Rays can't be counted out in AL East
You can forgive fans of the Tampa Bay Rays if they're starting to panic.
Sure they're the reigning AL East champions, but given recent events their grip on the flag seems weakened.
First came the departures of franchise cornerstone Carl Crawford to the division-rival Red Sox and first baseman Carlos Pena, who led the team in home runs in each of the last four seasons, to the Cubs. Then came the deal that sent shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Padres, and now rumors abound that Matt Garza might soon be traded. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the pending losses of a host of free-agent relievers, most notably closer Rafael Soriano.
Last season, the Rays ranked 19th with a payroll of just more than $72 million. In 2011, however, that figure almost certainly will drop to less than $60 million. In fact, just the Indians, Pirates and Padres figure to have lower payrolls for next season.
So the Rays are sloughing off payroll despite recent success, braying for a new publicly funded stadium and also floating the possibility of relocation.
All of it calls to mind their Sunshine State label-mates, the Florida Marlins. So is this what's ahead for the Rays? Constant rebuilding, basement-level payrolls and no more than 80-85 wins every year?
In some ways, the situations and outlooks are frighteningly similar. After all, the Rays' saga, like that of the Marlins, will end with either a new ballpark, built largely on the backs of Florida taxpayers, or relocation. Until that endgame, however, the Rays' outlook insofar as actual baseball is concerned is a bit more promising.
Yes, they have the misfortune of playing in the AL East, where the mighty Yankees, vastly improved Red Sox and underrated Blue Jays dwell, and there's the loss of talent detailed above. Still, the Rays, at least in the near term, are contenders.
Tampa Bay has an MVP-caliber performer in Evan Longoria anchoring the lineup. (He's also potentially locked up through 2016 under one of the most team-friendly contracts in all of sports.) Reid Brignac is ready to step in at shortstop and perhaps improve upon Bartlett with the bat and the glove. At first base, Dan Johnson could easily reproduce Pena's lackluster numbers from a season ago, and a number of other core contributors — John Jaso (and his .372 OBP), Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, B.J. Upton (who surged late in the year), and Ben Zobrist —remain in place.
Replacing Crawford is a bit trickier.
Desmond Jennings projects as a Crawford type of player (albeit a right-handed version), but his development has been somewhat inconsistent. Even so, Jennings has exceptional tools and will be given every chance to win the job in left field. If he comes up short, then Justin Ruggiano, Elliot Johnson and maybe even Leslie Anderson can be called upon.
And what if Garza goes? The Rays have Jeremy Hellickson, the top pitching prospect in the American League, ready to step into the rotation and contend for Rookie of the Year laurels. Richard De Los Santos provides a fallback, as does Andy Sonnanstine. Elsewhere, David Price is a Cy Young contender, and Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann are highly capable mid-rotation guys. Certainly, the Rays are hoping that James Shields will rebound, but they have options even if Garza is dealt.
As for the talent drain in the bullpen, the Rays can handle it. Fortunately for a team of modest means, assembling a capable bullpen on the cheap is possible.
Young lefty Jake McGee has been dominant since converting to a relief role, Rule 5 draftee Cesar Cabral could be a useful LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY); J.P. Howell is newly re-signed; and Adam Russell, Cesar Ramos and perhaps Brandon Gomes (who were acquired in the Bartlett deal) will add depth.
Top to bottom, the Rays' roster remains strong.
It's not certain what will become of the Rays five years from now, but in 2011 they'll be serious threats.
Yes, the Yankees are the still the Yankees, and the Red Sox have had the best winter of any team. But the Rays still have a tremendous amount of talent in place and the organizational depth to survive those free-agent losses (not to mention a bevy of compensatory draft picks headed their way).
In fact, you can make a compelling case that the Rays are still the best team in the division. So, despite some superficial resemblances, the Rays are not the Marlins. At least not yet.