Where They Stand: Tampa Bay Devil Rays | Sharapova's Thigh

Since we're all huge baseball fans here at the Thigh, we've decided to examine each MLB team and where they currently stand. We'll look at how the team did last year, changes that happened or could happen with the team this offseason, and how it looks like the team will do in 2009 as of now. We'll even toss in the hottest thigh associated with each team. In this edition, we look at the American League Champion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Beginning what may or may not be a one-night stand with Sharapova's Thigh, this Where They Stand is brought to you by acclaimed and universally beloved professional baseball writer David Chalk, who covers baseball and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Bugs & Cranks, and occasionally for Yahoo!'s Big League Stew.

2008 Outcome: 97-65, 1st Place In The AL East, 2 Games Ahead Of The Red Sox.

What They've Lost: SP Edwin Jackson (Traded To Tigers), 3B/OF Eric "Shitske" Hinske (Signed With Pirates), DH Cliff Floyd (Signed With Padres), RP Trever Miller (Signed With Cardinals), OF/Enforcer/Celebration Coordinator Jonny Gomes (Signed With Reds), RP The Eraser Al Reyes (Unsigned) RP The Lethal Weapon Gary Glover (Signed With Nationals), DH/OF Rocco Baldelli (Signed With Red Sox), RP Scott Dohmann (Signed With Japanese Team), PH Dan Johnson (Sold To Japan), OF Nathan Haynes (Signed With Rangers), RP Juan Salas (Signed With Cleveland), P Jae Kuk Ryu (Signed With Padres), RP Kurt Birkins (Unsigned)

What They've Added: Signed DH/OF Pat Burrell (2 Year, $16 Million), Signed RP Brian Shouse (1 Year, $1.55 Million), Signed RP Joe Nelson (1 Year, $1.3 Million), Signed OF Gabe Kapler (1 Year, $1.000018 Million), Signed RP Lance Cormier (1 Year, $675,000), Traded For OF Matt Joyce

Needs: Not a damned thing.

The Talk: The best team in baseball in 2008 is back, better and hungrier after having their first World Series stolen from them by MLB officials who put postponing a PR hit until February above the sanctity of the game. (Phillies reliever J.C. Romero twice tested positive in August 2008 for banned performance-enhancing steroid-type drugs, but was still allowed to play in the postseason; Romero will serve a 50-game suspension at the start of the 2009 regular season.)

The Devil Rays' overabundance of young stud pitchers already resulted in last year's 5th starter Edwin Jackson, who only tied the franchise single-season win record in 2008, being traded to the Tigers for Matt Joyce. The Devil Rays' rotation is easily the best in baseball, but who will start the season in the fifth spot is still in doubt as the latest chatter suggests at least one trade will go down soon.

The fifth spot battle is down to Jason Hammel and rookie fireballer Jeff "The Giraffe" Niemann. Last April, Hammel filled in admirably whilst Scott Kazmir was on the DL, then spent most of the year as a little used long reliever, but was able to pick up a clutch save in September at Fenway. Niemann was also impressive in his first MLB start last April, made one more start and then appeared in relief in three games in September. Neither has any options left, so one is likely to be traded, although most of the offseason there was a lot of speculation of Niemann moving to the bullpen and becoming a stud like J. P. Howell.

At the top of the rotation, the Devil Rays have an unrivled trio of aces. Scott Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts in ‘07 and won the All-Star Game in ‘08, The Master Of The Modified Circle Change James Shields tied the franchise record for wins in ‘08, and Matt Garza was the MVP of the 2008 ALCS. Shields and Garza each threw a one-hit shutout during the regular season.

In the four spot is Andy Sonnanstine, who's less flashy but consistently gets the job done -- he could be a #2 starter on most clubs. All four of those guys were solid in the postseason. And Shields is the oldest of the four at the ripe age of 27.

Waiting in the wings to take over the five spot is not only former #1 overall pick David Price, who earned the save against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS, but another stud prospect Wade Davis. The Mayor Of Devil Ray Town Cork Gaines of Rays Index says Davis will likely get the call first, and Buster Olney recently quoted an AL official as saying Davis was the most impressive minor leaguer he saw this spring.

The bullpen was stellar throughout last season, and its best pieces are back and will be supported by some nice additions. Trevor Percival will return as the most days closer. Percival stands alone at #9 atop the Major League Baseball All-Time Career Saves Leader List, and was dominant for the first half of the season. Injuries limited his effectiveness the second half, but the man's a warrior and had at least two shouting matches when manager Joe Maddon came to give him the hook when he was clearly gimpy. Maddon and Percival go way back, as Maddon was the Angels bench coach during Percival's prime. Percival's also a vocal leader who was telling anyone who would listen last spring that the Devil Rays could match any team talent-for-talent, and even had t-shirts made up comparing Kaz, Shields and Garza to Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery.

Backing up Percival will be former Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, although Izzy will start the year on the DL. The eighth inning guy is likely to remain grizzly veteran Dan Wheeler. The real stars of the bullpen should again be fiery Aussie fireballer Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell, who some said was the most valuable member of the Devil Rays staff last year and repped the USA this spring in the WBC. Maddon relied on those two all year to get tough outs and go more than one inning in most outings. There's also been plenty of talk about Balfour being the closer of the future, a role he excelled in at AAA Durham before his callup at the end of last May.

The Devil Rays also added lefty specialist Brian Shouse from the Brewers. Submariner Chad Bradford will miss a few months on the DL, but could contribute again down the stretch. The last spots in the pen could go to other newcomers Joe Nelson and Lance Cormier, or if there's no trade Jeff Niemann could start as a long man but be groomed for a role similar to Howell's.

