The Does April Really Matter in MLB Debate… April Struggles Can Bring Later Success

May 3, 2011

Read the opposing argument from and Bleacher Fan.


We’re just over a month into the Major League Baseball season, and some surprises have evolved. The Cleveland Indians have been baseball’s biggest surprise, as through May 2, they lead MLB with an overall record of 19-8, though it’s unclear if anyone in Cleveland (outside of Bleacher Fan and Sports Geek) are paying attention. The Florida Marlins likewise have gotten off to a hot start at 18-9. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, teams that were expected to contend for division titles, have gotten off to mediocre starts and are in an early hole in their respective divisions.

Our judge in today’s debate, Sports Geek, has asked us to determine if the month of April is too early to determine the probable success or failure of a team. Sure, we’d love for our favorite team to win 18 games every month. But I say it is way too soon for fans of teams like the Braves, Red Sox – and even the Twins – to panic.

Folks, most teams played around 26 games through April 30, which was this past Saturday. Just 26 games! That’s less than twenty percent of the full 162 game schedule, and far too early for struggling teams to be making changes. You would think the Braves would be concerned about the slow start of Dan Uggla, who has used a recent hot streak to get his average above .200. However, the team and management realize that Uggla is traditionally a slow starter and there’s no way this guy, who has hit at least 30 home runs in four consecutive seasons, won’t rebound and post the same stats he is accustomed to posting. Is that stacked Boston lineup, highlighted by the struggles of Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkillis, really going to hit .245 all year long? Nope! Is Minnesota really going to finish last in the improved AL Central? Not with Joe Mauer coming back!

Let’s take a look at the MLB standings at the end of April 2010. Go ahead and give them a look. The New York Mets lead the NL East over the Washington Nationals. The Padres and Cardinals both led their divisions, as did the Angels. Four out of the six division leaders did not make the playoffs at all. The Mets, Cardinals, and Angels all finished with losing records. The Giants, the eventual World Series winner, trailed the Padres by 7.5 games as late as July 4. I can top that. As late as July 21, the Phillies trailed the division leading Braves by seven games. But energized by the acquisition of Roy Oswalt from Houston, the Phillies went on a tear and won the division by six games, making up an outstanding 13 games in the standings in a little over two months.

Reading that, how can Bleacher Fan say that April is a sign of things to come? I mean, do we really expect Lance Berkman to hit over .400 for most of the year? Keep in mind that this is the guy who struggled offensively in the telephone booth known as Yankee Stadium.

Yeah, it causes less stress when teams get off to good starts. But more so than any other sport, baseball is a marathon, and most definitely not a sprint. So to all the fans in Atlanta, Boston, Minnesota, and even San Francisco (currently sitting at 13-15 with very little offense)… it’s only early May! The end of the regular season is five months away!

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The Yankees Free Agent Attraction Debate Verdict

December 21, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

There are many different prophecies of those things that will signal the end times – falling skies, boiling seas, broken seals, death riding on a pale horse, dogs and cats living together, MASS HYSTERIA!

The Yankees failing to sign any of their top free agent targets did not make the list, though, so all you fans of the Bronx Bombers can rest easy tonight. Michael Stipe will not be singing his anthem song.

It is true that the Yankees were dealt a very difficult sucker-punch in the ego region as they were turned down (or perhaps not even considered) by both Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, but as Babe Ruthless points out in his winning argument, this should not be taken at anything more than face value.

Because of unique circumstances, the New York Yankees were not the preferred destination for two baseball players. Nothing more, nothing less.

Don’t get me wrong. Loyal Homer is absolutely correct in stating that everyone (including us) expected the Yankees to land at least one big fish. The fact that they failed to do so this year raises questions about the allure the Yankees actually possess. But I just do not believe that you can allow the admittedly surprising decisions of two athletes to serve as a generalization of shifting tides in Major League Baseball.

There are two “usual” reasons that drive a free agent toward choosing one team over another – money, or the promise of a championship. Realistically speaking, are the New York Yankees lacking in either of those arenas?

