PORT CHARLOTTE — Red Sox manager Terry Francona acknowledged that the American League East this year will be more of a minefield than ever.
Of course, there are the defending World Series champion Yankees to get through. But Francona pointed out what other teams in the division are saying: The Rays will be a team to be reckoned with.
"Unfortunately, (the Rays) are really good," Francona said. "They're athletic. They're deep. They're a lot of things."
Are they better than they were in 2009, or their 2008 AL championship team?
"I hope not," he said. "But probably."
With the Rays failing to defend their pennant last season, falling to third in the division, some analysts have pegged them to finish behind their New York and Boston rivals again. But opponents point to Tampa Bay's balance of speed and power, a talented starting rotation, and the acquisition of closer Rafael Soriano as reasons the Rays will be in the mix again.
They host New York next week in their first homestand, games that Yankees manager Joe Girardi said "are going to take on a lot of importance right away."
"I think they're very talented," Girardi said. "They have depth in their rotation, they have speed, they have power and they play good defense. They're a very good team. I think our division is going to be extremely tough, and we'll have to deal with them a lot because we'll play them a lot."
The Yankees led the majors in runs last season, and boast the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. But Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard said the Rays lineup is "as dangerous."
"It's really a tough lineup, from top to bottom — you can't let up," Bard said. "It's kind of like the Yankees in a sense, where there's no weaknesses one through nine."
The Rays rotation is young — though not as heralded as the ones led by New York's CC Sabathia and Boston's Josh Beckett — but it has caught the attention of their AL East foes. Wade Davis threw a complete game shutout against the Orioles in September, leading Baltimore manager Dave Trembley to quip, "He didn't look like a rookie — he looked like Don Drysdale."
"They come after you," Orioles rightfielder Nick Markakis said of the Rays rotation. "They're young, but they pitch like they've been pitching for 10 years."
And now the Rays starters have a closer they can hand the ball to late in the game, having acquired Soriano, who saved 27 games in 31 chances for the Braves last season. That move alone, Francona said, could make a sizable impact.
"In my opinion, a lot — anytime you have an end in sight," Francona said. "You don't end the game with two guys throwing and uncertainty."
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said the Rays' aggressiveness plays a role, and it's not just usual suspects Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton: "They take gambles with a lot of other people, and in the right situations."
Said Orioles infielder Ty Wigginton: "Every avenue they can to win a baseball game, they're gonna try to do. A lot of teams can learn from them."
Whether it all adds up to the Rays getting back to the playoffs remains to be seen. But one thing remains clear.
"Everybody talks about the Yankees and Red Sox," Markakis said. "But you can't sleep on the Rays."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]mes.com