The Rays then reminded everyone that they're a team that can never be counted out.
The Rays proceeded to get hot and the next thing you knew they were knocking on the door of the postseason. Ultimately, their regular season was capped by an incredible comeback against the Yankees and Evan Longoria's walk-off home run in extra innings. None of us will ever forget it.
The Rays were strong then, and they look strong now heading into the 2012 season. They have a have very good chance of winning the division.
Here's a look at how the Rays are shaping up heading into 2012.
2011 Record: 91-71
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): RHP Josh Lueke (from Seattle), C Jose Molina (FA), 1B Juan Miranda (FA), RHP Burke Badenhop (from Miami), RHP Fernando Rodney (FA), RHP Richard De Los Santos (FA), DH Luke Scott (FA), OF Jesus Feliciano (FA), 1B Carlos Pena (FA), RHP Bryan Augenstein (FA), 2B Jeff Keppinger (FA), 1B Russ Canzler (from Cleveland), OF Brad Coon (FA), OF Jeff Salazar (FA), C Chris Gimenez (FA).
Key Departures: C John Jaso (to Seattle), C Kelly Shoppach (FA), 1B Casey Kotchman (FA), OF/DH Johnny Damon (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- James Shields (16-12, 2.82 ERA, 1.04 WHIP)
- David Price (12-13, 3.49, 1.14)
- Jeremy Hellickson (13-10, 2.95, 1.15)
- Wade Davis (11-10, 4.45, 1.35)
- Matt Moore (1-0, 2.89, 1.29)
- Jeff Niemann (11-7, 4.06, 1.24)
C: Jose Molina (.281/.342/.415)
1B: Carlos Pena (.225/.357/.462)
2B: Ben Zobrist (.269/.353/.469)
3B: Evan Longoria (.244/.355/.495)
SS: Sean Rodriguez (.223/.323/.357)
LF: Desmond Jennings (.259/.356/.449)
CF: B.J. Upton (.243/.331/.429)
RF: Matt Joyce (.277/.347/.478)
DH: Luke Scott (.220/.301/.402)
Closer: Kyle Farnsworth (R) (5-1, 25 SV, 6 BLSV, 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP)
Joel Peralta (R) (3-4, 6 SV, 19 HLD, 2 BLSV, 2.93, 0.92)
Fernando Rodney (R) (3-5, 3 SV, 10 HLD, 4 BLSV, 4.50, 1.69)
J.P. Howell (L) (2-3, 1 SV, 10 HLD, 1 BLSV, 6.16, 1.57)
Jake McGee (L) (5-2, 4 HLD, 4.50, 1.50)
Brandon Gomes (R) (2-1, 5 HLD, 2.92, 1.35)
Burke Badenhop (R) (2-3, 4.10, 1.40)
Josh Lueke (R) (1-1, 2 HLD, 6.06, 1.44)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Starting pitching was a major asset for the Rays in 2011. Rays starters tied for the American League lead with 99 quality starts, and they led the American League with an ERA of 3.53 and a collective WHIP of 1.19.
All of the guys who made it possible are back, plus one.
James Shields will be at the top. The Rays will be looking for him to be as brilliant in 2012 as he was in 2011. Of Shields' 33 starts, 25 were quality starts. He pitched 11 complete games, including four shutouts.
Was is all too good to be true?
Absolutely. Shields kept the ball down far more consistently in 2011 than he ever had before. He benefited from a high ground-ball rate, but he had a suspiciously low .258 BABIP.
The Rays are going to have a good infield defense this year, but Shields' BABIP is going to level out. He won't have a BABIP of .341 like he did in 2010, but I'd expect it to hover closer to the .300 mark, resulting in more baserunners and more runs.
Since Shields clearly made strides as a pitcher in 2011, it wouldn't be fair to say he's in for a huge regression. An ERA in the mid 3.00s is a reasonable expectation, which should be good for at least 14 wins. He'll also cross the 200-inning mark for a sixth year in a row.
While Shields will likely come back to earth a little, the next question in this rotation is if David Price can recapture the dominance he showed in 2010.
I don't see why not. Price actually increased his K rate and decreased his walk rate in 2011, showing off much better control than he showed in 2010, when he was effectively wild. The tradeoff was a few more base hits, including a few extra home runs.
We know Price has an excellent fastball, but last season saw him experiment more with his secondary pitches, with varying degrees of success. He'll be thankful for the experience. My hunch is that we're going to see a far more well-rounded version of Price in 2012, one that will be able to dominate like he did in his near-Cy Young campaign in 2010.
