Results tagged ‘ Jose Molina ’

Tampa Bay Rays First Quarter Grades

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It hasn’t been an ideal start to the year for the Tampa Bay Rays. With one quarter of the season already behind us, the Rays currently stand at an even 20-20.

The’ve really underachieved overall as a team, as things simply aren’t falling into place for them just yet.

With a strong offense and a struggling bullpen, it’s looked like 2009 all over again so far for Tampa Bay. They missed the playoffs and finished the season with just 84 wins that year, so Rays fans hope their team is not going down a similar path.

After the first 40 games of the 2013 season, here’s a graded evaluation of the Rays’ offense, starting rotation, bullpen and defense.

The Offense

The Rays currently have the third best offense in Major League Baseball with a wRC+ of 108.

Evan Longoria and James Loney have both enjoyed red-hot starts to the season. Longoria has posted a .417 wOBA and Loney is leading the league in batting at .367.

Kelly Johnson and Sean Rodriguez have both been pleasant surprises. Johnson’s posted a 119 wRC+ and Rodriguez has looked like a much-improved hitter, putting up a .326 wOBA in 60 plate appearances.

Below’s a chart of every player’ wOBA compared to their preseason projections (Fangraphs’ ZIPS projections):

Overall Grade: A-

With statistically one of the league’s best offenses, I thought the Rays deserved a high grade here. The difference between an A- and an A+ for me was the first two weeks of the season where the offense was anemic. Since late April, however, the lineup has been scorching hot.

The Rotation

“Disappointing” is the best word to describe the Rays’ starting rotation at the first quarter mark. Tampa’s starters have posted a collective 4.05 ERA (16th in MLB) and a 4.22 FIP (18th in MLB).

Shockingly, the starting pitching struggles have stemmed from the rotation’s front two: David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Price—who’s now on the 15-day DL—is 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA through nine starts and Hellickson is 1-2 with a 5.25 ERA through eight.

There has been two bright spots in the rotation, however, as youngsters Matt Moore and Alex Cobb have both shined. Moore is an impressive 7-0 with a 2.44 ERA and a 9.56 K/9, while Cobb is 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA and a rotation-leading WAR of 0.9.

Roberto Hernandez has been nothing more than decent in his first seven starts. He’s 2-4 with a 4.43 ERA, but he’s actually looked pretty encouraging. His career-high 8.65 K/9 rate, 3.43 SIERA and 3.45 xFIP are possibly signs of a comeback year for Hernandez.

Overall Grade: C-

The Bullpen

What was expected to be one of the better bullpens in baseball as turned out to be somewhat of a disaster. Tampa’s ‘pen ranks fourth worst in the league in ERA (4.67) and sixth worst in FIP (4.04).

Closer Fernando Rodney has been suprisingly lousy so far, blowing three saves in 10 opportunities to go along with a 5.28 ERA and a pair of losses. Jake McGee (8.80 ERA), Kyle Farnsworth (6.52 ERA), Jamey Wright (4.24 ERA) and Brandon Gomes (5.40 ERA) have all struggled as well.

The Rays have held leads in 34 of their 40 games this season, and have blown countless leads late in games. The bullpen is simply going to have to improve if the Rays want a shot at competing in October.

Overall Grade: D

The Defense

As expected, the Rays are one of baseballs’ strongest fielding teams. They’re tied sixth in the league in UZR at 8.6. Other notable numbers include Tampa’s 9.7 RngR, -0.3 ErrR and -1 DRS.

They have the best defensive corner-infield combo in the game with Evan Longoria and James Loney, Longoria, as usual, has been nothing short of amazing this season, leading the team with a 3.8 UZR as he continues to play like a Gold Glove caliber third baseman.

In the outfield, Desmond Jennings has done a fine job adjusting to centerfield, posting a 3.2 UZR. Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce haven’t done a very good job in the corners, but Fuld still covers plenty of ground and Kelly Johnson has bolstered the outfield defense a bit.

Johnson’s also played very well at second base thus far, owning a 0.8 UZR at the position.

At shortstop, Yunel Escobar has proven to be the defensive upgrade he was signed for. He gives the Rays the adequate-fielding everyday shortstop they haven’t had since Jason Bartlett in 2010.

As for the Rays’ catching tandem, both Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton have been below average in terms of throwing out runners and blocking pitching. It’s obviously a big minus for the overall defense, but it doesn’t erase the fact that Molina is the best framing catcher in the game.

Overall Grade: B

Jose Molina’s Hidden Value

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When the Tampa Bay Rays signed veteran catcher Jose Molina to a two-year deal worth $3.3 million following the 2011 season, they actually got much more than what the 37-year-old’s numbers show.

If you look at Molina’s 2012 stats—81 wRC+, 0.8 WAR, 4 rSB and a -4.22 RPP—he doesn’t seem like a very valuable player at all on paper. His career stats aren’t much better either.

