Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

2014 MLB Team Previews: Tampa Bay Rays

2013 in Review

The Tampa Bay Rays were once again one of the more captivating clubs in all of Major League Baseball. For the fifth time in the last six seasons, the Rays finished with at least 90 wins in the brutally competitive American League East. Skipper Joe Maddon‘s club made it to the postseason for the third time in the last four years, only to see history repeat itself once again. After beating the Cleveland Indians in the Wild Card game, Tampa Bay would fall to the Boston Red Sox in the League Division Series 3-1.

Some tough luck early on, coupled with a triceps injury, didn’t deter the reigning AL Cy Young winner and Rays ace David Price. He would tally just ten wins but his 3.33 ERA still proved the veracity of his claim as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Matt Moore would lead the starting rotation to the tune of 17 wins. The young trio of Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Archer and Alex Cobb did their part as well, helping push the club to seven  more wins than the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles.

Third baseman Evan Longoria surpassed the 30-HR mark for the third time in his career as he led an array of bats that were more fundamental than electrifying. Meanwhile, AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers laid the groundwork for what to expect moving forward. In 88 games, Myers slugged 13 HR and 53 RBI all while hitting for an average of .293. Of his 98 hits, 37 percent went for extra bases.

2014 Preview

Key Departures: RHP Fernando Rodney, RHP Jesse Crain, RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Jeff Niemann, 2B Kelly Johnson, DH Luke Scott, C Jose Lobaton

Key Additions: RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, RHP Nate Karns, INF Logan Forsythe, C Ryan Hanigan

Offense

Tampa Bay is dealing with a conundrum in regard to who leads off for them. The two candidates – Desmond Jennings and David DeJesus – each have their own issues regarding batting average. Jennings walks at a higher clip than DeJesus though. However, Jennings as the second coming of Carl Crawford has never come to fruition.

Ben Zobrist, the ever-dependable man who can play any position but catcher, is coming off of a season where his power numbers declined. It seems likely we will never see the kind of production Zobrist gave us in 2011 again but any production less than 15 HR, 70 RBI and an AVG hovering around .275 would be disappointing.

Protecting Zobrist is the perennial all-star Longoria. He provides the power in the heart of the lineup. With reigning rookie of the year Myers protecting him in the lineup, the Rays will remain a tough out for any opposing pitcher. Both Longoria and Myers have the potential to rake and keep the order moving along accordingly.

The Rays brought back James Loney to man first base for a reason. He doesn’t carry a big stick but hits for a good average. Last season, Loney hit .299, the highest qualifying AVG of his career. Some regression is expected though. While he walked at a solid rate, his strikeout rate of 12.9 percent was his highest since 2010.

Matt Joyce will be the everyday designated hitter. Shortstop Yunel Escobar isn’t in Tampa for his prowess at the plate. Neither are catchers Hanigan and Jose Molina. The bench depth is solid but not notable offensively.

Defense

Advanced analytics play a defining role for the Rays defensively. Skipper Joe Maddon deploys shifts at a countless rate in order to counter opposing hitters. Tampa Bay’s preeminent star defensively is shortstop Yunel Escobar. He posted an Ultimate Zone Rating in runs above average (UZR) of 10.7 last year. He also had a Fielding Percentage (FP) of .989.

However, Evan Longoria was better at third base than Escobar was to his right. Longoria posted a 14.6 UZR. At second base, Ben Zobrist posted a 10.0 UZR.

By comparison, Tampa Bay’s three best gloves pale in comparison to the absolute best defenders in MLB. For instance, Baltimore’s Manny Machado lauded a 31.2 UZR. Shane Victorino finished with a UZR of 25.0 for the Boston Red Sox. Overall, Longoria finished with MLB’s tenth best UZR while Escobar and Zobrist ranked 17th and 22nd, respectively. Needless to say, Tampa Bay was well off defensively.