Jeremy Hellickson is a pitcher who will look to continue to develop as one of the top young starters in the game. A word of warning, though: the 2.95 ERA he posted in 2011 is horribly misleading. His FIP was well over 4.00, and he benefited from an absurdly low .223 BABIP. Hellickson got awfully lucky in 2011.
However, we know that Hellickson has much better control than his 3.43 BB/9 would indicate. We know he has better strikeout potential than his 5.57 K/9 suggests. Despite the fact he won the Rookie of the Year in 2011, there's a lot of room for improvement where Hellickson is concerned.
The same is true of Wade Davis. He's another guy who was supposed to be a strikeout artist, but that reputation hasn't panned out in his first two seasons. Instead, Davis has struck out few, walked more, and given up a lot of hits. He gave up 190 hits in 184 innings in 2011.
Because Davis is still young, there's still plenty of hope for him. But what he's shown in his first two seasons with the Rays is that he may, in fact, be nothing special. If Davis doesn't prove that reputation wrong out of the gate, the Rays will have to consider moving him to the bullpen.
Matt Moore has run into some trouble in spring training, but Rays fans should be very excited about watching him this season. Moore is universally regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball, and he showed late last season that he can cut it in the big leagues.
Moore made his first start against the New York Yankees in late September, and struck out 11 over five innings of work. He made his next start against the Texas Rangers in the playoffs, and he pitched seven shutout innings with two hits and just two walks.
Moore's stuff is that of a No. 1. He's got a blazing fastball, a plus slider and a changeup that is going to be an outstanding out pitch for years to come. He's also got pretty good control, giving him everything he needs to dominate major-league hitters.
Don't be surprised when Moore starts leading the race for the American League Rookie of the Year. Notice I said "when," not "if."
In the event the Rays need another starter, they can plug in Jeff Niemann. He's not an ace by any stretch of the imagination, but every team in the big leagues would love to have him as rotation insurance.
The best compliment I can give this rotation is this one: it's the best rotation in the AL East. Hands down.
Scouting the Bullpen
Tampa's bullpen wasn't quite as good in 2011 as its starters were, but it was still plenty solid. Rays relievers posted a 3.73 ERA and hitters hit just .228 off them. That was the second-lowest mark in the American League.
Kyle Farnsworth finally panned out as a reliable option closing games. The strange part is that he didn't blow hitters away, as his K/9 dropped all the way to 7.96.
Farnsworth was successful because he trusted his defense more than he ever has in the past. He had a ground-ball rate of better than 50 percent for the first time in his career, which led to much fewer hard-hit balls. Coupled with Farnsworth's impressive 1.87 BB/9, he gave up fewer baserunners and just 14 earned runs all season.
In short, we saw a much different version of Farnsworth last season. I'll speak for myself and say that I liked what I saw, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of the same.
Joel Peralta also had a great season in 2011 setting up for Farnsworth. The only thing that worries me is the 57.5 fly-ball rate Peralta posted last season. I have my doubts about him being able to give up that many fly balls while continuing to hold opponents to a sub-.200 batting average and allowing a HR/9 of 0.93.
Then again, Peralta's numbers from 2011 were largely identical to his numbers from 2010, and he had a great season that year too. Whatever Peralta is doing is working, so far be it from me to tell him how to handle his business.
The Rays have brought in Fernando Rodney to help out, but he won't do them much good if starts walking the ballpark like he did in 2011 with the Angels. He's never had pinpoint control, but Rodney's BB/9 in 2011 was near eight.
Still, the one thing the Rays know Rodney will do is strike hitters out. If he cuts his walks down, he'll be a valuable member of their bullpen.
The Rays will get a huge boost if J.P. Howell recaptures his form from 2009. He missed the entire 2010 season, and he just never really got on track in 2011. When he's on, though, Howell is one of the top lefty relievers in the American League.
There are stronger bullpens than this one in the American League, but this is certainly not a bad pen. To boot, Joe Maddon has demonstrated an ability to work matchups effectively. He has enough arms in his pen to do that this year, too.
This bullpen will be fine.
Scouting the Hitting
The Rays were not an offensive juggernaut in 2011. They finished eighth in the American League with 707 runs scored, and they hit just .244 as a team. Only the Seattle Mariners had a lower team batting average in the American League.
