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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Updated: February 20, 12:14 PM ET
Unblocked Rays could do some damage

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- One of the five best teams in baseball trains right here in exotic Port Charlotte, the home of wild boars and Rick Treworgy's Muscle Car City. And it isn't the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs, either.

It's those top-secret Tampa Bay Rays, of course. And mark this down: They're the best team in baseball nobody is talking about.

Why should the rest of the AL East, if not the whole American League, be fearing this team? Here's why:

It isn't last year anymore

Anybody remember what we all thought of the Rays a year ago this time? We thought they were one of the three best teams in baseball. That's what.

Well, on paper at least, there's sure no reason to think they've gotten any worse.

On the day his team reported to spring training, general manager Andrew Friedman called the current group "the most talented team in Rays history." And while that may not be quite the same thing as "the most talented team in Yankees history," it's still the kind of statement that tends to stick in your head from February 'til October.

I'll get into a couple of the reasons it's easy to agree with that review, but first let's remind you of what a strange season this team had last year.

First off, just look at the Rays' raw numbers. Our friends at Baseball Prospectus work up a chart they call the "Adjusted Standings," to show what teams' records should have looked like, based on stats and run differential.

And according to BP, the Rays should have won 92 games -- as opposed to the 84 they won in real life -- meaning they underachieved by eight wins. No other team with a winning record fell that far under its expected win total last season. Not a one.

This team also allowed fewer runs (754) than the Twins and Angels, who happened to win the AL Central and AL West, respectively, and allowed just one more run than the Yankees, who -- as you might have heard -- won the World Series.

The Rays were also a team that got swallowed up by a killer schedule early in the season. They played just seven home games before April 30, had road games in three time zones in that span and were forced to play five series against the Yankees and Red Sox by May 10.

So next thing they knew, they were 6½ games out in the East a mere 19 games into the season. And from there, their season turned into one titanic come-from-behind struggle.

"What people forget," said manager Joe Maddon, "was that Toronto got off to a good start, too. So we had Toronto, Boston and the Yankees all on top of us. So now you've got to jump three teams. That requires a lot of mental energy to do that. Obviously, it's physical, too. But just looking at that every day, you say, 'We've got to get past this group. We've got to get past that group. And we've got to get past that group.'"

Once they stabilized, they went 52-34 between May 1 and Aug. 5, the third-best record in the American League (behind only the Yankees and Angels). But then a crushing 11th-inning loss in Seattle "opened up the negative floodgates," Maddon said. And they faded out of the race.

But in reality, by almost any rational measure, the difference between that team and the Yankees and Red Sox wasn't as mammoth as the standings may have made it look.

"As we sat down and really broke it down after the season," Friedman said Thursday, "we felt strongly that we were better than an 84-win team. Now that did nothing for us in '09. But it did a lot for us in terms of shaping our thought process throughout the winter."

So why should we think they'll be good enough to hang with the Yankees and Red Sox this season? Here are two big reasons:

They have a closer

It's easy to think the most overrated position in baseball is a closer -- unless you're a team that doesn't have one.

Well, check out the late-inning nightmares of the 2009 Rays sometime.

They had to turn to nine different pitchers to save a game, more than any team in the big leagues. They blew 22 saves. And over the last eight weeks of the season, their bullpen racked up nine blown saves and 11 losses, which wasn't real conducive to closing the gap on the Yankees and Red Sox.

So enter Rafael Soriano.

When the 30-year-old Soriano surprised the Braves by foregoing free agency to accept arbitration last December, it started a chain of events that enabled the Rays to swoop in and deal for him, in a trade that cost them only second-year set-up man Jesse Chavez. And now, if Soriano just does what he's supposed to do, he is, potentially, a franchise-changing kind of guy.

Oh, he isn't Mariano Rivera. He isn't Joe Nathan. He hasn't always been healthy or dependable. But you'd probably be shocked to learn that …

•  Only four active relief pitchers (who have faced at least 1,250 hitters) have held opposing hitters below the Mendoza Line -- and, yep, Soriano (.199 opponent average) is one of them. The others: Carlos Marmol, Billy Wagner and Francisco Rodriguez.

