Baseball Prospectus has projected the American League East to finish with the following win totals: Boston (93), Yankees (92), Bay Rays (84), Orioles (81) and Blue Jays (76). Granted, those folks are pretty smart. But geez Louise, none of those looks right. For one thing, this is the second year in a row the Blue Jays have been projected behind the Orioles. How can that be? The Blue Jays have a better rotation, a better offense and prospects all over the place. The Orioles won't win 81 games. They might if they played in the AL Central. But they don't. But to this Fan, the 84 win total for the Bay Rays seems...well...ridiculous.
Let's list the reasons why the Bay Rays will blow past 84 wins. First, let's start with the rotation. David Price is simply one of the top five pitchers in the American League and he keeps getting better. 2010 was no fluke and Price is going to be just as good or better in 2011. Jeremy Hellickson will have a full year in the rotation and should be more consistently better than the departed Matt Garza. Well, Hellickson may not be better than Garza when Garza is on, but he'll be just as good overall. Jeff Niemann is a guy just waiting to put things all together. The guy is a monster and sometimes, those tall guys take a little while to figure it all out. But Niemann has been very good at times even when not putting it together. You can see the superstar there waiting to bust out. And then you have Wade Davis as your fourth best starter? Puhleese. Wade Davis and Phil Hughes are two solid young guys that are going to be good starters for a long time. Davis rebounded nicely last year after a poor start. If he gets his homer rate down and gets more confidence, look out. And let's finish off with James Shields. If Shields was your Number 2 or 3 starter like last year, you could be concerned. But if he's your number five starter, wouldn't that be better than 28 of the 29 teams out there? This rotation is very, very good.
The young players just keep coming. In the Fan's mind, the Rays are improved at shortstop, second base, first base, DH and utility. Desmond Jennings is projected as the next big thing. He hasn't shown it yet, but if he gets 600 plate appearances, he should show that his minor league days were no fluke. Jennings is a more disciplined hitter than Crawford and can be just as good an outfielder and base runner. Jennigs could be the rookie of the year if he gets off to a good start.
Reid Brignac is one of this Fan's favorite young players. Love watching this kid play. If he starts at shortstop every day and settles himself down into his major league career, you could see fielding as good as Brendan Ryan. He is also poised to be a lot better on offense than Bartlett. The Fan loves him some Reid Brignac.
Sean Rodriguez should improve at second base as well in his second year. He seemed to have some limitations in his game, but he's a fiery little guy and could become one of the better second baseman in the league. But if he falters, you have Ben Zobrist right there who can play second base every day with the best of them. Zobrist is a bit of a mystery. Was 2009 the real Zobrist or 2010? The two seasons don't even come close to looking like the same player. But Zobrist can play so many positions well that if he offense returns at all, he's the safety valve for any position.
Carlos Pena was so bad last year that anyone could be an improvement...even Pena himself if he had returned. The Bay Rays have some options with Zobrist and Dan Johnson. Any combination they come up with will be better than what Pena put together last year. This Fan is rooting for Pena to rebuild his career. But it won't be with the Bay Rays.
What can you say about the Bay Rays at DH? The position has been abominable for several seasons. Nothing they tried worked. This year, their DH will work. Even if Manny Ramirez doesn't have anything left, you have Damon and either one of those guys can out hit any Rays' DH of the last several years in their sleep. Personally, those signings were brilliant. Not only are they two veterans that have won before, but they can anchor down a young team and lead the way. This Fan feels that Manny is going to have a monster year. None of the projections do justice to how well Manny can hit this year since he doesn't have to play the field and can stay healthy. And like mentioned earlier, if he falters, there is Damon. And the amazing thing about those two signings? They were both cheaper than Pat Burrell!
The bullpen lost a lot of good arms. But bullpens can be rebuilt and the bullpen is less important if you have a great starting rotation. Rays' fans shouldn't worry about the bullpen. Maddon and others will work it out.
So what's left? Oh yeah, you have the best third baseman in baseball in Evan Longoria. You have an enigmatic centerfielder who never seems to figure it out. He can anytime. But if he doesn't? You can trade him, put Jennings out there. Then there is Matt Joyce. Joyce had a strange year last year. His final stats are not impressive. But he came on toward the end of the year and was a force in the post season. Joyce still has superstar potential just waiting to come out. And John Jaso is just fine behind the plate. He's not the best defensive catcher and his offense wore down toward the end of last season. But he is a useful player and better than a lot of teams' catchers.
The great thing about the Bay Rays is that they have so many options. The Bay Rays are not afraid to play young players, try them at new positions and mix and match to come up with the best outcome. Maddon is one of the best young managers in the game.
So yeah, 84 wins seems like a breeze for this team. So many divisions in baseball are going to be fascinating in 2011. But the AL East might just be the most fun three-team dogfight in history. Yeah, a lot has to go right for that to happen, but whenever the Fan thinks about the roster of the Bay Rays, 84 games seems ridiculous.