Most teams would be thrilled to finish the season 18 games over .500.
Not Tampa Bay, as Joe Maddon's Rays finished third in both the AL East and the AL Wild Card race, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Far removed from the days of Quinton McCracken and the "expansion" moniker, it's playoffs-or-bust at Tropicana Field. That makes 2012 a disappointing season.
So GM Andrew Friedman went out and did what he does as well as anyone in the game—he improved the team under severe financial constraints.
Did he do enough to land the Rays back in the playoffs?
Here's a look at how things in Tampa Bay are shaping up heading into the 2013 season.
2012 Record: 90-72
Key Arrivals: 1B/OF Shelley Duncan (FA), SS Yunel Escobar (from Miami), RHP Roberto Hernandez (FA), 2B Kelly Johnson (FA), 1B James Loney (FA), RHP Mike Montgomery (from KC), OF Wil Myers (from KC), RHP Jake Odorizzi (from KC), RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo (FA), RHP Jamey Wright (FA)
Key Departures: RHP Burke Badenhop (to Milwaukee), SS Reid Brignac (to Colorado), RHP Wade Davis (to KC), IF Jeff Keppinger (FA), LHP J.P. Howell (FA), SS Elliot Johnson (to KC), 1B Carlos Peña (FA), RHP James Shields (to KC), OF B.J. Upton (FA)
|David Price||L||20-5, 2.56 ERA, 1.10 WHIP|
|Jeremy Hellickson||R||10-11, 3.25, 1.25|
|Matt Moore||L||11-11, 3.81, 1.35|
|Alex Cobb||R||11-9, 4.03, 1.25|
|Jeff Niemann||R||2-3, 3.08, 1.11|
|Fernando Rodney||Closer||R||2-2, 48-for-50 SV, 0.60 ERA, 0.78 WHIP|
|Joel Peralta||Setup||R||2-6, 2-for-5 SV, 37 HLD, 3.63, 0.99|
|Jake McGee||Setup||L||5-2, 0-for-2 SV, 20 HLD, 1.95, 0.80|
|Roberto Hernandez||Middle Relief||R||0-3, 7.53, 1.40|
|Kyle Farnsworth||Middle Relief||R||1-6, 7 HLD, 4.00, 1.33|
|Cesar Ramos||Middle Relief||L||1-0, 2.10, 0.97|
|Jamey Wright||Long Reliever||R||5-3, 3.72, 1.51|
|Desmond Jennings||CF||R||.246 BA/.314 OBP/.388 SLG|
Scouting the Rotation
Despite the loss of James Shields, Tampa Bay's starting rotation remains one of the best in all of baseball—I have the group pegged as the fourth-best rotation heading into spring training.
In 2012, Tampa Bay's rotation led baseball in ERA (3.40), WHIP (1.21), and BAA (.237).
Of course, that was when the backbone of the rotation, James Shields, was still around. But "Big Game" James is gone, and replacing the 34 starts and 222 innings that he's averaged for the Rays over the past six seasons is a daunting task.
But if there's a team that can pull it off, it's Tampa Bay.
It starts with David Price, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, who has evolved into one of the five best pitchers in the game today.
I say evolve because that's exactly what Price did in 2012, changing his repertoire and finding great success in the process. He threw his four-seam fastball less and his cutter more, and his other pitches became more effective because of it.
How good was Price in 2012?
Over the last 40 years, only two other left-handed pitchers have won 20 games, had an ERA of 2.56 or lower and struck out at least 200 batters in the same season while pitching in the American League.
Joining Price atop the rotation is 25-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, who snubbed his nose at advanced metrics once again and proved that his 2.95 ERA in 2012 was no fluke, posting a 3.15 mark. His FIP* from the last two years? 4.44 and 4.60.
It will be interesting to see how he handles an increased workload, having never eclipsed 200 innings in a season—something that he'll be expected to do in 2013.
Should Hellickson falter, the debate will ensue over whether the statisticians had it right all along or whether his struggles were due to a physical ailment.
The key to it all, however, is 23-year-old southpaw Matt Moore.
Moore, regarded as baseball's best pitching prospect heading into the 2012 season, had a solid rookie campaign, going 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA and 1.35 WHIP while fanning 175 batters in 177.1 innings of work.
If Tampa Bay's rotation is going to reach its potential, Moore needs to take the next step in his development. something we saw signs of down the stretch last season.
Over his last 14 starts of 2012, Moore pitched to a 3.01 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, striking out 79 batters in 77.2 innings of work and lowering his walk rate.
