2009 TAMPA BAY RAYS PREVIEW
The Rays had, by far, the most successful season in franchise history last year, stunning the baseball world by winning 97 games and the American League Crown. Despite falling short in the World Series, Tampa Bay took one of the youngest teams in baseball to the cusp of a championship after a decade of futility.
This year, the Rays bring everyone back for round two. Also joining the party in Tampa is former Phillies slugger Pat Burrell, who will add some pop to their lineup. While Tampa should be better on paper, this is still a very young team and a step back at this juncture in their development would not be a surprise.
The Rays have very good starting pitching, though they are still extremely youthful. James Shields (14-8, 3.56 ERA, 33 starts, 215 IP last year) is an excellent top of the line starter but lefty Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49 ERA, 27 starts, 152 IP) is the most electrifying and intimidating starter on the staff. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70, 30 starts, 184 IP) is also excellent and Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38 ERA, 32 starts, 193 IP) was excellent as a rookie. Joining them in the rotation will likely be überprospect David Price (1.93 ERA in 5 appearances), who was on the mound at the end of the Rays’ ALCS-clinching victory over the Boston Red Sox. There is a bounty of young talent waiting in the wings as well. Look for Mitch Talbot or Jeff Niemann to be the first starters called upon in the event of injury. This is a very good rotation but their youth is a concern after having such solid seasons last year.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen went from baseball’s worst two seasons ago to one of baseball’s best last year. Veteran closer Troy Percival (28 SV, 4.53 ERA) changed the mindset of the entire pitching staff and will be back for another season to get the final three outs. In front of him is a very good bullpen, most notable Chad Wheeler and J. P. Howell. While Percival isn’t the most intimating closer in baseball, he is still very effective and the Rays should have a solid bullpen this season.
The Rays’ infield returns intact from last season and is headlined by young star Evan Longoria (.272, 27 HR, 85 RBI, .343 OBP), who is perhaps the best young third baseman in all of baseball and is the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. At shortstop, Jason Bartlett (.286, 1 HR, 37 RBI, .329 OBP, 20 SB) provides both solid defense and the ability to score runs. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura (.274, 6 HR, 48 RBI, .349) is cut from a similar cloth. At first base, Carlos Pena (.247, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .377 OBP) has the potential to knock the ball out of the park on any pitch and will again pose a threat to American League pitchers. Capping off this solid group is All-Star catcher Dioner Navarro (.295, 7 HR, 54 RBI, .349 OBP). Overall, the Rays have a very impressive infield.
Tampa Bay also has a great outfield. Left fielder Carl Crawford (.273, 8 HR, 57 RBI, .319 OBP, 25 SB) and centerfielder B.J. Upton (.273, 9 HR, 67 RBI, .383 OBP, 44 SB) provide a dangerous 1-2 punch atop the lineup and both are very good defenders. In right field, Phillies import Pat Burrell (.250, 33 HR, 86 RBI, .367 OBP) will take up most of the at-bats when he isn’t DHing. Gabe Kapler (.301, 8 HR, 38 RBI, .340 OBP) and Matt Joyce (.252, 12 HR, 33 RBI, .339 OBP) will both see plenty of time backing up or at the Designated Hitter position. Tampa Bay has solid depth in the outfield and will get a lot of production this season.
The Rays have everything on hand to compete for a return to the postseason. Their starting pitching looks very solid, as does their bullpen. Their lineup has a very good combination of power and speed and every batter is a danger to get on base every at-bat. However, the Rays have the misfortune of playing in the AL East and competing with the Red Sox and Yankees. Unfortunately for these three teams, only two of them (at most) can qualify for the playoffs and the Rays appear to be the odd man out this year.
In the end, the Rays are still a very young team which might suffer from a World Series hangover and take a step back this year. Remember, they don’t have a single starter that has even reached his thirtieth birthday! However, with all of the talent on hand, it would be a surprise if the Rays weren’t still a winning team. Expect the Rays to win between 85-90 games this season and finish third in the American League East.
By Matt Baxendell
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