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The Rival Hotstove: Rays

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1. The Lineup Right Now

C Navarro 1B Pena 2B Zobrist 3B Longoria SS Barlett LF Crawford CF Upton RF Gross DH Burrell
SP Shields SP Garza SP Price SP Nieman SP Davis RP Balfour RP Cormier RP Wheeler CP Howell

2. The Prospects to Watch

Wade Davis- MLB.com ranked him the #31 prospect in the game last season, projecting him as a number 2 starter thanks to his mid-90s fastball and plus curve. He pitched 158.2 innings in AAA to a 1.25 WHIP and K/B ratio better than 2:1.  He added another 30 innings in the bigs, keeping his numbers right in line with his minor league performance.

Jeremy Hellickson- He also made MLB.com's top 50, at #39.  He'll turn 23 in April and his 3 pitches (fastball, curve, change) are all only average or a bit above average.  But his command is plus, and as Ronster likes to remind us, command is the most important skill.  He used that command well in 2009, splitting the season between AA and AAA (50+ innings at both levels), and he recorded a WHIP below 1.00 with 10K/9 at AA and 11K/9 at AAA.  His minor league numbers look a lot like Phil Hughes'- not comparing the two as pitchers, but for production they're very similar expect Hellickson doesn't have a hype machine.

3. Matchup with the Yankees

The Rays have an answer to the Yankees at every position except shortstop, catcher and right field.  Plus, at the moment, I'd take Pat Burrell over whomever is the Yanks most likely DH, though Burrell has been connected with some trade rumors.

4. The Quick ReLoad

Of the 5 starters the Rays rode the World Series in 2008, Kazmir and Jackson have been traded to big market clubs and Andy Sonnanstine pitched himself out of a job.  But the Rays are a long way from exhausting the pipeline of talent built by a decade of top draft picks. 

The best lineup not in the 2009 playoffs will be back again in 2010, and Longoria, Pena and Crawford are as dynamic a trio in baseball.

With the emergence of Price and Nieman as viable starters and with Davis and Hellickson on the horizon, the Rays' only significant area of weakness is their bullpen.  And it looks like they're moving to shore up that problem.  With Rafael Soriano as their closer, everyone else gets pushed down into a role that suits him better.  Another arm could allow the Rays' pen to shorten the game and give the offense a chance to make up for any of the starter's rough patches.

5. Wrap-Up

In 2006, the Red Sox won 86 games, rebounded to 96 wins and a WS Championship.  In 2007, the Rays won 66, then followed up with 97 wins and a pennant.  In 2008, the Yankees won 89, reloaded and shot to 103 and a championship.

The Rays won 84 games in 2009.  They are within striking distance of a championship.