Ever since their 1998 inauguration the Rays have held a very special place in my heart. I grew up only an hour or so away from Tampa/St. Pete and was thrilled to have a major league team so close (the Braves played several hours away, and does anyone really care about the Florida Marlins and whatever they’re doing in Miami?). There is no doubt I suffered through several embarrassing seasons, but I did not waver. I steadfastly stood by their side as I watched fellow 1998-inaugural-Diamondbacks win the World Series within 3 years, and as the Marlins completely dismantled their team and still won another World Series within a few years, all before the Tampa Bay Devil Rays learned how to stop pooping their pants and eating their boogers for breakfast (two things I’m still working on).
Finally, of course, the Rays’ time came. 2008 was the most glorious year, and few fans of other teams know what it’s like to have their team go from a bottom feeder to battling on the grandest stage in less than a year. The bandwagon grew as August turned to September and September turned to October, but those of us who still wince when we hear the phrase, “The Hit Show,” knew who the true fans were.
But 2008 is gone, and 2011 is upon us. The banner-waving Rays teams of the past few years ago have largely been taken apart for financial reasons. Even though I knew it was coming, I shed a few tears when Carl Crawford left. Pena’s gone. Garza. Bartlett. Iwamura. Edwin. Balfour. Wheels. And even though they were only with us for one year, Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano left a deep mark, and I’ll miss the fear their glares instilled in opposing batters (I challenge you to find a better set-up/closer duo in the entire league last year).
2011 brings challenges to Tampa Bay. The numerous personnel losses meant there would be several new faces. The entire bullpen had to be replaced, but I believe Andrew Friedman and the rest of the front office did an admirable job of picking up some guys from trades and free agency, and promoting others from the farm, to fill it with what should be a solid staff. Will it put up as good of numbers as the pens of the past few years? We shall see, but from what I’ve seen over spring training it appears they’re gradually putting their stuff together.
Many people believe the Rays are at a big disadvantage because they think Crawford and Pena can’t easily be replaced. While that may be true, I think the Rays’ front office made possibly the greatest deals of the season by bringing in former Red Sox Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez for around $7.5 million total. Damon may not have the same production at the plate as Crawford does, and not nearly the same value defensively in left field, he’s still got something left in the tank and has been performing pretty well so far this spring.
Meanwhile, Ramirez has also been showing he’s still got plenty left, and he fills a hole in the DH spot, a spot that Tampa has had severe problems filling over the past several years. Much skepticism has surrounded Manny since he joined Tampa over 1) if he has anything left in the tank, 2) if he will gel well with Joe Maddon and the rest of the team, and 3) if he will get bored halfway through the season, become lazy, and be benched. Valid skepticism to be sure, but if spring training is any indication, Manny will prove all the haters wrong. He’s been playing very well; Maddon and the rest of the guys already love him; and he has a newfound passion for the game, because as he says, he’s “got something to prove.” Indeed, on multiple occasions already Manny has requested to travel and play in games he and other starters weren’t regularly scheduled to play in. Does that smack of laziness to you? [Now that Manny has retired, all of that is now invalid. That’s what I get for scheduling posts to publish after breaking news occurs.]
There are other new faces, too. Position players like outfielder Sam Fuld (gained in the Garza trade) and Zobrist-esque utility man Eliot Johnson worked hard and have earned themselves a spot on the roster. Look for relief pitcher Jake McGee, promoted from AAA this season, to wow some people. I don’t expect newly-acquired Kyle Farnsworth to proclaim domain over the closer role, but he should be able to hold his own until the Iceman, J.P. Howell, takes over in a month or so after recovering from surgery and missing all of last season. Dan Johnson will take over Pena’s spot at first base, and while he may be a “new” face to outsiders because he hasn’t had much playing time, within the Rays system and among the Rays faithful he is already a legend for his clutch pinch-hit bombs against the Red Sox. He may not be on par with the Gold-Gloved Pena defensively, but it will be very difficult for Johnson not to surpass Pena’s sub-par batting average, and he certainly has the ability to mash just as many homers.
But perhaps the main reason why the Rays have just as much chance to win the A.L. East as they have over the past few years is because the rotation is pretty much the same, if not better, than those past years. Sure, we lost Garza, who threw the first no-hitter in Tampa Bay history. But the rest of the highly-effective staff of 2010 still remains:
1)David Price, a perennial Cy Young contender
2)James Shields, who gives up home runs like nobody’s business, but is the “old man” on the staff at 28 and can still get the job done
3)Jeff Niemann, who faded over the second half of the season, but can still be an intimidating force
4)Wade Davis, who started off fairly slow but picked it up and played extremely well over the second half of the season (and who the front office just signed to a long-term deal, which should indicate how valuable the Rays feel he is)
In addition to those four enters Jeremy Hellickson, MLB’s top prospect on almost every top-prospect list in existence. He should easily be able to replace Garza’s production, if not surpass it. HellBoy was called up last year and promptly dominated, going 4-0 with numerous K’s. He’s got great control of his stuff and has only continued to work on it over the offseason.
Almost everybody is counting the Rays out this year, but it will be to their own chagrin. You can take my word as a rabid Rays fan with a grain of salt, but don’t be surprised if I’m right. If I’m wrong…well, then I’ll just be another baseball buffoon.