Team-wise, the Rays had the fourth best total UZR in the majors. Expect more of the same as they doubled down defensively by bringing in Ryan Hanigan and Logan Forsythe.

Rotation and Bullpen

The Rays pack one of the more intriguing rotations in baseball. One thing they do not lack is youth. The Opening Day rotation is projected to have an average age of 25 years old. Questions certainly arise with this group. The first is with ace David Price. When, if at all, will Tampa trade him?

Price is set to become a free agent after the 2015 season. Over the years, Tampa Bay’s status as a small market club has motivated them to develop replacement level talent and let the veterans walk away in free agency, or be dealt. Dealing Price is a tricky maneuver though. He is one of the game’s best and would require a king’s ransom in return. Remember, the Rays received Jake Odorizzi, Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard for James Shields and Wade Davis.

On the other hand, Tampa Bay has shown a willingness to let their preeminent players walk into free agency. This has recently occurred with Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton. As for Price and the Rays, we would need more than a crystal ball to predict how this relationship will end (or continue).

Chris Archer dazzled in 2013 with impressive stuff but it there is more to what meets the eye. He posted a 3.22 ERA to go along with his nine wins and seven losses. However, his Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP) rested at 4.07. This means something has to normalize. More likely than not, his ERA will rise in the coming season.

Concerns about Matt Moore’s control and high walk rate are abound as well. Alex Cobb has issues to address too. This doesn’t take away from the exceptional talents they are though. Rookie Odorizzi is projected as the fifth starter due to arthroscopic elbow surgery on Jeremy Hellickson.

The bullpen is a mixture of journeymen and questionable arms. For Tampa Bay, this is nothing new. Grant Balfour is expected to open the year as the closer with Joel Peralta or Jake McGee setting him up. Heath Bell, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Cesar Ramos and Brad Boxberger are expected to round out the ‘pen.

Projected Starting Lineup

  1. CF Desmond Jennings
  2. 2B Ben Zobrist
  3. 3B Evan Longoria
  4. RF Wil Myers
  5. DH Matt Joyce
  6. 1B James Loney
  7. LF David DeJesus
  8. SS Yunel Escobar
  9. C Ryan Hanigan

Projected Starting Rotation

  1. David Price
  2. Alex Cobb
  3. Matt Moore
  4. Chris Archer
  5. Jake Odorizzi

Prospect to Watch

Left-handed pitcher Enny Romero is likely the next in line to exhibit his overwhelmingly impressive stuff as a starting pitcher. He actually grades out better than Jake Odorizzi in many categories. However, Odorizzi is more MLB-ready than Romero at this time. Romero hasn’t posted tantalizing strikeout rates in the lower levels but his plus-fastball is good enough to perturb hitters. It tops out at 97 mph. His repertoire also includes a curveball and changeup. While control will be an issue at times, he is expected to move quickly through Triple-A this season. Therefore, Romero has an estimated time of arrival in the majors of around mid-summer.

Best Case Scenario

The Rays will need their young arms to deliver more than 200 innings pitched apiece. The bullpen may find itself in tough situations but the proven reliability of Grant Balfour, Joel Peralta and Jake McGee should be able to withstand the pressures of the later innings. Should Desmond Jennings progress with a better AVG and Wil Myers proceed to grow into a superstar, the Rays will win 90 or more games for the sixth time in seven seasons.

Worst Case Scenario

The rigors of an 162-game schedule could take their toll on the young arms of the rotation. Problems will persist if they break down due to the workload. Evan Longoria, who was healthy last year after playing in just 207 games the two years prior, could fall victim to another prolonged DL-stint. What if the bullpen wipes out? What if father time catches up to Balfour and Heath Bell does not suffice as the closer? If this situation played out, the Rays still have enough juice to finish with more than 81 wins. However, they will miss the playoffs for just the second time since 2010.

Prediction

91-71 (2nd in AL East; AL Wild Card berth)

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