They have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. They had the worst attendance in the league last year. They lost several key players in the offseason. Tampa Bay Rays fans should be used to these circumstances by now, but they shouldn’t really mind, either. As much as the odds always seem to be stacked against them, Joe Maddon’s ball club has proven, time and time again, that it will still discover a way to win.
A season ago, the Rays hung around in a very competitive American League East but fell short of a postseason berth, missing out on a wild card spot by three games. Nonetheless, Tampa notched its fourth 90-win season in five years and also had the third-best run differential in baseball at +120. In the offseason, the Rays did some major salary shedding by dealing starter James Shields to the Royals and also parting ways with B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena. However, with starter David Price and closer Fernando Rodney coming off of standout seasons and third baseman Evan Longoria returning to full strength, no one should count out the Rays in 2013.
Tampa Bay Rays Pitching
There was no secret to the Rays’ success in 2012—they got the job done on the mound. Tampa Bay led all of Major League Baseball in team ERA, fewest runs allowed, and opponents’ batting average. In fact, the Rays’ 3.19 ERA was the second-best of any MLB team this century, only behind the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. It’s highly unlikely that the Rays will deliver similar numbers this year, but even with the loss of James Shields, Tampa’s young pitching staff should still be effective in 2013.
Tampa Bay Rays Starting Rotation
By trading away Shields, the Rays parted ways with their all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, and complete games. It’s certainly never easy to give away a franchise player like Shields, but when you have the reigning AL Cy Young winner on your staff, it’s a whole lot easier to make such a move.
Following a disappointing 2011 campaign in which he posted just a 12-13 record, David Price responded in a big way in 2012. The 27-year-old lefty went 20-5, finishing with an AL-leading 2.56 ERA and racking up 205 strikeouts en route to his first career Cy Young award. Moving up to the #2 slot in the rotation following the departure of Shields will be right-handed pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson went just 10-11 in his second major league season, but he was a victim of poor run support, as he posted a very respectable 3.10 ERA. The Rays’ #3 starter in 2013 is expected to be southpaw Matt Moore. In Moore’s rookie season, he went 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA. A bright spot for Moore was an excellent strikeout rate—he fanned an average of one batter per inning—but he’ll need to watch his control, as he walked 0.5 batters per frame. Rounding out the Rays rotation will likely be right-handers Jeff Niemann and Alex Cobb. Niemann missed the majority of the 2012 campaign with a broken fibula, and he went 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA in just eight starts. Cobb, who took Niemann’s place in the rotation last year, went 11-9 with a 4.03 ERA in his rookie year.
The Rays Bullpen
Not only did Tampa Bay have a solid rotation in 2012, but its bullpen, anchored by closer Fernando Rodney, was lights-out as well. Rodney had a magical 2012, posting a mind-blowing 0.61 ERA, the best in baseball history for a pitcher who threw at least 50 innings in a season. What makes Rodney’s 2012 season even more remarkable is that he hadn’t posted an ERA below 4.00 since 2006. It will be interesting to see if Rodney will be dominant again in 2013 or if his career year in 2012 was just an aberration.
Although Rodney has been stealing all of the headlines, the bridge to the Rays’ closer is a key to their success as well. Set-up man Joel Peralta had a mediocre 3.63 ERA but posted a very solid 0.99 WHIP and a nearly 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2012. Also, left-handed reliever Jake McGee had a breakout year in his second major league season, posting a 1.95 ERA and a 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen certainly looks to be set as far as the late innings are concerned, but there are some question marks when starters don’t go deep into games. J.P. Howell, Burke Badenhop, and Wade Davis combined to pitch over 180 innings of sub-3.00 ERA baseball in 2012, but all three departed in the offseason. The Rays brought back Kyle Farnsworth for some middle inning relief help in hopes that he can bounce back from his injury-riddled 2012 campaign, and they will also be counting on inexperienced relievers like Chris Archer and Cesar Ramos to play important roles in 2013.
Tampa Bay Rays Hitting
When a team leads all of baseball in ERA but fails to qualify for the postseason, it isn’t difficult to figure out where the stumbling blocks must have occurred. A season ago, Tampa Bay ranked in the bottom third in the American League in most offensive statistical categories, including runs scored, total bases, and batting average. To get back into the postseason, the Rays will need to be more productive at the plate in 2013.
The Ray’s Infield
There is very little doubt that the Rays will get more offensive contributions from their infield this year, primarily due to the return of their star at the hot corner. After missing more than half of the 2012 season with a hamstring injury, third baseman Evan Longoria is healthy and poised to put up All Star-caliber numbers in 2013. In 74 games of action last year, Longoria hit .289, hitting 17 long balls and driving in 55 runs. Project those stats out to a full season and Longoria would have put up career-high numbers in home runs and RBIs. If Longoria can stay healthy for the duration of the 2013 season, Rays fans can expect big things from their third baseman.
Ben Zobrist, a versatile player who can hold his own at almost every position, quietly put up the Rays’ best offensive season in 2012. Zobrist hit .270, recorded a .377 on-base percentage, and racked up 20 home runs and 74 RBIs. He split time pretty equally between second base, shortstop, and right field, but due to the struggles of midseason acquisition Ryan Roberts last year, expect Zobrist to see a lot of time at second base in order to open up one more spot in the outfield.
