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Over the hump, under the radar

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff January 8, 2009 05:58 AM

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 finn@globe.com

12 comments so far...
  1. Although I think the Rays are going to be a threat for years to come, I suspect they'll have a significant decline in 2009. That's because teams that have breakout seasons, as the Rays did in 2008, usually follow that with a fallback. (Remember the 2006 Tigers, who looked like a perennial threat after making the World Series?)

    Breakout seasons usually involve a lot of luck -- with injuries, and with players exceeding expectations. For instance: the rotation was amazingly durable. Five pitchers combined for 153 starts! That's almost unheard of, and almost certainly won't happen again. Second, the bullpen somehow became a force, even though it was mostly the Usual Suspects of Devil Ray failure: Grant Balfour, Scott Dohmann, Gary Glover, Trever Miller, J.P. Howell. I predict the bullpen ERA rises by at least a full point, maybe more.

    With the Jackson/Joyce trade, the Rays are counting on David Price establishing himself as a bona fide major league starter. Ask the 2008 Yankees (Hughes, Kennedy, Horne) or Red Sox (Buchholz) about the perils of such faith. Young pitchers usually experience growing pains and/or significant injuries before becoming established major leaguers.

    Now, let's look at Pat Burrell. Yes, a good signing. But he's going to replace Floyd and Hinske, who combined for 31 HR and 99 RBI. Is Burrell going to do better than that? No. So he's basically a wash.

    And otherwise, the Rays offense was built on a narrow foundation last year. They don't get any offense from 2B or SS, and there's not a lot of power in the outfield. (Eric Hinske finished third on the team in home runs!)

    I'm not saying they're a bad team. I'm not saying they will be pushovers. But I am predicting that the 2009 Rays will win maybe 86 games and miss the playoffs.

    Posted by johnw January 8, 09 11:21 AM
  1. Eric Hinske's 20 homeruns would have been good for third on the Red Sox as well...

    Posted by Anonymous January 8, 09 05:40 PM
  1. Well if Johnw is not willing I am.

    There is no way in hell Tampa will repeat their 2008.

    Their bullpen will in no way resemble what they accomplished in 2008. Their opening day starters will not be good for 900+ IP, which coupled with the Jackson trade and Burrell money will leave them way short on starters. I don't recall who said it but I'll repeat it: Tampa will become a sub-.500 team in 2009.

    Posted by AnonyM January 8, 09 06:17 PM
  1. Nice article CF, Is it the doldrums of winter that have me, negatively, doubting my team after they just won a WS two years ago and nearly made another one last year? As much as I love the hot stove (it is, dangerously, my favorite part after the playoffs, of course) maybe the hot stove is more PR than baseball reality.

    Posted by EJ January 8, 09 06:22 PM
  1. Anonymous: True... however, the Sox had a lot more depth in power. Hinske was third on the Rays with 20, but nobody else on the team had more than 13. The Sox had three players in the upper teens, and two of them (Lowell, Drew) would have easily cleared the 20 mark if not for injuries. Plus, Jason Bay hit 31 HR last year between Pittsburgh and Boston, which was pretty much seasonal average for him.

    My point remains: the Rays are short on power, even with Burrell; while the Sox have a broad-based power attack, even without Manny.

    Posted by johnw January 8, 09 09:03 PM
  1. Longoria will be in the 40-plus HR range within the next few years, maybe this year. Watching him all the time (I live in Sarasota), I am convinced that he has a 500 HR career in front of him (not to mention great D at 3b). Upton's HR's will increase significantly IMO. Burrell will do what he's always done. I share the skepticism about the bullpen, the back end in particular, as I don't know how much Troy Percival has left and it's not apparent who the heir is (Price would be killer there with his electric stuff, but I think they want him in the rotation). .This is a young, fast, athletic team who should be in the hunt if the pitching holds up.

    Posted by Jim Nagle January 9, 09 08:43 AM
  1. Hey Chad,

    After CC, AJ, Wang, Joba, and Mo who is pitching for the Yankees this year? I don't care if they got Tex or not, their pitching staff is significantly inferior to both the Red Sox and the Rays. I’d go as far as saying the Sox have one of the best pitching staff’s in the majors and the fall of the Yankees will be their 4 and 5 starter and anybody not named Joba or Mo in the bullpen. Likewise, the Rays are lacking a legit 5 starter and their bullpen is going to be much weaker this year. I have no doubts that this season is going to be a 3 team battle for 2 spots in the postseason; I just wouldn’t be counting on the Red Sox being the odd man out….

