Kamis, 08 Maret 2012

Season Previews, Part 24: Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays
2011 Record: 91-71
Pythag Record: 91-71
Games Out of First: 6.0
2011 Recap:
I think the whole 2011 baseball season can be explained by what the Rays managed to do on Wild Wednesday, which will probably go down in history as the greatest day of baseball we have ever seen.  After getting down big early to the Yankees, the Rays stormed back in a ferocious comeback.  Joe Maddon, being the crazy genius he is, decided to pinch hit Dan Johnson, who hit a key home run late in an extraordinarily unlikely scenario.  Then, just minutes after the Orioles had walked off in Baltimore against the Red Sox, Evan Longoria hit a home run down the left field line to clinch the Wild Card for the Rays.  That was what 2011 was: mass chaos.  From opening day to Game 7 of the World Series, the 2011 season will go down as one of the best seasons in the long and rich history of the game, and the Rays contributed the season's defining moment.     Throughout the season, the Rays got plenty of great performances while once again having an extremely low payroll.  Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria led the offense, posting OPS+ values of 132 and 139 respectively.  However, this team was carried by a fantastic pitching staff.    James Shields and David Price anchored the pitching staff while the club got good performances from Jeremy Hellickson, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joel Peralta as well.  The Rays showed once again in 2011 that intelligence in the front office can overcome the unfair advantage that money can provide.
Top Five Position Players by WAR:
1. Evan Longoria: 6.3
2. Ben Zobrist: 5.1
3. B.J. Upton: 3.8
4. Matt Joyce: 3.0
5. Casey Kotchman: 2.9
Top Five Pitchers by WAR:
1. James Shields: 4.9
2. David Price: 4.7
3. Jeff Niemann: 1.5
4. Jeremy Hellickson: 1.4
5. Three Tied at 0.9
Off Season Overview:
Unlike last year, the Rays did not have to sit and watch several of their best players leave in free agency.  The roster turnover for this club is actually rather small compared to what most teams go through.  The team did watch Casey Kotchman depart for Cleveland, and Johnny Damon still has not found a home, but the club brought back first baseman Carlos Pena to play first base.  The pitching staff did not change much at all, either.  In fact, the Rays will be nearly the same team they were last year, but this time around the club plans to have young stud prospects Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore contributing every day.  The biggest thing for the Rays in the off season was that GM Andrew Friedman (who also owns a share of the team), decided to stay put.  Despite probable pressure from clubs such as the Red Sox, Cubs, and his hometown Astros, Friedman decided to follow in Billy Beane's footsteps and stay where he had built a system that was working.  So that's the story of the Rays' 2012 off season: stay put, grow, and develop.
Notable Additions:
1B Carlos Pena
Notable Subtractions:
DH Johnny Damon
1B Casey Kotchman
Projected Lineup:
1. Desmond Jennings, LF
2. Ben Zobrist, 2B
3. Evan Longoria, 3B
4. Carlos Pena, 1B
5. B.J. Upton, CF
6. Matt Joyce, RF
7. Brandon Guyer, DH
8. John Jaso, C
9. Sean Rodriguez, SS
This lineup has a ton of potential.  It's definitely not a lineup where you expect a ton of contact to be made, but once again the Rays have assembled a team that will hit for power, take a bunch of walks, and can run the bases better than just about anyone.  I don't think they're going to be in the top half of the league in runs scored, simply because they don't make enough contact for my liking.  However, they are going to be a dynamic offense that will be fun to watch.
Projected Starting Rotation:
1. David Price, LH
2. James Shields, RH
3. Jeremy Hellickson, RH
4. Matt Moore, LH
5. Wade Davis, RH
Simply said: I love this rotation, and I think it has the potential to be one of the best in baseball.  However, that depends on Jeremy Hellickson making pretty big strides in 2012 and Matt Moore stepping onto the scene immediately as a great starter.  Honestly, I think the top 4 in this rotation could all put up numbers similar to what #2 starters on most teams would put up.  They don't walk a lot of guys, and the strikeout totals from this group of guys could be remarkable.  Watch for them to once again be the base of a dominant pitching staff.
Roster Strengths:
In my research project, I have looked primarily at the frequency at which balls are hit hard.  I used that to form a metric that the Rays are very, very good at.  They are towards the top in the league in well hit balls, draw a bunch of walks, and have a high speed factor.  This is an offense that I really like, and if they can increase their contact rate, they will be great.  Along with that, their pitching staff is going to be deadly.  The bullpen, as with any team, is a wild card, but the starting rotation should be one of the best in the bigs.  And defense?  They'll be one of the best defensive teams in the game.
Roster Weaknesses:
This team's only real weakness is that they will be a strikeout-prone offense.  While Carlos Pena gets on base a lot and hits for power, he strikes out pretty frequently, as does the rest of the team.  That's really the only thing that stands out, however.
2012 Outlook:
The Rays have just one little problem: they still have to compete against two of the largest payrolls in baseball.  The Red Sox and Yankees both improved in the off season, and both look like teams that will win 95 games or more.  However, Toronto didn't just stay the same either as they improved their roster.  The Rays will slightly improve from 2011, but I'm not sure if it's enough to overcome the improvements of the other rosters in the AL East.  I think they will be one of the front runners for the new 2nd Wild Card in 2012, because the Red Sox and Yankees both look like teams that will win 95 games or more.
Potential Breakout Player:
LHP Matt Moore
This kid is the real deal.  He wasn't a top pick, and it took a bit of work to get him to the level he's at now, but he's currently got some of the best raw stuff in the game.  If you watch him pitch, it's like he doesn't put any effort into throwing the baseball.  He soft tosses it and the ball manages to come out at 98 MPH or higher.  He's got pretty good control, and his off speed pitches are also really good.  There's a lot to be excited about for this young guy, and if he can manage the mental aspect of the game, he'll be a fantastic starter for the Rays this year.
Potential Bust:
RF Matt Joyce
It was a tale of two seasons last year for Joyce.  In the first half, he played every game and put up an OPS of .864.  However, in the 2nd half, he missed 21 games and his BABIP dropped a ton, leading to an OPS of .771.  Also, if you look more carefully at Joyce, his numbers really would have been hurt a lot if not for a 1.229 OPS in May (in 100 PA).  I'm not saying Joyce is likely to crash and burn, but keep an eye out for the potential for him to really fall off compared to what he did last year if things aren't alright physically.
Prospects Who Could Contribute in 2012:
It will be interesting to see what happens with Hak-Ju Lee's development this year.  He struggled after making the jump from A+ to AA last year, but he's likely to start the year in AA Montgomery to work on his game.  If there is an injury to one of Tampa's infielders and Lee is playing well, I would not put it outside the realm of possibility for him to be called up for a short stint in the majors.  Outside of that, I don't think the Rays have anywhere on the roster for a top prospect to contribute much.
Projected Record: 88-74
Projected Finish: 3rd place
Projected MVP: Evan Longoria (8.2 WAR)
Final Thoughts:
The Rays have one of the best teams that can possibly be built on a payroll as low as the one they have.  However, with the skill of the Red Sox and Yankees, they are noticeably the third best team in the AL East. It really is unfortunate that the Rays have to compete in an arbitrary group of teams that includes the two best teams in baseball and another team that could be in the top 12 or so.  However, the Rays are a top 10 team in their own right, and nobody should count them out of the division race or either of the wild card races.  If the Yankees and Red Sox struggle to meet expectations, then the Rays will be right there to grab one of those spots.

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