As far as money is concerned, the Yankees have proven that they are still the standard bearers. They offered Cliff Lee a far more lucrative deal than the Phillies did, but as Babe Ruthless highlights, it became evident that money was not the most important factor in Cliff Lee weighing his options. Meanwhile, in terms of championship contention the Yankees still remain a favorite every year for the post-season. They are only one year removed from a World Series championship, and last year entered the ALCS as favorites to once again represent their League in the World Series.

The reasons why Crawford and Lee chose to play elsewhere this year are certainly intriguing, and I would recommend that Brian Cashman head back to the drawing board to analyze exactly where they went wrong. The business manager in me believes that there is ALWAYS room for improvement, and this could serve as a critical learning opportunity for a team that perhaps allowed arrogance to make them lazy in their pursuit of people who they REALLY wanted. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that it signifies a shift in the free agent mindset.

For any top-tier baseball free agent with a desire to earn a RIDICULOUS salary while at the same time contending ANNUALLY for a championship, the New York Yankees will continue to play the role of the alpha male.

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The Yankees Free Agent Attraction Debate

December 20, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

Allow me to apologize on behalf of all of us here at The Sports Debates for breaking the first rule of clichés.

That’s right – we assumed. And you all know what happens when someone assumes…

So, what is it that we assumed? Well, we assumed that the Yankees would get AT LEAST Carl Crawford or Cliff Lee in free agency this off-season, if not both of them.

As it turns out, we were wrong.

With Carl Crawford now playing in Fenway, and Cliff Lee returning to the city of brotherly love, the Yankees are for the first time in a long time watching their truckloads of money come back to the Bronx with their deliveries refused.

This very shocking turn of free agency events begs a new and unexpected question: Are the post-George Steinbrenner Yankees still the main destination point for free agents in baseball?

Yankees’ money used to mean something in baseball, but this year the top free agents left millions of that money on the table to play elsewhere. Loyal Homer believes that this is a sign that market tides are shifting in baseball and free agents are looking for more than just chasing the Yankee dollar. Babe Ruthless, however, feels this off-season was an anomaly and that the Yankees are still the premier destination point for free agents.

Before we begin, though, I want to offer a bit of advice to both our debaters. Unlike Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, I CAN be bought for a truckload of money.

Begin…

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The Yankees Free Agent Attraction Debate… Still The Empire State

December 20, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

John Lennon is credited with once saying, “Today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself.” While I normally don’t find much common ground with deceased drugged out communist hippies, this may be the rare exception. New York is indeed the center of the baseball world and the Yankees are its clear monarch.

I realize there is a lot of irony in comparing New York to the capital of a once great but fallen empire, especially in a debate about the continued reign of NYC as the epicenter of free agent appeal. But I believe the comparison is appropriate nonetheless. I do not make the assumption that the Yankees will rule the baseball world forever, as the Yanks are always just two words away from losing a great deal of competitive advantage (those words being “salary cap”). But I know for certain that their days of ruling are not over.

Making Mountains Out of Molehills

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Yanks falling off. Talk that they have lost the power to land their man, and that in the post George Steinbrenner era, New York is no longer the main destination for free agents. These claims are unsubstantiated and preposterous!

These critics are trying to make something out of nothing. What evidence is there to support these ideas? While it is true that the Yankees failed to sign Cliff Lee, is that really the end of the world? Does it truly signify the end of the Evil Empire? Absolutely not.

The Cliff Lee debacle was an aberration. It is not indicative of a normal free agent pursuit. Lee did something no one expected. He took a deal for less total cash to go to a team that no one thought was a contender at all. Lee chose the Philadelphia Phillies over both the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. Reports indicated that he chose the Phillies for varying reasons. Some reports indicated that he simply fell in love with the team and the city during his stint with the Phillies last season, and others point to his family’s preference not to live in the Big Apple. One such story even indicated that Lee’s wife could not get over an incident where she was spat upon by an unruly New York fan. If that is true then who in their right mind would believe that any amount of money would have brought Lee and his family to New York? We are talking about putting a price tag on his families pride and well being, and I simply don’t think anyone can really expect that to happen. The Cliff Lee signing was anything but business as usual, so it really cannot be lauded as the end of the empire.

