MLB Predictions: 10 Reasons the Tampa Bay Rays Can Still Contend

Eli Marger@Eli_MargerCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2011

MLB Predictions: 10 Reasons the Tampa Bay Rays Can Still Contend

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    For a franchise that suffered 10 full seasons of agony, starting in its inaugural 1998 season, being able to contend for the last three seasons has been an incredible luxury.

    The Tampa Bay Rays have averaged 92 wins over the last three seasons and have won the American League East two of these three years. To do this with such a modest payroll (especially in comparison with the division-rival Yankees or Red Sox) is a testament to the genius of Executive VP Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon.

    This year, however, the Rays face a challenge. They gave up an arm, a leg and seemingly one side of their brain this offseason. In the eyes of many, the loss of players like Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena was a death sentence.

    But as the Rays start training for the 2011 season in Port Charlotte, hope springs eternal. The looming giants, the Red Sox and Yankees, await the Rays' competition this season.

    Despite that, here are 10 reasons the Rays can contend yet again.

Reason No. 1: Where Is the Target?

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    One of the major differences between 2010 and 2011 is the huge gap in expectations. No longer is there the proverbial "target" painted on the back of the Rays' uniforms.

    Last year the Rays were seen maybe not as favorites, but as definite contenders to challenge for a World Series ring. But following the tumultuous offseason, the expectations for this team has diminished.

    Now, a vast majority of writers are picking the Rays to finish third behind the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East. While it does show somewhat of a lack of respect, it also takes a great burden off the Rays.

    With no expectations, the Rays have nothing to lose. For the big-money Red Sox and Yankees, there is everything to lose. Tampa Bay enters Spring Training as underdogs yet again, but with a wealth of talent and optimism.

    If this sounds familiar, it should.. This is very similar to 2008, the year the Rays won 97 games and made it to the World Series.

Reason No. 2: The Yankees Aren't As Good As You Think

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    That's right. The Yankees are overrated. I bet you've never heard that before.

    In all seriousness, the Yankees seem to have conceded to being second-fiddle in the AL East. With the exception of 2009, the Bronx Bombers finished out of first place in the division two of the last three years despite having baseball's biggest payroll.

    This year, the Yankees have beefed up their roster, but not by much. They added Rafael Soriano from the Rays, a huge addition that makes their bullpen almost untouchable.

    But the pitching rotation is shaky at best, and the lineup is full of aging stars at risk for injury and down years. They will get their production from the likes of Teixeira, Cano and Rodriguez. But many of the Yankees players are question marks, just as much as Manny Ramirez is for the Rays.

    Of course, if all goes well for the Yankees, they will be in the playoffs. But a few injuries here and there, along with a few poor individual performances, and the Rays might find themselves negotiating with the Yankees for second place.

Reason No. 3: Evan Longoria

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    Every franchise needs its face. The Cardinals have Pujols, the Yankees have Jeter and the Pirates have Joel Hanrahan.

    No, Rays fans, you did not lose the face of your franchise when Carl Crawford left. You still have him.

    His name is Evan Longoria, and he plays the hot corner. The Rays go as he goes. An MVP season from Longoria could almost single-handedly vault the Rays into contention. The signings of Damon and Ramirez? Those were simply pieces to protect Longoria in the lineup.

    He is the best defensive infielder in baseball, one of the best pure hitters, and a surprisingly good baserunner. He is this generation's Mike Schmidt.

    If healthy, Longoria alone is reason to believe that the Rays can still contend.

Reason No. 4: David Price

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    Forget everything you saw last season from David Price.

    Sure, he won 19 games. And yes, he had a 2.72 ERA. He absolutely did dominate almost any lineup a team could throw at him.

    The funny thing is that David Price hasn't even scratched the surface of his potential.

    His fastball, which he threw prolifically and effectively last season, was a primary reason for his success. But "primary" is the key word—he succeeded without a reliable secondary pitch.

    Price's repertoire also includes a great change-up along with a nasty, biting slider. If he can throw those pitches effectively, Price is capable of sheer and utter dominance.

    This season, Price is the undisputed ace of this pitching rotation, and he must live up to his place among baseball's elite pitchers for the Rays to contend.

Reason No. 5: Speed Still Kills

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    When the Rays lost to the Rangers in the 2010 ALDS, it was clear: the Rangers had beat the Rays at their own game. The Rays had been outrun.

