The Tampa Bay Rays stumbled into third place last year after winning the American League pennant in 2008. The 2010 rebound started early with spring training.
As of March 30, the Rays held the best spring record in baseball at 18-7. It’s hard to find the best story in Rays training camp because there are so many good ones.
Sean Rodriguez, the main piece of the Scott Kazmir trade, came in fighting for the second base job.
After hitting .439 with six home runs, it’s fair to say he made a convincing case for himself.
The Rays may not miss Akinori Iwamura, while the Angels may regret letting Rodriguez go.
Evan Longoria is still the star the Rays know and love. He posted a .313 average and four home runs along with his usual flair with the glove at third base.
Expect him to be in the mix for MVP.
With three long home runs, B.J. Upton announced that his power is back.
New hitting coach Derek Shelton worked with Upton during the offseason to cut down on the “moving parts” in his swing. Now his quick wrists are doing all the work and there is no shoulder injury to bog him down.
Also on the rebound is Dioner Navarro. Despite a leg injury suffered in a collision in mid-March, Navarro hit .471 as he began his quest to return to his 2008 form. He and newcomer Kelly Shoppach are pushing the best out of each other. The healthy competition is paying off.
Jason Bartlett was one of the Grapefruit League’s best shortstops.
He hit .340 this spring and struck out just four times in 50 at-bats.
Bartlett is a man opposing pitchers should target.
Ben Zobrist is not a fluke. The 2009 All-Star hit .333 with three home runs and two stolen bases. “Zorilla” adjusted well as pitchers figured him out late last season. That’s what professional hitters do – stay one step ahead of the pitchers.
Speaking of last year’s surprises, Jeff Niemann totaled 24 strikeouts to three walks. He, Matt Garza and James Shields kept their ERAs below 3.00 and stayed healthy for the start of the season.
Sure, the Rays still have a share of problems. Carlos Pena started slowly, Pat Burrell hit below .200 and right fielder Matt Joyce spent most of March injured. The bullpen also faced struggles from top to bottom.
And yes, some of the numbers may be inflated because of minor league-level competition. But it’s spring training for everyone.
For every Triple-A pitcher, the Rays faced a Josh Beckett. So while these numbers may not be gospel, they reveal that the Rays are ready to battle it out in baseball’s toughest division.
The stage is set. Let the real games begin.
Brenton Burkett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.