Division Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

What we said last year:

Derek wrote the season preview for the Rays last season. Here’s what he had to say:

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.

What actually happened:

The Yankees roster was ravaged by injuries last season, which opened the door for the Rays to easily take second place in the AL East. Backed by strong performances from Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and David Price, the Rays ended the year with an impressive 92 wins. From there, they advanced all the way to the ALCS where they were swept by the Boston Red Sox.

Notable New Faces:

Ryan Hanigan: Hanigan was brought in from Cincinnati over the winter and figures to be the Rays’ primary catcher. Like most players on the Rays, Hanigan is an excellent fielder, grading out very well in the pitch framing and pitch blocking departments. Hanigan was basically an automatic out at the plate last season, but has been a good hitter in the past.

Grant Balfour: After the Orioles voided their agreement with Balfour due to a problem with his physical, the Rays jumped in and inked him to a 2-year deal. In theory, Balfour will slot in as a serviceable closer for the Rays, but who knows if he’ll be able to stay healthy.

Heath Bell: Bell was also brought on to strengthen the team’s bullpen. He’s had a down couple of years, but had been a very reliable closer before then.

Brad Boxberger: Boxberger was acquired from the Padres this winter. He’s pitched very well splitting time between Triple-A and the majors the past couple of years, but will probably start the year in triple-A Durham in favor of more established arms.

Logan Forsythe: Forsythe was also brought in from San Diego via trade. Forsythe isn’t anything special, but he can hit a little bit and can play a few different positions. He’ll be a utility-man for the Rays this year and figures to see time all around the infield and outfield.

Matt Andriese: Yet another erstwhile Padre, Andriese is a minor league who has pitched extremely well at every minor-league stop. However, he lacks dominant stuff and is widely considered to be a fringy prospect. He’ll start the year in Triple-A, but could see time in the big league rotation and/or bullpen this year.

Wilson Betemit: Betemit is nothing special, but has historically crushed right-handed pitching. Rays Manager Joe Maddon Rays  loves his platoons, so Betemit could wind up playing some kind of a part-time role.

Nate Karns: Karns is another minor league arm who’s nearly big league ready. Karns will start the year in triple-A, but could find his way into Tampa’s rotation if a couple of their starters go down with injury.

Key Losses:

Fernando Rodney: Tampa Bay decided to let Rodney walk after two very successful seasons as the team’s closer. The Ray’s bullpen is super deep, but Rodney will still be missed, especially if Balfour’s health proves to be an issue.

Alex Torres: Torres tore it up in 58 relief innings for the Rays last season and was subsequently dealt in a seven-player trade with the Padres. Boxberger, who came over from San Diego in that trade, is probably just as good as Torres.

Kelly Johnson: Johnson left Tampa to sign with the Yankees this offseason. He’s a fine role player, but the Rays already have more than enough of those types.

Jamey Wright: Tampa let this 39-year-old reliever walk following an impressive 2013 campaign. They have more than enough bullpen depth to absorb his loss.

Jose Lobaton: Lobaton did a decent job serving as Jose Molina‘s caddy the last couple of years, but became expendable when Hanigan was brought into the fold.

Roberto Hernandez: Hernandez had a pretty bland season as an innings-eater in Tampa’s rotation last year. Its not hard to see why they let him go given the surplus of pitching talent in the organization.

Luke Scott: Scott heads to Japan for the 2014 season after serving as a platoon DH for Tampa last year. Not a huge loss.

Delmon Young: Young hit a key home run in the American League Wild Card game against the Cleveland Indians, but really isn’t a very good baseball player anymore. Young was the Rays’ number one overall draft pick back in 2003, but hasn’t posted a positive fWAR since 2010.

Sam Fuld: After a solid 2011 season, Fuld sputtered with the Rays the last couple of years. He’s basically replacement-level at this point.

Jesse Crain: Crain was brought on last July, but injuries kept him from ever making it into a game. Crain signed with the Astros this winter and is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.

Wesley Wright: Wright’s a generic loogy. Tampa Bay has plenty of better options in-house.

Chris Gimenez: He served as the team’s backup catcher in 2012, but was little more than triple-A catching depth for the Rays last year.

