I know the Tampa Bay Rays won the AL East last year and many pick them as contenders for the playoffs in 2011, but I don’t buy it. I think the Rays are the perfect team for the Orioles to open up against and make a statement right out of the gate that they will be the up-and-coming young team in 2011, not the Rays.
The Rays’ David Price is a legitimate ace after going 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA last year, and he has a good young staff behind him. Third baseman Evan Longoria (.294/22/104) is growing into a dominating force who will be a perennial MVP candidate. But beyond that, the Rays look weak. Losing Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena in the off-season left a huge hole in their line up that aging Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez just can’t fill. They also replaced 7 of their 8 bullpen arms over the winter – including losing closer Rafael Soriano to the Yankees – and have a patchwork pen that reminds me of the Orioles, pre-2011. Manager Joe Maddon hasn’t named a closer yet because he doesn’t have one!
The Orioles steam into Tampa behind manager Buck Showalter, with a loaded offense, a young group of starting pitchers with huge potential, and a revamped bullpen that has at least three legit closers (Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez). If they want to take the Rays spot as one of the ‘big three’ in the AL East, they need to beat up on Tampa this weekend.
Here are my three keys for the O’s first series against the Rays:
1. Jeremy Guthrie.
He has to finally pitch like an ace for this staff. He threw well against the Rays in 2010 (2-2, 2.73 ERA) and was very strong last August and September (7-3, 3.15). He needs to deliver a quality start on opening day to set the tone.
2. Chase Rays Starters Early.
A tough task against Price on opening day, and then it doesn’t get easier against James Shields (7-4 lifetime against the O’s) or Wade Davis (3-1 vs. O’s). But if you beat the Rays starting pitchers, you beat the Rays. Get to that shaky bullpen early and the O’s highly touted offense will roll. Vlad Guerrero, Derek Lee, Mark Reynolds, JJ Hardy: you’re up! Announce your arrival with authority boys.
When was the last time the Orioles walked on the field expecting to win? We need to see guys like Matt Wieters, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis carry themselves like confident All-Stars. Not like the junior varsity kids, happy to be on the same field with the varsity guys. Hopefully Guerrero and Lee can inject some swagger into this line up.
All the pieces are ready to come together for the Orioles in the opening series if they can find the right confident attitude and learn how to win. The Orioles first series win comes in Tampa this weekend.