Tampa Bay RaysManager: Joe Maddon
Stadium: Tropicana Field
2008 Record: 97-65 (1st in AL East)
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Most teams set defined roles for their relievers, and yet in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox, the Rays' bullpen had no idea who would close the game. "It could've been any of us," recalls J.P. Howell. "And that was fine." Manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey preached all season that roles were obsolete, and that was never more evident than when rookie David Price closed out Boston for his first career save and a trip to the World Series. Every Rays reliever had to be ready last year when called upon for certain matchups. And with veteran closer Troy Percival reinforcing the message, the group bought in. "It's not like anything I've been around before," says Chad Bradford, an 11-year vet who has pitched for six teams. The bullpen can expect more of the same in 2009. The 39-year-old Percival is recovering from back surgery, so Dan Wheeler might have to close, or possibly Grant Balfour or Howell. On their way to their first pennant, the Rays ranked third in the AL with a 3.55 bullpen ERA. So there's no reason to mess with success.
-- Buster Olney
HITTER TO WATCH:
Reid Brignac was the heir apparent at shortstop but didn't hit at all in his first tour of Triple-A last year; if Jason Bartlett doesn't improve on his 2008, Brignac would be in line for a callup.
PITCHER TO WATCH:
David Price is the best pitching prospect in the game, but he needs to improve his changeup to become a front-line starter.
-- Keith Law, Scouts Inc.
Will Carlos Pena be the American League's top first baseman? Will Aki rank among the league's best second baseman? Will Evan Longoria be the premier third baseman? Register your vote.
Sure, the team brought in Jason Isringhausen and still has Troy Percival, but we wouldn't give you a plugged nickel for those guys. It says here that Dan Wheeler leads this team in saves, and it won't be close.
David Price won't be in the majors until June, but the hype train has long since left the station. He's literally never been all the way through a big league lineup, and we're anointing him Cy Young? Too much, too soon.
-- Christopher Harris
B.J. Upton will start the season on the DL, but don't worry. He is recovering nicely from offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Upton's power decline last year can be definitively linked to the instability in his shoulder, which has now been addressed. The timetable all along seemed to suggest that Upton would open his season in the warm weather at Tropicana Field. That plan was confirmed after Upton took a pitch to the hand in a spring game, which fortunately resulted in only a bruise but gave the team reason to rest him a few extra days. Expect good things from Upton once his shoulder -- and his bat -- heat up.
-- Stephania Bell
PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
No. 7 overall
No. 6 overall
No. 1 overall
No. 3 overall
No. 1 overall