Mar
29

2012 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

By

(AP Photo)

The Tampa Bay Rays have made life quite difficult in the AL East. Previously a two-team powerhouse, the East saw Tampa Bay’s rise to prominence in 2008. That year the Yankees boasted the fourth-best record in the American League, but missed the playoffs thanks to Tampa’s presence atop the standings (among other factors). The Rays sunk a bit in the 2009 season, but in 2010 they came back to win the AL East, and then made the playoffs as the Wild Card in 2011. They return in 2012 with a slightly heftier payroll. Will it be enough for a third straight playoff berth?

Tampa Bay’s chances — and, really, everyone’s chances — have increased thanks to the second Wild Card spot. But it’s not Tampa’s bid for a Wild Card spot that should have Yankees fans worried. They’ve built another strong team in 2012, one that will likely contend for the AL East crown. They’re the early-season sexy picks for the title, too; ESPN.com’s Buster Olney dubbed them baseball’s best team earlier this year. Let’s take a closer look at what makes them tick.

Starting Pitching

(Via Getty Images)

Once again, the Rays will go with a homegrown rotation in 2012. For the last 165 games they’ve used a homegrown starter, an MLB record. They will, however, finally use a starting pitcher over the age of 30 in 2012, the first time since 2007. To compensate, they’ll also employ one of the youngest and most highly touted pitchers in the league. In other words, the Rays will again boast a formidable pitching staff.

The rotation starts with James Shields, who will face CC Sabathia on Opening Day next Friday. He’s been a workhorse since his full-season debut in 2007, making at least 31 starts and pitching at least 203 innings in each year (and in all but one year he pitched at least 215 innings, including nearly 250 last year). Last season Shields held the Yankees in check, allowing just 10 runs in 38.2 innings, striking out 31 to just 10 walks.

While Shields has been impressive on his own against the Yankees in the last three years, throwing 81.2 innings in 12 starts to a 3.20 ERA, they have gotten the best of him; Shields is just 4-5 against the Yankees in that time. Then again, Shields has pitched a bit better against the Yankees in that span than he has overall. From 2009 through 2011 he sports a 3.96 ERA, which is league average.

After Shields, the Rays have lefty David Price as a strong No. 2 starter. He can even be considered the staff ace, despite Shields holding that spot nominally. Price’s 2009 debut was rough, but that can be expected of a 23-year-old in baseball’s toughest division. He came back in 2010 to produce one of the best seasons in the AL, even finishing second in the Cy Young voting. His ERA jumped in 2011, but all of his peripherals improved. Most notably, he trimmed nearly a walk per nine off his rate. If he can continue striking out nearly a batter per inning while refusing to walk too many batters, his results will follow.

The 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Award recipient fills the third spot in the Rays rotation. Jeremy Hellickson got off to a rolling start last year, throwing 189 innings to a 2.95 ERA. He’s not exactly a strikeout artist, and he didn’t demonstrate great control in 2011. In fact, his peripherals were fairly mediocre. But he does have a chance to take a step forward in 2012.

The big difference between the 2011 and 2012 Rays rotations is Matt Moore. One of the game’s most highly touted prospects, Moore will get his chance in the rotation. It’s hard to undersell his potential. He simply plowed through the minors, dipping below 12 K/9 just once — and even then it was 11.5 K/9. He’s going to give the Yankees fits for years to come. If everything goes well, he’ll join Price atop the rotation, leaving little room to miss Shields once the Rays inevitably trade him.

Bullpen

(Via Getty Images)

It might be easy for a Yankees fan to write-off a bullpen that features Kyle Farnsworth as closer, but he’s not the same Farnsworth that plagued the Bronx from 2006 through mid-2008. He has found some semblance of control, which has in no small way led to his prominence in the last few years. He’ll get the nod again as closer in 2012, but he has some reinforcements.

Joel Peralta is a name that probably doesn’t register on many Yankees fans radars.
Since debuting in 2005, at age 29, he’s pitched for five different teams. Yet he’s been quite effective in the last two seasons. In that span he has boasted a 2.55 ERA in 116.2 innings, striking out 8.5 per nine while walking just 2.1. One of his big assets has been the ability to suppress hits. He has allowed just 5.7 per nine in that span, which leads to an otherworldly 0.87 WHIP. His key is the splitter, which he uses to generate swings and misses as well as poor in-air contact.

