The feeling these days is that this is the best Rays team ever assembled. Of course, the bar was set in 2008 when the Rays won 97 regular-season games and advanced to the World Series. So is this year's team better than that team? Let's break it down and compare the 2010 Rays to the 2008 Rays to see which one is better, at least on paper.
Carlos Peña '08 vs. Carlos Peña '10
Peña's 2008 season might have been his least productive of his three with the Rays. He hit 31 homers — 15 fewer than in 2007 and eight fewer than last season when he missed the final few weeks with an injury. The disturbing trend is his average has dropped significantly each season, and his strikeouts would've increased significantly if he hadn't missed the final stretch in 2009. The fear is his strikeout numbers will continue to grow while his average continues to plummet. Still, you would consider this a push — if healthy, Peña is going to slug 30 to 40 homers, drive in around 100 runs and play a mean first base. That's Peña. That's what he does.
Akinori Iwamura '08 vs. Reid Brignac/Sean Rodriguez/Ben Zobrist '10
Who didn't love Aki? Iwamura was stellar defensively (better than anyone who will play second this year), but the problem with Iwamura was where to bat him in the order. He didn't walk or steal enough bases to lead off. He struck out too much to bat second, and he didn't have enough power to hit in the middle of the order. He was strictly bottom-of-the-order, and the league is full of those guys. The Rays will have a mix of Zobrist, Rodriguez and Brignac at second with the guess that the bulk of Zobrist's time will be in right. However it shakes out, the Rays should be better offensively in 2010 than 2008, but not as good defensively.
Jason Bartlett '08 vs. Jason Bartlett '10
In 2008, Bartlett was the team MVP despite batting .286 with one homer and 37 RBIs. But timely hitting and solid defense made him the glue that held the Rays together. Well, those things haven't gone away, and Bartlett's offensive numbers took off last season — .320 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs. Even if his numbers slip a bit, he will be a better player this year than he was in 2008.
Evan Longoria '08 vs. Evan Longoria '10
Longoria has been a beast since he stepped onto a major-league field. But, don't forget, he didn't step onto a major-league field until after the 2008 season started. He played only 122 games the year the Rays went to the World Series. This is simple arithmetic, people. A 25-year-old with nearly 1,200 major-league plate appearances, as well as significant postseason experience, is better equipped to play at a high level than a rookie. He should have his best season ever.
Carl Crawford '08 vs. Carl Crawford '10
Actually, Crawford's 2008 season wasn't all that great. Not counting his rookie season in 2002 when he played just 63 games, Crawford posted career lows in batting average (.273) and stolen bases (25) in 2008. He missed a good chunk of that season with an injury and all of his offensive numbers were well below career averages. Last year, he rebounded with the performance of an All-Star, and now comes word that he spent the offseason working out like a demon. Crawford in 2010 should be way better than he was in 2008.
B.J. Upton '08 vs. B.J. Upton '10
Upton has become an enigma. Starting with his first full season in 2007, he has seen his average drop every year — from an impressive .300 to a respectable .273 to a disappointing .241. He hit more homers in 2007 (24) than he has hit in the past two seasons combined (20). It's hard to guess how he will be this year compared to 2008. On a positive note, his shoulder appears finally healthy, his defense has improved now that he has settled into a position and he has become of the league's better defensive outfielders.
Gabe Gross '08 vs. Ben Zobrist/Gabe Kapler
This was a weak spot on the 2008 team. Gross played the most games (127) but hit .242 with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs. Gabe Kapler continues to extend his career and should play against most lefthanded pitchers, although he is on the back end of his career. Look for Zobrist to get the most starts in right. Now the question is: was Zobrist's 2009 season (.297 BA, 27 HR, 91 RBIs) a one-year fluke or the start of a brilliant career? We're betting on the latter.
Dioner Navarro/Shawn Riggans '08 vs. Dioner Navarro/ Kelly Shoppach '10
Navarro had a spectacular 2008 season, hitting .295 and making the All-Star team. It seemed too good to be true, and maybe it was because he took a giant step backward last season, batting .218. Shoppach is a significant upgrade as the other catcher and should see plenty of action. He hit 43 homers the past two seasons, and he gives the 2010 Rays a bit of an advantage over the 2008 team.
The Rays' DH and bench situation in 2008 didn't have a lot of stars, but it did provide a lot of heroics. And it provided leadership, especially Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, Rocco Baldelli and Jonny Gomes. But this year's bench, led by Willie Aybar and Sean Rodriguez and, possibly, Reid Brignac, offers speed, power and versatility. DH Pat Burrell can't possibly be as bad as last season, can he? If Burrell improves at all from his 14 homers and 64 RBIs, the 2010 situation is as good as 2008, maybe better.
In 2008, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine combined to start 153 of the team's 162 games. That's remarkable, and fortuitous. All five starters in 2008 won at least 11, with Shields and Jackson winning 14. All had winning records. But then things went south. Kazmir and Jackson were traded, Sonnanstine lost his spot, Shields and Garza had disappointing 2009 seasons and only two of the starters in this year's rotation (David Price and Jeff Niemann) had winning records in 2009. You could argue that neither the 2008 rotation nor this one has a true No. 1 starter. The hope is Price, Niemann and fifth starter Wade Davis are only going to get better. But until Shields and, especially, Garza go to the next level, you can't say that this rotation is better than 2008.
This was a strength during the 2008 regular season with J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Trever Miller and closer Troy Percival. But the bullpen went to pieces after Percival broke down, and it was a problem that lingered into 2009. Now the Rays appear to have a dependable closer in Rafael Soriano. That changes everything. With Howell (depending on how long he is out) and Balfour back in setup roles and manager Joe Maddon able to work backward in the late innings, the bullpen again should be a strength and every bit as good as, if not better than, 2008.
We'll take this year's team. Barely. The Rays are better this year at shortstop, third base, leftfield — and potentially second base, rightfield and bullpen — than they were in 2008. We'll call first base, centerfield and even catcher even with enough evidence to expect this year's team could be better. But we still have questions about the starting rotation, the DH and catcher. Of course, injuries or unexpected bad seasons throw the comparisons out of whack. But, in the end, if these two teams played each other in a seven-game series, we would pick the 2010 Rays in seven games.