2008 Record: 97-65 1st AL East
2009 Prediction: 3rd AL East

Impact Player: Evan Longoria
Impact Pitcher: Scott Kazmir
Top Prospect: David Price, LHP

Significant Acquisitions: OF Pat Burrell, OF Gabe Kapler, OF/DH Matt Joyce, P Lance Cormier
Significant Losses: UTIL Eric Hinske, OF/1B Cliff Floyd, OF Jonny Gomes, OF Rocco Baldelli, P Edwin Jackson, P Trever Miller, P Al Reyes

The Rays shocked everyone, probably except themselves, when they won the AL East and eventually the pennant. I kept waitin for them all season to go on a slump, but they never did. Now that the team won’t surprise anyone this year and the core of the team is intact, they have a much tougher fight to go through. Especially with the retooled Yankees. With this in mind, I’m picking the Rays to finish third this year.

The Rays outstanding stable of young arms lived up to their lofty potential last year and produced one of the best staffs in the league.  Much of that staff is back for ’09.  James Shields (14-8, 3.56 ERA), Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49 ERA), Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70 ERA) and Andy Sonnanstine (13-9, 4.38 ERA) are all back.  The oldest of that group is 27-year-old Shields, which means if this group stays together they can be one of the best units in the league for years to come. The door is open for top prospect David Price to grab the fifth spot.  Price was phenomenal in the post-season after a September call-up and is only 23. Don’t be surprised if Price is being mentioned for both Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young come September.  Injuries or a sub-par performance by Price may give opportunities to some other young arms including Mitch Talbot (25) and Jeff Niemann (26).

After possessing one of the worst bullpens in baseball in ’07, the Rays rebounded with one of the best in ’08.  The acquisition of Troy Percival to last year’s team no doubt had an impact on that.  Percival was 28 for 32 in save opportunities last year and figures to be team’s main closer again this year barring injuries (he was left off the Rays post-season roster due to injuries).  Percival will be 40 before the season is finished but some insurance exists in the ‘pen.   Righties Grant Balfour (1.54 ERA) and Dan Wheeler (3.12 ERA) are back along with lefty J.P. Howell (2.22 ERA) and should be able to bridge the gap to Percival or even step in and close when he needs a day off.

Rotation (Pitches)
James Shields (R)
Scott Kazmir (L)
Matt Garza (R)
Andy Sonnanstine (R)
David Price (L)

Troy Percival (R) CLOSER
Grant Balfour (R)
J.P. Howell (L)
Dan Wheeler (R)
Chad Bradford (R)
Joe Nelson (R)
Lance Cormier (R)

The Rays return a lineup that ranked 4th in the AL in home runs but only 13th in average hitting just .260 as a team.  In spite of that, they were still 4th in OBP showing patience and poise for such a young team.  The outfield returns with the face of the franchise, Carl Crawford, in left who is one of the best defensive left fielders in the game and should be in the top 5 in baseball in stolen bases.  In center will be B.J. Upton who’s good for similar numbers and expectations as Crawford.  In right will be one of two off-season acquisitions, Matt Joyce and Pat Burrell.  The two will likely split time in the outfield and at DH.  In the infield, Carlos Pena (1B), Aki Iwamura (2B), Jason Bartlett (SS), and Evan Longoria (3B) are all back.  Longoria is quickly becoming one of the best third basemen in baseball and should have a huge year. Pena is one of the best pure power-hitters in the AL (77 HR in the last two years).  At catcher will be Dioner Navarro. Navarro is one of the most underrated catchers in the game.  He is an excellent game-caller and hit .295 with 54 RBI last year.

Lineup (Bats)
LF  Carl Crawford (L)
CF  B.J. Upton (R)
3B  Evan Longoria (R)
1B  Carlos Pena (L)
DH  Pat Burrell (R)
RF  Matt Joyce (L)
C    Dioner Navarro (S)
2B  Aki Iwamura (L)
SS  Jason Bartlett (R)

INF Willy Aybar (S)
UTIL Ben Zobrist (S)
OF Gabe Kapler (R)
C   Shawn Riggans (R)
INF Reid Brignac (L)

The Rays will be one of the best teams in the AL for years to come, but a repeat of their 97-win performance of ’08 seems doubtful with the improvements made by both the Red Sox and Yankees.  They will be competitive and will fight both the Yankees and the Red Sox for the wild card spot most of the year but will likely fall short.  I just don’t think their talent is quite at the level of the Yankees or Red Sox and I feel like a bit of a sophomore slump could plague the Rays this year.  Final Prediction: 86-76, 3rd AL East.