AL East: 10 Things the Tampa Bay Rays Must Do to Win the Division
The Tampa Bay Rays will win the American League East. They will beat the perennially favored New York Yankees. They can (and will) topple the powerhouse Boston Red Sox...again.
They just need a few miracles, a few good games and plenty of ibuprofen.
The Rays secured superstars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez in the offseason with a pair of one-year deals. The last time these two played on the same team, they won World Series rings. The Rays need lightning to strike again.
And they have found a couple of lightning rods.
However, two players don't make dreams come true. The Rays are going to need more than just big signings and big aspirations.
The Rays are going to have to do big things as well, and make smart decisions.
The following are the top 10 ways the Rays can be the Cinderella of the AL East in 2011.
No. 10: David Price Must Stay Strong
David Price will, once again, be the ace for the Rays.
With a career ERA of 3.31 (which includes a very uneven 2009 rookie season), the first overall pick in the 2007 draft will continue his dominance of the best division in baseball in 2011.
Unfortunately, the power-curve hurling southpaw can't win the AL East alone.
No. 9: James Shields Needs To Stay Consistent
"Big Game" James Shields is going to have to live up to his name.
I'm not referring to "big games" like the one he had last August, when he allowed the Blue Jays to hit a record six home runs, but big games like he had in 2008 and 2009, when he blanked the Red Sox and the Angels and became the first Ray to win a World Series game.
"Big Game" needs a big return.
No. 8: B.J. Upton Has To Grow Up
One of the best players in the game today, B.J. Upton has to start acting like it. He has to begin carrying not only his own weight—which he has always done well—but his teammates' as well.
Upton is one of the most dynamic players in the sport...when he wants to be.
Twice disciplined for lack of hustle last year, Upton needs to set and be the example for the Rays. Perhaps the addition of Johnny Damon in the outfield will provide a much-needed attitude adjustment for the younger superstar.
No. 7: Jeff Niemann Must Be in Top Condition
Jeff Niemann's recovery from a strained shoulder must be complete. The Rays can't afford to have him at anything less than 100 percent.
His 3.12 ERA before August 3, 2010 was enough to keep the Rays above water. His meltdown month after his injury led to an August ERA of 11.74. September and October were a little better, at 6.93, but still not good enough to earn a starting spot on a team of this caliber.
Baseball has become all about the pitching, and there is no room for this type of production.
No. 6: Evan Longoria Must Stay Golden
The best third baseman in the American League must continue to be just that.
Longoria has been the heart and soul of this team since being called up in 2008. He continues to exemplify confidence, hard work and talent on a day-to-day basis.
His work ethic will have to be replicated by the rest of the team if the Rays are to make a run at a pennant this year.
No. 5: John Jaso Needs To Blossom
The biggest surprise of the 2010 season was the emergence of John Jaso. Jaso came into the Rays system as barely a blip on the MLB radar.
A 12th-round pick in 2003, Jaso has worked hard to get into the show and won't go back to the minors without a fight. Jaso has never hit less than .273 for any month, and became a leadoff hitter for the Rays in 2010.
As a catcher that is a leadoff hitter, Jaso typifies the entire Rays organization. However, for the Rays to win their division again, Jaso needs to come into his own and become a leader.
No. 4: Johnny Damon Needs To Earn His $5.25 Million
Whether by his leadership, his hitting, his speed or his ability to be a mentor, Johnny Damon needs to make his presence known this year.
Damon may be a future Hall of Famer, and his addition to this young team will make a difference this year, be it good or bad.
They used to say in Boston that Damon looked like Jesus, acted like Judas (after he signed with the Yankees) and threw like Mary. He doesn't look like Jesus anymore, but his teammates could always use a little divine intervention.
The Rays will counter the "Mary-throwing" by putting Damon in left field and possibly at first base. He should do well within the organization.
No. 3: Ben Zobrist Needs To Continue To Be "Big Ben"
Arguably the most powerful switch-hitter in the bigs, Ben Zobrist must continue to stay on top of his game.
He has unwittingly become a leader of the Rays and his play has complemented that recognition. He is one of the hardest-hitting players in the game, and his versatility is almost unmatched (Zobrist has played every position but pitcher and catcher).
If Zobrist can maintain his composure (and slugging percentage), the Rays may be difficult for any team to beat.
No. 2: Joe Maddon Needs To Control the Rays' Egos
The addition of two superstars that have won a World Series together, coupled with the high expectations of the fans and players alike, will inevitably lead to ego issues.
Having dealt with B.J. Upton's "lack of hustle" severely last season and being a veteran of the profession and an avid follower of politics, Maddon should do fine in his role this year.
However, if things begin to fall apart, his habit of pulling a starter from the lineup for a few days may come back to bite him.
When you are playing against the top teams in the top division in baseball, there is little room for error.
No. 1: Keep Manny Ramirez Off the Field and Keep Him at the Plate
Manny Ramirez is one of the best hitters in baseball. That being said, there are Little Leaguers with better fielding percentages.
As good as Manny is at the plate, he's that bad in the field. Manny will go down in history for a number of reasons, from his powerful hitting, to his lackluster performance as an outfielder.
If the Rays have their way, he will go down as a player with World Series rings in at least two different cities.