Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Maddon and Gibson Named Top Skippers

Joe Maddon and Kirk Gibson were named managers of the year today. Unfortunately, both skippers watched their squads get eliminated during the division series, but sometimes just making it there is satisfying enough.

 The Rays looked doomed from the start.

After getting eliminated in the 2010 ALDS by the Texas Rangers, they watched the core of their team evaporate during the offseason.  Matt Garza and slugging first baseman/franchise home run leader Carlos Pena packed their bags for the Windy City.  Stud closer Rafael Soriano inked a three year, $45 million deal with the Yankees to be Mariano Rivera's setup man.  Top-of the order speedster and lineup catalyst Carl Crawford shipped up to Boston, where Theo Epstein and company had assembled one of the greatest fantasy baseball teams in recent memory.

Not only had Tampa Bay's small budget directly strengthened their richer division rivals, but it could only manage to afford replacements such as...Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez?  Two over the hill former Idiots who were a combined 75 years old on Opening Day? 

As they say in Brooklyn, "fuhgetaboutit." Sure, Tampa still had great pitching with 2010 AL Cy Young runner up David Price anchoring a rotation with future 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson waiting in the wings.  Yeah, they still had plenty of everyday talent with Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton.  And fine, their defense was still all that and a bag of chips.  But who in their right mind gave them anything more than a snowball's chance in hell of making the playoffs?  Best case scenario, they'd hang around for a few months and end up with 85 wins or so, but October baseball was definitely out of the question.

And for about 80 percent of the baseball season, the Rays held up their end of the bargain.  They were 0-6 before you could say "Tropicana Field."  The Manny experiment lasted all of five games when he flunked another drug test and unceremoniously retired.  But Tampa bounced back, and actually managed to slip into first place for most of May while the Red Sox took a while to click.  But once June rolled around, the Yanks and Sox kicked into gear and the Rays spent the whole summer looking up in the standings at those two giants. 

James Shields , Matthew Joyce and Casey Kotchman were all enjoying career years, rookie Desmond Jennings was doing his best Crawford impression, and Kyle Farnsworth had the ninth inning locked down.  But it still wasn't enough, because on September first Tampa Bay looked dead in the water.  Boston and New York were duking it out for the division title, and the loser would surely find consolation in winning the wild card.

We all know what happened during the next four weeks.  The Rays caught fire, the Red Sox fell apart and Tampa captured the wild card on the season's final day.  Through this rollercoaster season, Joe Maddon provided stability and passion for his scrappy bunch of overachievers, and that's why he's the AL Manager of the Year.  He received all but two possible first place votes, which ended up going to Detroit's Jim Leyland and the Rangers' Ron Washington.

Postseason legend Kirk Gibson, on the other hand, helped turn the Arizona Diamondbacks around from a nightmare 2010 (second worst record in the NL) to a division title in 2011.  His team deserves most of the credit, though.  Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson blossomed into the most lethal 1-2 punch at the top of the Snakes rotation since Dan Haren and Brandon Webb in 2008.  J.J. Putz solidifed the bullpen, while Justin Upton, Ryan Roberts and Miguel Montero made major strides at the dish.

And while their story isn't nearly as captivating as Tampa Bay's, Arizona tangled with the defending World Series champs for most of the season before finally pulling away down the stretch. With a solid lineup and improved pitching, Arizona is the most well-rounded team in the NL West (a notoriously weak division) and is certainly a threat to win another flag in 2012.  The Rays aren't likely to catch lightning in a bottle again, though, and I have a hard time seeing them reaching the postseason for the fourth time in five years.

But they just might prove me wrong.

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