2013 MLB Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Leading up to the 2013 MLB regular season, Greg Kaplan will be taking a close look at all 30 teams, division by division. Along with previewing each team heading into the season, Kaplan will try to predict which teams will be playing baseball deep into the October playoffs, and which teams will be playing golf come that time of year.

raysAmerican League East –

Division Winner – Tampa Bay Rays

Second Place - Toronto Blue Jays

Third Place – Baltimore Orioles

Fourth Place – New York Yankees

Fifth Place – Boston Red Sox

Starting Line-Up - 

C - Jose Molina (37) - 102 games, .223/.286/.355, 8HR 32RBI, 27 runs, 9 doubles, 56 hits

1B - James Loney (28) – 144 games, .249/.293/.336, 6HR 41RBI, 37 runs, 20 doubles (w/ Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red S0x)

2B - Kelly Johnson (31) – 142 games, .225/.313/.365, 16HR 55RBI, 61 runs, 19 doubles, 14 stolen bases (w/ Toronto Blue Jays)

3B - Evan Longoria (27) – 74 games, .289/.369/.527, 17HR 55RBI, 39 runs, 14 doubles, 149 OPS+

SS - Yunel Escobar (30) – 145 games, .253/.300/.344, 9HR 51RBI, 58 runs, 22 doubles, 5 stolen bases (w/ Toronto Blue Jays)

LF - Ben Zobrist (31) – 157 games, .270/.377/.471, 20HR 74RBI, 88 runs, 39 doubles, 7 triples, 14 stolen bases, 138 OPS+

CF - Desmond Jennings (26) – 132 games, .246/.314/.388, 13HR 47RBI, 85 runs, 19 doubles, 7 triples, 31 stolen bases

RF - Matt Joyce (28) – 124 games, .241/.341/.429, 17HR 59RBI, 55 runs, 18 doubles, 116 OPS+

DH - Luke Scott (34) – 96 games, .229/.285/.439, 14HR 55RBI, 35 runs, 22 doubles, 101 OPS+

Evan LongoriaThe Good News –

On paper, the Tampa Bay Rays appear to offer nothing more than a modest offense that doesn’t wow you at first glance, but doesn’t come off as soft, either. However, when evaluating the Rays, it’s important to remember how the pieces to the puzzle fit in to Joe Maddon’s grand scheme of things.

The star power in the line-up is generated by Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. A lingering hamstring injury continued to keep Longoria out of the line-up last season, and it may have led some of the more casual fans in baseball to maybe forget how special a talent he is. Longoria is the multi-faceted talent in the middle of a line-up that can change any game in an instant (see: Game 162 in 2011). As for Zobrist, he has found his niche with the Rays, despite playing multiple defensive positions. Zobrist is a doubles machine that has been able to provide protection for Longoria where other players haven’t been able to.

Surrounding their stars, the Rays have padded their line-ups with specific skills. The common theme from top to bottom is incredible plate discipline and patience. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott will provide some pop towards the middle of the line-up, Desmond Jennings brings an elite level of speed that the Rays lost when Carl Crawford left town, while Kelly Johnson will play as more than just a placeholder at second until Wil Myers is ready and Zobrist returns to the infield (we’re getting there..).

YunelEscobar-e1348016451562The Bad News –

While there are reasons to  be encouraged with the line-up the Rays will run out on a consistent bases, it isn’t all roses in Tampa Bay. Though Carlos Pena was never a consistent source of hits or a high average, he did work more than his fair share of walks, always found a way to hit in excess of 20 home runs a season and played a Gold Glove caliber first base. Replacing that type of player with James Loney, who has never developed into a power hitter and regressed last year is a significant downgrade to say the least. Loney does more than enough to hold his own defensively, but first base is generally a position where you don’t compensate for your glaring offensive short falls with your glove.

Then there’s the case of Yunel Escobar, who wore out his welcome with his second team in his short career and ended up on the Rays after the Marlins realized he actually played in the Majors last season, and that didn’t work with their plan to be an expansion AAA team for 2013. Escobar has a reputation of being lazy, which could possibly be the most insulting characteristic you can ever put on a baseball player. Underneath his attitude actually lives a solid baseball player. However, historically speaking, he isn’t the type of player that fits into the Tampa Bay way of life. Is Escobar merely a placeholder until a Hak-Ju Lee is ready? Or is there a grand plan that we just don’t know about yet?

For all the credit the Rays get for being patient, in a division like the American League East, a line-up will have a hard time surviving when all but three players have batting averages under .250. I’m willing to give Desmond Jennings the benefit of the doubt, and think there is a ton of upside still waiting to be untapped in his game. James Loney bottomed out last year at .249, and while it’s safe to assume his average will rise towards his career average .282, it’s been five years since he hit .331, and that seems more like the outlier than his .249 season last year. Kelly Johnson has had back-to-back sub-.225 seasons, despite his power numbers. Luke Scott and Jose Molina will continue to be, well, Luke Scott and Jose Molina.

