Despite the fact that they won 90 games and finished only three games behind both the Rangers and Orioles for a wild card berth, the Rays never really felt “in” the AL playoff picture last season. Part of the reason might have been that they had to win 12 of their final 14 games to even be that close, but it’s not like they were ever that far out of it. Regardless, the Rays were one of the unluckiest teams in baseball last season finishing a full five wins below their Pythagorean record which sat tied with the Yankees for the best mark in the American League.
This winter, the Rays made the kinds of moves we expect the Rays, and only the Rays, to make. They signed free agents such as Kelly Johnson and Roberto Hernandez and traded for players such as Yunel Escobar; assets perceived to have lost value but could still be useful. They traded established Major League talent in return for highly-regarded prospects as they continue to build from within and shed assets as they grow too expensive. That, of course, manifested itself in the trade with Kansas City where Tampa dealt pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis for a package of prospects headed by right fielder Wil Myers — one of the game’s most highly-touted prospects and a player that should start paying dividends at some point this year.
They also extended third baseman and superstar Evan Longoria for an additional six years even though they still had him under team control for two more. Making the deal before they had to once again allows them to keep Longoria at well below market value. All of these moves are part and parcel of an organization that needs to gain every tiny edge to be successful given their financial reality. Looking at the roster, it’s hard to see anything other than a contending team despite all the major changes.
For the second straight year, the Rays were the best team in the AL at preventing their opponents from scoring—and in 2010 they finished second in that regard. To say the organization is built on pitching depth is a drastic understatement. Even with the trading of Shields and Davis, the Rays have as many as nine pitchers capable of filling out a Major League starting rotation. No other organization can say that.
David Price is the reigning AL Cy Young winner and is coming off his best season yet. He threw 211 innings and posted a 2.56 ERA to go along with a league leading 3.12 xFIP and over 200 strikeouts. He’s getting expensive so he could be the next major star that the Rays deal, but he’s still their ace for 2013.
With Shields gone, the Rays hope this is the year young left-hander Matt Moore lives up to his endless potential. He got better as the year went on in 2012 but his command and control are still issues. Most believe he’ll eventually take over as the ace of the staff once Price leaves even if he isn’t quite there yet in terms of results.
Right-handers Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann are back again this season. Hellickson drastically outpitched his peripherals for the second straight year and although regression appears to be on the way, maybe there’s something to the notion that some pitchers can sustain such things over longer periods of time. Niemann, meanwhile, made only eight starts last season, but is a solid mid-to-back-end arm when healthy.
The final spot in the rotation could go to any of the remaining five pitchers. Alex Cobb appears to have the inside track since he pitched fairly well in 23 starts last season. His strong peripherals seem to indicate that he could get even better. If he falters or Niemann can’t stay healthy, Chris Archer could step in. The former Cubs’ prospect acquired in the Matt Garza trade pitched very well in 29 1/3 innings last season at the Major League level, including one start where he struck out 11 in seven innings of work against the Rangers.
Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery—two of the prospects acquired in the Shields-Davis trade—could also compete for a spot and should see Major League time this year. Hernandez will pitch out of the bullpen if he doesn’t end up starting.
Closer Fernando Rodney is the perfect example of the Rays voodoo magic at work. In 2011 with the Angels, Rodney walked 28 batters in 32 innings of work. Last season he walked only 15 in 74 2/3 innings. His numbers improved along the same lines as he finished with an absolutely ridiculous 0.60 ERA giving up only five earned runs the whole season. To put that in perspective, former Royals right-hander Vin Mazzaro gave up 14 runs to Cleveland back in May of 2011 in one two-inning performance.
Outside of Rodney, the Rays bullpen boasts almost as much depth as their rotation. Right-handers Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth were both brought back instead of being allowed to walk via free agency. Peralta has now been excellent two years in a row for the Rays while Farnsworth was hurt for part of last year, but was his usual consistent self when healthy.
Left-hander Jake McGee was one of the better southpaw relievers in the league in 2012, breaking out to the tune of a 2.0 WAR according to FanGraphs and an AL reliever-leading 2.33 xFIP. Joining him on the left-side will be Cesar Ramos who had a 2.10 ERA in 30 innings last season.
The final spot in the bullpen will go to 38-year-old Jamey Wright who pitched well last season for the Dodgers, while Archer and Brandon Gomes provide depth.
The Rays may have been excellent at preventing runs in 2012, but they struggled to score them finishing 11th in the AL in that regard. They didn’t strikeout a lot and they walked more than anyone else, but there just wasn’t a lot of actual hitting ability. Losing Longoria for most of the year didn’t help. If he can stay on the field, it’ll be a huge boon to the Rays offense.
In his absence, super-de-duper utility man Ben Zobrist posted another quiet MVP-caliber season playing nearly equal time in right field and at short stop and second base. Since 2009, Zobrist trails only Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols in FanGraphs’ WAR averaging almost 6.3 WAR per season. That’s a sustained enough time that we should be putting Zobrist in the conversation for the best player in baseball, yet he’s never talked about in such a way.
Along with Zobrist in the outfield—who should actually see most of his time in rightfield until Myers is called up—will be incumbents Matt Joyce, who’ll move from right to left, and Desmond Jennings, who’ll move from left to center to take over for the departed B.J. Upton. Jennings was underwhelming at the plate last year, but his excellent defense and baserunning make him a very valuable player. At only 26, his hitting could still get better. Joyce, meanwhile, posted a 116 wRC+ and 17 home runs last season and should benefit from more everyday playing time—although his splits against lefties may prevent him from being any more than a solid platoon player.
Escobar was traded twice this winter and had a regrettable year all around in Toronto last year. He’s still just a year removed from being one of the more valuable shortstops in the American League and the Rays are hoping for a rebound in a new setting.
The Rays, perhaps more than any other team, take advantage of platoon splits to a staggering degree. Johnson at second base, Luke Scott at DH and James Loney at first base should all see the bulk of playing time against right-handed pitching while Sean Rodriguez, Ryan Roberts and Shelley Duncan will probably rotate in against lefties.
Jose Molina will again see the bulk of playing time at catcher for the Rays and his otherworldly pitch-framing skills suggest it’s well worth the putrid bat. Jose Lobaton, Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos will battle for the backup job.
Myers will eventually be promoted once the Rays play around with the whole service-time loophole and has serious upside offensively which could further help the Rays in the second half.
The Rays led the American League in park-adjusted defensive efficiency in 2012 and are generally regarded as the best all-around defensive team in baseball. Even with the loss of Upton in centerfield, that should continue this year. The key to the Rays’ success is their versatility with players such as Zobrist, Rodriguez, Roberts, Johnson and Joyce able to move around to several different positions on the diamond. All of them seem to be adept with the glove wherever they play and players such as Longoria, Jennings and Molina all have great reputations with the glove.
Molina alone was judged to have saved more than 50 runs last season with his pitch framing—that’s essentially five marginal wins. In other words, Molina is worth as much as an All-Star catcher with just that one skill. I’ll let that sink in with a GIF from Ben Lindbergh and then we’ll move on to the outlook section of the preview.
The Rays will probably be near or at the top of the AL in run prevention again this year even without Shields in the rotation. Continued dominance by Price along with an improved Moore should give them one of the better rotations in baseball. In the lineup, a healthy Longoria, the eventual promotion of Myers and the continued awesomeness of Zobrist could propel the Rays into the middle-of-the-pack offensively. An average offense with that run prevention means scary things for the rest of the AL East.
2013 Prediction: 92-70, 1st AL East