MLB: Chicago White Sox at Tampa Bay Rays

For a team that, in any given year, is a collection of sleepers, this team has a number of high-upside contributors looking for either a rebound or breakout season. For the Rays to compete, they will need every player on the roster firing at all cylinders as the 2010 season is going to be – in all likelihood – the most competitive it has been since the 1990s.

Both the Red Sox and Yankees have restocked, the Rays have plugged up their disappointments and shored up their injuries, while the Orioles just got a serious infusion of young talent. The Blue Jays are still an NL West contender in any given year.

CF BJ Upton

This one can be filed under the rebound category, as Upton has undergone a precipitous decline over the past three seasons. Dropping over two hundred points in the last two seasons, Upton’s OPS stood at just .686 last season, mainly due to a BABIP that has dropped 87 points since ’07.

There’s no easy fix for Upton. His BABIP should recover somewhat, if only for his speed, but it won’t ever again approach the .399 from three seasons ago. His power, well, that may depend on whether or not his shoulder injury has fully healed. Many blamed it for the drop in home runs he experienced between the 2007-2008 seasons, though, some doubt was cast during his explosive playoffs that year.

Despite these difficulties at the plate, Upton remains a plus centerfielder, with UZR ratings of 10.3 and 11.0 in the past two seasons – allowing him to post WAR ratings of 4.8 and 2.5 in ’08 and ’09, respectively.

An alarming drop in walks, a flatlining power outage, and an equalization of BABIP were the culprits of Upton’s season. Fortunately for Upton and Tampa, his outstanding defense and the nominal offensive requirements at centerfield meant that B.J. is still an asset at the 8 slot. Unfortunately for everyone else in the AL East, Upton, when fully healthy, has shown that he can be a dominating force at the plate.

If Tampa hopes to make a playoff run in 2010, they will need a considerably improved contribution from a fully rejuvenated B.J. Upton. While he will need to regain his power stroke, the fact that his down year was not accompanied by a collapse of his plate approach is a strong indicator that a rebound could be in store.

In fact, his plate approach was better in ’09 than in his breakout ‘07 season meaning that his maladies may not be as much of the mental variety as many have thought. If everything breaks right, we could be staring at a 5-6 win player in 2010.

Scared yet? You should be. Like the United States prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Upton is a “Sleeping Giant.” All he needs is a spark.

OF Desmond Jennings

If you think that B.J. Upton is an electrifying player, then you’ll be astonished by what Jennings is capable of on the diamond.

Though his power output has lagged behind the development in the rest of his game, Jennings is able to combine game-breaking speed with one of the better plate approaches in the minors. What usually takes down raw-tools guys as they approach the majors is a lack of plate discipline, with their strikeout and walk rates diverging as they get into the upper minors.

Jennings seems to be the exception to this rule, as he posted an even 1:1 BB:K rate (67 walks versus 67 strikeouts) in 577 plate appearances between AA and AAA last year.

And then there’s that speed. Jennings torched the basepaths last season, stealing 52 bases while being caught just 7 times (88.1 percent success rate).

Though Jennings may not be a conventional dominating player due to his relative lack of power, his fielding ability and plate approach will make him a great player for years to come. It seems as if the D-Rays have another find in their long line of premium outfield prospects (Baldelli, Crawford, Upton, and Young) – and this one could be the best of them all.

If there’s one catch, it’s his injury history, as Jennings missed much of ’07 and ’08 to back and shoulder issues. If those have resolved themselves – which it seems they have – he’ll be up in Tampa Bay at some point this season.

Perhaps the biggest question mark for Jennings in 2010 is the projected position of 2B/SS/OF Ben Zobrist. If Zobrist begins the season in right field, like some expect, then Jennings is effectively blocked in all three outfield positions. If Zobrist starts at 2nd base instead, then the Gabe Kapler/Fernando Perez tandem shouldn’t be much of an obstacle. Then again, another poor season by Pat Burrell could solve everyone’s problems.

While it is usually the correct move to delay, as much as possible, the arbitration clock of prized prospects, this is one of those scenarios where a quick promotion would benefit everyone. With Zobrist at second (yes, Zobrist can field the position) and Jennings in right, the Rays could have one of the best starting nine’s in all of baseball.

With all the depth the Rays have, this move is not for the faint of heart. However, with the window rapidly closing on Tampa’s opportunities at contention, they have to throw everything and the kitchen sink on the field. In those terms, consider Jennings to be the entire kitchen.

SP Wade Davis

In Davis, the Rays have an adequate fifth starter. They’ll be expecting a whole lot more, however.

