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Pay Attention to the Rays

The Royals upcoming series with the Rays is a series that I always look forward to because watching the Rays is really satisfying to me. I guess it has something to do with the fact that it makes me believe that it will be possible for the Royals to win again at some point. You see, for the first 10 years the Rays were in existence, they were absolutely terrible. They gathered top of the first round draft picks and continued to lose 90+ games every season until finally in 2008, they broke through with all their young talent. They won the American League East, which most people said would be impossible without a significant change in the salary structure in baseball, and they ended up in the World Series where they lost to the Phillies. The Rays are a reminder to me of what is possible in baseball.

The big difference between the upcoming 2012 Royals and the 2008 Rays is that the Rays had pitching that the Royals just don’t have. Granted, they lucked into Scott Kazmir, their ace, when the Mets decided to trade him for Victor Zambrano in one of the most ridiculous trades of all time. Still, though, they had more starting pitching than the Royals have today. The thing the Royals have that the Rays didn’t (and don’t) is money to spend, so if there is a starting pitcher on the trading block, the Royals can take on salary that the Rays simply weren’t capable of doing. Even looking at it position by position, there is a lot of odd similarities in what can be expected from players in the 2012 season for the Royals compared to what the Rays got out of their 2008 roster.

Starting with the catching position, the Rays got average offensive and defensive production from Dioner Navarro. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the Royals to get the same production from whoever is part of their catching tandem next season. At first base, the Rays had Carlos Pena who played great defense, hit 30 homers, drove in 100 runs and got on base at a nice clip. I think Hosmer will walk a little less than Pena did, but will make up for that with his batting average. At second base was Akinori Iwamora who played solid defense and was slightly below average as a hitter. I think Johnny Giavotella will be the second baseman for the Royals this year. What he lacks in defense, I believe he’ll make up for in offense. At shortstop, the Rays had Jason Bartlett who was named the team MVP in spite of his .690 OPS. I don’t think there’s any reason that Escobar can’t put up similar numbers while playing even better defense than Bartlett. The position where the Rays will probably outshine the Royals is third base where Evan Longoria had his fine rookie season. Mike Moustakas will probably hit for about equal power, but won’t be Longoria’s equal on defense or anywhere else across the board.

Moving to the outfield, I think Gordon has an opportunity to be better than Carl Crawford was in 2008 when he posted a .273/.319/.400 line and stealing 25 bases. Now he was injured a fair amount during the season, but he was picked up by Eric Hinske who hit 20 homers in a platoon outfield role. The interesting comparison is Lorenzo Cain and B.J. Upton. I’ve said many times that Cain is comparable to Austin Jackson of the Tigers, and I stand by that, but I could see Cain putting up similar numbers to Upton’s 2008 season for the Royals in center field, but not putting in questionable effort. Right field and DH are going to be pretty comparable next season as well. If either Francoeur or Cabrera are out there, I have confidence that they can post about league average numbers which is what Gabe Gross did. The big difference offensively is that the Rays bench was taken advantage of and was very good with guys like Ben Zobrist, the aforementioned Eric Hinske and Willy Aybar. The Royals bench just isn’t that strong yet.

I think the bullpens were comparable and the starting pitching favors the 2008 Rays. I have a feeling that a lot of the pundits will be predicting that the Royals will be a lot like the 2008 Rays. They have a ton of young talent and a lot of young talent on the way, so people tend to make the comparison whether or not they actually believe it’s true. I don’t know why, but I continue to be fascinated by the turnaround of the Rays. The big difference in what they did from 2007 to 2008 was improved their defense, and it almost instantly improved their pitching staff. The scary thing is that the Royals already have improved their defense, though it still has a ways to go to become what the numbers would indicate as good.

It’s an interesting comparison to make for the Royals because I think 2008 for the Rays was supposed to be a lot like 2012 will be for the Royals. Coming into the season, they’re expected to show improvement, but not necessarily contend. For the Rays in the East, they especially weren’t expecting to contend in 2008. 2009 was really the Rays target contention year while 2013 is really the Royals season. It’s funny when rebuilding plans work because they always seem to come to fruition a year ahead of schedule and then the following year is what you expected the previous year to be. That held true with the Rays who went 84-78 in 2009, which is probably more in line with what they expected the previous season. Anyway, the point is that you should pay attention to the Rays this weekend and hope that the Royals are that successful.

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