Mar 18, 2014; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Wil Myers (9) is congratulated after scoring against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at Hammond Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Is This the Best Rays Opening Day Roster Ever?

Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day has arrived, and what an excited Opening Day it is. The Rays enter the season as a World Series favorite after holding onto David Price, re-signing James Loney, trading for Ryan Hanigan and Heath Bell, and signing Grant Balfour. There is only one problem: we have seen this story before. Entering last season, the Rays were also a World Series favorite, but an inconsistent bullpen and an offense that disappeared from mid-August to mid-September meant that the Rays had to scramble their way to a Wild Card. Will this season be any different? Let’s compare the Rays’ Opening Day rosters since the 2008 name change and see if this team truly deserves the hype. One thing worth noting: we are judging the rosters based on what we would have thought entering the season, not based on how the teams actually turned out.

Starting Rotation

2008: 1. Scott Kazmir, 2. James Shields, 3. Matt Garza, 4. Andy Sonnanstine, 5. Edwin Jackson (plus Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel replacing Kazmir to begin the year)

2009: 1. Scott Kazmir, 2. James Shields, 3. Matt Garza, 4. Jeff Niemann, 5. Andy Sonnanstine

2010: 1. James Shields, 2. Matt Garza, 3. Jeff Niemann, 4. David Price, 5. Wade Davis

2011: 1. David Price, 2. James Shields, 3. Wade Davis, 4.  Jeff Niemann, 5. Jeremy Hellickson

2012: 1. James Shields, 2. David Price, 3. Jeremy Hellickson, 4. Matt Moore, 5. Jeff Niemann

2013: 1. David Price, 2. Jeremy Hellickson, 3. Matt Moore, 4. Alex Cobb, 5. Roberto Hernandez

2014: 1. David Price, 2. Alex Cobb, 3. Matt Moore, 4. Chris Archer, 5. Jake Odorizzi (plus Jeremy Hellickson when he’s ready)

The same names appear over and over again here, but a few rotations immediately distinguish themselves. This year’s rotation is the only group with three potential ace-type pitchers and 2012 had both James Shields and David Price primed for great years. 2008 had question marks from the start (that wound up resolving themselves quite well), 2009 did not have much beyond the top three, 2010 seemed to lack an ace (until Price emerged), and 2013 was David Price and then no clear number two. At the end of the day, 2012 Shields and Price probably beat out 2014 Price and Cobb, but 2014 comes out ahead by a solid margin in spots three and four.

The Rankings: 1. 2014, 2. 2012, 3. 2010, 4. 2013, 5. 2011, 6. 2009, 7. 2008 

Bullpen

2008: Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Trever Miller

2009: Troy Percival, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate, Lance Cormier

2010: Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Andy Sonnanstine…

2011: Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Juan Cruz, Andy Sonnanstine, Adam Russell

2012: Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth, J.P. Howell, Jake McGee, Burke Badenhop

2013: Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Jamey Wright, Kyle Farnsworth, Cesar Ramos

2014: Grant Balfour, Joel Peralta, Heath Bell, Jake McGee, Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos, Josh Lueke

That 2008 bullpen looked like every relief corps from the D-Rays era until Howell and Balfour delivered huge years. After they came together, the Rays entered 2009 thinking their bullpen would be a huge strength. 2010 was a little unproven–remember than Joaquin Benoit didn’t come up until the end of April–but Soriano gave it star power at closer. 2011 was extremely questionable, as was 2012, but 2013 was coming off one of the best bullpens of all time. 2014 has the best name recognition, but it is hard to argue with 2009 or 2013. 2013 gets the nod because Percival was a question mark at closer for 2009.

The Rankings: 1. 2013, 2. 2009, 3. 2014, 4. 2010, 5. 2012, 6. 2011, 7. 2008

Catcher: Dioner Navarro (2008 to 2010), Kelly Shoppach/John Jaso (2011), Jose Molina/Jose Lobaton (2012 to 2013), Ryan Hanigan 2014

Ryan Hanigan is the best catcher the Tampa Bay Rays ever had. His only competition is Dioner Navarro 2009 after Navarro was an All-Star in 2008, but Navarro never had Hanigan’s defensive capabilities.

The Rankings: 1. 2014, 2. 2009, 3. 2011, 4. 2008, 5. 2013, 6. 2010, 7. 2012

First Base: Carlos Pena (2008 to 2010, 2012), Dan Johnson (2011), James Loney (2013 to 2014)

This one isn’t even a contest. Carlos Pena was unbelievable in 2007 and the Rays were expecting big things in 2008. By 2010, though, we already knew he was going to hit for a very low average, so that’s where James Loney 2014  can sneak in.

The Rankings: 1. 2008, 2. 2009, 3. 2014, 4. 2010, 5. 2012, 6. 2013, 7. 2011

Second Base: Akinori Iwamura (2008 to 2009), Sean Rodriguez (2010), Ben Zobrist (2011 to 2014)

2010 would win this one in a landslide…if Ben Zobrist was at second base. Instead, we’ll have to wait until we get to right field. Zobrist was coming off a mediocre 2010, so 2011 is out, and we can say the same about 2014, albeit to a lesser extent. It comes down to 2012 or 2013, and 2013 just gets the nod because Zobrist was coming off a better season.

