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Tampa Bay Rays 2013 Preview

Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Editor-at-Large at XN Sports and has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sun-Sentinel, and FantasyPros. He has previously covered sports for COED Magazine, Fantasy Alarm, and Manwall.com.
Evan Longoria
Mar 2, 2013; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) waits to bat against the Baltimore Orioles during the bottom of the fourth inning of a spring training game at Charlotte Sports Park. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays undeniably had the best pitching staff in all of baseball last season but their mediocre offense kept them to just third place, five games behind the Yankees. They lost some of that offense in the offseason, letting longtime outfielder BJ Upton walk away in free agency, along with Carlos Pena, Jeff Keppinger, and reliever JP Howell.

So sure of their depth at pitching, they traded longtime ace James Shields and up-and-comer Wade Davis to Kansas City for prospect Wil Myers (and others). Their only other moves were fairly minor, trading for Yunel Escobar and signing James Loney.

This is the status quo for the Rays. They’re a team that has always gotten by on the strength of their farm system. With a payroll under $60 million, the Rays remain one of the best teams in the league, in a division where $150+ million payrolls are the norm. But can their offense really compete with the powerhouse lineups of the Al East?

2012 Team Rankings:

Wins: 90

Runs: 18th Overall

Batting Average: 27th Overall

ERA: 1st Overall

WHIP: 1st Overall

Catchers: Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton, Robinson Chirinos – Grade: C-

At 37, Molina is still one of the better defensive catchers in the game but a hitter he isn’t. The Rays value his defense and ability to work with their young pitching staff and have no problem with his .223 BA, .640 OPS, and 32 RBI last season and undoubtedly similar numbers this year.

Lobaton has been in the minors since 2003 where he owns a .256 career BA and .751 career OPS. His .222 BA, .640 OPS, and 20 RBI in 167 at-bats last season is right around where Rays fans should expect him to be again this season.

Chirinos is another lifelong minor leaguer who has a .260 career BA and .768 career OPS in the minors while playing mostly in the Cubs system. He did have an impressive 2010 in which he batted .326 with 18 HR and 74 RBI in just 319 at-bats but he has never put up similar numbers. If the Rays have any weaknesses in their farm system it’s definitely at the catcher position.

First Base: James Loney, Shelley Duncan, Luke Scott – Grade: C

Loney split last season between the Dodgers and the Red Sox and put up the worst season of his career as he saw career lows in average (.249), OPS (.630), homers (6), RBI (41), and pretty much everything else. He has consistently been a .280 hitter with potential to drive in 90 and I think Tampa will be a good place to reboot his career. A .270 season with 60-70 RBI and a mid-.700s OPS doesn’t seem like too much to ask for in 2013.

Duncan is a solid power hitter off the bench but no more than that. Last season in Cleveland he batted just.203 but hit 11 homers and drove in 31 runs in 232 at-bats. Expect double digit home runs and not a whole lot once again this year.

Scott is likely the full-time designated hitter if he can stay healthy after playing just 160 games over the last two years. Before his injury woes he averaged 23+ HR and 70+ RBI in Baltimore. Last season his home run percentage was 4.1% after putting up a 5.2% his last full season in Baltimore but his AB/RBI has remained around 5.7 so he can still contribute at the same pace if he can keep off the DL.

Second Base: Kelly Johnson, Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez – Grade: B-

I’m not a big Kelly Johnson fan because he has one really good month per year and then plays mediocre ball the rest of the way. He also hasn’t shown any ability to play at the level he did for Arizona in 2010. After putting up a strong line in 2010 (.284 BA, .865 OPS, 26 HR, 71 RBI, 93 R) his production dropped in 2011 (.222 BA, .717 OPS, 21 HR, 58 RBI, 75 R) and even more in 2012 (.225 BA, .678 OPS, 16 HR, 55 RBI, 61 R). I think last year’s production in Toronto is a lot more likely this year than what he did for the DBacks.

Roberts is another infielder with excellent pop but a pretty low average. Last season he batted .235 with a .656 OPS, 12 HR, 52 RBI, 19 2B, and 10 SB. He is a very similar player to Johnson and will likely play some third base and DH this year.

Rodriguez’s value is definitely in his ability to play any position in the infield and outfield, not his offense production. He batted just .213 last year with a .607 OPS, 6 HR, 32 RBI, 36 R, and 5 SB – all career lows. A line like that with maybe a few more steals seems likely once again in 2013.

