There have been some serious writers who have indicated that the Tampa Bay Rays will fall off this year and be the third best team in the American League East. That's an oversimplification. Boston has improved but hasn't played a game with their new people yet. Their rotation, like the Yankees' rotation has just as many question marks. Meanwhile, the Rays lost Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. The latter isn't much of a loss if 2010 is the kind of player he is now. Yeah, the bullpen has taken a hit. But remember this, the Bay Rays have won the AL East two of the last three years. There seems to be little reason why they can't win 92 to 95 games in 2011.
There is plenty of reason for optimism in 2011 for the Bay Rays. First, they still have one of the best managers and general managers in baseball. Reid Brignac will be an improvement at short over the departed Bartlett. Matt Joyce came into his own in the latter half of 2010 and was a real threat in the post season. There is no reason why he can't replace the WAR lost by losing Crawford. Guys like Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez and John Jaso will have another year of experience under their belt. Upton will have a bounce back year (The Fan predicts this and just watch). Longoria is still one of the best players on the planet and no matter what happens, they will have a better DH than they've had in any time in their history.
Obviously, Maddon is a lot smarter than this writer, but if the Fan was running the Bay Rays, this is the line up the Fan would use to start the season:
1. CF B. J. Upton
2. LF Johnny Damon
3. 3B Evan Longoria
4. DH Manny Ramirez
5. RF Matt Joyce
6. 1B Ben Zobrist
7. 2B Sean Rodriguez
8. SS Reid Brignac
9. C John Jaso
That's a very functional line up. Rodriguez needs to bring his offense up a few notches from last year. Damon isn't a good fielder any more, but he can hold his own with Upton helping him out a lot. And the best part of this line up is that all, with the exception of Damon and Jaso stack up positively on defense.
You'll notice that the Fan has started Damon over Desmond Jennings. Jennings had a brief cup of coffee last year and didn't show much. Jennings has played two full years at Triple A and there is no benefit to having him play a third. He should start the season with the team, start against left handers (two or three times a week) and come in to play defense in all other games after the seventh. That seems to be a good way to get his feet wetter. If Jennings gets hot, then you can figure out how to get both him and Damon in the line up regularly.
The Fan also prefers Zobrist over Dan Johnson. Johnson has scary power and good patience at the plate, but he's never hit for average and isn't a good fielder. Johnson can get some starts against right-handed pitching and move Zobrist over to second base to give Rodriguez a game off a few times a week. The Fan is excited to see Brignac get a full chance at short and would love to just see the Bay Rays put him there and leave him alone for 160 games.
The hallmark of the Bay Rays has always been flexibility. They are the Patriots of baseball. Everyone can play everywhere. This certainly gives Maddon options every day and if someone gets hurt. There were stretches last year where the Bay Rays didn't hit very well. The Fan believes they will be a better offensive club in 2011, not good news for the other powers in the AL East.
The Bay Rays have two question marks in their rotation: Shields and Niemann. Shields had an awful year in 2010, but has held his own in previous years. He should be okay, which is all you need from a fifth starter. Niemann started great last year, got hurt and then really struggled. The latter part of his year puts him in the "Uh oh" category for the start of 2011. He's a big, ornery pitcher who loves to compete. This Fan feels he'll bounce back. Price, Hellickson and Wade Davis should be rock solid and give their team a chance to win every time out. The Bay Rays have no apologies to make for their rotation.
Maddon will have to work out his bullpen, but that's the easiest equation in baseball. So the Fan isn't going to give a second thought there. After working this all out and thinking about it, the Fan sees little weakness in the Bay Rays and little reason to think there will be much of a decline. They have improved at short, DH, right field and first base. From those improvements, there is no reason why the Rays can't make up for the lost WAR of Crawford and Pena. Don't underestimate this team. They seem just as good as last year. And they won 97 games last year.