Rays still have hope

In the wake of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon being officially introduced as members of the Tampa Bay Rays' organization, manager Joe Maddon appeared as a guest "The Big Show" on WEEI on Tuesday. Alex Speier reports that Maddon had kind words on the Boston Red Sox's offseason during the appearance:

As for the AL East, Maddon understands that the Rays are a long shot to repeat as division champions, and pointed to the off season work by the Red Sox as a big reason why that is the case.

“The combination of what the Red Sox did in regards to getting both Carl [Crawford] and Adrian Gonzalez -- Gonzalez is one of the better hitters in baseball -- that to me is pretty severe right there,” said Maddon. “And of course Bobby Jenks right there in front of those two guys, that really shortens the game. You got to beat the Red Sox in six or seven innings and hold on because it’s going to be difficult to beat them if you get down to the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. So I really believe the Red Sox made the most ground regarding their acquisitions.”

It's true the Red Sox made two huge acquisitions, trading for Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford. They also sustained two pretty big losses: Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre signed elsewhere as free agents. Among the two pairs you'd probably rather have the former in 2011. They also did a nice job of strengthening their bullpen, so the Red Sox did get better this offseason. This is more than some would say of their two primary AL East competitors.

It's also true that the Red Sox were a very good team in 2010, and though they won only 89 games and finished third in their division, by at least one measure they played a quality of baseball bested only by the Yankees. That, plus the offseason improvements Theo Epstein was able to swing, plus the expectation that they'll field a healthier team makes the Red Sox the favorite to win their division in 2011.

Still, the Yankees have talent and flexibility, and you know they aren't ready to concede the division. Neither are the Rays, who could be a young player making unexpected contributions away from another 95-plus win season. The AL East isn't won in December, and at this point we should expect 2011 to bring another entertaining race among three of the best teams in baseball.

By the way, I wouldn't call the Rays a "long shot" at this point. Manny Ramirez has hit .293/.414/.501 in 751 plate appearances over the past two seasons, and if he doesn't turn into Pat Burrell, Ramirez should provide more offense than Carlos Pena did last year. Matt Joyce raked in the minors and majors last year and there's enough to like about what Dan Johnson and John Jaso showed to dream a little. If they can get something from Jeremy Hellickson, Jake McGee, Chris Archer, and Desmond Jennings, they could be very, very good.

Peter W. Hjort III writes Capitol Avenue Club, a blog about the Atlanta Braves.