Last season, the Rays shocked the world when the captured their first AL East pennant and then went on the beat the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS to advance to the World Series. Young stars like Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza became household names in October. But, the question is can the young Rays do an encore?
The Rays have never had a target on their backs in their franchises history. They have been an afterthought until late last year when people started to believe that the Rays did indeed have some magic in themselves.
The key for the Rays will be pitching in 2009. Their bullpen was great in 2008. Chad Bradford had a 1.42 ERA, Grant Balfour had a 1.54 ERA, David Price had a 1.93 ERA and J.P. Howell had a 2.22 ERA. Bullpens are very hard to figure. Some years guys have fantastic years, and other years they are dreadful. The fact that so many pitchers had a wonderful 2008, may mean a year of misery in 2009. The fact that the promising David Price, who could be a closer some day is starting the season in the minor leagues is not a good sign.
As for the rotation, the Rays are very deep. James Sheilds won 14 games in 2008, posting a 3.56 ERA and 160 strikeouts. Shields is the ace of this deep staff. Andy Sonnanstine won 13 games in 2008, and Matt Garza won 11, and was a workhorse in the playoffs. There has to be some concern about Scott Kazmir. Even though he struck out 166 batters and won 12 games, he is shaky in the big moment. He got blasted by Philadelphia in the World Series, and whenever he pitches against the Yankees or Red Sox, he comes up small. Kazmir gave up 23 home runs, most on the team, and walked 70, second most on the team. He is wild, and that is not a good sign.
Offensively, the Rays have a decent lineup. The Rays don't hit for a lot of power, but they do play small ball extremely well, which is one reason why the went all the way to the World Series. Carlos Pena is the biggest bat in the lineup. He had 31 home runs and 102 RBI in an injury rittled year. If healthy, Pena can post 40 plus homers and 120 plus RBI. Evan Longoria has the potential to be another 30 homer/100 RBI player. In his first full season, Longoria had 27 homers and 85 RBI. He was fantastic in the clutch and provided steady leadership at the ripe age of 23. Longoria will only get better with time.
Carl Crawford, Akinori Iwamura and B.J. Upton provided steady bats last year, hitting around .275 each. Crawford is a great basestealing threat. He had 25 steals last year, but he can do better. In 2007 he stole 50 bags, which was second only to Jose Reyes of the Mets that year.
The big question for Tampa this year, is whether they can continue to play at a high level. There is something called a sophomore slump that affects players in their second year, it would be a shame to see an entire team get affected by the slump, but I got a feeling that is what will happen here. PREDICTION: Tampa Bay Rays, 3rd place AL East 84-78.