2009 MLB Preview: #6 Tampa Bay Rays

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Offseason Movement: The Rays hope the signing of OF/DH Pat Burrell will add a little more pop to their lineup, although it could sink their team batting average at the same time. The club also added a slew of pitchers including Lance Cormier, Jason Isringhausen, Joe Nelson and Brian Shouse, and acquired outfielder Matt Joyce from the Tigers in exchange for RHP Edwin Jackson.

Top Prospect: David Price, RHP
The Rays never seem to have a shortage of top prospects at their disposal and Price clearly tops a group that also includes RHP’s Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson. Some believe Price is the best pitching prospect in baseball and he should have gotten the opportunity to prove that this year at the big league level. But the Rays optioned the talented youngster to Triple-A Durham recently for reasons unknown to Price and the rest of the baseball world. Tampa could be regretting the decision if the Yankees and/or Red Sox take early lead in the highly competitive AL East.

The Big Question: Will B.J. Upton be healthy?
The 24-year old Upton proved how vital he was to the Rays last year when he led the club in on base percentage, doubles and stolen bases. He also absolutely raked in the playoffs, clubbing seven home runs and helping Tampa set a new team record for steals in a single postseason (22). But in mid November, Upton underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder and while he was recovering this spring, also suffered a bone bruise when he was hit on the hand by a pitch. He’ll likely miss Opening Day, but should be back sometime in mid April. Still, will the effects of either injury slow him down this season? Can the Rays get by with Ben Zobrist in center field until Upton recovers? If he misses significant time, the Rays could take a step back this year.

Outlook: After producing the single greatest season in club history, 2009 marks a vital year for the Rays. Why you ask? Because Tampa is now the model franchise, building their roster the way rosters should be built. They slowly developed prospects instead of signing big name free agents. They won with youth and are built for the long haul. And most importantly, they’re the anti-Yankees and Red Sox in every sense of the word. B.J. Upton’s injuries aside, the Rays should be better than they were a year ago. Upton, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine have yet another year of experience under their belts and thus should lift the Rays right back into contender status. This club didn’t lose much in the offseason either, and even signed free agent Pat Burrell to give the middle of the lineup some added pop. But obviously things will be different this year. The Rays won’t sneak up on anybody and both the Yankees and Red Sox retooled in the offseason. New York and Boston have been consistently winning for years. It’s time for the Rays to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke and they don’t go the way of the ’08 Tigers and Indians.

Projection: 3rd AL East

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