James Shields (AP)
James Shields and the Rays have agreed to a seven-year contract, which reportedly could reach close to $45-million. This was definitely a great move for Tampa Bay, and I was surprised that it was Shields' agent who contacted the Rays about securing a long-term deal. The new Tampa Bay baseball ops regime is doing an excellent job of locking up the organization's young talent. With Kazmir, Shields and Garza, the Rays now have one of the best young front-three pitching trios in all of baseball. Even better, however, the group is under the Rays' control for the time being, and with several other promising starters--Wade Davis, Jake McGee and David Price--not far away, too, Tampa Bay could become a force in the American League East by the turn of the decade.
I failed to mention it here, but the Rays did the right thing by signing Carlos Pena to a three-year, $24-million deal. Pena, who finished second in the AL with 48 home runs and a .1038 OPS in '07, was certainly rewarded for producing one of the most prolific offensive seasons in Rays' history. It was definitely a risk for both parties (as Pena could fail to live up the hype, or he could be giving away serious potential earnings), however. But since he is such a solid defensive player at first base, and given the current state of the market for similar offensive production, I honestly believe it was the Rays who got the better end of the deal.
If you were to stick the Rays in the National League Central right now, with that evolving pitching staff and an explosive lineup--featuring stars Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Pena, and perhaps top third base prospect Evan Longoria--Tampa Bay would be in the thick of the playoff race all year. Yet, in the division in which baseball's two biggest financial powers call home, the playoffs seem a bit out of reach for right now. Playing .500 baseball, and supplanting the Baltimore for fourth place (which should be a lock considering the poor decisions made by the Orioles' baseball operations department over the years) and perhaps even surpassing Toronto, are not of the question.
By spring training 2009, there could be a dramatic power shift in baseball's best division. New York, which will always have the luxury of being able to spend money, is also grooming a promising young rotation. Top prospects Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes appear to be ready to make an impact, though are still an unproven bunch. What sets Tampa Bay apart, however, is the starting pitching depth in its minor league system. Price, for example, appears ready to explode upon the scene, perhaps at the end of 2009. Although he has not made a professional appearance, look for the former Vanderbilt southpaw to dominate low-level competition in the minors this summer. It should be interesting to watch the division evolve, and, with so much talent on the rise in the Rays' farm system, it is undoubtedly the most exciting time to be a Tampa Bay fan in the franchise's 10-year history. The Rays still have their work cut out for them, regardless. The combination of the new tandem of Steinbrenner's taking office, officially, and Boston's excellent management structure, plus with the financial benefits that both teams derive from playing in two of the game's largest markets, it will never come easy for an AL East team located in St. Petersburg, FL. If there is ever a time to start believing in the Rays, though, it is today.