The AL East is up for grabs this year, and the Tampa Bay Rays are poised to compete once again. This year, the team has sacrificed James Shields and Wade Davis in hopes of extending their window to compete, but have also revamped most of their infield. There’s some value in the 2013 Rays infield, so long as a fantasy owner keeps expectations low … or gets Evan Longoria.
Jose Molina is a wizard when it comes to pitch framing, but he’s not exactly Gandalf with the bat. Molina’s never gotten 300 PA in a season, and when he has played, he’s never hit well enough to be worth a fantasy roster spot. Sure, last year he hit eight homers, but he also has a career .238 batting average. He may be the presumptive “every day” catcher, but he’ll likely split time with Jose Lobaton, and be of little to no value to any fantasy team. Lobaton, Molina’s ostensible backup, walks a lot (12.2% BB-rate in 2012), but unless you’re playing in a very deep AL-only OBP league, he’s probably worth passing on too.
When the Rays inked James Loney to a one-year deal this offseason, it seemed like exactly the type of low-cost, high-risk move the Rays are prone to making … except for the fact that Loney seems to have precious little upside. James Loney is a first baseman with astonishingly little power, posting only six HR in his atrocious 2012, and providing most of his value through good contact skills and solid defense at first base. If Loney pulls a Casey Kotchman and revitalizes his career in Tampa, well, he probably still won’t have a ton of fantasy value. But the team may well platoon him at first with other new acquisition Shelley Duncan, and Loney might see a little value bump due to facing primarily right-handed pitchers. But neither Loney nor Duncan look like solid investments for any fantasy owner, unless they’re playing a deep AL-only league.
Whereas plenty of major-league players are better as “real-world” players than in fantasy, due to their defensive abilities, new Ray Kelly Johnson is pretty much the opposite. Every year, like clockwork, Johnson posts double-digit homers and steals from the shallow position of second base, making him a pretty useful fantasy player. But due to his poor contact skills, Johnson also comes with a terrible batting average and doesn’t put himself in the best position to score. Johnson might be used primarily against right-handed pitchers, and if so, he’ll probably be spelled by Sean Rodriguez or Ryan Roberts against lefties. Or maybe Ben Zobrist. It’s tough to predict with the way the Rays mix and match lineups.
In fact, it’s very possible that Ben Zobrist reclaims the second base spot at some point, especially if he’s bumped from the outfield by the emergence of Wil Myers. But Zobrist should already have 2B or SS eligibility in most leagues, so you’re probably playing him there already. If not Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez has been supposed to provide power and solid offensive value for the last few years, but he disappointed greatly in 2012, and may not be much more than a punchy left-hander killer with lots of position eligibility, and hardly worth rostering.
New addition Yunel Escobar is probably going to be the man at the six for the Rays this season, as Ben Zobrist is needed elsewhere. Escobar had a down offensive 2012 after a good offensive 2011. In fact, Escobar has a history of posting one good offensive season, followed by a poor one. But more scientifically, Escobar has a history of showing up (133-145 games per season since 2008), posting a good batting average if his BABIP is high, and banging about 10 homers a season. He’ll likely be the everyday guy, with either Ben Zobrist or Sean Rodriguez spelling him in the short term.
Finally, we’ve got some long-term consistency here. Barring another injury, Evan Longoria will be the guy at third base for this team. The face of the Rays franchise only played in 74 games last season, but when he did play, he put up better hitting numbers than he had at any other point in his career. Longo posted a .378 wOBA, which was good for a 146 wRC+, putting him in the absolute top tier of non-Cabrera, non-Trout American League hitters. Among fantasy third basemen, Longoria comes with a little more risk, but the very precious reward of MVP-caliber offensive numbers. The only concern is staying on the field, and if he can’t, the Rays will be forced to go to Ryan Roberts or Sean Rodriguez in his absence. That’s quite a downgrade.
Last season, the Rays brought in Luke Scott to hold down the DH slot in Tampa, but instead of holding it down, Scott burned it down. Unable to stay fully healthy, Scott posted his second consecutive poor season with the bat, failing to record a wRC+ above 100. Scott did manage 14 homers in his 344 plate appearances, making him an emergency source of power, but he’ll need to stay on the field, and stay productive, to have value in 2013. He’ll certainly DH versus righties, so long as he’s healthy and producing some sort of power.
In addition, expect the Rays to use this position in some sort of general platoon, and to give other players a rest day. Against left-handers, this spot could be filled by Ryan Roberts or Shelley Duncan, both of whom project to be a little more effective against southpaws than Scott. Players like Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce (especially after the advent of Wil Myers this season) could see time here. The DH position should be in quite a bit of flux this year in Tampa, and I wouldn’t be surprised if no one player gets more than 300 PA as a designated hitter.
Tampa Bay’s bench probably will get more play than many other team benches, especially considering Joe Maddon’s propensity to mix and match, while taking the platoon advantage and making defensive shifts. But even still, this is a team without a lot of fantasy value on the bench either, as all the guys on the bench provide some position flexibility … but aren’t big-time fantasy performers. Jose Lobaton doesn’t have much upside. Rodriguez, Duncan, and Roberts all could, potentially, provide a little power and a little position flexibility. And Roberts could offer double-digit steals. But none of these players are more than part-timers, or waiver pickups, unless something very bad happens to the Rays. Wil Myers, one of the top hitting prospects in the minors, looms large at Durham, though, and that could turn Ben Zobrist back into an infield regular as well.
C: Jose Molina
1B: James Loney / Shelley Duncan (platoon?)
2B: Kelly Johnson / Sean Rodriguez (platoon?)
SS: Yunel Escobar
3B: Evan Longoria
DH: Luke Scott / Ryan Roberts (platoon?)
Bench: Jose Lobaton, Shelley Duncan, Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez