Beginning with the obvious and oft-repeated: The 2010 Tampa Bay Rays have the third best current talent in the American League.* But they are also the third most talented team in their division. This team has far too much talent to get any pity from me, though.
* I’d say “all of baseball,” but one could make an argument for the Phillies (Thanks, Doc!).
Straight up (not considering contracts or age), I’d probably take the 2010 Rays’ position players as a group over just about any other in baseball. They have something of a hole with Pat Burrell (possibly platooning with [shudder] Hank Blalock) at DH, although they could do much worse. Matt Joyce is probably around an average performer in right field, although if he’s platooned with ageless defensive-whiz Gabe Kapler, the Rays could get above-average performance out of the position. Those worried about Kelly Shoppach‘s contact problems forget that even with his worst offensive projection (ZiPS), he’s an above-average catcher. It’s a cliche to say that a team has bench players “that could start for a lot of teams,” but it’s true of Willy Aybar and Sean Rodriguez.
The next “rung” for most teams contains a few above-average players. The Rays, in contrast, have five “above-above average” players here, guys who are around 3.5-4.5 WAR: Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, and Carl Crawford. I know that is inadequate praise, but if I went on about all the individual talents on this team, this post would be 2,000+ words.
That’s it for the position players. Oh, yeah. Evan Longoria is the best third baseman in baseball. No, not just the “best value.” The best third baseman in baseball. Period.
Pitching lets the Rays down. Put away the torches and pitchforks. The bullpen is good enough (despite J.P. Howell‘s injury concerns) with off-season acquisition Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour both being strong options. Many, many teams would love to have James Shields and Matt Garza at the top of their rotations, not to mention Jeff Niemann and (especially) youngsters like David Price and Wade Davis. What I mean by “lets the Rays down” is that when I look at the Rays’ projections next to New York’s and Boston’s, the biggest difference is in the starting pitching. Again, it isn’t that Shields, Garza, et. al. aren’t good. But there is a sizeable gap between, say, Shields and Garza (each project at around four WAR) and guys like CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, Javier Vazquez,* and Josh Beckett (each project at around five WAR).
* I actually had a Tampa Bay fan bring up Javy’s 2004 in New York as a reason he won’t be good for the Yankees in 2010. C’mon, Rays fans, I expect that kind of thing from Red Sox and Yankees fans, but not you, too!
I am not claiming that the Rays are “doomed because of their pitching.” They are definite contenders for the wildcard and even the divisional title. It is tough going up against Boston and New York, but the Rays have substantial hope. While the Rays’ rotation may not project to be as dominant as those of their chief rivals, it is younger. This means that there is more variance in the projections, and thus they have a greater chance of might be better than projected (of course, it also means they might be worse). The relative youth of the team as a whole means likely continued improvement and less attrition. While some might think the Rays have to “win now” (2010) because of Crawford and Pena’s expiring contracts, some of their best players are still developing, and much near-ready talent looms in the minors, as well: Jeremy Hellickson, Reid Brignac, and, above all, Desmond Jennings (who might show up sooner rather than later).
The Rays might not be the divisional favorites in 2010, but they are contenders, and they will be in 2011, and… well, that’s for the “Future Talent” post.
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