Normally, a line-up with so many potential holes would put a sense of doubt into my belief of constant success. But, Joe Maddon knows how to get the most out of any line-up he’s given. It’s what makes the Rays such a hard team to plan on a daily basis. It almost doesn’t matter who the names are that he plugs into the line-up card each day. He’s going to find a way to get the most out of his players, which is why he’s arguably the best manager currently in the game today.

Starting Rotation - 

Ace - David Price (27) – 31 starts, 211.0 IP, 20-5, 2.56 ERA (Led AL), 205 Ks (8.7 K/9), 3.47 K/BB, 1.10 WHIP - 2012 All-Star, American League Cy Young Award winner

#2 - Jeremy Hellickson (25) – 31 starts, 177.0 IP, 10-11, 3.10 ERA, 124 Ks (6.3 K/9), 2.10 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP – 2012 Gold Glove Winner

#3 - Matt Moore (23) – 31 starts, 177.1 IP, 11-11, 3.81 ERA, 175 Ks (8.9 K/9), 2.16 K/BB, 1.35 WHIP

#4 - Alex Cobb (25) – 23 starts, 136.1 IP, 11-9, 4.03 ERA, 106 Ks (7.0 K/9), 2.65 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP

#5 - Jeff Niemann (30) – 8 starts, 38.0 IP, 2-3, 3.08 ERA, 34 Ks (8.1 K/9), 2.83 K/BB, 1.11 WHIP

Boston+Red+Sox+v+Tampa+Bay+Rays+Game+7+00EtMd8NcBGlThe Good News -

And we’ve reached the true reason for the Rays success over the better part of the last five years. Every year, they roll out a red carpet for some of the best young arms the game has to offer, and 2013 shows no signs of being any different.

Though Justin Verlander may have deserved the honor of being the Cy Young Award winner for the American League last year, that in no way is supposed to be a slight to the type of year David Price enjoyed. If Verlander is the best pitcher in the league, Price is without question the best lefty. If you’re reading this, you’re fully aware of the type of pitcher Price is. I don’t think me gushing about him will change anyone’s opinion of how special he is, so let’s move forward.

Not having James Shields around to back up Price towards the top of the rotation is a shake up for sure, but in no way does that mean the Rays are any less equipped to win this division. Jeremy Hellickson may not have had the same type of season he had during his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011, but he also proved that season was no myth. Matt Moore, the youngest member of the starting rotation, got off to an unspectacular start in 2012, but rebounded nicely as the season went on and is primed to take the next step in his development with a full year under his belt.

Both Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann are perfectly capable starting pitchers on average staffs throughout the league, and yet both may be forced out of the rotation at some point mid-season thanks to the young guns waiting in the wings, specifically Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer and maybe Mike Montgomery. For the Rays, it’s not that depth is their biggest weapon. It’s that their depth contains multiple starters that profile as top-of-the-rotation guns as they continue to develop at this point in their careers. That type of depth is why the Rays will remain near or at the top of the American League East for years to come.

The Bad News –

Well, the truth is losing a pitcher like James Shields is never easy to replace, regardless of who else you have coming up the pipes after him. At the same time, the quality of players Tampa Bay got in return for Shields outweighs any loss not having him in their rotation for 2013.

There’s also the possibility that the young pitchers the Rays will use to replace Shields won’t live up to their expectations. Again, this is where the strength of numbers will come into play for Tampa Bay in a big way. Even if, in a worst-case scenario situation, only one of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomey or Alex Cobb reach their full potential, they’ll be able to go four starters deep with high impact arms. The fashion in which the Rays cultivate their starting pitchers has continued to produce quality starter after quality starter. What would prevent that from continuing to happen in 2013?

Bench - 

UTIL Sean Rodriguez (27) – 112 games, .213/.281/.326, 6HR 32RBI, 36 runs, 14 doubles, 5 stolen bases

IF/OF Ryan Roberts (32) – 143 games, .235/.296/.360, 12HR 52RBI, 51 runs, 19 doubles, 10 stolen bases (w/ Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays)

Jose Lobaton (28) – 69 games, .222/.323/.317, 2HR 20RBI, 16 runs, 10 doubles, 37 hits

OF  Sam Fuld (31) – 44 games, .255/.318/.327, 0HR 5RBI, 14 runs, 3 doubles, 2 triples

wil myersThe Skinny –

Where the Rays may lack in potential impact bats should a starter get injured, they make up for in versatility. Sean Rodriguez has shown the ability to play any infield position. Sam Fuld has flashed exceptional defense at all three defensive outfield positions. Even Ryan Roberts, who probably has the highest upside out of all their reserves, and can both the corner infield positions as well as the corner outfield positions.

