Tampa Bay Rays: 2011 MLB Season Preview
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Last Year: 96-66, 1st in AL East
Manager: Joe Maddon
C—John Jaso (L)
1B—Dan Johnson (L)
2B—Sean Rodriguez (R)
3B—Evan Longoria (R)
SS—Reid Brignac (L)
LF—Johnny Damon (L)
CF—BJ Upton (R)
RF—Ben Zobrist (S)
DH—Manny Ramirez (R)
Joe Maddon is known for the number of different lineups he utilizes, but the one above is the lineup you will see on a regular basis against right-handed pitchers. With the departures of Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena, the younger role players from 2010 will need to step up and contribute if the Rays are to contend.
GM Andrew Friedman signed veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to soften the blow. Damon and Ramirez are not the same hitters they once were, but the club needed some veteran leadership after the exits of aforementioned trio.
Jaso and Shoppach will platoon at catcher. Both of them get on base, but they aren't dangerous in terms of power. Dan Johnson, who saw time as DH a lot towards the end of the 2010, will take over for Carlos Pena.
Johnson has power and gets on base, but strikes out too much to be a consistent hitter the Rays need at 1B. Sean Rodriguez will get most of the at bats at 2B. Expect 12-17 home runs and a .330 OBP.
Evan Longoria is the Rays' best overall player. He steals some bases, gets on base and has plenty of power. Longoria's slugging percentage was down from previous years, but that may have been due in part to his hamstring injury late in the season.
The Rays made the right move in trading Bartlett and installing Brignac as the starting SS. Brignac may not have the plate discipline that Bartlett possesses, but Brignac is younger and cheaper. BJ Upton cannot have a repeat of 2010 if the Rays want to return to the postseason.
Upton is one of the fastest players in baseball, but he has never fulfilled the promise that she showed in 2007 and 2008. He may benefit from a change in scenery, and I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes available if the Rays struggle.
The versatile Ben Zobrist struggled in 2010. All of Zobrist's numbers decreased from 2009 to 2010, especially his slugging. I think 2009, and not 2010, was the aberration. However, Zobrist will be in the lineup a lot because of his versatility. He can play anywhere except for catcher, which gives Maddon the opportunity to allow the bench to contribute. Maddon is also not afraid to use a variety of pinch-hitters during the course of a game.
The Rays have a strong defensive team. Longoria is one of the best at third, and Zobrist might be the best defensive outfielders in baseball. At catcher, Shoppach is considered better than Jaso, but Jaso calls a solid game behind the plate.
Brignac has a lot more range that Bartlett had at SS, and Rodriguez is also above average at 2B. However, the infield will surely miss Pena at 1B. Dan Johnson is considered below average. Upton has great speed in CF, but I think he might play too shallow. He takes some bad routes on deep fly balls.
Johnny Damon is an adventure in LF, and might have the worst outfield arm in baseball. He should let Upton get balls in-between them. Upton has an absolute cannon in center.
C—Kellly Shopach (R)
OF—Desmond Jennings (R) or Sam Fuld (R)
OF—DH—Matt Joyce (L)
IF—Elliot Johnson (S) or Felipe Lopez (S)
The Rays starting rotation is the strongest component of the roster, and with the exception of Matt Garza, it remains intact from last year. David Price had a good year in 2010, and is clearly the ace of the staff. His 2.72 ERA was lower than it should have been, but Price is still only 26 and I expect him to improve on his K and BB rates that might lead him to the Cy Young.
James Shields is looking to rebound after a terrible 2010 season. Looking at Shields's BABIP, it was 50 points higher than the league average. The combination of an increased number of home runs, high percentage of hits on balls put in play and a slight increase in number of walks led to his poor season. However, Shields's high strikeout total shows he hasn't lost any stuff, so I expect a shift back to his career numbers.
Shields is an important piece to this year's team, and his performance should signal where the team is headed in the standings. Wade Davis is a solid No. 3 starter. He throws four pitches, and while he doesn't do anything extremely well, he was able to leave many on base last year to keep his ERA just above 4. He needs to work on his K/BB ratio if he is to continue to improve.
Jeff Niemann is very similar to Davis. Both throw four quality pitches and have the similar K/9, BB/9 and HR allowed. Niemann should put up similar numbers in 2011, with his ERA somewhere in the 4.10-4.30 range.
The wild card in the Rays rotation is the Rays' top pitching prospect, Jeremy Hellickson. He impressed in his spot starts last year with his low 90's fastball and devastating change-up. While he is a fly ball pitcher, he negates that disadvantage with a very good K/BB ratio. I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up as rookie of the year in the AL.
RHP—Juan Cruz or Corey Wade
LHP—J.P. Howell (Injured: Back in April/May)
The most changes the Rays endured this offseason occurred in the bullpen. Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate and Chad Qualls all left via free agency. An important piece of the puzzle is J.P. Howell.
Howell was one of the more valuable lefties from 08 to 09, and he should be ready to return early in the season. Right now Kyle Farnsworth is the favorite to get the most save opportunities. Joe Maddon has reiterated that the team will use a bullpen by committee approach at closer for 2011. Farnsworth is a strikeout pitcher who does not have the best command, but should replace what Grant Balfour brought to the pen.
Adam Russell, who was acquired from San Diego in the Jason Bartlett deal, has only thrown 54 innings in the big leagues. I do think he has great upside. He averages more than a K per inning, and gets a high percentage of his outs via the ground ball.
Lefty Jack McGee has the greatest upside out of the young pitchers. Because of his arm angle, McGee presents a difficult problem for left-handed hitters. He also throws hard enough to get his fair share of right-handed hitters out, (93.5 MPH) but he lacks great command. He reminds me of BJ Ryan.
Joel Peralta pitched well for the Nationals last year, but he is one of those typical relievers that has a hard time remaining consistent year after year. Andy Sonnastine will be the long man in the pen and emergency starter.
NOTABLE NON ROSTER INVITEES
IF—Felipe Lopez (S)
1B—Casey Kotchman (L)
OF—Chris Carter (L)
BREAKOUT PLAYER—Jeremy Hellickson
Stated in my reasons in the rotation preview. Hellickson will end up being the No.3 pitcher in the rotation by the end of the season.
PROSPECT TO WATCH—Desmond Jennings
Many in the Rays organization feel that Desmond Jennings is ready to take over in left field. I think it was a smart move to bring in veteran protection, in case Jennings struggles in spring training. He might make the team, but should stay in the minors for some more seasoning during the first couple of months. If the Rays struggle in the first half, expect Jennings to be the everyday left fielder.
PROJECTED FINISH: Third in AL East
The Rays should be competitive in the AL East, but they lost too many pieces to be considered a serious contender. Their rotation is strong enough to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, but the bullpen could be a disaster.
This should lead them finishing a few games behind the Yankees, and somewhere in the mid 80's in terms of wins.
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