As he told Gary Shelton of the Tampa Bay Times, Moore knows he wasted too many pitches last season—and he's ready to not repeat his mistakes in 2013:
I expected more from myself, especially when it came to how many innings I pitched and how many batters I walked.
I left too many innings for the bullpen. I wanted to pitch 200 innings. I wasn't doing enough with my first three pitches to each hitter.
I don't have to go out there and be Nolan Ryan, throwing it 102 miles an hour past people. I don't have to win 20 or 30 games. I just have to compete every five days.
A power pitcher in every sense of the word, Moore has the most untapped potential of any starting pitcher in baseball. From the sound of it, it seems as if he's developing into a pitcher, not just a power pitcher.
If that's the case, it's bad news for the rest of the American League.
The understated and underrated duo of Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann, who went a combined 13-12 with a 3.82 ERA, 1.22 WHIP in 31, starts last season.
Cobb, who comprised the bulk of those numbers, is a 25-year-old right-handed starter with the upside of a middle-of-the-rotation arm—more than adequate at the back of Tampa Bay's rotation.
Niemann, who at 29 years old is the elder statesman of the group, missed much of the 2012 season due to a fractured right leg that he suffered in the middle of May against Toronto, the fracture a result of a line drive by Adam Lind.
The fourth most winning pitcher in Tampa Bay's history with 40 and second in winning percentage with a .606 mark, Niemann is as good a back-of-the-rotation arm as there is in the league.
With three seasons of at least 11 wins under his belt, Niemann knows how to keep his team in games, which is really all you can ask for from your fifth starter.
Top prospect Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi—acquired in the Shields trade—and pitcher Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, will also get looks in spring training.
But short of a catastrophic injury or one of the aforementioned arms suddenly forgetting how to throw a baseball, a spot in the rotation out of camp isn't likely for any of them.
Archer, who would be assured of a rotation spot on half of the pitching staffs in baseball coming out of spring training, is likely to start the season in Triple-A, joined by Odorizzi, who could benefit from some extra minor league seasoning.
As for Hernandez, I think he makes the club as a reliever, either as a middle reliever or a long man.
*Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), is a stat that some like to use as a method to estimate what a pitcher's ERA should be. If you're not familiar with it, FanGraphs explains it in detail, while ESPN'sMark Simon broke it down in layman's terms last season.
Scouting the Bullpen
Tampa Bay's bullpen led the American League with a 2.88 ERA while holding opposing batters to a .208 batting average, the lowest in all of baseball during the 2012 season.
Gone from that group are three key pieces: Burke Badenhop, Wade Davis and southpaw J.P. Howell.
Yet, the core of the bullpen remains intact, and that's why this group came in at No. 3 in our pre-spring training bullpen rankings.
They ranked third despite being completely aware of the fact that closer Fernando Rodney is not going to have another season like he did in 2012.
Rodney put together one of the greatest seasons any reliever has ever had, finishing the season with a higher WHIP (0.78) than ERA (0.60) while striking out more than a batter per inning.
Considering that he hadn't pitched to an ERA below 4.24 since 2005, regression is inevitable.
But there's no reason to expect Rodney, 36, to revert back to his earlier form. He'll still be a reliable, dependable option at the back of Tampa Bay's bullpen.
It helps to have a pair of shutdown setup men, which Tampa does in the forms of Joel Peralta and Jake McGee.
Peralta, 36, led the league in holds with 37, one of the most underrated stats around, averaging a career-best 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings of work.
McGee, 26, was even more impressive than Peralta, pitching to a 1.95 ERA and 0.80 WHIP while picking up 20 holds, and striking out nearly a dozen batters per nine innings.
Just hitting his stride, I'd say it's far more likely that McGee repeats his excellent 2012 season than Peralta, who struggled with his command and control in the first half of the season before getting on track.
Kyle Farnsworth, 36, returns as insurance for Rodney and as a hard-throwing veteran in middle relief. Originally Tampa Bay's closer heading into the 2012 season, he injured his elbow in spring training and battled the injury throughout the season, missing significant time along the way.
Healthy, Farnsworth is expected to help replace some of the innings that the trio of departed relievers provided the club with last season.
Any of the rotation candidates who fail to make the starting staff could come into play with this unit, as will Cesar Ramos, Jamey Wright, and possibly Mike Montgomery, the third piece Tampa Bay received in the Shields/Davis trade with Kansas City.
Scouting the Hitting
If Tampa Bay has an Achilles' heel, it's the offense, which has lagged behind the pitching in terms of impact and effectiveness for years.
The Rays scored only 697 runs in 2012, a number that ranked 11th in the American League and 18th in all of MLB, while the team's .240 batting average and .711 OPS was among the worst in the AL and in the bottom third of all teams.
