For the Tampa Bay Rays, there is no tomorrow. The Rays head into the 2010 season having put together a terrific spring, winning a club record 20 grapefruit league games. Their winning percentage was best in the majors at .750 and they won seven of eight to enter the season with some momentum.
All that Spring success doesn't mean a hill of beans now, though, because in a few days, the bullets fly for real and the team embarks on a 162 game escapade to ruin Boston or New York's hopes of a ticker tape parade.
As the Yankees bask in the glow of another World Championship and the Red Sox do what the Red Sox do—try their best to match the hated bullies from Broadway—both cast an eye over their shoulder at the young uber-talented team playing in front of a paltry crowd in one of the worst stadiums in the Majors.
They try to dismiss the Rays as that cute little team from Tampa (actually St. Petersburg, don't get the ole mayor started on that one) that's like a pesky gnat that doesn't seem to go away.
The fans of both clubs focus their energies on each other.
Yet the Rays continue to look every bit the part of a contender and real challenger to the evil empires of the American League East.
Still, Tampa Bay knows the time is now for this current crop of stars. With big contracts coming due and a payroll that the owner Stu Sternberg has termed "unsustainable", this may be Tampa Bay's last, best shot at a World Series trophy for a while.
Let's begin with the starting pitchin:
James Shields , Matt Garza , David Price , Jeff Niemann , and Wade Davis .
Shields and Garza have been on the cusp of dominant for a few years now. Each have had their ups and downs and have yet to turn into the 15-18 game winners that many figured them to become.
Part of that is because the Rays for the longest time never had the bullpen to protect the leads these talented guys left for them.
The other part is they were pressing because every pitch had to be perfect to keep those pitch counts down. Once they hit 90 to 100 pitches, Manager Joe Maddon was under a mandate from the upper management to pull them and protect their arms.
That mandate is over and done now. Both can relax and focus on what's important, getting guys out.
The second half of the starting rotation is filled with young but extremely talented youngsters.
Everyone knows David Price, the No. 1 overall selection in the Major League Draft in 2007. Price didn't quite live up to the billing in his first full season in the majors while posting a 10-7 record and a 4.42 ERA.
Price struggled with his command, issuing 54 walks, third most on the team. Still, you could see the talent. Flame throwing through 102 strikeouts in just 23 appearances, he showed the ability to blow it by guys.
The guy who came in under the radar for the Rays was Jeff Niemann. Niemann suprisingly led all Tampa Bay starters with 13 wins and his 3.94 ERA was tops among the starters. He was also second on the team with strikeouts with 125.
If Price and Niemann can both reach their expected potential, the Rays could find themselves with one of the best one through four staffs in baseball.
The final starter's gig went to youngster Wade Davis. Davis has been an exciting prospect for the Rays and was the primary reason Tampa Bay deemed Scott Kazmir expendable. Davis started six games for the big club during September callups last year and was impressive, going 2-2 while posting a solid 3.72 ERA and a whopping 36 strikeouts.
The starters will only take the team so far.
The bullpen will need to seal up games for Tampa Bay, a major weakness last season.
After a couple years as a starter for the Rays, Andy Sonnanstine moves into the bullpen as long relief. He's joined by stalwarts Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler , each who along with JP Howell took turns trying to save games for Tampa Bay. None were very good at it.
The bullpen took a hit when Howell went down with a strange weakness in his left shoulder. He should be back by the middle of May.
In the meantime, returning relievers Randy Choate and Lance Cormier along with newcomer Mike Ekstrom look to chew up innings to get to Tampa Bay's biggest offseason acquisitions, closer Rafael Soriano .
Soriano was an all-star for the Braves, saving 27 of 31 opportunities while posting a sparkling 2.97 ERA and 102 strikeouts. For a team that was among the league leaders in blown saves in 2009, that's music to their ears.
The biggest question about Soriano is can he stay healthy? If he can, he can easily become a high 30 save pitcher.
Pitching is always important in baseball, but that's not all Tampa Bay has to offer.
