It's getting real close to my favorite time of the year- baseball season. Watching the WBC has gotten me very excited for opening day and got me thinking of some stuff to write. The first topic that came to mind is- Who is the 2009 version of the Tampa Rays?
Everyone knows the story of the 2008 Rays by now. The same Tampa franchise that was the perennial last place team in the toughest division in all sports, the AL East. The same Tampa team that often picked in the top 3 of the MLB draft for the last decade. That's right, the same Tampa team that stockpiled so much young talent that it was able to overtake the Yankees and Red Sox to win the division. The same Tampa Rays that made an improbable run to the World Series. What team can duplicate that feat in 2009?
The answer is simple. No one will do it. No one will sneak up on anyone and win their division. There are some good young teams that can compete and probably win their division; most notably: Tampa, Arizona, Cleveland and maybe Florida. If either of these teams made it to the playoffs, I wouldn't be shocked. Though I don't feel there will be another team like Tampa this year, I do have two in mind that can make great strides and possibly contend.
First of all i really like the Cincinnati Reds in the NL. They were my sleeper last season and really disappointed. I love the young talent on this team and they continue to draft well. They have some pitching. If Edison Volquez and Jonnie Cueto continue to progress and Aaron Harang has a bounce back year, then the Reds suddenly can have a decent staff. Harang is they key for this team. He has to be the innings eater he was two seasons ago. He can still be a 15 game winner and will need to be for the Reds to contend.
Offensively, I like this team alot. They can be explosive. A combination of young studs and a few veterans. The Reds have as much good young talent as anyone. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are future all stars. If Edwin Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips have good season, then Cincinatti will score some runs. They are a young and very athletic team. They added Ramon Hernandez, a good hitting catcher, but the key to this years Reds might be Willy Taveres. Taveres will be at the top of the order and could swipe over 60 bags, but he needs to get on base more often then he did in Colorado.
With more young talent coming up through the Reds system, they could potentially hang in the Wild Card race for a while this season. Ultimately I think their bullpen is weak and could use a right hand power bat, but I like the direction the Reds are headed.
In the AL, I actually like the Royals. Ok, I will wait for you to stop laughing, but this is a team that has some talent as well. I don't see them winning anything, but I think they can be in the hunt for a while this season. The AL Central can be had by anyone and while ultimately I think it will come down to Cleveland, Minnesota and Detroit; I look at Kansas City and think why can't these guys win that division. The other teams aren't that much better than them.
Kansas City has some good young pitching. Zack Grienke is a future all -star and has the stuff of a staff ace. Luke Hocheaver and Brian Bannister also have great stuff, they just have to learn to win more consistently. In the back end of the bullpen, Joakim Soria converts almost every save opportunity, so they have a strength there as well. Filling the spots in between the third starter and the closer is a challenge however.
The Royals also have some good young hitters, including Alex Gordan. They have added some good pieces as well. While they don't have the household names, guys like Mike Aviles, Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp make the Royals a better team. They will need holdovers Billy Butler, Davis DeJesus and Jose Guillen to have solid years though and I don't know if it's possible.
Much of the Royals talent lies in it's minor league system. They need to find a way to get guys like Kila Ka'aihue, Carlos Rosa and Daniel Cortes into the mix. Again, while I don't think it's going to happen, if everything goes right, then they could surprise.
Look it's easy to go out and predict the obvious teams will contend, I'm trying to find a struggling team here and these guys fit the bill. I guess we will find out in October