*From Protect the Plate
After being God-awful in their first ten years of existence, the Tampa Bay Rays somehow won 97 games, took down the deep-pocketed juggernauts in the AL East, and became league champions.
Coming into the 2008 season, their franchise record for wins was 70, and they had lost at least 90 games every year, losing at least 100 three times.
The scary part about it is the Rays could have been much better last year.
Carl Crawford was hurt, Carlos Pena took a significant step back, B.J. Upton slumped, Scott Kazmir missed a handful of starts, and the team lacked a dominant closer. With a few new pieces added, the giant killers look to take down the Goliaths in the East once again.
More Time for Price
The Rays are being criticized for sending prized prospect and postseason hero David Price down to the minors to start the season.
Price combined to throw 123 2/3 innings at four difference levels last year and another 5 2/3 innings in the playoffs. He made just 20 starts, so there is good reason why Tampa Bay should try to limit his innings. They don't want him to become the next Mark Prior.
On the other hand, the deck is heavily stacked against the Rays in the AL East once again, with Boston and New York aiming to take the division. Managing Price is going to be tough and could be one of the keys to the Rays' season.
Pat the Bat
It may not have been the biggest signing in the offseason, especially when compared to the Yankees' free spending, but the Rays made a statement when they signed Pat Burrell.
He's never going to compete for a batting title, but the career .257 hitter has averaged 31 home runs, 98 RBI, and 103 walks over the past four seasons.
Whenever David Price is deemed ready, he'll be joining what could possibly be the deepest rotation in baseball.
James Shields enters the year as the No. 1. The 27-year-old led the team in wins (14), had a 3.56 ERA, and ranked fourth in the AL with a 1.15 WHIP last season.
Scott Kazmir, who's still only 25 years old, follows Shields, but has the stuff of a true ace. He missed a few starts last year, but still won 12 games to go with a 3.49 ERA and 166 strikeouts in 152 1/3 innings pitched.
Fellow 25-year-old Matt Garza won 11 games and had a 3.70 ERA last season, but became a star in the postseason. He was named ALCS MVP after overpowering the Red Sox lineup in Game 7, giving up one run on two hits while striking out nine. It was his second victory of the series.
Andy Sonnanstine, who went 13-9 with a 4.38 ERA in 32 starts, could be a No. 2 on many teams, but is the fourth starter for Tampa Bay.
One of the most surprising things about the Rays' 2008 season was that they completed their turnaround largely without Carl Crawford, one of the team's few bright spots entering the year.
The speedster totaled 109 games played and 443 at-bats after averaging 150 games and 616 at-bats over the first five full seasons of his career.
He was coming off a career year in 2007, and the 27-year-old should give the Rays the huge boost they lacked last season.
Upton On the Mend
Center fielder B.J. Upton will start the year on the DL as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery and a bruised hand.
Upton had a down year in 2008, watching his batting average drop 27 points, his home run total fall by 15, and his effort called into question on multiple occasions. He did swipe a career-high 44 bases and was a beast in the playoffs; Upton hit .288 in the postseason with seven homers, 16 RBI, and six steals in just 16 games.
The injury opens the door for Matt Joyce, who the Rays acquired from Detroit this offseason, to start the year in center. The 24-year-old hit 25 total home runs last season, 12 with the Tigers.
Carlos Pena led the Rays in both homers (31) and RBI (102) while playing Gold Glove defense at first base.
Third baseman Evan Longoria was the AL Rookie of the Year after hitting .272 with 27 home runs and 85 RBI.
Catcher Dioner Navarro entered the year as a .246 hitter, but posted a .295 batting average in '08.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett, who hit one home run last year, was named the team's MVP due to his defense and general approach to the game.
Dan Wheeler led the bullpen in appearances while picking up five wins, 13 saves, and 26 holds.
J.P. Howell pitched an AL-high 89 1/3 innings out of the bullpen and posted a 2.22 ERA in the process.
Grant Balfour had spent two years out of the majors before resurfacing in 2007 and had a breakthrough 2008, posting a 1.54 ERA while striking out 82 hitters in just 58 1/3 innings.
Jason Isringhausen is getting another shot in the bigs, but will start the year on the DL.
Another former Cardinal, Adam Kennedy, will start the year in Triple-A.
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