On October 12, 2010, there was a gigantic thud that could be heard from time zones away. At Tropicana Field, a 5-1 loss to the Texas Rangers
officially, once and potentially for all, slammed shut the window of opportunity to win a World Series for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Sure, you can talk all about how this is a team that is still stacked with veterans, a fantastic pitching staff and some of the best prospects in the game, but even this Tampa Bay fan realizes that the days of winning 90 games and competing for a playoff spot are gone.
Of course, the rise of the Rays was meteoric to say the least. It was only four years ago that the team won 66 games and finished in the gutter in the AL East, a place where they made home since the day the franchise was incepted. So though the proverbial window of opportunity might be shut, even winning 75 games this year would be a marked improvement from those awful days that only ended in 2007.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Tampa Bay still probably has one of the seven or eight best teams in Major League Baseball. Bodog lists the Rays 20/1 to win the 2011 World Series, tied with the Twins and White Sox for the fourth-best odds in the AL. Boston (5/1), New York (6/1) and Texas (18/1) rank 1-2-3 among AL teams to win the World Series.
The problem is, after years of picking on the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, it is becoming incredibly apparently that, without a miracle, the Goliath's have finally towered over the David's definitively.
The starting pitching staff underachieved for the Rays all year last year. David Price was amazing, winning 19 games, and probably getting robbed out of the Cy Young Award in the American League. But beyond him, four men with the ability to win 20+ games finished with a combined record of 52-43 and a combined ERA near 4.50.
Gone is Matt Garza, who clearly was the second best pitcher on the trade. He was a salary casualty, as he was essentially traded for a box of baseballs to the Chicago Cubs. Someone had to go though, to make room for Jeremy Hellickson who is ready to go after a year of being known as one of the top prospects in all of baseball.
The rest of the starters might be intact, but thanks to slashing salary, the bullpen has been totally demolished. Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano, two men which were brought into Tampa Bay last year off of the scrap heap, both had sub-2.00 ERAs in one of the best bullpens in the game, but both left for big bucks in the offseason. The fact that Soriano is now wearing pinstripes is going to be known as the second biggest travesty of the year for the Rays.
Somehow, names like Kyle Farnsworth, Jake McGee, Mike Ekstrom and Joel Peralta just don't scare us the same way that Soriano, Grant Balfour, Benoit and Dan Wheeler did.
Mentioning the second biggest travesty for the Rays wasn't nearly as difficult as the biggest travesty. Seeing Carl Crawford, a lifer in the Tampa Bay organization, playing for the Red Sox, where he will inevitably bat .600 and score 30 runs in 19 games against the Rays this year, is just sickening to even type, let alone see.
However, this is the reality of what the constraints of money did to Tampa Bay in the offseason. Crawford left via free agency. So did Carlos Pena. Jason Bartlett was traded. In their places are Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Gee, thanks. The last time that the Rays made a veteran signing like this to come in and help the team out, they ended up begging someone to take Pat Burrell off of their hands before finally just cutting him... and then watching him win a ring for the San Francisco Giants. So yes, from now on, I'm deeming Manny Ramirez to be Pat Burrell v2.0.
Sure, there is plenty to be intrigued at this year for the Rays. Reid Brignac and Sean Johnson don't have anything else clogging up time in the lineup on a regular basis. Desmond Jennings, a man that we have been hearing about in the farm system for years is going to probably end up starting 100-110 games. Evan Longoria has a chance to build on his three year career which already has him hitting 82 home runs and driving in 302 RBIs.
However, when push came to shove, it wasn't the play of the team on the field, but the performance of the fans in the stands that really made the difference here for the Rays. Even though the team has now made the playoffs twice in the last three seasons, fans just didn't show up.
As a result, ownership had to step in and slash some payroll, and though it wasn't this current payroll that was that devastating, it was the idea of trying to re-sign Crawford or to do so with Pena, Bartlett and the likes in the upcoming season or two that caused GM Andrew Friedman to pull the plug on so many of the mainstays that built this team.
It was only two years ago that manager Joe Maddon coined the term "9=8." It was the birth of a team that simply outworked the big boys on a nightly basis. Can Maddon put together some magic this year? Maybe. But when push really comes to shove, in a division where 100 wins might still leave you in third place, there's just no hope for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The window has already been slammed shut.