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Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 91-71 Manager: Joe Maddon

The scrappiest team in baseball, the Rays are a tough matchup because of their talent, but also their overall tenacity. That comes from Maddon, who might be the best manager in baseball. Their starting rotation might be the best in baseball and they have a solid, if not spectacular lineup. There is good reason for the high expectations on the Gulf Coast.

Player in the spotlight: Evan Longoria 3B

Longoria got off to a slow start last year, partially due to injuries, but he ended the season strong and went over 30 HRs again. He’s the everyday face of the franchise and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be a MVP candidate again.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: BJ Upton CF

Upton annually teases the Rays and fans alike with his immense talent. Especially since younger brother Justin’s performance in Arizona has been so impressive. But Upton probably enters his last season with the Rays as he will become a free agent at the end of the season. If he is able to finally put it all together with a big contract as motivation, the Rays lineup suddenly becomes deep with high quality hitters and they could top triple digit wins.

Pitcher in the spotlight: David Price

The big, hard throwing lefty is an annual Cy Young candidate and after a slightly disappointing 2011, Price should be really good this year. If he can keep his ERA back under 3.00, Price should win 20 games for the first time in his career.

Biggest pitching question mark: Kyle Farnsworth   Closer

Part of this concern is due to Farnsworth starting the season on the DL. But expecting consecutive stellar seasons at 36, including a season starting trip to the DL, might be too much. Expect to see one of the other solid bullpen arms like Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta to get some looks at the closer role. Maddon might decide to go with a committee for the first half of the season before they settle on one option for the ninth inning.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Alex Torres SP

Torres is a major league ready, high quality 24 year old lefty starter. Only the Rays can keep a talent like this in AAA due to the incredible starting pitching depth. Look for Torres to be the trade bait to either upgrade the lineup or to get a closer.

Prediction: 2nd in AL East and wildcard

The Rays are primed to give the Yankees all they can handle in the AL East. This could be a great two-team battle for first that goes down to the final week. The division title means more now with the added wildcard team setting up that one game playoff so teams are much better off getting in as a division winner. The Rays should win at least 95 games and could possibly win triple digits for the first time in club history. As long as they can find a solution for closing out ballgames, the Rays could become the favorites to win the AL.

Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day Overview

Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day Overview

Manager: Joe Maddon  GM: Andrew Friedman

  Lineup:
1 2B Ben Zobrist
2 LF Johnny Damon
3 3B Evan Longoria/Sean Rodriguez
4 DH Manny Ramirez
5 1B Dan Johnson
6 CF BJ Upton
7 RF Matt Joyce
8 SS Reid Brignac
9 C John Jaso/Kelly Shoppach

 

Zobrist couldn’t replicate his 2009 career year, but his ability to draw walks make him a viable top or the order hitter. Zobrist played RF, 2B, 1B, and CF at least 10 games each. His versatility allows Maddon added flexibility to mix and match different lineup combinations. As long as his OBP remains near .350, he’ll produce enough to justify his spot in the lineup.

Damon is another high OBP hitter due to his ability to draw walks. While Damon isn’t the dynamic offensive player that he was a few years ago, he still hits for doubles and remains .270+ hitter.

Longoria is a potential MVP and at 25, will still improve his already impressive numbers. His power dropped last season but his OPS was only off by about .010 due to his increased batting average and slightly better eye at the plate. He’s always a threat get an extra base hit, as his 73 XBH last year and his 77 XBH in 2009 show. He’s going to miss a few weeks after straining an oblique in his side. Rodriguez will get the majority of the time and primarily fill in for Longoria. He’s much better against lefties and will be the regular second baseman against lefties when Longoria returns. The drop off from Longoria to Rodriguez is enough that the Rays could lose a few games in the standings due to the lack of production.

Ramirez hit well with the Dodgers last year but didn’t with the White Sox. The Rays are hoping that Manny can just concentrate on hitting for a small market team that doesn’t have media distractions or anything that could get Manny off his game. When focused, Manny still hits at a high level and walks a lot. If he gets 500 at bats, the Rays should have one of the better cleanup hitters in the AL.

