James Shields Leads List of Tampa Bay Rays Who Must Perform in 2011
The Tampa Bay Rays took some big hits this past winter. Obviously, losing Carl Crawford was a big deal, as was losing Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour. And Matt Garza. And Carlos Pena.
This is a team that has considerably lower expectations than in 2010, and for good reason. Many of the biggest role-players for this team are now gone. But hope is far from lost.
These are the top 10 players that the Rays need to perform in order to compete in the American League East this year.
No. 10: J.P. Howell
Though he won't be back until June at the earliest, Howell is most likely the Rays' best reliever this season. As he showed in the 2008 season, he is a very good pitcher, combining great breaking pitches with great command. He has several out pitches, and if he comes back as good as he was in 2008, he could be a huge asset in the second half of the season.
The Rays' bullpen is incredibly depleted, but getting Howell back will be a huge step in the rebuilding process.
No. 9: Manny Ramirez
As good of an investor as Rays General Manger Andrew Friedman is, he may have landed one of his crown jewel deals in Ramirez.
For $2 million, the Rays have what is basically a fail-safe deal with a player that remains one of the elite hitters in baseball. If Ramirez underperforms or causes trouble, he can easily be cut, and the price tag is not nearly enough to make the money-smart Rays cringe.
But the upside is tremendous. If the Rays can get a .275 average with 15 home runs and 70 RBI out of ManRam out of the designated hitter spot, they give Evan Longoria added protection and add one more weapon on offense.
No. 8: Ben Zobrist
The Rays' success may also hinge on which version of utilityman Ben Zobrist they get in 2011.
If they get the 2010 Zobrist, they will get a versatile defender who is a below-average contact hitter and is of little help in terms of offensive production.
If they get the 2009 Zobrist, they will get one of the most dynamic players in baseball. He can play almost any position, and has the capability to hit close to .300 with 20-30 home runs and 80-100 runs batted in.
Zobrist's WAR (wins above replacement player) value fell from 8.4 in 2009 (better than Albert Pujols) to 3.1 in 2010. The Rays will be in much better shape this year if they get the better Ben.
No. 7: Jeff Niemann
The 6-foot-9 righty had a very up-and-down 2010 campaign. At the beginning of the year, Niemann was one of the Rays' most reliable starters. In the first half of the season he showed incredible potential, with great command of his fastball and breaking pitches.
But an injury-plagued second half put a damper on Niemann's season, and he finished 12-8 with a 4.39 ERA. A healthy and effective Niemann would be a great No. 3 starter for a team whose starting pitching is one of its best assets.
No. 6: Joel Peralta
As mentioned with Howell, the Rays' bullpen is in shambles after this offseason. But the acquisition of Joel Peralta is a big boost, and he could go a long way towards solidifying the back end of the bullpen.
Last year with Washington, he posted a 2.02 ERA in 39 games. If he can keep that performance up with an expanded role with the Rays, he could prove to be their most valuable reliever.
He's no Rafael Soriano, but with a great array of pitches including a curveball, slider, and splitter, Peralta may be the bullpen arm the Rays need.
No. 5: Evan Longoria
He is the cornerstone of the franchise now that Crawford is gone, and the Rays may likely perform as well as a team as Longoria does individually. But he is only fifth on this list because he is such a sure bet to perform.
Last season, Longoria started the season on a complete tear. Though he cooled off eventually, he continued to show incredible ability at the plate and in the field. He will hit third or fourth this year, and the Rays are counting on him to hit as well as he usually does, perhaps better.
An MVP-type season from Longoria would boost the rest of the offense and the rest of the team.
No. 4: Johnny Damon
Joining forces with Manny Ramirez, these two former Red Sox "Idiots" were the biggest acquisitions for the Rays this offseason. Damon, however, will play a much more crucial role than Ramirez.
It is presumed that Damon will fill Carl Crawford's void in left field. Damon does not have nearly the same range or ability as Crawford, but he is not a bad defender (minus his arm). He could also play some first base.
But at the plate, Damon will be relied upon to be a consistent threat to get on base. He will hit either leadoff or second, meaning the Rays still think he can draw walks and use his speed to set the table for Zobrist, Longoria and Ramirez.
No. 3: David Price
The ace of the Rays' pitching staff, David Price goes into 2011 as one of baseball's best pitchers. After his dominating 2010 season, Price could go in any of three directions--pitch as well, pitch better or pitch worse.
The Rays are hinging on Price doing one of the first two options. Last season, he showed that he could dominate hitters with his fastballs, but struggled somewhat with commanding his breaking pitches.
If Price learns to command his secondary pitches as well as his fastball, he will make a huge stride forward. And if he does that, the Rays can count on at least 18 wins from him.
No. 2: B.J. Upton
Upton has been one of the biggest disappointments for the Rays the last few years. In 2010, he hit a miserable .237, and struck out in 30percent of his plate appearances. Though his power numbers were up from 2009, Upton still underperformed offensively and defensively.
For the Rays to try and compete with the Red Sox and Yankees, they need Upton to play up to his lofty expectations. He is the Rays' only five-tool player, and if he plays to his potential this season, he will make the entire team better.
If Upton plays like he did in 2010, he will remain near the bottom of the batting order. But if Upton breaks out of his shell and hits .290 with 25 home runs and 50 steals, he will make Rays fans forget they ever had Carl Crawford.
No. 1: James Shields
Shields is the old man of the Rays' starting rotation, and last year, he sure pitched like it. His ERA ballooned to 5.18, and he went 13-15 while allowing 34 home runs. But this is not the James Shields that the Rays know.
For the Rays' rotation, and in turn their team, to truly be competitive, they need their veteran leader and No. 2 starter to pitch well. Shields must command his pitches much better, which will result in fewer line drives and home runs allowed.
Shields had the highest BABIP (batting average on balls in play) during the 2010 season of any starter. He needs to get back to pitching his stylegood fastball command and a nasty changeup. If he can do this, the Rays have a very formidable front of the rotation.