Tampa Bay Rays Surprise: Five Players Who Could Have Breakout Seasons In 2011

Dustin HullAnalyst IFebruary 22, 2011

Tampa Bay Rays Surprise: Five Players Who Could Have Breakout Seasons In 2011

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    ST PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: John Jaso #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays hits a double against the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field on September 25, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    As the Rays kick off Spring Training this week, many new faces have entered into camp, and many familiar ones have gone away.

    It was a long winter for the Rays, having lost most of their bullpen and their franchise outfielder, but picking up a couple of key pieces along the way.

    In 2011, it's clear to see who the leaders are (Evan Longoria and David Price) and who the key acquisitions were (Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon).

    But what about a few surprises for this year? Here are the five players for Tampa Bay who have the best chance for a breakout season in 2011.

Sean Rodriguez

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    ST. PETERSBURG - SEPTEMBER 27:  Infielder Sean Rodriguez #1 of the Tampa Bay Rays throws to first base for an out against the Baltimore Orioles during the game at Tropicana Field on September 27, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    I don't think many people realize how much of an effect Sean-Rod has on this team. Nine home runs and 40 RBI may not seem like much, until you throw in the fact that he only played in 118 games. He could of reached 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases had he played a full season.

    Rodriguez will most likely bat low in the order, but will still be a key in the Rays' offensive production, and will a tough out for opposing pitchers.

    With Reid Brignac moving over to play full-time at shortstop, Rodriguez should receive far more playing time at second base, where he has a solid glove, depending on how much the Rays use Ben Zobrist there.

    Even if Rodriguez doesn't get very much extra time at second he is very versatile, having played six different positions last year. He is one of many position-flexible players that Joe Maddon has at his dispense.

    Rodriguez could have a very bright season ahead of him, and could strongly impact the Rays offense with good pop and his well above-average speed. He'll be one of the guys to watch in 2011.

John Jaso

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    ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 09:  Catcher John Jaso #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays hits a RBI single against the Texas Rangers in the 8th inning during game 3 of the ALDS at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on October 9, 2010 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Mar
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    John Jaso may be one of the most underrated catchers this upcoming season in all of baseball. Jaso only played 109 games last season, but is bound to get more innings in behind the plate this season for Tampa Bay.

    Note to Rays: Sit Kelly "The Sloth" Shoppach on the pine, and give Jaso more starts. Shoppach hit below .200 in the 63 games he played, while Jaso hit a respectable .263; well above the average catcher.

    Jaso also had a very solid .372 on-base percentage, which was due in part to having 20 more walks than he did strikeouts in 2010. He also finished in the top five for Rookie of the Year in the American League, a big step that could just be the start.

    His defense still needs a bit more work, but Jaso is clearly the catcher for years to come in Tampa Bay. He may not show as much in the box score as he will from just watching him play, but any way you look at it Jaso could have a big year for the Rays. 

Jeremy Hellickson

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    OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 20:  Jeremy Hellickson #58 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum  on August 20, 2010 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Many baseball experts may think I'm overreacting like so many other Rays fans when it comes to the talent of Jeremy Hellickson. But the fact is, he has the stuff to have a long, illustrious career toeing the rubber in the Majors.

    Although I don't want to go too high on my prediction for Hellickson this season, I will say he could finish around 15 wins and have an era hovering near 3.50. He could also be the second-most productive pitcher on the Rays staff.

    While I'm not ready to dub him the Robin to the Batman that is David Price, Hellickson has skies-the-limit kind of talent, and I can see him at the front of the rotation sooner rather than much later.

    Why I'll keep my hopes modest, I think Hellickson will have an amazing year, with his smooth, effortless delivery, and his good assortment of pitches.

Jake McGee

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    NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21:  Jake McGee #57 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the New York Yankees on September 21, 2010 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees defeated the Rays 8 - 3. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    I continue to be very high on this young lefty, who has come back strong from his Tommy John surgery a couple of years back, and had to switch from being a starter to trying to pitch from the pen for the Rays here in 2011.

    Maddon may start this season off with a closer-by-committee approach in the bullpen, but McGee may not have to show too much to get the full-time job at closer for Tampa Bay.

    If you think that's way too far to go after only five appearances, take a look at the rest of the bullpen. J.P. Howell and Kyle Farnsworth might be the only other two remotely capable of closing for the Rays, unless Joel Peralta plays to the top of his potential.

    I believe the closing job will be McGee's after maybe just a couple of months, and he could go on to a 20-save season if that is the case. But either way, he should eventually be the lone back-end to the Rays bullpen.

B.J. Upton

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    BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 07:  B.J. Upton #2 of the Tampa Bay Rays heads for home after he hit a solo home run in the sixth inning against the Boston Red Sox on September 7, 2010 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    That's right, you read the name correctly. The first thing that comes to mind is, "It would be about time." While I'm not as opportunistic as some, and not near as much as I used to be about Upton, I still believe he could have a monster season one of these years.

    Call it wishful thinking or call me a Cubs fan, but I always say "wait till next year," when it comes to Upton. Personally, I would of liked for the Rays to have traded him and gotten a closer in return (if that was even a possibility).

    Many saw B.J.'s 2008 postseason and wish he could play a full year like that. What some don't realize is B.J. hit 18 home runs and stole 42 bases, while becoming only the fifth player in the history of the game to have 60 extra-base hits and steal 40 bases in a season. Not bad at all.

    But with that said, he hit .237 and struck out an incredible 164 times. He still has 20 homerun, 45 stolen-base potential, and with shoulder issues well behind him he has no excuse not to perform. Maybe lowered expectations by fans will loosen him up. But as long as he plays, he'll end up on a list like this.