Rays of hope?

Look, I understand the nature of being optimistic when it concerns an exciting young team as we hurtle toward Opening Day. Last spring, I was one of the many who jumped on the Milwaukee Brewers bandwagon and thought they would be able to sustain the long run in the NL Central. They didn’t, but finished just two games off the pace, at 83-79, a marked improvement over recent years. Now they have Eric Gagne. I’m not as high on them.

The consensus is that this year’s surprise team will be the Tampa Bay Rays. New look (kind of), new name (not really), new attitude (Elijah Dukes, we hardly knew thee). OK, I’ll bite.

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The Rays boast a healthy amount of young talent, including Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, and former Cape Cod League MVP Evan Longoria, who could make an impact this season. Carlos Pena had a major rebound season in 2007, swatting 46 home runs. James Shields and Scott Kazmir provide a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.


Maybe this is the year it all comes together for the Rays, an annual refrain for certain, but one that may actually have some credence attached to it in 2008. They will see improvement. No doubt. I mean, they almost lost 100 games (96) last season. It’s kind of tough not to be better.
But 88 wins? Seriously?
That’s what the folks over at Baseball Prospectus seem to think, projecting the Greatest Season in Rays History, which really isn’t all that difficult a task. BP’s PECOTA system has predicted an 88-74 record for the perennial AL East basement dwellers, a 22-game improvement over 2007. If that is the case, then the division figures to be a four-team race for the first time in…well, a damn long time. BP has the Rays finishing third in the AL East, behind the Yankees and Red Sox.
Writes Nate Silver:

Forget about the ’87 Indians; the relevant team to consider here is the ’94 Tribe, which reversed a string of seven consecutive losing seasons by going 66-47 in a strike-shortened season. Like those Indians, who went on to win five straight division titles behind such rising stars as Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, the Rays have plenty of young mashers. Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña and B.J. Upton (all of them in their 20s) are already offensive stars. Third baseman Evan Longoria, BP’s third-ranked prospect, won’t be far behind; PECOTA projects a Ryan Zimmerman-caliber performance of 20 to 25 homers accompanied by Gold Glove-quality defense. Couple that with long-awaited mound reinforcements — hard-throwing Matt Garza, acquired from the Twins in the Delmon Young deal, will help immediately, and elite prospects David Price, Jacob McGee and Wade Davis could follow by season’s end — and it’s clear that these aren’t your father’s Rays.

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Forget Dad, they’re not my Rays if they win 88 games.
If this team is going to win almost 90 games, everything is going to have to go perfect for them. Tampa has never won more than 70 games in any season, and hasn’t finished higher than fourth place. The Rays play to more blue seats than any other team in Major League Baseball in arguably the worst professional place to play the game. If the Rays are competitive, can you imagine a sold out Tropicana Field (for games against anyone not from New York or Boston)? It’s such a foreign concept, I can’t quite even picture it. How would we even hear the home plate heckler? Brave New World indeed.
Now we learn that Kazmir is going to have to shut it down for two weeks with an elbow strain, not a huge concern on the doorstep to March, but could it be a possible harbinger of things to come? Speaking of Kazmir, the pitcher came off wildly charismatic in a radio interview he did recently, even politically tip-toeing around the question of how much he would make when he jumped ship to the Red Sox or Yankees in two years (at the 2:16 mark) and talking nice about former teammate Dukes afterward in an off-the-air moment.

After that, I’m not thinking so much about how much better the Rays will be in ’08, but how much the Red Sox are going to enjoy forking Manny Ramirez’s annual $20 million over to Kazmir.