Division Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

587px-Andrew_Friedman_and_Joe_Maddon
Friedman and Maddon

Leading up to Opening Day, we’ll be previewing the divisional rivals the Yankees will be competing with in 2013. Today, the Tampa Bay Rays:

Tampa Bay chalked up 90 wins last season, but thanks to the surprising Orioles, finished in third place behind the Yankees and Baltimore. Joe Maddon‘s club managed to do so despite Evan Longoria missing 85 games with a thigh injury. In the offseason, General Manager Andrew Friedman took his usual tactics with low profile free agent signings, while making a major trade to acquire up and coming prospects in exchange for a player the organization can no longer afford. That’s the way the club operates, and if you’re interested in learning more about the organization’s philosophy, I highly recommend Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2%.

The big question for 2013 is this: can they overcome losing their regular center fielder B.J. Upton and star pitcher James Shields? Furthermore, will 2013 finally be the year Longoria stays healthy?

Notable New Faces

  • Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi: The two major pieces Friedman acquired from Kansas City in exchange for “Big Game James” and Wade Davis. Myers was the number one prospect according to Baseball America last season, and is ranked fourth going into 2013. He’s proven his hit and power tools in the minors – the biggest question mark is him making contact. Odorizzi has cracked BA’s top 100 before as well, and made two starts for the Royals last year. Both players could play a role in 2013, but are destined to start in the minors when the season opens.
  • Yunel Escobar: A classic Tampa Bay acquisition. Escobar fell out of favor in Toronto for personality and performance reasons, and the Rays scooped him up for prospect Derek Dietrich. Escobar is just a season removed from a 4.3 WAR performance. Even if he hits like he did last season, he’s a plus defender per UZR. Most importantly, he’s probably going to be a 2 win upgrade over Elliot Johnson.
  • James Loney: Another typical Rays move. Loney is a poor hitter for his position, but has at least shown the ability to hit for average. He was pretty bad in 2012, but like Escobar, just one year removed from a nice season (110 wRC+ in 2011). He’s also a very good defensive first baseman. Nonetheless, he’s probably a wash with last year’s first baseman, Carlos Pena.
  • Roberto Hernandez: Hernandez missed most of 2012 due to identity fraud issues (you probably remember him as Fausto Carmona), but has potential to make an impact on this season’s roster. Joe Maddon certainly likes him. Beating a dead horse, but again, this is the type of guy the Rays go after.
  • Kelly Johnson: You guessed it – another Friedman-esque move. In 2010, Johnson amassed 5.8 WAR and a 129 wRC+, but his offensive performance may have been BABIP-inflated. Since then, he’s been awful. Still, Johnson has good power for a second baseman and could become yet another guy who finds his way in Tampa Bay.

Key losses

  • B.J. Upton: There was no surprise for the Rays when Upton left in free agency given the club’s strategy and budget. Desmond Jennings will shift over to center.
  • James Shields: Friedman took advantage of his deep pitching staff and moved his most expensive pitcher in order to load up for the future. Myers, the cornerstone of the trade, could help replace some of the production lost from Upton at some point in 2013.
  • Wade Davis: Another casualty of the trade with Kansas City. But again, the Rays had wiggle room in their pitching reserves.
  • J.P. Howell: Not a big loss, but a staple of Tampa Bay’s pen for the past few seasons. Jake McGee had a brilliant 2012, so the Rays are just fine in the lefty reliever department anyway.
  • Carlos Pena: The 34 year old showed some classic signs of decline in 2012, not to mention his worst offensive performance in his career by far. His power, contact rate, and BABIP numbers all depreciated. The signing of Loney should be an ample replacement.
  • Jeff Keppinger: After posting a 2.8 WAR and 128 wRC+, Keppinger bolted for the South Side of Chicago. If Longoria goes down, his loss will be felt as replacements Ryan Roberts or Sean Rodriguez are downgrades compared to Keppinger.

Health

I’ve already hit on it a few times, but Longoria’s health is crucial in 2013. He’s spent 128 days on the disabled list the past two seasons. ZiPS projects him to miss some time, but still be in the lineup for 125 games. Keeping Longoria on the field will be essential to help shore up some of the offensive production lost from Upton and Keppinger. A healthy Longoria can potentially propel the offense into the top half of runs scored, after falling to 18th last season.

Luckily for the Rays, they’ve gone through Spring Training relatively unscathed. Sam Fuld has been dealing with a hamstring issue, but he is pretty inconsequential anyway. Other than that: Juan Carlos Oviedo, an offseason signing, underwent Tommy John Surgery in September so probably won’t contribute this season. He was really brought in to be a factor in 2014.

Strengths

Tampa Bay has one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball. Not only is the big league rotation deep with the likes of David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore, but there are plenty of up and comers in the minors like Chris Archer and Odorizzi. The bullpen will be stellar as well, with closer Fernando Rodney coming off his historical 2012 performance. Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, and Jake McGee make up a solid bridge.

Weaknesses

It’s easy to see that the offense is the glaring flaw of this club. There is talent to surround Longoria, such as Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist, but it’s still going to be a middle of the road run producer. Unless we see an offensive breakout from Jennings, bounce back performances, or perhaps a significant contribution from Myers, Tampa Bay will live and die with its pitching staff. That necessarily isn’t a bad thing, but they stack up poorly with the bat against the rest of the division.

Season Outlook

2013 will be yet another test of Friedman’s talent acquisition prowess. Guys like Loney, Johnson, Hernandez, Escobar could make him look like a genius once again. Given his transactional track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of these guys succeeded. Regardless, making up for the departures of Upton and Shields won’t be easy. In my eyes, as I’ve discussed ad nauseum by now, Longoria’s health will make or break the team’s chances.

As of now, considering the Yankees’ injuries, I think the Rays are right on par with New York. However, once (if) the Yanks can regain some of their key contributors, Tampa Bay would be well behind talent-wise. Moreover, Toronto is markedly better as well. I do think that the Rays will finish ahead of Boston and Baltimore. Ultimately, this team is destined for a 2nd or 3rd place finish, likely depending on the Yankees’ health.

Photo by Jennifer Huber [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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