In 2010, the best teams in all of Major League Baseball came from the East Division in each league. Both divisions were home to the wild card winners, the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees. They were also home to baseball’s two best records, 97 by the Philadelphia Phillies and 96 by the Tampa Bay Rays. What fate awaits the monsters of last year’s regular season? Will these teams once again be playing in October?
The simple answer for the Phillies is yes. In fact, anything short of a second World Series championship in four seasons—having won in 2008—would be an utter disappointment. A starting rotation like the Phillies had last season made Charlie Manuel’s managing job easy. His club posted 14 complete games, the most in the Major Leagues. Managing a bullpen is certainly easier when your starters are going deep into games. This will not change for Manuel as he will still have the three staff aces; Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, who carried Philadelphia to the playoffs.
In addition, the most coveted pitching free agent, Cliff Lee, will return to the city of brotherly love. Lee has an impressive résumé. Starting in Cleveland, he won the Cy Young award in 2008 and then was traded to the Phillies where he took them on a deep playoff run in 2009, posting a 4-0 record with a 1.56 ERA. In 2010, Lee went on another impressive postseason run with the Texas Rangers. He has proven he is a big-game pitcher, and his addition to the Phillies easily gives them the best rotation in all of baseball.
Jayson Werth abandoned right field at Citizens Bank Park in favor of Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The Nationals gave Werth a seven-year $126 million contract, a price the Phillies could come nowhere near matching. Instead, someone they may rely on is Dominic Brown, the number three outfield prospect in all of baseball. He has raw power, speed and a great arm. He will compete in spring training the for right field spot. There should not be too much pressure on Brown, as Philadelphia has plenty of other bats in its lineup capable of producing runs: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins to name a few. This is a well-balanced team and is the only one you can confidently say will win its division.
The Rays, on the other hand, have lost a ton of talent; the simple answer is that they will not be playing in October. Their situation, however, is not so simple. Yes, they lost key members of their offense in Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, they lost several pieces in their bullpen, and they even lost starting pitcher Matt Garza—who was the first Ray to ever throw a no-hitter—in a trade with the Chicago Cubs, but there are answers to most of these losses. The answers are not sure to get them into the playoffs, especially considering how difficult the A.L. East is, but they will be far from the fifth-place bust others have projected.
Tampa Bay is a small-market team and as a result it is unable to spend vast amounts of money on free agents. The Rays have had to develop and trade for a lot of their talent and have been successful doing it. But they cannot keep their players once they become stars and hit free agency. This is why they have lost so much talent this season. The biggest loss they have suffered was left fielder Carl Crawford who had a career year in 2010 in home runs with 19 and RBIs with 90 while winning his first Gold Glove. As a result, he signed a mammoth 7-year contract worth $142 million with the Boston Red Sox. The Rays knew this day was coming, and to take his place they have Desmond Jennings, the number four outfield prospect in all of baseball. Jennings is the prototypical lead-off batter, showing his speed in the minors with 171 stolen bases over five seasons in the Rays system. The Rays have also signed Johnny Damon to take some of the pressure off Jennings. The other departure from their lineup is power first baseman Carlos Pena. Manny Ramirez will help replace the power void left by Pena. An aging ManRam (he turns 39 this season) may not hit 28 home runs like Pena did last season, but he will have a better average than Pena’s woeful .196.
In the rotation, losing Matt Garza will not be too difficult to overcome; Tampa actually needed to open a rotation spot up for top prospect Jeremy Hellickson, who is ready for the Major Leagues. He started four games for the Rays last season and appeared in six others. He will be relied on this season as a 5th starter, but he projects to eventually be their number 2 starter behind David Price. The real hole on the pitchers mound at Tropicana Field comes in the later innings. In fact, the only reliever returning from last season is Andy Sonnanstine. The four most difficult losses were closer Rafael Soriano to the New York Yankees, and set-up men Grant Balfour to the Oakland Athletics, Joaquin Benoit to the Detroit Tigers and Dan Wheeler to the Boston Red Sox. With that, the Tampa Bay Rays’ pen has gone from being a strength to a giant question mark. Kyle Farnsworth, most recently pitching with the Braves, was signed to help ease the loss of these guys. The Rays are still looking for a closer, and some of their minor league depth may have to fill in some holes. Manager Joe Maddon will have to get creative with the bullpen next season.
If the Rays want to repeat as division champions or even have a shot at playing meaningful games in September, someone will need to stand up in the bullpen. If they played in the American League Central or West I might even choose them as a favorite for the division. The doom forecast for this group is far-fetched. Realistically, they should win about 86 games which should be good for 3rd in the tough A.L. East. Any more wins will mean their bullpen has—to use a baseball metaphor—stepped up to the plate.