So apparently it must have been the name change. After 10 seasons as the whipping boy of the AL East, the Rays dropped the "Devil" from their name before the 2008 season and went on to shock the baseball world by winning the toughest division in baseball and going on the World Series. Last season wasn't quite as magical, and the divisional competition was as stiff as ever, leaving the Rays in a familiar position on the outside looking in at the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays may be one of the youngest, most talented teams in baseball, and if their farm system is any indication there should be plenty more help on the way. I'd look for them to again be serious contenders this year, but they certainly have their work cut out for them to leapfrog Boston or New York and earn a playoff spot.
2009 Season: 84-78, 3rd place in the AL East.
It was by all accounts a very quiet off-season for Tampa Bay, as there were very few holes in the roster that needed to be addressed. They didn't lose or add any game-changers, but a few familiar faces from the past few seasons have moved on. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura was traded to Pittsburgh for RP Jesse Chavez. Iwamura isn't a superstar, but he was plenty solid at second base for the Rays, posting a .274/.349/.380 line in his last full season in 2008, while playing slightly above-average defense. An ACL tear limited him to only 260 plate appearances last year. Sean Rodriguez, who came over in the Scott Kazmir trade (and although not projected as a stud prospect absolutely CRUSHED Triple-A pitching for the Angels last year to the tune of .299/.400/.616 with 30 homers and a .318(!) ISO) will take over 2B duties for the time being. Other losses include journeyman catcher Gregg Zaun, who departed for Milwaukee, and a number of relievers, notably Chad Bradford, Joe Nelson and two formerly-dominant-circa-2004 closers in Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen. Outside of Iwamura, the bottom line is that none of the other departures were major contributors.
As I noted before, the Rays took on a whopping $1.5MM in free agent salaries, signing OF Gape Kapler to a one-year, $1.05MM deal and 1B Dan Johnson for $500K. Kapler played for the Rays in 2009 and can play all outfield positions, which is the bulk of his value, and Johnson, well, he last saw significant ML action in 2007 with the A's, so perhaps I need not say more. One of the two main additions was reliever Rafael Soriano, who was acquired from the Braves for Chavez, so i guess by the reflexive property (?) Iwamura = Soriano. Tampa expects Soriano to hold down the closer role after he compiled 27 saves with a 2.97 ERA and a blistering 12.13 K/9 for Atlanta last year, hopefully bringing an end to last year's closer-by-committee situation. The other notable acquisition was obtaining catcher Kelly Shoppach from Cleveland for pitcher Mitch Talbot and subsequently signing him to a two-year, $3.5MM extension. I talked a little about Shoppach in my Indians preview, but he'll definitely be a serviceable platoon-mate to Dioner Navarro (who took a big step backwards last year after a breakout 2008 campaign). Shoppach certainly has power potential as evidenced by his 21 homers in 2008, but last year he saw his ISO decrease from .256 to .185. Again, not a game-changing trade, but Shoppach is a slight upgrade at the position and was obtained at a reasonable cost.
Talent En Route:
Here is where things get really interesting. The Rays' farm system is STACKED with potential talent, with five prospects given a 5-star ranking by Baseball Prospectus and an organizational ranking of third overall. Most other analysts have the Tampay system ranked in the top three, and there is little doubt that there could be even more stars in the making for a team that already has plenty of young talent. Their years of having top draft picks might be over, but there are a number of guys who are certainly ready to contribute in the near future. It's definitely pitching heavy at the top, but most teams would kill for the collection of high-upside arms that the Rays have.
Desmond Jennings (CF) - Jennings is the Rays' top prospect, and is widely regarded as one of the top 10 prospects in all of baseball. Although he's got all the tools, his primary asset is speed, which grades out as an 80 (the top) on the scouting scale. He started 2009 at Double-A, posting a .316/.395/.486 line in 100 games, and didn't slow down at all after a promotion to Triple-A, playing 32 games at a .325/.419/.491 clip. His power is only average, but his ability to get on base and blazing speed make him a potentially game-changing leadoff man. As Kevin Goldstein puts it, "Imagine Carl Crawford with outstanding plate discipline." Depending on what happens with Crawford, which I'll discuss later, Jennings looks more than ready to fill his shoes. It looks like a summer call-up might be the most likely scenario, and an outfield of Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Jennings would certainly be a force to be reckoned with.
