Monday, May 23, 2011

2011 Rays = 2006 Cardinals?

There is nothing in the world cooler than a math equation headline that takes about four seconds to dream up. I'm sure that your interest is piqued and now you can't wait to continue on. Or maybe you are completely offended by the fact that I have just compared one of this year's best contenders with what is widely regarded as the worst World Series winning team of all time (although, they still won it all, suckers!).

My original inspiration for this happened last Wednesday afternoon when I noticed that Joe Maddon turned in a line-up card for a game against the Blue Jays thusly:

1. Sam Fuld, LF
2. Ben Zobrist, 2B
3. Johnny Damon, DH
4. Evan Longoria, 3B
5. Matt Joyce, RF
6. B.J. Upton, CF
7. Casey Kotchman, 1B
8. Elliot Johnson, SS
9. John Jaso, C

A line-up that rivals some of those put forth by the late 90's Devil Rays, who were battling the woes of being a new expansion team formed with the rejects of others. There is only one hitter (Longoria) there that strikes any fear into opposing pitchers. In fact, one could argue whether or not five of them, more than half, (Fuld, Joyce, Kotchman, Johnson, and Jaso) even deserve spots on a Major League roster.

Maddon has been putting this heap of crap on the baseball field all season long and somehow managed a 26-21 record, good for a tie with the Yankees atop the AL East. Yes, there has been a very large degree of luck in putting together that record (a .410 BABIP from Matt Joyce is a good starter), but can this roster pull off the impossible and topple the Yankees/Sox and rest of the American League this year? I think so.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but if the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were able to pull of what they did, I think this Rays team can too because they are built similarly. Essentially, you take one crafty manager (La Russa/Maddon), give him one slugger (Pujols/Longoria), a solid rotation, and about fourteen utility men that alternate hot streaks. And boom, winning team is assembled.

Let's also not forget that the tiny Sam Fuld, currently leading off with his .278 OBP, is likely to be replaced with Desmond Jennings within the next few weeks as the Rays avoid Super Two status for their number one prospect. Although, his addition may push the Rays out of the cellar of association with the '06 Cardinals, since he's a slight upgrade over So Taguchi.

It's a formula that can surprisingly work in the AL East this year. Much to Zach's chagrin, a scrappy and grindy (and internet meme knowledgeable) team is what will work best in the long haul against the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Yankees have no pitching staff and have reverted to using gimmicky space age operations to fix the pudgy Bartolo Colon (although, that is unlikely to last, as Dave Cameron points out). Their lack of bullpen will catch up to them in the long run and postseason especially, when each pitcher is used to get one specific out. The average age of the Red Sox is 42, I think. They will probably win the division with the likes of Crawford and Gonzalez to carry them through the season, but in the postseason, the pitching matchups will not work in their favor like prior years and anyone outside of Crawford/Gonzalez will be likely worn down and unreliable. A team like the Rays that keeps battling late into ballgames and the season will wear out these two powerhouses, and eventually overtake them in the playoffs.

Although the Rays are currently on pace for a 90 win season, I think that might be enough to pull out the wild card in the American League, where no one seems to want to distinguish themselves. Outside of the  Cleveland Indians (wait, what?), everyone looks to be sporting a 500-ish ballclub. The matchups against the Red Sox and Yankees down the stretch will allow the Rays to keep even with those teams, and it's hard to see any of the other teams (Tigers, White Sox, Rangers) considered to be contenders at this point being able to hit 90 wins with the fatal flaws they have.

And if this Rays teams squeaks into the playoffs, they will do damage with a playoff-tested rotation outside of Hellickson. One has to assume that a solid veteran reliever will be scourged around the deadline, and then they will be set. If anything has been proven since the Cardinals 2006 run (and actually the entire decade since the Angels 2002 victory really), it is that solid, smart baseball playoffs will overcome raw talent every time. This isn't the 1990's, where teams can rely on the likes of roided out Chuck Knoblauchs to blast through the playoffs.

That's why my money is still on the Rays to come out of the American League in October, despite their current roster shortcomings.

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