At some point in 2008, you had to be convinced that they were much more than a figment of Joe Maddon's positive-laced imagination. The sooner you reached that conclusion, the less you were surprised by the Rays defying the spending gods and finishing ahead of the Red Sox and Yankees on their way to one of the most shocking pennants in memory.
But now what?
You can build cases on both sides — that this is just the beginning of a nice run of success, or, there's no way they can do it again. First of all, here's a look at the decade's World Series losers, and their follow-up seasons:
It's pretty much an even split — four returns to postseason play with records that were better than the pennant-winning marks, and four records that were worse, with no return trip to the playoffs.
And it must be noted that of those four repeat playoff qualifiers, none got as far as in the previous October.
But the problem with trying to fit the Rays into either of those categories is that they were such a unique pennant winner in so many aspects:
They won with the AL's lowest payroll, and the second-lowest in the game.
They won after a decade filled with pitiful failure — 95-loss-per-year-average failure, with nothing better than a 70-win season in their history.
They won with a smattering of veterans among an overwhelmingly young and inexperienced roster.
The Rockies, for certain, didn't have the quality and depth in their rotation to match that of the Rays. And when Jeff Francis suffered through shoulder difficulties, and infield stars Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki also suffered major injuries, the losses proved too big to overcome.
In fact, the Rays had enough pitching to deal Edwin Jackson for outfielder Matt Joyce, and still are looking at an overcrowded rotation that has AL Rookie of the Year favorite David Price competing for a spot with Jason Hammel behind the foursome of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine.
The Rays also have done more to improve their roster this off-season than the Rockies did last off-season, signing a major impact bat in Pat Burrell.
The new talent, plus in-house raises, will push the Rays payroll to around $60 million, or more than 2½ times higher than their 2007 payroll of about $24 million.
All that said, quality young pitching that appears set for a long run of success rarely pans out. Injuries, lack of consistency and underachieving too often get in the way.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
So in what areas can the Rays be better than in 2008? The obvious one is offensively, where they were only eighth in the AL in runs scored, and 13th in batting average.
Burrell is an upgrade at DH, and likely will be the best at that position in club history. Evan Longoria should play more than the 122 games he did in 2008. B.J. Upton is coming off shoulder surgery that could slightly delay his 2009 season debut, but you know he's going to hit far more than the nine homers he did a year ago.
But you also know where the Rays reside — and we're not talking about The Trop. That would be in the AL East, where they still are dwarfed payroll-wise by the Yankees and Red Sox, and where repeating doesn't get any more difficult.
Both have had successful off-seasons in different ways — the Yankees spending $423 million on Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett; the Red Sox rolling the health dice on Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Takashi Saito and Rocco Baldelli. That's a lot of talent on top of what's already in both of those places.
And, the Rays will have to figure out how to cope with the inevitable emotional letdown that follows pulling off the miraculous. Just ask the Rockies about that one.
No, the Rays aren't the Rockies. But they aren't likely to get back to the World Series, either. Something in between seems most logical — something around 90 wins, and only a 'maybe' on another postseason appearance.
HBT: Carlos Ruiz was lifted from Sunday afternoon’s game against the Reds after straining his right hamstring while running the bases in the bottom of the second inning.
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