Jeremy Hellickson (RHP) - Hellickson is the highest-upside pitcher at a very deep position, and gets absolutely glowing reviews from scouts. He doesn't feature overpowering velocity or raw stuff, but has outstanding command of three plus pitches (fastball with movement, curveball and a filthy changeup). He has consistently elevated his K rate through all levels of the minors up to a high of 10.99 K/9 at Triple-A, while keeping his walk rate fairly consistent. Combine that with the fact that he apparently just "knows how to pitch" and Hellickson is a potential ace in the making. The Rays' rotation seems to be pretty set, but I wouldn't be totally surprised to see him in the bigs at some point, especially if Wade Davis (see below) struggles.
Wade Davis (RHP) - Whereas Hellickson is more of a command/control type pitcher, Davis can certainly bring the heat. He touches 96 mph with the fastball, and according to Goldstein, he also features a plus curve with very similar arm action the fastball, making it difficult for batters to pick up. He's two years older than Hellickson and is a bit more advanced in his development, which gives him the edge in terms of earning a roster spot. He'll be the fifth starter in the rotation to begin the season, but could also be moved to the bullpen should in not work out, a role that might also fit his power pitching style, given that he only really has two good pitches.
Alex Colome (RHP) - Another in the line of young righties, Colome is younger and much less developed than Hellickson or Davis, but the raw material is undoubtedly there. He can touch 98 with the fastball and has good secondary pitches at times, but he lacks consistent command and delivery. In 15 games of short-season ball (sample size alert) he was impressive, however, striking out 94 in only 76 innings and allowing a .174 BAA. He could be an impact arm down the line, but he's likely a ways off.
2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:
The biggest pending free agent question in 2011 for the Rays will be Carl Crawford, a question that won't be answered until the next off-season after Crawford put an end to negotiations during Spring Training. Although the Twins' signing of Joe Mauer should give some hope to smaller market teams that would like to hang on to their marquee players, the impetus for Tampa to resign Crawford might be less than it was for the Twins to hang on to Mauer. Crawford's current deal with the Rays has been an absolute bargain, as he was worth 5.5 wins above replacement last year (worth $24.9MM according to FanGraphs) while playing for only $8.25MM. He could likely command $15MM or more per year in free agency, a number that the Tampa front office has never offered to a player, and the emergence of Jennings could mean that management will choose to focus its resources elsewhere.
The other big free agency question is Carlos Pena, who will make $10.25MM this season in the last year of a three-year contract signed in 2008. Pena is the archetypal pure-power/low-average slugger, clubbing 39 homers last year with a .227/.356/.537 line. He rated below average defensively in 2009 according to UZR/150 (-6.2), but that could be misleading as he posted excellent numbers in 2007 and 2008 (2.5 and 4.8, respectively). The bottom line is that with a payroll hovering around $60MM, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Rays to keep both Pena and Crawford. At this point in his career, Crawford is a more valuable player, but Jennings is waiting in the wings, whereas there don't seem to be any power bats lurking in the system that could replace Pena's production. However, Pena could certainly choose to walk, as he'll be the best first baseman to hit the open market in 2011.
An area that isn't a question for now, however, is the rotation, where the Rays really shine in terms of quality cost-controlled talent. The top two starters, Matt Garza and James Shields, are making only $3.35 and $2.5MM, respectively, and both are under team control through 2013. Third starter Jeff Niemann will enter his arbitration years early as a result of the major league contract he signed in 2005, but figures to get only a modest raise, and former stud prospect-now-arrived David Price will make right around $2MM the next three seasons on the back end of his six-year major league deal. Fifth starter Davis still qualifies as a financial serf and will make the league minimum for at least a few years.
With as much cheap talent as they possess, the Rays should have enough financial flexibility to either re-sign their pending free agents or snag a few impact players on the market, but the sad fact remains that they are significantly hampered by woeful attendance figures. Even during the magical 2008 season they failed to exceed 2 million tickets sold, and only 60K more fans total showed up for the defending AL champs in 2009. Until Rays fans start showing that they care a little more (and as a Twins fan I can empathize with Tropicana Field, but that's not an excuse) they are only handicapping the revenue that management can put into the on-field product.
The Future of the Rays:
Much like AK47's opinion of the Orioles, optimism of the Rays' future is tempered significantly by the division in which they play. In most other divisions in baseball, they would now be at the point where they could contend every year, but in the AL East, it's hard to predict success on a consistent basis. The fact remains though that Tampa is loaded with young talent, and the Yankees, while possessing a mid-level farm system by most accounts, are aging. Losing Crawford and Pena would be significant blows, but Evan Longoria has emerged as a big bat in the middle of the order and could take some of the sting from losing Pena, and Desmond Jennings has the potential to be better than Crawford. The key word there is potential, however. Predicting major league success from "potential" is tricky, but Tampa seems to have the luxury of being a team that has both the opportunity to contend now and the young talent to sustain their success for many years to come.