3 days left. Hitters. Pitchers. Predicted Record. Beer. TAMPA BAY RAYS.
Lineup: There's talent everywhere, and if B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro (or Kelly Shoppach steps up) this could be one of the best lineups in the league. Evan Longoria is the centerpiece and mans the hot corner with aplomb to boot. Across the diamond, Carlos Pena has enormous power and can take a walk with the best of them. He's not getting any younger, true, but he should have another couple of seasons left in him, particularly if his hands are healed from last season's broken fingers. The double play combo features Jason Bartlett, who's a passable gloveman and saw an obscene power surger last year (expect that to regress, but for him to remain above average for an SS) and either Ben Zobrist or Sean Rodriguez, depending on how the team feels about the latter's spring, we guess. Zobrist had a monster year last season, leading the AL in WAR, and while we don't expect him to repeat the feat, he's certainly an excellent hitter; seasons like his '09 don't happen on a pure fluke. Rodriguez, acquired from the Angels in the Scott Kazmir trade, posted 1.000+ OPS in his last two minor league seasons, but both came in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, so we don't expect him to flash the same power. He's got a good eye and can make contact, though. As for the catcher spot, Dioner Navarro seemed to have broken out in 2008, but was one of the worst players in the AL last season. He's got to remember how to work counts and not swing at dumb pitchers. Kelly Shoppach boasts big power, especially for a catcher, but has yet to prove himself in a full season's ABs. As for the outfield, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton are superlative athletes, though only Crawford has had sustained success. Upton showed his potential in the '07 playoffs, but regressed horribly last season. He's at least a plus defender who can steal bases with the best of them, so hopefully the success of his younger brother Justin pushes him to figure it out for a full season. If Zobrist doesn't man second base, he'll be the right fielder; expect to see some combination of Matt Joyce and Gabe Kapler there otherwise. Joyce has some promise, but we'd like to see them give Desmond Jennings or Fernando Perez an extended run over there for as long as they've got Crawford and Upton in the other two spots.
Rotation: This is a wildly talented group. Matt Garza and James Shields are practically fixtures atop the rotation by now, and while they've not been dominant, the potential is there for them to be ace-level this season. And the trio of Jeff Niemann, David Price, and Wade Davis are all oozing with potential, particularly the latter two. Niemann should be good for a 4.00 FIP, which in the loaded AL East is nothing to sneeze at. People seem to have forgotten about Price after a disappointing go of it last season, and while he has a lot to prove w/r/t his control, the strikeout stuff is still there. Davis has been one of the team's top prospects for awhile now, and we're excited to see him get his shot. He doesn't have Price's proclivity for strikeouts, but commands his pitches better, and is effective at limiting home runs. The projection systems have him coming in around a 4.00 FIP also, which is particularly impressive for a rookie.
Bullpen: The addition of Rafael Soriano to the back end of the pen helps a great deal, as the Rays were conspicuously lacking in a true lockdown arm. Soriano should provide that, and he'll have a good setup corps in LHP J.P. Howell and RHPs Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler. Balfour struggled with his control last season, and Howell was injured, but a return to form from both of them makes the late-inning pitching a legitimate strength. Andy Sonnanstine lost out on the competition for the fifth starter job, but should make for a capable long reliever - or at least trade bait. Randy Choate and Lance Cormier were effective last season, though neither is much of one for strike 3. The most interesting guy here is R.J. Swindle, the soft-tossing lefty sidewinder. He may feel like a gimmick, but ignore the fastball that couldn't even dream of hitting 90 on its most ambitious days and look at the fact that he posted a 2.21 ERA in 6 minor league seasons - while striking out a sparkling 9 per 9 and walking less than 2. GIVE THE MAN A CHANCE.
Overall: We picked the Rays to win the World Series last season and B.J. Upton to win the MVP. While the former was a convenient excuse to post a picture of Rachael Ray from her FHM shoot awhile ago, the latter was just poor predictive ability colored by our love for young talent hat could set the world on fire - a love that we still have, apparently, because everything about the Rays screams 'contender' to us. They can hit, they can pitch, they can field, they have one of the best front offices in the game, and the farm is bursting at the seams with young talent. If the Yankees sustain a few injuries, this division is, in our mind, theirs for the taking.
Predicted Record: 93-69, 2nd place AL East
Beer: Natural Ice. The plight of MLBers on a low salary has been made public by the Rays' Fernando Perez in a shocking and insightful brief documentary piece. So they can't afford to be spending lots of money on a beer becoming of their talent level - or a Carl Crawford becoming of their organization's talent level, if all the indications are correct. Natty Ice is cheap but strong enough to befit a team that can hit with the best of 'em but shells out cash like Jeffrey Loria after dropping his revenue sharing check on a new yacht.