Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays were a contender all year long.
They led either the American League East or Wild Card standings all year long. They had a stacked team. There was a strong mix of young guys and veterans, pitching and defense, power and speed.
Of course, as is the case with a lot of small market teams, there was the problem of money. Or lack of money, as is often the case. Tampa Bay had a lot of star players last year looking to get paid.
And when you draw under 15,000 fans, the Rays simply were not in a position to keep their stars.
The offseason looked like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
The Rays watched as Carl Crawford signed with division rival Boston and star closer Rafael Soriano signed with division rival New York. The Rays also traded away other key stars such as Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett. They also saw Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour leave town to sign with other teams.
Earlier, I wrote an article about how the Rays got rid of these guys just in time because none of them are tearing it up this year. But now, there is an added bonus. The Rays look like they might even be better with the guys they have this year.
When the season started, they looked as if they were going to be a collection of has-been and never-was type players. They had an aging Manny Ramirez as the only long ball threat other than Evan Longoria.
That did not go well.
Manny could not buy a hit in the first home stand that saw the Rays go 0-5. Longoria also went down in the second game of the season and would miss the rest of April. The first road series, the Rays still could not muster any offense in three of the four games in Chicago.
Then Manny failed another test for PEDs. Rather than facing a 100-game suspension, he retired.
The Rays were 1-8 heading into a three game series at Fenway Park, where they would face the loaded Red Sox, who were off to an equally bad start. Things did not look good.
But a funny thing happened on that first road trip. Sam Fuld made a couple of spectacular catches in the outfield. Suddenly, the loss of Carl Crawford in the outfield didn't seem as large. Then the Rays discovered they had some pitching.
The starting rotation became so dominant from that Boston series until now that long relief man Andy Sonnanstine went almost three weeks without making an appearance. David Price, James Shields and Wade Davis have been stellar. Shields, in fact, has been nearly unhittable. He had back-to-back complete games against the White Sox and Blue Jays, winning 2-1 and 2-0. He then went eight innings against the Angels, holding a 1-0 lead in a game the Rays won, 2-1, in 10 innings.
And the offense has produced, too. With Fuld in the leadoff spot and Johnny Damon hitting behind him, the Rays offense has thrived. Damon has had a flare for the dramatic with four walk-off hits already. Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and B.J Upton have been red hot after awful starts. Zobrist had a Rays record eight RBI in a game against the Twins in Minnesota. Joyce is now hitting .344.
The Rays were 1-8 in the first nine games, and were held to one run in six of those losses. Since then, they are 19-6 and have scored at least two runs in every game.
The Rays scored 20 runs in the first nine games of the season, nine of those in the lone win. Since then, they have scored 127 runs in 25 games. Now they have Evan Longoria back too. Longoria had four RBI in Saturday's game in Baltimore.
The bullpen, which everyone feared would be porous, has been anything but.
Bolstered by the fact that they haven't had to pitch in long stints, the relievers have done a great job. Kyle Farnsworth has six saves. Only two Rays relievers have ERAs over 3.07. None have made more than 15 appearances in the Rays' 34 games.
If the Rays keep scoring runs at five per game, with their pitching and defense, they will be tough to beat. And they will be doing it at half the price of last year's team.
Hopefully one day, someone will take notice and maybe decide to build a permanent home in the Bay area.
Obviously, somebody there knows talent. It sure would be nice to keep it in Tampa Bay.