A Big Deal Or A Non-Factor?

Similar to the way the Yanks failure to land Lee was overblown by critics in the media, much ado is being made about the fact that the team did not acquire free agent outfielder Carl Crawford either. This is being proposed as a cause for panic in the Yankees’ Universe, but again this is not being considered in the greater context of the off-season.

Even before Crawford signed with the division rival Red Sox, the Yankees made it clear pitching was their main concern. That made Crawford expendable to the Yanks, who made it abundantly clear that they would not be putting their efforts into a push for another outfielder. With Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner already capably patrolling the outfield, Brian Cashman and company determined that signing Crawford was not a necessity (contrary to what Bleacher Fan and I may have felt here at TSD earlier this year), and put all their eggs in Cliff Lee’s basket.

So how is it that failing to acquire a player that a team admittedly deemed a non-priority is a signal of a loss of power? The answer is… it isn’t!

Lee did what most professional players never do and put preference above money, and Crawford was a non-factor… a backup plan from the beginning of the off-season. Neither of these two player signings are an indication of things to come. Count me among those aren’t ready to declare that the sky is falling because two players didn’t choose to sign with Yankees.

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The Yankees Free Agent Attraction Debate… Money Doesn’t Buy Free Agents Anymore

December 20, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

‘Tis the season to be jolly!!! Unfortunately, I’m not sure how jolly it is from a baseball standpoint for New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. First, Carl Crawford decided to take his talents to Beamtown, and then last week, Cliff Lee, long rumored to be destined for the Bronx (I even wrote about the need for Lee last month) decided to return to the city of Brotherly Love to pitch for the Phillies. This is quite the change from yesteryear, when the Yankees seemingly had no trouble whatsoever getting any free agent they wanted. That was then, this is now. Cashman is supposed to play Santa this time of year, and right now, Santa isn’t delivering.

Bleacher Fan is asking the Babe and myself if New York is no longer the main destination for free agents, and I would have to say that it really isn’t the main destination.

The school of thought used to be, “Well if the Yankees want him, they’ll get him.” We all thought that was possibly the case while watching Lee pitch this post-season. We’ve let these types of thoughts enter our minds because as we often say, “they’re the Yankees.” They have the biggest wallets. They have the biggest fan base. They have the most history. They have the pinstripes. Well, this off-season, they have the most egg on their face.

Why, is a good question here. With Lee, the Yankees went to seven years in contract value for a pitcher that is currently 32 years old. Various reports had Lee bypassing close to $30M to pitch in Philadelphia rather than in New York. That really is astonishing if you think about it. Perhaps playing for the Yankees doesn’t have the same allure that is used to. I’m sure Babe Ruthless and other diehard Yankees fans truly don’t believe that, but it could be on the verge of being true. Part of the reason the Yankees are so polarizing is because the average fan feels like they try to buy the World Series. I’ve said that numerous times over the years with all of their high profile free agent signings of guys like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texiera, C.C. Sabathia, Jason Giambi, etc. If they don’t get all the high profile guys anymore (and they didn’t this off-season), and have to settle for guys like Russell Martin and an older Mark Prior, then maybe they truly are losing a little bit of steam.

And then there’s the incident that was rumored to have happened in the ALCS this past off-season at Yankee Stadium involving Lee’s wife, Kristen. She was harassed repeatedly at Yankee Stadium, with beer tossed in her direction and obscenities shouted at her throughout much of the night. Now, fans will be fans, and that’s all well and good and part of it. But to treat a player’s wife like that is unacceptable, and that kind of behavior can’t sit well with ANY player. Now, both Lee and his wife downplayed the incident last week and said it had no bearing on his decision to not sign with the Yankees. I just have a hard time believing that the issues from this past post-season never entered into the picture.

