Tampa Bay Rays Preview: How They Will Win in the Post-Crawford Years

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Tampa Bay Rays Preview: How They Will Win in the Post-Crawford Years
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
David Price earned the role of ace of the Rays' pitching staff.

The 2010 Tampa Bay Rays’ opening day first baseman, left-fielder, shortstop, designated hitter and catcher are all gone. One of the three starters who made at least 30 starts has departed, and six of the eight most-used relievers were not retained.

Some of these losses are lamentable. Carl Crawford was the face of the franchise and the first home-grown Rays star. Matt Garza was an exciting young pitcher with boatloads of talent and a no hitter to his credit.

Other losses are survivable; few Rays fans will miss Dioner Navarro and Pat Burrell. In fact, the Rays have upgraded themselves at several positions, despite the most (and only) notable signings of the offseason bringing two designated hitters to the team.

This team endured a decade of losing to build themselves into a force in the toughest division in baseball. What they’ve built may have cracked and crumbled this offseason, but this is a smart franchise that can and will reassemble a winning club. In fact, the seeds of a new, strong Rays team are already in place.

 

Rotation

David Price had a phenomenal 2010 and is probably looking at a slight decline in 2011. He will strike out enough guys to be successful, yet he walks a few too many (AL East hitters take walks) and was a little lucky in certain departments (BABIP-against, HR/FB ratio).

J. Meric/Getty Images
James Shields has been a reliable starter and will have a better 2011.

He threw his fastball 74 percent of the time, and even if he’s throwing it 96 mph, he will need to mix in a few more off-speed pitches to keep hitters on their toes. His fastball and curve made up just under 90 percent of his pitches thrown in 2010. He is talented enough to pitch like an ace, and I think he will in 2011.

James Shields is 22.1 innings away from becoming the first pitcher to throw 100 innings in a Rays uniform, and his problem has always been with the home run. Chalk it up to the division, as he is a great control pitcher who generates more grounders than fly balls. In his four 200-inning seasons, he has never walked more than 52 and never struck out fewer than 160. He should be fine.

Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis are going to make up the back end of this rotation. Both are going to have to eat innings, as without them, this rotation makes the Yankees’ look deep. Niemann is a huge guy, formerly a first-round draft pick (2004), who has spent two seasons in the Rays’ rotation with a 25-14 record and a 4.16 ERA.

Wade Davis, a rookie in 2010, put up an ERA of 4.07 in 168.0 innings. He struck out 113, walked 62 and allowed 24 home runs. Both look like back-end starters to me, whose greatest value comes from the fact that they could potentially contribute 200 innings of not-horrible pitching.

Jeremy Hellickson’s success made the Rays comfortable enough to part with Matt Garza; however, Hellickson only pitched 36.1 innings of major league ball. Still, he has impressed with his control in the minors while collecting strikeouts, and his four pitches look to be of quality.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The Rays expect Kyle Farnsworth to be a prominent part of their bullpen.

 

Bullpen

The Rays pen will look nothing like it did a year ago, with many of the guys Joe Maddon handed the ball to most having moved on. Rafael Soriano (62.1 innings) joined the only team willing and able to pay him eight figures. Joaquin Benoit capitalized on a career year—that he will not repeat—by accepting a three-year deal with Detroit.

Grant Balfour took his fastball, declining velocity and all, to Oakland for two years. Dan Wheeler and Randy Choate took one-year deals with the Red Sox and Marlins respectively for more than the Rays were probably willing to pay. Chad Qualls, who wasn’t as bad as one might think last year, is gone too.

J.P. Howell is one of the few current Rays to have worn a Devil Rays uniform. After missing all of 2010, he is a leading candidate to collect saves on this team. The lefty has struck out more than one batter per inning over his last 166 IP, despite a fastball averaging 85 mph. There has been some talk about Jake McGee, a 24-year-old lefty, being a closer of the future. McGee got a ton of strikeouts in the minors, but has only five innings of major-league experience.

Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth were brought in to enable Joe Maddon’s typical closer by committee, but neither has what it takes to be anything more than a serviceable middle reliever. Peralta is coming off an incredibly lucky (.200 BABIP-against) season with the Nationals. He’s a fly-ball pitcher that the division rivals should tee off of. Kyle Farnsworth has incredible stuff but is often abandoned by his command.

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Then there are unknown quantities like Mike Ekstrom, who has thrown 44.1 big-league innings and posted an ERA of 5.48. Adam Russell was part of the return from the Jason Bartlett trade, and he looks to have good strikeout stuff, but has never contributed more than 26 innings in a season, so far. Cesar Ramos, also traded from the Padres, has 23 innings of major-league experience, but will get a chance.

Some pitching reinforcements are coming from the farm. Chris Archer has showing tons of promise in the minors, and he’s only 22. Alex Cobb, 23, just finished a fine season as a starter for the Rays’ AA affiliate. Both should eventually join the Tampa rotation and could provide bullpen help towards the end of the season, but will more likely wait until 2012.

