TAMPA BAY RAYS: 92-71 (2nd Place in the division, winner of Wild Card Game)
Projected Lineup/Batting Order:
LF David DeJesus
RF Wil Myers
3B Evan Longoria
2B Ben Zobrist
1B James Loney
CF` Desmond Jennings
DH Matt Joyce
C Ryan Hannigan
SS Yunel Escobar
Projected Starting Rotation/Key Bullpen Arms:
SP David Price
SP Alex Cobb
SP Chris Archer
SP Matt Moore
SP Jeremy Hellickson
RP Grant Balfour
RP Heath Bell
RP Joel Peralta
The Rays continue to defy the gods of economics and contend with the smallest payroll in the major leagues, at a time when local T.V. deals are making teams richer than God, and salaries continue to stay well above what the Rays can come close to affording. They do what most teams dream of doing: draft and develop amateur talent and have them turn into quality major leaguers. Every team has that goal. Most of them also have money to augment their young cores with free agents to build champions. The Rays don’t have that money, so they have to be better and drafting and development to contend. And they do contend. Each year. More often that not, they’ve been in the playoffs the last 5 years. They’ve won a pennant. But there is one thing still eludes this incredible organization: a World Series title.
This lineup is, not surprisingly, pretty young. But there are veterans on this club. Evan Longoria is the team leader for the Rays, the only guy they’ve spent serious money on. However, he’s had health issues. Last year he played in 160 games. The previous 2 years he played in about 200 combined, out of a possible 324. And he didn’t seem to be back to full health, despite the almost full slate of games. He hit 269, which is below his career mark of 275. Despite popular belief, he’s never hit above 300. So 269 is not as far off from his normal pace as you might think. But the rest of his game was back with 32 HR, 88 RBI and 91 R. The speed has pretty much disappeared from his game, though the one season of 15 SB was probably an outlier. So I could argue speed was never a major part of his game. The 3,2 and 1 totals of the last three years are likely what we can expect from now on. But he’s the heart of this team, hits for great power and is a defensive whiz. After him, things fall off precipitously on the offensive side. Ben Zobrist is likely the next most complete hitter on this team. He hit 275 with 12 HR, 71 RBI, 77 R and 11 SB. He’s not the ideal cleanup man, but Maddon does his lineup different than any other manager in the game. Zobrist will be solid to above average again with 270+ likely, double digit HR and SB and over 70 RBI and R. Wil Myers was great in his half season at 291/13/53/50. I don’t expect his output to double in his first full year as the league will catch up to him a bit and get more film on him. But 15 HR is a very real possibility, which would be a godsend for this offensively challenged club. 20 HR wouldn’t be overly surprising either. The question is at the leadoff spot. Right now, I have left fielder David DeJesus as the man, due to Desmond Jennings’ limitations. Following Carl Crawford is a hard act to follow, and he’s been unable to turn into the leadoff man they thought he could be. He hit 252 last year with a 324 OBP. They want both of those numbers to be much higher. He stole 20 bags and scored 82 R and that was in only 139 games. He still hasn’t played a full season in his career. If he can, they like what he does at the bottom third of the lineup. He’s got good pop (14 HR last year) and when he gets on he can make things happen on the bases. With David DeJesus around, they have a hitter with top of the lineup experience whose career OBP is over 350. He’s not the ideal leadoff man at this point, but Joe Maddon has frequently bucked the traditional leadoff man method, choosing high OBP guys and DeJesus fits that bill. Perhaps they let Yunel Escobar take a shot if DeJesus can’t get it done and Jennings isn’t yet the man. He’s done it before, and though his 256 AVG from last year doesn’t scream leadoff material, he too has a career OBP of over 350. There are options and Maddon loves to tinker. He’s also the only manager in the world who seems to like Escobar, who plays slick defense. They Rays shored up one of their biggest holes from last year with the addition of catcher Ryan Hannigan who struggled in limited service last year but is another high OBP guy with a 359 career mark. Add to that Matt Joyce who can DH and play the corner outfield spots, Sean Rodriguez who can play anywhere in the infield and James Loney, who the Rays re-signed after a career year (299/13/75/54) and this Rays team is deep and talented. I’d expect a new lineup each week and a lot of riding the hot hand. This offense won’t be anywhere near the top of the league, but they should hit well enough to support their pitchers.
