Is it time to break up the Rays? Tampa Bay is off to a 15-5 start and 2.5 games up on New York, even as the Yankees have played good baseball at the gate. Tampa hung a big four-game sweep on Boston in Fenway Park, moving out to a fast 5.5 game cushion on the Red Sox. In my preseason discussion of World Series contenders, I included Boston, New York and Philadelphia. I hate adding or subtracting too a season-long prediction too early, but I have to see my omission of Tampa from that list is looking pretty glaring right now. Are they on the top-tier of teams, a la 2008, or are they just a good, borderline playoff team, a la 2009?
I felt depth in pitching was a key area of concern in the preseason. The departures of Steve Kazmir and the lack of quality arms in the bullpen struck me as disqualifying weaknesses in a division that's unforgiving. And teams
with those weaknesses can get off to fast starts, and then fade in the dog days. But at least in the starting rotation, those weaknesses look to be more imagined than real. Matt Garza and David Price have been absolutely lights out. James Shields, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann have been merely very solid by comparison. Joe Maddon's rotation is coming up aces and he has every reason to be confident of 6-7 good innings each time out.
The bullpen is still a little up in the air, but less so than a month ago. Rafael Soriano is showing himself to be able to adapt to the closer's role. He's got five saves and has done with the same 2-something ERA that has been his staple since becoming a full-time MLB reliever in 2006. Soriano's emergence fills the void left by the career-ending injury of Troy Percival last year. Maddon has two lefties to turn to for setup work. Grant Balfour hasn't been as dominant as he was during the 2008 pennant drive, but he's
considerably better than his mediocre 2009 performance. Then there's the never spectacular, but always reliable Dan Wheeler. They could use a righty arm to fit into this role too, and former starter Andy Sonnanstine seems to be settling in, with a 2.61 ERA in April.
It might end up being the offense that's the bigger problem as the summer wears on. Right now, the Rays are clicking on all cylinders, with Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford all producing and B.J. Upton emerging as a real threat with the bat. But if there's a slump, it's hard to say who's likely to pick it up. Rays fans who cite the slow starts of Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist ignore the fact that they might be coming down to earth after abnormally good '09 seasons. Pat Burrell is a good source for improvement, but he was also mediocre last year, giving doubts to his ability to hit American League pitching consistently.
Prognosis: It's time to admit mistakes
early. Tampa Bay is a legit contender to win at all, and perhaps THE contender, given Boston's offensive problems and New York's age. The Rays have potential pitfalls. But in sports, as in life, everyone's got problems. It's just a question of whose are most manageable. Joe Maddon doesn't have a lot to complain about in this regard.
Tomorrow we'll look at Tampa's 2008 World Series opponent in Philadelphia. And today there is a final recap of the NFL draft on the Pro Football Notebook and a brief Mountain West overview on the College Football Notebook.