It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn

That phrase is one that many of baseball’s low-budget and bottom dweller teams probably have memorized. They would have to in order to make it through another long season of losing and watching others continue to have success by “buying” a team. So how do some of the small market teams even hope to compete in this age of outrageous contracts? The 2007 season will begin this April with some of the most insane contracts baseball – or any sport for that matter – has ever seen. $126 million over 7 years to a starting pitcher who isn’t even one of the best 15 pitchers in the game? Over $10 million per season to a guy who over his six year career in a pitcher friendly ball park amassed an ERA of 4.65? $14 million per year for an “average” middle of the order guy with a shredded shoulder? With contracts like these for guys that aren’t even close to the best at their position/spot in the order, what hopes do low-budget teams have in competing?

The Minnesota Twins are a perfect example of how you compete. Every year they bring up another group of guys from their farm system to the big leagues and every year it seems they just replenish it with another solid group of youngsters. You put back what you take. So if the Minnesota Twins can pull last season’s AL MVP Justin Morneau, AL batting champion Joe Mauer, and AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana out of it, why can’t someone else?

There are five teams right now that are in a similar spot that the Twins were in back in the mid-late 90’s. Struggling to put out a successful team with very little money and a lot of young players. These five teams are on the brink of exploding with young superstars that can help turn their franchise’s bleak last few years into something for their fans to get excited about. Of the five teams (which I will eventually touch on each of them in the coming weeks), one stands out above them all. While they do have the brightest group, they also have the largest obstacle to over come – their own division.

Since the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were born back in 1998, they have always had the unenviable task of playing in the American League East. Between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox crowding the top of the division with their enormous payrolls and now the Toronto Blue Jays asserting themselves as a team to be reckoned with, the Devil Rays never really had a chance even before they took the field for the first time. This is not the way a franchise wants to start out.

But through all of their struggles and last place finishes, they have done a superb job of drafting over the past few years. They already have a major league roster filled with great young talent (both through drafting and acquiring prospects) like Scott Kazmir, Jorge Cantu, Rocco Baldelli, and Carl Crawford. This is a very solid group to use as a base.

Between now and the end of the 2009 season, the Rays will also have injected another batch of players that they look to have as crucial parts of their success. Even as soon as this upcoming season, the Rays will have one of, if not the, best young outfields in all of baseball. With the already successful Crawford and Baldelli, their top prospect Delmon Young looks to join the team full time in 2007. While Young has had his share of attitude problems (as an unfortunate number of Rays prospects have), he is looked at as the team’s top hitting prospect. The right fielder should have an immediate impact for the team this season and put up some impressive numbers.

While Young is by far their top prospect, they have a slew of others just waiting to get up to the big leagues. By the end of the 2008 season, Evan Longoria should be at third, Reid Brignac should fill in shortstop, and Jeff Niemann will give them a very solid number two starter behind Kazmir. This group that is about to join the major league roster in the next couple of seasons is going to be something special. If Tampa wasn’t stuck in the aggressive alpha-male battle that is the AL East, they could definitely be an interesting team to watch. In the mean time, they will just have to settle for making some noise.

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