The Rays have some depth behind those two late-inning guys as well. Jake McGee had a middling 2011, mostly due to his home runs allowed. If he can get them under control he’ll provide some power out of the pen. Wade Davis, who just lost the fifth starter competition to Jeff Niemann, could very well be one of those guys who flourishes in the pen after struggling in the rotation. There’s also Fernando Rodney, whom the Rays brought in on a flier, and J.P. Howell, who, given his injury history, is also essentially a flier.

Even with some riskier guys at the end of the pen, the Rays do have some depth to cover them. There’s Josh Leuke, whose fastball command, combined with quality breaking ball and splitter, could provide value out of the pen later in the year. Brandon Gomes, who pitched well in his 37 innings out of the pen last year, could provide reinforcements later as well. Combine those with a few other up-and comers, and the Rays do have some pen depth this year. That afford them the opportunity to take risks with guys like Howell and Rodney.

Offense

(Via Getty Images)

In 2011 the Rays actually finished with a below average AL offense, scoring just 4.36 runs per game. The Yankees actually scored one run per game more than the Rays, which is no small difference when spread over 162 contests. They have, however, added a few key pieces this off-season that could boost their offensive profile.

At first base the Rays were particularly abysmal. They hit a combined .288/.357/.388, placing them 13th out of 14 AL teams in OPS. To help remedy the issue they brought back Carlos Pena, who spent 2011 with the Cubs. In his four years with the Rays Pena consistently supplied power, even if he didn’t hit for a high average. The walk rate, combined with his 20-30 home run power will bring a big improvement to the Rays’ overall first base numbers.

The Rays weren’t quite as bad with the DH spot in 2011, though they did rank 10th out of 14. Even still, there was a pretty sizable gap between 10th and 9th, and the Rays DHs did combine for a .320 OBP. To remedy this they signed Luke Scott, who has certainly hit for power in the past. From 2008 through 2010 he hit .266/.348/.497 with the Orioles, a 123 OPS+. He did struggle through an injury plagued 2011 season, but if he rebounds to his former self he’ll provide another boost to the Rays offense.

Another improvement the Rays will realize comes from Desmond Jennings. In left field the Rays were above average last year, due in no small part to Jennings’s .259/.356/.449 line. Yet he appeared in only 63 games, after starting the season in the minors. A full season of him, even a little below the level he established in 2011, will be a big boost to the overall offense. Add in his ability to swipe a bag — he was 20 for 26 in those 63 games, after going 17 for 18 in AAA — and he becomes a legitimate offensive threat.

Last season Evan Longoria’s production dropped off a bit at an age where we expect improvement. He did suffer a foot injury, which cost him a number of games. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for his drop-off. One big reason, however, might be the ebbs and flows of a career. Fancy this: Longoria produced a career-low .239 BABIP in 2011. This isn’t to say that he was merely unlucky. It is to say that it’s considerably out of line with his .301 career BABIP, and the .336 and .313 marks he produced in 2010 and 2009. At the same time, his walk rate jumped, as did his power production. If he brings his average back up into the .280 neighborhood with those power and patience improvements, he could be an MVP contender.

In addition to Longoria and Pena in the middle of the lineup, the Rays also have Ben Zobrist. His numbers might not stand out, .269/.353/.469 in 2011, but that was good for a 132 OPS+. Combine that with his defensive versatility and you have a highly valuable player who can hit essentially anywhere in the lineup. B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce are also quality hitters to round out the outfield. The only real hole in the Rays’ offense, then, comes at shortstop, where Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez both provide little. Rodriguez is the better bet to provide near league average numbers, as he did in 2011, so it won’t be as though they have a gaping hole there.

Defense

One area where the Rays receive universal praise is their defense. Longoria, Zobrist, Pena, Upton, and Jennings are all well above average defensively, and the rest of the team, from the starters to the bench, fields well too. The Rays boasted the best defensive efficiency — number of balls in play turned into outs — of nay team in the majors last year, and by no small margin. In terms of Baseball Prospectus’s PADE, which adjusts defensive efficiency for park effects, the Rays demolished every team in 2011 (4.30, with the next closest being 1.98). That will make things quite easier on their already quality pitching staff.

