And then, it all came together.
Finally. After nine last-place finishes and a standing reservation at the top of the amateur draft, the Rays earned the title of American League's best in 2008. And even though they didn't win the World Series, they did something far more rewarding in the long term. They took all their top prospects and early-round draft picks, developed them together, promoted them together, and turned them into the nucleus of the league's next dynasty. Yes, that 2008 season represents merely the first step in a long run of greatness for the Rays.
With all of their talent, most of it young, they only had to do some slight retooling in the offseason to keep pace with the competition. While their additions don't compare to the Yankees' in quality (CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira) or the Red Sox's in quantity (John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Rocco Baldelli, Takashi Saito, etc.), the Rays took care of their one need (power) with two under-the-radar acquisitions (Pat Burrell and Matt Joyce), setting the stage this year for what will likely become a three-team race for the ages.
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Of course, if they had simply sat on their hands this offseason, they might have gotten the power they needed from the players they already had. B.J. Upton, an elite talent, slumped to only nine home runs last season because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Now back at full health, he could tally his first 30-30 campaign even though his recovery might sideline him until the middle of April. Carl Crawford, the team's star player for most of its history, also missed his fair share of time due to injury -- his to his hand -- and even though he doesn't exactly qualify as a power hitter, he performed only halfway up to his capabilities last year. Even Carlos Pena, his strikeouts aside, can do better than the .247 batting average and 31 home runs he produced last year.
But the star of the lineup, the centerpiece for years to come, is undoubtedly Evan Longoria, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year with his 27 home runs in only 448 at-bats. You might not think he has much room to improve after last year, but based on his pedigree, we've most likely seen only glimpses of his potential.
Enough about hitting, though, because as much of it as this team has, its real strength lies in its pitching -- a commodity so plentiful that the Rays had no reservations about dealing away a young mainstay of their rotation last year, Edwin Jackson, for Joyce. They actually had too many major-league-ready arms, and a quick look at their top prospects suggests they still do.
One of those prospects -- the best of them -- assumes Jackson's spot in the rotation. David Price comes with as much hype as any pitcher in recent memory, and he could rise to Fantasy acedom even quicker than Tim Lincecum, who captured the NL Cy Young last year in only his second season. The Rays already have two aces in control artist James Shields and strikeout artist Scott Kazmir -- two early-round picks in Fantasy -- and Matt Garza doesn't trail them by much. Andy Sonnanstine gives the team another innings eater, but his relatively low ceiling makes him no more than a late-round pick in Fantasy.
|The Rays boast Kazmir, Shields and Price, but Garza may have the most upside. (US Presswire)|
Potential Breakout: Matt Garza, SP
Garza's minor-league numbers read like something that belongs on a Hall-of-Fame plaque, so the fact he broke out with the Rays last year after two years of teasing the Twins shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Really, Garza didn't get going until May, making his final numbers somewhat inflated by three miserable starts in April. He was remarkably consistent the rest of the way and remained strong through the playoffs, capturing the ALCS MVP. Translate that consistency over a full six months, and Garza suddenly becomes a top-25 Fantasy pitcher -- maybe even more if he improves his strikeouts, which he has the stuff to do. With nowhere to go but up, he could end up the steal of the draft around Round 15.
Potential Bust: Scott Kazmir, SP
In every year of every draft, some unsuspecting Fantasy owner becomes so enamored with Kazmir's strikeout potential that he can't help but invest a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick in him. Do you really want to fall into that trap again? Yes, he records strikeouts -- lots and lots of strikeouts. But he also walks the bases loaded, runs up high pitch counts, and misses several starts at a time with tender elbows, strained forearms and whatever other aches and pains his high-torque delivery decides to give him. And seven innings? Forget it. He lasted that long in only five of his 27 starts last year -- and none after July 21. At some point, the potential reward outweighs the risk for the still-developing 25-year-old, but he'll likely go well before that point in most Fantasy drafts.
Potential Sleeper: Matt Joyce, OF
Price might seem like the most obvious sleeper on this team, but his name has floated around Fantasy circles for so long now that he couldn't possibly take anyone by surprise. The real under-the-radar player in Tampa Bay is Joyce, who hit 12 home runs in only 242 at-bats with the Tigers last year, making him almost a slam dunk for 25 if he reaches 500. He knows how to draw walks and hasn't yet reached his peak at age 24. Of course, he might not get a chance to play against left-handed pitchers with Gabe Kapler, Gabe Gross and Ben Zobrist all clamoring for at-bats off the bench. Think of Joyce as more of an AL-only option entering the season, but don't be surprised if he makes an impact in mixed leagues before season's end.
|Tampa Bay Rays Outlook|
| ||Pos.|| |
|1||Akinori Iwamura||2B||1||James Shields||RH|
|2||Carl Crawford||LF||2||Scott Kazmir||LH|
|3||B.J. Upton||CF||3||Matt Garza||RH|
|4||Evan Longoria||3B||4||Andy Sonnanstine||RH|
|5||Carlos Pena||1B||5||David Price||LH|
|6||Pat Burrell||DH||Alt||Jeff Niemann||RH|
|7||Matt Joyce||RF||Top bullpen arms|
|8||Dioner Navarro||C||CL||Troy Percival||RH|
|9||Jason Bartlett||SS||SU||Dan Wheeler||RH|
|Top bench options||RP||Grant Balfour||RH|
|R||Willy Aybar||INF||RP||J.P. Howell||LH|
|R||Gabe Kapler||OF||RP||Chad Bradford||RH|
|1||David Price||23||LH SP||Majors||Majors|
|Perfect combination of stuff and attitude. A sure-fire ace in time.|
|Good power for SS, but a bit raw as a hitter. Could become starter in '09.|
|3||Wade Davis||23||RH SP||Triple-A||Triple-A|
|Biggest drawback is he isn't Price. Ready, but no spot available for him.|
|4||Jeff Niemann||26||RH SP||Majors||Triple-A|
|Little to prove in minors. Trade candidate if injury doesn't clear spot for him.|
|5||Jeremy Hellickson||21||RH SP||Double-A||Double-A|
|Doesn't walk batters and has high ceiling, but too many pitchers to hurdle.|
|Best of the rest: SP Jake McGee, SS Tim Beckham, C John Jaso, SP James Houser, OF Fernando Perez, SP Mitch Talbot, OF Desmond Jennings, SP Wade Townsend, SP Nick Barnese, OF Sergio Pedroza, SP Matt Moore, C Matt Spring, 2B Elliot Johnson, C Jake Jefferies, 1B Mike Sheridan and C Michel Hernandez.|
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