If you had told the average person, before the season started, that the Rays (sans “Devil”) would be the best team in baseball by the end of June, they would probably think you were insane. After all, this is a team that has never had a winning season since the franchise was born in 1998 and has finished in last place in the American League East every year with the exception of 2004. Their payroll is miniscule (roughly $43 million) compared to the beasts of the East, Boston ($133 million) and New York ($207 million), and there are no clearly defined super-star players (although you might be able to make a case for Carl Crawford). Yet somehow this team has managed to become the best team in all of baseball.
It all starts with pitching. The trio of Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza are as good or better than any top three in baseball. And even more surprising, their salaries combined are roughly $5 million. Shocking, considering their combined salary is a mere fraction of such big names in their division as Andy Pettitte and Josh Beckett. And rounding out that starting rotation are other players coming into their own like Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine who give decent production for back of the rotation starters.
Then there’s the youth in the lineup. Young players like Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro give the team a spark of energy while veterans like Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske and Carl Crawford provide the leadership and experience. It’s a recipe for success. And not a single one of them makes more than $6 million a season, a far cry from other contracts in their division like Alex Rodriguez’s nearly $30 million per season. And considering the youth and affordability of the team, they should be able to remain competitive for years to come.
It’s a bit early to be sizing them up for World Series rings and some people are still waiting for them to come back down to earth at some point, but it’s impossible to deny that the Tampa Bay Rays are the next baseball powerhouse……something that’s lead to a great deal of friction between the Rays and the Boston Red Sox, resulting in brawls and threats between players.
After sweeping the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series and keeping the vast majority of the team intact, it looked like the Red Sox were going to run away with the AL East in 2008 and possibly be the first team to repeat a World Championship since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees won 3 in a row. But injuries and age have taken their toll on the Red Sox so far this season, slowing them down just enough for the Rays to nudge out ahead of them.
And the New York Yankees, perennial contenders, are a third place team at the moment after suffering injuries to key players and having their rookie pitchers fail to live up to expectations, with the exception of Joba Chamberlain. Even superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada have spent time on the Disabled List, leaving the Yankees in a position where they need to play “catch up” once again.
All of this has been a window of opportunity for an emerging team like the Rays who have, so far, managed to avoid any serious injuries that could impact the team. However, we’re only at the half-way point in the season and you can never count out teams like the Red Sox and Yankees who have shown resilience in the past and you have to wonder if perhaps the at some point the young Rays starters will burn themselves out. It should make the AL East one of the most exciting divisions in baseball for the remainder of 2008.
Posted originally: 2008-06-30 17:26:47