Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: Tampa Bay Rays

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-Digger's Daily-

Tampa Bay (96-66) won the AL East on the last day of regular season action. Their season came to a screeching halt in the playoffs as they ran into a red hot Texas Rangers club. World Series dreams came crashing down.

Tampa spent a busy off season retooling their club. They cut loose a bunch of fan favorite performers and players who helped turned this franchise into winners. Here's the list: Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Lance Cormier, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Fernando Perez, Zach Rosscup, Willy Aybar, Gabe Kapler, Dioner Navarro, Brad Hawpe, Rocco Baldelli, Chad Qualls, Dale Thayer. That's quite a turnover for a 96 win team.

So who's new? Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta & J.P. Howell. Other notables fighting for roster spots (minor league contracts): Felipe Lopez, Juan Cruz, Joe Inglett, Chris Bootcheck, Chris Carter, Casey Kotchman, Ray Olmedo, Dirk Hayhurst, R.J. Swindle, Cory Wade. On paper, Tampa has taken a big step backwards offensively and, most importantly, on defense.

Tampa Bay will rely heavily on their starting rotation to keep games close. Offense took a hit so every pitch becomes most important. David Price and James Shields provide the 1-2 punch. #3 Garza is now a Cub. Who's going to step up their game? Wade Davis? Jeff Niemann? Perhaps the biggest pitching question mark surrounds one of their former strengths. Bullpen. They lost all key players here and Farnsworth is no Soriano.
I think Tampa Bay made some key personnel errors. Table setters and shut down bullpen has been wrecked due to cost cutting moves. Cost cutting is fine and dandy when replacing stars with sure handed players. Time will tell if Tampa missed the boat. AL East powerhouse Yankees have pitching concerns. Boston continues to battle health issues. 2011 could have been the year Tampa blew away the East. Prospects will have to step it up and become major contributors or Tampa will be lucky to play .500 baseball. Team chemistry takes a hit too.

Tampa needs to duplicate last season's hot April. They began 17-6 and finished May with a 34-18 record. A slow beginning in an improved division will cost the Rays any chance of success.


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