Thursday, March 12, 2009

Guide Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Our preview of the AL East next brings us to the Tampa Bay Rays, the defending American League champs. Coming into being in 1998, the Rays spent their first ten years in the AL East cellar (except for one triumphant 4th place finish in 2004, when they won a up-until-last-year franchise record 70 games), but burst out of there last year with 97 wins and an AL pennant. Contrary to the popular, simplified story that you'll see in a lot of preview columns, the Rays did not come "out of nowhere". With a smart front office making good decisions, especially in the draft, the Rays had been building up young talent for years, and, along with some smart trades last winter, they all came together for a terrific year. Rays fans can feel pretty good, then, knowing that their World Series team isn't going anywhere for a while.

As before, this preview is meant to be a summary of what the three main baseball preview magazines are saying about the team's 2009 season. I've included quotes and other information from each of the them - Sporting News, Athlon, and Lindy's. I've also included some statistics about each magazines' success at predictions over the last ten years. Be sure to check out the Team-by-Team Season Preview index for other guide previews over the next few weeks.

My original intention was to completely refrain from providing any opinion. I was afraid that I would have too much to say about some teams and too little about others. But, after doing a few of these now, I feel like there's room for some personal commentary. I think it'll add a little bit of personality to the preview. But I don't want to make my opinion the focus of the post, so I'll put it near the end. Please feel free to ignore it; I've never claimed to be the most knowledgeable person when it comes to all 30 teams. With that said, on with the "combined" team preview for the...

Tampa Bay Rays
Last Year: 97 - 65, 1st Place, AL East

Since 1999

This YearLast Year
Avg Pred.Avg Finish
Sporting News3



* Sporting News average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2001, 2003 - 2004, 2006 - 2008
** Athlon average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 - 2003, 2006 - 2008

Team Notes

The Rays surprised everybody last year to win 97 games, take the division, and steal the pennant from the defending champions. Everyone expected the team to be better than 2007, but no one expected this level of success. How the young club handles its new position as defending AL champions will go a long way in determining its success in 2009.
"The Tampa Bay Rays' dream fell three games short of completion, ending on the field at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia - where they watched the Phillies celebrate a World Series title at their expense. But in the wake of the loss, manager Joe Maddon made it clear he expected to get another shot at the dream - and soon.

'We made a powerful statement,' Maddon said that night. 'And I view it as just the beginning. A mind, once stretched, has a difficult time going back to its original form. Everything about us has been stretched. And I don't think our guys are every going to be satisfied going home in October again.'

A powerful statement indeed, coming from a team that finished dead last in the AL East in nine of its first 10 years. Those days faded into memory last season as the Rays muscled their way to a division title and then knocked out Boston, the defending World Series champions, in the ALCS to claim the pennant. (TSN)"
A major part of the Rays' single-season surge last year was its infield, the all-star Carlos Peña at first and the phenom-who-lived-up-to-all-the-hype Rookie of the Year-winner Evan Longoria at third.
"That 1-for-10 World Series performance notwithstanding, third baseman Evan Longoria doesn't play as if he's 23. 'I hear guys all the time saying, "Man, he's got an unbelieveable approach up there at the plate, the way he explodes his hips and his bat stays in the strike zone for such a long time,'' says James Shields. "It's amazing." Longoria and first baseman Carlos Peña, who has 77 homes over the past two seasons, gave the Rays lots of pop and stellar defense at the corner spots. (Lindy's)"
But the biggest strength of the Rays may be their rotation, which goes 4 deep and includes some very talented late-inning guys. The folks over at Athlon give the Rays' rotation the highest praise possible:
"Perhaps not since the early 1990s Braves has there been a rotation of such synchronized promise. As did Atlanta, Tampa Bay deploys tri-aces. James Shields is the Maddux of the group - a winner with average velocity, but immaculate control and a steely makeup. "He's got one of the best change-ups I've ever seen," says Percival. "He doesn't ever want to come out of the game." Scott Kazmir is the lefty of the triumvirate, but with far more octane than Glavine. A two-time All-Star at 24, he's still getting just "7" results out of a "10" arm because high pitch counts (and a possibly chronic elbow problem) make him a six-inning starter. ALCS MVP Matt Garza is Smoltz - sodden with stuff and just learning how to apply it. Maddon calls the high-strung righthander a 'recovering emotionalist' for the way he's re-channeled his impulses. The Braves metaphor extends to phenom David Price, a Steve Avery-like power lefty with a broader repertoire and hopefully longer shelf life. Pressed into postseason relief in his first year of pro ball, he was stunning, holding hitters to 2-for-20. (Athlon)"
Spotlight Quote

