MLB March Report: Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays captured the imagination of America’s baseball fans again last year when they came off a 2010 offseason that saw their best players depart to monied climates in Fenway Park (Carl Crawford), Yankee Stadium (Rafael Soriano) and Wrigley Field (Matt Garza). All they did was hang on the periphery of the race all year and then in an unforgettable September chased down the very Red Sox team that stole Crawford and won the wild-card berth in the greatest regular season comeback in baseball history. As a Boston fan, as sick as the whole experience made me, there was nothing to do but salute a team that has every card in the deck stacked against it, but still manages to keep dealing aces (literally, as we’ll see when we talk about their pitching). TheSportsNotebook previews the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays, with an eye, as usual, towards the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Joe Maddon loves to run, so this part of the game is vital. I’m going to open the discussion with one of his team’s big underachievers, and that’s B.J. Upton. The centerfielder has put up subpar OBP numbers for three consecutive years. Yes, his speed is great, but its use is too often limited to sprinting back to the dugout after a failed at-bat. Desmond Jennings came up in the middle of the offseason and showed exceptional plate discipline for a 25-year-old. He’ll start the season in centerfield while Upton recovers from a back injury suffered in spring training, and will then move over to left field. Ben Zobrist puts up on-base percentages in the high .300s, and the power hitters that we’ll get to in a moment do a good job of taking their walks and keeping offensive flow going even when the ball isn’t flying out of the park.

POWER:  It starts with Evan Longoria, but we have to point out a disturbing trend in his numbers. Over the last four years his slugging percentages have been .531, .526, .507 and .495 in that order. We can cut him slack from last year for being hurt early on and then it can be difficult to get the power stroke back in a hurry. And those slugging numbers are still undeniably good. But for a 26-year-old to be losing numbers rather than gaining them should provide a legitimate undercurrent of concern. At least there’s plenty of help in this area, with Carlos Pena being good for 30 home runs a year at first base—and even though Pena’s batting averages are hideous, he consistently draws 85-100 walks a year to cover that up. Zobrist has averaged nearly 20 HRs a season for the past three years, and that’s at a second base spot where you don’t expect to get a power surge. Matt Joyce has shown both home run power and the ability to take it to the alleys in his year and a half as a starter. And if you’re not careful of Jennings, he’ll take you deep, hitting ten bombs in his partial season of 2011. A big lift would come if newly signed DH Luke Scott can regain the power stroke he had in Baltimore from 2008-10 before a shoulder problem ruined his season a year ago.

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STARTING PITCHING:  A staff that already has David Price and James Shields, to go with emerging Jeremy Hellickson has the most highly touted starting pitching prospect breaking into the bigs this year, in lefthander Matt Moore. For a guy who’s only thrown nine innings in the majors, the hype is intense, but Tampa Bay’s track record in bringing pitchers like this up and turning them into top starters quickly deserves the benefit of the doubt. Price has settled into his role as the #1 starter. Even if last year was a bit of a downer with a 3.49 ERA, he still takes his turn consistently and the ERA probably comes down closer to the 2.72 level of 2010. Shields had the worst season of his career in ’10, but turned it around with the best season of his life in 2011, winning 16 games and posting a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time in the majors. Hellickson went to the post 29 times in his first big league year, with a 13-10 record and 2.95 ERA being the result. If Moore comes through, that’s four starters Maddon can comfortably hand the ball to in a big game. Jeff Niemann is penciled in as the fifth starter and Wade Davis is also likely to see his share of starts. Both are classic #5 starters—they’re ERAs are in the mid-4s, but they won’t embarrass you or blow out the bullpen.

RELIEF PITCHING:  There are real problems here. Kyle Farnsworth did a surprisingly decent job in the closer’s role last year, but still blew six of his 31 save chances. Even with a 2.18 ERA, that’s a high percentage of saves to be coughing up. Joel Peralta has pitched well the last two seasons, but those are the only two good years the 36-year-old has had in the majors. Fernando Rodney joins the list of 35 and over pitchers with a mediocre track record. Ideally Maddon would get J.P. Howell back and pitching well. He missed 2010 with shoulder surgery and struggled in his comeback year. Tampa Bay’s got some serious work to do, both in terms of in-game mixing and matching to try and survive, and looking to bring in some outside help, especially if the summer wears on and the team has a chance to win the AL East and avoid the new one-game wild-card playoff situation.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 87.5—I think this total is about right. I know a lot of observers see Tampa as an easy 90-95 win team and a great bet on the Over, but I have a hard time looking past the bullpen problems. In a softer division, the starting pitching and power would push them to 90, but when you play 54 games against the Yankees, Red Sox and what I think’s going to be a pretty good Blue Jay team, there’s not room for too many weaknesses. To me, this number is the flip of the coin, but since the rest of the mainstream baseball world is jumping on the Tampa bandwagon, I’m going counterintuitive and taking the Under. Tampa’s always better off when they can play the “nobody believes in us” card and right now the world believes in them.