2013 Tampa Bay Rays Preview
After three straight playoff berths, the Rays fell victim to a much improved division in 2012. Despite not having a lot of money to spend this offseason, the ball club has tried to retool itself to make a run at postseason play in 2013, but have they done enough?
The feeling of disappointment was in the air last fall at Tropicana Field. Despite winning 90 games and continuing to field a very competitive ball club, the Tampa Bay Rays missed the playoffs and had to settle for third place in the American League Eastern Division. After making three straight trips to the postseason, it was a hard pill to swallow for not only the team, but their fans who seem to have developed a playoffs or bust type of an attitude given the ball club’s recent success. Of course those fans also fail to come out and support the club on a regular basis no matter how well they are playing, and as a result the team has had to do some creative things this offseason to try to improve themselves to compete with New York, Toronto and Baltimore in what is likely to be a very competitive division again this season. They gave up some key players this offseason, including pitchers Wade Davis and James Shields and they allowed B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, J.P. Howell and Jeff Keppinger to leave via free agency. The money they saved by letting them go resulted in the club being able to sign a few names, but it is uncertain if any of them will be able to make much of an impact for the ball club.
While losing Shields is a tough pill to swallow, the pitchers left in the Rays’ rotation are all still very good, and they should still have one of the better starting five in the American League. To take Shields’ place in the rotation, the club will turn to Cy Young winner David Price (20-5, 2.56 ERA) to be their ace in 2013. Price is arguably one of the top five or six pitchers in all of baseball right now, and he does not appear to have hit his ceiling yet in terms of what he is capable of producing. He will be followed by Jeremy Hellickson, who at 25-years old is just now starting to show what he is capable of producing on a regular basis. Last season Hellickson finished with a 10-11 record and a 3.25 ERA, if the Rays get more of the same and allow the youngster to eclipse the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career, the ball club will be in good shape.
Matt Moore will be the middle-man in the Rays’ rotation and if he can continue to develop the way he did down the stretch last season, the Rays top three starters will be nearly untouchable. Moore had a respectable rookie campaign in 2012, especially considering the hype he was expected to live up to after being touted as baseball’s top prospect going into the season. Moore ended up going an even .500 (11-11) and finishing with a 3.81 ERA in 177.1 innings of work, he also struck out 175 batters in the process and at 23-years old he will certainly be fun to watch for several more years as he develops into a potential ace to take over when the club can no longer afford to keep Price around.
The last two spots in the rotation will be taken by Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann, two very reliable pitchers who will do two things for the ball club. First, they will give the club stability at the bottom of the rotation as both are potential 11 to 13 game winners, and second they will give the club innings provided that they are able to stay healthy. Niemann missed much of the 2012 campaign after he was hit in the leg with a line-drive in mid-May, but there is no reason to believe that he will not be fully healed this season and jump back into the mix as one of the best back-end rotation guys in baseball. The club will take a look at Roberto Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona) and top prospect Chris Archer this spring, but neither man has much of a shot at making the rotation. Archer will likely start the year at Triple-A along with Jake Odorizzi, whom the club received from Kansas City. Both will factor into the club’s rotation in the future, but both could benefit from some additional minor league experience this season. Hernandez is not a starting pitcher anymore and the argument could be made that he never was, so expect to see him find his way into the bullpen if he’s going to make the ball club.
Tampa had the best bullpen in the American League last season, leading the league in ERA (2.88) and opponents’ batting average (.208) which was also the best in all of baseball. The club said goodbye to three key pieces of that bullpen in Wade Davis, J.P. Howell and Burke Badenhop, but the core of the group will return for 2013 and they are expected to put up the numbers to finish in the top tier of the league again. Closer Fernando Rodney would have to try very hard to outdo himself after putting up one of the best seasons a relief pitcher has ever had in 2012. Rodney finished the season with an unimaginable 0.60 ERA and averaged more than one strike-out per inning pitched. It was his best season since 2005, and at 36-years old it is not likely that he will do it again, but he certainly won’t be expected to completely tank out either. With set-up men Joel Peralta and Jake McGee back to work the 8 th inning, Rodney certainly will have a shot at coming close to the numbers he put up last season as both men finished with double-digits in holds (Peralta led the league with 37) and averaged better than 11 strike-outs per nine innings pitched. Peralta is 36, so whether or not he can continue to throw at this level for the entire season remains to be seen, but McGee is a full ten years younger, so it is a good bet that he has not reached his peak yet, so it is possible that he could post even better numbers this year.
Kyle Farnsworth, also 36-years old, will return to be a middle-reliever as well as a potential stop-gap if Rodney fails to make an impact at closer this season. Farnsworth entered the 2012 campaign as the club’s closer, but an injury to his elbow caused him to abandon that role and he battled throughout the season to stay healthy enough to continue pitching. If Farnsworth can stay healthy this season, he will likely replace some of the innings the club is bound to lose by the departure of Davis, Howell and Badenhop. The club will also look for Hernandez to eat up innings as a long reliever, and Cesar Ramos, Jamey Wright and Mike Montgomery could all play a part in the bullpen at some point this season as well.
Tampa has struggled offensively even in the seasons that the club has made the playoffs, so losing guys like Pena, Keppinger and Upton may be difficult to swallow, but may not be quite as fatal a blow to the club as it appears on paper. The team ranked 11 th in the league in runs scored last season, and they finished dead last in the AL with a .240 batting average, which just goes to show how good their pitching staff is. The fact that the ball club managed to win 90 games with such an anemic offense seems unbelievable, but they will have to try to do it again this season if they are going to contend with the likes of New York and the retooled Blue Jays.
The club will need guys like Desmond Jennings to step up this season to give themselves a fighting chance against the powerhouse line-ups of the Yankees and Blue Jays. Jennings is fast on the base paths, but he doesn’t see much time there due to his propensity to strike out. He will need to fix his approach if he plans to make an impact on opposing pitching this season. Yunel Escobar was shipped over from Toronto and is coming off what could be considered a down season, but Escobar has a career average of .283 with a .353 on-base percentage which should make up for Jennings’ shortcomings. Escobar will get on base for the club and that will be a good thing for Ben Zobrist and Eva Longoria as they should finally have someone to bring home when they get to the plate. Longoria was limited to just 74 games last year after battling his way back from injuries, so a full season from him will allow the club to raise at least five or six spots on the total runs scored list. A healthy Longoria paired with Zobrist at the heart of the Rays’ line-up should be awful fun to watch as the season progresses, and should give the club the offensive shot in the arm it sorely needed last season.
Moving to the bottom of the line-up, the Rays have competent hitters in Matt Joyce, Scott Luke and Kelly Johnson and all three are capable of giving the club 15 plus homers and 60 plus RBIs. If the Rays can get a bounce back season from offseason acquisition James Loney and get anything out of catcher Jose Molina, they should have a solid line-up from top to bottom that, while not flashy, will be capable of giving their starting pitching the run support they so rightly deserve.
The Rays have made some interesting moves this offseason, building a potential playoff team on a very tight budget. Manager Joe Maddon will have one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball at his disposal again this season, and he looks to have an improved offense that will, at the very least, give the pitching staff enough run support to keep them in the running to win somewhere between 87 and 90 games this season. Unfortunately for the Rays, that is not likely to be enough to make the playoffs even as a Wild Card team as New York and Toronto as well as Baltimore all have the potential to best them by as many as six or seven wins. With the pitching staff that the club has, anything is possible, but it looks like a good bet that the Rays will be watching the postseason from home this fall, and with financial concerns still looming after this season, their window of opportunity to win with this line-up is closing fast.
By Robert Gonzalez