The 2011 Rays are a lot like the 2008 Rays- no, I am not projecting they will win the AL East or go to the World Series, but that they enter this season with a combination of promising young players and declining veterans who could fuel a resurgence for the reigning division champions or provide a reminder of what growing pains look like for an inexperienced team.  The team enters this season with a devastated bullpen and a far less imposing lineup, though their bevy of prospects still makes them the envy of most farm systems save for the Kansas City Royals.  If the Rays are anything like the Orioles it will result in a complete collapse, with prospects thrown up to the Majors before they are ready and a catastrophic season that shatters the hopes of all three Tampa fans (sorry, I had to do it) for years to come.  But the Rays aren’t the Orioles, and while they will take a big step back, it is hard to see them falling off entirely.

One cannot look at the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays without first looking at the losses from the 2010 edition.  They go into this season without the services of Carl Crawford, who will be facing his former team 18 times this year.  Losing Carlos Pena depends on what you think of low-average, high power players with decent defense (Mark Reynolds, anyone?).  The Rays will attempt to replace his bat in the lineup with Dan Johnson, who can match Pena’s average… but not his power.  In fact, Johnson has never hit more than 18 home runs in a season, and played his 2009 campaign with the Yokohama BayStars in Japan.  This is not the kind of player you want anchoring one of your corner infield spots.  That’s probably why Tampa is giving super-utility man Ben Zobrist some more opportunities at first base this spring, knowing that performance might push Johnson out.  

The Rays also replace every member of their bullpen save for Andy Sonnanstine, bringing in less-than-reassuring names in Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth (the closer, I guess), and a “wide open competition” for three spots.  When a team has that many spots up for grabs it is usually not a good sign for a team’s chances in that area.  They have loaded up on also-rans and mediocre young pitchers in the offseason, but expect opposing lineups to feast on the depleted bullpen.  With J.P. Howell getting healthy after missing 2010, the Rays might have more reinforcements midway through the season, but there isn’t much to begin with. 

They also lost a number of players who they are unlikely to miss.  Dioner Navarro never really panned out and will be easily replaced by John Jaso (promising in the way Navarro was a few years ago) or even Kelly Shoppach (hardly an improvement either, but Navarro wasn’t getting any better).  Tampa traded away Jason Bartlett, a foregone conclusion after Reid Brignac made such a strong case to show he was ready for the SS job.  There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off there if at all, and he certainly has a higher ceiling than his predecessor.

As for additions, it’s important to note that 40% of the spring training roster is brand new to the organization, not just brand new to spring training.  But unlike past years, the new additions are far older than Tampa is used to.  They will be adding the singles-hitting DH Johnny Damon, coming off another mediocre year in which his range in the field has deteriorated to be almost as weak as his arm- and they will be forced to play him in left, at least until wunderkind prospect Desmond Jennings is ready.  Damon is not exactly a replacement for Carl Crawford.  They also add the DH who will actually be DH-ing, Manny Ramirez, who should be held in check by manager Joe Maddon and incidentally held in check by the arms of the AL East.  He will have a hot month or two, but he won’t be able to avoid a prolonged slump caused by his age and slowing bat. 

Despite trading Matt Garza, the Rays will bring in rookie Jeremy Hellickson to replenish their rotation in what remains the strongest part of their returning squad.  The farm system has rewarded the Rays with successful new starters every season, and 2011 is no different.  Tampa will lead with Cy Young candidate David Price and follow with some combination of Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Hellickson, and James Shields, with another star prospect, Matt Moore, waiting in the wings.  In short, the Rays are stacked with talented young pitching in a way that no other team in the division can boast.

There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the Rays are much worse in a number of key areas.  Even if they can replace the losses at shortstop (absolutely), catcher (likely), first base (unlikely), they are left with an uncertain bullpen and a situation in left field that is better handled with a hazmat suit.  Crawford won’t just be missed in the lineup every time Damon alternates bloop singles with strikeouts, he’ll be missed when Damon attempts to field his first deep line drive and is unable to get to the ball or even throw it to the cut-off man.  The offense will be alright on a team that still returns Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, and number of other contributors, but it will hardly be the force of years past.  The rotation will be the star of the show, but if opposing teams can force the starters out after 6 innings they will go to town on the fresh faces of Tampa’s bullpen.

This team is still a very talented team, but one that also has more question marks than any other team in the division.