Also, it’s important to remember that the Rays are only a few weeks after Opening Day from inserting maybe the most dynamic position player prospect in baseball into their everyday line-up. Wil Myers has the potential to hit 20+ home runs and hit around .290 immediately after being called up. There is no other prospect in baseball that can provide that type of impact instantly from being called up from the Minor Leagues.

Would the Rays be able to withstand another major injury to Evan Longoria? No. But, what team would be? Is any team truly prepared for losing their best player for an extended period of time, regardless of the type of depth they have backing up their starters? I can’t think of a one.

Bullpen - 

Closer - Fernando Rodney (R) (36) – 76 games, 74.2 IP, 2-2, 0.60 ERA, 76 Ks (9.2 K/9), 5.07 K/BB, 0.78 WHIP – 2012 All-Star, 5th in American League Cy Young voting

Set-Up Man - Joel Peralta (R) (37) – 76 games, 67.0 IP, 2-6, 3.63 ERA, 84 Ks (11.3 K/9), 4.94 K/BB, 0.99 WHIP

Middle Reliever - Jake McGee (L) (26) – 69 games, 55.1 IP, 5-2, 1.95 ERA, 73 Ks (11.9 K/9), 6.64 K/BB, 0.80 WHIP

Middle Reliever - Cesar Ramos (L) (28) – 17 games, 30.0 IP, 1-0, 2.10 ERA, 29 Ks (8.7 K/9), 2.90 K/BB, 0.97 WHIP

Middle Reliever – Kyle Farnsworth (R) (36) – 34 games, 27.0 IP, 1-6, 4.00 ERA, 25 Ks (8.3 K/9), 1.79 K/BB, 1.33 WHIP

Long Reliever - Roberto Hernandez (R) (32) – 3 games (all starts), 14.1 IP, 0-3, 7.53 ERA, 2 Ks (1.3 K/9), 0.67 K/BB, 1.40 WHIP (w/ Cleveland Indians)

fernando rodneyThe Skinny –

Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected that type of season from Fernando Rodney. Entering 2012, Rodney only had one season in his career in which his ERA was below 3.00. The only season in which Rodney converted 30+ saves, he had an ERA of 4.40 and 1.47 WHIP. In 2011, his K/BB ratio in 39 games was under 1. And yet, last season, Rodney surrendered only five earned runs. In 74.2 innings. That’s, well, unbelievable. Though it’s unfair to anticipate an identical season from Rodney in 2013, it’s not improbable to believe Rodney can continue to be an effective late-inning reliever for Tampa Bay.

As for the make-up of the rest of the bullpen, the success of Joel Peralta and Jake McGee will be as important to Rodney continuing to dominate 9th innings. McGee replaced J.P. Howell as the Rays shutdown lefty, posting one of the best under-the-radar seasons of any reliever in the American League. Peralta, meanwhile, may have been the most important free agent the Rays elected to keep because of his role on this team. He had a handful of meltdowns last year which inflated his ERA, but Peralta was one of the keys to the Rays success late in games.

Outside of Tampa Bay’s big three in the bullpen, the Rays will be much like the Orioles and Blue Jays in the terms of finding gems from unlikely sources. You know, like Fernando Rodney was last year. Sure, again, everybody would be stunned if the Rays uncovered another also-ran that had the success that Rodney had last year. But, that’s how tumultuous bullpens can be from year to year. You never know who can possibly step up and perform at a high level when given the opportunity. The key is to have more options than other teams, and in that sense, the Rays have prepared themselves nicely heading into the 2013 campaign.

Top 10 Prospects (courtesy of MLB.com)

1. OF Wil Myers - Expected to start 2013 in AAA

There is little debate as to who the best hitting prospect in baseball is. The Rays paid a huge price to acquire Myers, who last year was second in all levels of the Minor Leagues with his 37 home runs while maintaining a batting average over .300. He has tremendous plate discipline, and is probably Major League-ready right now, though the Rays will keep him down for a couple of weeks to delay his arbitration years. He has the ability to play center field, but has plenty of power and arm strength to play in right field as well. It’s only a matter of time until Tampa Bay pairs him up with Evan Longoria in the middle of their line-up for years to come.

2. RHP Taylor Guerrieri – Expected to start 2013 in Low-A

The Rays 2011 first round pick, Guerrieri has a way to go in his development, but already sports two pitches that profile as plus offerings at the next level. His fastball has natural sink, producing a high amount of ground balls, and his control for all his offerings right now are ahead of other prospects around his age. The Rays are always cautious about their younger arms, so don’t anticipate seeing Guerrieri at the next level for about two more years.