    Posted by jeff January 9, 09 12:29 PM
  1. But Friedman has done nothing to bolster a bullpen that is just getting older and thinner. That could well be the Rays downfall in 09.

    Posted by Dave January 10, 09 05:15 PM
  1. Red Sox fans are funny.....

    I read the first four comments and tried to skim over the rest, but can't. It's unbearable.
    Go ahead, underestimate them. Do it. I encourage it. PLEASE?
    First off, your argument that Price may not mature fully or will go through growing pains TOTALLY contradicts you putting down the arms in the bull-pen. If he's going to go through growing pains, then why do you not attribute the lack of talent in the past seasons bull-pen (Season's before this one) to young pitchers?
    This point that young pitchers, which the organization has a plethora of in the Minors aside from Price, go through a transitional period is seemingly true, but he'll only pitch once every 5 days. Not to mention that he DOMINATED YOUR sox.

    Now, did those past Rays teams have Longoria, Upton, Iwamura, Pena, and Navarro? Didn't think so. You're basing your assumptions off of past seasons results and excluding last year's successes. This team has star players that are arriving. Much like Epstein's arrival and subsequent championships, this team is under a new regime and was built for the future. That future is NOW.

    You're being FOOLISH and sounding like an idiot saying things like "If he won't say it I will. No Way In Hell!" and "They Aren't Built for power". They're about as powerful as your mighty Sox. Youkilis is disgusting with the bat, but does Drew's first non-injury plagued season make him an iron man? Has Ellsbury been hitting the gym every day? Did Ortiz build a time machine and figure out how to get younger and back in shape? NO is the answer to all your questions.

    Now, I'm not questioning the legitimacy of the Red Sox as a power player in the AL. You do have the MVP of the league last season and powerful pitching. Defense is good as well, but to seriously think that the Rays won't be able to compete is ludacris. You're the definition of a homer if you think that and you're baseball knowledge isn't worth the keyboard you're typing on.

    I would encourage you to do some research on the team and realize just how FAST, athletically gifted, and DEEP this team actually is. The funny thing is, is that it appears as though you're just so used to hating the Yankees and it being a two-team division that you don't even see this train coming. I know the people in the front office at the Sox aren't thinking what you are. This is a young and talented team. The Sox ARE concerned with them, and so should you be. Notice, I've never said they were BETTER, but simply that there are reasons to concern yourself with them

    If you miss any of the games, feel free to DVR or record them. It'll give you something to watch after The Rays bump you out of the play-offs again next season.

    Or you can just keep on believing that they're nothing to worry about....just like you did last season in April.....and in May....Then in June....Up to the All-Star Break....and then when you had the opportunity to take a series from them for the division in Sept.....then when they took 3 straight from you to start the series.......then when no one gave them a chance in game 7......
    On second thought, just stop worrying about them all together.....There's NO CHANCE they could EVER beat the Sox....

    Did that paragraph get you wet? Cause it's dripping with Sarcasm....

    Posted by Zak January 10, 09 11:43 PM
  1. Of course the Rays will not repeat this season. The Red Sox certainly have not been able to win two in a row. Interesting to see the last team to do that!!! I assure you...once the Yankees win their next World Series, They will repeat!

    Posted by Blanche January 11, 09 01:47 PM
  1. anybody that ignores the rays as a contender is stupid. It should be a very competitive division, but I would not be surprised if the wild card comes from the central division. I like the makeup of the sox especially since the signings of smoltz and saito. The added depth will help them through the 162 game schedule. I would rather them sign a veteran catcher then trade a young pitcher. As far as a power bat if they wait until june there will be teams looking to dump salary. The yankees don't scare me with their acquisitions this winter, it is an aging team that will see the disabled list often with holes in their pitching staff and who will not score as many runs as their fans think. I don't see them winning more games than last year

    Posted by beegee January 11, 09 09:44 PM
  1. Everyone keep talking about who the Yankees signed in the off season, not what they lost. Their signings, with the expection of Teix, area wash for what they lost in pitching. AJ Burnett is already figuring out how to get on the DL and anyone who looks at CC can see he is an injury waiting to happen especially after all he did last year. He's pitching in the AL now, not the NL. Life can be different there.

    Posted by Anonymous January 12, 09 04:24 PM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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