The Tampa Bay Rays are one of just four teams in Major League Baseball never to play in a World Series. The other three are the Texas Rangers, the Seattle Mariners, and the Washington Nationals.
On top of that, the Rays are the only team in history to have never made the postseason. They have finished last in the AL East in every season since their inception in 1998, except in 2004 when they finished fourth with a team best record of 70-91.
Fellow 1998 expansion team the Arizona Diamondbacks have already won a World Series and were back to the NLCS this past year.
What about the two expansion teams before that, the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies in 1993? The Marlins already have two World Series wins, despite having to dismantle the team each time it becomes successful.
The Rockies took a bit longer, but got to the World Series this year before being swept by the Boston Red Sox.
So why have any optimism for the Rays?
Last season Tampa went 66-96, which was the worst record in the majors. However, they were third in the AL in homeruns and third in steals. Power and speed is a dangerous combination on offense, and they ended up ranking 15th in the majors in runs scored and eighth in the American League.
The point is simple: they already have the hitting strength to be a contender.
The Rays scored more runs last year than playoff teams Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks. The offense boasts MLB's Comeback Player of the Year, Carlos Pena, who had a breakout year setting five new Rays single season offensive records: home runs (46), RBI (121), walks, (103), on-base percentage (.411), and slugging percentage (.627).
They also have some of the best young hitters in the game. Carl Crawford is a two-time all-star selection whose batting average has increased every season he has played, ending with .315 last year. His steals totals starting in 2003 have been 55, 59, 46, 58, and 50.
Next up we have 22-year-old B.J. Upton. In only 129 games last year he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 22 steals.
Next season, at some point, we'll also see top third base prospect Evan Longoria, who has ripped up the minor leagues and could surely be a major factor in Tampa's next season.
The reason the Rays were still the worst team in the majors last year, even with a solid offense, was pitching. Their team ERA was the worst in all of the majors last season. They had an inability to fill out their rotation, having eight pitchers make 10 or more starts.
They also had frequent bullpen collapses. With a minimum of 40 innings pitched, five pitchers had an ERA over 7.00.
Now, the good news.
Tampa has two great starters this upcoming season in Scott Kazmir (24) and James Shields (26). Last year Shields was 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA and Kazmir was 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA, leading the league in strikeouts with 239.
Granted, these numbers are bit skewed as they played for a team with such a bad bullpen. On a team with a decent bullpen and same offense, each would get more than 16-17 wins at least, and would probably have a lower ERA.
This offseason the Rays acquired another promising young pitcher, Mat Garza, in a trade for Delmon Young.
As far as the bullpen woes, well it's looking like another weak point this season. The significant move here was to sign big name closer Troy Percival.
He looked great in 34 games for the Cardinals last year, posting a 1.80 ERA. But that was after spending the first part of the season in the minors, and he hasn't saved a game in over two years.
Regardless, he has 324 career saves so no doubt he knows how to get it done. Percival will also help the Rays’ bullpen by moving last year’s closing, Al Reyes, into a setup role.
So, have the Rays taken the next step toward divisional dominance?
Not exactly, but they do look great and their future even better.
One of the hardships they face is sharing a division with powerhouses like the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
While I am not predicting any divisional championships on the horizon, I think the Rays' next season will be the best in franchise history.
My prediction for 2008: 76-86, finishing 4th in the division. If they improve their bullpen in 2009, I would argue for them going above .500 for the first time in their history.
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