MLB: Tampa Bay Rays' 2011 Preview

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays' 2011 Preview
Who knew Stewie was a Rays fan?

A little while back, we did an an examination on one of the Yankees' oldest enemies, the Red Sox.

Now we're going to look in depth on one of the newest Yankees rival, the Tampa "Don't call them Devil" Rays.

The Rays got hit hard this offseason—Carl Crawford left for the rival Red Sox, Rafael Soriano left for the rival Yankees.

In fact, not just Soriano, but a good chunk of the Rays' quality bullpen is gone, including Dan Wheeler (3.35 ERA, 46 SO, 1.08 WHIP, 48.1 IP), Grant Balfour (3.35 ERA, 46 SO, 1.08 WHIP, 48.1 IP) and Joaquin Benoit (1.34 ERA, 25 Holds, 75 SO, .68 WHIP, 60.1 IP).

Ooof. That’s a lot to lose.

Their rotation lost Matt Garza in a trade for prospects. Also gone is starting shortstop Jason Bartlett and first baseman/DH Carlos Pena.

In short, the team has been gutted and remade.

But is it better? Well, one good thing for the Rays is that their farm system is loaded and quality replacements are at the ready.

Taking over for Crawford is Johnny Damon, who will man the left field spot until highly-touted 24-year-old prospect Desmond Jennings is ready. Former first-round pick Reid Brignac will take over shortstop duties. Brignac, like much of the team, is young and can improve on his .256 BA.

The cipher of the Rays—and the man they most need to step up—is B.J. Upton.

A five-tool talent, Upton’s average has fallen each of the past four seasons, from .300 in his banner year of 2007 to a sickly .239 last year. Upton has the speed to turn every walk into a double, but can’t steal first base. He did flash a bit of power last year, hitting 18 HRs. A talented outfielder, Upton needs to put it all together—and still can at only 25 years of age.

Manny Ramirez will hit clean up as the DH, taking over for Carlos Pena. Manny hit for .298 last season showing he can still swing. Yet Manny hasn’t shown the display of power that made him feared and famous—batting for a wimpy .460 slugging percentage, the lowest of his career.

Well, Manny had better hit for more power.

Taking over first base duties for Carlos Pena—who even in a terrible season hit 28 HRs—is Dan Johnson. Yes, that Dan Johnson. If Johnson completely muffs it, figure Ben Zobrist to take over first base duties with the outfield reshuffled to make room for Jennings. The Rays also pray that Evan “That’s My Cap!” Longoria grows into his body more at 25 years of age and can hit for 30-plus HRs.

Let’s hope so, for their sake.

The real strength for the Rays lies in their rotation. All young (James Shields is the elder, pitching at 29 years old), all talented. David Price is an all-out Ace, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann and youngsters growing into their rotation role and Jeremy Hellickson—taking over for Matt Garza—has already showed signs of dominance in a limited role last year, throwing up a 3.47 ERA with a 1.101 WHIP and striking out 33 in 36 IP.

The rotation is as complete as any in the AL and could be the best in the league.

It had better be—the Rays bullpen has been decimated and now relies on the unknown quantities of Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos. The Rays are counting heavily on rookie Jake McGee and former starter Andy Sonnanstine to fill some of the void left by all the free agent defections.

As stated before... "Oooffff.”

The Rays are one of the few teams in MLB who can lose their best player, their top-three relievers, their second-best pitcher and their starting shortstop and first baseman and still be in the discussion for a playoff spot. It is a credit to their farm system, which didn’t rush their top prospects and groomed them into very talented pro ball players.

But all the defections do hurt. Replacing Crawford with a diminished Damon and a raw Jennings can’t pan out well for the Rays in ‘11. Losing all that talent in the bullpen will cost games and put a lot of stress on a very young rotation.

Can Pena’s 28 HRs be replaced by Ramirez? Can Longoria take the next step? What about young catcher John Jaso? Can Upton put the bat on the ball (and cut down on his gargantuan 164 Ks)?

Most of these questions have to be in the "Yes" column if the Rays are going to compete with the Red Sox, much less the Yankees in 2011.

Overall, the Rays will be good this year. But look for them in 2012.

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