Shortstop: Yunel Escobar, Sean Rodriguez – Grade: C+

Escobar is definitely better with the glove than he is with the bat, despite starting his career as a .300 hitter. Last season he batted a career-low .253 with a .644 OPS, nine HR, 51 RBI, and 58 R. Toronto didn’t fit him well, I think he could get back some of what he did in Atlanta but I can’t see 2013 being better than a .275 BA, 10 HR, 55-60 RBI, and 65-70 R. Still a fairly solid line for a shortstop.

Third Base: Evan Longoria, Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez – Grade: A-

How good is Longoria? Good enough for the Rays to sign him through 2023 despite him missing nearly 100 games last year. When healthy he consistently puts up an OPS in the high .800s, 100 RBI, and a healthy dose of extra base hits. Despite his injuries he has a very consistent HR% of around 5-5.5% and 5 AB/RBI. If he can stay on the field I would definitely expect another 100+ RBI season.

Outfield: Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist, Sam Fuld, Wil Myers – Grade: B

Joyce has established himself a solid outfielder over the last two seasons, batting .277 with 19 HR, 75 RBI, and 69 R in 2011 and .241 with 17 HR, 59 RBI, and 55 R in 2012. He isn’t a great hitter by any stretch and will likely only start about 100-110 games but you can do worse than a guy with a .800+ OPS and 6-7 AB/RBI in the outfield.

I’m torn on Jennings. On one hand he is mostly a singles-hitter with a low average (.246 last year) and a lot of strikeouts (120 last season). His OPS of .702 isn’t ideal either. At the same time, he hit 13 HR, 19 2B, seven 3B, drove in 47 and scored 85. He also stole 31 bases while being caught just twice. His speed is great but a great hitter he isn’t.

Zobrist has been the team’s most consistent producer over the last four years, especially in Evan Longoria’s absence. Since 2009, he is batting .268 with a .827 OPS and averaging 19 HR, 83 RBI, 89 R, 35 2B, six 3B, and 18 SB. I expect something along those lines once again for one of the most underrated outfielders in the game.

Sam Fuld is a mediocre hitter who can steal a base here and there but Wil Myers is definitely the guy to watch. He is the fourth-top prospect in the country entering the 2013 season and was acquired in the deal that sent Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals. He hasn’t seen any Major League action yet but if his line in the minors last year (.313 BA, .987 OPS, 37 HR, 109 RBI, 98 R) is an indicator of what he can do with a bat the Rays will not spend a second missing B.J. Upton.

Starting Rotation: David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb – Grade: A-

You aren’t going to find a better pitcher than David Price who is coming of a Cy Young winning season in which he won a league-best 20 games and led the Majors with a 2.56 ERA. Over his last three seasons he has a 2.93 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and is averaging 17 wins per year and there is no reason to expect anything different in 2013.

Moore had a promising rookie campaign after entering 2012 at the top prospect in the country. After going 12-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 0.95 WHIP his last season in the minors, he went 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in his first full Major League season. The Rays do a phenomenal job developing their prospects into stellar Major Leaguers, see David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, and I think this year we may see Moore really come into his own.

Hellickson is entering his third season in the league and has already established himself as an elite starter. Over his first two seasons he is 23-21 with a 3.02 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He pitches to contact so his 25 HR allowed and 8.3 H/9 is to be expected but he could be dominant if he can get those numbers down.

Cobb has looked solid in his first 32 Major League starts, going 14-11 with a 3.86 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 7 K/9. He’s another guy who pitches to contact but could be great if he can get his 8.6 H/9 down.

Niemman missed most of last year with a fracture in his leg but has been improving significantly over his last three years. After going 12-8 with a 4.39 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 6.8 K/9 in 2010, he went 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 7 K/9 in 2011 and then put up a 3.08 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 8.1 K/9 in 38 innings last year before going down. I think he can definitely win 13 games and put up a 3.70 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 2013.

Bullpen: Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Cesar Ramos – Grade: B+

Between 2007 and 2011, Fernando Rodney had a 4.42 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. Last season he saved 48 games (just two blown opportunities) while putting up a ridiculous 0.60 ERA and 0.78 WHIP. I have no idea how to project a 36-year-old whose ERA fell four runs and WHIP fell from 1.69 to 0.78 in just one season but it will sure be fascinating to watch.

Peralta and Farnsworth are solid veterans in an otherwise young bullpen. Peralta has put up a 3.27 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 134 innings over the last two seasons. Farnsworth had his struggles last year but has a 2.76 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in two seasons with the Rays.

McGee and Ramos are phenomenal looking young relievers. Ramos put up a 2.10 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9 last year while McGee bested him with a 1.95 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and 12 K/9.

Team Grade: B+

Fearless Prediction: 93-59, 2nd in AL East