Rise, repeat: Rays prepare with perspective

American League East Preview

March 31, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

This time last year, the Tampa Bay Rays were hoping to shed the loser label that dogged them for the franchise's first 10 seasons.

They wanted to show they were no longer the American League East's doormat.

Mission accomplished - in a big way.

The Rays went from the worst record in the majors in 2007 to the World Series in 2008, losing in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies. From 96 losses to 97 wins and their first division and league titles.

Now, the Rays and manager Joe Maddon have a different challenge.

"You can't expect everything to break the way it broke last year," Maddon said. "We're going to have to build a new road this year."

Always positive, Maddon senses how confident his team is this spring. But he's also realistic as to what it will face attempting to repeat.

"We walked out there the first day, and I knew the challenge was to put it in perspective," he said. "We talked about humility and gratitude a lot because we want to get back there.

"If you talk to our guys, you aren't going to find anybody who thinks that last year was a fluke in any way."

Talent-wise, the Rays have the roster to be a perennial contender. The majority of their starting position players are 30 or younger, and the oldest member of the rotation is James Shields, who turned 27 in December.

The rotation has a returning 14-game winner in Shields, a 13-game winner (Andy Sonnanstine), a 12-game winner (Scott Kazmir) and an 11-game winner (Matt Garza). The rotation is so deep it doesn't include phenom David Price, the 6-foot-6, 23-year-old left-hander who excelled in the postseason but will begin the year at Triple-A.

They lost several solid role players, such as fifth starter Edwin Jackson and part-timers Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli and Eric Hinske. But the offense might have improved with the addition of slugger Pat Burrell, who will be the club's full-time designated hitter after bashing 33 homers and winning a championship with the Phillies last season.

"Even though we got there last year and made the World Series, we're not going to be satisfied with that," infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist said. "We're not going to think all of a sudden, 'We're there.' Each year is a new year, and you've got to start from the bottom at first."

Zobrist, who hit 12 homers in 198 at-bats after being recalled from the minors, represents one of the club's biggest challenges - initially, anyway. Zobrist is expected to start the season in center field while budding superstar B.J. Upton recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

The club hopes Upton, who homered seven times in 16 postseason games, will be back as soon as April 13, the Rays' home opener. But the injury serves notice that this is, indeed, a new season with new obstacles to overcome.

There are also the familiar and formidable hurdles: specifically, the Boston Red Sox, the club the Rays beat in seven games in the AL Championship Series, and the rebuilt New York Yankees.

Surpassing those two in 2008, however, provided invaluable experience to a group that was accustomed to looking up at the AL East behemoths.

"You don't wonder if you can take down the Red Sox or Yankees to win this division. We know we took them down," outfielder Gabe Gross said. "We know what it took last year, so we've got a little better idea what it's going to take this year. That will give us a good amount of confidence."

The Rays won't be sneaking up on anyone this year. But with their abundance of talent, they don't believe they'll have to.

Baltimore Sun reporters Peter Schmuck and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Manager: Joe Maddon

2008 record: 97-65

Estimated payroll: $61 million

Dan Connolly's predicted finish in the AL East: Third place

Projected 2009 lineup

1. B.J. Upton*, CF

2. Carl Crawford, LF

3. Evan Longoria, 3B

4. Carlos Pena, 1B

5. Pat Burrell, DH

6. Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler, RF

7. Dioner Navarro, C

8. Akinori Iwamura, 2B

9. Jason Bartlett, SS

* Injured, might miss a week or more.

Projected 2009 rotation

RHP James Shields

LHP Scott Kazmir

RHP Matt Garza

RHP Andy Sonnanstine

RHP Jason Hammel

or RHP Jeff Niemann

Projected closer: RHP Troy Percival

COMING UP

Wednesday: The Red Sox just missed the 2008 World Series and now seem to have perfected the mix between youth and established veterans.

Thursday: The Yankees are baseball's most expensive and talented team, but how all the stars mesh will go a long way to determine whether they return to the playoffs.

Friday: Manager Cito Gaston and the talented Blue Jays are hoping to stay under the radar and surprise the other top teams in the division.

Sunday: 2009 baseball preview section includes a story on the growing relationship between the Orioles' Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts, an analysis of the Orioles' pitching staff, a look at the national baseball picture and more.

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