Tampa Bay Rays 2010 preview

The Rays entered 2009 determined to prove that their trip to the 2008 World Series wasn’t a fluke. Didn’t happen. Because of injuries and a group of underperforming stars, they weren’t a factor in the AL East race in the second half, and an 11-game losing streak in early September erased any thoughts of claiming the wild card. That painful learning experience behind them, there are plenty of reasons — Evan Longoria, an MVP-caliber hitter, anchors a strong lineup, and the rotation is solid –to believe 2010 will have more in common with 2008 than 2009 for Tampa Bay.

Will Carl Crawford be trade bait if the Rays struggle?
Will Carl Crawford be trade bait if the Rays struggle?

Three questions

1. Is Rafael Soriano the answer to the bullpen issues?
Few were shocked when the Rays reached the middle of June and neither Troy Percival nor Jason Isringhausen, their mind-is-willing-but-flesh-is-weak veteran closers, was healthy. The bullpen, which was a strength for the Rays during their playoff push in 2008, fell into a bit of disarray. Lefthander J.P. Howell, one of nine different Rays to record at least one save last year, did an admirable job until he faltered late in the season.

That ninth-inning uncertainty is why the Rays targeted Soriano, who was 27-for-31 in save opportunities for the Braves in 2009. "When you get one guy that you feel can handle the ninth inning, it permits you to mix and match through the first eight, which is kind of a nice thing to do," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

2. Will Pat Burrell and Dioner Navarro produce offensively?
You would be hard-pressed to find a pair of teammates who disappointed more in 2009, and neither will have a long leash should his struggles continue into 2010. Navarro, the squad’s unofficial Mr. Clutch in 2008, dropped from a .295 batting average and .757 OPS to a .218 average and .583 OPS. The Rays traded for catcher Kelly Shoppach this offseason, and he will share time behind the plate.

Burrell, who was signed as a free agent before the 2009 season to provide righthanded power as the DH, went from 33 homers and an .875 OPS with the Phillies to 14 homers and a .682 OPS, both career lows.

"I really believe that the second year (in the AL) is going to matter a lot for him," Maddon said. "Leaving his only organization last year probably was more difficult than he let on — switching leagues, switching positions, going to arguably the best division in all of baseball and all of the very good pitchers that he had to face. There were a lot of different factors involved in regards to not having a typical year for him."

3. What should they do with Carl Crawford?
The left fielder is one of the most exciting players in the game — his 15 homers, 60 stolen bases and .305 average speak to that — but he will be a free agent after the 2010 season and his next contract will be a whopper. That doesn’t necessarily fit the Rays’ blueprint of high-talent, low-cost players. If the team struggles early, the front office could entertain trade offers for Crawford, who doesn’t turn 29 until August and would command a hearty package of low-cost talent in return.

But if the Rays are in the thick of the AL East or wild-card race, can they really trade Crawford? If they don’t, he almost will certainly test the free agent market after the season. It likely would require a significant hometown discount for him to remain in Tampa Bay.

Projected lineup
1. SS Jason Bartlett: Hit at least .345 in 4 of 6 months.
2. LF Carl Crawford: Hit .295 at home, .315 on road.
3. 3B Evan Longoria: Top-three MVP finish very possible.
4. 1B Carlos Pena: Has averaged 39 HRs, .935 OPS with Rays.
5. 2B Ben Zobrist: Breakthrough year: 91 RBIs, 91 runs, 91 BBs.
6. CF B.J. Upton: OPS dropped from .784 to .686.
7. DH Pat Burrell: .202 AVG, 0 HRs vs. lefthanders.
8. RF Matt Joyce: Gabe Kapler and Fernando Perez in mix.
9. C Dioner Navarro: .183 AVG vs. righthanders.

Projected rotation
1. RHP James Shields: 3.42 ERA in first half; 5.16 ERA in second.
2. RHP Matt Garza: Held lefthanders to .196 AVG, .608 OPS.
3. LHP David Price: Quality starts in 6 of final 8 starts.
4. RHP Jeff Niemann: 13-6, 3.94 ERA as rookie.
5. RHP Wade Davis: 4-hit, 10-K shutout in third career start.

Projected closer
RHP Rafael Soriano: Held opposing hitters to .194 AVG.

Grades

Offense: B. The star power is here: Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria all have finished in the top 11 in the AL MVP voting the past two seasons, and Crawford, B.J. Upton and Jason Bartlett combined for 132 stolen bases last year — more than 26 teams. Questions at DH, right field and catcher keep the Rays from getting an "A."

Pitching: B. The rotation has five guys capable of giving No. 1-starter performances on any given night; the goal is improved consistency. Dropping the ugly numbers from Scott Kazmir (5.92 ERA) and Andy Sonnanstine (6.89 ERA as starter) should help improve the unit’s 4.54 ERA. If Soriano is the ninth-inning answer, the bullpen should fall into place.

Bench: B. Willy Aybar has been an invaluable part of the Rays’ bench the past two years; he is a switch hitter who has started games at all four infield positions and clubbed a combined 22 homers. Speedy Fernando Perez missed all of 2009 but can play all three outfield positions.

Manager: A. Maddon punched all the right buttons and pulled all the right levers in 2008. That magic touch didn’t extend into 2009, but he understands his players’ strengths and weaknesses as well as any manager in baseball. Maddon’s emphasis on teaching the Ray Way of baseball in the minors should pay off this season.

Sporting News prediction: The Rays have the talent and experience to compete for a postseason berth, but beating out the Yankees and Red Sox won’t be easy. The more likely scenario has them finishing as the best third-place team in the majors.

COMING THURSDAY: Blue Jays preview.

Ryan Fagan is a staff writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at rfagan@sportingnews.com.

