Their entire core of players who helped propel them into the playoffs were returning, plus they could expect a full season out of David Price, who had come up and recorded the four most crucial outs in franchise history during the American League Championship Series against Boston.
The reigning American League Rookie of the Year, Evan Longoria, was entering his second season, as he looked to build upon an impressive start to his major league career.
The Rays did lose a couple of their invaluable veterans that had a strong presence on the Rays roster, with the likes of Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske becoming free agents. Trevor Miller also departed from the bullpen.
Rocco Baldelli, who returned from his bout with a career-threatening injury in August, had his option declined by the Rays, making him a free agent for the first time in his career and ending his five-year, unfortunately injury-filled, tenure with the team.
Another long-time Ray also parted ways with the team during the off-season, as Jonny Gomes was granted his free agency.
With their suddenly very vacant outfield, the Rays needed to add some depth.
With an overabundance of starting pitchers, the Rays decided to part ways with Edwin Jackson, opening up a spot for David Price in the starting rotation. On December 10th, the Rays sent Jackson to the Detroit Tigers for OF Matt Joyce.
The Rays also went out and signed veteran OF Gabe Kapler.
The Rays still featured a very strong squad, but they just needed to sure up one more spot on their roster - the DH role, which had been vacated by the departing Floyd and Hinske.
So, on January 5th, 2009, the Tampa Bay Rays announced they had signed longtime Philadelphia Phillies outfielder, Pat Burrell, to a two-year deal. Burrell was instrumental in defeating the Rays during the 2008 World Series and had, for the past four seasons in a row, averaged over 30 home runs a year. The Rays hoped he would bring some pop to the middle of the order and help solidify them as serious contenders.
“I think this team is going to competitive for a long time ... As a little bit older player ... I’m here to help. Anything and everything I can to help this team win, I’ll do.” - Pat Burrell
The Rays spent the rest of the off-season addressing their bullpen, bringing in a couple of veterans to help round things out. They signed the likes of Joe Nelson, Randy Choate, and Brian Shouse. Prior to the start of spring training, the Rays also signed Jason Isringhausen.
Once the season started, the Rays struggled and actually finished their first month below .500, with a record of 9-14. Evan Longoria did all he could to help the team, as he actually led all of baseball in fWAR for the month of April, but the team couldn’t overcome the shortcomings of the starting rotation.
Those struggles continued throughout the season.
There were a couple of franchise-altering moments that occurred over the course of the year.
Akinori Iwamura continued to be his consistent and fantastic self, as he provided a solid presence at the top of the order and terrific defense up the middle. Unfortunately, that all came to a halt towards the end of May on during a fateful afternoon game in Miami.
Iwamura was taken out by a rough slide from Chris Coughlan during a double play attempt. Iwamura had to be carted off the field and the initial prognosis was that his season was over.
A new star emerges
With his spot at second base left vacant, Ben Zobrist receive an opportunity to play every day. Zobrist had quietly produced a very strong 2008 season, and he filled virtually every role that was needed of him. Once given the chance to start every day, Zobrist excelled and immediately became the top player on the team.
When it came time for the annual draft, the Rays had the 30th overall pick, their latest selection since their second-ever draft in 1997 when they selected Jason Standridge at 31st overall.
With the 30th overall pick, the Rays selected LeVon Washington but unfortunately were unable to sign him. The draft ended up being a flop, as only a couple of their selections reached the majors and none of them have had worthwhile success.
The Rays began to win and tried to claw their way back into contention. By the time the trade deadline arrived, the Rays were in third place in the American League East with a record of 55-47, despite several poor performing players.
Pat Burrell was among the worst players in baseball over the first half of the season, and Dioner Navarro had failed to reproduce his solid 2008 campaign.
Heading into the deadline, the Rays were among the most active teams in terms of speculation as talks of them making a blockbuster deal with the Cleveland Indians were swirling. The Rays were looking to add two of the game’s best players in Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, but the prospect cost would be huge. Ultimately, the Rays stood pat, as the Boston Red Sox once again swooped in and snagged the Rays trade target: Victor Martinez. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee was shipped off to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Rays went quietly into the night, slowly falling out of the race. Towards the end of August, the Rays threw up the ‘white flag’ as they traded away their former ace, Scott Kazmir, to the Los Angeles Angels for three minor leaguers (Alex Torres, Mathew Sweeney, and Sean Rodriguez).
With the onset of September, the Rays just stopped winning as everything snapped out of their favor, including Carlos Pena’s hand, which was broken on an errant pitch from CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees. This blow came in early September while Pena was leading the American League in home runs.
The Rays lost 11 games in a row during during September and finished the month with a record of 11-17. Despite this, the Rays still finished above .500 for just the second time in franchise history, as they compiled a record of 84-78, coming in third place in the American League East, 19 games back of the division winning and eventual World Series champion New York Yankees.
Several players enjoyed tremendous years, but these breakouts just weren’t enough to overcome the tremendously poor years offered up by a few notable players.
Ben Zobrist, once given a full-time opportunity, became the best player in baseball, leading the majors in fWAR (8.6). Evan Longoria, meanwhile, enjoyed a great sophomore campaign in which he accrued 7.6 fWAR.
Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford both put up excellent seasons as well, accruing over 5.0 fWAR each. Despite finishing the season on the disabled list, Carlos Pena tied for the American League lead in home runs with 39 as part of a 2.8 fWAR season. B.J. Upton also contributed a solid season after a down year in 2008.
However, Akinori Iwamura struggled mightily upon his return from the disabled list. Dioner Navarro failed to recreate his 2008 success and had an awful year behind the plate for the Rays.
Meanwhile, Pat Burrell, who was supposed to help thicken the middle of the Rays order, struggled during his first year with the club and was among the worst players in baseball, finishing the year with an 84 wRC+ over 122 games.
The pitching for the Rays was undergoing a transformation as a couple of prospects made the leap to the majors during the 2009 season. Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and David Price all spent some time in the starting rotation. David Price, during his first full season in the majors, underwhelmed in comparison to his expectations, but he still produced a solid year.
Niemann took his opportunity and ran with it, as he was the third-best pitcher on the staff, behind James Shields and Matt Garza, who both turned in fantastic years for the Rays.
The bullpen faltered for the Rays and was part of the reason for their downfall during the season. J.P. Howell had the strongest year, but Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler failed to hold games during high leverage situations and no one else stepped up to help bridge the gap.
The Rays knew they still had one of the best teams in baseball — on paper — it was just a matter of bringing it all together when it came to the actual game. Only a few problems needed to be addressed, but overall, the Rays were still championship contenders.