Tampa Bay Rays
2009: Third place, 84-78
Key additions: RHP Rafael Soriano, C Kelly Shoppach
Key losses: 2B Akinori Iwamura, RF Gabe Gross, RHP Chad Bradford, RHP Troy Percival, C Gregg Zaun
• It’s actually a stretch to consider Bradford and Percival key losses after they combined to pitch 21.2 innings last season. Iwamura became expendable after Ben Zobrist’s breakout 2009 season. The Rays traded Iwamura for Jesse Chavez, then used Chavez to land Soriano, who could be a vital piece of the bullpen.
Youth on the way: Isn’t there always youth on the way to Tampa? Right now, the big name is Desmond Jennings, one of the top outfield prospects in baseball. He has speed, some power and he hit well over .300 in both Double-A and Triple-A last season. The Rays also have Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis ready to step into a rotation that’s already very young. Jake McGee is another starter full of potential, but he’s working his way back from Tommy John.
Experience on the slide: The obvious name here is Pat Burrell, who hit just .221 with 14 homers and 119 strikeouts last season in his first year as the Rays designated hitter. Otherwise, most of the Rays are in their 20s, with he exception of Carlos Pena — who had 100 RBI last season — and a few members of the bullpen, who are in their early 30s.
Possible upgrades: There aren’t a lot of Tampa Bay rumors out there. A bounce-back year out of Andy Sonnanstine would help, as would some improvement from David Price after his solid but not quite overwhelming rookie year. Right now Gabe Kapler is listed as their starting right fielder, so there’s soome room to improve there, and the free agent market includes multiple options.
• Last year’s Burrell signing seems to have been an awful decision, but the rest of the young lineup is pretty good. Jennings seems like the real deal — he’s a personal favorite, for obvious reasons — and the Rays have a lot of good young pitching, both on the big league staff and knocking on the door from the minors.
Better than the Yankees: If Jennings gets to Tampa this season, the Rays will have an outfield of over-the-top toolsy players in Jennings, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton (of course, it might not last long if Crawford hits the free agent market). Evan Longoria might be one of the best young players in baseball, but the Yankees have a pretty good third basemen too. Tampa clearly has more speed than the Yankees.
Worse than the Yankees: There’s a lot to like about the youth in the Rays rotation, but it certainly doesn’t seem as strong as the Yankees’ right now. That pretty much goes for the whole pitching staff.
Yankee connections: C Dioner Navarro came up through the Yankees system, and Carlos Pena was once in the organization before he established himself. Crawford has been linked to the Yankees in speculation of 2010 offseason moves.
• Tampa Bay is young and there is very real talent in the organization. That youth could play up and make the Rays contenders, or that youth could go through ups and downs that once again leave Tampa Bay in the middle of the pack.
Prediction: Third place, but a team that could make things interesting. The Rays don’t really have a true ace, and the bulk of the rotation is too young to be counted on as sure-things. Can’t discount them, but they’re not as polished as the Yankees and Red Sox.