The Tampa Bay Rays enter the 2011 season with lower expectations than the last few years, and for good reason. This past offseason saw the Rays lose some of their most valuable players.
While the losses of players like Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena will hurt, all is not lost for this team.
Here are eleven bold predictions, both good and bad, for the Tampa Bay Rays this season.
The most rotund Ray will not last much longer at the major league level. Kelly Shoppach has been used as the Rays' catcher when the opposing pitcher is a lefty, but his numbers were abysmal in 2010.
Shoppach struck out a pitiful 45 percent of his at-bats, bringing home a less-than-stellar average of .196. His extensive use has angered fans, which led to somewhat of an outrage when he got the start over John Jaso in Game 5 of the ALDS against Texas.
This is where Robinson Chirinos comes in. He is a young, cheap and talented catcher acquired in the Matt Garza trade. He will impress many in Spring Training, so much so that he will get the nod at backup catcher over Shoppach.
My guess is he is kept in the minors until the Rays can trade or waive Shoppach, which should be May or June.
The Rays bullpen took a blow last year when J.P. Howell got hurt. Luckily, Randy Choate was able to fill in as the lefty specialist and the bullpen was perhaps the team's biggest strength last year.
This year, Howell is projected to return in July to a bullpen that may still be struggling to find its leaders at that point.
Unfortunately, Howell will not be that guy. He has always been a finesse pitcher, relying on movement and command for success. With a torn labrum, no one is exactly sure if his breaking pitches will ever be back to their 2008-2009 levels. And when a finesse pitcher doesn't have great breaking pitches, he has almost nothing.
My prediction is that Howell will return and remain in the Rays bullpen, but will not be the "stopper" he was in past years. His numbers will be in the neighborhood of 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA.
Ben Zobrist's stellar 2009 season got many Rays fans excited about the gem of a player they had on their team. Here was a great all-around hitter who could play almost any position on the field, all for a relatively cheap price tag.
But in 2010, his production fell off a cliff. Across the board, his numbers took a nosedive. Look at the difference:
2009: .297 BA, 27 HR, 91 RBI, 8.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
2010: .238 BA, 10 HR, 75 RBI, 3.1 WAR
The big difference last season, it seemed, was a lack of aggressiveness early in counts. It almost seemed that Zobrist was not swinging at anything early in counts. But when he got in the 0-2 or 1-2 hole, he turned ultra-aggressive. He swung at 25.3 percent of balls outside the strike zone, down from 19 percent in 2009.
This season, Zobrist will continue to do the things that plagued him in 2010. Though he will not decline more, his .250 average with 12 home runs and 70 RBI will cause him to switch places in the lineup with B.J. Upton.
Though you can't tell it by his statistics, John Jaso is a heck of a hitter. He has a quick, compact swing to go along with excellent discipline. It is no surprise that Jaso hit in the leadoff spot many times in 2010.
Aside from being great with the pitchers of the team, Jaso can become even more of an offensive factor in 2011. Though it is doubtful he will continue hitting leadoff, he could be a very valuable No. 2 hitter.
As Jaso continues to learn to hit more line drives (he hit only 16.7 percent line drives in 2010), he will become more of a threat offensively. These are minor adjustments to his swing that could easily be done during Spring Training. Last year he showed multiple signs of being an above-average doubles hitter.
The only thing holding Jaso back from a .285/15 home run/80 RBI season is Joe Maddon's philosophy. If Maddon continues to sit Jaso against left-handed pitching, his numbers will be very similar to last season.
If Jaso can earn consistent playing time, he will emerge as one of baseball's best young catching talents.
Jeremy Hellickson is the truth. From his first major league start, "Hellboy" has shown an incredible talent and poise on the mound. He is a Roy Oswalt-type starter once he reaches his potential.
In 2011, Hellickson will announce his presence very loudly to the rest of baseball, starting with a three-hit shutout of the L.A. Angels in his first start.
He will be a darkhorse All Star selection, and will show little signs of slowing down his production. His incredible command will instantly make him a star.
But in mid-August, in his 24th start, Hellickson will eclipse 150 innings pitched. Despite a 13-5 record with a 3.10 ERA, Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman will make a joint decision to shut down Hellickson for the season.
This decision will be widely criticized, but it is the right thing to do for a young, valuable arm like Hellickson.
The Rays shocked many by signing two former "Idiots" of the mid-2000s Red Sox teams, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon.