However, where Molina’s value lies is in a part of catching that isn’t calculated: The art of framing pitches.

Although he may not be the superstar that his younger brother Yadier is, framing pitches is one thing that Jose does better than both of his brothers. In fact, he’s probably been the best at it in all of baseball over the past years.

His pitch-framing wizardry has made a significant impact with the Rays as well as other teams he’s played with throughout his 14-year career. Tampa had the best pitching staff in the MLB in 2012, ranking first in ERA, FIP, strikeouts and strike percentage. Molina, who caught 102 games for the Rays last year, more than likely had something to do with this historic success.

Here’s some examples of Molina’s special talent:

As you can see, frustrating opposing batters and making umpires look bad is something that Molina has a knack for.

Molina’s excellency in framing pitches does not only make him a valuable catcher, but it also can contribute to a pitcher’s success.

Fernando Rodney is one pitcher that comes to mind. With Molina behind the plate for over half the innings he pitched last season, Rodney’s called strike percentage went up 4.44% from the previous season (without Molina). There were obviously multiple factors that played a part in Rodney’s career year in 2012, but Molina was probably one of them.

Two more examples come from when Molina was with the Yankees; Mariano Rivera and Mike Mussina both in 2008. Rivera had arguably the best season of his great career with Molina catching most of his innings. His CLDSTR% increased 4.36% that year from 2007.

Molina was also behind the plate for all but 10 innings pitched by Mussina during his impressive 20-win season. Mussina, who was pitching the last year of his career at age 39, saw his CLDSTR% go up 3.86% from his disappointing 2007 campaign.

Now in 2013, what I’ve observed is that Molina’s glovework helping out sinkerballers Alex Cobb and Roberto Hernandez. Both starters are dependent on throwing quality pitches low in the zone. With Molina catching, that strikezone widens a bit, which Joe Maddon has clearly taken into consideration.

Cobb is off to a great start to the season, while Hernandez—despite some ugly numbers—is having an encouraging start with some positive signs towards a turnaround year for him. Molina has caught most of the time for Cobb and Hernandez, while Jose Lobaton has received more playing time with David Price, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson on the mound.

In conclusion, Jose Molina is living proof of how much a catcher can positively affect a pitcher and even an entire pitching staff. He may not be good at blocking balls or even throwing out baserunners (at this point in his career), but framing pitches is one asset he’ll likely never lose as long as he’s in the league.

Rays Trounce Pirates 8-2, Win Fifth Straight

The Rays extended their Grapefruit League winning streak to five Wednesday afternoon with a 8-2 victory over the Pirates in Bradenton.

Jeff Niemann and Jeremy Hellickson both made their spring debuts. Niemann pitched a 1-2-3 first inning, and Hellickson followed with a scoreless outing of his own—allowing three hits, no walks and striking out two through 1 2/3 innings pitched.

MLB Future Game southpaws Felipe Rivero and Enny Romero both made appearances in this game. Rivero allowed one run in 1 1/3 innings and Romero tossed one scoreless inning.

Offensive notables from yesterday include prospect Tim Beckham, Luke Scott and Jose Molina, who all had good games at the plate. Beckham went 2-2 with a double and a triple, Scott also went 2-2 with an RBI, and Molina went 2-3 with an RBI as well.

Here’s a full boxscore of the game.

Rays News and Notes:

  • The Rays return to Port Charlotte to take on the Tigers today at 1:05. Lots to watch for today as Evan Longoria returns to the lineup, Luke Scott make his first start in the outfield since 2011, Matt Moore makes his spring training debut (in relief), and the ESPN Baseball Tonight bus stops by Rays camp. Here’s today’s lineup.
  • MLBTradeRumors.com put together an offseason review of the Rays.

5 Things the Rays Should Try to Do at the Winter Meetings

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With Day 1 of the MLB Winter Meetings already behind us and Day 2 now in progress, Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays have shown that they’re not going to hesitate to pursue players on the free agent or trade market. After being involved in a flurry of rumors on Monday, it looks as if the Rays could be pretty active this week in Nashville.

With a handful of possible trade possibilites on the table and multiple teams contacting the Rays, here are five things the club should try to do over these next few days.

Trade Jeremy Hellickson or James Shields

The chances the Rays trade either one of the two talented starters seem very likely at the moment. As important as these two top-tier arms are to the Rays’ rotation, trading one of the two (not both) would make a lot of sense for a couple of reasons.

Tampa has a surplus of starting pitching and is in serious need of offensive help, and both Shields and Hellickson are currently at very high value on the market. In addition, if the Rays were to trade Shields, it would be one less huge salary to pay (that they can hardly afford anyway).

