Mar
30

2011 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

By

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

These aren’t your grandfather’s Devil Rays anymore. Since losing the Devil, the Rays have won the AL East twice in three seasons, including last year by one game over the Yankees. The front office, led by acting GM Andrew Friedman, continues to squeeze valuable water out of the payroll rock with some help from manager Joe Maddon, who is willing to buck convention more than any other skipper in the game. Nine players from Tampa’s 25-man ALDS roster will be playing elsewhere this season, and a tenth (Rocco Baldelli) moved into a front office role. They’ve proven adept at rebuilding on the fly, but a roster overhaul of this caliber might have been too much at one time.

If you want a full preview of the 2011 Rays, I highly recommend purchasing The Process Report 2011, the best $15 you’ll spend this spring. The 103-page document includes in-depth articles and player profiles written by the brightest minds on the Rays’ blogosphere. In the interest of full disclosure, our own Joe Pawlikowski contributed an article about former Yankee and new Ray Johnny Damon. Think of TPR11 as the Mariano Rivera of season previews while what you see below is more … Kyle Farnsworth.

Strengths

It wasn’t long ago that a three-game series against the Tampa franchise meant good times for Yankees hitters, who routinely pounded inferior pitching staffs. Things have changed now, and the Rays’ starting rotation is the backbone of the club. David Price broke out and became one of the very best pitchers in the game last season, a hard-throwing lefty with strikeout stuff that has not yet reached his 26th birthday. Number two starter Jamie Shields is one of just eight pitchers that have thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last four seasons, so if nothing else he provides innings. He fell victim to some back luck last year (.341 BABIP, 68.4% strand rate), but his 3.55 xFIP was his best ever. Still just 29-years-old, a rebound is possible, if not likely.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The three and four spots go to 28-year-old Jeff Niemann (4.18 xFIP last year, 4.35 career) and 25-year-old Wade Davis (4.61 xFIP as a rookie last year). Matt Garza takes his three straight years of 180+ IP to Chicago’s north side and in steps young Jeremy Hellickson, who is arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. The soon-to-be 24-year-old had a fine big league cameo last year (3.83 xFIP in 36.1 IP), and is just the latest product from the game’s premier player development franchise. Right-hander Alex Cobb (2.80 FIP in Double-A last year) and left-hander Alex Torres (3.47) are next in line and will start the year in Triple-A. Behind them in Double-A will be Matt Moore, Alex Colome, and Nick Barnese. All five of those guys represent some of the better prospects in the game’s second best farm system.

Now that we’re past the starting rotation, we have to talk about Evan Longoria, arguably the best all-around player in baseball. His 19.6 fWAR since 2008 trails only Albert Pujols (25.3) and the now-hobbled Chase Utley (20.9). Still just 25, Longoria has three seasons of .370+ wOBA‘s, .210+ ISO’s, and 10+ ADR’s (aggregate defensive rating) to his credit all ready. Plus he packs some serious heat. Simply put, he’s a superstar of the first order and the best player in the division.

The team defense as a whole has been a strength for several years and figures to be one again in 2011. Losing Carl Crawford definitely hurts, but they’re still very strong up the middle with Reid Brignac at short, Ben Zobrist/Sean Rodriguez at second, and B.J. Upton in center. Maddon also has a deep and versatile roster at his disposal, allowing him to take advantage of platoon matchups and defensive shifts and what not. That farm system also provides a friggin’ ton of ammo for trades, and Friedman has shown a willingness to make huge splashes.

Weaknesses

As I said earlier, the Rays’ roster took a really big hit this winter. Crawford is the best player in franchise history, but he left for Boston. Carlos Pena fled for Chicago. Say what you want about his poor 2010 season (.196 AVG, .326 wOBA), but he hit at least 28 homers for the fourth straight year, and that will be missed. In their place will be old buddy Damon (coming off a .340 wOBA with Detroit, his lowest in the last seven years) and old nemesis Manny Ramirez (his .382 wOBA last year was excellent, but his second worst since becoming a full-time player). Both are on the wrong side of 35, but Tampa didn’t bring in either guy expected them to perform like they did three or five years ago. Either way, going from Crawford and Pena to Damon and Manny is likely to be a three or four-win downgrade, maybe even five.

