With the exception of catcher, the Rays bring back the entirely same infield unit from the 2013 season. It’s a fantastic group defensively, but for all intents and purposes there are only two strong fantasy factors.
The Starting Unit
1B James Loney (2014 Steamer Projection .271/.328/.398 | .316 wOBA)
Loney is not one of the strong fantasy factors, though his rebound last year was nothing short of, well, what the Rays do with guys like him. To that end, re-upping with the Rays might have been the smart move. The .299/.348/.430 line from last year is nice, if a bit short on thump for a first baseman, and doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Loney was awesome in the first half (.315/.366/.466), and rather pedestrian in the second (.276/.322/.378). More befuddling yet is that he had a .291 wOBA at home (.261 BABIP), and a .385 mark on the road (.391 BABIP). Projection systems seem to think Loney’s slated for a bit of a bump, but to me there are a lot of entanglements here. My guess is the Rays view him as a +2.5-3.0 win first baseman — largely because I think his defense is viewed in a more positive light than metrics suggest — and that a little regression offensively can be withstood as long as he doesn’t fall back into the 2012 abyss. For my money, he has to hit more like 2013 — or his 2014 Oliver — to even merit back-end consideration in deep leagues.
2B Ben Zobrist (2014 Steamer Projection .264/.355/.421 | .342 wOBA)
The projection systems are a bit torn on Zobrist this year, as Steamer suggests it’ll be business as usual, while Oliver expects the soon-to-be 33 year old to continue down the mini decline he exhibited last year. On the whole, it wasn’t a huge deal, as Zobrist was still worth nearly +6.0 wins, but there was a significant decrease in power (.202 ISO –> .127; .471 SLG –> .402) with both walk and whiff rates taking a bit of a hit. Jim Breen suggested it was sacrificing power for contact, and while the contact rates concur, Zobrist only picked up five points in batting average while posting a similar BABIP. That has to leave one wondering if it’s worth it, no? Either way, Zobrist will be wildly popular due to his handyman propensity in fantasy circles, but it appears the decline may have already begun. It’ll be on him to prove that, like after 2010, he can rebound.
3B Evan Longoria (2014 Steamer Projection .264/.352/.492 | .362 wOBA)
Longoria is so much a Rays player, and yet in some ways he isn’t. He’s a fabulous defender, signed to a team-friendly deal, and quite frankly, he’s just kind of awesome. But he’s not versatile, not underrated really, and at some point will get the paycheck he’s due. But typecasting is dumb, and Longoria is not.
And unlike some of his Rays counterparts, Longoria is extremely fantasy friendly, as a safe bet to play every single day — barring a 2012 repeat — while mashing 30 home runs and doing some other fun things if linear weights are your flavor. Entering his age-28 season, there’s no reason not to ride the Longoria train.
SS Yunel Escobar (2014 Steamer Projection .258/.329/.360 | .308 wOBA)
At this point, there just doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to buy into Escobar as much of an offensive threat anymore. Three of the last four years offensively have been clunkers, though last year was a decent enough offensive output for a shortstop (.256/.332/.366). To me, he’d have more value deep in 5x5s with potential to maybe poke a 10-plus homers, steal a couple bases, and score a few runs. A BABIP regression to career norms could make for some added production, but three of the last four years have been BABIP drains as well. I would look elsewhere.
C Ryan Hanigan (2014 Steamer Projection .250/.341/.337 | .298 wOBA)
It’s very likely that Hanigan will be ultra valuable to the Rays no matter if his bat returns to its pre-2013 form, but there’s just no intrigue here. He’s the catcher version of Jamey Carroll.
Sean Rodriguez (2014 Steamer Projection .230/.304/.360 | .295 wOBA)
Rodriguez will do a lot of things this year, but it’s unlikely any of them will be hitting. He’s a very valuable piece, and probably the quintessential non-Zobrist Ray (the only positions he didn’t play last year were catcher, third, and center field), but even if pressed into full time duty by some cavalcade of injuries, it’s almost certain Rodriguez wouldn’t have any value to fantasy players other than in AL-only leagues.
Logan Forsythe (2014 Steamer Projection .248/.328/.379 | .314 wOBA)
Forsythe’s playing time hinges largely on the health of Longoria, and the health and versatility of Zobrist. That is, if Zobrist is asked to play all over, some time could be found for Forsythe at second. But, with an outfield of Wil Myers, Desmond Jennings, and David DeJesus backed up capably by Matt Joyce (starting DH, as well), as well as Rodriguez in there to ultimately serve as rover, Forsythe’s playing time might be scant and sporadic since Zobrist won’t likely be called into outfield duty too much. Moving Forsythe all around might play well in leagues with minimum position eligibility requirements, but it’s unlikely that his on-field skill will make one forget all about Zobrist either. I mean he’s right there. Just look at him.
Oliver is a bit more optimistic about Forsythe, projecting him to hit .252/.325/.390 with adequate defense. Over 600 PA, that’s nearly a +3.0 win player. The Rays obviously thought highly enough of him to deal Alex Torres, so maybe going forward he could be the next Zobrist. Even so, it’s unlikely he’ll get enough playing time to be viable in fantasy leagues this year. Keep an eye on him going forward, however.
Jose Molina (2014 Steamer Projection .230/.290/.330 | .276 wOBA)
Molina is a first-round pick in catcher framing leagues.
Prospect to Watch For
SS Hak-Ju Lee (2014 Steamer Projection .248/.309/.340 | .289 wOBA)
Lee missed nearly all of 2013 with a knee injury, but had reached Triple-A and was scorching hot in the 15 games (.422/.536/.600) he managed to see action in. He’ll start the year at Durham, and has a chance to supplant Escobar at short sometime this year. When he comes up, he’ll provide solid defense, and for fantasy teams, he should be able to swipe enough bags to be fantasy relevant in deeper leagues. Oliver projects 26 thefts over a full season (though with a .250 average and .294 wOBA). There’s some belief in prospect circles that the bat might play eventually, but that’s a few years down the road if it happens.
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