It was the stuff of a Disney movie. A bunch of perennial cellar-dwellers serendipitously came together as a team, and with hard-work, suffering, and a lot of bad hairstyles, rose to the top of the American league. Except the Rays' success had nothing to do with being loose or bonding or any of that other mushy stuff - it was about talent, luck, and intelligent team construction.
The Rays' transformation had several aspects. Foremost was defense. In a single year, they went from being a poor defensive team to the best in the majors. One of the quickest measures of team defense is Defensive Efficiency, which gives the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs. The 2008 Rays led baseball in that category with a .710 rating. The additions of Evan Longoria and Jason Bartlett to the infield helped improve the defense.
Another major factor in Tampa's worst-to-first metamorphosis was a phenomenal bullpen. The good defense contributed to this, but the Rays also had career years from Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell, and strong performances from Chad Bradford and Dan Wheeler.
Finally, the 2008 Rays were the beneficiaries of wise trades (especially the deal with the Twins that netted Matt Garza and Bartlett) and low-risk acquisitions that succeeded. Carlos Pena is the Rays' David Ortiz - a player acquired for basically nothing who flourished in his new environment. General Manager Andrew Friedman and his team deserve a lot of credit for remaking the franchise into a competitor.
Enough with the retrospective - what can we expect from the 2009 squad?
The Rays' starting pitching and defense should remain strong. The starting three of Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and James Shields, is better than that of most MLB teams. Andy Sonnanstine reminds me a bit of Wakefield, in that he doesn't throw hard but gets good results. Worst of all, the Rays have David Price, arguably the best pitching prospect in the game, waiting in the wings to use. And with virtually the same cast of characters in the field, there is no reason for their defense to be any worse.
The Rays, for all their young talent, could use a better offense. Last year they were 9th in the league in runs scored. Adding Pat "the Bat" Burrell certainly helps, but DH wasn't that bad a position for the Rays last year (94 OPS+, 24 HR). We can probably expect some regression from Dioner Navarro, and the Rays are likely to miss Eric Hinske (107 OPS+), who hit well for them. Nevertheless, the Rays should be better offensively this coming season - I'd guess they'll score 790-800 runs (an improvement of 15-25 runs over 2008's totals), thanks to improved hitting by Upton and Longoria. Looking to the upcoming series, B J Upton is out on the DL (he'll be back soon), but the rest of their lineup should be normal.
The bigger issue is the bullpen. Looking at the active roster, it isn't terribly pretty. Brian Shouse and Troy Percival are 40 and 39, respectively. Balfour and Howell are due for some massive, painful regression to the mean. Recent acquisition Joe Nelson, another guy on the wrong side of 30, has never pitched two consecutive years in the majors. The Rays' best bets for effective relief are Dan Wheeler, and possibly David Price, although he really belongs in the rotation. Relief pitching is almost inherently chaotic, but I think the Rays' bullpen has the potential to not only be bad, but to be phenomenally so.
How the Red Sox Can Beat Them
Outlast the starters, outhit the offense, and overpower the bullpen. Being healthier come playoff-time would also be a good idea - Boston really needed Lowell, Ortiz and Beckett to be at full strength for last year's ALCS. That the Sox almost won nonetheless is a testament to their talent.
Last year's explosive entrance into playoff ball made them a force to be reckoned with, and they still have the talent to go all the way to the series once again. The newly competitve Rays organization should make for an exciting playoff race all year long.