If the major-league baseball were a mythological bestiary, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays would be the awful three-headed chimera. The Yankees would be the showy fire-breathing goat, the Red Sox the fierce and obnoxious lion head, and the Rays would be the serpent head growing from the tail that strikes when you least expect it. Other than, ironically, Toronto, Tampa is the one AL East team in whose media market I haven't lived (New Orleans was sort of vaguely Braves territory when I lived there, with maybe a dash of Houston).
Now, it's true that in the Rays world series season, the Jays actually arguably had a better team - we know they had the better pythagorean record. But even had the Jays not thrown in the towel, the Rays had the much better team going forward and that's what allowed them to remain competitive in 2009 despite their lucky largely abandoning them and the tough competition in the division. It's also what makes them a formidable adversary this season. Read on and find out why, and why this season will be a sort of reckoning for them. Or, as the SB Nation Rays' preview would say, Ichi-go, ichi-e. Though that just makes me think of Bleach.
C - Dioner Navarro
1B - Carlos Pena
2B - Ben Zobrist
SS - Jason Bartlett
3B - Evan Longoria
LF - Carl Crawford
CF - B.J. Upton
RF - Pat Burrell
DH - Hank Blalock
Bench: Gabe Kapler, Kelly Shoppach, Willy Aybar, Matt Joyce
Navarro had a McDonald-esqe season at the plate in 2009, (.583 OPS) but he's only 26 and should bounce back somewhat. He was a pretty good hitter in 2008, and you can't expect a guy who hits line drives 20% of the time to put up another .231 BABIP, even if he is a catcher. If Navarro doesn't improve, the Rays picked up Shoppach, who has a decent eye at the plate and solid pop.
Carlos Pena had another great season for the Rays in 2009 and is always a good bet for lots of power. He uses an excellent eye at the plate to compensate for a low batting average.
Don't look now, but Ben Zobrist was arguably one of the most valuable players in all of baseball last season, using exceptional defense and excellent hitting to post an 8.6 WAR (Wins above replacement) according to fangraphs. Jason Bartlett's fine glovework was the beginning of the Rays' defensive turnaround in 2008 and last year he added stellar hitting to his resume, posting a .320/.389/.490 line. While I wouldn't expect him to replicate that performance, he doesn't have to in order to remain an excellent player. Evan Longoria continues to be the Rays' flagship player.
Carl Crawford is in what looks like his final year as a Ray. While he never broke out in the power department the way some thought he would, he remains an excellent player on both sides of the ball. And although he has been around seemingly forever, he's just 28 and the power could still come. B.J. Upton had a rough year at the plate in 2009 but remained a good defender and is too good of a player not to bounce back, while Pat Burrell had a tough time acclimating to the American League in 2009. Look for him to be more comfortable this season, which is also a contract year for him.
Hank Blalock and Gabe Kapler will likely split DH duties, with lefty Blalock getting the lion's share of the time - at least, until he proves he can't handle it.
James Shields, RHP
Matt Garza, RHP
Jeff Niemann, RHP
David Price, LHP
Wade Davis, RHP
Tampa has a very talented starting rotation, similar to the Jays in that its "ace" is a pitcher in his late 20s without ace-type stuff. James Shields and Shaun Marcum actually have a fair bit in common, the biggest difference (other than that Marcum is recovering from TJ surgery while Shields enjoyed a healthy 2009) being that Shields is an inning-eater while Marcum has been more of a 6-7 inning pitcher thusfar. Both are guys who know how to pitch, pound the strike zone, and are likely to put up ERAs in the high-3s/low-4s without a ton of fanfare. After Shields the upside starts coming fast and furious. Garza, Price, Niemann, and Davis all have ace to #2 starter potential. While Davis only made his debut in September 2009, the other three all showed what they are capable of in 2009 and could be even better this year. Garza and Niemann enjoyed unqualified good seasons, while Price started slow but ended very strongly. As with Marcum, Shields' stature as the "ace" may not last very long. While the number of young starters may mean erratic performances from time to time, on the whole this is a very talented group.
Rafael Soriano, rhp
Grant Balfour, rhp
J.P. Howell, rhp
Winston Abreu, rhp
Dan Wheeler, rhp
Randy Choate, lhp
Joaquin Benoit, rhp
The Rays went for it in 2010, trading for $7 million dollar closer Rafael Soriano. Soriano is a very strong pitcher, but the Rays have other good options for the late innings in lefty J.P. Howell, who posted extremely strong numbers in 2009, and Aussie Grant Balfour, whose ERA regressed in 2009 after a stellar 2008, but posted strong peripherals. The other arms are all around average, though Choate had plenty of success in the LOOGY role for Arizona in 2009, a role he looks to reprise this season for the Rays.
Despite all the high-profile names the Rays have graduated over the past few years, their minor league system remains quite strong. Desmond Jennings, a centerfielder, is probably their best all around prospect and he could be up as soon as this season. Jeremy Hullickson is an arm that could do some good work for Tampa this year if they need him to. And Reid Brignac provides power and excellent defense at shorstop, though his on-base skills are somewhat lacking.
All in all, the 2010 Rays team should be quite strong. It features above-average position players, a young and talented starting rotation, and an improved bullpen. The biggest obstacles for them are the Beantown lion and the fire-breathing outer burough goat in front of them.
Tom looked at the Yankees here and the Red Sox here, and I tackled Baltimore here.