To say that the D-Rays are a second rate baseball franchise would be giving them too much credit. Their moniker was ridiculous even before the cut the "Devil" out of it. Their uniforms look like they were put together by Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald circa 1988. Their manager looks like he should be leading a poetry jam in Park Slope, Brooklyn (I will admit, however, that I really like Joe Maddon and think he's a pretty smart and fearless manager) and they play in a poorly lit mini-putt course in front of less people than the average attendance at MENSA meetings in L.A. (Hey-Yo!). Oh, and they also suck at baseball, finishing last every year but one (we all remember that magical summer of 2004 when they finished 4th) over their entire history (spanning a full decade). But after this Garza trade and with the flier on Troy Percival combined with the emergence of the likes of Carlos Pena, BJ Upton and Jamie Shields... the D-Rays are pretty f'n good.
Lost in the shuffle of the thrice daily updates on the status of the 4th prospect in the hypothetical Santana to the Sox / Yanks deal was the trade that actually occurred between the D Rays and the Twins in which they effectively swapped outfielder Delmon Young for pitcher Matt Garza. And while Young has some name value for finishing second in the AL ROY voting and for being the perhaps the top prospect in baseball before last year, the real prize of this deal was actually Garza. Going into this year, Garza was the top prospect in a deep Twins minor league system. Projected a number one starter, Garza has dominated at every level and was named "Minor League Player of The Year" in 2006 by USA Today; joining a list of former winners including Francisco Liriano, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes and Josh Beckett. If Garza were in NY or Boston, he would be an "untouchable." He was "Phil Hughes" before Phil Hughes. It was assumed that Garza would jump into the rotation in 2007 but due in large part to a disagreement over how the organization used him and overprotected him after a bizarre neck injury (he had what was called "common somatic disorder"), Garza and the Twins were never really on the same page and he wasn't the first or second pitcher called up in 2007. He didn't take it very well and coming into the offseason the rumors began that the Twins were willing to part with him. They certainly couldn't be faulted for doing it given their depth at pitching (see Bonser, Slowey, Liriano and whoever they get back from the Santana trade) and need for pop in the outfield, but whoever was going to get Garza was going to get a potential Ace at below market value because of the non-baseball issues. That's where the Rays come in.
The Garza-Young trade almost made too much sense. The Rays are hemorrhaging young talent in the outfield and despite finishing as the ROY runner-up this past year, he may have been the fifth most talented outfielder in the D-Rays organization (whether he is more or less talented than Elijah Dukes remains to be seen. Dukes certainly one-ups him in the crazy department). But now with Garza in the rotation, the Rays feature a top 3 of Jamie Shields (12-8, 3.85 ERA, 184K's, 34BB's), Scott Kazmir (13-9, 3.48 ERA, led the league in K's) and Matt Garza, the aforementioned potential right-handed Ace. As presently constituted, I'd take that threesome over the every top 3 of any staff in the AL other than the Sox, Indians, Detroit or Toronto (even though I said "as presently constituted," I assume Johan won't be with the Twins). The other two guys are barely old enough to drink. That's something to build around. And that may not even be the strength of their team!
The D-Rays offense is young, fast and good. Carlos Pena is the best hitter no one's ever heard about. Pena hit 46 home runs last year. FORTY FUCKING SIX! He drove in 120 RBI... FOR THE F'N D-RAYS! He hits behind some other guys with absurd talent. Carl Crawford steals 50 bags a year and Lou Piniella called him a future batting champ (he hit .315 this year and his average has improved by an average of 10pts per year). BJ Upton is a budding superstar at center after hitting 24 homers in less than a full year of play. Elijah Dukes has more talent than he knows what to do with and if he could just calm down for half a season, he could hit 40 home runs himself (he'd also probably K 200 times and murder several small children with tossed gear). They've also got Rocco Baldelli, who if healthy... well, that's not even worth talking about. And those guys aren't the most talented guys in the organization. They are moving Akinori Iwamura to second base after a solid year at 3b (.285, 7hrs, 20 doubles) because they've got the most talented infield prospect in baseball coming up next year in Evan Longoria (no relation... to me or Eva). Longoria finished 2007 with a combined minor league average of .299, while hitting 26 HR, knocking in 95 RBI and drawing 73 walks for an OBP of .402. With Longoria in the lineup, that lineup has discipline and pop 1-6. It is a legitimate and imposing lineup that can match up with at least Toronto and Baltimore, if not the Red Sox in the AL East (no team can matchup with the paper tiger that is the Yankees lineup. On paper those guys should score about 1500 runs). Unfortunately for the D-Rays, baseball requires more than 3 starting pitchers and 6 batsmen.
The D-Rays' bullpen is their biggest weakness. Though they featured a fairly reliable closer in Al Reyes and picked up the former All-Star Troy Percival this offseason, the rest of that group blows. Last year the D-Rays featured 10 relievers with 20 or more appearances who with an ERA of at least 5.76. I personally witnessed them blow 6 games with leads of over 3 runs after the 6th inning. Their bullpen is so bad that when it gets to like the 6th or 7th inning and your team is only down 3-4 runs, you feel as though your team is winning. But the thing about bullpen strength is that it is very fickle. One year nobody can hit Kyle Farnsworth, two years later batters are knocking his down and away slider into the corner for doubles. Guys like Mike Timlin and Mike Meyers have seen multiple incarnations. So you never know what you're gonna get with your bullpen. But the D-Rays have options. If they could move a guy like Edwin Jackson to the bullpen they could get a big power arm in there for one and two inning stints. A reliable long man would give the D-Rays 6-8 wins a year (seriously).
At the end of the day, while I think the D-Rays are a fun team to watch and are CONSIDERABLY better than they have ever been, they ain't winning the AL East or the wild card. The Yanks will probably pull in Santana and the Sox have Beckett, Buchholz. and Dice-K locked up for another 4 years or so (Beckett isn't "locked up," but he's getting an extension either midway through this year or after the season). But they are markedly better than the Orioles and will compete with the Blue Jays this year. If the Sox or Yanks suffer anything even resembling a serious injury in their rotation or suffers a significant slump, don't be surprised if the woe begone D-Rays start nipping at their heals. They may not be good enough yet to win anything, but these kids are good.
*I'm aware that we are supposed to call them simply "The Rays," but I refuse to abide by that PC Christian bullshit. They are, and forever will be, the fucking Devil Rays.