In the infield, gold glove 1B Carlos Pena also brings his powerful bat. He's hit 30 or more homers and over 100 RBI in each of the last three seasons. "'Los", as the fans call him, has shown no signs of slowing down and in a contract year can be expected to perform even better.
Manning second for the time being is newcomer Sean Rodriguez . Rodriguez, who came to the Rays in the Scott Kazmir deal, had a sensational spring, batting a whopping .459 with six homers and 17 runs batted in. His sparkling play forced utility man Ben Zobrist to the outfield. More on Zo-Rilla in a moment.
Rodriguez could platoon at second with another youngster, Reid Brignac.
At shortstop, All-Star Jason Bartlett has always been a solid fielder but last season found himself at the plate, posting career highs in batting average, home runs, and RBI. If Bartlett can prove that 2009 was no fluke, he may become one of the most important players on the baseball team.
At third base, Tampa Bay boasts one of the best young players in the game in Evan Longoria . Longo added a gold glove to his long list of accolades that includes back-to-back 25 plus home run seasons. His 113 RBI was fourth in the Majors. Already on the cover of video games and numerous magazine, he is without question the biggest shining star in a galaxy of talented ballplayers in Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay decided that catcher Dioner Navarro 's play had fallen off so much from his 2008 All-Star performance, new blood needed to be brought in to challenge and possibly replace Navarro. That new blood came in the form of the big bat of Kelly Shoppach .
After hitting 21 home runs for Cleveland in 2008, Shoppach's play and batting average dropped significantly in 2009, where he only hit 12 homers while batting an awful .214.
Tampa Bay hopes they can reingnite the fire that enabled Shoppach to be a force at the plate and find that secondary run scoring they need.
Navarro was injured in Spring Training but looks to be ready to play when Opening Day rolls around.
The Rays are awfully excited about their outfield in 2010. Carl Crawford remains among the very best players in baseball. Offensively, defensively, if ever there was a five tool player, it's "CC".
Playing in perhaps his final season in a Rays uniform, Crawford has the drive to lead this baseball team to a championship.
BJ Upton is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career but returns to Tampa Bay with a new dedication to his craft. Upton looked cut and trim, fully healed from the injuries that robbed him of performance last season, he put up a respectable spring battling .305 with three homers and 10 RBI in 20 games. If Upton can get anywhere close to the player that terrorized the White Sox and Red Sox in the 2008 post season, Tampa Bay could be in for a great 2010.
No one is more versatile in the Tampa Bay Rays lineup than Ben Zobrist . Able to play seven of the nine positions on the field, Zobrist will find his home in right field while the Rays await Matt Joyce to return to the lineup.
Gone is the god awful Gabe-and-Gabe show (Kapler and Gross); enter Zobrist, who had a career year with 27 home runs and 91 RBI.
As long as Zobrist continues to rip the rawhide off the baseball, they'll find a spot for him in the lineup.
Gabe Kapler remains with the ball club until Joyce (elbow) can return to the lineup after his stint on the 15 day disabled list.
Pat Burrell comes off the worst season of his baseball career and attempts to prove that Tampa Bay did not make a huge mistake when signing him to a big money deal.
After four straight years of at least 29 homers and over 80 RBI, Burrell struggled against American League pitching, managing a disappointing 14 home runs and only 64 RBI.
Spring didn't give the Rays much hope for "Pat the Bat", as he turned into Pat the Whiff by battling a paltry .174
So what does all this brimming talent mean for the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays? Like any baseball team (even the Evil Empires of the Northeast), there are questions that need to be answered.
Can Soriano stay healthy?
Can Shields, Garza, and Price reach that dominant potential?
Can BJ Upton, Kelly Shoppach/Dioner Navarro, and Pat Burrell rebound from horrible seasons last year?
Can Sean Rodriguez translate Spring success into regular season success?
Can the Rays middle relief get the game to their closer?
It won't be easy as both the Red Sox and Yankees remain as two of the best teams money can buy, but if the answer is yes to these questions, there's no doubt this baseball team can not only compete for a postseason berth but also win the entire enchilada.
My Prediction: 95-67, second in the AL East