    Much of the success of this team relies upon speed. This includes great range in the outfield, the ability to steal bases and the ability to take the extra base. It is extremely disruptive to the opponent if you can fly around the bases the way the Rays have been able to.

    Of course, the Rays lost their fastest player in Carl Crawford. But still, they return four players who stole 10-plus bases last season, and added another (Johnny Damon).

    There is no indication that the Rays will be slowing down this season. They will continue to run wild, something very few teams do well.

Reason No. 6: The Idiots

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    When Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon inked deals with the Rays, the baseball world went bananas.

    What were the Rays thinking when they signed two declining veterans? Why would they sign Johnny Damon, an outfielder with declining range and a terrible arm and only limited speed. Moreover, why would they take a $2 million risk in Manny Ramirez? You couldn't find a bigger crapshoot in Vegas.

    But in reality, the Rays may have found themselves two of the best value acquisitions of the offseason. While both Damon and Ramirez are aging and probably declining, they are both very valuable players.

    For a team that lacked a consistent offense, the Rays are turning to two players who have been relied upon to provide offensive sparks before.

    If the Rays get bang for their buck out of Damon and Ramirez, they will have two contributors on offense that have invaluable experience playing meaningful games late in seasons.

Reason No. 7: Young Guns

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    If you have to list all of the top prospects in the Rays' farm system, don't plan on doing it in one breath.

    The Rays are loaded with talent on the mound, at the plate, and in the field. It starts with the prospects who are ready to contribute immediately.

    Outfielder Desmond Jennings could easily make Rays fans forget who Carl Crawford is. Jake McGee (pictured) could be the replacement for Rafael Soriano in the near future. Jeremy Hellickson will be in the starting rotation this season.

    Beyond the obvious, the Rays possess an abundance of talent at all levels that is starting to become major-league ready. When rosters expand to 40 players in September, the Rays will be put a great advantage.

    For this season and beyond, the Rays are endowed with enough prospects to provide a positive impact at the major league level that they can remain competitive.

Reason No. 8: Bounce-Back Years

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    As good as the Rays were in 2010, they could have been much better. There were several important players who had unusually poor performances last season.

    B.J. Upton, for example, struggled for most of the season. He did, however, show promise towards the end of the season, hitting 10 home runs in the final two months.

    James Shields, the veteran leader of the pitching rotation, had an awful season, with an ERA over five. He must reduce the number of home runs he gives up by improving his command.

    Utilityman Ben Zobrist also had a poor season, partly due to nagging injuries.

    If any or all of these three players can perform at the levels they are capable of, the Rays could very easily be back in contention.

Reason No. 9: Joe Maddon

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    He is one of baseball's most controversial managers. He is a maverick, doing things that few managers have the desire or guts to do.

    Rays fans lost track of his lineups by the end of April. He platoons at multiple positions. And until last year, when the team finally had a legitimate closer, he used a bullpen by committee.

    This year, more than ever, the success of the Rays will hinge on Joe Maddon's wisdom.

    For all of the people who criticize him and his moves (many are still mad about his decision to start Kelly Shoppach over John Jaso in Game 5 of last year's ALDS), Maddon may very well be baseball's best manager.

    It is Maddon's responsibility to see that the talent he has at his disposal is used efficiently and effectively this season. Whether that means deciding when to use certain relievers or who to play at first base, much of the Rays success in 2011 will depend on Maddon.

    Given his track record, the Rays look to be in good shape.

Reason No. 10: Upside

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    The unifying theme of this slideshow is upside. There are a lot of "ifs". There are no guarantees.

    There's always the chance that David Price slumps horribly, Evan Longoria gets hurt early on or the players I said could bounce-back continue to struggle.

    But at the same time, there is the chance that everything just falls into place for the Rays this season. The lineup could be vastly improved over last season.

    If Jeremy Hellickson can pitch close to as well as Matt Garza did last year, the pitching rotation will continue to be a strong point. The bullpen, although a huge question mark, could surprise many.

    What results is a range of possible results from a 75-win season to a 95-win season coupled with a playoff appearance. But as far as upside goes, few teams in baseball have the potential the Rays do.

    So don't put your cowbells away so quickly, Rays fans. This is a team built to compete, and many meaningful games will be played this season.