A year ago the Rays were looking to clinch their first division title in franchise history. Now they are hoping to stay above .500 down the stretch and play the role of spoiler. But the Rays still give the Red Sox trouble and with the red-hot Rangers on the Red Sox' heels, the last thing they need is to see the Rays for three games.
Cork Gaines of Rays Index joined us to answer a few questions about the Rays, as they meet the Red Sox for the final time this season.
NESN.com: After being in the AL East basement for so long and then making the World Series last season, do the Rays get a free pass for this year or is it a disappointment?
Cork Gaines: All of the above? When looking at the big picture and seeing where the Rays came from and what division they play in, nobody should ever expect this team to make the playoffs every year. And this team is still going to finish above .500 and will be back next year, with all of the important pieces still in place, a year older and another year of experience under their belts. But at the same time, it is still disappointing when you see that several of the key components underachieved and the pitching staff just looks tired. The Rays will only get so many opportunities in the East and they may have missed a big one earlier this year when both the Yankees and Red Sox struggled at times.
NESN.com: After B.J. Upton?s amazing postseason in 2008, what happened to the budding star this year?
Gaines: Actually, we just had our first report that Upton never really felt 100 percent this season after offseason shoulder surgery. That, on top of no spring training as well as being thrust into the leadoff roll for the first time this season while rehabbing his shoulder, and he just never found a groove. The real Upton is probably somewhere between the '08 postseason and the '09 season. Of course that is a big gap. Hopefully a healthy offseason will get him closer to the former in 2010.
NESN.com: How would you rank the seasons of the pitchers in the starting rotation (Shields, Garza, Niemann, Price, Sonnanstine)? Is it possible Jeff Niemann was the most effective?
Gaines: Jeff Niemann was a pleasant surprise, but he did benefit from a healthy dose of run support early in the year and Joe Maddon consistently gave him extra rest, as that is when he is at his best. James Shields and Matt Garza are still 1-A and 1-B and have very similar numbers to their '08 campaigns, but they have not been dominant. Hopefully a long offseason will help their arms in 2010. Niemann would be third, David Price would be fourth, however he has shown some very promising signs in recent starts. Andy Sonnanstine's career as a starter is probably over. He doesn't have the stuff to overpower batters when he doesn't have perfect control and it appears as though in his second full season, the rest of the AL just figured him out.
NESN.com: What needs to change for the Rays this offseason to get back to the top of the division in 2010?
Gaines: Rest. This team, especially the pitchers, looked tired most of the year and they have come completely undone these last few weeks. You won't see any major changes this offseason, and that is by design. The front office has built a team that can stay together and grow together. The rotation should be solid with the addition of Wade Davis and Desmond Jennings (another Upton-type) could be on the opening day roster. If the team makes any changes it will be in the bullpen. This one area I see the team addressing is the addition of at least one power arm to the bullpen. Right now it is just Grant Balfour and a slew of crafty arms. Sometimes, as the Red Sox can attest, you just need a guy to come in and blow people away in the late innings.
NESN.com: Any players the Rays should target during free agency this winter?
Gaines: I don't see the Rays being spenders in free agency. They may add a veteran catcher if they don't pick up Gregg Zaun's contract. I think the team likes having a veteran backing up Dioner Navarro. And of course they will be looking for relievers. But the guys they will be looking at are the types that will only be demanding $1 million-$2 million per season.
NESN.com: What are the keys for the Rays to winning the series against the Red Sox?
Gaines: Three things. Pitching, pitching and pitching. The starters have been OK recently but the bullpen has fallen apart. If they can remain competitive despite being out of the race, they have a good shot at playing spoiler.
Thanks again to Cork for sharing his insight on the Rays. Don't forget to check out his blog, Rays Index.
Stay tuned Tuesday for a series preview of the Angels, as the Red Sox host the Halos in a possible ALDS matchup.