* * *

Once again, the Rays will complicate the AL East. They might not have the on-paper powerhouse lineups that both the Yankees and the Sox boast, but they do have a number of high-quality hitters throughout the lineup. One through seven, in fact, will comprise above-average hitters, with only the shortstop and Jose Molina dragging them down. They also have five high-quality starters that can rival any rotation in the division. It might take a few things breaking their way, but the Rays do have a legitimate shot at the AL East crown this year.

Categories : Other Teams

21 Comments»

  1. Craig says:

    So, what’s the ceiling for Niemann/Davis?

  2. Guest says:

    The job that the Rays front office has done is nothing short of remarkable. Just amazing. I love all of their brilliant strategy, from trading young pieces when they have peak value IF they have someone behind them they believe in, to signing their true A-list guys to long term deals well before they have to in order to buy out the earliest years of free agency (which just happens to coincide with the player’s likely prime).

    Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant.

    And with that staff, if they get in the playoffs, they have 2010 Giants written all over them.

    But my favorite part of the Rays? The fact that the Yanks are borrowing from them. They are to the Yanks what the A’s are to the Red Sox.

    We’ve recognized the value of young cost controlled studs and are holding on to them unless we can get young cost controlled studs in return (or the absolute most elite veteran pitchers).

    The only diff is we are not buying out free agency years (for the most part), because we don’t have to. Rays with money. I approve.

  3. Cuso says:

    Purely a mistroke on the keyboard, but there’s something amusing about “Like Scott.”

    Rays starting pitching is excellent. There is not a single other facet of this team that concerns/scares me. Even their defense (which everyone loves to champion) isn’t that scary good. Their defense was great in ’08 and then God-awful in ’09. Mediocre in ’10 and a facsimile of the good D from ’08 in 2011. Point is, it’s all over the map.

    Bullpen, Offense? If the Yankees are concerned about their bullpen or their offense, they might as well concern themselves with Baltimore’s bullpen or offense as well.

    • Typical MIT Nerd says:

      That’s more a flaw of defensive metrics and why they’ll probably never be good enough given the inherent variability of where balls are hit and the trajectories.

      The Rays are going to surprise people. Great pitching can take you very, very far. And two lefties like Moore and Price is exactly what you need to shut down the Yankees. With Montero gone, they are susceptible to great LHP. I have no confidence in Jones. Jeter and A-Rod and Teixeira are good not great any longer.

      • The Yanks had the highest OPS (by 20 points) against lefties last year, and they had Montero for just one month.

        • Typical MIT Nerd says:

          You really think they’re going to repeat that? A big part of that was Granderson.

          • The point is they won’t have to repeat. They were so much better than everyone else that even with considerable regression they’ll still be well above average.

            • Typical MIT Nerd says:

              True, but my worry is more based on the elite lefties. Price and Moore have yet to peak and the Yankee offense isn’t exactly spring chickens. 2011 was the outlier relative to the few years before, right?

          • Tom says:

            Why wouldn’t they repeat it? Jeter hits lefties MUCH better, both Tex and Swisher are better from the right side and the lefties that are in the lineup don’t have pronounce platoon splits (Cano, Granderson) and the one that does is sometimes platooned (Gardner)

            Maybe it’s because of Yankee stadium, but for some reason people continue to believe that left handed pitching is how you beat the Yankees when the exact opposite is true.

            The Yankees were also first (by a large margin) in 2009 and 3rd in 2010, so this is far from a one year blip.

  4. Kosmo says:

    I predict the Rays will finish 4th in the AL east 82-80. Not enough offense.

    • mike says:

      I agree (mostly) – they are an 85 win team, where if everything breaks right they can get to 90 wins. Everyone needs to be at the top of their game for them to get to 90 wins, and i believe they will miss Damon too.

      the bottom of their lineup looks like the NL, and they will have no bench to speak of. I suppose its the price paid when a team has a tiny payroll.

      and – although the stadium is a joke – its wonderful that during the national Anthem EVERYONE stops moving, talking and horsing around to pay respect to the moment – including the servers.

