Right back in there again, toe-to-toe with the Yankees and Red Sox.
After all the drama and hoopla of last September and their last minute scramble into the playoffs (winning seven of their last eight games), the Rays as usual didnít spend a whole lot this winter. They did though bring in a few interesting veterans: Sluggers Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, Infielder Jeff Keppinger, Catcher Jose Molina and Reliever Fernando Rodney.
Molina has been a career backup, but now he will get his chance to start every day behind the plate. He doesnít hit very well and, being a Molina, runs about as well as most of his teammates would if they had their legs tied together. What he appears to do quite magnificently though is frame pitches. According to Max Marchiís research at The Hardball Times, Molina has put up some incredible numbers in the RV stat Marchi uses to evaluate framing skills, indeed in 2010 he led all catchers despite only playing 56 games. Marchi concludes on Molina ďÖthe prorated three to four wins he would produce in 130 games behind the dish would need to be regressed somewhat, but it's hard to believe he does not contribute an extra win per season thanks to his framing ability.Ē We know the Rays front office is always looking for an edge, and it seems highly likely this ability was a big factor in their bringing Molina into the organization.
Molinaís abilities behind the plate will only enhance a stellar defensive club. The Rays defense led the league last year in UZR/150 and were miles ahead of the pack in Baseball Prospectusí Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating. This year should be no different, Carlos Pena has an excellent defensive reputation and a full year of Desmond Jennings isnít going to hurt either. What is noticeable about the Rays is that all their part time players seem to be well above average defensively, the like of Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano and Dan Johnson can all pick it with the best of them.
Offensively the Rays were a little below average in the AL last year and will probably be so again. Evan Longaria is obviously their best hitter and he should again receive solid support from Ben Zobrist and the under-rated Matt Joyce. The concern will be replacing the solid contribution of Casey Kotchman, who last year gave them a .378 OBP from first base. Carlos Pena will hit for some power but, with his propensity to strikeout, he hasnít put up an OBP much over .350 since 2008. Rays fans should also be watching Luke Scott with a wary eye as the season begins, he has put up some solid seasons in his career, but heís 34 and coming off a season where he managed just a .703 OPS and a .220 average. Balancing these possible problem areas though are the potential bright spots, a full season from Desmond Jennings in Left and Sean Rodriguez at Shortstop, and less at-bats for the offensively challenged Sam Fuld and Reid Brignac. They should be able to score 700 runs again as they did last year, and with their defence thatís all theyíll need to be put themselves in the playoff picture.
The Rays rotation is their strength, and with the addition of Matt Moore at the expense of Wade Davis it should be considerably better than last year. Moore will join David Price and James Shields at the top of the Rays rotation. Price saw his ERA jump up to 3.49 last year, but his K/9 and BB/9 were actually better than in 2010 when he had a 2.72 ERA. He had some trouble with home runs last year, but fangraphs gave him the best WAR total (4.7) of his career. Heís 26 this year and should be one of the top handful of pitchers in the AL. Moore of course might be even better, tipped as a future ace by pretty well everyone who writes or comments on baseball prospects, he might not throw quite as hard as Price but has significantly better control. His debut at the end of last season was pretty spectacular, particularly his eleven strikeout debut start against the Yankees. James Shields had his best season last year (after a disappointing 2010) and finished third in the Cy Young voting. He somehow morphed into a Complete Game specialist. Prior to last year, he had five in his career, then last year eleven Ė that was more than Doc! He went the full distance in one in three of his starts. How much of this was him pitching better or changing his approach and how much a willingness by his manager to leave him in to avoid going to a dodgy bullpen I donít know. What I do know is Shields was a legitimate ace last year, and should be again this year even if he does regress a little towards the mean. That should be the best front three in the AL, although Angelís fans might disagree. Jeremy Hellickson, the AL Rookie of the Year, is in the #4 slot with Jeff Neimann set to win a training camp battle with Wade Davis for the fifth spot.
The Rays bullpen was comfortably the worst component of the team last year Ė despite an excellent season from their closer Karl Farnsworth. Fangraphs had the group third to last in the big leagues in FIP and xFIP. The Rays will be looking for better performances from their lefties Jake McGee and J.P Howell (who struggled in his first season back from shoulder surgery last year) and another solid year from the veteran setup-man Joel Peralta. The new man in the Ďpen is Fernando Rodney, and Iím having trouble understanding why the Rays brought him in, he hasnít had an ERA under 4 since 2006 and his peripheral stats have been nothing to write home about either Ė particularly last year when he walked more hitters than he struck out. Heís had some tidy Innings Pitched totals in a couple of his years in Anaheim though, so perhaps the Raysí just want him to eat some low-leverage Innings. This is not a unit thatís going to make hitters lose any sleep, and if things do go wrong for the Rays itís likely to be the bullpen that causes the problems.
Looking to the future the Rays much vaunted farm system is still in surprisingly decent shape, given that the likes of Moore, Jennings and McGee have graduated to the big league team recently. John Sickels has ranked them seventh for 2012, just behind the Royals. There arenít as many Ďimpactí guys down there as there might have been in the past, but look for top prospect Hak-Ju Lee, by all accounts a top class defender, to be the starting Shortstop next year.
Overall, a slightly better team than last year. Going from Wade Davis to Matt Moore in the rotation should be a huge advantage and if the bullpen can hold up weíll again see the Rays giving the big spenders in the division all they can handle. I see them back in the playoffs with something a little north of 90 wins. I think the Yankees will be too tough for them again, but I donít think Boston is better than this bunch. 2nd.