Beyond pomp, Tampa Bay Rays' night reassuring

ST. PETERSBURG — For 30 minutes, the night was about memories. An entire pregame show devoted to a season now past. There were videos and pennants, introductions and ceremonies. And, in its own way, 2008 was finally put to rest.

Then the game began, and you realized something about 2009:

It looks a lot like last year.

And the Rays are still better than the Yankees.

Oh, maybe it won't turn out that way when these teams meet at Tropicana Field for the regular season finale Oct. 4. There are 155 games to go, injuries to endure and time for a lot of circumstances to change.

But here's the thing:

Even after the Yankees spent money like drunken Steinbrenners in the offseason, I would still rather have Tampa Bay's roster.

Maybe not at every position. Maybe not for a three-game series. I would even guess that, right now, the Yankees have more guys heading to this summer's All-Star Game and certainly have more legitimate candidates for Cooperstown.

But when you mix age and contract with talent on the field, the Rays have more going for them. Strip away the glamor and the fame, and I'll take the snot-nosed kids most every time.

Sure, it's easy to be smitten on a night when the Rays could have won by the 10-run rule. But it wasn't the size of the score that was so impressive; rather, it was the way Tampa Bay got there.

Their hitters were patient. Their baserunners were aggressive. Their sluggers came up big, and their outfielders flashed gloves of gold. In other words, the Rays looked a lot like last season when they were the most versatile team in the American League.

"We talked a lot last season about how '07 was invaluable for us to evaluate the guys we had and address any shortcomings we felt like existed," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Monday night. "We were aggressive in the offseason between '07 and '08 to field as balanced a team as we could, and we felt we had that power/speed element with extremely talented, young starting pitchers and a deep bullpen.

"Now, on paper, as we head into '09, we feel like we've actually improved. We've improved our lineup, our defense is even better, our depth is even better, and the depth of our bullpen is greater."

It doesn't guarantee anything. The Rays could be the third-best team in the AL this season and not make the playoffs. The Red Sox and Yankees are that good, too.

But watching them play Monday night, you get the sense the Rays are a team without any fatal flaws. They might not be above average at every spot, but they are not below average in very many.

Eight days into the season, the Rays have hit more home runs than any team in the majors. They have also stolen more bases. If you check with ESPN, I bet they also lead in outfield web gems.

In other words, they can win games in a lot of ways.

And they have the potential to remain that way for years to come.

"They deserved it," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of the pregame pennant raising. "They played great last year, and it's exactly what we want to do this year."

Sure, it'd be nice to have $180 million or so to drop on Mark Teixeira. But Carlos Peña looks pretty good at first base, and the Rays won't be paying him $22.5 million a year when he is 36.

Derek Jeter is one of the greatest players of his generation, but I wouldn't want to be the one to suggest he might consider leftfield because he is losing range at shortstop.

Alex Rodriguez might be one of the top 10 hitters of all time, but considering his contract and, um, distractions, I'm not sure how many people would trade Evan Longoria's future for his.

Again, it is easy to cherry pick and make a case for Tampa Bay's future. And, if the Rays had similar financial resources, I wouldn't be surprised if they considered blowing a ton of money on Teixeira, too.

It is unwise to read too much into one blowout game. To make fun of Yankee infielders who struggle to catch popups while the Rays are making highlight-reel catches.

On the other hand, it is kind of nice to watch a baseball team play a complete game. To hit, pitch, run and catch just the way they should. It's kind of nice, for a change, to be able to say:

Same ol' Rays.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Beyond pomp, Tampa Bay Rays' night reassuring 04/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 4:57pm]

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