Over the last few years, the Tampa Bay Rays have converted from an also-ran into a contender. Last year at this time, they were the defending American League champions. In my 2009 preview article, I posed a question: will they be able to win now that it is expected from them?
The answer was mixed: yes, they won…but just not enough.
And so the question lingers, but must be asked a little differently: can they win enough to make it to the post-season in the American League East? The front office has definitely improved the team, and there are two more prospects (P Jeremy Hellickson / OF Desmond Jennings) who are on the verge of improving what is already a very good club. But will it be enough?
Notable Additions: C Kelly Shoppach, P Rafael Soriano
Notable Subtractions: 2B Akinori Iwamura, P Joe Nelson, C Gregg Zaun
Key Performer, 2010: B J Upton
Starting Rotation P David Price
The front of the Rays' rotation does not look as strong as it did a year ago, but overall it looks much deeper. Southpaw Scott Kazmir was traded to Los Angeles during the season, but right-handers James Shields (11-12, 4.14) and Matt Garza (8-12, 3.95) remain. Behind the Big Two are a quartet of young starters who all hold great potential — three of whom will begin the season in the rotation (the fourth will begin the season in Triple-A).
Jeff Niemann (13-6, 3.94) will assume Kazmir’s role as the #3 starter. While he is much less experienced than Kazmir, it does not appear he carries the susceptibility to injury that clouded Kazmir’s tenure over the last few years. At 6′9″, 280 lbs, he provides the ball club with an imposing presence on the mound.
Phenom David Price (10-7, 4.42) slots into the rotation behind Niemann. While some of the southpaw’s reputation was tarnished by his struggles last year, he is a superior talent with boundless potential.
At the back end of the rotation the Rays have rookie RHP Wade Davis (2-2, 3.72), who made a very nice late-season debut with the ballclub… but, like Niemann and Price, he is young and untested and it is impossible to know how he will respond to the daily grind of pitching in the AL East.
If any of these guys struggle or suffer injury, Hellickson (their #2 prospect) will be awaiting his chance in Durham (Triple-A).
The Rays bullpen will enjoy the luxury of having some stability at the closer position this season. Unlike last year, when the position was a revolving door at times (NINE different pitchers recorded saves last year), manager Joe Maddon will be able to turn to one guy on a daily basis to slam the door in the 9th inning.
The front office brought in Braves closer Rafael Soriano (2.97 ERA, 27 saves) to finish games, thus, other pitchers can be placed into definitive roles and the bullpen will have much-needed stability.
At this point in time, the health of JP Howell (7-5, 2.84, 17 S) is up in the air…but, if he proves to be healthy, he will once again be a force in a setup role. Power arms Dan Wheeler (4-5, 3.28) and Grant Balfour (5-4, 4.81) will share setup duties with Howell, while Andy Sonnanstine will serve as the middle man and emergency starter.
If Howell is healthy, and Balfour and Sonnanstine recover from their very mediocre performances of a year ago, this has all of the makings of an outstanding bullpen.
The Rays had the fifth-highest scoring offense in the American League in 2009 — and that was with Pat Burrell, Dioner Navarro and BJ Upton all having horrific seasons. It is unlikely Burrell or Upton can perform as miserably again, and Navarro has been replaced in the lineup by former Indians catcher Kelly Shoppach. It would not surprise me to see the Rays offense finish second in the league in runs scored in 2010 (behind the NY Yankees).
SS Jason Bartlett (.320, 14 HR, 66 RBI, 30 SB) and LF Carl Crawford (.305/15/68/60) will occupy the first two spots in the batting order, followed by future AL-MVP 3B Evan Longoria (.281/33/113) and 1B Carlos Pena (.227/39/100). Ben Zobrist (.297/27/91) will bat fifth and play either second base or right field (it says here he’ll be in the infield).
Initially, DH Pat Burrell (.221/14/64) and CF BJ Upton (.241/11/55) are slated to hit sixth and eighth, respectively, but I expect they will eventually be swapped in the lineup. My belief is RF Matt Joyce will demonstrate plenty of power, thus allowing the Rays to play Zobrist in the infield and send Reid Brignac to Durham (Triple-A) to continue his development. Shoppach (.214/12/40) will bat ninth.
With the back end of the starting rotation plagued by question marks, it is critical that the offense operate at maximum efficiency if they Rays hope to overtake the Red Sox and / or the Yankees in pursuit of a post-season bid. The club will need Burrell, Upton and Carlos Pena to improve on their performances of last season.
The Rays should improve on their record of last season (84-78), but by how many games? Assuming Niemann doesn’t take a step backwards, the top of the rotation should be very solid, and Price could easily develop into the kind of monster that his raw talent suggests he will become. The bullpen and lineup should both be better than last season.
Tampa Bay has a tough road to travel each year - attempting to qualify for the playoffs while playing in the same division as two of the top franchises in baseball (in terms of financial resources). However, the Rays front office has proved up to the task.
The key to 2010 will be the rotation: if Shields and Garza rediscover their form, if Niemann can avoid a sophomore slump, and if Price, Davis and / or Hellicksen continue to develop, then it’s feasible that the Rays can overtake one or both of their rivals from the northeast. I think it’s a lot to expect. The fans in Tampa have to understand that EVERYTHING went right in 2008 - that is the exception, not the rule.
SOX1Forecast: 90-72, 3rd place
1. OF Desmond Jennings
2. P Jeremy Hellickson
3. P Wade Davis
4. INF Reid Brignac
5. P Matt Moore