Health:

Jeremy Hellickson: Hellickson had arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow in January. He’s already starting to throw again and is expected to rejoin the rotation around June 1st. Of course, that timetable is subject to change.

Grant Balfour: Balfour had originally agreed to a two-year, $15M contract with the Baltimore Orioles, but the Orioles ultimately voided the deal after they saw something they didn’t like in Balfour’s physical. Whatever was amiss didn’t seem to phase the Rays, who quickly signed him to a two-year $12M deal — just $3M fewer than what the Orioles had agreed to pay him. Who knows what the Orioles saw, but there’s reason to doubt Balfour can stay healthy in 2014.

Sean Rodriguez: Rodriguez, one of the Rays’ utility-men, missed a week this spring due to tightness in his hamstring. He seems good to know now, but hamstring pulls have a habit of lingering.

Strengths:

Pitching: Anchored by Price and Alex Cobb, the Rays’ starting rotation projects to be one of the best in baseball. The remainder of the rotation will be filled out by Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and rookie Jake Odorizzi. Hellickson, who’s recovering from off-season elbow surgery, figures to re-join the rotation sometime this summer. Prospects Alex Colome and Enny Romero could also step in and make an impact before the year’s out. The Rays are well equipped in the bullpen as well: Even following the loss of closer Fernando Rodney, the combination of Balfour, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Bell should be more than adequate in covering the late innings.

Defense: Per Fangraphs, they’ve accumulated more fielding runs than any other team since 2008. Year after year, the Rays always have excellent defenses and 2014 will be no exception. Loney, Longoria, and Yunel Escobar are all plus defenders on the infield; and DeJesus, Desmond Jennings, Wil Myers, and Brandon Guyer are all above average fielders at their respective outfield positions. Behind the plate, Hanigan is one of the best defensive catchers in the game, while Molina is possibly the best pitch framer in the history of the game. Additionally, Tampa’s been one of the best at infield shifting — a strategy saved them something like 10 runs last season. Anyway you slice it, the Rays are an excellent defensive ball club.

Depth: The Rays might have 12 or 13 position players who would be worthy of a starting gig on a lesser team. Not only does this make the Rays well positioned to absorb injuries, but it also allows them to run multiple platoons through their lineup. Guys like David DeJesus, Matt Joyce, and Sean Rodriguez may not be stars, but in the right situations, can be extremely useful players. Maddon does a terrific job of mixing and matching his lineups to gain every possible advantage. I’d expect more of the same in 2014.

The Rays also have stupid bullpen depth. Frankly the Durham Bulls’ bullpen, the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate, might be just as good as the Yankees’ collection of relievers in 2014. Boxberger, Jeff Beliveau, Kirby Yates, and Mark Lowe are all slated to start the year in the minors, and all might be better than Preston Claiborne, Dellin Betances, or whoever ends up snagging the last couple of spots in the bomber’s ‘pen.

Weaknesses:

Catcher: Catcher isn’t really a weakness for the Rays, but I had to pick something. Neither of Hanigan and Molina can do much with the bat, but both are excellent defensive catchers, especially when it comes to pitch framing. Third on the depth chart at catcher is journeyman  Eddy Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a terrible hitter, but knowing the Rays, I’d bet he’s an outstanding pitch framer.

First base: First base may or may not be a weakness for Tampa depending on whether James Loney can replicate his 2013 campaign. Loney was worth a solid 2.7 fWAR last year, backed by an uncharacteristic 118 wRC+ to go along with his excellent defense. If Loney does falter, Forsythe, Betemit, and Vince Belnome would be the likely in-house replacements.

Season Outlook:

The Red Sox have a very good team this year, but in my view, the Rays are the cream of the AL East in 2014. The Rays have four bonifide stars Longoria, Zobrist, Price, and Cobb, but its the team’s depth that really makes them stand out. Tampa doesn’t really have any holes on their roster and also have a slew of good players waiting in the wings in case of injury. Tampa’s roster is rock-solid from top to bottom and are a pretty safe bet to win 90-something games in 2014. Unfortunately, its hard to envision the Yankees keeping pace.

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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