In 2008 it was 9 = 8. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon gave his team some new math and a new look to the much-beleaguered franchise. And the Tampa Bay Rays became one of the most surprising success stories in MLB history, going from worst to first in the American League in one year's time.
In 2009 it was 9 > 8. Unfortunately, Maddon's math was a little fuzzy, and so were the Rays, who were "hung over" for the first month of the season, feeling the effects of winning their first AL East Division crown and AL pennant in franchise history. The Rays dug themselves a 9-14 hole to begin the season. But the Rays showed they were not a one-year wonder, finishing the rest of the year 75-64 and posting their second consecutive season with a winning record at 84-78.
In 2010 it was What's Important Now (WIN). General Manager Andrew Friedman put together one of baseball's most talented 70 million dollar rosters and saw his team shoot out to a 34-18 record en route to their second AL East Division crown. In 2008 the Rays outlasted the Red Sox. In 2010 the Rays outlasted the Yankees. Each of those teams gave the Rays the best they had to offer. Each time, the Rays emerged on top.
And then the off-season happened.
Gone is the best player so far in franchise history, All-Star Carl Crawford. Gone are the two key players in the best trade in franchise history, pitcher of the Rays only no-hitter Matt Garza, and shortstop Jason Bartlett. Gone is their biggest power bat Carlos Pena. Gone is nearly the entire bullpen. The AL Saves leader Rafael Soriano, the best acquisition in baseball in 2010—gone. The best and cheapest ($500,000) setup man in baseball, Joaquin Benoit—gone. Key bullpen stalwarts in both of the Rays playoff runs, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler—gone.
In all the Rays lost 40% of last year's payroll, and two or three of the biggest faces of the franchise.
Enter Maddon's 2011 slogan:
For the Rays to once again defend their AL East crown, they will have to find another way. There will be no Crawford stealing second. No Pena home run. No Soriano stare down. No Balfour kicking and cursing after a strikeout.
The Rays need to replace a big portion of their offense. How can they do it? With an energized and healthy Manny Ramirez. With the leadership and lead-off skills of Johnny Damon. With the continued growth and development of Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, John Jaso, and Reid Brignac.
The bullpen remains the biggest challenge to the 2011 Rays' success. And yet, it wasn't that long ago that the former "name" players were question marks themselves. Soriano—injury risk. Benoit—minor league deal. Balfour—designated for assignment before traded to Rays. J.P. Howell—unsuccessful starter turned dominant reliever after trade. Wheeler—journeyman reliever. Randy Choate—out of the league for two seasons before resurfacing in Tampa.
Yes, the Rays face their biggest roster turnover and largest obstacles yet. But what's amazing, is in spite of the massive talent lost, and 40% payroll reduction, the Rays can still even dream of competing and defending their crown. This speaks of the amazing depth and player development of the Rays organization.
Another way? This is the Rays' way. A way that hopefully leads the Rays back to the playoffs.