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Tampa Bay Rays – 2013 Season Preview

Projected Record: (94-68)

Last year, the Rays finished with 90 wins and failed to make the playoffs. Let me start by saying, that won’t happen again. There are a few reasons that the Rays will win the AL East in 2013. Even after trading away 40% of their starting rotation in James Shields and Wade Davis, they still have one of the deepest and best rotations in baseball. And while Fernando Rodney will likely not repeat his dominance, they do have a deep bullpen. Their lineup isn’t Murderer’s Row, but they have made incremental improvements.

Lineup

Let’s start by taking a look at the Rays lineup. The guy you have to start with is Evan Longoria. He’s coming into his age 27 season with 5 MLB seasons under his belt. Longoria has received MVP votes every year except his injury shortened 2012. Last year he missed all of May, June and July and was still able to hit 17 HR and drive in 55. The guy is legit. If he can get 550 at bats I think he’ll crank 35 homers and drive in 120. He doesn’t have a ton of “protection” in the lineup right now. But the Rays don’t play smash mouth baseball. They are willing to let their mad scientist manager, Joe Maddon, put together lineups based on statistical analysis and innovative thinking. The Rays have brought in Yunel Escobar, Ryan Roberts, Kelly Johnson and top minor league prospect Wil Myers. Escobar and Johnson give the Rays a much more dynamic middle infield than they’ve had in recent years. Kelly Johnson has been up and down over the last few years, showing signs of break out in 2010 (.284/.370/.496 with 26 HR) along side his poor showing in 2012 (.225/.313/.365 with 16 HR). Johnson along with utility infielder Ryan Roberts, gives the Rays some flexibility in how they put together their lineup.

The Rays Opening Day outfield will most likely be, from left to right, Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist. Wil Myers has the opportunity to crack that trio. That could go any number of ways, but it’s most likely that Myers will start the season in the minors and the Rays won’t start his service time clock until they absolutely have to. When Myers does come up, he will already be one of the top 3 hitters on the team, so if the Rays struggle offensively out of the gate, Myers will get the call sooner rather than later.

The biggest void I see in the Rays lineup is at 1B and DH. James Loney has proven time and again that he’s not a good hitter. He has a career slashline of .282/.339/.419, with a career high 15 HR (and that was 6 years ago). His batting average is hollow but he does play a good first base. The Rays do place a high priority on defense and Loney’s defense is a top defensive guy.

Another example of valuing defense over offensive production is Jose Molina. Ben Lindbergh over at Baseball Prospectus wrote a great piece about the runs that Molina’s pitch framing saved the Rays in the neighborhood of 50 runs. Obviously that has value. His bat certainly doesn’t (.223/.286/.355).

Pitching

The Rays pitching has been, and continues to be a strength in the organization. Even after they dealt Shields and Davis, the Rays rotation features 27 year old Cy Young Award winner David Price, 25 year old Jeremy Hellickson, 23 year old Matt Moore and 25 year old Alex Cobb. The fifth starter for the Rays will be one of Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona) or 24 year old top prospect Chris Archer. That is to say… the Rays are stacked at starting pitcher. I didn’t even mention prospects Jake Odorizzi or Mike Montgomery who both will likely get more minor league experience this season. Price’s resume stands on it’s own. The past 3 years he’s averaged 215 innings pitched, 204 strikeouts, 2.93 ERA and a 1.143 WHIP.

As we move on down the rotation, there is a line up of stud pitchers. Matt Moore was a top 3 prospect in all of baseball at this time last year, and while some have soured on him, I have not. He did start slow last season, but he really picked it up as the season progressed. When you look at his 1st half compared to his 2nd half, you can see that while his won/loss record looked similar, 5-6 in the first half compared to 6-5 in the second half, his underlying numbers saw significant jumps. His WHIP dropped from 1.455 to 1.210 and his K/BB jumped from 1.92 to 2.55. His ERA also dropped from an mediocre 4.42 to a borderline elite 3.01. Normally when a player is taking his 2nd and 3rd time around the league, he gets exposed and his numbers decline. In Moore’s case, the opposite happened. You like to see that. Moore will be fine and I think he will take the next step to become a solid number 2 starter, with the potential to join Price as an elite starter.

Hellickson’s first and second half splits eerily mirror Moore’s. He saw his ERA drop from 3.41 to 2.80 and his K/BB go from 1.60 to 2.83. Hellickson is not the strikeout pitcher that Price and Moore are. He is a fastball/change up pitcher who likes to work down in the zone and he has proven over his 2+ years in the bigs that he can consistently get major league batters out. Most teams would kill for a number 3 starter like Hellickson.

The rest of the rotation will be comprised of either solid veterans (Niemann and Hernandez), an up and coming youngster (Alex Cobb) or another top pitching prospect (Archer). The Rays have an embarrassment of riches in their starting rotation. They bullpen isn’t quite that stacked, but when you think 2 of the 4 aforementioned starters will not make the rotation and will fill in the bullpen, that boosts it’s stock immediately. Not to mention last years surprising Fernando Rodney. Let’s get this out of the way, Rodney will not pitch at the level he did last season.

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Fantasy Outlook

As you might have noticed, dear reader, I’m all in on the Rays pitchers this season. Price is obviously a stud. I think Hellickson can be a major bargain in your draft. Because of the hype paired with the slow start last year, Moore will be undervalued as well. Jump on all of these guys. As for offensive guys on the Rays, I think Yunel Escobar will give you some value, he’s not a top tier SS, but there aren’t a lot of those guys anyway and I think Escobar will be near the top of the mid-level shortstops. I’ve always been a fan of Ben Zobrist. He eligibility all over the field and he consistently delivers quality numbers year after year. He’s not immune to slumps, but if you ride him out, at the end of the year he’ll have given you what you need. Maybe a guy to stay away from in head to head leagues though. Obviously, if you wanting to go with young guys or guys in the minors, Wil Myers has to be at the top of that list.

Conclusion

The Rays just keep getting it done. They continually tinker with their club, always trying to squeeze as much value out of guys as they can. I think the depth of the pitching and the added depth in their lineup (with guys like Roberts and Johnson) gives the Rays the edge in the very competitive AL East. This team is on the cusp of greatness. Even if they lose David Price when he hits free agency, their depth at starting pitcher will allow them to compete for years to come.

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