Ahhh, Spring is just around the corner. For most people, the changing of the seasons is a time to enjoy warmer weather, perhaps get a little spring cleaning done, and for baseball fans it signifies the approaching start to a new season, complete with all the hope, excitement, and expectation of a new unknown. The tables have all been reset, and EVERYONE is still in the hunt for an October invitation.
Well, at least in theory.
While the prospect of a new season may bring hope and promise to some organizations, there are others who are still reeling from the carryover baggage of a less-than-spectacular close to 2009. For those organizations, the records may be new but the problems are not. And although some of the questions from last year may have been answered, we still have yet to determine if those answers are satisfactory.
As the managers from THOSE organizations enter spring training, they bring with them a heavy load of expectation, heightened with a sense of desperation, because they may fear (whether founded or unfounded) that their window of opportunity is quickly drawing to a close.
One such manager with the weight of the baseball world on his shoulders is Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Before we get into Maddon’s list of worries for 2010, I must give him his due. When he took over the reins in Tampa, he was inheriting a 100-loss team. During the time since his arrival, he has since led the Rays to a World Series appearance in 2008, and the last two seasons mark the first ever winning seasons in franchise history. In fact, before 2008 the Rays had finished DEAD LAST in the American League East Division 9 out of 10 years, with 2004 being they only year they didn’t finish in the basement (they finished in FOURTH place out of five teams that year).
There can be no denying that Maddon has brought improvement with him to the Tampa Bay organization.
The problem for Tampa Bay, though, is that they have arguably one of the toughest regular season draws in the entire Major Leagues, as they are ANNUALLY forced to keep pace with the two most dominant teams of the last fifteen years, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. In the twelve years since Tampa Bay’s inaugural season in 1998, Yankees and Red Sox have combined for EIGHT different American League Championships, SIX of which led to World Series Championships.
That domination is not surprising, since the Yankees and Red Sox own two of the five highest payrolls in the baseball, and it definitely puts the Rays at a disadvantage as they come in with the sixth LOWEST payroll in the league.
For a team like Tampa Bay, the ability to maintain consistent success is virtually impossible. Last year, for example, they followed up their 2008 World Series appearance with an impressive 84 wins to their credit. 84 wins would have had them in a VERY close race for the postseason had they been playing in the Central Division (where 86 wins was all it took for the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers), but in the East, they were left 19 games BEHIND the Yankees, and 9 games BEHIND the Red Sox.
Compounding the early season pressure for Maddon this year is the impending departure of the Rays’ brightest star, Left Fielder Carl Crawford, who is in the final year of his contract with Tampa Bay. Although Crawford has stated a desire to stay in Tampa Bay, there is little hope that they will be able to cough up the dough necessary to keep him around. The recent decision by both Crawford and the Rays to cease any further contract discussion until the end of the season serves only as greater indication of that likely separation.
If the Rays reach a point before the trade deadline where they do not believe they have a REAL shot at the playoffs, there is a good chance that they will try to trade Crawford away in a fire sale, hoping to get some kind of value for him. The alternative of seeing him walk away at the end of the year with absolutely nothing to show for it will not be acceptable to the organization. And let’s be honest – As Carl Crawford goes, so go the hopes of the entire Tampa Bay Rays organization.
What does that all mean for Maddon? In a nutshell, he likely faces one of two options this season –
A) Miraculously manage the virtually impossible task of remaining competitive with both the New York Yankees AND the Boston Red Sox (you know, MINOR expectations).
B) Watch the Rays’ best player walk away, along with any hopes for REAL success – Not only this year, but for the foreseeable future.
I don’t know about you, but I call that pressure!