This series will evaluate one team per day, starting on January 23, 2013 and ending on February 22, 2013 (the first game of spring training). It is based on last season's performance, offseason changes since and the author's outlook for the team in 2013. Please keep in mind that rosters can, and will, change before Opening Day. We start in the AL East and go in ABC order; next up, the Tampa Bay Rays.
2012 finish: 90-72 (3rd place, AL East)
RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo, RHP Jamey Wright, OF Wil Myers, OF Jason Bourgeois, 1B James Loney, SS Yunel Escobar
LHP J.P. Howell, RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis, OF B.J. Upton, OF Ben Francisco, 1B Carlos Pena, 2B Jeff Keppinger,
Why they will improve this year
Don't they always? This team just finds a way to win.
No matter the pieces they pull off the scrap heap, no matter the lack of offense, no matter the limited star power, the Rays are contending under Joe Maddon. And this is one of the cleverest offseasons in the franchise's history, as far as I'm concerned.
The Rays had to pull the trigger on the trade that sent Shields and Davis to Kansas City, because it netted them baseball's best hitting prospect, as well as a slew of other high-profile minor leaguers that could pay immediate dividends.
Even though the team will look slightly different in 2013, it's arguably more dangerous than ever.
One of my favorite moves was snagging Yunel Escobar from the Miami Marlins to fill a void at shortstop. Awkward, homophobic slur problems aside, Escobar is a very high-potential player on both offense and defense and is just one year removed from a season in which he hit .290 and had a solid on-base percentage.
The lineup is better than people will give it credit for too.
With a healthy Evan Longoria, another year under Desmond Jennings' belt, the versatility of Ben Zobrist and impressive depth at most positions, the team could very well put up more runs than it did in 2012, even though Upton is gone.
Oh, and don't worry about the starting rotation after losing two righties in the K.C. trade. The staff still runs seven pitchers deep.
Why they will regress this year
On paper, asking this team to win 90 games like last year might be a stretch. Even though the depth in the starting rotation is incredibly lengthy, it does lose 31 wins, 15 complete games and six shutouts over the previous two seasons in Shields.
While I believe David Price will improve on his Cy Young season of 2012, I'm not sure if the youngsters in line behind him will step quite enough to fill the void left by Shields.
And in the bullpen, I do expect a regression from closer Fernando Rodney. Anything else would be shocking statistically.
Also, I'll give the benefit of the doubt to Longoria when discussing his perennial injury problems, but will Jennings continue to improve in left field? Can Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce continue to provide strong all-around play? Does Escobar have a clear head in his new digs? And will Loney really provide anything offensively?
I fully expect the Rays to be competitive this season, but I think we'll see growing pains from a lot of the young pitchers, as well as Myers when he inevitably gets the call-up. And none of the super utility backup guys that the Rays employ really fit the prototypical DH slot right now, which may leave a gaping hole in the lineup.
The outlook for 2013
I think the Rays will find a balance between my previous two sections.
The pitching staff will be fantastic, with Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore all taking strides forward. But the bullpen will regress ever so slightly, almost bringing them back to even.
On offense, I think Myers, Jennings and Joyce more than make up for the loss of Upton, and that Escobar will have a nice bounce-back season in Tampa Bay. Consistency on the right side of the infield is my main worry offensively, along with standard injury concerns for Longoria.
If the face of the franchise is healthy at the hot corner for most of the season, the Rays are a legitimate wild-card contender, even in the AL East. But if he misses significant time, the Rays could be looking at a ceiling of 81 wins.
When all is said and done, I think the Rays get some pretty productive seasons from their big bats. They will be in the hunt late into the season and narrowly miss a wild-card spot, coming in at around 85 wins.
Potential changes before Opening Day
According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays will be re-signing Luke Scott soon, filling the void at DH for another year.
That aforementioned hole in the lineup should be stuffed with this move, but I'll wait until the deal is officially done to proclaim the spot filled.
The most interesting storyline for the Rays leading up to Opening Day will be how the new prospects who came over from the Kansas City Royals will fare in spring training. If you're like me, you can't wait to see Myers in action.
Biggest surprise: Yunel Escobar
Biggest disappointment: James Loney
Bold prediction: Price wins his second straight Cy Young
1. Desmond Jennings, LF
2. Yunel Escobar, SS
3. Evan Longoria, 3B
4. Luke Scott, DH
5. Ben Zobrist, 2B
6. Matt Joyce, RF
7. James Loney, 1B
8. Jose Molina, C
9. Sam Fuld, CF
1. David Price, LHP
2. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
3. Matt Moore, LHP
4. Alex Cobb, RHP
5. Jeff Niemann, RHP
Projected finish: 86-76, 3rd place
For more preseason evaluations:
You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.
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