Trading either Hellickson or Shields (or David Price) is really their only way of acquiring a star-quality player or top prospect caliber talent this winter. Knowing that Rays will probably trade one of them should make the next couple of days pretty exciting.

Not trade David Price

The Rays have made it clear that they’re willing to trade away Cy Young award-winner David Price for the right offer, taking into account the 29-year-old phenom’s upcoming pricey contract issues. In a recent article on ESPN.com, columnist Buster Olney points out the fact that Price may very possibly be traded sometime in the next year as the Rays are probably not going to be able to afford him eventually.

Although his value may be at its career peek right now, I think dealing Price this offseason would be a mistake. The Rays could use the offensive boost, but the core of the franchise is still pitching and defense, and trading away a player like Price would potentially be too big of loss for the team.

Put Alex Colome, Alex Torres, Alex Cobb and Wade Davis on the trade block

Believe it or not, the Rays could actually enter the 2013 season with a much better better offense without trading one of their three top starters. Being so deep in the starting pitching department, the Rays have major-league ready starters that aren’t even being used to their full potential and a handful of talented pitching prospects that they could afford giving away.

If the Rays can keep the same ridiculously good starting rotation they had this year and at the same time put together a better offense for next season, they’re going to be one very serious contender in 2013.

With prospects like Colome and Torres, and MLB-ready starters like Davis and Cobb, the Rays have the opportunity to do so.

Acquire Asdrubal Cabrera or Jason Kubel

The shortstop position has been a weak area for the Rays for two years now, and picking up a star shortstop like Cleveland’s Asdrubal Cabrera would be a very nice solution to the problem. The 27-year-old is one of baseball’s best offensive shortstops, posting a wOBA of over .330 and a wRC+ of over 110 for the past two seasons.

The Indians are looking for three to four— preferably four—prospects in exchange for him (per the Cleveland Plain-Dealer). The Rays have the pieces to make a deal like this happen, and Cleveland could really use some young starting pitching talent.

Over in Arizona, Justin Upton has been the main talk in Diamondbacks trade rumors so far this offseason, but now sources are saying that they may be shopping OF Jason Kubel instead. According to Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com, the Rays are one of multiple teams that could be a possible suitor for the veteran slugger.

Kubel had himself a very nice 2012 season, posting a .352 wOBA while hitting 30 homers and 90 RBI. Not only would Kubel add depth to the Rays’ outfield, but he would also be a perfect fit for the DH role.

Sign a catcher

One big area of need to address on Tampa’s roster is without a doubt at the catcher position. The four catchers that the Rays used this this year combined for an RBI total of just 65 without one reaching a wOBA as high as .290. Defensively, the four weren’t very good either.

The two main catchers on the roster (who were the team’s two catchers in 2012 as well) are Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton. Molina had a poor season offensively last year, but did well throwing out baserunners and framing pitches, essentially helping out the pitching staff throughout the year. The main problem with Molina is that he’s 37, and can’t really provide the Rays with many innings.

Therefore, the team’s backup catcher is a crucial role. Lobaton is in that position right now, and he’s not the kind of guy the Rays would [or at least should] like playing 65+ games for them. Lobaton posted a .222/.323/.317 line last year with very little power while throwing out just 16% of would-be base-stealers.

Whether it’s via the trade market or free agent market, the Rays really need to sign a backstop this winter.

Hellickson Drawing Interest, Price and Molina Win Awards

Entering the offseason, James Shields was expected to be the No. 1 trade rumor name of the Rays’ plethora of starting pitchers. Right now it doesn’t appear that way, however, as Jeremy Hellickson has drawn more interest than anybody else in the rotation so far (per Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com). No team has yet to publicly announced that they’re pursuing Helly, but things could get interesting at the GM meeting this week.

As the MLB award season continues, more Rays players continue to take home hardware. David Price—who makes a strong case for the AL Cy Young Award (announced next week)—was chosen as the AL’s top pitcher by the players (Players Choice Awards) on Monday.

Also in award news, Jose Molina was named the Rays’ top defensive player by Wilson.

More Rays News and Notes:

Hellickson Awarded Gold Glove, Rays to Bring back Molina for 2013

MLB announced the winners of the Gold Glove award yesterday, which featured two finalists from the Rays (Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson). Hellickson would win for the pitching position, which was also won by Jake Peavy as the two tied in the voting.

Here’s a list of all the winners, which unfortunately included terrible choices for centerfield in both the AL and NL (Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen).

In other Rays news, it looks as if the Rays will pick up the 2013 option on James Shields ($10.25 million) and Jose Molina ($1.8 million). Molina will be returning to Tampa Bay next season but Shields may not, as a blockbuster trade is still a realistic option for the Rays.