The bottom line is that the Yankees have lost their grip as THE main destination for free agent. It’s no longer a given that the Yankees’ organization will get every marquee free agent it wants. This off-season has proven that, and Babe Ruthless, I hate to tell you buddy, but it’s not going to get any better for you anytime soon!
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The Who Should the Yankees Sign Debate Verdict

November 8, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan and Loyal Homer.

While the post-season celebration in the City by the Bay may finally start cooling off, the old Hot Stove is just heating up. Mere days removed from the San Francisco Giants World Series championship, some 29 other teams are already thinking about how to unseat the Giants during the 2011 season.

With huge contracts and blockbuster deals in the works, the baseball landscape as we know it could be in for a major overall. The actions in the days to come serves as a crucial indicator for the upcoming season as teams make statements about their willingness to compete or rebuild by being buyers or sellers on the off-season market. It is during this pivotal time that championship contenders are made. This is a very exciting time for a baseball obsessed seam-heads like myself, but especially so for Yankees’ fans in particular.

The Yanks are already making waves with high profile drama about the anxiety ridden task of finding an appropriate deal for the Yankees captain, Derek Jeter. But the Bombers will not be content to just sit on their laurels and re-sign core players. This season is about reloading. Now, deciding which free agents and players on the trading block are worth the asking price, and which players are the next overpaid (yeah I’m talking to you Javier Vasquez and Carl Pavano), is the necessity of the time.

There has been much speculation that the Yankees will make a run at acquiring Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford. While the Yankees have the economic resources to sign both players (not to mention pay off a good portion of the national deficit while they are at it), today’s debate explores the hypothetical scenario of: If the Yankees could only sign one person between free agent pitcher Cliff Lee and free agent outfielder Carl Crawford, who should the team sign?

Bleacher Fan provided what can be aptly called a thorough argument for the Yankees to sign free agent left fielder Carl Crawford. His main premise hinged on the fact that while the addition of Lee would be nice, it was not necessary. I have to admit that I wasn’t completely convinced that the need for another top tier pitcher would be entirely superfluous, but his description of the advantages of adding Crawford to the Yankees’ lineup were undeniable.

The Yankees have clearly been moving towards a more all around athletic club. This ascension of players, like Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson, are proof enough of that, and Crawford fits that mold perfectly. He brings the speed of the former with the power of the latter. Not to mention the best fielding in the AL. It is tough to argue with the attractiveness of adding a player like that, but Loyal Homer was more than willing to give it a try.

Loyal Homer made a strong case for the New York Yankees to acquire free agent pitching phenom Cliff Lee. As is often the case in Yankee Universe, the team has become enamored with a player that has dominating success against the Yankees. As Loyal Homer adeptly points out, Lee nearly single handedly eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs, and if that doesn’t qualify as success against a given team then I don’t know what does. This has no doubt made him an all the more attractive option for the Bombers. Add to that the fact that the Yankees made a huge push for Lee and failed to land him before the trade deadline, and we are talking about team wants Lee more than Brett Favre wants attention.

Aside from C.C. Sabathia, the Yankees’ rotation is about as stable as a Milton Bradley meltdown. Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett are both hot and cold pitchers that cannot be counted on during the post-season. As Loyal Homer’s observes, Andy Pettite’s Brett Favre-esque “will he or won’t he” retirement melodrama only serves to further undermine the stability of the rotation. So it’s clear that acquiring Lee would be a great first step in shoring up a beleaguered rotation, not to mention providing them with a great one-two punch in the post-season.

What ultimately determined the outcome of this debate was a statement Loyal Homer made about what might have been if the Yankees acquired Lee in July, rather than see him slip to the Rangers.

