Tampa Bay Rays: Early Season Breakdown

Steven WynockerCorrespondent IApril 28, 2008

For years, Rays fans like myself have been saying this is the year we compete.

The year baseball matters in August and September.  The year that we challenge New York and Boston for the AL East crown.  The year where Buccaneer football talk can play second fiddle to the backstretch of the baseball season.

This year is finally that year.

The Rays have solidified a formidable bullpen, which in the past has served as the team’s Achilles heel. The young pitching staff, without true ace Scott Kazmir, has done more than its share to keep the team in the games.

The young lineup, which looked to be the strong point heading into the season, has surprisingly been the downfall in some regards.

Several regular starters have already landed on the DL, including Dioner Navarro, Cliff Floyd, and Willy Aybar.

The injury to Aybar has brought about the young phenom Evan Longoria. Longoria has not disappointed batting near .300 with three home runs. 

Here is a breakdown of how the Rays players have started thus far:

Akinori Iwamura —  Aki has made a tremendous transition from the hot corner to second base.  He and Jason Bartlett have become a great double play combo.

Aki has served as the leadoff man and has struggled to get on base.  He is floating above the Mendoza line. 

On Saturday trailing 1-0 in the eighth inning, Aki pulled the ball down the right field line for a two-run home run to give the Rays the lead.

This was the greatest moment in his young major league career.

Carl Crawford —  Crawford has really picked up his hitting in the last two weeks.  He is flirting with .300 and is becoming one of the most prolific stolen base threats in baseball.

His power numbers should continue to climb as well. 

B.J. Upton —  B.J. has such a sweet swing that when he is seeing the ball, he can be one of the best young hitters in baseball.  Handles a breaking ball very well by keeping his weight back in the hitting zone. 

Carlos Pena —  Pena jumped out to a fast start with six HRs, but since then has been strike out prone and hampered by a hamstring injury.

Evan Longoria — The future third baseman for years to come has started off the way everyone has wanted him to.  His glove work has been just as impressive as his bat.

Eric Hinske —  Hinske had a great spring training and is continuing that thus far in the early season. He seems to have resurrected his career in a Rays uniform.

Dioner Navarro — Navarro, since the All-Star break last year, has batted over .320.  He had a freak injury early in the month but has since returned from the DL to get right back to where he left off.

Jason Bartlett — Bartlett struggled for most of the month with his bat and glove, but his glove has emerged as a major topic this week with several Web Gem quality plays.  Batting in the nine-hole also makes him a second lead off man who has great speed on the bases.

Other hitters include Jonny Gomes, who is always a threat for the long, and newcomer Gabe Gross, who is struggling early in the season as a Ray.

The starting pitching staff when Kazmir comes back should unfold somewhat like this:  Shields, Kazmir, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, and Andy Sonnanstine.

The Rays would like to separate Shields and Garza with the lefty Kazmir even though Kazmir is the proven ace.

The bullpen has been the strong point.  No that is not a typo.  For Rays fans we used to cry whenever Joe Maddon would point down the bullpen for a reliever. Now they are shutting down the door with new closer Troy Percival. 

Percy has been virtually unhittable in the early going.  Setup men Dan Wheeler and Trevor Miller have been equally impressive in the early going. 

With a guaranteed winning April, things are looking up for this promising club. With Kazmir set to return, Rays fans are getting the feeling that this is OUR year.