Another scary thing about the Devil Rays is that the offense underperformed last year, with no one having a career year. It will only get better this year with the additions of Burrell, Joyce and Kapler, and with other key players coming back healthy after playing through much of the year with injury. And as good as the defense was last season, it should be even better this year.

Centerfielder B.J. Upton, who was hitting postseason home runs at a record pace last fall, will likely move up to leadoff. Upton may miss the first week of the season because he was recovering from offseason shoulder season, but considering how dominant he was last year playing most of the year with a shoulder injury, he should be killing the ball all year. Batting second and playing leftfield, you have two-time All-Star Carl Crawford, the franchise’s Christ Child. No one-two punch in baseball is faster, better, more powerful or more fearsome.

Batting third and playing first, you have El Gato Del Crimen Carlos Pena. EGDC won his first gold glove last year, and in ‘07 he broke the Devil Rays single-season HR and RBI marks, and won a Silver Slugger and the AL Comeback Of The Year Award. He got off to a slow start last year, but he carried the team down the stretch when Crawford and Longoria were injured. Speaking of your Unanimous 2008 Rookie Of The Year, All-Star Evan Longoria will play third and likely hit cleanup. Longoria only played in 122 games last year as he wasn't called up until the third week of the season and missed a month late with a wrist injury. Still he was in the top ten in the AL in slugging percentage and HR/AB. Healthy all year, he should be sick.

Pat “The Bat” Burrell is the newly acquired stud of the lineup, taking over for departed Cliff "Dr. Huxtable" Floyd at DH and likely hitting fifth. Behind the plate, another All-Star, The Fat Catcher Dioner Navarro has shed some pounds and has been compared favorably to Johnny Bench. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura deserved a Gold Glove last year in his first year at that position, and should hit more home runs after leading off for the Devil Rays the past two seasons. In right field, you got the super Gabe platoon of Gabe Gross — who played stellar D last year and provided many clutch hits — and newcomer Gabe Kapler. Hitting second leadoff is 2008 team MVP shortstop Jason Bartlett. Bartlett and Crawford were named the best defenders at their positions by ESPN's Baseball Tonight crew.

Did I mention they have a ton of depth? Willy Aybar could be a damn good starter on a lot of teams, and was huge filling in when Longoria went down last August. Super Utility Guy Ben Zobrist has a lot of power and has started at seven different positions this spring. Zobrist will start in center for the first week of the season until Upton comes back. Rounding out the bench is backup catcher The Diesel Shawn Riggans and Matt Joyce, who was impressive and saved a kitten in his rookie campaign with the Tigers last year.

Free Agent Signing/Trade Prediction: The word is that the Devil Rays are looking to add to their already impressive farm system with any trade; as things stand, they have more Major League talent than they have roster spots for.

Young Player To Make 2009 Impact: David Price.

I'm pretty sure you know who David Price is. Even though he was dominant last postseason (5 games, 5.2 IP, 1-0, 1 Save, 1.59 ERA), he'll be starting the year in AAA because the Devil Rays are concerned about putting too many innings on his young arm -- last year was after all his first pro season after dominating at Vanderbilt. Since they have other solid options there's no reason to blow him up like the Yankees have probably done with Joba. (And Phil Hughes, and....)

It's tempting to go with Wade Davis instead here, and Jeff Niemann could have a big impact out of the bullpen if he's not traded. Matt Joyce might bust out too, but if everybody stays healthy there may not be enough at-bats for him, and speedy outfielder Fernando Perez could have an impact in the second half when his wrist heals.

But with the way the Devil Rays are handling him carefully, there's no reason to not think David Price is the best bet here.

2009 Outlook: It's natural to expect some falling off after a great breakout year like the Devil Rays had last year. But this team is young, deep and talented. Even if a few pitchers and batters get hurt or have bad years, there's a shitton of talent behind them to step up. Joe Maddon clearly knows how to use his personnel.

Last year, my preseason projection for the Devil Rays came closer to their actual win total than anyone else (*using reverse Price Is Right rules, closest without going under). Using a slightly tweaked version of the same system, this year I'm conservatively projecting 113 wins for the Devil Rays. Would I be shocked if they came up a little short -- well, maybe a little. But I'm damn confident that Pecota's projection of 94 wins is too low. The Devil Rays will remain the class of baseball's best division, not just this year, but for many, many years to come.

Hottest Thigh Association:

There's so many deserving candidates to choose from here.

There's the lovely and witty ladies who got on TV last season with their "Devil Rays: Wanna Sign My Sweet Spot?" sign.

There's the Glorious Ladies Of Devil Ray Town who supported the team with "mohawks to the south," and inspired copycats in Boston.

Team MVP Jason Bartlett has a rather fetching wife.

Ben Zobrist's wife is also rather attractive if you can get over the whole religious singing career thing.

There's the lovely and talented Jenn Sterger.

You've probably heard of Erin Andrews, she reports a lot for ESPN. She's a native Tampan and she recorded a video cheerleading for the Devil Rays that they show on the jumbotron at historic Tropicana Field.

I'm sure there's tons more, but unfortunately the ultimate decision is out of my hands.

You see, Evan Longoria is a close personal friend, so when E-Love asks for a favor, he gets it. And he says the Devil Rays Hottest Thigh Association has to be his sister, even if she is married to that dirty Frenchman.

Eva Longoria

David Chalk also writes for Bugs and Cranks.

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