•  Meanwhile, no active pitcher has held opposing right-handed hitters to a lower career batting average than Soriano (.167). Yeah, you read that right: Nobody.

•  And, finally, in the four seasons in which Soriano was healthy enough to appear in at least 40 games, he has averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings and only 5.9 hits per nine innings. You spell that d-o-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n.

Now the bad news is that he spread those four seasons out over the past seven years. But you don't have to be related to Rollie Fingers to see what this guy could be. Now, if he can just get himself to the mound about 60 times, he can free this team from another year of mix-and-match roulette.

"He's a guy who fits us extremely well," Friedman said. "He's a guy we have a lot of confidence in, in high-leverage situations. And we feel strongly he possesses swing-and-miss stuff in the American League East."

Wading in

While the world focuses its eyes this spring on Stephen Strasburg, the No. 5 pitching prospect on Keith Law's top 100 list can be found right here in Port Charlotte this spring.

Wade Davis
In six starts last fall, rookie right-hander Wade Davis recorded 36 strikeouts in 36.1 innings.

That would be 24-year-old right-hander Wade Davis, whose eye-popping debut last September didn't get anywhere near the attention it should have.

Among the highlights of Davis' six-start cameo in September: •  He struck out the first four hitters he ever faced in the big leagues, on Sept. 6 against the Tigers -- a feat matched by only one other rookie pitcher (Neftali Feliz) since 1963.

•  Davis' nine strikeouts overall that day were tied for the fifth-most by any pitcher in his big-league debut over the past 30 years.

•  And his first big-league win was a 10-strikeout, four-hit, complete-game shutout against the Orioles on Sept. 17. It made Davis the first pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout for his first career win since Ervin Santana did it in 2005.

But beyond that, "we think he's got an uncanny awareness for a young player," Friedman said. "We had a staff meeting [Wednesday], and one of the things we talked about with Wade Davis wasn't the very good starts he had. It was the bad start he had in Boston [in which he gave up eight runs in 2 2/3 innings, following a two-hour rain delay], and the way he bounced back from that, and the way he processed that start and focused on … how he could get better.

"It was a very unusual feel for the game at the major league level. For such a young guy, it was really impressive and something that really stood out for us. So now, we're going into the spring, and it's a situation where there's a competition for the last spot [in the rotation]. But obviously, what Wade did last year left quite an impression on all of us."

And unlike last year, when the Rays almost seemed to be rooting against David Price in his quest to make the rotation, you get the feeling something nutty would have to happen for Davis to not make it.

"The difference," Friedman said, "is that Wade was brought through our system very methodically. And as everyone knows, David's ascent to the major leagues was rather quick. So just from an innings perspective, it's a little bit different. Wade is in a much better position to take on a heavy load in our mind. So in that respect, it's different. In our mind, he's in a position to put 200-plus innings in this year."

For now, James Shields probably still ranks as this team's theoretical No. 1 starter. And Jeff Niemann was the guy who led the team in wins last year. But in the big picture, it's the other three starters -- Davis, Price and Matt Garza -- who all have top-of-the-rotation ability. And if that ability comes out this summer, look out.

By the way, this team also has Keith Law's No. 7-ranked pitching prospect in baseball, Jeremy Hellickson, looming just over the horizon. So while this might not be as ballyhooed a rotation as the groups in Boston and the Bronx, if all these light bulbs go on at once, look out.

These Rays know the media hordes will spend their time elsewhere this spring. But you won't hear anyone in Port Charlotte whining about that. Heck, they think it's a good thing.

"To be honest, we kind of relish that," Friedman said. "In '08, nobody talked about us, either. They considered us an afterthought to the Yankees and Red Sox. And even coming off the World Series, I think there was a lot of that last year, as well. So I think it's something that motivates our guys. It insulates us from the world. It sparks this us-against-the-world mentality. And I think it drives all of us."

It's a little early to say how far it can drive them. But they're a reminder to all of us that it's a lot better idea to judge a team on talent than it is on talk-show volume. And feel free to mark that down, too.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.