The Arizona Diamonbacks and Milwaukee Brewers, two teams that had losing records in 2006, are considered contenders entering the 2007 season. There's reason to believe that the Colorado Rockies, who finished 2006 with the exact same record as the Diamondbacks, could surprise some people as well. Over in the American League, the two teams that lost 100 or more games last year, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Kansas City Royals, are two of the teams that intrigue me most entering the 2007 season. Not because I think they'll contend like that NL trio, none of which lost 90 games last year, not even because I think they'll be particularly good, but because I think they'll be better, and better for rather compelling reasons.
In the case of the Royals, they've added the game's top prospect, third baseman Alex Gordon, 23, finally rid themselves of no-hit, no-field, no-run shortstop Angel Berroa (in favor of Tony Pena Jr., who can't hit or run, but sure can pick 'em), and constructed a lineup in which poor man's slugger Ryan Shealy is hitting seventh. Meanwhile, they've got one of the most compelling stories in the game in Zack Greinke, who returned from a battle with social anxiety to dominate in spring training and break camp as a member of the major league rotation. The combination of Greinke and Gil Meche, who landed one of the most perplexing contracts of the offseason, will be curious to say the least.
The Devil Rays, meanwhile, have surprised many by breaking camp with troubled prospects B. J. Upton and Elijah Dukes in their Opening Day lineup at second base and center field respectively. Twenty-two-year-olds Upton and Dukes join 21-year-old Delmon Young, established homegrown stars Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, both 25, and former New York prospects Dioner Navarro and Scott Kazmir, both 23, to form one of the most exciting young squads in baseball. That's a big deal for a team that scored the fewest runs in the major leagues last year, in part due to the plate appearances wasted on Travis Lee (388: .224/.312/.364), Damon Hollins (355: .228/.269/.423), Tomas Perez (254: .212/.224/.286), Toby Hall (234: .231/.261/.398) and busted prospect Jorge Cantu (448: .249/.295/.404), the last of whom failed to make the team this spring.
That's not to say that Upton and Dukes, let alone Young and Navarro, or even the gimpy Baldelli (who will start the season as the DH due to chronic hamstring problems) are guaranteed to produce (it seemed Upton forgot to pack his bats for his brief major league stint last year), but the upside to this year's Devil Ray offense is miles higher than that which the team ran out there last year. And I haven't even mentioned Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura, who just might prove to be the most underrated addition in the division.
The problem, of course, is pitching. After Scott Kazmir, the Rays will get a full season out of 25-year-old James Shields, who acquitted himself well as a rookie last year and is the sort of young, homegrown, mid-rotation starter they need to succeed, but that's it. Jason Hammel, who was supposed to compliment Shields, failed to make the team, as did J. P. Howell, the lefty starter acquired from the Royals for Joey Gathright. That means more Casey Fossum, Jae Seo, and busted Dodgers prospect Edwin Jackson. Things look even bleaker in the bullpen, which is the usual assortment of journeymen and busted prospects and opens the year without a clear closer. Without pitching, everything can break right for the Devil Rays' offense and the team still won't win, particularly in this division and this league. There are pitching prospects on the way (assuming you believe in such creatures) such as Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot, Jacob McGee, Wade Davis, and Wade Townsend, but due to either injury concerns or inexperience, none are particularly close to helping. That leaves it to General Manager Andrew Friedman to properly leverage his outfield glut (Crawford, Baldelli, Young, Dukes, Jonny Gomes, possibly even Upton if he fails at his third infield position) for young arms that can help. The Gathright for J.P. Howell deal was a declaration of intent. Expect a more substantial swap this summer.
Until then, Rays will have keep Kazmir healthy and cash in his starts as often as possible (the high upside would look like a modern-day version of fellow lefty Steve Carlton's 1972 campaign). As exciting as the Rays' young offense might be, there's not true masher in the bunch, nor are players such as Crawford, Baldelli, or Young particularly adept at inflating their on-base percentages via bases on balls. There are still major concerns over Upton's fielding and Dukes' disposition, and neither Dukes nor Iwamura has ever played a regular season game in the major leagues. So the Devil Rays aren't necessarily going to be good, but they sure will be interesting.
Manager: Joe Maddon General Manager: Andrew Friedman
Home Ballpark (2006 Park Factors): Tropicana Field (102/102)
Who's Replacing Whom?
Akinori Iwamura replaces Jorge Cantu (minors)
Elijah Dukes replaces Aubrey Huff, Russell Branyan, and Joey Gathright
Delmon Young inherits Damon Hollins' playing time
B. J. Upton inherits Travis Lee's playing time
Dioner Navarro replaces a half-season of Toby Hall
Ben Zobrist replaces two-thirds of a season of Julio Lugo
Carlos Peña replaces Greg Norton (DL)
Brendan Harris replaces Tomas Perez
Jae Seo takes over Tim Corcoran's starts
James Shields takes over Doug Waechter's starts
Edwin Jackson takes over the starts of Mark Hendrickson, Seth McClung (minors) and Jason Hammel (minors)
Brian Stokes replaces Brian Meadows
Gary Glover replaces John Switzer (DL)
Al Reyes replaces Tyler Walker and Travis Harper
Jae Kuk Ryu replaces Chad Harville and Chad Orvella (minors)
Juan Salas replaces J. P. Howell (minors) and Dan Miceli
Opening Day Roster:
1B Ty Wigginton (R)
2B B. J. Upton (R)
SS Ben Zobrist (S)
3B Akinori Iwamura (L)
C Dioner Navarro(S)
RF Delmon Young (R)
CF Elijah Dukes (R)
LF Carl Crawford (L)
DH Rocco Baldelli (R)
R Jonny Gomes (OF)
L Carlos Peña (1B)
R Brendan Harris (IF)
R Josh Paul(C)
L Scott Kazmir
R Jae Seo
R James Shields
L Casey Fossum
R Edwin Jackson
R Shawn Camp
R Brian Stokes
R Ruddy Lugo
R Gary Glover
R Al Reyes
R Jae Kuk Ryu
R Juan Salas
L Carl Crawford (CF)
S Ben Zobrist (S)
R Rocco Baldelli (R)
R Ty Wigginton (R)
R Delmon Young (R)
L Akinori Iwamura (L)
S Dioner Navarro (S)
R Elijah Dukes (R)
R B. J. Upton (R)
Incidentally, here's who's replacing whom for the Yankees:
Who's Replacing Whom?
Full seasons of Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui replace Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield
Doug Mientkiewicz replaces Craig Wilson, Aaron Guiel and some of Melky Cabrera
Josh Phelps replaces Andy Phillips
Wil Nieves replaces Sal Fasano and Kelly Stinnett
Andy Pettitte replaces Randy Johnson
Kei Igawa replaces Jaret Wright
Carl Pavano replaces Shawn Chacon and Cory Lidle
Luis Vizcaino replaces Ron Villone
Sean Henn replaces T.J. Beam, Aaron Small, Scott Erickson etc.