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Saturday March 1, 2008 8:31 pm

Team Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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2nd Team up in our MLB team previews: the Tampa Bay Rays. In the off-season, Tampa proved that the name (Previously the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) wasn’t the only change of this expansion franchise. Though the Rays were unimpressive last season (66-96), Tampa may have a chance to make a bigger impact in 2008.

Starting Rotation: The Rays’ rotation is shaping up pretty well for 2008. The ace of this rotation is Scott Kazmir, already the organization’s all-time strikeout leader. If his shoulder will be healthy by the beginning of the season, the Rays can have a pitcher with 200+ K’s to look forward to in 08. Next in the rotation is 3rd year pitcher James Shields. Shields had a very good 2007, going 12-8 with a 1.11 WHIP, 184 strikeouts and just 36 walks allowed. The 3rd pitcher in the rotation is 24 year old Matt Garza, whom the Rays acquired as a part of the Delmon Young trade. Garza has a tremendous upside, with a mid-nineties fastball, as well as a slider, curveball and changeup. If he can learn how to pitch against left handed hitting (1.87 WHIP against lefties last season) and figure out a way to get out of jams (8.46 ERA last season with RISP), he can be a dominant pitcher in this rotation. The next 2 rotation spots can go to Edwin Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine, JP Howell, Jason Hammel, or Jeff Niemann. This isn’t such a bad situation though, as all 5 pitchers are still in their 20’s and may thrive with some competition here in Spring Training. Look out for the improved Tampa rotation in 2008, they’ll make many American League hitters look foolish.

Bullpen: The Rays’ bullpen isn’t the team’s strength, but won’t exactly be a weakness next season. The closer will be throwback Troy Percival, who returned with the St. Louis Cardinals last season to a 1.80 ERA, with 36 K’s in 40 innings. Troy will likely come back down to earth in 2008 and may not be so dominant in a full season, but he’ll be passable for this young Rays team. Also, if Percival falters, last year’s closer Al Reyes is still on the team to fill in. The rest of the ‘pen is sub-par; The club’s only southpaw is Trever Miller, who had an ERA of nearly 5 last season, and at 34 years old isn’t getting any younger. We’ll see how he performs in a full-season. The primary set-up man Dan Wheeler had a 5.30 ERA last season, but had more strikeouts than innings pitched. Gary Glover should have a nice season in the bullpen, he only walked 27 last season in 77 innings.

Starting Lineup: The Rays will hit in 2008. Lead-off hitter Akinori Iwamura hit 10 triples and swiped 12 bags. His numbers should only improve with more big league experience. As always, Carl Crawford is a key member of this lineup, he hit .315 last season and knocked in 80 RBI’s. The 50 stolen bases are nice too. Last year BJ Upton broke out, hitting .300 with 24 HR’s and 82 RBI’s. Clean up hitter Carlos Pena hit 46 bombs last season, and should continue to hit big flies for the Rays next year. New additions Cliff Floyd and Jason Bartlett are very different players, but are good enough to play everyday for this club. Bartlett’s a solid contact hitter, and if Cliff’s AB’s are limited to 350-400, Floyd could hit 15-20 home runs. Backstop Dioner Navarro will have to prove his worth in 2008, after a miserable 2007 campaign where he hit just .227.  Right Fielder Rocco Baldelli always had talent, but has never been able to stay healthy. If he’s able to play a full season for the Rays, he could be a 20-20 candidate. Third baseman Evan Longoria could be a favorite to win rookie of the year; he hit 21 home runs with 76 RBI’s in AA last season.

Bench: DH Jonny Gomes has lost momentum since his excellent 2005 season, he’ll start the season on the bench. Just 27 years old, he could either be used as trade bait or fill in for Rocco Baldelli if he gets injured. The backup catcher position may yet be determined during spring training. The favorite would be Mike DiFelice, who’s played in 543 career games. A sleeper for this club may be Eric Hinske, whom the club invited to Spring Training. He can fill in at either 1st base 3rd base or in the outfield; his versatility makes it a likelihood that he’ll join the big league team out of Spring Training. Switch-hitting infielder Willy Aybar’s always been talented, but its more likely that he’ll get in legal trouble this season than it is Rocco Baldelli getting injured. Joel Guzman and Ben Zobrist may be looking at more minor league time after Spring Training.

Overall: The division they play in is simply too good for the Rays to stand a chance in the AL East, but 2008 could be the first year that Tampa Bay is taken seriously in the American League. I expect the Rays to finish about .500, and finish the season in 3rd place in the AL East. It looks as though the kids are finally ready to turn Tampa Bay into a contender.

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