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Tampa Bay Rays: Lightning in a Bottle or Emerging Power?

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Tampa Bay Rays: Lightning in a Bottle or Emerging Power?
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

2008 was a dream year for the Tampa Bay Rays. On the back of a strong young pitching staff, the league's most efficient defensive team, and just enough offensive potency, the Rays captured the AL East, the AL pennant, and America's attention alike.

That was 2008. What will 2009 bring? Will the Rays chug along on the positive vibes of that rosy dream—the 2008 season? Or will a new day mean a return to the same nightmares of old?

THE underlying reason for the transformation of Tampa Bay from perennial losers to the class of the uber-competitive AL East was pitching. A team that finished last in team ERA in 2007 with a grotesque 5.53 ERA made a great leap to the MLB's third best pitching squad, with a 3.82 ERA.

The starting rotation became significantly better. Matt Garza joined the club in an off-season trade and immediately bolstered the rotation. James Shields entrenched himself as one of the AL's best No. 2 starters.

Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson pitched surprisingly well at the end of the rotation. Scott Kazmir was nasty as always, but nagging injuries and a continuing high walk rate again dented his ability to reach the dominant level he could reach.

More importantly, the bullpen jumped from a 6.16 2007 ERA to 3.55 2008 ERA (a recipe for success for the NY Mets?). Troy Percival arrived and helped improve the bullpen. The likes of Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and J.P. Howell vastly improved. On the whole, it was one of the most remarkable bullpen turnarounds in recent memory.

Drastic turnaround were not limited to the pitching staff. Defensively, the Rays made an unthinkable jump from a .656 defensive efficiency (the worst in roughly 50 years) to .710, the major's best (note that defensive improvement no doubt aided a rise in the team's ERA).

This was the flavor of Tampa Bay's 2008 season—in every facet, they leaped from historically awful to the class of the league. It was an accelerated turnaround matched only by a Barry Sanders juke and Robert Downey's career. It defied sense—could you imagine the Clippers challenging for the NBA title next year?

Neither can I.

Buoyed by among baseball's best defenses and pitching staffs, the Rays merely needed some offense.

A solid cast of characters—Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, Dioner Navarro to name a few—left only the need for a star middle-of-the-order hitter, which Evan Longoria immediately filled upon getting the call to the big league club to the tune of 27 HRs and 85 RBIs in only 122 games. B.J. Upton disappointed...until he carried the team through the playoffs to the World Series.

Thus, the question remains: Do this year's Rays have the mix and the mojo to stay on the cloud nine that was the 2008 MLB season? Do they have staying power, or was 2008 a temporary confusion in the general order of things?

To replicate last year's success, the Rays will have to continue to emphasize defense and pitching. It became their MO last year, and further success depends on its further emphasis. With the same cast of characters on the field, it is hard to see a large drop-off.Check.

Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Sonnanstine all return, at the respective ages of 25, 28, 25, and 29, indicating possible room for improvement. And the rich will be getting richer. David Price, widely regarded as baseball's best pitching prospect and last fall's bullpen hero, is expected to join the rotation after a temporary stint in Triple-A. Check x 2.

The bullpen remains intact, with Percival, Wheeler, Balfour, and Howell all still around to shut down games. However, one has to wonder if Percival will continue to age well (or even be healthy) and if the career years of the other three will be matched this year.

Relief pitchers are by necessity fickle players (they do not get enough innings maintain or ruin a rhythm), so great relief pitchers can all of a sudden become saboteurs (see Aaron Heilman).

In this respect, the Rays look possibly vulnerable.

Offensively, the Rays can only expect improvement. Longoria, the young 3B, is already regarded among the game's best sluggers, and even if he were to suffer a sophomore slump, should post the team's best power numbers.

BJ Upton's postseason hints at stardom, but color me skeptical as to his ability to consistently play well over the course of a season. Carl Crawford returns after a dismal 2008, returning to the Rays a star they learned to play without a year ago. Pena can be expected to re-do the 30-100 of yesteryear.

Pat Burrell, fresh from beating the Rays in last year's World Series when he was a member of the Phillies, gives Longoria lineup protection.

Though spotted with question marks of injury, youth, and inconsistency, the Rays can actually expect to improve on the middling offensive squad they were a year ago. Check.

So, with an improving pitching staff and offense, the Rays are set to be among baseball's best for years, right? Consider me skeptical. To an extent, I think the Rays caught lightning in a bottle a year ago. Their offense was not great, yet they continued to win games.

Their bullpen had an ERA jump that was so unbelievable that a regression is eminently believable. Their young rotation is among baseball's best, but Kazmir continues to present a concern as injury and wildness problems continue to dampen his career.

All of this is relevant, but a mere look at facts and stats will miss the point. In fact, as my team review for the upcoming season shows, they can expect to get better in certain areas, with the arrivals of Price and Burrell.

Indeed, last year, to an extent, they caught on to an elusive bit of magic, and rode the wave of confidence all the way to the World Series.

They were a strong team, no doubt, and I expect them to continue to be a strong squad. But I expect the dream of last year to meld back into a sobering introduction to reality.

They will be good and contend, but I expect the Red Sox to re-capture the division and the Yankees to quite possibly re-pass the Rays. Nor should one forget the Blue Jays, a perpetually dismissed--but solid--team.

The Rays may again make the playoffs, but in the competitive AL, it should be a struggle. Were it my money, I would wager that the Rays will miss the playoffs.

Though the Rays seemingly have the recipe to replicate last season's success, I can't escape the jarring sense that last season's Rays caught lightning in a bottle. The euphoric dream sequence will relinquish its hold to the smack of the reality of just another day.

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