Tampa Bay Rays
You can count the 30 million dollars conserved in 2011 by lopping off the seven-highest paid players from their payroll. You can count all the franchise-record stats that departed with Carl Crawford, the homers and RBIs Carlos Pena left behind, the runs Jason Bartlett saved at shortstop and the 86 percent attrition of bullpen appearances the club overcame in its improbable 91-win season. But the one thing you can’t ever do is count out the Tampa Bay Rays. So while they will again be generally regarded as the cheap cuts in the AL East meat-grinder, there is still a feast of pitching, defense and speed on the menu. While those are ingredients for continued success, a look at the only moderately amended batting order begs the same question as last year: Where’s the beef?
“Starting pitching depth to us is everything,” says GM Andrew Friedman. “That’s the one area that we can’t make great decisions under the radar. If we ever have to go to market for that, we’re in a lot of trouble.” Fortunately, the only trouble the 2012 Rays have is finding enough baseballs to go around, with two go-to aces in David Price and James Shields. Price’s 12–13 record was indicative of little more than the team’s spotty run production; he was only the ninth pitcher in history to endure a losing ledger despite punching out 200 batters with an ERA below 3.50 and a sub-1.15 WHIP. Shields, the first 200-inning man in 22 years to shave two runs off his ERA, may not duplicate the 2.82, but he’s a warhorse who led the league with 11 complete games and four shutouts. Third in the array is Jeremy Hellickson, who could be a No. 1 for many teams. The Rookie of the Year makes up for a too-high walk rate and ordinary velocity with an impressive repertoire, good life and steely poise. Streaky skyscraper Jeff Niemann, seemingly reinventing himself as a junk-baller, just wins. Wade Davis admits to being “my own worst enemy.” He has No. 2-starter stuff and he’s competitive, but his fastball command and some adjustment-phobia relegate him at the bottom edge of the rotation. That’s five — so someone will have to move to the bullpen (or another city) to clear room for phenom Matt Moore, who, in the other league, goes by the name “Strasburg.” The 22-year-old with effortless high-90s cheddar and myriad other weapons is driven to be great — which, by all indications, he will be. Young Alex Cobb is also ready for a rotation — just not this one.
For the second straight year, an “Under Construction” sign hangs on the bullpen gate. Thanks especially to Kyle Farnsworth’s dual redefinition as a closer and a strike-thrower, last year’s came together fairly well. At 35, he saved 25 games — two shy of his previous 12-year total. There is concern that his elbow is a time bomb, but the Rays were secure enough to pick up his option. Joel Peralta doesn’t profile as one, but he would be a solid ninth-inning option if needed. Skipper Joe Maddon calls him Campeòn (The Champion) and compares his competitive moxie to that of an undersized boxer. One-time 37-save man Fernando Rodney, who while a Tiger was suspended for heaving a ball into The Trop press box, heads a list of three righties brought in to compete with holdover Brandon Gomes. Rodney still throws 95 with a 12-mph separation from his deluxe change-up, but he has had little command and a recent encounter with back problems. The others were sinkerballer Burke Badenhop (from Miami) and power-armed kid Josh Lueke (from Seattle). Southpaws vying for a role include former closer J.P. Howell and ex-elite prospect Jake McGee (neither of whom has recouped pre-surgery form), as well as the underwhelming Cesar Ramos.
Ben Zobrist gave his defensive GPS a rest last season and settled in as the regular second baseman with just an occasional detour to right field. He split the difference between his All-Star breakout of 2009 and all-out pratfall of 2010 — still enough to brand him one of the better bats around at his position. He’s also a Gold Glover without the hardware to show for it. Likewise, the leather doesn’t come much smoother than what Reid Brignac flashes at shortstop. But because he bears zero resemblance to the hitter who put up promising numbers in the minors, he often cedes time to Sean Rodriguez. The latter hasn’t hit much, either, but anyone with his bat speed must stay in the mix.
While teams with “real” money in the bank were rasslin’ over the likes of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Rays blew their projected budget by re-signing Pena for $7.25 million. Powerful, popular and ecstatic to be back, he’s worth 20 more home runs than they got from Casey Kotchman in 2011, and is just as slick defensively. At the other corner is franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria. If he can stay healthy and put two halves together, neither of which he did in 2011, he’s capable of supplying Pujolsian production at 20 cents on the dollar.
It was only two and a half months, but in Desmond Jennings’ trial spin as the Tampa Bay leftfielder, he was everything Crawford was — and sometimes more. Though a late slump depressed his stats, the rookie revealed expectation-exceeding pop and patience to go with his searing speed and scintillating glove. He’s a center fielder playing left — if or until the Rays desaddle from B.J. Upton. A seven-year vet at 27, Upton is as enigmatic as ever. Skilled enough to be a two-time 20-20 man, he gives away far too many at-bats, as his .240 average since 2009 corroborates. No question he can outrun the ball and throw it as well as anyone at the position. In right, Matt Joyce made the All-Star team, then scuffled. It was, on balance, a nice step forward for another high-ceiling hitter who’s also a defensive standout. If he still can’t solve lefties (.196 career avg.), his platoon partner will be Brandon Guyer, an overachieving ’tweener of a prospect with a strong minor league résumé.