The rest of the lineup, beyond those two and Longoria, is almost like a patchwork group. Zobrist won’t ever have another .408 wOBA season like he did in 2009 again, but his career .346 OBP and .168 ISO are fine marks for a guy that can legitimately play seven positions. B.J. Upton is now two years from free agency and it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll turn into the megastar everyone though he would after a stellar (.387 wOBA) 2007 campaign. His .317 OBP over the last two years won’t get the job done, even when combined with 40+ steals. Dan Johnson’s late season heroics over the last two years are well-known, but his big league career features a decidedly un-first baseman-like .333 wOBA. Brignac has some pop but is in there more for his glove than his bat, and the catching platoon of John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach is fine as long as they have bats in their hands and not gloves. I like Matt Joyce as a breakout candidate, but he’s a bit of a question mark until he actually does it.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

And then there’s the bullpen. The Rays lost almost everyone from their relief corps over the winter, with the one holdover being the forgettable Andy Sonnanstine. The dominant late-game trio of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour has been replaced by Kyle Farnsworth, Adam Russell, and Joel Peralta, a step down no matter how you look at it. Dan Wheeler goes from righty killer to Red Sox, Randy Choate from lefty killer to Marlin. Those two will essentially be replaced by a pair of rookie left-handers: Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos. A couple of guys named Mike Ekstrom, Rob Delaney, and Brandon Gomes provide the depth. Russell and McGee have big-time arms but are unproven, and will be thrust in high-leverage spots this summer. That’s not to say it can’t work, but I’m sure Maddon and fans alike will be reaching for the Tums much more often this year than last.

Of course, the team’s biggest weakness is it’s financial situation. Payroll shrunk down to something like $45M after topping out at close to $73M last season, and it’s not because ownership is cheap. The franchise simply can’t sustain anything higher. Tropicana Field has some appeal in a grungy “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” kind of way, but it’s poorly located and the attendance totals reflect that. When the star players start calling fan attendance “embarrassing” … yeah it’s bad.

Overall Outlook

There’s no question that the Rays lost a lot of firepower this offseason. Crawford is irreplaceable, but remaking an entire bullpen and finding suitable offensive fill-ins in a single offseason is a minor miracle. Are they as good as last year? Almost certainly not, but Tampa is still extremely dangerous and very capable of winning the division. They have two bonafide stars in Price and Longoria plus a strong supporting cast, not to mention the deepest and most talented rotation in the division. Don’t kid yourself, Maddon’s club is a very real threat to the 2011 Yankees.

Categories : Other Teams

40 Comments»

  1. Alex K says:

    Can we coin “back luck” as a term? For example, Barry Bond’s mistress telling the jury that he had developed acne from steroids: back luck.

  2. Icebird753 says:

    Lol more like your older brother’s Devil Rays

  3. xnyles says:

    Best player in the division? Walking with those no wonder he needs a ak.

    • Tank the Frank says:

      Yeah but seriously, I don’t think Longo is the best player in the division. That’s overrating him a bit. He’s a stellar third baseman and one of the best all-around players in the division, but not the best. The Red Sox have one or two (Youkilis, Gonzalez) that I would take and I still think Teixiera is a better player despite last season. Cano is knocking on the door as well…

      • The Real JobaWockeeZ says:

        Longoria’s doing the same exact thing with the bat as those three but has a positional advantage and better defensively.

        He’s younger than them too.

        • Tank the Frank says:

          Saying Longoria is doing the exact thing with the bat as those three is simply inaccurate. In fact, every player I mentioned has been decidedly better offensively with the exception of Teix’s down ’10. Cano just recently caught up with his ’10 season.

