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Team Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

“The death of the Rays is greatly exaggerated.” – Joe Maddon, Spring Training 2011

I know I’m going to be accused of homerism, but here it is: the Rays are better than you think they are. Yes, I know they just had a rough off season, losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler. Those players contributed a total of 15 wins to the Rays last season, and the Rays didn’t add much free agent talent to compensate for these losses. Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, and Kyle Farnsworth were their only notable roster moves, and they are easy to write off as they are aging or (in the case of Farnsworth) have a spotty track record. How could the Rays possibly hope to compete with the Yankees and the restocked, reloaded Red Sox?

And yet, that’s exactly what the Rays plan to do.

The Starting Nine

Behold, the mind of Joe Maddon!

You may have heard how the Rays like using every advantage they can get, always searching for that Extra 2%, and Joe Maddon buys into that philosophy with authority. In an effort to maximize his team’s production, he shuffles the lineup around nearly every day – 129 different lineups last season – so trying to predict exactly where players will play on the field or where they’ll hit in the lineup is nearly impossible. On most days, Evan Longoria will likely hit third with Manny Ramirez behind him, but that’s the only certainty in the lineup at this point.

In terms of position platoons, there are also few straightforward answers. Jaso will play against righties, while Shoppach will see time against lefties and the occasional righty. Matt Joyce will see playing time against righties, but will likely be benched against most lefties (well, except for against those reverse split lefties). Sean Rodriguez will primarily be played against lefties, although I believe Maddon hopes to increase his playing time against righties this season. Along those lines, Reid Brignac will likely be the starting shortstop against both hands, but if he struggles against lefties, don’t be surprised to see Maddon pencil Sean Rodriguez in at shortstop. Also, while Johnny Damon and Dan Johnson will likely play everyday at their positions, Ben Zobrist or Sean Rodriguez could always get a few starts in favor of them against certain left-handed pitchers.

From a baseball perspective, I love this shuffling: the players don’t seem to mind it, and Maddon’s decisions are always rooted in the analysis he receives from the Rays’ front office. This shuffling may not result in consistent playing time for any player outside Evan Longoria (sorry, fantasy owners!), but since the Rays have so much defensive flexibility, these rotations makes for a better overall ball club.

Depending how you look at it, the Rays had one of the better offenses in the league last season (3rd in runs scored, tied for 11th in wOBA). They did lose Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Jason Bartlett over the off season, but I believe the Rays won’t see as much of a drop off in this area as people would think. Reid Brignac may project to have a slightly worse bat than Bartlett, but he makes up the difference with his superior defense at shortstop. Carlos Pena had a down season last year, hitting below .200 and posting a .326 wOBA (barely better than league average), and Dan Johnson flashed some impressive power numbers in Triple-A and the majors in 2010 (.216 ISO, .339 wOBA).

As for Carl Crawford – well, yes, there’s no way the Rays will be able to replace him. Remember, though, that the Rays are a young team and should see increased production from a number of players as a result. Also, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon will be boosts on offense; even if Manny Ramirez’s power disappears, he’s sure to improve upon the .238/.328/.376 line that the Rays got from their DH position last season.

The Pitching Staff

LHP David Price
RHP James Shields
RHP Jeff Niemann
RHP Wade Davis
RHP Jeremy Hellickson

Unlike the lineup, the starting rotation is pretty straightforward: it’s an above average rotation with plenty of depth. David Price is an emerging ace and although he is unlikely to post another sub-3 ERA this season, he’s still one of the best, young left-handed pitchers in the game. He’s supposedly working on refining his change-up, which could add another weapon to his repertoire. James Shields is a workhorse that will log 200 innings and should have his ERA regress to the 4.00 range, but he does need to improve his fastball location if he wants to lower the number of homeruns he allows. Jeff Niemann is possibly the world’s tallest junkball pitcher, as he succeeds mostly by mixing up his six pitches and boring batters to sleep.

As for the final two, both Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson deserve keeping an eye on this season. Davis had a patchy first full season in the majors,  posting a 4.07 ERA with some rocky peripherals (4.79 FIP, 4.81 xFIP), so most people would view him as a likely candidate for regression. However, to some extent, Davis’s 2010 season resembled David Price’s 2009 season: he started off the season a mess (first half: 4.69 ERA, 5.9 K/9, 4 BB/9), but improved his process and results as the season progressed (second half: 3.28 ERA, 6.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9). As he now has a full season under his belt at the majors, he could take a step forward in 2011. Along those lines, Jeremy Hellickson is a top rated prospect with high expectations, but his results may not equal the expectations in his first season. Both Price and Davis struggled upon first reaching the majors, and Hellickson is no flamethrower that will blow batters away; he’s actually very similar to James Shields in his repertoire and skill set.

After losing Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano, and Dan Wheeler, the Rays’ bullpen has been pegged by most analysts as a disaster. Andrew Friedman did his best to construct a bullpen on a budget this off season, but even he has admitted that the relief pitcher market worked against him and kept him from acquiring one more high leverage arm. That said, I think (and again, this is the homer in me speaking) that their ‘pen is not as bad as most people are making it out to be. There’s no telling exactly how the final bullpen roster will shake out right now, as there are multiple players competing for that final spot, but it looks as though Kyle Farnsworth, Jake McGee, and Adam Russell will be sharing high-leverage situations. The Rays are banking on Farnsworth having improved his game for real over the last few seasons, and they’re taking a flyer on a high upside arm in Adam Russell, but rookie Jake McGee throws in the high 90s and has closer potential. Joel Peralta will be used like Dan Wheeler was in the past – as a right-handed one-out guy – and relief ace J.P. Howell should be back in the bullpen by the beginning of May.

Player To Watch

There are so many, how can I choose just one? Ben Zobrist should have an improved year at the plate, as a back injury sapped him of his power last season. BJ Upton is always a potential breakout candidate. Matt Joyce has some impressive power, and has the potential to develop into a force at the plate against both righties and lefties.

But how could I spend an entire season preview without talking about Manny Ramirez? After having a “down” season in 2010 – yes, a .382 wOBA is apparently considered a down year for this 39 year old – Ramirez was forgotten on the free agent market and went unsigned until late January. The Rays needed an extra bat in their lineup, especially after suffering through the horrors of Pat Burrell trying to hit in the American League, and Manny’s pricetag was perfect: $2M (or $7.5M, if you consider Damon as well). Despite concerns that his bad speed may have slowed, Ramirez still reached base 40% of the time last season and hit for a respectable amount of power (.162 ISO). He’s not the player he once was, but Manny could still be the steal of the off season.

Since arriving in Spring Training, Manny has been nothing but a positive presense: he’s been working harder than anyone else, going to the batting cage even on off days, and working with Evan Longoria frequently. I’m not quite sure where the tales of him having attitude problems came from, but at the very least, he seems like a different man.

Summary

The Rays have a strong roster and most projection systems have them pegged as around an 87-88 win team. In the AL East, 88 wins is only good enough for third place and a pat on the back, but this is a high-variance team filled with young talent. They’ll need some bad luck to hit the Yankees or Red Sox and some good luck to hit their roster, but competing for a playoff spot isn’t out of the question. If a few good things bounce there way, the Rays could easily win 90+ games, and put themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt.

And if the Rays don’t manage to reach the playoffs this season, oh well, it was a restocking year for them anyway. Their roster is locked and loaded coming into 2012 and they have 10 first round draft picks in this year’s amateur draft, so Yankees and Red Sox fans better not write off the Rays too quickly. They’re not going anywhere.