MLB 2011: 5 Big Questions for the AL East's Tampa Bay Rays

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MLB 2011: 5 Big Questions for the AL East's Tampa Bay Rays
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With Reid Brignac taking over shortstop duties for the Rays, what can he bring to the table offensively?

We here at Baseball Professor think about our readers first and ourselves second—albeit a close second. That's why we decided to reach out to other bloggers (who follow their respective teams more closely than we do) to give you a deeper look into the important issues every fantasy owner has to come to grips with this season. Our first installment is with the Tampa Bay Rays and comes courtesy of Mark Heilig from The Ray Area.

 

1) Can you tell us what is going on with B.J. Upton? Personally, I get sucked into believing in him every year and each time he disappoints. Is it time to stop believing or is there hope that he will realize his true potential and dazzle us all?

I think Bossman Junior gets a bad rap for three reasons.

First, he was taken No. 2 overall (and functionally No. 1, since the Pirates wasted the pick before him on Bryan Bullington, who is presumably managing a Sbarro somewhere) so he was saddled with unrealistic expectations.

Second, his failure as a shortstop seems to hang over his head even though he has turned into one of the best center fielders in the game.

Finally, his incredible athleticism, and long-stride running style, makes it appear as though he isn't hustling all the time.

How many wins will Jeremy Hellickson get in 2011?

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In the end, B.J. Upton is a very good, but not great, ballplayer. He is good for three-four wins per season, will probably steal close to 40 bases, hit 10-15 home runs and take your breath away three times in centerfield.  That probably matches his ultimate potential.

 

2) The Rays will have two big-time prospects set to make a significant impact on the team this year in OF Desmond Jennings and RHP Jeremy Hellickson. Which one are you more excited about and who will have a bigger impact on the team in 2011? When can we expect Jennings to join the Rays in the majors?

Jeremy Hellickson won't just be the best rookie in the Rays' clubhouse in 2011, he will be the best rookie in all of baseball.

The Rays traded Matt Garza for a boatload of prospects that fill organizational needs in part because Hellickson's 2010 cameo didn't just prove that he was ready for the bigs, it showed the Rays that a full season of Hellickson in 2011 may be an improvement over Garza in 2011. Add Hellickson to a budding Wade Davis (who some scouts say has an upside akin to that of Garza—really) and the Rays suddenly have the best young rotation in baseball.

As for DJ, the addition of Johnny Damon guarantees that he starts the season taking shots at the free steak in Durham Bulls Athletic Park, but that was probably a foregone conclusion before Damon signed.

Jennings will definitely spend at least four weeks in triple-A—to offset the four weeks he spent in the big leagues in 2010. That ensures that the Rays don't lose a year of control on Jennings in 2011 and gives him more regular at-bats.

They have taken this tack with other budding prospects, including franchise-cornerstone Evan Longoria, who started the 2008 World Series season in Triple-A. My best guess is that Jennings joins the club in June to play part of a platoon after the Rays experiment with their new outfield pieces.

 

3) With Jason Bartlett gone, Reid Brignac will assume the starting shortstop role. Not many people know about Brignac so could you tell us a little something about him and what expectations you have for him this season?

There was a time when Rays' fans anxiously awaited the era of Brignac and Longoria on the left side of the infield at Tropicana Field. Then, Longoria's star rose more quickly than that of Brignac, who needed more minor-league seasoning.

The Rays acquired Jason Bartlett as a stop-gap solution only to see Bartlett have a career year that coincided with their 2008 pennant. But, Bartlett regressed in 2010 and Brignac showed hints of his potential in a part-time role.

Brignac is not only an above-average defensive shortstop, he also hits for more power than you'd expect from a player of his size.

Brignac will likely be hot-and-cold in 2011. I suspect he will have some early success, because he is a good hitter with a solid swing, but will hit some rough patches as the league and its scouts discover his tendencies and weaknesses.

 

4) No Rafael Soriano. No Dan Wheeler. No Joaquin Benoit. No Grant Balfour. Who the heck is going to close for Tampa Bay in 2011?

Um. Well. Yes. Outside of Andy Sonnanstine and Kyle Farnsworth (and bullpen catcher Scott "Killer" Cursi), we don't even know who will be sharing the candy bag in the bullpen, much less who will "close."  

There is a chance the Rays will add one or two more arms on minor-league contracts closer to pitchers-and-catchers (they resurrected Joaquin Benoit with a minor-league contract on February 15, 2010) and there have been rumors that the Rays will make a trade for a closer.

I think, however, that the Rays intend to re-invent the wheel when it comes to late-inning bullpen use and use several guys at the end of games. There is a good chance we see Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Farnsworth (and even J.P. Howell when he returns from injury in June) late in games in 2011.

 

5) Manny Ramirez's return to the AL East makes for great headlines, but will he get enough at-bats at DH during the season to make an impact?

I am always hesitant to make playing-time predictions given Joe Maddon's penchant for tinkering with the lineup (he used the same lineup on consecutive days a whopping three times in 2010).  

But, the Rays signed Manny to DH and, looking at the Rays' projected 25-man roster, I don't see anyone taking DH at-bats away from him. Manny's health is the only thing that will limit his playing time in 2011 (because, at $2MM, if he doesn't produce the Rays will not feel compelled to keep him around).

That said, if Manny can stay healthy, he is likely to see more pitches to hit than he has in several years. Manny will probably hit behind Evan Longoria and should get the chance to prove he still has the bat speed when teams pitch around Longo.

Be sure to check out our 2011 Fantasy Baseball Rankings:

 

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