The Baseball Notebook

March 17, 2010 2:00 PM

Tampa Bay Rays Preview

How many small-to-mid market teams could deal a quality young lefthanded starter for little in return and still come back to be considered a serious contender to the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East? Meet the Tampa Bay Rays. They faded down the stretch last year and missed their chance to win another American League pennant, but even after trading Steve Kazmir to the Angels in August, they have enough talent on hand to make a playoff push in 2010.

Tampa got career years from second baseman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Jason Bartlett, who turned into a ferocious offensive combo in the middle infield. That can’t be expected to happen again, but Zobrist can still have some respectable power to the alleys and both are very solid defensively. They are the keys of an infield defense that is excellent. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria each field the corners very well. And yes, they are known to swing the bat a little bit too. Longoria is a threat to supplant A-Rod as the top third baseman in the game and Pena has posted MVP-caliber numbers these last three seasons in Tampa. These two join leftfielder Carl Crawford in the category of elite offensive firepower who can get on base and hit for power. After a bad year in 2008, Crawford had an excellent ’09 and is one of the game’s top base-stealers.

If Zobrist and Bartlett lose a little bit of offense, Tampa can reasonably expect DH Pat Burrell to pick some of it up. Burrell was horrible in his first year after being signed away from Philadelphia via free agency. Perhaps a year of experience against American League pitching will help him restore his customary production. Or, his numbers in Philly were the fruit of hitting against National League competition. Whatever the answer is will go a long way toward settling the question of how good the Rays are.

The pitching rotation remains deep and talented, even without Kazmir. James Shields and Matt Garza are the potent 1-2 punch that leads it off. David Price had a nice first year in the rotation, winning 10 games and posting a 4.42 ERA. A pleasant surprise was the emergence of Jeff Neimann, whose 13 wins and 3.94 ERA made Kazmir expendable. If Wade Davis’ promising work in limited opportunities last year is a sign of things to come, or if Andy Sonnanstine again finds the form that made him respectable in ’08, the Rays will have a rotation without a single weak spot.

When it comes to closing games, the setup crew is solid. Dan Wheeler has been consistent through the years, both here and in Houston. Lance Cormier and J.P. Howell join him to give depth. The pen was hurt last year by the elbow injury that ended Troy Percival’s career, but Rafael Soriano (27 saves, 2.97 ERA) is more than capable as a replacement. The question is whether he matches up with Rivera or Papelbon in the category of feared closers.

And that’s the question that revolves around the Rays. They are good. They are playoff-caliber. But they have to beat out at least one of the superpowers, and they have to hold off the emerging Orioles.

Up Next: San Francisco Giants tomorrow
Final AL East Picks & Preview: April 1

Be sure to stop in over at The College Basketball Notebook for NCAA Tournament preview talk.

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