Athlon points out, that as good as the Rays were last year, they could probably be a lot better:
"Consider what didn't go right in 2008: The Rays featured neither a .300 hitter nor a top-10 home run guy; their presumptive best player (Carl Crawford) had his worst season - and missed a third of it; 30-30 aspirant BJ Upton played hurt and hit only nine homers; their only power threats (Carlos Peña and Evan Longoria) combined to sit out 63 games while potential star Rocco Baldelli played but 28; and creaky closer Troy Percival couldn't summon 50 innings and was unavailable for the postseason. All of this would suggest that there is still a lot of air between the team's accomplishments and its ceiling. Cinderella the Sequel - though still a low-budget production - could be a blockbuster."
But, as TSN shows, Joe Maddon doesn't seem to mind:
"Last year proved beyond any doubt that Tampa Bay can play with and beat the big boys in the AL East. Because of their pitching, their defense, their ceiling and the confidence they built last October, there's no reason to think the Rays can't do it again.

'I think you walk around with a bigger target; I think you do,' Maddon says. 'But I think that's a good thing. I really believe our guys will be up to the challenge. The conversation we're having right now, I'm going to have it with them just about these same topics when I get to camp. I want them to understand and embrace the idea that we have a big target, because I think it's a good thing.' "

Last year's Rays improved 31 games over the previous year's team, and made it all the way to the World Series before bowing out the Phillies. The 31-game, worst-to-first improvement was one of the best single-season moves in history, and the Rays' World Series appearance in only their 11th season made them one of the quickest successes in baseball history. Obviously, this is not a normal team and there aren't many similar clubs to compare it to. Despite that, it's hard to feel 100% confident with the team. Too many teams have "shocked the world" one year only to fall back to earth the next. Granted, the Rays are a very talented team and not likely to let that happen to them, but it's hard not to keep it in mind.

That said, I actually have high expectations for the Rays. With the young(ish) offensive talent in Evan Longoria, BJ Upton, Carlos Peña, Carl Crawford, and others, and with the quality pitching in Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, and others, there really aren't a lot of weaknesses in this team. I fully expect them to again battle it out with the Yankees and Red Sox for the top spot in the AL East and make it into the postseason. They just seem too good for it to not happen. Like I said, though, it would not shock me at all to see them fall back to earth a little bit. My money, though, would be on that playoff appearance. (God, I love making predictions - it's always so easy...)


tHeMARksMiTh said...

The biggest thing I worry about with them is the starting rotation health. Last year, only Kazmir went on the DL, missing the first month. Can that happen again?

This team is better than last year, but we'll see if their record reflects that.

Jeff M said...

I love the Rays's story. My concern is what's going to happen when their star players head towards free agency. They don't have the resources that Boston or New York have. I hope they don't go the route the Marlins took after they won their rings.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

To be fair, the Rays spend about three times as much as the Marlins. But that's the point of having a great farm system, especially when you don't have money -- cheap players. They have also done a great job of holding onto their players and not signing free-agents with compensation issues (Burrell did not get arbitration and the Rays keep their pick). As long as they keep paying scouts, they could theoretically continue their brilliance.

Jeff M said...

Those are good points. But if they continue to win they won't receive all those great draft slots that they got used to. It will be interesting to see how the organization does at developing guys picked up later in the draft. I still like what they've done there though and I love Joe Maddon managing that club.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

I don't know how much that will really affect things. Teams always pick up great players in later rounds. It's not as if all the Rays players are first picks. Actually, few are. Still, they will have to make their choices count, but how is that all that different from other teams? First picks don't always work out. Ask the Pirates.

Jeff M said...

Agreed. It will be interesting organization to watch in the years to come now. Which is fantastic for the sport