3. RHP Jake Odorizzi – Expected to start 2013 in AAA

Teams knew the price tag on James Shields would be high, but league officials were surprised the Rays were able to pry away both Myers and Jake Odorizzi. Odorizzi was once the prize of the Royals trade package for Zack Greinke, and is on the cusp of becoming an impact starter for the Rays by mid-season this year. He has four pitches that profile as above-average or better and plenty of control to keep all of them in the strike zone. His inclusion in the Shields trade made it a no-brainer for Rays officials.

4. RHP Chris Archer – Expected to start 2013 in AAA

Archer is another prime example of how the Rays turn their talent that becomes too expensive for them into high-profile prospects that can make a difference. Archer was one of the two big pieces in the Matt Garza trade with the Cubs, and is all but ready for Major League action. He made a four start cameo for the Rays towards the end of last year, and will be jockeying for position with Odorizzi as to who gets called up first to provide the necessary boost in the rotation. 

5. SS Hak-Ju Lee – Expected to start 2013 in AA

Speaking of players the Rays received for Matt Garza, Lee, like Archer, is right around the corner from finding a home on the Major League roster as well. It’s unlikely Lee will ever develop even average power, but he should be able to maintain a relatively modest batting average while playing with plus speed and an even better glove. He does need to overcome former #1 overall pick Tim Beckham, who played last season at AAA before serving a suspension. But, organization officials seem to be much higher on Lee these days than Beckham.

6. LHP Enny Romero – Expected to start 2o13 in AA

Romero is the primer lefty in the Rays rotation, but has a bit of work to do before he’s ready for the show. For starters, his command needs to come a long way in order to establish that he can be more than just a hard-throwing lefty out of the ‘pen. His fastball is without question his best pitch, able to touch 97 on any given day. But, both his secondary offerings and overall command have work to do before the Rays can even think about him joining their stacked rotation.

7. LHP Blake Snell – Expected to start 2013 in Low-A

A compensatory pick at the end of the first round in 2011, Snell already has two pitches that grade out to be at least average. The development of his slider and an increased emphasis on his control will help determine how long he can remain in the starting rotation. Drafted directly out of high school, he’s about a step behind Guerrieri in development and potential, but he has a chance to make an impact himself and will be a name to watch over the next few years.

8. LHP Mike Montgomery – Expected to start 2013 in AAA

Montgomery took a significant step backwards last year in AAA for the Royals, as many scouts throughout the game thought he’d be at home in a big league rotation by now. However, if you’re going to struggle and get traded in the off-season, there is no better landing spot than in Tampa Bay. Montgomery still has a plus fastball, and potential to get his change-up and slider up to the same level. He needs a bit more refinement, and a little success at AAA would help re-establish his confidence in his stuff. He’s a name people shouldn’t forget about, as he will be right there with both Odorizzi and Archer when it comes time for a promotion.

9. 3B Richie Shaffer – Expected to start 2013 in Low-A

The Rays found a way to nab arguably the top college bat available in the draft for the second straight year after taking Mikie Mahtook the year before (who somehow doesn’t make it in their Top 10, but is still an impact prospect). Shaffer had a solid short-season debut after the draft, and profiles more as a first baseman than a third baseman, which is good considering Evan Longoria isn’t going anywhere.

10. OF Drew Vettleson – Expected to start 2013 in High-A

Vettleson isn’t expected to be Wil Myers, but he does have the potential to be a nice 15+ home run, 20+ stolen base type player at the next level. He is a bit behind Myers, having just finished a season at the Rays Low-A affiliate. How he continues to develop as a hitter (he was drafted as both an outfielder and a pitcher…who threw with both his left and right arms) will only help the Rays future line-up down the road.

In Summary - 

After all of the moves the Toronto Blue Jays made in the off-season, they have become the sexy choice to win the American League East. However, it’s important to remember what type of team the Tampa Bay Rays are from year-to-year.

This is a squad last year that played more than half the season without their unquestioned leader and star and still came within three games of the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Now, they’ll have Longoria back and they’ve reloaded on the fly, stocking their system with budding stars by trading another piece of their revolving door rotation.

There is a system of success in place in Tampa that goes deeper than individual season success. The foundation their front office has established will keep this team relevant for years to come. They have truly become the model organization for how teams can compete each year without having to spend in the $100 million+ range.

Looking at this team from a 2013 angle, they are improved from their 2012 season in which they won 90 games, and they have the starting rotation depth to add to that win total. Yes, the Blue Jays made the flashy moves and garnered a large portion of the off-season headlines, but this is becoming the Tampa Bay Rays division for years to come. They’re too talented at the top, and only getting younger with their prospects coming up through the system.

Season Prediction - 94-68, American League East champs.