Damon is expected to play left field and perhaps spend some time at first base, while Ramirez is slated to be the designated hitter. Had the Rays gotten these players five years ago, they would have two of the most valuable players in baseball.
Now, however, they are just average. Both will be solid contributors to the team, but eventually, Joe Maddon will notice Damon's declining range in left field and Manny's declining hustle throughout the year.
By the second half, Damon will compete with Desmond Jennings for playing time in left field and Dan Johnson and Casey Kotchman at first base. Manny, meanwhile, will remain the DH all season, and his production will be perfectly average.
Damon will finish off at .270 with 10 home runs and 55 RBI, while Manny will contribute a .275 average with 18 home runs and 70 RBI.
When all is said and done, both players will have earned their contracts but nothing more.
No Ray has been as heavily scrutinized in recent years as B.J. Upton. Drafted to be a cornerstone of the franchise as a five-tool player, Upton has yet to materialize.
Last season, he hit a career-low .237, with an awful 30.7 percent strikeout rate. However, the end of the season was promising for the "Bossman", as he hit ten home runs in the season's final two months.
It seems that he has finally figured out how to time his swing, which had been his problem for most of last season. When his timing is on, few players have a deadlier stroke than Upton.
Spring Training will see Upton fine-tune his swing, and he will unleash his talent against the rest of baseball. He will hit .275 with 31 home runs, 95 runs batted in and 35 steals, working his way back into the middle of the batting order.
There is no doubt that David Price is one of baseball's top five or seven pitchers. His ability to command his fastball consistently is what puts him among the elite starters in the game.
But what will set him apart from the pack is when he learns to throw his curveball, slider and changeup for strikes as well.
Last season, 74 percent of his pitches were fastballs, a rate among starters topped only by Cleveland's Justin Masterson. Eventually, hitters are going to catch on to Price's strategy unless he starts mixing in his secondary pitches more often.
Just as Price has done all his life, he will answer this challenge. His curveball will emerge as a deadly second option, and Price will go on to be the Rays' first 20-game winner to go along with 200 strikeouts and a 2.75 ERA.
Last season, third baseman Evan Longoria started on a hot streak. Through the month of April, the Man with the Mullet was looking like a serious MVP candidate.
But he cooled off eventually, and ended the year with pedestrian numbers across the board. This year, he will do the exact opposite.
Coming out of the gate, Longoria will be as cold as a melting ice cube (which, if you don't get the analogy, means bad, but not that bad). By mid-May, Rays fans will be wondering what is wrong with their prized possession.
During the All Star Break, when Longo is at home sitting on his .260/10 home runs/41 RBI, he will make a decision to shave the mullet and start fresh.
After the break, he will tear American League pitching to shreds, eclipsing his 2010 home run total and getting his name into the AL MVP discussion..
By the end of the year, he will have a .295 average with 36 home runs and 125 RBI, and though he will not win MVP, he will have vaulted the Rays into contention.
To say that the Rays bullpen is a collection of nobodies is pretty darn accurate. There's the journeyman (Kyle Farnsworth), the question mark (Joel Peralta), the fan favorite (Andy Sonnanstine) and beyond that, more question marks.
In 2008, the Rays made it to the World Series with a similar collection of nobodies. Of course, this year seems to have more upside and more mystery. It is unlikely that anyone will be a dominant reliever like J.P. Howell was in '08, or that there will be a bonafide closer at any point.
There will be plenty of rough spots—several close and not-so-close games will be blown because of the bullpen. But that happens to every team, and though this year's bullpen may be a huge mystery initially, by the end of the year, it will turn out to be a decent group of pitchers.
The American League East is baseball's toughest division, far and away. To even be able to contend in this division with such a low payroll is quite an accomplishment.
At first, the Rays will seem to be out of their league. The All-Star break will see the Rays in fourth place, behind the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays, with a record just above .500.
But just like the Rockies last year, the Rays will ride hot hitting and consistent pitching back into contention late in the season.
The Rockies have Troy Tulowitzki, the Rays have Evan Longoria (see previous slide). Longo's incredible second half will vault the Rays to within a game of the second-place Yankees entering a three-game series against the Bronx Bombers to finish the season.
After splitting the first two games of the series, and with the Rays holding a tiebreaker, Joe Maddon will start David Price on short rest to face C.C. Sabathia in the season's final game.
Unfortunately, the Rays will fall short of a win and, consequently, the postseason. Still, a 91-71 record is very respectable considering all the Rays lost.