The Rays entered 2009 determined to prove that their trip to the 2008 World Series wasn’t a fluke. Didn’t happen. Because of injuries and a group of underperforming stars, they weren’t a factor in the AL East race in the second half, and an 11-game losing streak in early September erased any thoughts of claiming the wild card. That painful learning experience behind them, there are plenty of reasons — Evan Longoria, an MVP-caliber hitter, anchors a strong lineup, and the rotation is solid –to believe 2010 will have more in common with 2008 than 2009 for Tampa Bay.

Will Carl Crawford be trade bait if the Rays struggle?
Will Carl Crawford be trade bait if the Rays struggle?

Three questions

1. Is Rafael Soriano the answer to the bullpen issues?
Few were shocked when the Rays reached the middle of June and neither Troy Percival nor Jason Isringhausen, their mind-is-willing-but-flesh-is-weak veteran closers, was healthy. The bullpen, which was a strength for the Rays during their playoff push in 2008, fell into a bit of disarray. Lefthander J.P. Howell, one of nine different Rays to record at least one save last year, did an admirable job until he faltered late in the season.

That ninth-inning uncertainty is why the Rays targeted Soriano, who was 27-for-31 in save opportunities for the Braves in 2009. "When you get one guy that you feel can handle the ninth inning, it permits you to mix and match through the first eight, which is kind of a nice thing to do," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

2. Will Pat Burrell and Dioner Navarro produce offensively?
You would be hard-pressed to find a pair of teammates who disappointed more in 2009, and neither will have a long leash should his struggles continue into 2010. Navarro, the squad’s unofficial Mr. Clutch in 2008, dropped from a .295 batting average and .757 OPS to a .218 average and .583 OPS. The Rays traded for catcher Kelly Shoppach this offseason, and he will share time behind the plate.

Burrell, who was signed as a free agent before the 2009 season to provide righthanded power as the DH, went from 33 homers and an .875 OPS with the Phillies to 14 homers and a .682 OPS, both career lows.

"I really believe that the second year (in the AL) is going to matter a lot for him," Maddon said. "Leaving his only organization last year probably was more difficult than he let on — switching leagues, switching positions, going to arguably the best division in all of baseball and all of the very good pitchers that he had to face. There were a lot of different factors involved in regards to not having a typical year for him."

3. What should they do with Carl Crawford?
The left fielder is one of the most exciting players in the game — his 15 homers, 60 stolen bases and .305 average speak to that — but he will be a free agent after the 2010 season and his next contract will be a whopper. That doesn’t necessarily fit the Rays’ blueprint of high-talent, low-cost players. If the team struggles early, the front office could entertain trade offers for Crawford, who doesn’t turn 29 until August and would command a hearty package of low-cost talent in return.

But if the Rays are in the thick of the AL East or wild-card race, can they really trade Crawford? If they don’t, he almost will certainly test the free agent market after the season. It likely would require a significant hometown discount for him to remain in Tampa Bay.

Projected lineup
1. SS Jason Bartlett: Hit at least .345 in 4 of 6 months.
2. LF Carl Crawford: Hit .295 at home, .315 on road.
3. 3B Evan Longoria: Top-three MVP finish very possible.
4. 1B Carlos Pena: Has averaged 39 HRs, .935 OPS with Rays.
5. 2B Ben Zobrist: Breakthrough year: 91 RBIs, 91 runs, 91 BBs.
6. CF B.J. Upton: OPS dropped from .784 to .686.
7. DH Pat Burrell: .202 AVG, 0 HRs vs. lefthanders.
8. RF Matt Joyce: Gabe Kapler and Fernando Perez in mix.
9. C Dioner Navarro: .183 AVG vs. righthanders.

Projected rotation
1. RHP James Shields: 3.42 ERA in first half; 5.16 ERA in second.
2. RHP Matt Garza: Held lefthanders to .196 AVG, .608 OPS.
3. LHP David Price: Quality starts in 6 of final 8 starts.
4. RHP Jeff Niemann: 13-6, 3.94 ERA as rookie.
5. RHP Wade Davis: 4-hit, 10-K shutout in third career start.

Projected closer
RHP Rafael Soriano: Held opposing hitters to .194 AVG.

Grades

Offense: B. The star power is here: Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria all have finished in the top 11 in the AL MVP voting the past two seasons, and Crawford, B.J. Upton and Jason Bartlett combined for 132 stolen bases last year — more than 26 teams. Questions at DH, right field and catcher keep the Rays from getting an "A."

Pitching: B. The rotation has five guys capable of giving No. 1-starter performances on any given night; the goal is improved consistency. Dropping the ugly numbers from Scott Kazmir (5.92 ERA) and Andy Sonnanstine (6.89 ERA as starter) should help improve the unit’s 4.54 ERA. If Soriano is the ninth-inning answer, the bullpen should fall into place.

Bench: B. Willy Aybar has been an invaluable part of the Rays’ bench the past two years; he is a switch hitter who has started games at all four infield positions and clubbed a combined 22 homers. Speedy Fernando Perez missed all of 2009 but can play all three outfield positions.

Manager: A. Maddon punched all the right buttons and pulled all the right levers in 2008. That magic touch didn’t extend into 2009, but he understands his players’ strengths and weaknesses as well as any manager in baseball. Maddon’s emphasis on teaching the Ray Way of baseball in the minors should pay off this season.

Sporting News prediction: The Rays have the talent and experience to compete for a postseason berth, but beating out the Yankees and Red Sox won’t be easy. The more likely scenario has them finishing as the best third-place team in the majors.

COMING THURSDAY: Blue Jays preview.

Ryan Fagan is a staff writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at rfagan@sportingnews.com.

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