2010 Tampa Bay Rays: No Longer Just Happy to Be Here
BaseballEvolution.com 2008 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
March 31, 2010
The Tampa Bay Rays entered major league baseball in 1998 along side the Arizona Diamondbacks. Unlike the Diamondbacks, who caught lightening in a bottle out of the gate and won a World Series in their fourth year of existence, the Rays spent a decade trying to fire up their baseball machine before finally putting it all together and making the World Series in 2008. Also unlike those Diamondbacks, whose high-priced ensemble of free agents and trade-acquisitions enjoyed a short-lived run, these Tampa Bay Rays look built to succeed for the foreseeable future around a solid core of young hitters and talented pitchers. Whereas the Arizona Diamondbacks went 51-111 just three seasons after winning the whole enchilada and are still paying deferred salary from their 2001 championship season, these Rays look like they could be competitive throughout this decade.
Reasons to Love the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010
The Tampa Bay Rays farm system has become a river of pitching of talent, and that river is overflowing its banks. Consider this: the Rays currently have six players fighting for five spots in the rotation, and all six pitchers are home grown (Matt Garza was acquired while still a prospect, and Wade Davis was acquired while still in the minor leagues). Most Major League Baseball teams don’t even have three homegrown starters in their rotation.
Consider, also, the following: Andy Sonnanstine was the fifth starter on the 2008 Rays World Series team. Since the World Series, the Rays have jettisoned Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir from the rotation, as well as Jason Hammel, whom the team thought would be one of their starters in the future. Nevertheless, after getting rid of two starters and a future starter from that team, Sonnanstine now finds himself fighting for the fifth starter position with Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, two more major league caliber starting pitchers from the Rays farm system.
And, how about this one: J.P Howell started 61 out of 63 games he appeared in during his minor league career, and had a strikeout-per-inning ratio over 1.0. He saw time in the majors as a starter in 2005, 2006, and 2007, but has been relegated to the set-up role the last two years because the rotation is to crowed for him. Another former potential starter from the minor league system, Mitch Talbot, is now with the Cleveland Indians after being traded for Kelly Shoppach (what are we up to now, 10 major league caliber starting pitchers out of the Rays’ system the last three years?)
The point of this is that when a team has 10 major league caliber starters in their system, they can pick and choose and make sure they get the best selection of pitchers. In theory, the Rays should have the deepest rotation in all of baseball. The Rays rotation should shake out to Jamie Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis, which might make these guys look like the 2010 answer to the 1971 Baltimore Orioles.
Last season, depth was a major issue for this squad, as evidenced by the 237 combined games played by Gabe Gross and Pat Burrell. But the Tampa Bay Rays suddenly seem to have an incredibly deep bench to support their starting lineup. Justin Ruggiano, who once looked like a liability as a future starter in the outfield, will now be a capable backup behind Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Matt Joyce. For the second year in a row, the Rays will have the services of career-minor leaguer Joe Dillon as an infielder backup; Dillon comes from the Crash Davis school of minor league veteran leadership: he knows how to handle himself in the majors because he never made it there himself. After a down year from Dioner Navarro behind the plate, the Rays now have Kelly Shoppach to platoon with Navarro. The Rays have also brought Hank Blalock in on a minor league contract after he hit 25 grain-of-salt homeruns for the Rangers last season.
Perhaps the most intriguing player off the bench for the Rays this year is Sean Rodriguez, whom the Rays acquired in the Scott Kazmir deal with the Angels. Rodriguez is a utility player whose natural position is shortstop, but he also plays second base a fair bit. In Triple-A last season, Rodriguez had 30 homeruns and 98 RBI in only 385 at-bats. If Rodriguez shows that he can start hitting at the major league level just a little bit, he will be able to serve as a super-sub, or even send Ben Zobrist to designated hitter, where Pat Burrell was without a pulse last season.
3. Potential for Improvement
In 2009, the Rays did not play their best baseball; as discussed above, Dioner Navarro, Gabe Gross, and Pat Burrell just killed this team on offense, while B.J. Upton was an incredible disappointment. The team was forced to go with a closer-by-committee after Troy Percival was unable to return to form from 2008, and Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine each went AWOL one year after playing important roles on the way to the World Series. Combine that with the fact that Stars of Tomorrow David Price, Evan Longoria, and Matt Garza are all just approaching their primes, and this team has lots of areas in which to justifiably expect improvement in 2010.
In 2008, during the Rays' improbable run to the World Series, the baseball world (okay, me) watched the Rays continued success with “can this possibly be happening?” cynicism. The Tampa Bay Rays were not supposed to be a winning team, had never been a winning team, and didn’t fit the mold of a winning team. It was all so novel, so strange, so unique.
The 2010 Rays have two years worth of winning under their belt, and no longer need to wonder whether this is all happening. Further, the Rays team has established veterans – many of whom were not established two years ago – who know who they are and know how to play baseball.
The 2010 Rays have exactly what they've had for the last two years - outstanding pitching talent, strong defense, and solid-to-good hitters. But the 2010 Rays have something else - experience. We don't have to ask whether David Price is ready, or whether Evan Longoria is for real, or whether Carlos Pena is just a one-year wonder, or whether Ben Zobrist is a minor-league-only talent, or whether B.J. Upton can handle centerfield, or whether Carl Crawford is over-the-hill. We know the answers to these questions, and this year's squad will simply be last year's squad, year two. When a talented, winning team grows together over the course of several seasons, it is usually something special.
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