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Tampa Bay Rays look like a contender; here's what could go wrong

They are going to be nine levels of wonderful. Of course they are.

But what if they aren't?

For months now, analysts have written sonnets to the talent of the Tampa Bay Rays. Why, they have perhaps the best rotation in baseball. No one plays defense the way they do. They will have more power than last year. Assuredly, they will make a run at the postseason.

But what if they don't?

What if this season turns out to be the 2009 fizzle all over again?

This is baseball, and sometimes, things go wrong. Someone gets injured, and someone has a bad year, and before you know it, a team underachieves. In a game with screwballs, success is never guaranteed.

So, yeah, it could happen here, too. Remember 2009? The Rays were fresh off their World Series season, and a lot of experts liked the look of that team, too. That was the year the Rays hung their first playoff banner then spent the first month of the season looking up to admire it.

By the time the World Series hangover wore off, the team was essentially out of the race. The lights flickered, and a bad case of third place broke out.

Let's face it: By and large, the Rays seem to do better when they can sneak up on a season. In 2008, no one expected much from the Rays. They had never won more than 70 games. Who expected a 97-win season and a trip to the World Series?

By the same token, after the 2009 season landed foul, who knew what to expect in 2010? That team made the playoffs, too.

Then came last year, when the Rays roster was depleted after Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, Rafael Soriano and others left town. Expectations were meager. Yet, in a historic comeback, the Rays made the post-season again.

Which leads us to this year and to the very high expectations that come with it.

What can go wrong?

1. The bad injury, for one. True, a lot of teams in baseball can say this. However, the Rays still spend less than any team in the division, which means they have the least money to throw at a problem.

2. In particular, the Rays cannot afford any more trouble with David Price and his Attack Towels.

3. A bad start. Time and again, Rays manager Joe Maddon has stressed how much this team needs to start fast. That won't be easy. Of the Rays' first 22 games, 16 are against the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels and Rangers.

Nevertheless, the Rays can't afford a sluggish start. In the underachievement of 2009, the Rays were only 8-14 in their first 22. In their playoff seasons, the Rays have been 11-11, 17-5 and 11-11.

4. What if the Yankees, like, really try this time?

5. A bad journey. When the Rays have been good, they've been good everywhere. In their three playoff seasons, they have averaged almost 44 victories on the road. In 2009, they went 32-49, which was 20 games worse than their home record.

6. Bases loaded, Josh Hamilton at the plate, and J.P. Howell still doesn't sound like a good idea.

7. A spring hangover. In their three playoff seasons, the Rays averaged 17 victories in spring training. This year, they had 10.

8. A bad night. How about Luke Scott Gun Giveaway night at the Trop?

9. The Red Sox … this year, only the game is on tap.

10. Closing time. Perhaps the biggest surprise of last season was the way the Rays' patchwork bullpen came together. Only Detroit and Philadelphia blew fewer saves. Only Philly and San Francisco gave up fewer earned runs. Only five bullpens had a lower batting average against.

The secret: No team worked their bullpen less. The Rays' starters consistently went deep into games, which left the team as the only one in baseball where the relievers worked fewer than 400 innings.

So what's the worry? For one, it's the nature of the position. It's harder to predict success from a relief pitcher than anyone else. For another, this still isn't the highest profile bullpen in the league. There isn't a designated closer. Howell still has to prove he's healthy, and Kyle Farnsworth will start the season on the disabled list.

All of this, I am sure, is needless worry. Why, the Rays are going to hit the switch once the regular season is going and sail to, say, 94 victories. The pitching will be sharp, and the defense will be dazzling, and the playoffs are there for the taking.

Aren't they?

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

112

The number of times Rays manager Joe Maddon used his relievers on consecutive days during the 2011 season.Maddon, who has led all American League managers in this category for the past three seasons, has been able to use his relievers in bursts rather than stretches thanks in part to how deep Rays starters pitch into games. In 2009, Rays relievers threw the second-fewest innings in baseball (457-1/3), in 2010, they threw the eighth-fewest (454); and in 2011, they threw the fewest (391). Still, Maddon has employed the strategy successfully and without burning out his relievers, even while working last season with a remade bullpen that early on lacked traditionally defined roles ("closer," "setup man"). Rays relievers held opponents to a .228 batting average in 2010 (fourth-best) and .232 in 2011 (sixth-best). -— Thomas Bassinger-



Tampa Bay Rays look like a contender; here's what could go wrong 04/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 5, 2012 9:15pm]
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