We all know that scenario actually played out – with Texas beating the Yankees in six games and going on to their first World Series in franchise history – but Loyal Homer’s hypothetical scenario got me thinking about how the 2010 post-season would have played out with Lee in pinstripes. The Yankees probably would still have beaten the Twins, and would probably handled a Lee-less Rangers rotation with relative ease. But would the World Series have proven any better for the Yankees than it did for the Rangers?

I have to believe it would not.

Lee proved less effective in the World Series, and that was with a much hotter offense than the Yankees displayed this October. Although Lee’s presence would undeniably make the Yankees a better team, there is no proof that it would have made the Yankees into World Series champs. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary. Crawford, on the other hand, packs more potential. Based off of the numbers that Bleacher Fan presented, it seems likely that Crawford’s potent bat behind Derek Jeter would certainly prove more effective. It could even have a trickledown effect providing relief to the rest of the lineup by bumping a bigger bat like Nick Swisher further back in the order and removing questionable DHs like Marcus Thames altogether. While Crawford isn’t a sure thing (because really, who is besides Mariano Rivera) he has more potential upside given his track record. That’s why I’m awarding this debate win to the Bleacher Fan. While I don’t have a fat contract offer for you, you have my congratulations and another notch in the victory column.

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The Who Should the Yankees Sign Debate

November 8, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan and Loyal Homer.

Anyone familiar with baseball knows that for the New York Yankees, their season does not even begin until October. Other clubs may desperately seek to make the playoffs or even have a winning record. But for the Yankees, each season that does not result in a World Series championship is, by, definition a failure.

Although the Yankees made it to the ALCS and posted 2010’s ,third best record 95 wins and 67 losses – only bettered by the Philadelphia Phillies (97-65) and the Tampa Bay Rays (96-66) – it will be counted a failure because the Yankees did not accomplish what they set out to do. Now Brian Cashman and company will set out to make a plan to bring home the next title, perhaps without the decade long wait this time.

Today, however, The Sports Debates enter the realm of the fantastic as we explore a hypothetical scenario – what if the New York Yankees had a limited supply of money?

As ludicrous as that proposition may be, it is somewhat plausible considering the Yankees enter a new era with different Steinbrenners at the helm. So what should the Yankees do if they only have the funds to sign one big name player this off-season? Which bring us to the debate at hand: If the Yankees can only sign one person between pitcher Cliff Lee and outfielder Carl Crawford, who should they sign?

Obviously the Yankees have a penchant for chasing guys who get in their way in the post-season (see Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, and Randy Johnson). Likewise, we all know that pitching wins championships and Cliff Lee is unquestionably an ace. But this debate is no open and shut case. It was not New York’s pitching that looked the most vulnerable this past post-season, rather the lack of punch in the offense. The Texas Rangers outscored the usually potent, but suddenly anemic, Yankees offense in the ALCS. Adding the speed, quality glove, and capable bat of Crawford could also be exactly what the Yankees need in 2011.

It is up to Loyal Homer to make an argument that proves Cliff Lee is the more important target this off-season while Bleacher Fan will make a case that Carl Crawford should capture the hot stove attention of the Bronx Bombers.

As an obvious Yankees fanatic, I can hardly wait to hear these arguments. Gentlemen, let’s “Play Ball!”

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The Who Should the Yankees Sign Debate… Cliff Lee is a Luxury, Carl Crawford is a Necessity

November 8, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

I can absolutely see the attraction that Cliff Lee holds as a free agent, and from the New York Yankees’ perspective, Cliff Lee is basically the reason their season ended in October rather than November. To be able to add a pitcher like Lee to the Yankees rotation would absolutely be a major plus, but if Brian Cashman and the Yankees organization are afforded the ability to only sign one free agent this off-season, then Carl Crawford should be the primary target.

This is a simple question of need versus want for the Bronx Bombers.

Do they NEED another pitching ace? In short – no.

C.C. Sabathia remains one of the frontrunners to win the AL Cy Young Award AGAIN for his performance in 2010. He was the only 20-game winner in the American League this past season, and at a pricey $25M per season, he is the undeniable anchor of the Yankees’ pitching rotation.

