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Tampa Bay Rays one bat away from 2012 World Series

One bat. That's all it will take.

One bat. And I like the Rays better than the Yankees or Red Sox.

One bat. And I think Tampa Bay is back in the World Series in 2012.

Is that an overly simplified view? Sure it is. It's probably overly optimistic, too. Getting to the playoffs is the real challenge. Making it to the World Series is a roll of the dice.

But here, in the safety of the offseason, it is easier to make a case for success. To see more potential than flaws, and to imagine comebacks and breakthroughs all around.

And what I see today is a team that might have the best starting rotation in the American League. A team that plays defense better than any other. A team that could be one middle-of-the-order bat away from glory.

Now admittedly, prophecy is not my strong suit. I'm the guy who said the Rays couldn't catch the Red Sox this past season. I thought the Bucs would go 9-7, and I didn't think Nucky would pull the trigger on Boardwalk Empire.

So keep that in mind as you continue to read. Smirk, scoff or raise an eyebrow, and I will not blame you. But at the same time, keep an open mind when you view this roster.

And consider that the Rays took an expected step backward last season and still managed to win 91 games because they were better at preventing runs than any team in the league.

A season later, there is no need to worry about cutting salaries. In fact, the payroll will go up. The Rays were in the $41 million vicinity in 2011 and should jump to the $50 million range in 2012. If the right deal presents itself, they could stretch to $55 million.

That means this offseason should be more like the winter of 2009 or '10, when the Rays were willing to take strategic gambles such as adding Pat Burrell at $8 million a season and Rafael Soriano at $7.25 million. The Rays won't hand a four- or five-year deal to a 30-something free agent, but they might take on a two-year commitment for the right veteran.

What does that mean in practical terms?

There are too many possibilities to count. It could mean they are waiting to see if the market fails to develop for a Carlos Peña or a Carlos Beltran and the Rays offer a fat salary on a short-term deal. It could mean they are looking for a veteran at the tail end of a contract, a la Paul Konerko. It could mean they go for younger guys who are less proven but provide a larger window of control.

It won't be a shortstop. And it won't be a catcher, although chances are they will find a lower-priced veteran to split time with Jose Molina.

That leaves first base and designated hitter. And because the Rays put such a premium on defense, there's probably a good chance they sacrifice some power at first base and take a shot at re-signing Casey Kotchman.

Which leaves DH. In some ways, that gives Tampa Bay a wide canvas to work on because defense isn't a concern. But after the Burrell fiasco, the Rays might be inclined to go with someone who has proven he can adjust to a role as a one-dimensional player.

Whatever route they go, the Rays are going to find another bat. And I'm guessing it will be a bat of some consequence. This team is simply too good to do otherwise.

The lesson of recent Oakland and Minnesota teams is that a low-revenue team needs to capitalize when it has a chance. The Rays have done a fine job of balancing today with tomorrow, but that can't go on forever. At some point, you go for broke.

That doesn't mean selling off your best prospects. And that doesn't mean spending so foolishly that you're handicapped for years to come. But there are times a calculated risk is worth the chance.

That's what the Rays did in 2010 when the payroll eclipsed $70 million. And that's what they did when they signed closer Troy Percival and Burrell.

The reality is no team in the American League gave up fewer runs than the Rays in 2010-11. And there is no reason to believe that trend won't continue in 2012.

Barring injuries, the pitching rotation will be just as good, if not better. With Molina behind the plate, the defense is also potentially better.

That leaves the offense. The Rays need an upgrade in the middle of the order. They cannot count on making the postseason with 91 wins again. And if they make the postseason, they cannot afford any more 4-3 losses.

The dividing line of success in the playoffs in the AL the past five seasons was from three to four runs. Teams with three runs went 4-15. Teams with four runs were 11-8.

In three postseason appearances, the Rays scored three runs or less in 12 of their 25 games. And they were 1-11 in those games. In other words, the rotation is not enough.

So another bat is needed. A consistent bat. A formidable bat.

One more bat and everything could change.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8811.

Tampa Bay Rays one bat away from 2012 World Series 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 9:53pm]
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