      I wish that would happen in NY

    • Typical MIT Nerd says:

      I disagree. With the pitching alone I see a 90 win team. If the hitting breaks right, and Pena, Jennings, and Scott are clear upgrades, they could be legit challengers for the division. They won 91 games last year and they’ve improved their offense over the 105 OPS+ they got. Adding Matt Moore alone, over Niemann or Davis, could be worth 2 or 3 wins alone. The Rays are sneaky good.

      “In 2011 the Rays actually finished with a below average AL offense, scoring just 4.36 runs per game.”

      That doesn’t seem like the best stat to use. OPS+ is at least context adjusted and there they were +5% over league average. In fact, relative to the league, their offense was as good as their pitching (105 OPS+ vs 104 ERA+).

  5. Raza says:

    I’m more concerned with the Rays than I am with Boston this upcoming season. Not because I don’t think the Sox aren’t talented. I just don’t think they have the necessary pitching depth and don’t think that Bobby V is the right fit for that team. He’s thinking about batting Aviles at lead-off. Smh.

  6. Sly Robbie says:

    As usual, Joe, a great analysis and good bit of writing. One might almost be tempted to label this as a valentine to the Rays, but from what I’ve seen and read of them this spring, Tampa Bay has it’s act together. Kudos to their front office for assembling a formidable team. I sincerely hope that a Rays fan site links to your post, if only to show that Yankees fans are not always arrogant and deluded, but well aware and giving due respect to the other talents around.

  7. Duh Innings says:

    The Rays and Red Sox will face each other in the wildcard game. Shields or Price vs. Lester or Beckett in the ballpark of the team who won the season series or wherever the tiebreaker lands the game if the season series is tied. Edge to Boston because Boston has the better offense, but a lesser edge if the game is at Fenway which is more of a hitter’s park than Tropicana Field and gives the Rays especially Pena more of a chance to hit one off The Pesky Pole / where it wouldn’t be a homerun at “The Trop”.

    The Angels have the rotation but lack everywhere else. The Angels, Chi-Sox, Twins, and Blue Jays will be mediocre at best (although I will say they will pressure whoever wins the second wildcard.)

  8. Duh Innings says:

    My plan to eliminate three divisions a league and the wildcard:

    1. The AL adds two teams: Las Vegas Aces and Nashville Country for sixteen teams per league.

    2. Each league has four divisions: East, Central, West, and South.

    3. A team plays each team in their league 10 times (a 3-game series and a 2-game series at each ballpark for each matchup) for 150 games.

    4. Every team plays a division in the other league a dozen games (three games vs. each team) for 162 games total (150 league games + 12 interleague games.)

    AL Realignment:

    East – Yankees/Boston/Toronto/Baltimore
    Central – White Sox/Minnesota/Detroit/Cleveland
    South – Texas/Tampa Bay/Kansas City/Nashville
    West – Angels/Seattle/Oakland/Las Vegas

    NL Realignment:

    East – Mets/Philadelphia/Pittsburgh/Washington DC
    Central – Cubs/Milwaukee/St.Louis/Colorado
    South – Miami/Atlanta/Houston/Cincinatti (right across from Kentucky)
    West – Dodgers/San Diego/Arizona/San Francisco

  9. Jesse says:

    I have the Rays winning one of the wild cards and winning between 92-95 games. Great pitching, underrated bullpen, and a lineup with talented hitters. 1-5 in the rotation, in my opinion, is the best in baseball. I like their 8th inning-9th inning combo in Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth, and I have Evan Longoria winning the AL MVP. I also like Desmond Jennings and I can see him hitting 20+ homers while stealing 50 bases.

  10. Total Dominication says:

    That olney article is too old. Pre-pitching spree.

  11. Juke Early says:

    Yeah and last season at this time, the 2011 Red Sox were ordering new Bentleys & WS rings, having been anointed the best team of the Millenium.

    BTW if Michael Pineda starts the season in AAA or spends any time there, Cashman should resign ( and that ain’t re-sign).

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