If the Yankees were to sign Lee, he would become a luxurious complement to Sabathia, but he would neither supplant nor replace Sabathia as the top pitcher in the Yanks’ rotation. As much as the Yankees may enjoy opening up the check book, I don’t think they NEED to pay upwards of $150M for a number-two pitcher.

Now, left field in New York is a different story.

Brett Gardner had a decent season in left, but this is an area where they could absolutely use an upgrade. Enter, Carl Crawford.

At the plate, Crawford is exponentially more productive than Gardner. In 2010, his average was 30 points higher, and he racked up 52 more hits, 14 more home runs, and 43 more RBI than did Gardner.

Just imagine Crawford at the plate in pinstripes, batting behind, say, Derek Jeter (who I am confident the Yankees will re-sign). Yankee Stadium is a home run paradise for left-handed hitters, which should inflate Crawford’s home run total, and Jeter will give Crawford many more RBI opportunities than Jason Bartlett, Tampa’s leadoff hitter. As for those at-bats where Crawford doesn’t go yard, his base-running ability will be another huge boost for the Yankees, who have hitters like Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez, or Robinson Cano to move him around the bases.

The best lineup in baseball just got better. Oh yeah, did I mention that Crawford provides an upgrade in the field as well?

Gardner may have only committed one error in the field for the Yankees last season, but Crawford’s speed, range, and athleticism make him a much better defensive left fielder, especially when paired with Curtis Granderson in center field.

Crawford, who is in line for his first career Gold Glove award this season, led all left fielders with a range factor of 2.24, and his 306 put-outs were second only to Juan Pierre (307) of the Chicago White Sox.

The addition of Carl Crawford to the New York Yankees further solidifies their positioning as the best lineup in baseball, and elevates their outfield into the ranks of being the best defensive trio in the league.

Any way you look at it, Carl Crawford IMPROVES the Yankees, while Cliff Lee only COMPLEMENTS them.

If Hal Steinbrenner signs only one free agent this off-season, it had better be Carl Crawford!

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The 2010 MLB Second Half Team to Watch Debate… A Ray of Sunshine in the AL East

July 15, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Loyal Homer.

Four months ago I started my own personal Carl Crawford watch.

The Tampa Bay Rays were entering the 2010 campaign with a great deal of pressure. Because this is a contract year for Crawford, and if the Rays were unable to find any magic during the first half of the season (something I did not expect to happen), then the left fielder would have become the main attraction in a Ray fire sale.

What a difference four months can make.

Instead of being in a position to sell at the upcoming trade deadline the Rays have played some outstanding ball through the first half of the season. The team sits only two games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East, and currently holds a three game lead for the AL Wild Card over the other division rival, the Boston Red Sox.

Now, with the trade deadline fast approaching, the Rays could become one of the aggressive teams looking to buy in the hopes of getting a missing piece that will help them maintain momentum into the postseason.

The core of the roster is as solid as any in the Majors today. For his part, Crawford is making sure his value remains high, whether he stays in Tampa after this season or moves on to greener (pun intended) pastures. Through the first half of the season he is batting .321 and is among the league’s leaders in stolen bases (31) and triples (6). His performance was enough to earn him a starting nod on the American League All-Star roster, and he did not make that trek alone.

In addition to Crawford, the Rays boast two other All-Stars in third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher David Price.

Longoria made his third career All-Star appearance on Tuesday, thanks to a .300 batting average combined with an on-base percentage of .381 and a slugging percentage of .513. As for Price, he boasts the third most wins in the American League, as he is the proud owner of a 12-4 record through the first half of 2010. Price is also one of only nine starting pitchers in the league with an ERA below 2.50.

As the tread deadline looms ever closer, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has made the commitment to his teams and his fans that he will do everything in his power to ensure that his team will be playing October baseball, even promising that “money won’t be an object.”

And as ESPN.com writer Jerry Crasnick points out, even if the Rays fail to land a blockbuster trade deal, the team still has some amazing young prospects waiting in the wings… the type that could be called up and make an immediate contribution.

