BASEBALL HISTORY is littered with premature declarations about the rising hopes of young teams. There were, for instance, the 1987 Indians, of whom Sports Illustrated famously proclaimed, "Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League!" (The Tribe finished 37 games out of first place.)
Baseball Prospectus is not prepared to call the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays the best team in the AL, but its PECOTA projection system, which precisely predicted the White Sox' stunning 18-win falloff last season, forecasts an 88--74 finish for baseball's perennial bottom-feeders, a 22-win jump from 2007.
Forget about the '87 Indians; the relevant team to consider here is the '94 Tribe, which reversed a string of seven consecutive losing seasons by going 66--47 in a strike-shortened season. Like those Indians, who went on to win five straight division titles behind such rising stars as Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, the Rays have plenty of young mashers. Carl Crawford, Carlos Pe√±a and B.J. Upton (all of them in their 20s) are already offensive stars. Third baseman Evan Longoria, BP's third-ranked prospect, won't be far behind; PECOTA projects a Ryan Zimmerman-caliber performance of 20 to 25 homers accompanied by Gold Glove-quality defense. Couple that with long-awaited mound reinforcements—hard-throwing Matt Garza, acquired from the Twins in the Delmon Young deal, will help immediately, and elite prospects David Price (above), Jacob McGee and Wade Davis could follow by season's end—and it's clear that these aren't your father's Rays.
It's in the field, though, that the Rays will make their biggest gains. According to BP's Fielding Runs above Average (FRAA), the Rays gave up 72 more runs than an average defense last season. Of that total, 56 resulted from poor middle-infield play as the Rays rotated overmatched utilitymen Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson at shortstop and saw Upton commit 12 errors in just 48 games at second before moving him to centerfield. But the acquisition of slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett in the Young trade and the move of sure-handed Aki Iwamura from third to second (to make room for Longoria) has stabilized the infield. As a result the Rays' defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement, which will allow the improved rotation to work through its innings more efficiently.
It's audacious to project an increase of 22 wins for any club, but when this much young talent coalesces so quickly, it's time to believe.
Photograph by Al Tielemans