The Rays were the major surprise in 2008, and many thought they'd be in for a sustained run. But after 3 years, payroll shedding has forced the team back. They, as always, have an abundant farm system to cultivate from. but do they have enough at the big club to compete this year?
What they Have: Despite losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Jason Bartlett this offseason, they still have a good core of young players. They still have major players in 3B Evan Longoria and CF B.J Upton, and they'll need to be the offensive backstops for this new look lineup. They still have good players in RF Ben Zobrist, and C John Jaso. The lineup is not as strong as it was last year, even though they still have weapons. The pitching rotation took a hit with the loss of Matt Garza, they still have AL Cy Young candidate David Price, veteran James Shields, young talents Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, and prized prospect Jeremy Hellickson, who will likely be in the rotation due to Garza's departure. Offense was never really the strength of this team, as much as it was the starting rotation, and it still can compete with the best in the AL. LF Desmond Jennings is one of the other prized prospects in the Rays organization, and he'll have to replace Carl Crawford in left. He is very similar to Crawford with his gamebreaking speed and base stealing ability. He has some power too. Don't forget abotu Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, who will provide good veteran leadership for the team. Manny will be the DH, and Damon will likely split time in the outfield with Desmond Jennings.
What they Don't Have: If any area of this team was completely decimated, it was the bullpen. The list of pitchers they lost was lead by Rafael Soriano, and essentially the whole unit was lost. The only remaining pitcher is J.P Howell, and he is good, but nowhere near as good as guys like Joaquin Benoit and Dan Wheeler. Andy Sonnanstine will move from rotation duty to the bullpen, and he did look better in the bullpen than in the rotation last season. Offensively, there are still some issues, with guys like 1B Dan Johnson, 2B Sean Rodriguez, and SS Reid Brignac having to really step up in order to replace the offense that the Rays lost.
Any Help Coming? Due to the many departures in the offseason, 2 of the 3 major prospects are now likely opening day big club members. The Rays still have an impressive farm system without them. LHP Matt Moore has lead the minors in strikeouts in each of the last 2 seasons, and has 3 quality pitches in his arsenal. RHP Chirs Archer was acquired in the Matt Garza trade, and last year he was the Cubs minor league player of the year. He has some issues to work on, but the Rays organization should help tweak his command. Also acquired from the Cubs was Korean SS Hak-Ju Lee and he has outstanding defensive tools, while still needing to work on his offensive approach.
Outlook: This year can be called a "retooling year" for Tampa. With all of the losses in the offseason, they don't have the club that was one of the best in baseball the last 3 seasons. But the Rays are patient, and someone may break out that gives the Rays a chance to compete in the AL East and defend their crown, even though it's not very likely.