Davis has been a long time coming for Rays fans, having been drafted in the 3rd round of the 2004 June draft. After blowing away the competition in every stop since 2005, Davis made his hotly anticipated debut last season. He didn’t disappoint.

With a 8.92 K/9 and 3.22 BB/9 over the course of 36.1 innings, Davis ended the year with a 3.72 ERA and 2.90 FIP. Not too shabby. But, like anyone else, this was all accomplished in a small sample of innings – while a sophomore slump lurks.

Whether or not Davis falters in his second season will ultimately depend on the development of his secondary pitches, most notably his slider and changeup. All reports indicate that both his heater and curve are good-to-go, while his slider and change may need some work.

This development becomes all the more critical when taking into account the fact that Davis’ stellar debut came on the heels of a 74.2 percent usage of his fastball. Though the pitch is a good one, only Mike Pelfrey and Rick Porcello used the pitch more. While it is certainly possible to succeed as a predominantly one-pitch pitcher, it would behoove Davis to work on those secondary offerings. Otherwise, that nice 79.8 percent contact rate is sure to rise.

Even if Davis does not substantially improve his performance in 2010, the fact that he is slated in as Tampa’s 5th starter is indicative of the amount of upside the pitcher represents. When a player with the ceiling of a Wade Davis is taking over as the rotation’s weakest link, expect to have a great year.

DH Pat Burrell

The 2009 pairing of the Rays and Pat Burrell seemed about as perfect a match as Cinderella and Prince Charming. Unfortunately for Rays fans, it is just one in a thousand exhibits of why fairy tales just don’t exist. Burrell flat stunk last year, posting a career low .682 OPS, his lowest since 2003 and snapping a streak of four straight seasons over .875.

The strange thing was that Burrell really was the same player he’s always been – minus the power. He didn’t strike out much more than he did in any other season and walked slightly less than his career line. He swung more often at pitches outside the zone than he did before ’07 but it was not too much more than ’08.

What it came down to was a nagging neck injury that surfaced in May and dragged down his power numbers. Posting just a 9.8 HR/FB, his BABIP suffered as well, sitting at just .276 – down from his career line of .302.

All of this resulted in a -0.6 WAR from Burrell on the season, when he reasonably could have been expected to post a WAR between 2.0 and 3.0. If he can put the neck injuries behind him, there’s no reason to believe he can’t regain the power stroke. However, that may be a bigger “if” than anyone wants to believe – and Burrell, of anyone, could be in for a long season if he’s not healthy.

C Kelly Shoppach

Just an excellent acquisition by a front office that continues to impress. It’s certainly possible that the Indians got fleeced in this one, as Shoppach is a high-end offensive catcher in the Mike Napoli mold – a guy who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, but when he does, it goes a long way.

Even in a down year, when his BABIP dropped 73 points, Shoppach still posted an OPS of .734. Sure, Shoppach is probably not a good bet to continue posting BABIPs in the .350s, but his power alone makes him an offensive asset from the catcher’s position.

The move becomes all the more advantageous when taking into consideration how putrid incumbent backstop Dioner Navarro was last season. With an OPS of .583 on the year (albeit, on the heels of a .233 BABIP), Navarro posted a -0.1 WAR in 115 games. For a team with playoff aspirations – especially one in the AL East – this kind of production is absolutely intolerable.

What the Rays seem to understand that few teams don’t is the need for options. Perhaps the team’s greatest strength is its depth at every position on the diamond. After the acquisition of Shoppach, there is not a single position in their starting nine that does not have a starting-quality failsafe.

Underperforming position players will not derail this team as it did in 2009. If Upton has a down-year again, plug in Desmond Jennings and move Ben Zobrist from 2nd base to right. Replace Zobrist at second with Willy Aybar, backed up by Reid Brignac. If Navarro stumbles again, try Shoppach. Pat Burrell doesn’t hit in 2010? Shuffle the 100 other spare parts and put the weakest defender at DH.

Hell, they’ve even got Andy Sonnanstine if one of the starting five struggles.

Though this team may not be the class of the AL East by virtue of its starting 9 and 5, there is no other team in the division that will be able to respond to injuries the way this team can. With impact players that can switch positions at a moment’s notice and plenty of starting-quality depth on the bench, this team is far better equipped to cope with the injury bug when it hits – and it will hit.

If there’s one lynchpin on this squad that cannot go down, it has to be Ben Zobrist. Sure Evan Longoria has the better track record, but he doesn’t hold a candle to the versatility that Zobrist brings along. He can play any position on the field – other than catcher – and was among the best hitters in the league last season.

There’s no getting around it this year. 2010 is a three-horse race in the AL East and, as of now, there’s no telling who is the top dog.