Johnson has been a big OPS guy in the past with Oakland and in the minors. His OBP was .343 despite only hitting .198 last season. The Rays are putting him at first base hoping that he’s able to get on base and hit for power. It remains to be seen how long the Rays can continue with a first baseman that has an atrocious average. Former Cuban defector and AAA 1B Leslie Anderson could be in the mix here as the season goes on.

Upton rediscovered his power last season but still only hit .237. The ceiling for Upton has been considered sky high but at 26, he’s still searching for consistency at the plate and his ability to get on base was better in 2007-2008 than it’s been the past two seasons. Upton could move to right field at some point this season to make room for top prospect Desmond Jennings. If Upton is unable to improve his offensive numbers, then the Rays will most likely look to move him either during this season or after the season as 2012 is the final year for Upton before free agency.

Joyce is another of the Rays low average, good power, high on base guys and will be in right field against righties. Joyce was pretty effective as he hada .837 OPS in limited at bats last year and could be pretty valuable if he gets 400-450 at bats against righties this year. Zobrist moves to right field against lefties.

Brignac has settled in as the starter at short with Jason Bartlett gone. With modest improvement of his .692 OPS, the Rays could use Brignac to improve to at least a .750 OPS, especially if he ends up in a platoon. Rookie Elliott Johnson is a candidate to share time with him if Brignac has trouble with lefties.

Jaso will hit either 9th or leadoff depending on who’s in the lineup. He’s a high OBP guy and will hit better than his platoon partner, Kelly Shoppach. Shoppach is the perfect complement to the lefty Jaso as he has solid numbers against lefties.

  Starting Pitching
1 LHP David Price
2 RHP James Shields
3 RHP Wade Davis
4 RHP Jeff Niemann
5 RHP Jeremy Hellickson

 

Price was one of the top 3 starting pitchers in the AL last season and should be in that group again this year. The next step for Price to become an elite starting pitcher is to become a 220+ IP guy. The true aces can pitch at a high level and do it over a lot of innings. With the depleted bullpen, Price might have to go deeper into games to ensure that he gets the winning decision.

Shields took a major step back last season after pitching well for three years. He led the AL in HRs allowed, earned runs allowed, and hits allowed. He did this despite increasing his strikeout rate. The Rays will have to make a major decision on Shields, whose contract increases substantially with high priced options starting next season. If he can’t turn around his numbers to be more in line with 2007-2009, then he’ll probably be moved at the July trade deadline or in the winter. This summer would be more likely if his performance knocks the Rays out of the race early.

Davis just signed a long term contract to keep him in place, with options, until 2017. That was a reward for a solid rookie season in which Davis won 12 games and had a 4.07 ERA. With plenty of room for improvement, this could be a very good signing. The Rays need Davis to improve his strikeout rate to be more in line with his minor league numbers and cut down on his walks as well. He gave up 24 HRs and will need to cut that down while his workload increases from 168 IP to around 200 IP.  

Niemann isn’t tough to find. He’s the 6’9″ guy. He’s been solid but not great with 13 and 12 wins each of the last two seasons with ERAs of 3.94 and 4.39. He also gives up way too many homers and needs to improve his K-BB ratio. Currently at just above 2 to 1, his K-BB ratio needs to improve to at least 3 to 1 and he needs to cut his HR allowed to become a top of the rotation pitcher.

Hellickson is the Rays top prospect and pitched pretty well in limited innings last season. Hellickson is a high strikeout, low walk pitcher who could be a 15 game winner this season if he can sustain his numbers in the majors. The key for all Rays pitchers is keeping the ball in the park and doing so would keep Hellickson’s ERA in the low 3’s or better.

  Bullpen
CL LHP JP Howell (DL)
SET RHP Kyle Farnsworth
  RHP Joel Peralta
  RHP Andrew Sonnanstine
  LHP Jake McGee
  RHP Adam Russell
  LHP Cesar Ramos/RHP Juan Cruz

 

Howell will lead the revamped bullpen when he returns. The hope is for him to be back in the bullpen by June. Howell was a very effective late inning reliever in 2008-2009 and if he returns to his pre-injury production, the Rays will have at least one bullpen question solved.  

