2013 Season Preview: A.L. East
TAMPA BAY RAYS (2012 Finish, 90-72 .556, 3rd Place)
Preview compiled between February 25th and March 3rd. See updates below.
For better or worse, this is a team of numerous extremes. From their inaugural season in 1998, through 2007, the (then) Tampa Bay Devil Rays only averaged 64.5 wins per season. Since officially abbreviating their nickname in 2008 to just – Rays, Tampa has averaged ninety-two wins over their last five seasons, and have participated in post-season play three times. That hasn’t translated into the stands however. The Tampa Bay Rays still suffer an extreme lack of local support. In their first season in the league, the Rays established the club’s attendance high which still stands today. Two and a half-million fans attended Rays games in 1998, at a rate of thirty-three thousand per game. By 2005, that number dwindled down to 1.1 million. Tampa is now coming off three consecutive 90+ win seasons and an American League pennant in 2008. Yet, over the last two seasons, they have only averaged 1.5 million fans per season. No preview should omit that. For therein lies the Rays forced business model. Tampa’s total, all inclusive, estimated payroll for the upcoming 2013 season is $59.9 million dollars. At $64.1 million last season, they maintained the sixth lowest payroll in baseball; $133.8 million behind the (#1 MLB) Yankees. The team’s very limited revenue once again forced owner Stuart Sternberg and his talented front office to relinquish (in a manner of speaking) two more of Tampa’s top tier players. James Shields and B.J. Upton, like several notable Tampa players of years past, are now former Rays.
Mar 10, 2012; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) throws to first base during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Charlotte Sports Park. The Red Sox defeated the Rays 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
At one on-field extreme, the 2012 Rays sported the American League’s best starting rotation, bar none. They finished the regular season ranked first in all MLB in team ERA, fewest hits allowed, lowest opponents batting average, and team WHiP. They additionally ranked first in the American League in fewest home runs allowed, and most strikeouts. Lastly, within the A.L. East they ranked second in fewest walks issued, and number three in saves.
Offensively, the Rays rated towards the opposite extreme. In seventy four games Evan Longoria spent in the line-up, Tampa owned a .635 winning pct. Without him, the Rays played below .500 baseball. Had a hamstring injury not short circuited Evan Longoria’s season, we might very well be previewing the defending 2012 World Champions. That said, here come the disappointing numbers. Just within the A.L. East alone, the Rays ranked dead last in runs scored, hits, batting average, runs batted in, slugging, and team OPS. They did excel however in drawing the division’s most walks, and their team OBP ranked second in the division. Once on base, the Rays led the A.L. East in stolen bases, ranked third in the A.L., and sixth overall. A substantial portion of that element is gone now, with the departure of Upton to Atlanta. Lastly, Tampa was also extremely poor in the field which is very unlike Joe Maddon teams. They committed the most errors and sported the worst fielding percentage in the American League.
Somehow, baseball’s best pitching staff managed to carry the worst offense in the A.L. East, and the American League’s wost defense, to a ninety win season, and came within three games of capturing a Wild Card, while playing in a division that churned out three, ninety-plus win teams last year. So where do Joe Maddon and his Rays go from here?
Once again, Tampa will be led by the 2012 American League Cy Young award winner, David Price, who last season posted a 20-5 record, with a 2.56 ERA, and 205 strikeouts. Then, Tampa has a collection of young pitchers expected to step up. Jeremy Hellickson, 25, enters his third season. He proved slightly more hittable last season than over his 2011 campaign when he posted a 2.95 ERA. Jeremy finished 2012 with a 3.10 ERA, with an additionally increased 1.254 WHiP. While he posted a 13-10 record in 2011, he dipped below .500 with a 10-11 record last year. Matt Moore, 23, is now a returning sophomore with a larger role ahead. He was 11-11, with a 3.81 ERA his rookie season. In 177.1 innings pitched, he struck out 175 batters and improved his walks allowed. Alex Cobb, 25, is the next young pitcher in line. His 4.03 ERA, and 1.247 WHiP, actually belie an otherwise promising first full season. He posted an 11-9 record, and is 14-11 in thirty-two career starts. Tampa has several pitchers vying for the fifth spot. Jeff Niemann, 30, the favorite, suffered a fractured fibula last season. He finished fourth in 2009 ROY voting, but followed-up with two rather pedestrian seasons. With an injury history, staying healthy will be his biggest challenge. Chris Archer, 24, along with Mike Montgomery, 23, and Jake Odorizzi, 22, both top ranked prospects acquired from Kansas City, figure to get a fair shot at the fifth spot as well. Tampa’s bullpen sported the best ERA in the league last season. The unit returns relatively intact, with Fernando Rodney serving as closer.
Offensively, the Rays bid B.J. Upton farewell. Wil Myers is the new man on campus now. Acquired in the James Shields deal, Tampa hopes this kid lives up to the hype. He is rated the pre-2013 #4 prospect by both MLB.com, and Baseball America. James Loney was signed to replace Carlos Pena‘s departed bat. But no player can help the Rays like a healthy Evan Longoria can. He has been compromised by injuries for two straight seasons. As noted earlier, without Longoria in the line-up, Tampa’s bats produced the division’s lowest offensive output.
Expectations For 2013
Against all odds, this team continues to astound under their unconventional manager, Joe Maddon. However, the Rays starting rotation will not be as formidable without James Shields. Outside of their ace David Price, Tampa’s rotation will potentially be manned by first, second, and third year pitchers. Even with solid offensive contributions from Ben Zobrist, Matthew Joyce, Desmond Jennings, and a healthy Evan Longoria, the Rays will still be hard pressed to out-slug their division rivals. I’m not even so sure how much a substantially improved defense will help them overtake the division this season. The Rays might take a step backwards this season, as their raw talent matures a little. However, contention may only be a season away again.
I predict the Rays will win eighty-four games this season, and finish in fourth place.
MAJOR OFF-SEASON ACQUISITIONS:
Yunel Escobar, James Loney, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, Wil Myers, Shelly Duncan, Roberto Hernandez
MAJOR OFF-SEASON LOSSES:
B.J. Upton, James Shields, Carlos Pena, J.P. Howell, Jeff Keppinger, Wade Davis
MAJOR ROOKIE PROSPECTS:
* rhp – Mike Montgomery – He will sneak in the back door and surprise everyone.
* rhp – Jake Odorizzi
* of – Wil Myers – The early odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year. On Tampa, playing time will not be an issue.
Tampa Bay – MLB.com Top 20
* As of Saturday, Desmond Jennings is nursing a mild sprained left ankle.
* Club says fifth spot in rotation is competition between Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi.