Rays still feel like team to beat in AL East
The revamped Tampa Bay Rays have a new look, along with the same
expectations of staying on top of baseball’s toughest division.
The cost-conscious AL East champions slashed payroll by about 40
percent this winter, yet remain confident they’ll be able to hold
their own against the big-spending Boston Red Sox and New York
Yankees this season.
A talented young pitching rotation led by Cy Young Award
runner-up David Price is the biggest reason. Manager Joe Maddon
believes the team has a chance to be solid offensively, too, with
veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez filling holes created by
the departures of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena.
”I think we drip with intangibles,” said Maddon, who has
guided the Rays to two of the past three division titles with teams
that thrived on pitching, defense and speed.
An offseason of change – pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason
Bartlett were traded while the Rays also lost Crawford, Pena and
virtually the entire bullpen to free agency – has not altered the
formula for success.
”We’re not going to go out there and spend an exorbitant amount
of money on one or two free agents, but we get really good,
athletic young players and mix them with some nice veterans,”
Maddon said. ”But mainly we have to play our style of baseball.
… We have to believe in it. … That’s who we are. We’ll never
run away from it.”
Damon and Ramirez both are motivated to prove they can still be
productive players, with Damon settling into Crawford’s spot in
left field and Ramirez taking over as the designated hitter.
They are among six active players with at least 2,500 career
hits and are being counted on to provide leadership in the
”I know I’ve got to be more of a leader at this point in my
career. I have no problem doing that,” said the 37-year-old Damon,
who is beginning his 17th season.
Ramirez, 38, is a 12-time All-Star who was slowed by injuries
while hitting .298 with nine homers and 42 RBIs in 90 games for the
Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox last season.
While Damon agreed to a $5.25 million, one-year contract that
could be worth more with incentives, Ramirez accepted a $2 million,
one-year deal – down from the $20 million he earned in 2010 – and
says he is motivated not only to help Tampa Bay get back to the
playoffs but to prove he’s still one of the game’s best
”I just want to stay healthy. That’s my main course,” Ramirez
said. ”If I do that I think everything takes care of itself.”
But for all the talk about what Damon and Ramirez can add, the
Rays are still Evan Longoria’s team.
The three-time All-Star third baseman, who hit .294 with 22
homers and 104 RBIs last season, is excited about being sandwiched
between his new teammates in the batting order. He’s just as
excited about what he believes the Rays are capable of
accomplishing despite losing Crawford, the most accomplished player
in Tampa Bay’s relatively brief franchise history.
While conceding the defending division champions lost a lot,
Longoria looks at the starting rotation of Price, James Shields,
Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and rookie Jeremy Hellickson, as well as
an everyday lineup boasting young up and comers such as B.J. Upton,
Ben Zobrist and Reid Brignac, and sees no reason the Rays can’t
”We’ve got the right guys,” Longoria said. ”It’s just a
matter of putting the pieces together that win.”
Maddon’s biggest concern is the bullpen.
The Rays lost All-Star closer Rafael Soriano, as well as Joaquin
Benoit, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler
and have rebuilt the unit around the lone holdover, long reliever
Andy Sonnanstine, and newcomers Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz and Joel
With no clear-cut closer on the roster, the manager likely will
handle that role by committee.
Maddon insisted he’s not worried, noting that when the Rays
broke camp a year ago, ”there’s no way you can tell me anyone
expected us” to have one of the top relief units in baseball.
”Bullpens are like that. They’re volatile. They pop up. They go
away,” Maddon said. ”I kind of enjoy the fact that people aren’t
expecting much out of us. We’ll see.”