Farnsworth was solid last season after four seasons of subpar results. He’s now 35 and he’s going to be in the back of the bullpen to begin the season but his history should have the Rays proactively searching for late inning alternatives if they want to remain in the AL East race this season.

Peralta pitched well for the Nationals last season but has never been a highly reliable contributor to a major league bullpen. At 35, that’s unlikely to change, despite last year’s performance.

Sonnanstine was a starting prospect that is now working middle relief and spot starting. He’ll have a job until somebody better comes around.

McGee is a top prospect that is projected as a potential closer and the sooner the better for the Rays. McGee is a lefty who blows away hitters consistently and had great control numbers and kept the ball in the park in the minors. His development as a reliable late innings pitcher could be the biggest key to the Rays season.

Russell comes over from the Padres for Jason Bartlett. He’s been rather unremarkable in parts of three major league seasons as he’s dealt with a high walk rate. Ramos will probably be a long man and lefty specialist with limited upside after coming over from the Padres. Cruz is at the back end of the pen to provide innings and provides little to no upside.

  Farm Prospects who could help in 2011
1 OF Desmond Jennings
2 LHP Alex Torres
3 1B/OF Leslie Anderson

 

Jennings is the Rays top everyday prospect and should get the call as soon as a need arises in the outfield. His major league success could make it easier for the Rays front office to eventually trade Upton. Torres is the next in the line of solid starting pitching prospects that the Rays have churned out. He could see action later in the summer or could be used as trade bait if the Rays need to make a deal to win the AL East. Anderson is a Cuban defector who hits fairly well at AAA without much power. He could get a look at first if Johnson has problems reaching base.

Three Questions:

1. How will the revamped Rays lineup replace Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena?

  • The Rays are trying to address that void with Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Dan Johnson and others this season. If Manny and Damon can hit close to their recent production levels playing about 80% of the time, a lot of the lost production will be replaced. Then it comes down to the others in the lineup, like Pena’s replacement, Johnson, to make up the rest. In addition, with the questionable quality of the bullpen, the Rays might need to have a more powerful offense this season to achieve similar results.

2. Can the starting pitching sustain or improve their performance without solid #2 starter Matt Garza?

  • The Rays replace Garza with Jeremy Hellickson and the rookie might be better than Garza already. But another factor is how David Price adjusts to a slightly increased workload. To be a true ace, Price will need to increase his IP to around 220 if healthy. James Shields had a terrible season last year and needs to revert to his previous form. Wade Davis had a nice enough rookie season to warrant a long term commitment, but he’ll have to continue to prove his worth. Jeff Niemann has the potential for more, but he’s performed the same for two seasons and that might be who he is.

3. Will the Rays bullpen solidify or torpedo their postseason chances early?

  • The Rays bullpen could be a major issue this season as almost all of their relievers are new to the team. With the exception of the injured JP Howell, nobody stands out as a reliable option to close right now. Maybe rookie Jake McGee fulfills his potential quickly and takes the reins in the 9th inning early in the season. But even if that happens, there very little depth in the pen and the Rays don’t have any other major league ready prospects to put in the pen.

 

Projection

The Rays offense should be solid all season barring some major injuries or a lingering one to Longoria. Their pitching could be another story as they need steady improvement from their young starters to offset the lack of depth and quality backing them up in the bullpen. McGee almost has to grab the closer’s job and do a very good job for this team to be successful. Maybe Maddon can sort of “do it with mirrors” for the first half of the season. If the Rays can stay close, they might be able to take on some salary to bolster the bullpen. When the story of the Rays season is told, most likely the bullpen performance will tell the story. If it becomes settled, then the Rays will play meaningful games into late September and maybe get a playoff spot. If the bullpen struggles, then the Rays will struggle to finish with a winning record.