Expectations for Tampa Bay Rays are sky high

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In 2012, the Rays had the lowest ERA in the American League (3.19) and held batters to the lowest average in 40 years of baseball, all while operating with the third lowest payroll in the American League.

Verducci wrote:

The Rays find value by developing both the mental and physical strength of young pitching prospects and have them do so in a slow progression through their farm system. Unlike other low budget baseball teams, the Rays expect their major league pitchers to have entered every level of the minors and expect to have each player spend at least a year per level.

Remember the pre-2008 complaint that the American League East was too tough and unfair for the Rays? The theory was that perennial powerhouses New York and Boston would always dominate them in payroll, and probably in wins-losses.

But that's no longer the case. The Yankees, in particular, look prepared to fall from grace in a spectacular fashion, to the point that NYC sports writers are comparing the 2013 team to their 1965 season, when they finished last after winning the World Series the previous year. In fact, there has been so much negative coverage of the Yanks that the hip thing now is to say that they'll be pretty good. I'm skeptical of that analysis.

We have no idea who will win the AL Pennant, but the California Angels look damn sexy, having picked up Josh Hamilton in the off-season to go with all-everything outfielder Mike Trout. And they still have Albert Puljols.

Over in the National League, the Washington Nationals are everybody's pick to go all the way. This makes a lot of sense as the team won 98 games last year, and look just as strong going into the 2013 season led by their smart veteran skipper, 70-year-old Davey Johnson.

Yesterday, the Nationals dream season began sensationally when 20-year-old Bryce Harper hit the ball out of the park in his first two at-bats in the Nats victory over Miami, with stud right-hander Stephen Strasburg throwing seven strong innings.

There is no innings limitation announced on Strasburg this season. The Nationals literally shut him down in mid-September last year, fearful that his arm couldn't handle more wear and tear. It worked out when the Nats won their division, but the second guessing was totally legit when they couldn't get past the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

The big game for me was out at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles yesterday, where the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and the San Francisco Giants' Matt Cain were deadlocked in a scoreless battle until the bottom of the eighth, when of all people, Kershaw took Cain deep in the first home run of his career. The Dodgers' Carl Crawford followed up with a double (remember him Rays fans?), and L.A. beat the Giants 4-0.

Giants fans aren't despairing — Kershaw basically owns them (he also became just the second man in MLB history to throw a shutout and hit a home run on opening day).

It will be delicious to see how this classic rivalry unfolds throughout the long season. Under new management, L.A. spent a staggering $223 million on salaries this season, determined to buy themselves a pennant.

This makes them an ever juicier team to dislike, especially for a lifelong Giants fan like myself. The Giants are way grittier. In fact, they're very much like the Tampa Bay Rays in that they can also be incredibly frustrating because of their lack of offense (minus MVP Buster Posey). The Giants' success has been all about their pitching, starting, and middle and short relief.

But I'm incredibly humbled writing about them. As recently as a couple of years ago, I thought I'd never live to see them win a World Series. The heartbreak from blowing the 2002 Series to the Angels seemed to never go away, and well, nobody in 2010 was predicting they'd win a wild-card, much less that year's championship. The fact they did that again in 2012 is beyond any true Giants fan's wildest imagination.

As far as I'm concerned, since everyone's an optimist on opening day, why not fantasize about a Giants-Rays Series? The odds are greater that the Giants won't make it back to the finals, but again, why not dream big?

For the first time since the 2004 season (in which Barry Bonds blew off coming down to St. Pete), the Giants will come to Tropicana Field for a three-game weekend series. I can't wait.

  • David Price

Today, the Tampa Bay Rays begin their 2013 season at 3:10 p.m against Buck Showalter's Baltimore Orioles, one of the surprise teams of the 2012 season. Expectations for the Rays are huge, partially because of Sports Illustrated's prediction that the Rays will advance to their second World Series in six years.

The prediction is a testament to the faith in the Stu Sternberg/Andrew Friedman/Joe Maddon organization, considered one of the best in all of professional sports. The secret to the Rays' success has always been their outstanding pitching, and the great Tom Verducci lays that out in the current issue of SI with his piece "The Rays Way."

Verducci wrote, "No franchise better understands how to identify, develop and maintain quality pitchers. The Rays are to pitching what Google is to algorithms."

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