Rays Colored Glasses: A Look Ahead by Looking Behind
Tampa finished the 2011 spring training with a winning record for only the fourth time in team history. The three other times were 2004 (10-8,) 2008 (18-8,) and 2010 (20-8.)
Of course we all know what happened in the 2008 and 2010 seasons; AL East Division championships and a trip to the playoffs, including an amazing trip to the World Series in 2008.
2004 was a bit of a blip year as well. While it was also during those years when the Rays were, in a word, pathetic, the 70 wins was a record for most wins that held up until the 2008 season that shocked the baseball world.
Why does this matter? The Rays have been much-maligned this past off-season after losing several pieces of the 2010 AL East Division champion team. The well-documented losses of Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford and the bullpen almost in its entirety has given the baseball world reason to doubt the Rays this season. Essentially it boils down to this – Boston is loaded; the Yankees can reload with the fattest wallet in the game and a management team that exudes the “Just win baby” mentality of former owner George Steinbrenner, and even Toronto has shown a willingness to open up the check book if their team is in contention around mid-season.
The Rays on the other hand are one of the most frugal teams in baseball. Fan support is hampered by an economy that is one of the worst in the nation; near 12% unemployment and one in five homes facing or already in foreclosure. A battle over an antiquated stadium sitting on (as many will claim) the wrong side of the Bay gives the owners little leeway. After spending on stadium improvements and pumping money into the roster that was never supported by ticket sales over the past three years something had to give.
The Rays, all the pundits are saying, are broke and will be lucky to finish in third place once the dust settles. With Toronto and Baltimore both making savvy moves in the off-season, the AL East looks like the toughest division in baseball.
Sitting here at my laptop with my Joe Maddon-framed Rays Colored Glasses, I’m looking at the tea leaves and dog-earing my copy of “The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First” and seeing a different, if slightly subjective outcome. Boston looks loaded but the Yankees are hurting. Between the young, unproven arms and recycled former stars like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, they don’t look as energetic as the 2011 group of misfits and up-and-coming stars that boast the enigmatic Maddon at the helm. I think any challenge is more likely to come from a cleverly-crafted Toronto Blue Jays team, but in the end the Rays prevail, win 90 games and the AL Wild Card.
The final clue? Why, the corollation of winning spring training records is the harbinger I was looking for to finalize my analysis as we move into the regular season. That will be this Friday night, at the Trop, with David Price on the mound facing off against the Baltimore Orioles and Jeremy Guthrie.
Finally we can say — once more — let the games begin.