Leading up to the start of the 2009 Regular Season, Diamond Hoggers will preview each of MLB’s 30 teams. Today’s team is the Tampa Bay Rays. Today’s preview is written by David Chalk who writes for Bugs & Cranks, among other blogs. You simply will not find a better Tampa Bay Rays preview on the interwebs. Stay tuned as Diamond Hoggers will preview every team division by division until the start of the regular season.
The mighty Devil Rays enter the season with few concerns and a fully loaded ballclub. There are no question marks about a team that was the best in baseball in 2008. The only thing that kept them from their first World Series title was Phillies reliever J.C. Romero being given a free pass to play in the postseason despite twice testing positive for banned performance enhancing steroid-type drugs, because MLB placed postponing and muting the PR hit until February above the sanctity of the game. Watch out world, the 2009 Devil Rays should be vastly improved.
They’re fielding great players at virtually every position and they’ve got a s#!t-ton of depth, so other teams won’t never see any weaknesses to exploit.
Centerfielder B.J. Upton, who was hitting postseason home runs at a record pace last fall, will likely move up to leadoff. Upton may miss the first week of the season because he was recovering from offseason shoulder season, but considering how dominant he was last year playing most of the year with a shoulder injury, he should be killing the ball all year. Batting second and playing leftfield, you have two-time All-Star Carl Crawford, the franchise’s Christ Child. No one-two punch in baseball is faster, better, or more powerful.
Batting third and playing first, you have El Gato Del Crimen Carlos Pena. EGDC won his first gold glove last year, and in ‘07 he broke the Devil Rays single-season HR and RBI marks, and won a Silver Slugger and the AL Comeback Of The Year Award. He got off to a slow start last year, but he carried the team down the stretch when Crawford and Longoria were injured. Speaking of your Unanimous 2008 Rookie Of The Year, All-Star Evan Longoria will play third and likely hit cleanup. (Dick Vitale, Devil Ray season ticket holder and G-POPE fan, mentioned before the 2008 season that Reds exec Walt Jocketty told him he got rock hard thinking about how good Longoria is going to be.) Pat “The Bat” Burrell is the newly acquired stud of the lineup, DHing and likely hitting fifth. Behind the plate, another All-Star, The Fat Catcher Dioner Navarro who has shed some pounds and been compared favorably to Johnny Bench. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura deserved a Gold Glove last year in his first year at that position, and should hit more home runs after leading off for the Devil Rays the past two seasons. In right field, you got the super Gabe platoon of Gabe Gross — who played stellar D last year and provided many clutch hits — and newcomer Gabe Kapler. Hitting second leadoff is 2008 team MVP shortstop Jason Bartlett.
The starting rotation is once again loaded. They’ve got a lot of starting pitching. There could easily be three co-aces: Scott Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts in ‘07 and won the All-Star Game in ‘08, The Master Of The Modified Circle Change James Shields tied the franchise record for wins in ‘08, and Matt Garza was the MVP of the 2008 ALCS. Andy Sonnanstine is less flashy but consistently gets the job done.
To begin the year, the fifth spot might belong to Jason Hammel, who filled in admirably last April while Kazmir was on the DL and got a clutch save in Fenway in September. Hammel could be traded, opening the door for rookie Jeff Niemann who also had one good start last year. Although Niemann could also be traded or work out of the bullpen like J.P. Howell did last year. There’s also that David Price fella waiting in the wings, although The Mayor Of Devil Ray Town Cork Gaines of Rays Index says another rookie Wade Davis might get the cal
l first. And Buster Olney recently quoted an AL official as saying Davis was the most impressive minor leaguer he saw this spring.
Returning from last year’s stellar bullpen are J.P. Howell, who some said was the most valuable member of the Devil Rays staff last year, fiery Aussie fireball Grant Balfour, and veteran setup man Dan Wheeler. The Devil Rays also added lefty specialist Brian Shouse this offseason. Submariner Chad Bradford will be on the DL for the first few months, but could contribute.
AL Manager Of The Year Joe Maddon is a visionary, truly blessed with a fully loaded squad. The smart money is on this team to win it all. If you know baseball, there is no way you can bet against this roster. You just can’t. They have too much in every category to go along with depth, veteran leadership, sex appeal and experience. They’ll be in the playoffs — with a projected 113 wins — and their pitching in a short series will prevail.
The Devil Rays will have a shot at beginning the dynasty that should have started last year. Love them or hate them, they’ll be there for a long time.