For many years, it seemed any spring training preview of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays would have requisite inclusions of phrases like "hapless," "laughingstock" and "bottom-feeders."
But since 2008, the standards along Florida's Gulf coast have changed dramatically.
A surprise American League East champion and World Series participant in their 11th year of existence that fall, the Rays have gone on to another division title and a wild card postseason appearance in three years since, and will enter 2012 as a must-include entity when it comes to discussing this year's playoff lineup.
The thanks goes mainly to a super-talented core of internally developed starting pitching, which has allowed Tampa Bay to march out a homegrown starter for its last 165 games, certainly a rarity in an era of big-splash free agency - and particularly in a division that features teams from Boston and New York.
This time around, it'll allow manager Joe Maddon to, on any given day, send out a starter who's finished in the top three of AL Cy Young Award voting (James Shields, third, 2011; and David Price, second, 2010), won an AL Rookie of the Year Award (Jeremy Hellickson, 2011), struck out double-digits in a postseason start (Matt Moore, 11, 2011) or simply won at least 11 games in three straight seasons with an overall winning percentage of 62.3 (Jeff Niemann).
Not exactly the worst set of problems to have, right Joe?
"I was talking to our scouts that are in town (and) I said, 'I promise you can walk to any field right now, and watch any one of our guys throw and you'll be impressed,'" Maddon said.
Even the would-be sixth starter on the staff - 6-foot-5 right-hander Wade Davis - has 23 big-league wins in the last two seasons with 218 strikeouts and a complete game in 58 starts. But he'll begin the season in the bullpen after losing a preseason battle with Niemann.
Demotion aside, Davis is still considered a long-term asset to the Rays, who signed him to a four-year, $12.6 million deal last spring that could escalate to $35 million over seven seasons.
"Looking through the first part of the season, we kinda liked it," Maddon said. "It's not like you don't like Wade, it's just you had to make a decision. For right now, Wade might be a little more suited for the bullpen, we think, and could really benefit us out there."
Lost in the shadow of the elite arms is a star-studded, albeit inconsistent offense that includes another former AL Rookie of the Year in third baseman Evan Longoria and a returning fan favorite in first baseman Carlos Pena, who spent one year with the Chicago Cubs after hitting 46, 31, 39 and 28 home runs in the previous four seasons with Tampa Bay.
The two are penciled in as the go-to run-producers in a lineup that also includes intermittently dynamic holdovers like Desmond Jennings (.259, 10 HR, 20 SB in 2011), Ben Zobrist (20 HR, 91 RBI). B.J. Upton (23 HR, 81 RBI, 36 SB) and Matt Joyce (.277, 19 HR, 75 RBI).
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Rays, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (91-71) - Second Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: 1B Carlos Pena, DH Luke Scott, C Jose Molina, RP Fernando Rodney, IF Jeff Keppinger
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 1B Casey Kotchman, OF Johnny Damon, C Kelly Shoppach, C John Jaso
PROJECTED LINEUP: LF Desmond Jennings, 2B Ben Zobrist, 3B Evan Longoria, 1B Carlos Pena, DH Luke Scott, CF B.J. Upton, RF Matt Joyce, C Jose Molina, SS Sean Rodriguez
PROJECTED ROTATION: RHP James Shields, LHP David Price, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, LHP Matt Moore, RHP Jeff Niemann
PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP Kyle Farnsworth
MANAGER: Joe Maddon
HOW GOOD CAN THE STARTERS BE?
Three words. Pretty. Darned. Good. As one scout put it during spring training, "The starting pitching depth is ridiculous. Their second five starting pitchers are as good as some of the other starting fives out there." Case in point, Shields was a long-time workhorse who'd slid below .500 for two consecutive seasons before a resurgence in 2011 that included career-bests in wins (16), innings (249 1/3), strikeouts (225), ERA (2.82), shutouts (4) and complete games (11). And he's just the No. 1 guy on paper. Price won 19 games a season earlier and had a career-high 218 strikeouts last year. Hellickson got better as his rookie season went on, posting a 2.64 ERA after the all-star break and a composite 2.95 for the season. Moore is just 22 years old and struck out 11 in an ALDS defeat of Texas. And Niemann has the aforementioned credentials that got him past Davis. Unless the majority of these guys somehow crash and burn, they should be the best rotation in the American League.
OK, BUT WILL THERE BE ENOUGH OFFENSE?
The Rays were expected to struggle scoring runs coming out of spring training last season and it unfolded that way over 162 games, with their .244 batting average, 707 runs scored and 172 home runs ranking fifth across the board in the East and 12th, eighth and sixth in the league. Commenting on the exits of veterans Casey Kotchman (.306, 10 HR, 48 RBI) and Johnny Damon (.261, 16 HR, 73 RBI) and the arrivals of Pena and Scott, a scout said "Luke Scott and Carlos Pena are a downgrade from Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman. Pena will give them power, and, like Kotchman, he also is very good defensively. But Pena will strike out a lot and won't hit for much average. Scott is a non- issue for me. He's one of the strongest players around, but you can get him out a lot of ways. Throw him a high fastball and he's more than likely to chase it."
WHO IS THAT MASKED MAN?
Tampa Bay's 2011 catching combination of John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach was hardly Cooperstown-worthy with 16 HR and 49 RBI in 467 plate appearances, but they made just seven errors and had fielding percentages of .992 and .994, respectively. Now, with Jaso in Seattle and Shoppach off to Boston, the Rays enter 2012 with veteran Jose Molina and youngster Jose Lobaton set to take the reins. The 36-year-old Molina has played as many as 100 games only once in a 12-year career and appeared in just 55 last season with Toronto, hitting .281 with three HR and 15 RBI. Meanwhile, Lobaton, now 27, has only 22 big-league games under his belt, including 15 with the Rays last season in which he had four hits in 34 at bats and struck out eight times. While not many teams rely on catchers for significant offensive production, this appears to be an area where Tampa Bay has a glaring weakness.
X-FACTOR: OF B.J. UPTON
Perhaps the most polarizing figure in the Rays lineup. Fans of the freakishly gifted 27-year-old center fielder will summon memories of the 2008 ALCS, when he was 9-for-28, hit four home runs, drove in 11, stole two bases and was a seven-game thorn in the side of the Boston Red Sox en route to the World Series trip. But for those waiting for a spectacular breakout since, well, it's been a maddening wait. Upton has hit just .241, .237 and .243 in three subsequent seasons, topping out at last season's 23 home runs and seeing his strikeouts hover between 152 and 164. He's frequently mentioned in trade rumors and may yet be dealt to augment another spot in the lineup, but he also could be one of those players whose exit ultimately brings cringes for decades.
There's little doubt that if the Rays were in any other division in either league, they'd be a legitimate favorite. But in the AL East, they'll always need to overachieve to stay with the payroll giant Yankees and Red Sox. In 2012, though, the excessive embarrassment of riches in the starting ranks might help balance the power, and if one of the many arms is cast-off to bring help in the form of an extra bat it could yield even more of a payback in the standings. Either way, expect Tampa Bay to win a lot of the 4-3, 3-2 and 2-1 variety games and get just enough timely hitting across the board to stay in the race for the duration. Come October, it shouldn't take another epic collapse elsewhere to clinch a four playoff trip in five years.