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Plenty could keep Tampa Bay Rays from repeating as AL champs next season

ST. PETERSBURG — Now comes the tricky part.

Now that the Rays are champions of the American League East, have won an American League Division Series and survived an American League Championship Series, their next challenge is obvious.

To do it all over again.

Theoretically, it shouldn't be all that difficult. For as good as the Rays looked in 2008, they should be better in 2009. And better than that in 2010.

"It's scary to know that we're all young, and we're all going to get better," left-hander Scott Kazmir said.

This is, after all, a team filled with players younger than 30. And of the 25 players on the final postseason roster, 23 of them remain under the team's control for next season. Not to mention, a handful of intriguing prospects are waiting in the wings at Triple-A Durham and beyond.

The entire starting infield may be back. And the Rays are set in leftfield and center, too. The entire rotation could stay the same, and everybody in the bullpen remains on the table.

So what could possibly keep Tampa Bay from winning another American League pennant in '09?

For starters, just about everything.

We have talked all season about the good vibe and the amount of good fortune the Rays enjoyed in '08. To assume everything that went right in Tampa Bay last summer will fall the Rays' way again next season is more than wishful thinking. It borders on fantasy.

First of all, the '08 Rays may have had the healthiest starting rotation in the American League. Other than Kazmir's elbow going cranky in the spring and Matt Garza missing a couple of starts in April, the Rays had the same five starters take the mound day after day after day. It would be a major case of good karma if they again had five pitchers with 27 starts or more in '09.

Tampa Bay's rise this season coincided with New York's greatest decline in a dozen years. And it's probably not wise to count on that again. With the Yankees shedding a lot of bloated contracts in the winter, they will have the payroll flexibility to chase whatever free agents they choose. So you may want to get used to the idea of New York winning 95 or more games.

Not to mention, the American League East will once again be baseball's toughest neighborhood, which means the unbalanced schedule will unfairly penalize any wild-card hopefuls coming from the division.

"We could have a better team next year and not make the playoffs," pitching coach Jim Hickey said recently. "We can even play better next year and not make the playoffs."

On the first day of spring training of '08, executive vice president Andrew Friedman told the players during a team meeting about the Diamondbacks and Rockies of 2007. Both teams had gone from 76-86 to a spot in the postseason in a single offseason. His point was that the Rays could also dream big.

Looking ahead to the first day of spring training of '09, Friedman may very well want to refer back to the Colorado Rockies. After reaching the World Series in '07 with a fairly young team, they followed up by finishing six games under .500 this season.

The point is that there are few sure bets in baseball.

So what will it take to ensure the Rays are again contenders next season? Despite the number of players still tied contractually to Tampa Bay, there will likely be some tinkering in the offseason.

The Rays need another right-handed bat, and there is some work to be done in the bullpen. Plus, because of payroll concerns, there is a chance some familiar faces will not be around next summer.

Carlos Pena's salary jumps from $6-million to $8-million, Carl Crawford goes from $5.25-million to $8.25-million, and Kazmir goes from $3.785-million to $6-million, along with a half-dozen other smaller raises for other players. Willy Aybar, Grant Balfour, Jason Bartlett, Gabe Gross, Edwin Jackson and Dioner Navarro will also be arbitration eligible for the first time, meaning they are in line for significant raises.

The payroll will likely jump above $55-million with the current group of players, putting it near owner Stu Sternberg's stretching point. That means the Rays may consider not exercising options on Cliff Floyd ($2.75-million) and Trever Miller ($2-million), and non-tendering Jonny Gomes, who is eligible for arbitration.

Because the Rays are not major players in the free agent market, it makes sense they will try to fill their holes through the trade market.

Who could be on the block for the Rays? Jackson might be a good bet. His stock has never been higher, and he is due for a raise, plus the Rays have a number of pitching prospects (David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Mitch Talbot) they need to make room for.

Another long-shot possibility is Crawford. If the Rays think Fernando Perez can approximate some of Crawford's offense and defense, it would lop around $8-million off the payroll if they are willing to part with the franchise's all-time hits leader.

No matter what direction they go, the Rays are clearly building from a strong foundation. They are already ahead of where they were a year ago in almost every sense, including expectations.

"It's only the beginning of the ride," Sternberg said. "The train left the station, and the journey is going to be tremendous for years to come, ups and downs."

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

Plenty could keep Tampa Bay Rays from repeating as AL champs next season 10/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 3:56pm]

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