The Tampa Bay Rays are the Rudy of MLB

"Me? AL Manager of the Year?" Yes, Joe Maddon. Yes, indeed. (Brian Blanco/AP)

Okay, let’s see a show of hands: Who thought the Tampa Bay Rays were toast in 2011? Anyone thought they actually had a chance in the American League East against the rich and powerful New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

After the Red Sox stole Carl Crawford away from the Rays, and the Yankees continued to be the best team on paper that money can buy, the poor, little Rays were destined for the basement in the AL East last year, right?

Wrong! Manager Joe Maddon proved why he is one of the best skippers in the game by leading Tampa Bay to a 91-71 mark and a wild-card finish behind the Yankees and ahead of the Red Sox.

Stud third baseman Evan Longoria had a mediocre year in 2011 for the Rays. The team’s best pitcher, David Price, had a losing record and was a huge disappointment. The Rays didn’t have a player who knocked in 100 runs and they fielded a lineup with two has-beens: Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman.

So, how in the name of Tropicana Field did the Rays manage to remain competitive all season?

The Rays won in 2011 because of timely hitting, solid fielding, Maddon’s steady managerial hand and from their seemingly endless supply of Rookie-of-the-Year starting pitching candidates.

Make no mistake about it: The Rays are never going to be the MLB poster children for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” They aren’t packed with the big names like the Yankees and Red Sox. Take away Longoria, Damon and Price, and the Rays more closely resemble a triple-A team than one contending for an AL East title.

That’s what makes Tampa Bay so much fun to pull for. Unless you’re a die-hard Tampa Bay fan, did you really know much about guys like Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld, Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann?

Hellickson won the AL ROY award with his 13 wins and 2.95 ERA in 29 starts. He did give up 21 homers and walked 72 batters, which he needs to improve upon, but the future is bright for the Rays and the 24-year-old Hellickson.

Tampa Bay’s success begins and ends with its starting pitching. Though he had a down year in 2011 (12-13), Price is still one of the best lefties in the game. He and Hellickson are backed on the mound by stud James Shields (16-12, 2.82 ERA), Niemann (11-7) and Wade Davis (11-10).

Where the Rays need some help in 2012 is on offense. Guess which two teams led the American League in team batting in 2011? That’s right, the Yankees and the Red Sox. Tampa Bay hit 50 fewer home runs than the Yankees and drove in almost 200 fewer runs than both the Yankees and Red Sox. In addition, the Rays had a paltry .244 team batting average in 2011.

The Rays have some decisions to make this offseason. Both Kotchman and Damon are free agents. Kotchman had a career-high .306 batting average in 500 plate appearances last season. Although he couldn’t throw out an overweight catcher with a bad leg trying to stretch a single into a double, Damon still hit .261 with 16 homers and 73 RBI for the Rays last year.

Kotchman is only 28, while Damon is 38, so it would make more sense for the Rays to bring Kotchman back in 2012. The biggest holes for the Rays in 2012 appear to be at first base and catcher. If Kotchman is re-signed, the Rays can play him at first and at DH. Although he did hit above .300 last season, he’s still a contact hitter who doesn’t provide much power (only 10 homers in 500 at-bats in 2011).

It’s not realistic for the Rays to pursue free agent first basemen like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. It’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay paying either of those guys $200 million when its team payroll for 2011 was only $41 million, next-to-last in all of MLB.

Why not Carlos Pena for the Rays at first base? Pena only hit .225 for the Cubs in 2011, but he did knock 28 homers and drove in 80 runs. Those power numbers would seemingly only increase in Tampa. You’re never going to get a .300 hitter from Pena, but you will get power and he would be reunited with the team for which he played for four seasons (2007-10).

Do the Rays really want to turn an important position like catcher to unproven players like John Jaso and Jose Lobaton? The 28-year-old Jaso was drafted by the Rays in 2003, but he has yet to play a full season at the MLB level.

Jaso hit .224 in 89 games with the Rays last season. The 27-year-old Lobaton is even more unproven than Jaso. Lobaton hasn’t driven in a big-league run in his two MLB seasons and boasts a career .137 batting average. The Rays could bring back Kelly Shoppach, but he only hit .176 in 2011 and averaged almost one strikeout in every three plate appearances.

The free agent market for catchers is as bare as the buffet table after a visit by Christina Aguilera. Ramon Hernandez is a possibility for the Rays. The former Cincinnati backstop hit 12 homers and batted .282 in 2011. Jorge Posada might also make sense for the Rays to help teach Jaso and provide some relief behind the plate and at DH.

The future is bright for Tampa Bay. Longoria most certainly will hit better than .244 in 2012. Upton should also bring up his disappointing .243 average. Joyce and Jennings are just beginning to tap their full potential.

Tampa Bay also appears set at shortstop for many years to come in the form of 26-year-old Sean Rodriguez. Rodriguez hit eight homers and drove in 36 runs for the Rays last season, although he did only bat .223.

If the Rays can add an offensive player this offseason and sign a catcher to help add stability behind the plate, 2012 should be another year of hope in Tampa.

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