by Chris Arena
Do not make the mistake of thinking the Tampa Bay Rays were a one-year wonder. This is a solid team that continues to get better, by both developing prospects and making enlightened off-season acquisitions. The 2009 season brings few changes to Tampa Bay's roster, but the changes they have made have all been well thought out with an eye towards continued contention.
First, they signed Pat Burrell to play left field and DH and provide the power right-handed bat they so desperately needed. The Rays' main weakness in 2008 was a lineup that was very weak against left-handed pitching (combined batting line of .246/.330/.396 average/on-base/slugging) as their two best righties, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, actually faired better against right-handed pitching in 2008. Longoria especially stood out in this regard, hitting and slugging 40 points higher against his right-handed brethren.
Burrell brings a deadly right-handed bat to the mix, averaging 30 home runs a year over the past three years and crushing southpaws to the tune of .279/.406/.545 in 2008. He also fits Tampa Bay's progressive-thinking system of valuing on-base percentage (OBP) over batting average, as his .367 OBP is much more impressive than his .250 average.
Their second addition, Matt Joyce, is a promising young hitter who will probably start the year at AAA but should join the Rays in mid-season to spell veterans Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler. Joyce has flashed Burrell-like potential in that he hits for power, not average, but he walks enough to keep his OBP respectable.
Second, the Rays will be utilizing the services of all-world prospect David Price for the entirety of the 2009 season. Pitching was not an issue for the Rays in '08 (3rd in the majors with a 3.82 team ERA), yet Price makes their staff even stronger for the coming year. Featuring a starting rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and Price, the Rays' rotation matches up favorably to any in baseball, including the $100 million+ rotations of the Yankees and Red Sox. Factor in Garza's superb playoff performance and expected subsequent improvement, and you have an elite rotation that will terrorize AL East batters for years.
Finally, Tampa Bay's farm system boasts many other top prospects just waiting for their turn to add even more strength to the Rays' roster. Reid Brignac is a power-hitting shortstop who has improved his defense from mediocre to outstanding and may join the team this year if his bat can rebound from an off-year in '08. Pitcher Wade Davis is an elite prospect who would be even more well-known if he wasn't competing with the best prospect in baseball (David Price) for a shot at the big league. His fastball/curveball combination is outstanding, and if he can master the change-up he will probably join the Rays as a bullpen arm and inject some youth in the only area of the team that is showing a little age. The Rays boast other prospects, such as Desmond Jennings, Tim Beckham, and Jacob McGee, who are all expected to be all-star level contributors but will not advance past the minors in 2009.
All signs point to the Rays continuing their winning ways for 2009 and beyond. They don't spend money like the Beasts of the (AL) East, but they don't have to because years of solid drafting have supplied them with home-grown talent better than almost every available free-agent on the market. The one hole that they couldn't address in '09 through prospects (right-handed hitting) was filled by the acquisition of Burrell, an ideal fit both statistically and for his veteran, championship-level experience.
From a sports betting standpoint, I like the Rays as a nice value pick for several futures. 4:1 to win the AL East is the first one that jumps out at me, and I love Tampa Bay at that kind of value. Boston and New York are tied as 6:5 favorites, and I firmly believe Tampa is a better team than both of them. With 18:1 odds to win the World Series, the Rays are a bit of a longshot, but I still like the value here with teams like Arizona at 16:1 and the Yankees as favorites with incredible 4:1 odds. Finally, Tampa Bay is getting a line of +115 for the over in regular season wins, currently at 88.5. Seeing as they won 97 games last year and I don't feel their opposition improved significantly, I really like the Rays and the over.
Stay tuned next week when we take a look at the New York Yankees' outlook for 2009.