup that saw a couple innings' time in 2004 for the Sox, broke through for the Marlins last year after years and years of waiting. He adds another quality arm. Cormier has been bouncing around these last couple years. While still young, he doesn't really offer any redeeming qualities, so I'm surprised the Rays are adamant about carrying him. He posted a 4.02 ERA in 71.2 innings for the Orioles last year.
(The Rays also have former Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, but he'll be placed on the DL. Won't surprise me to see Cormier lose his spot to Izzy.)
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Very good bullpen, but the Sox have the clear edge. It's closer than you may think, though.
CL TROY PERCIVAL
His comeback story is remarkable, but his checkered injury history and "averageness" as a closer make this the one glaring liability on the Rays. Reminds me of how the Indians kept carrying Joe Borowski as their closer in 2007, even as everyone knew he shouldn't be. I don't mind Percy as the closer this year—he performed enough to keep his job and Howell/Balfour are (for now) one-year wonders. But if he falters, a move needs to be made.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Papelbon, of course.
CONCLUSION: I've identified the scoring as 7 Sox, 2 Rays, 3 Pushes, but I can easily see it being 7-5. Either way, there are no clear wins for the Red Sox over the Rays, so they're pretty evenly matched, like the Yankees. Of course, the Yankees have age and injury concerns, while the Rays are young and healthy. I expect them to be right in the thick of things and they are my pick to win the Wild Card.