The Rankings: 1. 2013, 2. 2012, 3. 2014, 4. 2011, 5. 2010, 6. 2008, 7. 2009

Third Base: Evan Longoria (2008 to 2014)

Technically, Evan Longoria wasn’t the Rays’ Opening Day third baseman, but he came up so quickly we’ll include him anyway. We can eliminate the 2012 and 2013 Longoria’s after injury-plagued seasons, and the 2008 version was unproven. Entering 2011, Longoria had established himself as a star, and 2010 comes in right behind after his huge rookie year. 2014 is still an excellent player, but his injuries are still in the back of our minds.

The Rankings: 1. 2011, 2. 2010, 3. 2009, 4. 2014, 5. 2008, 6. 2012, 7. 2013

Shortstop: Jason Bartlett (2008 to 2010), Reid Brignac (2011), Sean Rodriguez (2012), Yunel Escobar (2013-2014)

2009 Bartlett was outstanding, so 2010 has to be the choice here. 2011, 2012, and even 2013 had clear question marks, and we didn’t quite know what to expect in 2008. (Although honestly we thought Brignac would be fine in 2011.) Entering 2009, meanwhile, we were not sure how much Bartlett would hit. 2014 Yunel Escobar slots in behind 2010 Bartlett.

The Rankings: 1. 2010, 2. 2014, 3. 2009, 4. 2013, 5. 2008, 6. 2011, 7. 2012

Left Field: Carl Crawford (2008 to 2010), Sam Fuld (2011), Desmond Jennings (2012), Kelly Johnson (2013), David DeJesus (2014)

You can’t go wrong with Crawford. The Rays’ highest hopes for him were 2008, when he was a 26 year old who only seemed to get better every year. He suffered through injuries for the first time in 2008, but the Rays were still expecting a big rebound in 2009. Behind Crawford, we have Jennings, who was excellent to end 2011, and then finally DeJesus.

The Rankings: 1. 2008, 3. 2010, 2. 2009, 4. 2012, 5. 2014, 6. 2013, 7. 2011

Centerfield: B.J. Upton (2008 to 2012), Desmond Jennings (2013 to 2014)

B.J. Upton’s star shown brightest entering 2008 after an excellent performance in his first full season in 2007. Then after a good but not great season, he was unbelievable in the 2008 postseason, giving the Rays hope he would finally break out. Things looked the worse for Upton after 2009 before he had a great year in 2010. At best, Jennings trails every Upton but 2010.

The Rankings: 1. 2008, 2. 2009, 3. 2012, 4. 2011, 5. 2013, 6. 2010, 7. 2014

Right Field: Eric Hinske/Jonny Gomes (2008), Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler (2009), Ben Zobrist (2010), Matt Joyce (2011 to 2013), Wil Myers (2014)

The only challenger to this season’s Wil Myers is Ben Zobrist from 2010, but Myers’ talent is unquestioned while we wondered whether Zobrist was a fluke. We’ll give Myers the slight edge

The Rankings: 1. 2014, 2. 2010, 3. 2012, 4. 2013, 5. 2011, 6. 2008, 7. 2009

Designated Hitter: Cliff Floyd (2008), Pat Burrell (2009 to 2010), Johnny Damon (2011), Luke Scott (2012), Shelley Duncan until Luke Scott came back (2013), Matt Joyce/Sean Rodriguez (2014)

We’re not going to count the whole Manny Ramirez fiasco and just put Damon at designated hitter. Overall, the Rays had to most confident in Burrell 2009 (before he turned out to be a total flop), and Damon was the only one of the rest coming off a solid season other than Joyce/Rodriguez. Love Joyce or hate him, he has hit extremely well over the years–certainly better than the aging players the Rays have had at DH over the years–and spotting him versus righties could give the Rays a nice DH situation.

The Rankings: 1. 2009, 2, 2014, 3. 2011, 4. 2012, 5. 2008, 6. 2010, 7. 2013

Bench: 

2008: Willy Aybar, Jonny Gomes, Justin Ruggiano, Shawn Riggans

2009: Ben Zobrist, Willy Aybar, Greg Zaun, Gabe Kapler

2010: Willy Aybar, Reid Brignac, Gabe Kapler, Kelly Shoppach

2011: Sean Rodriguez, Kelly Shoppach, Felipe LopezElliot Johnson

2012: Jeff Keppinger, Elliot Johnson, Sam Fuld, Chris Gimenez

2013: Sean Rodriguez, Jose Lobaton, Sam Fuld, Ryan Roberts

2014: Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, Brandon Guyer, Jose Molina

The 2009 Rays had Ben Zobrist on their bench after his huge 2008 in part-time play, so it is clearly the best. After that, though, can any year compare to 2014? 2008 and 2011 had several mediocre players and little was expected for 2012 before Keppinger and Johnson played well. 2010 and 2013 were both impressive, but 2014 is still a notch ahead.

The Rankings: 1. 2009, 2. 2014, 3. 2010, 4. 2013, 5. 2012, 6. 2008, 7. 2011

Summing up the totals, 2014 does indeed come in first with 61 points (with 7 points for first down to 1 for seventh). Especially notable, though, is who finished second: 2009, the worst Rays team of the seven years. 2010 did finish third, but the Rays’ other two playoff teams, 2008 and 2011, finished just 6th and 7th respectively. Having a good roster to begin the season is one thing, and having your players live up to expectations is something entirely different. This 2014 Rays Opening Day roster might be the most talented in the history of the franchise, but will it go down as the best when it is all said and done? We will begin finding this afternoon as the Rays take on the Toronto Blue Jays to begin the season.

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