Sunday, March 28, 2010

You Know It Don't Come Easy: Tampa Bay Rays

Maybe it's time to start thinking about the competition. And there is plenty. While even those afflicted with the luck of Rip Van Winkle recognize the Yankees, fewer may hold Tampa Bay in anything approaching equally high regard. Last season's "mean reversion" and bullpen breakdown relegated Tampa to mediocrity, but I'm not sure that Sox fans can rely on that happening in 2010.

The Rays' initials TBA (to be announced?) sums up where they are. At the catching position, Dioner Navarro's performance fell off the cliff, which probably won't recur. What Ray had at least 30 homers and 100 RBI for the past three seasons? That would be Northeastern's Carlos Pena. His OPS exceeded even that of what could be baseball's best young player, Evan Longoria. And yet, at the middle infield positions the Rays have Jason Bartlett, Red Sox killer, and the underappreciated Ben Zobrist who finished 7th in the AL in OPS while cranking 27 homers from second base AND supplying excellent glove work. Admittedly, Bartlett's offense came at the expense of less spectacular defense.

The outfield has potential, with Carl Crawford in a contract year, winner of the Fielding Bible Gold Glove award in left, the enigmatic B.J. Upton, and some kind of Matt Joyce platoon in right. Pat Burrell is better than he showed last year, although not the man he used to be.

Still, for the Rays, it will be about the pitching. Scott Kazmir is gone, but they still have Big Game James Shield and Sox nemesis Matt Garza at the top of the rotation, the heralded David Price next, the 'monster' Jeff Niemann and rookie Wade Davis. These guys are inexperienced, but not chopped liver. Rafael Soriano comes over as a closer, and the rest of the bullpen, such as Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell aren't as bad as they were last year.

If there is a surprise in the AL this year, it may not be the Seattle Mariners, but the potential of the Rays to compete a lot deeper and longer than many pundits expect.

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