Alexander Torres came to Tampa in the Scott Kazmir trade, and the 23-year-old looks to be middle-of-the-rotation material. He strikes guys out, walks a few too many, and gets ground balls; he is at least a year away.

Brandon Gomes, another guy included in the Bartlett trade, could make his major-league debut from the bullpen as a 26-year-old. Rob Delaney was claimed off waivers from the Twins in the offseason; he is 26 with one inning of major-league experience, but he can strike guys out.

 

Catcher

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Evan Longoria will have far less protection in the Rays' lineup in 2011.

John Jaso impressed last year with more walks than strikeouts (58 unintentional walks, 39 strikeouts). He looks like a good, if not great, contact hitter, who may wind up hitting something like 10 home runs. As a rookie last year, he will be cheap as he plays his prime years. He’s going to turn 28 towards the end of the 2011 season.

Kelly Shoppach belongs in the backup role. While he does possess potential 20-HR power, he has never struck out less than 34 percent of the time in any of his six big-league seasons. He does take his walks though.

 

Infield

Evan Longoria is the star and the new face of the franchise and a great all-around hitter. Sure, the home runs took a dip last year, down from 33 to 22, but he will hit for good average and get on base. He stole 15 bases last season, which is a nice addition to a resume that already includes impressive work with the bat and in the field.

Dan Johnson at first base is similar to Carlos Pena in some ways, but he doesn’t have as much power. Neither hit for good averages, both draw tons of walks even when not being pitched around and neither will turn heads in the field. That said, it’s hard not to prefer the guy who will hit you 35 home runs over the guy who will top out around 20.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
B.J. Upton needs to get on base.

Reid Brignac is an undisciplined hitter who will hit for average power. He will play shortstop, as second base will be Sean Rodriguez’s job to lose. Rodriguez hit 30 home runs in AAA in 2009, though he hasn’t done much at the major-league level. The two might combine for 40 home runs, but the Rays’ middle infield lacks on-base skills.

 

Outfield

B.J. Upton will probably strike out once per game. The Rays need him to take walks in order to get value out of him, and he does that to the delight of Joe Maddon, who gets to see Upton swipe 40 bases year after year. He hasn’t developed the sort of power his 2007 season indicated; he was lucky with the HR/FB rate then. Pitchers have started to throw him fewer and fewer pitches in the zone. He needs to stop swinging at them.

Ben Zobrist is the right fielder, and there is much to like, even as his 30th birthday approaches. He has shown incredible plate discipline, walking in 12.4 percent of plate appearances (the major league average tends to be around eight percent). His contact rate was about four percent above average last year, and he has reasonable power. He won't hit 30 home runs, and the 27 he hit in 2009 was a bit on the lucky side, but 20 is a realistic estimate. His batting average should fall somewhere between his .297 mark from 2009 and his .238 from last year. 24 stolen bases is nothing to scoff at, nor is his range and arm in right field.

J. Meric/Getty Images
The two newest Rays, Johnny Damon (L) and Manny Ramirez

Johnny Damon, 37 years old and weary from eight years in the AL East, brings some veteran presence. He will get on base and won't hit many home runs, but has hit 36 doubles in each of the past two seasons.

Also joining the Rays is another former Red Sox outfielder by the name of Manny Ramirez. Let’s not forget that it has been 16 years since the last time he posted a batting average below .290. He can still hit, and the Rays will not look silly for having paid him $2 million to be their DH.

Desmond Jennings is a much-heralded prospect drafted late in the 2006 draft. He hits for average, draws walks and steals bases, and will be a fixture in the Rays’ outfield for years to come.

Matt Joyce did a nice job in 261 plate appearances for the Rays last year. He hit only .241, but got on base at a .360 clip while hitting 10 home runs. He provides a good lefty bat off the bench.

 

Expected win total: 78-83

All is not lost for this Rays team. The laundry list of quality players who jumped ship is frightening at first glance, but this team is well-stocked in talent that is either almost ready for the big leagues or will be ready in a few years. This is a patient team that will run the bases well, and thus, the offense will not be anemic.

There is strength in the pitching rotation, though some of it is still developing, and the staff as a whole is thinner than it has been in recent years. The bullpen was hit hard, obviously, but there is a certain logic in not paying for decent middle relief when it can be found rather easily on the cheap. Instead of investing another $30 million to keep that bullpen together, they have chosen to allow new guys to step in and earn a job. They won't be that much worse off for it.

The Rays are a shrewd team. They have drafted well, developed stars and are developing future stars. Joe Maddon is a likable manager and has gotten a lot out of a group that no one expected much of before 2008 and kept them competitive even as they face the behemoth lineups in New York and Boston for one fifth of each season.

We will see more winning seasons in Tampa soon enough, but right now, these guys seem less equipped to compete in this division than they were last year and will be a year from now. With the Blue Jays competitive, and the Orioles improving, to say nothing of what Boston has done this winter, the Rays have lost ground in this division.

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