Buzzing on Yahoo Sports:

Big League Stew

Spring Snapshot: Renovated Rays seek success with pared payroll

Big League Stew

View gallery

.

rays1

Every day in spring training until we finish the entire league, Big League Stew takes a brief capsule look at each team we visit in the Grapefruit and Cactus league. Next team up is the Tampa Bay Rays, who face the challenge of continuing their renaissance with a retooled team.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

2010 RECORD: 96-66, 1st in AL East, lost to Texas in ALDS

BIGGEST ACQUISITION: The Rays saved their two biggest headlines for one day in January, reuniting Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez for a total somewhere over $7 million.

BIGGEST DEPARTURES: It's strange to say that a split that involved bolting to a division rival for $142 million could ever be handled amicably, but left fielder Carl Crawford and the Rays come as close as possible. There are lots of pragmatic folks down there in St. Pete who knew their team simply couldn't afford the contract he had earned over the past decade.

FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT THE RAYS:

1. Other than Crawford, who also missed bed check this offseason? It might be easier to list who didn't, because the Rays followed through on their promises to slash the payroll from about $70 million in 2010 to about $41 million this season. Of course, the carnage wasn't pretty. Pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett were traded elsewhere, while four key bullpen components (Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour) and first baseman Carlos Pena walked to free agency without a fight. Those players who remain can't complain about it too much, however: The change on the roster a fact of life for the small-market, still-waiting-for-a-new-stadium Rays and they can take solace in the fact that GM Andrew Friedman has proved himself adept at doing more with less. This year will rank as a true test of his talents. {YSP:MORE}

2. Wait, there are still reasons to be optimistic? Of course there are. While the loss of Crawford and the others will sting, the Rays are still enjoying the fruits of all those high draft picks they acquired during the years they were terrible. Their rotation, led by David Price after a breakout season in 2010, is young, talented and, most importantly, cheap. Joe Maddon even thinks it can match up with the highly-touted staff up in Philly. Elsewhere, big expectations are being placed upon the shoulders of top outfielding prospect Desmond Jennings, who should eventually take the place of Crawford in left (though it's possible he'll start the season in Triple-A with Damon in the fold for a year).

View gallery

.

rays2

3. Is this the year Evan Longoria wins MVP? It seems Longoria is on a path to eventually being named his league's top player and the Rays' young third baseman will have a couple of extra things going for him in 2011 after finishing sixth in the 2010 voting. Namely, these Rays will be seen as "his" team now that Crawford went shipping up to Boston and he'd likely get a big boost in the vote if the Rays somehow nab a playoff spot. Being a virtual lock for his third straight Gold Glove in the AL won't hurt in tiebreaker matters, either.

That said, his power numbers will need to come up from 2010's totals (22 homers, .507 SLG) for Longo to put a real serious claim on his first MVP award.

4. What's up with Ben Zobrist? After becoming fantasy's biggest darling in 2009, Tampa Bay's switch-hitting Mr. Everything became a statistical goat in 2010. His numbers fell across the board (his OPS dropped from .948 to .699) and the three-year contract extension he signed at the beginning of the year started to look a little more questionable than it should have. This season will be a big one for Zobrist, though he could face another wrinkle in trying to perform a bounceback — the Rays are thinking about batting him leadoff, a spot where he batted .219 in 26 games last season.

5. Bottom line: How many games will the Rays win in 2011? Baseball Prospectus currently has them tabbed for 84 wins, good for third in the AL East. It's interesting to see the numbers take the middle of the road, because I heard someone (can't remember who) say that this team is either going to win over 90 or land in the 70s somewhere. The fall apart scenario is plausible, given the Rays' reliance on the aging talents of Damon and Ramirez. Still, the pitching staff is good enough to nab Tampa Bay about 88 wins, good enough for that dreaded (and useless) third-place spot in the AL East.

View Comments (0)