For more than a year, we have known this hour would eventually arrive. An opening day without Carl Crawford. A new season with a reduced payroll. A Tampa Bay team of lesser anticipation.
After three seasons of improved play and higher salaries, the Rays have taken a planned step back in 2011.
Now that opening day is finally here, the question is, how big of a step?
Can this team make the postseason?
(Enthusiastic head shake)
Should this team make the postseason?
(Slight shoulder shrug)
Anyone with a working knowledge of the infield fly rule would probably tell you the Red Sox are the favorites to win the American League East. And while the gap between Boston and everyone else in the division is not insurmountable, it does seem significant.
So that brings us to the AL wild card. And the Yankees and Rays. New York finished one game behind Tampa Bay in 2010 but did not have nearly as many roster defections in the offseason. So, yes, the Yankees should probably be the better team in 2011.
The issue is how much better, and how much variance exists.
The Yankees have flaws. Their rotation is not very solid, and the top half of the batting order will include a lot of guys on the downsides of their careers. That's the good news.
On the other hand, the Rays have flaws, too. Their bullpen is completely untested, and they are also building much of the offense around a couple of guys nearing 40.
On a recent afternoon before a spring training game against the Yankees, I asked Rays mastermind Andrew Friedman to argue his team's case as if he were before a judge.
"We have, in our minds, a really good chance to be playing compelling games in September," Friedman said. "The thing is, our group as a whole really relishes being written off. And that's how everyone feels right now.
"So I wouldn't make the case very staunchly because I like the spirit of this group, and how driven they are to surprise people. I wouldn't want a judge's ruling in our favor right now."
But here's the catch:
The Rays could be one of the four best teams in the American League and still not make the playoffs.
The truth is, it's harder to finish second in the East than first in the Central. Quite a bit harder. During the past four seasons, the AL Central winner has averaged 91.5 victories. The second-place team in the East has averaged 94.75. And that doesn't even take into account the unbalanced schedules in the divisions.
The folks at Baseball Prospectus recently ran a bunch of simulated seasons through the computer and determined the Rays were behind only Boston and New York in wild-card chances. That sounds encouraging and is probably pretty accurate.
On the other hand, the computer says the Rays' odds of making the playoffs are less than Boston and New York (because they were determined to be better) and Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Texas and Oakland (because none of them play in the AL East).
So I asked Friedman if the Rays had a better-than-league-average offense. He said yes. Better-than-league-average defense? Yes. Better-than-league-average rotation? Yes. Better-than-league-average bullpen? Yes, even there.
"The problem is," Friedman continued, "we don't play in a division where league average is the standard."
Which brings us back to the original point:
How can the Rays make the playoffs?
It could happen if A.J. Burnett is a head case. It could happen if Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera finally start to show their age. It could happen if Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are all as bad as they were last season.
It could happen.
I just don't know that you can count on it.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.