The other thing that will be more than solid is the defense in St. Pete (as the Rays actually play in St. Petersburg, not in Tampa). James Loney is a very good defensive first baseman, Ben Zobrist plays a ton of positions well, second base among them and Escobar and Longoria make a left side of the infield tandem that ranks right up there with any other group in baseball. David DeJesus is a former center fielder, and the best right fielder playing left in this division. Desmond Jennings has great speed and ability in center and Ryan Hannigan is solid behind the plate. The backups are solid as well, which is important because no manager uses his bench more than Joe Maddon. Expect to see Sean Rodriguez play every single infield position as well as some outfield. Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist will also spend time in the outfield. And while some lineups Maddon trots out there will field better than others, there are strong defenders all over, though perhaps not Gold Glovers.
The main reason for this team’s success can be found on the mound. The Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in the bigs. They reached a 1-year deal with David Price for $14 million, a win for both sides. An injury caused him to come out of the gate cold, but turned things around at the end of the year and still looks like the former Cy Young winner that he is. And beyond him the riches continue. Matt Moore could arguably be called the ace of this staff now after going 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA. And he did all that in only 27 starts and 150 IP. He was a stud with a 216 BAA and 143 Ks. Alex Cobb had a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts with an 11-3 record. Chris Archer was 9-7 in his rookie year with a 3.22. And despite the struggles of Jeremy Hellickson last year, he’s still around as a 5th starter who went 12-10 last year. This is a deep, talented young group and there’s no doubt in my mind that if someone gets hurt or is ineffective, the Rays have about 5 more guys in the minors ready to come up and fill in. They seem to have a never-ending group of starters ready to step in and perform. They had to make some plans this offseason with star closer Fernando Rodney hitting free agency. They acquired Heath Bell in the same deal that brought them Ryan Hannigan. Bell has succeeded as a closer before, and took over in Arizona when their other closers went down. It was a steal of a pickup. Then, they signed Grant Balfour to a two-year deal to close for them, making Bell a talented insurance policy that will set up. After spending 4 seasons with the Rays, he returns after 3 great years in Oakland, the last of which saw him notch 39 Saves with a 2.59 ERA. He also struck out 72 in 62 IP, which shows he’s still got great stuff They still have a star in Joel Peralta who had 41 Holds and a BAA under 200. And they’ve added Juan Carlos Oviedo to be another option. This bullpen is as deep as the starting rotation, even if the names aren’t as well known
The outlook for the Rays is always equally bright and dim. The good news is that they develop players better than any other team has. Ever. Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and the brain trust in St. Petersburg are the best group of draft and develop men in the game. So that, coupled with their deep young core and rotation makes their future look bright. However, with the smallest incomes in the game and a nearly empty stadium every night, they have absolutely no room for error and won’t be able to keep these talented youngsters very long at all. In fact, they have to cut their youngsters before any other team does, because they have absolutely zero financial flexibility. So it’s a never-ending cycle in Tampa Bay, where they have to be the best at development and will never get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
This team will struggle until changes are made. Unfortunately the changes would include a new stadium (which isn’t coming any time soon), an easier commute to the stadium (because the stadium is in St. Petersburg, at least 40 min away) and a change in the sports hierarchy in Florida to put baseball near the top. That will not happen, as college football is king in Florida. It’s actually so big that other versions of football (namely the NFL franchise in Jacksonville) are unable to stay afloat. Unless undergrads are wearing helmets and eye black, most Floridians don’t care about your sport. Hard to change the way people think.
I think this team is incredibly talented. Their offense is thin, but they may have the best pitching in baseball, not to mention the division. So they will again ride their talented arms to the playoffs and hope they get enough offense to make a run. With power from Longoria and Zobrist they should have a shot. That doesn’t leave much room for error with the Rays as the rest of their offense can struggle, but narrow margins for success are something they are quite familiar with. I think they will win another 90 games and take home second in this division, not to mention a spot in the playoffs as a wildcard.