I don't need to explain to the informed citizens of Red Sox Nation why the Tampa Bay Rays will again have to be reckoned with in the season ahead, given the recurring David Price nightmares that surely haunted your autumn. After October’s seven-game grind of an American League Championship Series, the Rays were paid their proper respect in full around here. But a couple hundred miles and several million dollars down the road in New York, it seems they may have already forgotten which team will enter the new season as the reigning American League champion.
It seemed only appropriate that Mark Teixeira, the gaudiest new jewel in the Yankees’ quest to cobble together a crown, nearly neglected to mention the Rays as one of his employer’s chief competitors for AL supremacy during his introductory press conference Tuesday afternoon. Near the end of his “gosh, it’s just so swell to be a [bleepin’ rich] Yankee” dog-and-pony show, Teixeira spoke of the high level of competition in the AL East, rattling off an almost-sincere plaudit about the Red Sox before barely avoiding an inexcusable exclusion. “Oh, and the Devil Rays had an incredible season this year … or the Rays, I’m sorry,” he added casually.
Teixeira apparently has the arrogance part down pat — maybe he is a True Yankee after all. All right, snarkiness aside, perhaps Teixeira’s near-oversight was excusable, given the excitement of his big (pay)day. But there is also a lesson to be found in there: The Rays should be nobody’s afterthought, for this ball club is supremely capable not only on the field, but in the front office as well.
Although the Yankees have spent the off-season collecting pricey baseball cards — first CC Sabathia, then A.J. Burnett-Pavano, then Teixeira — the Red Sox have generated plenty of hot-stove heat but haven’t followed up with much action beyond taking a calculated low-risk gamble on Brad Penny. Nick Green? Anyone who is excited about his signing must be a relative — and even they are probably lukewarm about it.
Meanwhile, the Rays’ Andrew Friedman, the finest general manager in baseball among those you wouldn’t recognize sitting at the next barstool over, has again had a subtly outstanding off-season.
First, on Dec. 10, he sent starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for outfielder Matt Joyce. Jackson, just 25 years old but far from the phenom of his Dodger youth, acquitted himself adequately at the back of the Rays’ rotation last season, winning 14 games with a 4.42 earned-run average and an adjusted ERA of 101. But with the ascending Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 MLB draft, ready to assume a significant role in the Rays’ rotation, Jackson became an unnecessary accessory.
So Friedman did what the savviest general managers do — he signed him to an $82.5 million contract. Whoops, my bad there; confused him with Brian Cashman for a moment. What he actually did was turn him into a valuable complementary piece, acquiring the promising Joyce, a 24-year-old left-handed hitter who mashed a dozen homers in 242 at-bats with the Tigers last season in his first sample of big league action. It was the type of deal that generates little more than a line in the Sports Log, but one that gets the true seamheads all jacked and pumped. I bet Bill James approved wholeheartedly.
The Jackson-Joyce deal was a deft sell-high maneuver, but it’s not Friedman’s most noteworthy transaction of the past few weeks. On Monday, the Rays signed former Phillies slugger Pat Burrell to a two-year, $16 million deal. Though Burrell, 32, is mildly overrated — he’s just a .257 career hitter in nine years, and his most similar comparisons in baseball history, according to baseball-reference.com, are the murderer’s row of Tony Clark, Jesse Barfield, and Matt Stairs — he happens to be exactly what the Rays need: a legitimate No. 5 or No. 6 hitter who will smack the ball over the fence 30 or so times per season.
Burrell, who joined Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt as the only players in Phillies history to hit 20 or more homers in eight straight seasons, is a flawed player, but he’s a significant upgrade over the mummified Cliff Floyd, last season’s primary DH. He’s also a relative bargain, considering that the combustible Milton Bradley signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs the same day. Should we mention that Burrell will make $1 million less than Julio Lugo and $6 million less than J.D. Drew this season? Let’s just move on.
In terms of public perception and conventional wisdom, the Yankees’ shopping spree has apparently made them the consensus favorite, particularly among those easily distracted by shiny things. Despite their adherence to the status quo after getting played by Teixeira, the Red Sox still have a case as the front-runner — though the argument could be made that as currently constructed, they are the third-best team in the division. I won’t be the one to make that argument — I believe Theo Epstein’s winter’s work on the roster is far from done — but as you might have suspected, I’m not about to say they’re superior to the team that ended their ’08 season, either.
It’s going to be a hell of a race, and the Tampa Bay Rays, winners of 97 games in 2008, are built to go the distance. A season ago, they drew frequent comparisons to the ’91 Braves, another worst-to-first story of a club whose young talent blossomed all at once. Let us remind you that the Braves also made the postseason in ’92 … and ’93 … and every single season right up through 2005. The Rays’ run won’t last that long, of course — but it will last. The days of Jason Tyner and Brent Abernathy are long gone. These are the days of Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, of David Price and Scott Kazmir, of Carl Crawford and James Shields. These Rays will prove it again: They can hold their own with anyone.
Mark Teixeira and the rest will be reminded of as much soon enough.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org