Why the Tampa Bay Rays Will Again Compete for the AL East Division Crown

Daniel LewigCorrespondent ISeptember 22, 2010

Why The Tampa Bay Rays Will Again Compete For the AL East Division Crown

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    AL Cy Young Contender David Price will be leading the Rays staff in 2011
    AL Cy Young Contender David Price will be leading the Rays staff in 2011J. Meric/Getty Images

    We interrupt this 2010 AL East Division Chase to bring you this important update:

    The Tampa Bay Rays are "All In" in 2010, and have no chips left for 2011.

    Can we hit the pause button here?

    Instead of focusing on how the Rays are defying logic, gravity, and every law possible by going neck-and-neck with the New York Yankees for 150 games, the attention in this huge final series showdown against New York is this:

    The Rays will cut their payroll in 2011 and in turn cut their playoff chances as well.

    The New York media swarmed around Rays owner Stu Sternberg, and as always the case, the conversation turned to payroll and attendance.  Sternberg reiterated the payroll will go down.  And with the Rays drawing less than 1.9 million fans for the season, it's no wonder why.  The outgoing expenses must match the incoming revenues.

    Imagine that:  An American living within a budget.

    At first glance, it would appear that Sternberg is the one who is saying the Rays playoff hopes end this year.  Nay, nay!  National media such as ESPN's Buster Olney and local media such as St. Pete Times John Romano have taken Sternberg's comments about payroll and given the assumption of a step back forthcoming.  They have essentially told fans to enjoy what they have because after this year they won't have it anymore.  And when these players leave, you should temper expectations of keeping up with the Joneses, or in this case, Boston and New York.

    Is it 2008 again?  Have I taken a nap and somehow went back in time instead of forward?  Have I fallen and hit my head? 

    The Rays' Cinderella '08 season was considered a fluke. One-year wonder.  And national media used the 2009 season as the evidence.  But then a funny thing happened:

    The Rays started winning again.

    Never mind that this is the Rays' third consecutive winning season.  Never mind that this is the Rays' second division crown chase in three years.  Never mind this is the Rays' second postseason berth in three years.

    It cannot be sustained.  The Rays cannot win without Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, and Carlos Pena.  The Rays cannot win by trading Matt Garza, B.J. Upton, and Jason Bartlett.  The Rays cannot win by reducing their payroll.

    The national pundits sure like to be proven wrong.

    Consider them wrong again.

    Here are six reasons why the Tampa Bay Rays will contend for their third postseason berth in four years in 2011:

6. The No-Name Contributors

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    The Rays are looking beyond the US to add to their talent
    The Rays are looking beyond the US to add to their talentKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    I'm pretty sure you've never heard of the name Leslie Anderson.  Then again, I'm pretty sure no one heard the name John Jaso before this year either.  The Rays have done a good job of having players come through their system.

    Players like David Price, Evan Longoria, and Carl Crawford are the obvious choices.

    But there are plenty of players who have made names for themselves who didn't have that pedigree.  Ben Zobrist, James Shields, and John Jaso.  None of these players were high draft picks, and none had any recognition whatsoever until they made someone recognize them.

    Meet the next name you may be forced to recognize:  Leslie Anderson.

    Anderson is a rare 28-year-old rookie.  He was signed by the Rays this year after defecting from Cuba.  He offers a jack-of-all-trades talent, who can play in the outfield and first base.  He is more of a gap hitter than a power hitter, but plays above average defense and hits for a high average.

    If those skills translate into the majors, Anderson could be part of a platoon at 1B, or a better back-up than Willy Aybar.

5. The Trades

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    Garza could mean more to the Rays as an asset than as a pitcher in 2011
    Garza could mean more to the Rays as an asset than as a pitcher in 2011J. Meric/Getty Images

    The eventual trades of Jason Bartlett, possibly outfielder B.J. Upton, and a pitcher like Matt Garza will save the Rays around $15 million.

    Not to mention the loot they will get in the trades.

    This is the best way for the Rays to improve their offense.  Bartlett is still a solid all-around shortstop, and B.J. Upton is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.  But the big chip is a pitcher like Garza.  Garza has already pitched a no-hitter this season.  He was the ALCS MVP in 2008.  A pitcher of his caliber could get the Rays the lineup protection Evan Longoria is missing.

    Think along the lines of the Texas Rangers' Nelson Cruz.  Or the Cincinnati Reds' Jay Bruce or 1B prospect Yonder Alonso.  Maybe the Rays can make a trade for Kansas City's Billy Butler, or the Angels' C/1B/DH Mike Napoli.  Cruz and Butler are just heading into arbitration, Napoli is going into year two, Bruce is still a year away, and Alonso is preparing for his rookie season.

    These trades are vital to the Rays improving their offense for 2011.

