Earlier this week, Larry wrote a great piece contemplating the strengths and weaknesses of the 2011 Oriole squad. Today, I’d like to spend some time mulling over what we can expect from the pesky Tampa Bay Rays.
In 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays posted the best record in the American League (96-66), and missed tying their all-time franchise single season wins total by one. They were neck-and-neck with the Yankees for much of the season’s final month, but ultimately pulled away and won their second AL East crown. During the postseason the team played well but ultimately lost to a World Series-bound Rangers squad.
Since the conclusion of the 2010 postseason, popular opinion holds that the team took a tangible step backward. Some of the more recognizable players to depart the organization include Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Garza, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate and Carlos Peña. To add insult to injury, Crawford’s, Wheeler’s, and Soriano’s services were obtained by the Red Sox (the two former) and the Yankees (obviously the latter).
However, the Rays have made significant strides in replacing any lost production. Long-time Yankee-killerannihilator, Manny Ramirez was brought on board on a one year, $2M pact, along with former Yankee/Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon (one year/$5.2M plus an additional 750K based on attendance). While both of these veterans correctly garner some durability concerns, there’s no question that both have some pop left in their respective bats. Additionally, the Rays boast one of the most talented farm systems in the league, and elite prospect Desmond Jennings will surely make his MLB debut at some point during this year’s battle for divisional supremacy.
In terms of pitching, the Rays replenished some of their lost bullpen arms by signing Juan Cruz, Cory Wade, J.P. Howell, and of course former-Yankee-piñata, Kyle Farnsworth. Despite Garza’s departure, the team still has a very formidable rotation comprised of Cy Young-contender David Price (5.3 bWAR), James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and superstar-in-the-making Jeremy Hellickson (who boasted a 3.47 ERA, 1.101 WHIP, 8.2 SO/9 in his brief 2010 stint in The Show).
Listed below are several tables examining the 2011 CAIRO, PECOTA, and Bill James projections for the starting lineup, starting rotation, bullpen, and potential bench/depth players. As Larry noted in his Orioles preview, CAIRO and PECOTA projections were chosen as primary indicators as both systems are park-adjusted thusly enabling a more reasonable comparison. For the sake of amusement, I’ve also elected to include Bill James projections in the hopes of satisfying the appetites of the completely optimistic among us. Thanks to Erik Hahmann of Draysbay, I’ve also been able to construct a fairly sensible outlook of the 25-roster.
Note: the field players haven’t been listed in any particular batting order and Jennings has also been included for those inquiring minds out there. The reason Jennings probably will not start the season with the club (aside from developmental reasons), is that he still has all his player options and can be easily maneuvered unlike recent-addition, Sam Fuld.
Perhaps one the more popular gripes amongst Rays fans involved the team’s cumulative offensive production despite the fact that they were third in the AL in terms of runs scored per game (4.95), trailing only the Yankees (5.30) and Sox (5.05), respectively. In 2011, Baseball Musings’ Lineup Analysis tool expects the Yankees’ projected starting lineup to produce an improved 5.62 runs per game, and the Rays (5.03) have done their part in keeping pace, trailing by only 0.59 R/G.
In addition to Damon’s and Ramirez’s projected contributions, the Rays also have premier third baseman Evan Longoria mashing pitchers at the heart of the order. Much to the chagrin of everyone not hailing out Tampa, Longoria won’t be going anywhere any time soon either as he’s the official “benefactor” of one of the most team-friendly contracts ever possibly conceived. I also have no doubt the Rays will continue to torment the Yanks (and everyone else for that matter) with aggressive base-stealing; Bill James even forecasts Jennings’ stolen bases to be Rickey Henderson-esque (54) despite the fact that in all likelihood, he will not be on the opening day roster. Although many of the Rays faithful are probably lamenting Crawford’s absence (or in my case, his non-appearance), Jennings may ultimately pan out to be a more-than-acceptable replacement.
Even if the offense doesn’t supply optimal power, the pitching will absolutely keep them in them in the game. As noted above, Price is a certifiable ace; easily one of the top lefthanded starters in the game. Shields had a rather poor year in 2010 (5.18 ERA, 1.461 WHIP, -1.3 bWAR) but is poised for a strong rebound according to the projection systems. I suspect Niemann will continue to be a stable presence and although Davis may experience some slight regression from his 2010 season (in which he nearly came away with the ROY award), he should still be a solid contributor. The outfield, led by B.J. Upton, is very mobile will provide excellent outfield support, although Damon’s noodle-arm has been well documented in the event he acts as the starting left fielder for any extended timeframe.
There is a chance, however, that the Rays’ great asset (inexpensive, quality youthful arms) may become one of their more noteworthy weaknesses. Each projection system is dubious about the 3-4-5 spots achieving much more than approximately 150 innings of work each. Eventually, if some of those young arms reach their limitations or begin experiencing developmental fatigue, the bullpen could be in for an exhausting latter half of the season. Also, as there is no heir apparent to Soriano’s throne, there may be a period of bullpen reshuffling as hierarchy is sorted out — I’m not convinced that Farnsworth is the answer nor I expect the Rays organization to position him as such. Tampa, however, has perfected the art of developing talent from within and should be equipped to supply additional relief if needed.
When I asked Eric H. about his thoughts on the matter he replied:
“Replacing key players is never easy. No team knows that better than the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays. Even though they’ve slashed payroll the team will remain competitive due to the strong starting rotation, added contributions from a number of young, talented players (Rodriguez, Joyce, Brignac), the signings of Damon and Ramirez, and a retooled bullpen. With the Yankees rotation a big question mark, I don’t see a reason why the Rays can’t win 90+ games and contend for a playoff spot.”
While I’m not completely willing to pencil the Rays into the postseason at this juncture, I’ll tell you without hesitation that they’ll remain a competitive club and will likely be the origin of more angst than joy.
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