Nonetheless, the Rays ended up scoring just enough runs to support their tremendous pitching staff. They'll be looking to do the same thing this season.
No hitter in Tampa Bay's lineup is more important than Evan Longoria. There is no debate. They don't have a plethora of potential superstar hitters in their lineup, but Longoria is the one big exception.
We know for a fact that Longoria has the tools to be a superstar, but he has yet to put it all together in one brilliant season. In 2010, he posted a solid batting average and a solid OBP, but didn't hit for enough power. Last season, he hit for a lot of power, but he hit just .244.
At some point, we're going to see a season in which Longo manages a line of .300/.400/.500 with 35 home runs and 120 RBI. The question is when we're going to see a season like that from Longo.
There's no time like the present. There are reasons to think Longo is on the verge of a tremendous season. Despite his low average last season, he still managed a respectable .355 on-base percentage while upping his walks and decreasing his strikeouts. When Longo put the ball in play, he hit a curiously low .239. He was banged up for much of the year, and that presumably had a lot to do with his struggles to get hits.
If Longo is able to stay healthy in 2012, expect him to be a legitimate MVP candidate. He has the potential to be that good.
The other hitter I'm really looking forward to watching this season is Desmond Jennings. It felt like we were waiting for him to arrive on the scene for a long time, and he finally arrived in August of 2011. He hit .333 that month, with seven home runs and nine stolen bases.
Jennings is essentially Tampa Bay's heir apparent for Carl Crawford. The scary part is that Jennings could be even better than Crawford. He showed off impressive power in limited action last season, and he has the speed to to swipe 40-plus bases.
It's my presumption that Jennings will bat leadoff, in which case Ben Zobrist would be the best option to slide into the No. 2 spot. He enjoyed a nice bounce-back season in 2011, and was consistent the whole season. He's a player who flies under the radar, but I'd wager just about every team in the big leagues would love to have a Zobrist clone.
As for B.J. Upton, all I can say is "meh." He has plenty of talent and is great when he's hot, but he's settled into a niche as a .240/.322/.408 hitter over the last three seasons. That's not a compliment. I've given up hoping for great things from him.
The Rays went out and signed Carlos Pena and Luke Scott this offseason. They'll be counting on the two of them to provide some pop in the middle of the lineup. As long as the Rays don't ask for anything more than pop, they'll be pleased with what Pena and Scott will provide. When the two of them are at their best, they're posting ISOs (isolated power) in the .250 range, which is well above-average.
In plain English, Pena and Scott will hit plenty of home runs. As long as they stay healthy, my guess is they'll combine for at least 60 of them. Their averages will leave a lot to be desired, but the Rays will gladly take the power.
The Rays will be hoping that Matt Joyce will be as hot as he was in April and May last season, but even if he's not he's still a good guy for them to have in the bottom of their lineup. Behind him, there's going to be a pretty big dropoff in terms of hitting savvy.
Even still, this lineup will be better than advertised as long as the key pieces in it stay healthy. The Rays are going to have speed and versatility at the top and power in the middle. Hard to ask for more than that.
I'll go out on a limb right now and predict that the Rays are going to score more runs in 2012 than they did in 2011.
I was very, very tempted to go with David Price in this spot, but I've decided to go with James Shields.
One thing stands out about Shields, and that's the amount of innings he's pitched since he took over as a full-time starter in 2007. In the five years since, he's pitched exactly 1,102.1 innings.
In order, here are the only pitchers who have pitched more innings since 2007: CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez.
That's pretty good company. Of those five, only Dan Haren has yet to win a Cy Young award.
I don't think Shields will ever win a Cy Young. He came close in 2011, finishing third in the voting, but the amazing success he enjoyed should not be taken for the norm from here on out.
But like I mentioned above, Shields is progressing as a pitcher. His control at this point in his career is outstanding, and he's established himself as an above-average strikeout pitcher over the last two seasons. The key reason he was so much better in 2011 was because he got so many more ground balls, a sign of how well Shields kept the ball down.
Shields will come back to earth a little bit, but the Rays can rest easy knowing that they're going to have a chance to win every time Shields takes the mound.
Of course, this has been the case for five seasons now.
A bit of a tough call, but I have to go with Evan Longoria here.
Despite the fact we haven't yet seen Longo put it all together and have a truly outstanding season, he's done some pretty remarkable things since breaking into the league in 2008.
