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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #22: The Tampa Bay Rays

Underdogs are exceedingly rare in baseball.  That is, teams that come as if from out of nowhere and make a serious run at the playoffs.  Even rarer are underdogs who get to the very brink of being champions, as the Rays did in 2008.  And rarest of all is an underdog who can duplicate such a performance from one season to the next.

It was almost inevitable that the 2009 Rays would backtrack, at least nominally.  But let me remind you that finishing in third place, with a winning record, in the AL East is no small accomplishment.  The 2009 Rays were fifth in the AL in runs scored and starter's ERA.  With 84 wins and a +49 run differential in the toughest division in baseball, one could make a strong case that the 2009 Rays were one of the top four teams in the American League (trailing the Red Sox, Yankees, and Angels).

Prognosticators have already resumed business as usual, treating the AL East as the two-horse race it has been for most of the last decade (since 1997, only once has a team other than Boston or New York won the division, and only one other time did a team other than Boston or New York finish second).  Rest assured, however, neither Terry Francona nor Joe Girardi view the Rays as underdogs any longer, and Tampa Bay is only a few good breaks away from being right back in the race for the AL pennant.

Free Agents:

Chad Bradford (35) RHRP
Gabe Gross (30) OF
Jason Isringhausen (37) RHRP
Troy Percival (40) RHRP
Russ Springer (41) RHRP
Gregg Zaun (39) C [Signed w/ Brewers]

Arbitration Eligible:

B. J. Upton (25) CF

ETA 2010?:

Reid Brignac (24) SS
Wade Davis (24) RHSP
Jeremy Hellickson (23) RHSP
Desmond Jennings (23) OF
Elliot Johnson (26) IF
Matt Joyce (25) RF
Jake McGee (23) LHSP
Sean Rodriguez (25) 2B
Alexander Torres (22) LHSP

With both New York and Boston bolstering their rotations this offseason, I think it's safe to say that starting pitching will be critical to winning the division.  Newsflash!  Right?

The Rays unloaded Scott Kazmir, the franchise's first true Ace, last August.  James Shields pitched 215+ innings and netted double-digits wins for the third consecutive season, proving himself an excellent middle-of-the-rotation starter (think Ted Lilly, Andy Pettitte, or Jamie Moyer in his prime), but he's hardly intimidating as a #1.  That role should fall to either Matt Garza or David Price.  Both were first-round draft picks.  Both raced through the minors.  And both are still in their mid-twenties, with plenty of time to mature.  But the Rays need that process to happen quickly if they are to compete in 2010.  Rays fans may be encouraged by Price's strong finish in '09.  In his last twelve starts - a stretch which included eight games against winning teams - he went 7-4 with a 3.58 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.

At the back-end of the rotation is Jeff Niemann, who challenged for Rookie of the Year in '09 by going 13-6 with a 3.94 ERA in 181 innings, and another youngster.  The Rays, who have been among the best in baseball in developing starting pitchers over the last half dozen years, are loaded with options.  Wade Davis, who looked good in a six-start cameo (2-2, 3.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 36 K, 36 IP) at the end of last season will probably get first dibs.  Behind him potential choices include Andy Sonnanstine, Jake McGee, and Jeremy Hellickson.

Excepting the young would-be Aces, the most important pair for the 2010 Rays are their middle infielders, Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist:

Jason Bartlett ('04-'08): .276 AVG, .337 OBP, .362 SLG
Jason Bartlett ('09): .320 AVG, .389 OBP, .490 SLG

Ben Zobrist ('06-'08): .222 AVG, .279 OBP, .370 SLG
Ben Zobrist ('09): .297 AVG, .405 OBP, .543 SLG

Bartlett and Zobrist are certainly young enough that it is reasonable to characterize their previously unprecedented offensive numbers as representative of a "breakout."  However, the more cynical amongst us might question whether they have the ability to maintain.  With Bartlett and Zobrist producing like they did in '09, the Rays lineup will be "circular," much as the ones in Boston and New York.  However, if they revert to the 2008 versions of themselves, who can catch the ball with the best of the, but hit like Adam Everett on a bad day, than the Rays are in for a long summer.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have B. J. Upton.  In his first two years as a full-time starter, Upton stole 66 bases and maintained an OBP of .384.  Being as he was only 24 at the beginning of 2009, it seemed safe to expect that Bossman Jr. was on his way to becoming one of the top leadoff hitters of the twenty-teens.  However, last year his OBP dipped to .313, alongside comparable drops in most of the other offensive categories (though somehow he still managed 42 steals).  Perhaps the Rays rushed him back from offseason shoulder surgery.  Perhaps it was just a fluke.  Whatever the case, while it is quite possible that Upton will never develop the 30 HR power many scouts predicted, I think his upside remains high.  Like Franklin Gutierrez and Coco Crisp, Upton is a superior defender, whose value isn't entirely tied up in his ability to produce at the plate.  Still, if he is getting on base with some consistency (say 35% of the time) at the top of the Tampa Bay lineup, this becomes a much, much better team.  Because when on base, he reeks havoc like very few players in the game.

On one side of Upton is the supremely-talent Carl Crawford.  Together, the pair covers about as much space an any tandem in baseball.  Which gives the Rays some leeway in right.  If they choose Fernando Perez, their outfield defense could be unprecedented, even in a year that will feature other dynamic outfield trios (Oakland, Seattle, Boston, etc.).  More likely, however, they will turn to Matt Joyce, the 25-year-old slugger who hit a dozen bombs for the Tigers in a brief audition in 2008 and has a .504 career slugging percentage at AAA (29 HR in 167 games).

I expect Joyce, Perez, and Gabe Kapler will all see some time in right field during the early part of the season.  However, if nobody makes a strong claim on the position, we could get our first look at Desmond Jennings in time for the All-Star Break.  Jenning is only 23, and played only 32 games at AAA in '09, but he hit the ground running, with a 910 OPS in those games.  Between AA and AAA last season, he batted .318 with a .401 OBP, 52 extra-base hits, and 52 steals (88% success rate) in 132 games.  He could very well be this year's version of Andrew McCutchen.

Finally, the major Achilles Heel for the Rays in '09 was the bullpen, which finished 14th in the AL in ERA and third in blown saves.  Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen both hit the wall, simultaneously, and Grant Balfour and Chad Bradford were unable to duplicate the success they'd had the previous year.  The Rays pen still had some quality arms, most notably J. P. Howell, who finished the year as the closer and had a truly excellent line: 7-5, 2.84 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 17 SV, 79 K, 67 IP.  This offseason they added Rafael Soriano, who was also dominant as the Braves closer for most of '09 (2.97 ERA, 27 SV, 102 K, 76 IP).  Howell and Soriano, no matter which ends up as closer, need to offer the Rays what Hughes and Rivera offer the Yankees, because there is no room for giving games away in the AL East.  If the Rays would've converted saves at the same rate in '09 that they did in '08, they would've won 92 games, and depending on who those conversions came against (the bullpen lost seven games against New York and Boston), that might've been enough to return to the postseason.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF B. J. Upton (R)
LF Carl Crawford (L)
3B Evan Longoria (R)
1B Carlos Pena (L)
2B Ben Zobrist (S)
DH Pat Burrell (R)
SS Jason Bartlett (R)
RF Matt Joyce (L)
C Dioner Navarro (S)

SP Matt Garza (R)
SP James Shields (R)
SP David Price (L)
SP Jeff Niemann (R)
SP Wade Davis (R)

CL Rafael Soriano (R)
SU J. P. Howell (L)
SU Dan Wheeler (R)
MR Lance Cormier (R)
MR Grant Balfour (R)
LOOGY Randy Choate (L)
SWING Andy Sonnanstine (R)

C Kelly Shoppach (R)
IF Willy Aybar (S)
OF Gabe Kapler (R)
OF Fernando Perez (S)

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