Rays ready to prove they are more than one-year wonders

Updated: April 2, 2009

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Evan Longoria is just one of the reasons the Rays are well positioned for another World Series run.

RAYS PRIMED FOR ANOTHER RUN

The Tampa Bay Rays are going to try to recreate that 2008 magic.

Outside of the closer, Tampa Bay has a very young pitching staff. We'll see whether Troy Percival can still perform. But I suspect the Rays will need to solve some issues at the back end of their bullpen at some point.

That's probably their biggest weakness right now. But while the back end of the bullpen is a negative, there are still plenty of weapons on the staff. A lot of the players on this team are just coming into their own and haven't reached their ceilings yet. They are working at getting better.

Scott Kazmir adjusted his mechanics this spring in an effort to throw more strikes. Andy Sonnanstine is adding a changeup. Matt Garza and James Shields look like they are ready to make greater strides, too.

You look at that lineup, and while they have achieved a tremendous amount, you can't say they've reached their full potential yet, either. A year ago Akinori Iwamura had just switched positions and B.J. Upton was injured. I bet Carl Crawford will return to his big numbers this year. Carlos Pena is a real blue-collar star and is probably the best player in the league who isn't a household name yet. Evan Longoria could be scary over the course of a full season. I remember watching the at-bats he took in the All-Star Game and the playoffs last year and thinking he looked like a 15-year veteran.

I'm honestly excited about watching this team perform again. The nucleus of the team is back, so their team chemistry, which was a strength for them last year, should be largely unchanged. Still, not everyone thinks they can do it again. One reason why some people may consider last year a fluke is that it's Tampa, after all. People aren't conditioned to expect winning baseball from the Rays. I think there's a bias. If Boston or New York had turned a 70-win season one year into a 90-win season the next, everyone would be saying they've turned it around and are back on track, and people would expect them to keep it going.

In a way, the low expectations help the Rays because, even though they won the American League last year, the perception from some quarters is that they can't do it again. That still gives them the edge of being the underdog.

The worry for me is that since it's such a young team, the players may not be as aware of what it takes to maintain this level of play year to year. Veterans have put in the time to pile up strong seasons again and again. They've learned what works and what doesn't. Younger players generally have to figure that out over time.

Another problem for the Rays is their division. The Yankees are better than they were last year. CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira are huge improvements. It'd be hard enough if they joined the division itself, let alone all joined the same team. The American League wild card will almost certainly come out of the East. So the Rays won't have to beat both Boston and New York to make the playoffs. Not only is New York improved, but Boston also had injury problems last year. This year they could have a healthy Mike Lowell and David Ortiz and an emotionally stable left field with Manny Ramirez out of the picture. Boston's pitching is at least as good as Tampa's, too.

The final issue for the Rays is that -- whether they fashion themselves as underdogs or not -- as defending AL champs, they have a target on their back. They aren't going to surprise.

Although the Phillies won the Series last year, I think Tampa has a better shot at getting back there this season. They have a pitching staff of big arms, a lineup built with speed and defense that can manufacture runs plus hit for power. They will be a fun team to watch.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: April 1 | March 31 | March 30 | March 29 | March 26

BEST OF THE BLOGS

Each day, ESPN.com's contributors offer a wide array of thoughts and analysis in their blogs. Buster Olney went through the American League schedule and found a few things that jumped out at him:

Ten notables from the American League schedule:

1. The Indians are looking at a meat grinder early in the year: In the first two months and one day of the season, through June 1, Cleveland will play Boston, the Yankees and the Rays 21 times. From June to September, the Indians will play the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays a total of zero times.

2. The Angels are going to be without their best starting pitchers at the outset of the season -- fortunately for them, this is a time when they will mostly face the weaker teams in the AL, and mostly play at home. Eleven of the Angels' first 17 games are against the Mariners, Tigers and Orioles, with 13 of their first 21 games at home.

3. You could reasonably make an argument that the AL's three best teams are in the East, and we know this: At least one team from the trio of Tampa Bay, Boston and the Yankees is not going to make the playoffs. And given the importance of the games played among the three teams, remember that after June 11, the Red Sox will be the home team for a total of six games combined against the Rays and Yankees.

Boston will play the majority of its home games against the Rays and Yankees in the first 10 weeks of the season.

4. The Athletics are fielding some young starters, like Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Josh Outman, and they will immediately be thrown into the deep end of the pool. Of Oakland's first 20 games, 13 are against the Angels, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. If the Athletics come through that stretch with a .500 record, it would be a major plus.

5. No team is probably under greater pressure to win at the outset of the 2009 season than the Detroit Tigers, because of lagging season-ticket sales, because of their top-heavy payroll, and because of the status of manager Jim Leyland. Well, the Tigers would appear to have a decent schedule right out of the gate: 10 of their first 13 games are against the Blue Jays, Rangers and Mariners.

For the rest of this entry from Buster Olney's blog, click here.


Gary Sheffield is looking for work. Rob Neyer tries to figure out why the Phillies might be interested:

Todd Zolecki wonders if the Phillies might have a big announcement this afternoon:

    Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters yesterday that three teams have expressed interest in Gary Sheffield.

    We know the Phillies are one of them, and the fact Ruben Amaro Jr. has acknowledged that interest publicly tells me the Phillies very much want to sign him once he clears waivers at 1 p.m. today. If they were just kicking the tires, Amaro might not be so upfront about it (although he really hasn't said much other than he has talked to Sheffield, Sheffield's agent Rufus Williams and that they are interested).

    But we also know today that the Reds are talking to Sheffield.

    There probably are more than three teams that have interest in Sheffield, but we know two of them are National League teams and we know ESPN's Buster Olney reported yesterday there don't seem to be many fits in the American League, where Sheffield would be an ideal fit.

    The Phillies' chances to get Sheffield? Not knowing who the other teams are or what the other teams are promising in terms of playing time, I'd still say it's less likely than likely, but I wouldn't say it's a tremendous long shot, either.

    Update: Sheffield told Dusty Baker that he wants playing time. The Phillies can't give that to him, but it sounds like the Reds can't, either. So it remains unlikely Sheffield is a fit, but if nobody can offer Sheffield playing time then he might have to reconsider.

    Oh, the suspense is just killing me.

Me too. I just can't live without knowing which uniform Sheffield will be wearing when he hits his 500th home run. Because, you know, that's such a special number these days.

For the rest of this entry from Rob Neyer's blog, click here.


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BBTN MINUTE: AMERICAN LEAGUE HEADLINES

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THURSDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Andruw JonesAndruw Jones earned a shot at redemption. On Thursday he won the final roster spot with the Texas Rangers. "There was a time earlier in the spring we didn't think Andruw could help us," manager Ron Washington said. "But Andruw wanted to be here and came back and said maybe we misunderstood what he was trying to do. He'd accept any role that we had for him."
WORST
Joe Mauer• Bad news for the Twins. They have placed catcher Joe Mauer and pitchers Scott Baker and Boof Bonser on the disabled list to open the year. Mauer is a two-time batting champ and Baker won 11 games last season. Bonser, who had shoulder surgery in February, was not expected to be ready to go on Opening Day.

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he examines what the loss of Scott Baker to the disabled list will mean for the Twins:

Scott Baker (2008)
First 22 starts Last 6 starts
W-L 7-4 4-0
ERA 3.75 2.37
BA against .255 .213
OBP against .300 .270
HRs per 9 IP 1.2 0.5

BBTN'S NL EAST PREVIEW

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Huston Street apparently will start the season as Colorado's closer, but the Rockies should proceed with caution. Street is a fly-ball pitcher who is leaving Network Associates Coliseum, which was a rewarding ballpark for fly-ball pitchers, and moving to Coors Field, which can punish them:

2007-2008
Network Associates Coliseum Coors Field MLB avg.
BA on fly ball .369 .449 .404
SLG on fly ball .638 .811 .731

-- ESPN Stats and Information

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