There are a couple stats that pretty much say it all. Since 2008, Longoria is third among all third basemen with 113 home runs. He leads all third basemen with 401 RBI since 2008 and a WAR of 26.9. The next highest WAR among his fellow third basemen since 2008 is 19.7, and that belongs to Kevin Youkilis.
In short, even despite his struggles with various things since his debut season, Longoria has been the best third basemen in the major leagues. That's a fact.
There are times when this is obvious. The 2008 ALCS, in which Longoria hit four home runs, comes to mind. In the first two months of the 2010 season, Longoria hit well over .300 with 10 home runs and 42 RBI. And of course, Longo was at his best in the regular season finale in 2011, hitting two huge home runs to launch the Rays into the postseason.
We know what Longo can do, but the time is now for him to show he can do it throughout the course of a full 162-game season.
It goes without saying he's a player to watch in 2012.
I have to go with Carlos Pena here. He's returning to the very place he revived his sagging career, and the Rays are counting on him to be a productive member of their lineup.
When Pena left Tampa Bay after the 2010 season, the Rays were waving goodbye to a hitter who hit just .196 for the full season. That made it way too easy to overlook the fact that Pena also hit 28 home runs while posting a semi-respectable .325 OBP.
The Rays know that they're not going to get a high batting average out of Pena, but they need him to do better than .196. In fact, they'll gladly take something similar to the .225 average Pena posted with the Chicago Cubs in 2011, as long as it comes with 30-or-so home runs and over 100 walks.
The big question is where the Rays will be getting this production. Conventional wisdom suggests Pena will bat fourth to protect Evan Longoria, but The Tampa Tribune has reported that Pena may actually bat second in the lineup, with the idea being to put a high OBP guy behind Jennings and in front of Longo.
I'm on the fence about the idea. Pena definitely walks a lot, but he also strikes out a lot, making him anything but a prototypical No. 2 hitter. It's a weird experiment, one that I'm not sure will work out.
But whether Pena is used in the two-hole, the cleanup spot or wherever, he's a hitter who needs to hit in order for the Rays lineup to maximize its potential. If he struggles like he did when he was with the Rays last in 2010, he's going to do more harm than good.
Prospect to Watch
Matt Moore is still technically a prospect, but I'm going to overlook him so I can focus on Hak-Ju Lee instead.
The Rays got Lee in the Matt Garza trade. Right now that's looking like an absolute steal. Lee is starting to garner a lot of positive attention, and the thinking is that he has the potential to be a star in the majors.
ESPN's Keith Law loves Lee. He ranked him as the No. 12 prospect in all of baseball, and he raved about Lee's speed on the basepaths and above-average defensive abilities. He's never going to hit for much power, but he could be a speedy, base-stealing shortstop in the spirit of Jose Reyes.
A player like that would fit perfectly on the Rays. They've always had good team speed, and their team defense is something that doesn't get nearly enough credit.
But that's looking a couple years down the road. Lee has only made it as far as Double-A, and he still needs a lot of work.
All the same, definitely keep an eye on him this season.
What the Rays Will Do Well
The Rays did two things better than most American League teams last season, and that's pitch and field.
The Rays are in for more of the same in those regards in 2012. They have an outstanding starting rotation, a solid bullpen and well above-average fielders in their lineup.
As long as the Rays pitch well and field well, they're going to win a lot of games. That doesn't mean they'll be totally slump-proof, but the Rays proved last season that pitching and defense go a long way.
What the Rays Won’t Do Well
The Rays are going to hit better than they did in 2011, but they're not about to contend with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees for American League offensive dominance.
The key issue with this Rays lineup is that it's kind of a mixed bag. There is some speed in it, plenty of power, but there are no obvious .300 hitters. We're likely looking at a lineup that is going to rack up a lot of strikeouts.
So in the event that the Rays do go into a slump or two throughout the course of the season, it will be because of their bats.
Where will the Rays finish in the AL East in 2012?
I'll keep this simple: I really, really, really like the Rays.
There's no reason the Rays can't contend for the AL East crown this season. They have the best starting rotation in the division. That alone will put them in 90-win territory if everyone stays healthy. If the Rays get an MVP-caliber season from Longo and a breakout season from Jennings, they'll challenge the 100-win mark.
Ultimately, that's exactly what I see them doing. The Yankees will be right there with them, but I think the Rays will take the division when all is said and done.
Projected Record: 98-64, first in AL East.
American League East
National League Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: