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April 04, 2011
This winter the Yanks were rejected and the Rays were rebuilt. But the Red Sox reloaded and are primed to be the beasts of the East
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April 04, 2011

Al East

This winter the Yanks were rejected and the Rays were rebuilt. But the Red Sox reloaded and are primed to be the beasts of the East

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1 RED SOX 100--62 -
2 YANKEES 92--70 8
3 RAYS 84--78 16
4 ORIOLES 78--84 22
5 BLUE JAYS 77--85 23

At 8:45 on the morning of the Rays' second full workout this spring, a lanky lefthander stood in a corner of a clubhouse full of new nameplates, practicing his swing. Each stroke was longer and loopier than the last, and each came incrementally closer to the back of the head of a seated B.J. Upton. The centerfielder, perceiving a white-ash-scented breeze, turned around.

"No, no, David!" Upton said. "Put that down."

David Price—second in last season's American League Cy Young vote—kept swinging, while he talked about his hitting exploits. He has mustered two singles in 10 career at bats; Price was quick to point out that one of those hits had come against Marlins ace Josh Johnson last season. "You've had three different stances, just right here," said Upton. "Terrible."

"Impeccable," Price said.

In the Tampa Bay clubhouse this qualifies as banter between hoary veterans, as the 26-year-old Upton (Rays debut: 2004) and the 25-year-old Price (Rays debut: 2008) now rank first and eighth among the club's longest-tenured members. Of the 25 men on the roster the Rays took into the 2010 postseason after winning their second AL East title in three seasons, only 14 remain. Upton pointed out the lockers of the departed. "Carl was right here in the corner," he said. "Carlos was where [James] Shields is. Bartlett was here, it's now Elliot Johnson. Garza? [Mike] Ekstrom's there now. I think."

Tampa Bay enters 2011 without players who accounted for 42% of the team's plate appearances last season (most significantly, leftfielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Peña and shortstop Jason Bartlett) and pitchers who threw 39% of its innings (including starter Matt Garza and six members of their ALDS bullpen). Such is the lot of a successful, low-payroll club in the free agency era. But the Rays remain a long way from asking their ace to pick up a bat when it counts. Their rearranged clubhouse is not the result of a nascent rebuilding effort, but of a long-anticipated renovation. "The reason why it's not as godawful is because we knew it was going to happen," says manager Joe Maddon. "It doesn't slap you in the face as you walk in."

Rays management spent a few years working on a prospect-development plan that would mitigate the godawfulness of the departures of so many key players. "We don't look at the 2011 team as a culmination of just three months of work," says executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "We went through a very memorable three-year period that will forever be a significant part of this franchise's history. Now our former players' focus is on recreating that elsewhere, and our focus is on re-creating it here."

That effort will be led by holdover stars like Price, Upton and third baseman Evan Longoria, but it will be fortified by a cache of ripened prospects that Tampa Bay stockpiled via the draft and trades, such as starter Jeremy Hellickson, 23, and outfielders Desmond Jennings, 24, and Matt Joyce, 26. "I think [the Rays] are uniquely positioned, because of their talent and depth, to withstand some of the significant losses they've had," says Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "It's not every day that a team can lose a Garza and plug in a Hellickson, lose a Crawford and plug in a Joyce and maybe later Jennings. They're being dramatically underrated."

This winter's free agent market did not work entirely to the Rays' detriment, as it allowed them to add two of Epstein's still-productive former employees. Friedman signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez in January, a late, modest ($7.25 million combined), low-risk spree. The 37-year-old Damon (he had a .355 OBP and 36 doubles and was 11 for 12 in stolen base attempts with the Tigers in 2010) and 38-year-old Ramirez (an .870 OPS in 90 games for the Dodgers and the White Sox) are in their dotages, but they should help replace some of the production and leadership of Crawford and Peña. "I thought we needed that kind of a guy," says Maddon. "But when you get that kind of a guy, you want that kind of a guy with something left in the tank, not just that kind of a guy." Damon and Ramirez both appear to be the preferable kind of that kind of a guy.

The Rays do have areas of concern. One is that while their rotation runs five deep (Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman calls the group "fantastic"), they no longer have much injury protection now that Hellickson, who was called up last August, has a full-time spot. Is the lack of a reliable sixth starter an issue when the Yankees don't appear to have a fourth? Friedman chuckles courteously. "Everything's relative," he says.

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