The Rays feel they got a free agent steal in Jose Molina to replace John Jaso, who was dealt for Lueke. Certainly the defensive upgrade was colossal. One’s been the toughest catcher on whom to steal the last four years (39.0 percent caught stealing) the other among the easiest. One treats the job as “an art,” according to his former manager, John Farrell; the other never really got the hang of it. Molina, though, is 36, offensively challenged and without a 300-at-bat season.
A deep, versatile bench is Maddon’s lifeblood. Zobrist, Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson can play almost anywhere, enabling the manager to conjure all sorts of matchup edges. Utility outfielder Sam Fuld is a treasure, especially defensively and attitudinally. “There are a lot of average Americans who can identify with this fellow,” extols Maddon. Jeff Keppinger brings a solid right-handed bat and can play three infield spots. Youngsters Jose Lobaton and/or Robinson Chirinos will be Molina’s caddy. Luke Scott, fresh off shoulder surgery, will be the primary DH. The powerful former Oriole, who also could see spot play at first or in left, seems always to be in either a torrid groove or a subterranean slump.
Friedman, Maddon, team president Matt Silverman and owner Stu Sternberg enjoy a symbiosis that’s rare in sports. Their skills, smarts, sophistication and sensibilities fuse to make the franchise more than the sum of its parts. The challenge is to keep the “fab four” together. Sternberg must wrangle a new stadium or pack up and move to stay financially viable; Friedman already has been approached by other teams; but Maddon’s contract has been extended through the 2015 season.
The Rays’ offensive muscle is well south of average, but they have pitching to be plundered, speed to spare and defense to die for. That may not be good enough in their treacherous division, since it took a scenario that Maddon called “beyond fiction” to get them into the playoffs last year. Still, there’s an X-factor about this bunch that can’t be minimized. “I dig the way the Rays play baseball,” Maddon says. And while Sternberg laments that, fiscally, “there are 29 other teams passing us like we’re going in reverse,” he hastens to add, “except on the field.”
LF Desmond Jennings (R)
Only player in baseball with 10 homers and 20 steals from July 23 (his 2011 season debut) forward.
CF B.J. Upton (R)
Sole player with at least 50 home runs and 100 stolen bases over the last three seasons.
3B Evan Longoria (R)
His 401 RBIs represent an AL record for a third baseman in his first four seasons.
1B Carlos Pena (L)
Led NL qualifiers by ripping 52.2% of his hits for extra bases, but had the second-lowest average (.225).
2B Ben Zobrist (S)
Has hit .221 or lower at The Trop in five of his six seasons, but .285 on road since 2008.
RF Matt Joyce (L)
Just three career HRs vs. lefties — all in a span of 13 trips against them last year.
DH Luke Scott (L)
Ex-Oriole is the only player to launch six HRs onto Eutaw Street beyond the Camden Yards fence.
C Jose Molina (R)
Two-time AL caught-stealing percentage leader who’s nabbed two of every five in his career.
SS Reid Brignac (L)
Eighth-lowest average among players with 200 PAs in 2011, but Rays went 46–30 in his starts.
INF Sean Rodriguez (R)
Per ESPN Home Run Tracker, scorched the hardest-hit longball (118.4 mph) of 2011.
OF Sam Fuld (L)
Was the AL batting leader at .366 on April 22, then collapsed to .203 in his final 87 games.
INF Jeff Keppinger (R)
Made 82 starts at second base for Astros and Giants last season. Brings a career .281 average to the Rays.
OF Brandon Guyer (R)
Acquired with Sam Fuld from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal a year ago.
UT Elliot Johnson (S)
Highest shortstop fielding percentage (.993) among players with at least 50 games there in 2011.
C Jose Lobaton (S)
Raked .307 in minors (career high by far) in 2011, but is only 7-for-51 as a big leaguer.
LH David Price
First pitcher since Tom Glavine to start a playoff, All-Star and Opening Day game before turning 25.
RH James Shields
Each 2011 triple crown stat (16 wins, 2.82 ERA and 225 SOs) was second-best in Rays annals.
LH Matt Moore
Led short- or full-season minor leaguers in strikeouts per nine innings each of last four seasons.
RH Jeremy Hellickson
Topped the AL with a .167 opponents batting average with runners in scoring position.
RH Wade Davis
Held hitters to .161 average with RISP/two outs in 2010-11 — No. 1 among AL starters.
RH Alex Cobb
Shown to be major league ready, but may get squeezed out this year. Owns a 2.41 ERA over 34 starts a Double-A and Triple-A the past two seasons.
RH Kyle Farnsworth (Closer)
Second-lowest career ERA (1.87) at The Trop among relievers with at least 50 IP there.
RH Joel Peralta
Led major league relievers by limiting first batters to an on-base percentage of .099.
RH Fernando Rodney
Saddled with highest WHIP (1.55) in the majors since 2008 among pitchers with at least 200 outings.
RH Jeff Niemann
Second-highest winning percentage (.623) in history by a 6'9" or taller pitcher, behind Randy Johnson’s .646.
RH Brandon Gomes
Limited right-handed batters to 18 hits in 83 at-bats (.217 average).
LH J.P. Howell
Allowed .169 average with runners in scoring position in 2008, but .308 in his other five seasons.
RH Burke Badenhop
Ranked 10th in the majors (min. 60 IP) with a 58.5 percent ground ball rate.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals