From their Spring training clashes with the Yankees to their June brawl with the Red Sox, the AL East’s big kahunas were put on notice early: no longer would the Tampa Bay Rays be the hapless losers of the AL East, finishing under .400 and wearing teal.
For some, their sudden kickassery was unexpected — “Bizarro Baseball,” Sports Illustrated called it, in a cover story that featured a cartoon Ray giving a Yankee the ol’ one-two. Yet that was just the tip of the “Rays Actually Good; Baseball World Stunned” media iceberg. For those who’d been paying closer attention, the question was never whether the talented young Rays would have a breakout season. It was when. At the very least, the last half of 2007 pointed to a much-improved Rays squad in 2008. For 2009, the question for this year becomes: will Tampa regress, as most teams do after worst-to-first seasons? Or could they actually improve ? (The latter is entirely possible, given their number of young, still-developing players.)
The Rays front office seems to be, sensibly, charting a middle course between these two extremes. According to Pythagoras, Tampa won an “extra” five games last year, which could have still been good enough to get them into the playoffs as the Wild Card team. Hence it makes sense that instead of making any splashy trades or expensive free agent signings, Tampa’s FO has set about collecting a few inexpensive pieces to round out their ballclub.
The most notable signing has been the signing of free agent slugger Pat “the Bat” Burrell. Though Burrell played left field for the Phillies, he will be DH-ing for the Rays. (There’s a reason they don’t call him “Pat the Glove,” and it’s not because it doesn’t rhyme.) The Rays managed to snag Burrell — 32 years old, hit 30 homers and OBP’ed .400 last year — for two years at $8 million a pop. That should be a considerable upgrade over last year’s main DH, Cliff Floyd (36 years old, OBP’ed .349 and hit 11 homers in 80 games last year), and plug Tampa’s main lineup hole.
On the field, Tampa’s main need last year was an every day rightfielder. The need for another outfielder became more pressing once it became clear that BJ Upton (recovering from shoulder surgery) would not be available to start the ’09 season — in the intensively competitive AL East, getting off to a slow start is not an option. So, for the short term, they picked up Gabe Kapler for an easy one-year, $1 million contract. For the long term, they traded for toolsy corner outfield prospect Matt Joyce, sending Edwin Jackson to Detroit. Joyce played in 92 games for the listless Tigers last year, but the feeling around baseball seems to be that he could use a chance to play every day in the minors before being called up again.
Added: Pat Burrell, Joe Nelson, Gabe Kapler, Lance Cormier
Lost: Rocco Baldelli, Trever Miller (and have yet to re-sign free agents Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, and Jonny “Fists of Fury” Gomes)
Projected lineup, rotation, and closer:
CF: BJ Upton
2B: Akinori Iwamura
3B: Evan Longoria
DH: Pat Burrell
1B: Carlos Pena
C: Dioner Navarro
SS: Jason Bartlett
RF: Gabe Kapler/Matt Joyce
LF: Carl Crawford
SP1: James Shields
SP2: Scott Kazmir
SP3: Matt Garza
SP4: Andy Sonnanstine
SP5: David Price
CL: Joe Nelson
I’m having a hard time imagining what they could have done better, except maybe reel in a few more relievers. But that’s nit-picking. The addition of Burrell helps address Tampa’s main weakness — an underachieving offense. But with Burrell, a full year of Evan Longoria, a healthier team than last year’s, and a lucky break or two, this offense looks more than a little intimidating. Defensively, the addition of Kapler as a backup only bolsters their already slick-fielding club. They have nice depth, with Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez ready to help out in the outfield. Pitching-wise, the Rays are still loaded with young guns. In the bullpen, they picked up Lance Cormier, and the signing of reliever Joe Nelson gives them some insurance for aging closer Troy Percival (who, it’s worth mentioning, is the only player on the team over 35). Short version: the Rays have taken a strong young club and, with some thoughtful tweakage, made it even stronger.