          And like you said below, UZR isn’t the end-all of defensive stats. It’s been very up and down on Teixeira. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say all the players I mentioned are very good to elite defenders.

      • AndrewYF says:

        Yeah, but the defining factor for Longoria isn’t his offense (lots of AL East players can duplicate his stats), it’s his defense. He’s one of the best defensive players in the game today.

        Anyway, if the advanced stats liked Cano as much as they like Pedroia, I don’t think we’d be having this argument right now.

        • The Real JobaWockeeZ says:

          If we use TZ in WAR instead of UZR, Cano’s 2010 would be like 7 or 8 WAR since he’s ranked pretty good.

  4. Mister Delaware says:

    Using the theory that everyone is always a year late to jump onto a team and a year late jumping back off, 2011 will be the year the Rays drop back to the tier below NY/Boston. It won’t be permanent, but there’s not enough hitting (despite my proclaimed love of Dan Johnson), our 4th reliever might be their best and the rotation has little certainty behind Price. Maybe Upton finally clicks, Hellickson and Davis both throw like #2s and they continue the impressive run, but I’ll call ~87 wins and never more of a September threat than Boston was for that “uh-oh, lets get this clinched” series last year.

  5. Johnny O says:

    Question for Mike – is Joe Maddon really “willing to buck convention more than any other skipper in the game” or is that just a MSM meme because of the glasses? I’m only a casual fan but haven’t noticed anything too crazy outside of maybe having the Catcher lead off? Just curious if there are specific examples.

    • Mister Delaware says:

      I think a lot of it comes from him not assuming platoon advantages and instead going pitcher by pitcher.

    • Mike Axisa says:

      The whole Danks Theory thing (platooning based on pitcher repertoire and not handedness), the weird defensive shifts, IBB’ing Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded, some of his occasionally odd bullpen moves.

      • Mister Delaware says:

        Like bringing in Kyle Farnsworth??? OH SHIT!!!

        • king of fruitless hypotheticals says:

          over/under on Yanks/Sox that get hit by Farns this year? I’m going with 25. That may sound low, but its because I don’t think he’ll finish the season in the AL East…

  6. Urban says:

    The bullpen issue is substantial. They can lose a lot of games from the sixth inning on. These guys might gel into a solid bunch, but odds are they’re going to lose a minimum of five games from last season due to bullpen failure. My guess is will be an even higher number. Yet their offense will be more than enough and they have as solid a five-man rotation as can be. If the bullpen does gel, they could actually win the division again. Odds are, though, the bullpen will be a mess.

    • Big Apple says:

      sure it is…that’s what happened to the Rays in 2009…Soriano solidfied that pen last year. They’ll miss having him in that role.

      sox and yanks have 203 closers each and the Rays have none.

    • The Real JobaWockeeZ says:

      Joel Perlata = Rafael Soriano

      • Big Apple says:

        fuzzy math

        • The Real JobaWockeeZ says:

          Both have inconsistent careers, both have extreme FB rates, weak GB rates, etc.

          Soriano has like a 2 year track recrod better but thats not worth millions of dollars more.

          • Ted Nelson says:

            Ummm…. No. That’s not at all accurate. Soriano has a career ERA of 2.73 and FIP of 3.23 in 395 IP. Peralta has a career ERA of 4.22 and FIP of 4.34 in 322.1 IP. Soriano hasn’t had a full season in the pen with an ERA over 3. Peralta has one season with an ERA under 3. It’s not close.

            • The Real JobaWockeeZ says:

              4.82 FIP in 2002 (47 IP)
              3.43 FIP in 2006 (60 IP)
              4.17 FIP in 2007 (72 IP)

              3 of his 6 season where he pitched over 40 innings came with mediocre FIP numbers with a lucky ERA.

