Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Tampa Bay Rays.
2008 record: 97-65
Finish: First place in the American League East; AL champions
2008 opening-day payroll: $43.7 million
2009 estimated opening-day payroll: $60 million
It ranks as one of the surreal moments of this winter: Brian Cashman, general manager of the mighty Yankees, declaring that the team had no choice but to spend hundreds of millions on free-agent signings just to catch up with the once lowly Rays.
Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman, who must operate with a few more financial constraints, did not have as spectacular an offseason as the Yankees. But a team that improved by 31 wins in 2008 – the greatest single-season improvement in big-league history – has made some potentially significant upgrades to a team whose history of misery seems a distant memory.
Friedman addressed the team's need for a right-handed bat in the middle of the lineup by signing Pat Burrell, who played left field for the world champion Phillies but will slide into the DH role for the Rays while occasionally spelling Carl Crawford in left. Burrell, who came as a relative bargain (two years, $16 million) has averaged 31 home runs, 99 RBIs and 103 walks over the last four seasons and is still just 32.
With Rocco Baldelli leaving to sign with his hometown Boston Red Sox, Friedman added Gabe Kapler, who came out of a one-year retirement to slug .622 against lefties, with 10 doubles and four home runs in just 82 plate appearances in 2008. Kapler will give the Rays veteran leadership lost in the departures of Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske, and he can also play center if B.J. Upton needs extra time to recover from surgery on his left (nonthrowing) shoulder.
To a bullpen that led the league last season with 31 wins, Friedman brought in a fresh arm with the signing of the non-tendered veteran Joe Nelson, who last season led the Marlins' bullpen in strikeouts with 60 in 54 innings and also posted a 2.00 ERA. Nelson should prove especially valuable if closer Troy Percival has trouble recovering from back surgery.
And with arms to spare, Friedman also traded arbitration-eligible right-hander Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for left-handed hitting outfielder Matt Joyce, a 24-year-old who had a .509 slugging percentage against right-handers and will challenge Gabe Gross for playing time in right field.
The Rays, according to defensive metrics cited by Hardball Times, improved by 113 runs last season, a spectacular jump made possible when they acquired Jason Bartlett to play shortstop, installed rookie Evan Longoria at third, moved Akinori Iwamura to second, and shifted Upton to center field. Rays senior advisor Don Zimmer, for one, does not blush when he compares Longoria to Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, and Bartlett's steady defense led to his surprise selection as the team's MVP by the local baseball writers chapter.
The rotation, anchored by James Shields and Matt Garza, enjoyed uncommonly good health in 2008 – the team's primary five starters made 153 starts last season. Left-hander Scott Kazmir will attempt to reclaim his previous status as staff ace, while left-hander David Price, who exploded onto the national scene during the postseason as a reliever, will make a bid to take the rotation spot vacated by Jackson. The Rays may decide to proceed cautiously and begin Price in Triple-A, a luxury made possible by their abundance of young arms, with Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis both angling for a regular turn. The bullpen remains a strength, with enough closer types for manager Joe Maddon to continue to employ the committee approach if Percival's comeback falters.
It's hard not to predict some slippage for the Rays after their magical run in 2008, which included having the best home run record in the league (57-24), a 29-18 record in one-run games that was second only to the Angels and a 43-29 record in the AL East. Those marks will be difficult to duplicate, but with Burrell joining a lineup that has superstars in the making in Longoria and Upton, speed at the top in Iwamura and Crawford, raw power in Carlos Pena and quality behind the plate in Dioner Navarro, the Rays will take their chances against anybody.
Next: Pittsburgh Pirates