4. The Bargains

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    With a home in Orlando, Damon could be the contact hitter the Rays need
    With a home in Orlando, Damon could be the contact hitter the Rays needAndrew Burton/Getty Images

    In 2008 Bobby Abreu signed a one-year, $5 million contract.  In 2009, Vladimir Guerrero signed a one-year, $5 million contract.  Jim Thome signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

    The point?

    If you take your time, you can find bargains among the glut of 1B/DH options.  This year's group includes Johnny Damon, David DeJesus, Magglio Ordonez, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman, Jim Thome, and Jason Kubel among others.

    No, the Rays won't seek after top guys like Adam Dunn or Paul Konerko or Victor Martinez.

    But there still is a lot of potential production in the group above.

    And somewhere in there is a bargain waiting for Tampa Bay.

3. The Replacements

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    The Rays may lose a lot of things with the soon-to-be departure of Carl Crawford, but speed is not one of them.
    The Rays may lose a lot of things with the soon-to-be departure of Carl Crawford, but speed is not one of them.Nick Laham/Getty Images

    A team like the Rays can never replace a Carl Crawford.  But with Desmond Jennings, they can sure try.  Ranked by ESPN and Baseball America as one of the top 10 minor-league prospects, Jennings could be the next big outfielder to wear a Rays uniform.

    Rafael Soriano has been the best closer in baseball this year, and most likely will be paid like it in the offseason.

    Just not by the Rays.

    But what the Rays would pay for Soriano, they could resign Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour, and still have some room to spare.  Not to mention the Rays have one of the best set-up men in baseball in J.P. Howell returning from injury.  And with fireballing lefty Jake McGee getting some MLB seasoning this September, the Rays have the potential to still have a very good bullpen in 2011.

    Carlos Pena has been a leader in the Tampa clubhouse since his arrival.  He has given the Rays some great years.  But the Rays need more consistency out of the clean-up spot in the order, something Pena has not been able to give this season.  Add that to the potential signs of decline, and having Scott Boras as an agent, the Rays are most likely to look elsewhere next season.

    Even with a pitcher like Matt Garza to be traded, the Rays will bring their next big pitching prospect to full-time duty in Jeremy Hellickson.  Hellickson was ranked as the Minor League Pitcher of the Year by USA Today and Baseball America.  The Rays are one of the rare teams that can afford to lose a pitcher like Garza and not miss a beat.

    Not to mention players such as Reid Brignac, who can replace Jason Bartlett at shortstop, and John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, and Matt Joyce taking on bigger roles next year, the Rays have young talent who can keep the good times rolling.

2. Pitching, Pitching, and More Pitching

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    ST PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 13:  David Price #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the New York Yankees during the game at Tropicana Field on September 13, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    Have you met David Price?

    The Rays have seen him take that next big step to become the ace of the franchise, and one of the best lefties in the game.  But despite recent struggles, the Rays have more than Price on the mound.

    James Shields has had a tough year with the longball, but has had the best strikeout rate of his career this season.  Next year will go a long way to proving this year was an aberration or if he is turning into a journeyman innings-eater.

    Wade Davis has made great strides in the second half of the season, and has a chance to be a 15-game winner this year. 

    Jeff Niemann has struggled since his injury, but was the Rays most consistent starter over the last two seasons, including Price.

    And the Rays can complete the rotation with Jeremy Hellickson to give the Rays one of the best rotations in baseball.  With Price, Davis, and Hellickson, the Rays may have the best young rotation trio in the game.

    Some of the bigger name players may be departing, but pitching is what wins.  And the Rays have plenty of it.

1. The Front Office

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    Very few teams have as good of a front office as the Tampa Bay Rays
    Very few teams have as good of a front office as the Tampa Bay RaysA. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    With general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, the Rays have one of the best front offices in baseball.  They have instilled their own style of play, and no one finds a way to do more with less than Friedman.

    Friedman turned Delmon Young into Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza (and could flip both of those players to help the 2011 team).

    Friedman turned Aubrey Huff into Ben Zobrist.

    Friedman turned Scott Kazmir and Akinori Iwamura into salary relief that netted the Rays Rafael Soriano, and Sean Rodriguez.

    With this type of front office and the ability to be opportunistic on the free-agent market, the Rays will have the ability to compete, even with a $50 million payroll.  If the Rays can add more contact hitters and keep some of their bullpen free agents, the Rays will have the opportunity to compete even in the AL East.

    Consider the following lineup:

    Desmond Jennings

    John Jaso

    Manny Ramirez (signed to an incentive-laden contract)

    Evan Longoria

    Nelson Cruz (acquired for Matt Garza)

    Ben Zobrist

    Matt Joyce

    Sean Rodriguez

    Reid Brignac

    Rotation:  Price, Niemann, Shields, Hellickson, Davis

    With the right moves, this Rays team can be just as fearsome in 2011 as 2010.

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