One devilish projection

The finish line of Tim Dierkes' offseason in review for the Rays:

    The Rays' '08 rotation ranked 2nd in the AL last year with a 3.95 ERA in 973.3 innings. The '09 rotation subtracts Jackson in favor of a probable Jeff Niemann/David Price fifth starter combo. It should be stellar once again, projecting at 3.98 or so. And unlike most teams, the Rays have the depth to cover injuries. Highly regarded prospect Wade Davis awaits his turn.
    Andrew Friedman did not rest on his laurels in regard to the bullpen, which was good for a 3.55 ERA in 484.3 innings last year. He traded Hammel to the Rockies and let Miller go while importing Nelson, Shouse, Cormier, and Isringhausen. They may not be able to match last year's ERA, but still project well at 3.72.

    According to The Fielding Bible II, the Rays' defense ranked 4th in the AL last year. There's no reason to expect any less in 2009.

    Can the Rays win 97 games again? The projections suggest they can, though as I said 847 runs scored seems optimistic. Still, if the Rays are behind the Yankees and Red Sox, it's not by much. It's a shame that one of these three teams won't make the playoffs.

    Bottom line: Friedman stretched a limited budget to bring in Burrell, and made other bargain signings as well. He moved surplus pitching for value and still has plenty to spare. The Rays look very strong once again.

It's neither easy nor fun to predict a third place finish for the Rays. They won 97 games last year and they're exceptionally talented and they're exceptionally young. The Rays last year were the best story in baseball. So why can't they be a great story again?
They can. But everything I look at shows the Rays finishing third, two or three games behind one of the Big Boys. Why? Little things. As Dierkes notes, the bullpen probably won't be quite as good as last year. The Rays actually outperformed their run differential last year by five wins, so the better baseline is 92 wins (rather than 97).

On the other hand, as Dierkes notes, the addition of Pat Burrell and the expected development of the younger players should result in more run production, and presumably enough to make up for the bullpen's regression (and then some).

Which brings us back to the original question: Why don't the Rays project to win 97 games again? The answer is that there's not a single answer. A baseball team is composed of a great many moving parts, and when you figure all the Rays' moving parts together, you wind up with 92 wins. I think I can live with that answer, along with the knowledge that over the course of six months, the difference between winning 92 games and winning 97 might be five ground balls that happen to squeak through the infield.