Last year, expectations for the Tampa Bay Rays were sky-high.
Here was a young team that the entire world got to see blossom during the playoffs.
The phenom, David Price, was showcased to the baseball community with his killer strikeout of J.D. Drew during the American League Championship.
Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton came out swinging during the playoffs; Upton hit the second most home runs in a single postseason with seven, and Longoria was not far behind his teammate with six.
This team looked like it was in the upper echelon and might only get better.
2009 looked like it might have been a repeat of the year before. Some experts were even picking the Rays to go deep into the playoffs.
By all accounts, the Rays did have a good season; they finished 84-78 (second-best season record for the Rays), and Longoria showed the world that he was going to quickly become one of the top third basemen in the MLB for years to come.
However, Price did not become the immediate ace that some people that he would become, Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson were traded away, and Dioner Navarro looked like he couldn't hit his way out of a paper bag.
What about 2010? What can we expect to see from these Rays? Andrew Friedman and company look like they may have assembled a team that could possibly be better than the team that made it to the World Series in 2008.
Akinori Iwamura was essentially traded for Rafael Soriano; Sean Rodriguez, the key piece in the Kazmir trade, looks to be pushing for the starting gig at second base; and Kelly Shoppach was brought in to possibly light a fire under Navarro.
I have a few questions that I feel must be answered to be able to evaluate how the Rays may do this year.
1) Can Rafael Soriano stay healthy enough to hold down the closer role all season and enable J.P. Howell to become a highly effective setup man?
This question could prove to be the key to the Rays' success this season. In 2009, the Rays blew 22 of their 63 save opportunities, which was good for a 65 percent save percentage, or tied for 16th in the majors. Soriano blew four saves last year, which could save the Rays a lot of the heartbreaking, late-inning losses they endured last season.
There is no question about Soriano's stuff, as he had a 12.13 K/9, which was good enough for second in the majors for relievers with 50 or more innings pitched. The question with Soriano is his durability; he has had two major arm surgeries in the last six years (Tommy John surgery in 2004 and a nerve transposition surgery in 2008).
If Soriano stays healthy, the team could be looking at its second World Series trip in three years.
Soriano Prediction: 70.2 IP, 2.88 ERA, 35 saves, 102 Ks
2) Will B.J. Upton resemble his 2007 or his 2009 incarnation?
Rays fans know what B.J. can be when he is completely healthy; he can be a 25 to 30 home run hitter that could possibly bat around .275. Upton had surgery during the 2008 offseason that many people feel affected the cannon-armed center fielder at the plate.
B.J. batted .204 in April and May before having an incredibly hot June, batting .324 with five home runs and 22 RBI. However, that month ended up being the outlier in a season that saw Upton bat .241 with only 11 home runs and 55 RBI.
I have heard people say that it takes about a year to fully recover from the surgery that Upton had in 2008, and if that is the case, Upton's stats may fall closer to his 2008 stats with a few more home runs.
Upton Prediction: .278, 16 home runs, 72 RBI, 37 SBs
3) How will the trio of Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and David Price fare?
Rays fans are foaming at the mouth at the thought of these three hurlers realizing their potential all in the same season.
By all accounts, Jeff Niemann had a great rookie season last year. He went 13-6 last year with a 3.97 ERA and was looked at by some as the ace of the staff by year's end.
Wade Davis joined the team as a September call-up and showed that he could hang with the big boys. In only his third career start, Davis threw a complete game, four-hit shutout against the Baltimore Orioles.
In six games, Davis compiled a 2-2 record with a 3.72 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. If you take away his terrible start against the Red Sox (2.2 IP, 8 ER), you see that Davis' ERA would have been much lower; he would have had a 1.87 ERA. While this was just a small sample size, it is very encouraging as a Rays fan going into this season.
David Price, the hero of the 2008 ALCS, did not live up to many people's expectations for the 2009 season. Price was called up at the end of May and went 10-7 with a 4.42 ERA. This was not a terrible season by any means, but he didn't just flat-out dominate the competition like some thought that he might.
With almost a full season of MLB experience under his belt, Price should be more prepared to face the competition this season.
Niemann Prediction: 14-7, 167.1 IP, 3.85 ERA, 115 Ks
Price Prediction: 13-8, 175 IP, 3.92 ERA, 145 Ks
Davis Prediction: 9-6, 155 IP, 4.15 ERA, 133 Ks
4) Can the Rays perform better on the road?
In 2008, the Rays finished 40-41 in games away from Tropicana Field. In 2009, the Rays fell to 32-49 away from home. Just like in every other sport, you must be able to win games on the road to have any chance of being successful during a 162-game season.
With a new back end to the bullpen and another year of experience for the young Rays, I think this will be one area of the game that they will improve greatly this season.
Prediction: 39-42 in away games
5) Will Ben Zobrist pick up where he left off in 2009?
Last year, Ben Zobrist finally found his place on the Tampa roster as the switch-hitting super-utility guy that could hit with some serious pop. Zobrist played every position except for catcher and pitcher for the Rays last season, all while hitting .297 with 27 home runs and 91 RBI.
Some people thought that Zorilla's home run power came out of nowhere, but his AB/HR was actually slightly regressed from his 2008 numbers (18.6 in 2009 compared to 16.5 in 2008). Zobrist will not be the super-utility player this year, as he will either be starting in right field or at second base.
If Zobrist can even approach his numbers from 2009, the Rays could have a very scary 3-4-5 in Zobrist, Carlos Pena, and Longoria.
Zobrist Prediction: .295, 25 home runs, 95 RBI, 14 stolen bases
There are still many more questions to be asked of the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays, but this serves as a beginning of the look into how the team may do this year.
Check back later this week for a few more questions and my AL East predictions for this season.
As always, feel free to share your thoughts about what you have read.