This is the last in a series of previews of our division rivals, written by those who know them best. They will be posted in reverse order of their finish last year.
by Erik Hahmann of DRays Bay -
The Rays open the 2009 season in an unfamiliar position. For the first time in their history they open the AL East as defending champions. With all the additions they made this off season it seems as if they intend on staying there too.
The team's biggest hole last season was in the DH spot, and all the Rays did to solve that was go out and sign one of the best bats on the market in Pat Burrell. The signing of Burrell brings a stability to the position that the Rays haven't had since Jose Canseco in 1999. The bullpen, one of the best in baseball last season, should be outstanding again with guys like Joe Nelson, Brian Shouse, Lance Cormier and Jason Isringhausen fighting for roster spots. The biggest addition, that's not really an addition, will be having a completely healthy B.J. Upton for an entire season. Upton played nearly all of last season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that prevented him from turning on pitches, which zapped nearly all of his power.
The starting rotation, which was very good last season, should be even better in 2009. In trading Edwin Jackson the Rays opened up a rotation spot for the top prospect in the game, David Price. Price showed the world what he could do last year in the ALCS, now he'll get to showcase his talents for nearly an entire season.
Winning another division title is not going to be easy. On paper the Rays have their best team ever, but the Yankees and Red Sox have each made significant upgrades to their rosters. They're going to have to deal with being the hunted this season. They're going to have a giant target on their back with every team they play gunning for it. Last season they knocked on the door to a title, this year they hope to open it.
Erik answers five questions...
Who will be the surprises of your team, both good and bad?
I think the biggest surprise on a national level will be Willy Aybar. He's the best bench player in baseball and could start for a number of other teams. Joe Maddon is going to have to find ways to get him 300 or so AB's. Look for Dan Wheeler to come back down to earth a bit. He had a very low BABiP last season, and there's no way he can sustain that for another year.
Final standings and number of wins?
2nd place in the division. 96 victories and the Wild Card.
What offseason acquisition(s) will have the most impact?
As I stated above, the signing of Pat Burrell will have the biggest impact this season. The Rays won the American League last season while nearly getting league worst production from the DH spot. Obviously getting a 30 home run and 100 walk player will help that.
What offseason 'loss' will have the most impact?
Honestly I'm not sure any player the Rays lost in the off season will have an impact. They lost Baldelli, Floyd, Hinske and Gomes, but replaced each of those players with someone better. If I had to choose, and I hate myself for saying this, I'd say losing Cliff Floyd's leadership in the clubhouse will have the most impact.
Strengths and weaknesses of your team?
The strength of this team is once again going to be its defense. They have a Gold Glove caliber defender at nearly every position. As scary as it is, Longoria and Upton are just going to get better with their gloves as they mature. The weakness would probably come at the bottom of the lineup, with some combination of Iwamura, Navarro and Bartlett in the 7-8-9 slots.