              And he has even worse xFIP numbers which would be easier to happen with the bandbox stadiums of the AL East with a 50 percent FB rate.

              I know you love him but I don’t know how we’re gonna call his career in any way consistent that justifies a near Mo like contract.

              Peralta is just as inconsistent with less of a good track record.

              • Big Apple says:

                the contract is what it is…no salary cap, who cares…the yanks are not the rays…

                are you saying you’d rather have Peralta on the yanks on the cheap than Soriano with his current deal?

              • Ted Nelson says:

                “3 of his 6 season where he pitched over 40 innings came with mediocre FIP numbers with a lucky ERA.”

                If the ERA is continually lower than the FIP… it starts to be hard to call it “luck.” Mariano’s career ERA is also .56 under his FIP and he routinely out ERAs his FIP by a full run… is that all luck?

                “easier to happen with the bandbox stadiums of the AL East with a 50 percent FB rate.”

                You are aware he pitched in the AL East last season, right?

                “I know you love him”

                I don’t have any emotional feelings towards him. I just think he’s consistently been a strong reliever, and I especially think the draft pick is blown WAY, WAY out of proportion. Had Cashman never mentioned not giving up a pick, I don’t think people would be nearly as obsessed with it.
                The money is the money and I’ve never once said he’s not overpaid. In fact, I constantly say that he is overpaid. Of course, since Mo is “lucky” with his ERAs like Soriano… I guess Mo is not deserving of a Mo like contract either.

                “Peralta is just as inconsistent”

                NO. NO. NO. This is absolutely ridiculous. Not at all in touch with reality. Before 2010 Peralta was extremely consistent… consistently bad. He has one good season and suddenly he’s one of the best relievers in the game? Let’s let him prove himself over a larger sample before making that call.

                Again… Soriano’s ERA is 1.5 runs lower and his FIP is 1 run lower… he is consistent… consistently better than Peralta. It makes about as much sense as me saying that Josh Johnson and Jaime Garcia are the same player and Johnson is not worth more money.

                • Ted Nelson says:

                  You can make the case that Soriano is overpaid while sticking to reality 100%. It’s hard to say he’s not overpaid. I don’t see why people constantly feel the need to ignore reality in making cases that Soriano is overpaid. He can be overpaid and not be a total bum with a 100% chance of sucking and then getting injured and costing the Yankees the chance to draft the next Evan Longoria and lose every game all season… Saying Peralta has historically been as good as Soriano is just not in agreement with reality in my opinion.

      • Ted Nelson says:

        It’s possible, but Soriano had a career of performance and Peralta has one 49 inning season. Before 2010, Peralta sported a career ERA of 4.6. Maybe he’s improved, but expecting another 2 ERA season is very unlikely. His FIP was 3, so even with the same performance you’d expect a regression probably. And moving to the AL East could hurt him a bit.

        I don’t think there pen will necessarily be a real mess with McGee and co., but it should be weaker than last season. Even if they brought back the exact same guys I think they’d have a higher bullpen ERA.

  7. YankeesJunkie says:

    Can’t the Rays go back to a team where a 10 to 2 lead turns into a 20 to 12 defeat.

  8. Fair Weather Freddy says:

    Another scary thing for the future is that they have 10 picks in the first 2 rounds of a very deep draft this year. YIKES!

  9. king of fruitless hypotheticals says:

    what you see below is more … Kyle Farnsworth.

    i thought you were speaking metaphorically…jerks!

  10. bonestock94 says:

    I hope they get a good ballpark. I hate seeing a good franchise squandered for that reason, regardless of being a rival.

  11. Bojo says:

    Was that picture of Evan and Price intended as a flier to post in gay bars and bring out new fans? Seriously, could they look any gayer?

Leave a Reply

You may use <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> in your comment.

If this is your first time commenting on River Ave. Blues, please review the RAB Commenter Guidelines. Login for commenting features. Register for RAB.