It is very easy as fans of a big market team to point and laugh at the poor offerings shown by some of the other teams in the majors. You look at some of these teams at the end of the season and their team leaders have 17 homeruns, 67 RBI's, and they're staff ace has 11 wins. We laugh a hearty laugh, with tears forming in our eyes, and then go on with our mighty Yanks to the post season. However, he who laughs last, laughs best, and to help you avoid laughing at the wrong team we at the "Respect Jeter's Gangster" blog would like to point out some teams that could compete in the near future. Everyone once laughed at the Rockies. Then they became the National League champions. Fancy that. So to that end, here is our first installment of Know a Crappy Team.
Know A Crappy Team: Tampa Bay Rays
You know this team. They're the perennial last place winners in the American League East. Its the team players pad their stats with when they play. But be careful in underestimating this team.
The Question of Offense:
The biggest problem with the Rays has not been their offense. Carlos Pena turned out to be a quality power bat last season blasting 46 homeruns with 121 RBI's and a .282 batting average. No one could have predicted Pena's surge. A little known fact is that Pena was signed to a minor league deal with the Yankees in 2006 released himself after he saw he wouldn't get playing time, signed with the Red Sox, was released after the season, signed a minor league contract with the Rays, and was not on the opening day roster. Quite the humble beginnings. But the question that needs an answer is whether or not last year was an aberration or the norm for Pena.
Another player that showed some pop was centerfielder BJ Upton. With a .300 average, 24 RBI's, 82 RBI's and 22 stolen bases in his first full season in the big leagues, BJ Upton sounds like he could be a real offensive contributor.
The first and second batters in the Rays lineup have been Akinori Iwamura and Carl Crawford. Crawford is a speedster. He stole 50 bases last season while hitting .315 with 11 homeruns and 80 RBI's. Iwamura who was the lesser known player who came over through the posting process last off season, played solid third base while batting .285 with 7 homeruns and 12 stolen bases.
The main weapon this team has, is its speed. This team, led by Crawford, has more steals than Clay Bucholz at a laptop convention. What's even more intriguing is that all the players mentioned have multi-year contracts with the Rays. Pena just signed a three year deal, Crawford and Iwamura are signed through 2010, and Upton isn't even arbitration eligible yet. That means that some of the better offensive players will remain with the team for some time.
Iwamura played a solid third base, but has the power of a second baseman. The Rays agreed, and are moving Iwamura to second to make room for top prospect Evan Longoria. Milb.com ranked Longoria as the number 2 prospect in all baseball.
So if offense isn't their main problem, why do they suck so much?
In the past, the Rays rotation and bullpen have been horrendous. Last year, the bullpen was especially awful. Going forward do not expect Rays pitchers to be the batting practice arms they once were.
Scott Kazmir is an excellent left handed pitcher. While the Mets traded him away for Victor Zambrano (Awesome move Mighty Mets), he has established himself as the Rays ace. Get to know this player because once you do you will want him as a Yankee. He had a 13-8 record last season, but mainly because of bullpen falters. He had a 2.66 ERA against the Yankees last season, and a 2.78 ERA against the Red Sox. He led the American League in strike outs with 239 k's, 1 short of tieing Peavy for the majors. He also threw 17 innings less than Peavy.
Now the Rays have added Garza from the Twins, and will have Shields coming back. Last season those two pitcher had a 3.69 and 3.85 ERA respectively. If those players can continue to improve, that will make three pitchers with ERA's below 4. Not bad.
The bullpen has had quite the boost as well. Last season, Al Reyes turned out to be quite the surprise as he was a very effective closer. This year, Al Reyes will be the setup guy now that they signed Troy Percival to close. Because there are 7 starters competing for 5 spots, two pitchers will be converted to releivers. My guess is that Edwin Jackson will be one of them. He was bad as a starter, but he throws hard, and will probably be effective out of the pen. He pitched some pretty good games including 6 inning shutouts of the Yankees and Blue Jays, and a 9 inning shutout of Texas. When he was off though, he would get hit hard.
Either way, the bullpen looks better, the starters look better, and the offense is there. The laughing stock of the American League East could come strong in the near future and knock both the Yanks and Sox out of contention. Stranger things have happened. So do not laugh at the Rays. It will hurt that much more when world series MVP Carlos Pena gives a speech about how the Yankees let him go in 2006 only to see him win a world series for another AL East team.