Rays Top 5 Goals for 2008 Revisited
The Tampa Bay Rays went into 2008 wanting to gain respect and admiration in the major leagues from teams and fans. The main objective was to be competitve and to show that the Rays belonged in the rough and tumble AL East.
No one could have imagined that the team would be raising the AL East and AL pennant flags in their home Opener against the New York Yankees in 2009. Most people had the realistic goal of a .500 season and a puch hard towards the playoffs. What transpired was the same majoc and karma that made the 1969 Mets and the Florida Marlins darlings of the baseball world.
We had a team that believed in itself to the point of pulling off amazing endings and outstanding feats of sweeping some of the best teams in baseball at home. The Rays proved that if you can believe, you can achieve. The following list is the Top 5 goals that I set for the team in March of 2008. Yesterday I blogged about numbers 6-10, today is the time to see what reality did to the Top 5:
The 5th goal I put on my list was the idea of starting lineup leading off with 3 “lefties. In the beginning of the season, the Rays had a up-and-down bout of success and failure with their lefties’ by committee lineup arrangement. Akinora Iwamura, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena had the talent and the ability to take over the lineup, but the opposition right-handed pitchers’ were stacked against the trio.
Finally, Rays Manager, Joe Maddon inserted B J Upton into the 3-slot and the cycle was broken. Upton began to see alot more pitches to hit in 2008. He did a remarkable job both at the plate and on the base paths for the Rays. He did not have a banner year because of a nagging shoulder injury sustained during an early series in Baltimore in May.
But Upton did pace the Rays when they needed help and finished 2nd in the stolen base race in the AL. Upton then moved up to the 2nd spot in the lineup to be the meat between the Aki and CC sandwich. It further helped him evolve in the lineup and he became comfortable and relaxed in the position.
The final success to the banishment of the 3 “leftie” regime came near the end of the season and the playoffs. With the team more balanced in the lineup, the Rays had the flexibility both on the field and on the bench to matchup more effective with any team.
Upton and Longoria both benefited from the 3 lefties in the lineup with more right-handers going to the mound against the Rays. The leftie revolution might not have been a success, but the experiment also proved to the Rays that they had great options up and down the lineup and the bench.
The fouth goal had to do with extensions for the anchors of the team. Unknown to the general public, during the last week of Spring Training, the Rays and the agent of Evan Longoria were working on a long term deal to contractually secure the budding star for years for the Rays. The deal was suddenly annouced the day Longoria was called up to the Rays, but was in the works for some time while he was down in the minors at Durham.
It secured a hole in the infield for the Rays for at least 5 years and also gave both sides a feeling of confidence going into 2008. Scott Kazmir also got a extended deal right before the season started and it also secured a valuable piece of the starting rotation for years. James Shield was also secured for an extended contract and gave the Rays a bit of relief that their top 2 pitchers were under contract for several years.
Carlos Pena has a sealed deal for 2009, in whole, only Jason Bartlett, the team’s 2008 MVP is the only person not under contract for 2009 who plays in the infield. He is in his first year of arbitration and the team might be working on a multi-year deal to keep him in a Ray’s uniform until they can decide about the shortstops they have in their minor league system.
Behind the plate, Dioner Navarro is in his first year of arbitration , and he did alot to be sure he will get a nice raise in 2009. With the improved year he had behind the plate, and at the plate, Navarro has done nothing to diminish the vast upward swing on his stock with the team. I will go deeper into who is up for arbitration in another blog.
Goal number 3 seemed a bit out of line when I first wrote it in 2008, but it proved to be a monster move for the team. To say that the team needed a healthy rotation would be a monster in our division sounded a bit far fetched, but it was a true key to 2008 and its success. Not counting the early glitches in Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza’s season, the Rays had a fantastic run of luck by having all 5 of their starters’ the entire year.
Not only is this rare, but it is almost unheard of that a team could go through most of the season with the same 5 day in and day out. There were aches and pains and displays of emotion throughout the year, but a treu key to this year was the fact they stood on the mound daily and did not give up starts. The consistancy of these 5 guys lead to a flow and a confidence in each other to fulfill their goals everytime they hit the rubber.
All 5 starters’ went over 10 wins this year, and even the guy who everyone outside the organization thinks is the weakest link, tied for the team lead with 14 wins. To have that kind of production out of a lineup where the oldest stater is 26 years of age is outstanding. The future of this franchise is based in the fact that they could have these same 5, or a variation of the 5 for the next 4 years on the mound for the Rays.
The second goal of the year is really something that all teams hope and wish for………Health, health, health. What is so amazing about 2008, is the fact that injuries did happen and the team did not miss a step in the field or at the plate. When Kazmir and Garza went down early both before the season, and in it’s first weeks, the Rays pitchers’ took up the slack and gave it 110 percent. Jason Hammel and Jeff Neiman came on and threw their best in the absence of the team’s top pitchers.
In the infield, Willy Aybar came to the Rays with a sorted past, but you would never know it by the way he played in his limited roles all around the infield in 2008. He was one of those true finds that can help a ballclub reach the next level. It did not matter if Carlos Pena went down, or Evan Longoria, Aybar brought his “A” game every night both at the plate and in the field.
In the outfield, when Carl Crawford was out nursing his groin and then his operation on his hand, Eric Hinske and Justin Ruggiano came out and tried to fill the gap as if Crawford had not even left. They played to mix reviews, but did an admirable job and proved the depth of this team’s minor league system. When Fernando Perez came up to fill in for B J Upton after an injury, his athletic ability and his speed did not even make you miss Upton.
Perez became an instant favorite of Rays Manager Joe Maddon for his work ethic and his willingness to learn and help the team. But he area that sealed and secured itself even when injury hit was the Bullpen. They saw multiples guys go down this year, from Gary Glover and Al Reyes, to their closer being shut down several times during the year.
These guys just bucked up and took it all in stride and closed the wounds and played their butts off. J P Howell became a fixture in the Bullpen, and became one of the best lefties in the game as a reliever in 2008. Grant Balfour also became a force in the Bullpen and his antics on the mound became legend in the AL. All year long people stepped up and were successful for the team out of the Bullpen.
The number one goal of the team in 2008, was set in motion early by Maddon. Mindset can be a effective tool to the confidence and emtion of a ballclub. Maddon’s formula of 9=8 has been around the globe by now.
The theory of 9 men in a lineup playing 9 total innings would eqaute into one of the 8 playoff berths in the MLB. A simple philosophy, but it goes even beyond that theory. It is also expanded by Maddon that if they got 9 more wins from the pitching staff, 9 more wins from the offense, and 9 more wins from the defense and Bullpen, they would be able to secure a playoff spot.
The combined 27 extra wins along with the 69 the team had in 2007 would add up to 96 wins. Wow, consider that for a moment, Seriously here, going inot their last game against Detroit on Sept 30th, the team had a record of 96-65. Did Maddon really think he would or even could imagine a increase like this in one season.
In 2008, there were moments where mondset played a huge part in the team’s success. The All-Star break actually might have come at a perfect time for this team after getting shutdown by the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox in straight road series. The break from playing actually might have played into a positive for the team becuse it gave them all a time frame to forget and forgive the bad results and take on the second half of the season with vigor and vitality.
So here we are with the final 5 goals of 2008 examined and I feel that this team is indeed ready and willing to try and make another run at the AL East in 2009. The worst thing the Rays have to adjust to is not being the underdog anymore. Mindset might be the first goal again next year as the Champions are always on the top and people love to knock off the big guys.