Gone from that roster are two big pieces, Jeff Keppinger and B.J. Upton, who combined to hit .278 with 37 home runs and 118 RBI, while scoring 125 runs for the Rays in 2012.
Replacing that production won't be easy.
Desmond Jennings gives the Rays speed at the top of the lineup, but he simply doesn't get on base often enough to use it as the weapon that it is.
For someone who isn't a power hitter, Jennings strikes out entirely too much—more than 21 percent of the time—while drawing a walk in fewer than nine percent of his plate appearances. He needs a new approach at the plate.
Yunel Escobar, one of the new additions to the mix this season, is coming off of a down season with the Toronto Blue Jays. A career .283 batter with a .353 on-base percentage, Escobar's ability to get on base will not only atone for Jennings' shortcomings, but give the heart of the order for someone to drive in.
Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria form the heart of the order, and rightfully so, being the two best hitters on the club.
Zobrist, one of the game's truly underrated stars, is an on-base machine with power and some speed. He won't hit for a high average, but that's largely irrelevant considering how often he finds himself on base.
Longoria, who has the tools to be a perennial MVP candidate, is the team's stud. Limited to only 74 games due to injury, Longoria still managed to hit 17 home runs and drive in 55 runs. Healthy, he and Zobrist will be incredibly productive in the heart of the order.
Matt Joyce, Luke Scott and Kelly Johnson aren't stars by any stretch of the imagination, but all three are capable run producers. They won't put up gaudy numbers, but 15-to-20 home runs and 60-75 RBI are certainly within the realm of realistic expectations.
Scott and Johnson figure to play against right-handed pitching, while Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez, respectively, would take over for them against southpaws.
James Loney and Jose Molina bring up the rear, and while Molina isn't going to give much offensively, Loney could.
From 2006 through 2011, Loney was a .288 hitter with a .346 on-base percentage who averaged 11 home runs and 70 RBI per season.
Then, out of nowhere, the wheels fell off last season. He lost his job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was traded to the Boston Red Sox and finished the year with a .249/.293/.336 slash line, six home runs and 41 RBI.
For a player who had previously been successful to fall off the cliff like that, especially as he enters the peak season of his career, is curious.
Perhaps a change of scenery (you can't count Boston with the mess that went on with the club in 2012) is what Loney needs to turn his career around. He's shown that he's capable of doing it before.
While the lineup is solid, it's not dynamic, and reinforcements could be needed.
Thankfully, for the Rays, they happen to have someone waiting in the wings who could change everything.
While Matt Moore has "future ace" written across his brow (not literally), David Price remains the most studly of Tampa Bay's pitchers.
We already looked at how Price tweaked things last season and the results that it brought.
Here's a scary thought for the rest of baseball: Price might actually be better in 2013.
In reality, Price is starting his fourth full major league season, and he's pitched to an ERA below 3.00 in two of them. Since 2010, Price has gone 51-24 with a 2.93 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 611 strikeouts over 644 innings of work.
The additions of Johnson at second base and Escobar at shortstop improve the team's defense up the middle, and while none of the team's outfielders are as good a defensive player as B.J. Upton was, the outfield defense is sound.
Another Cy Young award may not be in his future, simply because of the competition he'll face. When your competition includes guys like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and Jered Weaver, winning the award once, much less multiple times, is a major achievement.
Whether people like it or not, David Price is one of the five best starting pitchers in baseball. He'll be in that class for some time, so we might as well get used to that fact.
When he's healthy, Evan Longoria is one of the best players in baseball.
He's the best all-around third baseman in the game.
Problem is, Longoria can't stay on the field.
Over the last two years he has played in only 207 games—that's less than 64 percent of the regular season games on Tampa Bay's schedule, an average of 104 per year.
While injuries happen and are largely out of a player's control (it's not like Longoria was walking around punching concrete walls or popping wheelies on a motorcycle), the fact of the matter is that Tampa Bay's offense is stagnant without his presence in the middle of the lineup.
A career .276 hitter, Longoria had the ability to hit .300 (his career high of .294 came in 2010) the last time he was healthy. He gets on base consistently (career .361 mark), has two seasons of at least 30 home runs and a pair of 100 RBI seasons under his belt (he missed a third in 2011 by one RBI).
Entering the prime years of his career, the 27-year-old third baseman is poised to re-establish himself as a perennial MVP candidate in the American League.
All he needs to do is stay on the field. His raw power and natural ability will handle the rest.
