2011 Record: 91-71, 2nd AL East
2011 Prediction: 93-69, 2nd AL East
Impact Player: 3B Evan Longoria
Impact Pitcher: LHP David Price
Best Reliever: RHP Kyle Farnsworth
Top Prospect: LHP Matt Moore
Heading into the month of August, the Tampa Bay Rays were sputtering along with a 56-51 record, holding off the fourth place Blue Jays by just a game-and-a-half. They trailed the Yankees by 8½ games and the division-leading Red Sox by 10½. Things did not look good for Tampa, who was trying to get back to the playoffs for the third time in four years. Then they started winning. Led by third baseman Evan Longoria, who went .289/.454/.589 with seven homers in September, the Rays went 35-20 down the stretch and finished off the regular season with perhaps the most exciting baseball moment I’ve ever witnessed:
Coupled with the equally thrilling loss by the Red Sox at the hands of Robert Andino, the Rays snuck into the playoffs as the AL Wild Card before losing in the ALDS to the eventual pennant-winning Rangers. Joe Maddon was named Manager of the Year (which, really, he should be every year) for the second time and the Rays franchise continues its run as the most well-managed in the game.
The Rays’ pitching staff allowed the fewest runs in the AL last season thanks to their dominating starting rotation. James Shields, David Price and rookie Jeremy Hellickson were all in the top 20 among AL pitchers in ERA. Shields led the Majors in complete games with 11, was second in the AL in innings pitched and fourth in xFIP, while Price sat seventh in xFIP and fourth in SIERA. Hellickson won the rookie of the year with solid traditional stats but mediocre peripherals led to a 4.72 xFIP, better than only Brad Penny and teammate Wade Davis. As Dustin, Drew and Andrew have said repeatedly on the Getting Blanked podcast, Hellickson will very likely have a much better season in 2012, but he’ll have worse traditional numbers.
Top prospect Matt Moore will be the fourth starter after once again vaulting himself into elite prospect status in 2011. Moore posted a 1.92 ERA and a 4.46 K/BB ratio last season between AA and AAA and then dominated major league hitters in a brief nine-inning stint with the big club. He even started game one of the ALDS against the Rangers and won. This led Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein to name him the number one prospect in the game. Moore is an obvious candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he gets Cy Young votes too.
The remaining rotation spot will go to either Jeff Niemann or the aforementioned Davis who had the highest xFIP in the AL last year. Niemann is the better pitcher according to peripherals, but is also three years older. Davis, being just 26, could conceivably still improve. Prospects Chris Archer and Alex Torres could step in if injuries hit.
The Rays lost their entire bullpen in the 2010-11 offseason and were forced to rebuild it almost from scratch. The results were surprisingly good. Kyle Farnsworth continues to get better with age, mostly because of an approach that relies on a cutter/sinker combination rather than the fastball/slider one he used early in his career. He’s back to close while another late-blooming 36-year-old in Joel Peralta is back to set him up. Peralta was signed last season to replace Joaquin Benoit who left for Detroit to the tune of three-years and $16.5-million. Peralta was inked to a $900,000 deal and proceeded to put up comparable numbers to his much richer counterpart; he’ll make just over $2-million this season.
The Rays also signed veteran Fernando Rodney to continue their trend of reclamation projects. Rodney has been consistently awful since about 2005, but posts excellent ground ball numbers and if he can get his walks down, he could be a useful piece. The Rays are also hoping that lefty J.P. Howell can stay healthy and contribute more than he has over the last two years. Howell was one of the better relievers in baseball in ’08 and ’09, but has battled injuries since then. Fire-balling lefty Jake McGee and swing-man Burke Badenhop figure to be in the mix as well along with Brandon Gomes, Josh “Scumbag” Lueke and Cesar Ramos.
The Rays could have the most underrated lineup in the AL. They finished eighth in the AL in runs scored, but will be getting a full season from leftfielder Desmond Jennings and have brought back first baseman Carlos Pena after one season with the Cubs. Jennings was worth more than two marginal wins in just 63 games after his call-up in July. Pena, meanwhile, is an underrated player; his batting average is always low due to a consistently miserable BABIP, but he’s going to get on base and hit home runs.
Longoria spent much of 2011 underperforming but went on tear in the last month of the season, leading many to believe that this could be a career year for the 26-year-old. There’s nothing stopping Longoria from putting up an MVP-calibre season. Ben Zobrist, meanwhile continues to be perhaps the most underrated player in the game. Over the last three seasons, only Albert Pujols and Evan Longoria have been more valuable according to fWAR. He’ll spend the majority of his time at second base, but can play almost anywhere and should see some time at both short and in right field. He can also give Pena the occasional day off at first.
Centerfielder B.J. Upton is never going to be the superstar most thought he would be when he was drafted by Tampa, but he has been worth more than 4.0 fWAR in four of the last five seasons; not a single other centerfielder in the game can say that. Joining Upton and Jennings in the outfield will likely be Matt Joyce. Joyce has yet to truly put everything together, but did end up with a solid .357 wOBA last year and there’s no reason to think he can’t replicate that going forward. Short stop could end up being a platoon between Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac; two underachieving players who show flashes of being above-average regulars. Rodriguez was a 2.3 fWAR player in 2011 despite a 92 wRC+.
The Rays also brought in veteran Luke Scott to be the everyday DH. He was ineffective last season in 64 games before a shoulder injury ended his season, but he should be counted on for a 2.0 fWAR season provided he’s healthy. Of course, the validity of such a season would have to be proven with some sort of documentation before I’ll believe it.
Catcher is a bit of a trouble spot for the Rays. After getting almost nothing from the John Jaso/Kelly Shoppach platoon last year, Tampa signed veteran backup Jose Molina to assumedly be their starter. Molina’s surprising offensive surge last season in Toronto is not sustainable and although Mike Fast’s study shows Molina to be of extreme value thanks to his ability to frame pitches, it’s unknown if, at 36, he’ll be able to handle catching every day. He’s caught more than half of his team’s games just once in his career. If Molina can’t handle playing every day, Tampa may have to turn to Jose Lobaton, Robinson Chirinos or Chris Gimenez.
Lobaton, Chirinos and Gimenez figure to battle for the backup catcher job although it isn’t inconceivable that the Rays could acquire someone else to fill the role before the season starts. Infielder Jeff Keppinger figures to see time at short and at second when Zobrist is fielding somewhere else, while Sam Fuld, who came back down to earth after a ridiculous start last season, will settle in as a very good fourth outfielder. Infielders Elliot Johnson and Will Rhymes along with outfielder Brandon Guyer will provide depth in case of injury.
The Rays opened the purse strings a bit this offseason, increasing their payroll to around $65-million and the corresponding acquisitions of Pena and Scott should improve their offense. The pitching staff figures to be one of the best in the AL again. There’s no reason to think that they can’t continue to compete in the AL East for at least another year.
2012 Prediction: 93-69, 2nd AL East