A couple of new faces will fill out the remaining infield positions for Tampa Bay. Acquired by trade in the offseason, Yunel Escobar will take over the duties at shortstop. Escobar hit .290 for Toronto in 2011 but struggled last year, hitting just .235.
Taking over for Carlos Pena at first base will be James Loney. Just like Escobar, Loney played very well in 2011 but had a tough time at the plate in 2012, hitting only .249 with the Dodgers and Red Sox. The Rays aren’t losing much by replacing Pena, however; Pena hit an abysmal .197 last year, and his power numbers were down as well.
For the second straight year, Jose Molina will handle duties behind the plate for Tampa Bay. Molina hit just .223 last season, down from .281 the year prior, but he did throw out 33% of all base stealers.
The Ray’s Outfield
B.J. Upton is now a member of the Atlanta Braves, but are the Rays really losing that much with Upton out of the lineup? Upton did finish the 2012 season with 28 home runs and 78 RBIs, but he also hasn’t hit better than .246 in his last four seasons. Upton hasn’t really proven that he is deserving of the five-year, $75 million contract that Atlanta gave him in the offseason, so the Rays probably made a wise move by letting Upton walk.
A young player that Tampa Bay hopes will blossom this year and make up for Upton’s lost production is left fielder Desmond Jennings. The 26-year-old had a very successful rookie year in 2011, recording an .805 OPS and hitting 10 home runs in just 63 games of action. However, Jennings took a step backward last season, hitting just .246 and striking out 120 times in 132 games. Still, Jennings has the rare combination of power and speed that the Rays are hoping will make him develop into a very solid player.
Manning the other corner outfield spot for Tampa Bay will be Matt Joyce. Coming off of an All Star year in 2011, Joyce started the 2012 season well, hitting .279 going into the All Star break. However, Joyce struggled mightily in the second half, hitting just .202. The Rays will need more consistent production from their right fielder this year to stay afloat offensively.
The biggest question mark in the Rays outfield is in center field, a position likely to be held by Sam Fuld. The 31-year-old only has 537 career at-bats and is a .246 lifetime hitter. If Fuld struggles, the Rays could shuffle around their lineup by moving Zobrist to right, Joyce to left, and Jennings to center, and then start Ryan Roberts at second. Another option would be to call up coveted outfield prospect Wil Myers. Myers was acquired by Tampa in the James Shields deal, and he hit .314 with 37 homers in the minors last year.
The Rays also re-signed Luke Scott to be their designated hitter. Scott had a tough time last year, though, hitting just .229 in 96 games.
2013 Tampa Bay Ray’s Projected Lineup
1. Desmond Jennings (LF)
2. Yunel Escobar (SS)
3. Evan Longoria (3B)
4. Luke Scott (DH)
5. Ben Zobrist (2B)
6. Matt Joyce (RF)
7. James Loney (1B)
8. Jose Molina (C)
9. Sam Fuld (CF)
Perhaps more so than ever before, the AL East is wide open this year. The Blue Jays made a big splash in the offseason by acquiring the likes of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Jose Reyes, but as we saw with the Dodgers, Angels, and Phillies last year, a roster full of star-studded names does not guarantee a spot in the playoffs. The Orioles were the big surprise of 2012, but their 93-69 record seems to be a statistical anomaly for a team that had a nearly even run differential throughout the season (Tampa Bay’s run differential was 113 runs better than Baltimore, yet the Orioles won three more games).
Age may finally be starting to catch up with the Yankees, and even though they get Mariano Rivera back in 2013, they lost Rafael Soriano, who had a 2.26 ERA as the Yankees’ fill-in closer last year. The Red Sox probably haven’t done enough in the offseason to improve on their last place finish a year ago.
Who wins the AL East crown, then?
I’m going with none other than the Tampa Bay Rays. David Price should resume his Cy Young form in 2013, and if he pitches as well as he did last year, Hellickson should be a 15-game winner this year. With a year of experience under their belts, I also expect Matt Moore and Alex Cobb to take a stride forward this year. The Rays don’t have as much depth in the bullpen as they did a year ago, and Rodney certainly won’t repeat what he did in 2012, but Tampa Bay still has one of the best back-ends of the bullpen in baseball with Rodney, Peralta, and McGee.
On offense, while they once again won’t be lighting up the scoreboard, the Rays have enough talent in their lineup to at least be sufficient. Longoria should regain his All Star form, and Zobrist will have another quietly effective season. I also expect Escobar and Loney, after seeing their averages drop off in 2012, to perform closer to their .280 career batting averages.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past five years, it’s this—no matter how they look on paper, never underestimate a Joe Maddon-led Rays team.
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Bradford Conners is a student at Penn State University and a writing intern for Whiztix.com. Whiztix.com provides fans with the easiest way of finding sold out tickets on the web. Tickets for sporting events, concerts, and Broadway musicals can all be found Whiztix.com.