Conditions are perfect for a very exciting second half from the Tampa Bay Rays. The combination of first half success and All-Star talent, along with the indication that the team will be among the most aggressive teams at the trade deadline, makes for some very entertaining baseball during its closing months.

The Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series in 2008, but lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. Will 2010 be the year to finish the job? Rest assured that no other team will try harder than the Rays to make it back to the Fall Classic. In a division that has been dominated by the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, it is the Rays who are contributing the most exciting baseball of the season.

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The 2010 MLB Sleeper Debate… Ray-king in Wins in 2010

April 14, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

After April has come and gone the season begins to settle in, the real sleeper teams begin to emerge. Be wary of the April bandwagon, folks. Many teams – and individual players – start off the season with a great April but are unable to sustain that success down the stretch of an entire marathon baseball season. The key to today’s debate – which is designed to identify the best sleeper in team in baseball for 2010 – is to pick the team that may not start on fire but will improve over the course of the season. Despite the difficult division the team finds itself in, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the baseball’s best unexpected winner for the 2010 season.

Sure, at this writing the Rays are a game out of the division lead and sitting alongside the Yankees and the surprising Blue Jays (remember that post-April dip I mentioned?), and it seems as though my assertion is obvious. Consider, however, the fact that the Rays missed the playoffs last season and collapsed when faced with an opportunity to close in on the wild card leading Boston Red Sox in the closing weeks of the season (remember that Boston was riding a six game losing streak before winning its last four games to lock up the postseason spot). That is a tough way for any team to lose out on the postseason, when opportunity is present, but missed.

Last season also presented a difficult one for the Rays because of the various key contributors on the team that missed time due to injury. Though the surprising Jason Bartlett batted .320 last season, he also only played in 137 games. While Evan Longoria played in 157, he also battled injuries for most of the first two months – and some would argue the entire season – causing his batting average to slump to a surprisingly low .281. B.J. Upton only played in 144 games and Carlos Pena only in 135 games. The team still finished seventh in MLB in runs scored. Despite the difficulties at the plate the team still won 84 games and battled into September for a shot at the playoffs.

The 2010 season dawns on a healthy, rightfully optimistic bunch of Rays. Longoria is healthy and off to a great start with two home runs already on the young season. Carl Crawford is off to a slower start, but this is the same player that was last season’s All-Star game MVP and is a solid and consistent contributor for the team. He hit .305 last season and stole 60 bags. A healthy Rays lineup is a dangerous one.

Pitching was a constant battle last season with Matt Garza the staff’s only legitimate big league starter by season’s end because he was neither too old nor too inexperienced to have a positive impact. Very promising starter David Price is fresh off the experience of a full season as a starter in the majors. Even with his outstanding stuff, he is listed fourth in the starting rotation right now. And with good reason. James Shields has thrown over 215 innings the past two seasons while averaging a sub-4.00 ERA. Jeff Niemann enjoyed his first full season in the major leagues as a starter by hurling a 3.94 ERA and earning a team high 13 wins.

Win totals from the past two seasons might be low for this staff’s starters, but a vastly improved bullpen should help the starters notch more wins. New closer Rafael Soriano, though he had his battles with injuries in Atlanta, can be considered the first legitimate closer in the still short history of the Rays’ franchise. Grant Balfour earned 18 holds last season and will be looked upon, along with J.P. Howell (who will come off the disabled at the end of April) as key set up men. Howell had just four holds – but an impressive 2.84 ERA – last season. Dan Wheeler is still around the pen, too, after two straight seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA. That is a tough bunch of navigate – even for the hitters in the A.L. East – before getting to Soriano, who is already a proven closer in the majors.

April is a long month. Before getting too caught up in the fast starts of some trendy teams, remember that by June 1 a team still must be able to compete. That requires a balanced team, experienced winners, and plenty of depth. The Rays have each of those vital elements and will be 2010’s surprise sleeper team.

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