Rays Face Tough Challege in AL East

When they won their first AL East Division Title in 2008 after 10 straight losing seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays hinted that there may remain a population of Florida not currently hooked up to an oxygen tank. Despite taking the AL East again this past season, the team’s future looks anemic. Suffering from too many empty seats in Tropicana, a constrictive budget and playing in an always contested division, the Rays are in for a bull-ride of a season in 2011.

Part of the Rays’ problem is a steadily strength­ening AL East. With the always dangerous New York Yankees hunkered down in the Bronx, stock­piling talent like the recently acquired Andruw Jones and Rafael Soriano and the Boston Red Sox looking to move on from the bust season that was 2010 by making some dramatic acquisitions, namely Carl Crawford, the traditional rivalry for number one will be in full affect. However, even the perennial whipping boys of the division are flexing some muscle. Since August 3 of last sea­son, when Buck Showalter took over as manager, the Baltimore Orioles have looked, dare I say it, impressive. Winning 34 of 57 and with a young and promising roster, the Orioles might make things interesting. Although I personally doubt Camden Yard will be draped in bunting come next fall, this team could have an interesting effect on AL East standings, especially with the Rays in a vulnerable slot.

At first glance, the always forgotten Toronto Blue Jays appear to have been napping through­out this offseason, losing a few players like first basemen Lyle Overbay, and staying out of the nationally spotlighted bidding wars for players like Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford. They have how­ever been making some subtle moves, signing a trio of former closers (Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel and Chad Cordero) and picking up a new power hitter in Mike Napoli. With Napoli joining the biggest power duo in Baseball (according to 2010 stats), Aaron Hill and Jose Bautista, the Toronto line-up looks ready to go. Again, will they present the greatest upset in the American League since their compatriots, the Canadian Soldier Bugs, which invaded the 2007 ALDS game between the Yankees and Indians? Probably not. Could they add even greater pressure to the AL East? That’s a yes.

So what is going on in Tampa that’s got the sports world in such a fuss? First off, due to con­tinuing poor attendance at games, the team is waltzing with financial uncertainty. This anxiety, combined with a painfully low signing budget, has hamstringed the team this offseason, leading to the departure of some of the stars that made last season’s success possible. The absence of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett will be felt not only in the win column, but in the fan’s enthusiasm and the clubhouse. After inaugurat­ing a Rays Dynasty (well, at least the start of one), it is going to be tough for the Rays to maintain momentum without some of the architects of their success. On the mound, the team will be short relievers Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano (who they’ll now face as a Yankee) and starter Matt Garza. In my mind, baseball starts and ends on the mound and that is where a team’s founda­tion needs to be secure. So this loss has me a little worried for the Rays.

Despite the well-publicized reunion of John­ny Damon and Manny Ramirez this season in Tampa, the team still looks stunted. Damon and Ramirez are both aging (they were bargains for a reason) and I doubt that they are going to have the spark that the team will need to keep up with the rest of the AL East. With the introduction of the duo, prospect Desmond Jennings, the presump­tive replacement for Crawford, will most likely remain in AAA ball, at least at the start of the sea­son. But hey, maybe I’m being a pessimist and the pair will help fill their intended gaps, maybe. The Ray’s other acquisitions have been an interesting blend of young prospects and veterans like Kyle Farnsworth (who recently signed a one year deal).

In order to make this dynasty happen, the Ray’s starting rotation of David Price, Jeff Nie­mann, James Shields, Wade Davis and Andy Sonnanstine – all of whom I will admit are above average pitchers with great potential – need to be the anchor of the team. Superstars B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria need to shake off last season’s dis­appointment and step up as team leaders. Most importantly (and unsurprisingly) they must hit well and do so consistently. Now here’s the ele­ment of pixie dust in the Ray’s season: Ramirez and Damon absolutely have to prove that they’ve still got some magic to offer. If all this works out, if some element of Ray’s magic clicks, than this is going to be a very entertaining season on the east coast.