Prospect to Watch/X-factor
Normally I'd select two different players for each of these, but there's only one choice for both spots—outfielder Wil Myers, the centerpiece of the James Shields trade with Kansas City.
Myers, 22, was named Baseball America's 2012 Minor League Player of the Year after posting a .314/.387/.600 slash line with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 98 runs scored while splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A.
In his first informal batting practice session of the spring—standing on a side field in shorts and a t-shirt, hitting tosses from minor league coach Skeeter Barnes—Myers turned heads, as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times pointed out in a recent column:
"It's impressive," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "And I think the thing that's the most impressive is the bat speed … and the way the ball comes off his bat. You can see it not only when he's hitting on the field, but even off a tee. You don't see very many people that generate that much bat speed. First day, it's exciting to see."
Also, apparently, to hear.
"It's a different sound," Shelton said. "It's loud. You don't hear many guys that can create that sound, and he's definitely creating it."
All signs point to Myers starting the season in Triple-A. While the move is sure to be unpopular among Rays fans, it makes sense from a financial perspective.
If the team keeps him on the farm for a few weeks to start the season, the Rays can delay his free agency until his seventh season. If they delay his arrival for a few months, they can avoid Myers achieving "Super Two" status, which would give him a fourth year of arbitration—one that figures to be quite expensive.
Manager Joe Maddon told Topkin that he's not concerning himself with the business side of things when it comes to making his decision—though it sure sounds like Maddon already has his mind made up:
For me, this is a baseball decision. I don't make those other decisions. I want to believe that we always make the decision based on what's right for the team at that moment. I just think it's easier for a young player with that kind of expectation level to get some time under his belt on the minor-league level.
Get it rolling, get the feel going and you know he's going well. Then walking into a big-league situation is not as difficult, I don't think, as opposed to leaving a camp with all these expectations and this hype and having to match up to that on the major-league level right out of the chute.
Widely regarded as a sure thing, Maddon is right in his assertion that expectations and hype could overwhelm Myers. At the same time, that hype and expectations could only grow bigger if Myers returns to the minor leagues and continues to tattoo opposing pitching.
Whether he breaks camp with the team, arrives in May or after the All-Star break, Myers has the potential to be the big, impact bat that Tampa Bay would benefit greatly from adding to the middle of its lineup alongside Zobrist and Longoria.
Myers is a game-changer for sure, and his arrival could be as big a move as any of Tampa Bay's competition in the American League makes between Opening Day and the trade deadline at the end of July.
What the Rays Will Do Well
It's that simple, really.
Tampa Bay's entire pitching staff, from ace to closer, is solid, with few weak spots and plenty of depth to handle any miscues or injuries that pop up along the way.
The starting rotation, especially, has the potential to be the best in baseball by the end of the 2013 season, with Price and Hellickson both hitting their prime and Moore continuing to develop into a front-of-the-rotation starter.
The rotation will go deeper into games, alleviating some of the pressure from a solid bullpen that, while talented, will be hard pressed to repeat its outstanding 2012 campaign.
What the Rays Won't Do Well
It's been the same problem in Tampa Bay for years, and until the arrival of Myers, things aren't likely to get much better than they were in 2012.
A healthy Longoria makes a big difference, and his presence in the lineup on a daily basis will certainly improve Tampa's run production.
But the Rays still lack that other impact at bat, which is why the team must handle Myers correctly. The prospect believes that he belongs in the major leagues, but he's not going to cause an issue if he doesn't break camp with the club:
As a player, I feel like I'm major-league ready, but that's not up to me to decide. It's up to the front office. I try not to think about it too much. Obviously, it's on my mind a little bit. I just want to go out and get better every day, and just work on my game.
With the financial constraints the team faces, that impact bat has to come from within the system.
For 2013, it's Myers or bust.
The AL East is wide open this season, with both Boston and New York nowhere near the powerhouses that they once were, while Baltimore failed to improve last year's surprising playoff squad.
Where will Tampa Bay finish in the AL East?
Toronto poses the biggest challenge for the Rays on the path to the third division title in team history, but the Rays have the pitching to shut down any lineup, even one as formidable as what the Blue Jays will be running with in 2013.
People continue to discount the Rays on a yearly basis, with Tampa Bay always in the discussion for a wild card berth, but never as a division champ.
I'm not betting against them.
As a Yankees fan, Tampa Bay scares the crap out of me, and rightfully so.
Projected Record: 95-67, first in AL East
Rick Weiner, a batting cage All-Star who struggles to hit junk offerings from his younger sister in the backyard, covers all of MLB for B/R. Hit him up on Twitter to talk baseball, music, the music of baseball and other random musings about America's pastime.