What’s that smell?
Ahhhh, yes. Spring Training is in the air. Christmas comes early for baseball fans across the country.
15 teams call Florida home for Spring Training.
Charlotte County Sports Park doesn’t have the flashy name of other ballparks, such as "Legends Field." The Park is simple. It houses 7,000 seats and sold out everyone of those seats in 2009 Spring Training.
This is where the Tampa Bay Rays prepare for their quest for a World Series in 2010.
Flashback to 2008.
Nobody in the world thought the Rays would finish anywhere close to the top of the vaunted AL East.
And they did. Winning their first ever divisional title.
Nobody thought the laughing stock of the MLB for their first 10 years in existence could capture an American League Championship.
They did that too, taking out Boston in 7 to win the ALCS, and reaching the World Series.
Losing to the Phillies in 5 games wasn't what the Rays were hoping for, but for the young franchise, "to lose is to learn."
Fast forward to 2010
Currently VegasInsider.com has the Rays listed at 11-1 odds to win the World Series (11-2 to win the American League). Tampa Bay certainly isn't a long shot this season, but isn't a sure-fire favorite either. The Rays fit somewhere in the middle.
It's fair to say that most wouldn't be shocked to see the team win another AL East title, or maybe even advance to the ALCS, possibly another World Series Birth. Likewise, the Rays aren’t in any sense expected to accomplish any of these things.
A team full of hungry young stars and little or no added pressure on the team to do great things could equivocate to a World Series ring this season.
In 2009, some of the lust from the '08 season seemed to where off and the team took a step back.
The main problem in 2009 was the inconsistent lack-luster performance by the bullpen. Its 22 blown saves was eighth-most in the Majors. J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier, and Randy Choate all saved at least one game. But nobody found a permanent home in the closer's role.
The starting pitching certainly dropped off last year as well. Offensively, Pat Burrell was the old, washed-up DH that everyone prayed he wouldn't be. BJ Upton was, in my opinion, God awful. The catcher position could have been better, too.
Now, as Spring Training approaches, what have the '10 Rays done to improve in these areas? Let’s take a look:
The Rays bullpen failure in 2009 was well observed and documented. The Rays front office knew what needed to be addressed and how to address it.
Early in December the Rays struck gold as they made a deal with the Braves, acquiring reliever Rafael Soriano. Soriano has electric stuff, and last season for Atlanta, he converted 27 out of 31 saves and 102 batters in just over 75 innings of work.
However, Soriano's greatest asset may be his ability to allow J.P Howell, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler to return to their more comfortable spots in the bullpen. All three can excel in setup roles. All three of these relievers saw their ERAs rise from 2008 to 2009. But their ERAs will all likely drop this year.
Shields will be good for at least 14 wins, but should not have to carry this rotation. Niemann improved towards the end of the season by leaps and bounds. He led the Rays with 13 wins. David Price wasn't as consistent as we would have liked. But we all know he's capable of incredible things. Matt Garza looks to bounce back from an eight-win season. With the intensity he brings every time he toes the rubber, I know he will improve this season.
Burrell was a letdown, a waste of money, over-rated, and washed up. I have heard Pat Burrell described as all those things last season. Set to make $9 million this year, Burrell is the Rays third-highest paid player.
However, don't bank on him producing the numbers the third-highest paid player should produce. The answer at DH could be plugging newly acquired Matt Joyce into this role, which would allow Fernando Perez to play right field.
Upton is still young, very young. It isn't unheard of for a young, talented player like Upton to have a down year. Personally I'm not the biggest fan of Upton, but there is no arguing the skills that he possesses. Look for him to rebound this year, giving the Rays an added spark they have been missing. If B.J can return to his form from the '08 Playoffs, it could make for a very exciting lineup this season. Hey, when you’re hitting .241 there’s nowhere to go but up.
The Rays added Kelly Shoppach, as he came over from the Indians. Not only will Shoppach push Navi at the catcher position, but he can provide some "pop" as well. Much Like Navi, Shoppach had his best year in 2008, blasting 21 home runs in a little over a hundred games.
With these improvements the Rays have made through the course of the off-season, and the development of their young talent, they are destined to do great things this season. This club is hungry and is ready. The Rays are solid around the diamond. At the plate, they have all the tools. Evan Longoria is going to be an MVP candidate, you can count on that. Now it's time to sit back and watch as Joe Maddon and his team's journey in the 2010 season leads back to the World Series.
Spring Training is finally here!
Lets Play Ball!