More News and Notes:

Tampa Bay Rays Offseason Outlook

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As the Fall Classic concludes and the 2012 baseball season comes to an end, it’s time to look forward into what the winter has in store for the Rays. Like last offseason, Andrew Friedman and the Rays will have some tough choices to make before players report to spring training.

First in line in Tampa’s offseason priorities is their club options, which must all be dealt with this week. Out of the four on the list, the only sure ‘yes’ is Fernando Rodney ($2.5 million). Next is Luke Scott, who hit just .229/.285/.439 with 14 homers and 55 RBI in 344 plate appearances this season. With that kind of production at DH and his lack of ability to stay healthy, the chances of the Rays bringing him back in 2013 for $6 million are very slim.

The Rays hold a $10.25 million on veteran James Shields, who will be one of the main storylines throughout the winter. If they decide not to pick up the option—which is very likely—than they’ll immediately look for suitable deals for a blockbuster trade. As much as the organization prides themselves on excellent starting pitching, they really could use some young offensive talent as well.

The toughest club option decision for the Rays will be Jose Molina. The 37-year-old catcher did a nice job with the pitching staff but didn’t produce well offensively (.284 wOBA through 274 PA’s). At $1.5 million, don’t be surprised to see the Rays exercise his option in order to bring his veteran presence back to the roster.

As for Tampa’s free agents this offseason, the list includes B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Ryan Roberts, Jeff Keppinger and J.P. Howell. It looks like the Rays will part ways with Upton after his many years of service, which means they’ll have one less outfielder in 2013. There is a question to as if the Rays will give Upton a qualifying offer (one year for $13.3 million), however, which would land them a compensatory draft pick if he declines. If the Rays do go ahead and extend a qualifying offer, chances are he’ll turn it down and hit the market in pursuit of a huge long-term team.

Carlos Pena—who hit an MLB-worst .197 with just 19 homers and 61 RBI—is another big name who will likely be missing from the lineup in 2013, meaning the Rays will likely shop the market again this winter for first basemen.

As for the rest of the FA’s, all have a pretty decent chance of returning next season. The Rays would love to bring back Jeff Keppinger after his suprisingly good 2012 season. Keppinger can play three different positions in the infield while serving as an excellent contact hitter who can get the job done at the plate. After hitting .325 last season in his 418 plate appearances, he should be able to earn more than the $1.5 million he made last year.

Ryan Roberts is another player that can provide some infield versatility as well as some power in his bat, and the Rays will probably work on re-signing him as well.

As for the bullpen, it will be interesting to see how they handle free agents Peralta, Farnsworth and Howell. I think it’s safe to say Howell will be back in the ‘pen next season after the fine comeback year he had, posting an ERA a tad over 3 in over 50 innings of work. As for Farnsworth and Peralta though, both are much more of a question mark at the age of 36.

The next offseason topic to talk about is how the Rays will adress their areas of need. The three main holes on the roster are at first base, catcher and DH. They’ll probably seek some help in the outfield, shortstop and in the bullpen as well.

Ben Zobrist made a smooth transition to shortstop towards the end of the year, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Rays decide to make him their starting shortstop next season or continue to search outside the organization. Either way, we can expect to see the Rays sign another middle infielder, such as a Jeff Keppinger or Ryan Roberts type player.

With James Shields and numerous talented pitching prospects, the Rays have the necessary pieces to make a trade that could fill up some of the gaps on the roster. 1B Ike Davis, SS Elvis Andrus, SS Yunel Escobar, C J.P. Arencibia, 1B Eric Hosmer and INF Jed Lowrie are all players who will probably be up for trade this winter.

There are a handful of FA options as well. James Loney seems to be a very realistic possibility at the moment. If the Red Sox decide not resign him—which is about a 50/50 chance—then he would definitely become an affordable option for the Rays at first base. 2B Skip Schumaker, INF Stephen Drew, 1B/DH Lance Berkman, OF Coco Crisp, RP Matt Capps, RP Ryan Madson and INF Maicer Izturis are other names to keep an eye on as well.

Rays First Half Review

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The first half of the Rays’ 2012 season was a tale of injuries. The Rays were simply a team that could not catch a break in the first half, battling through injury after injury to keep themselves afloat in the tough AL East division.

‘Disappointment’ could be a word used to describe the first half of the year, but considering all the adversity and misfortune surrounding them, the Rays’ could have been in a much worse position then they are now at the All-Star break. Fourteen players have spent time on the disabled list this season, including seven out of the nine hitters in the starting lineup [and Jeff Keppinger], two starting pitchers and 2011’s closer (Kyle Farnsworth).

The Rays got off to a hot start in the first quarter of the season, but then quickly faded in the second quarter as their numerous injuries started to catch up with them. The were hit with a huge blow when team leader Evan Longoria went down with a hamstring injury, and have obviously not been the same team offensively or defensively ever since. Then Matt Joyce—the team’s second-biggest run producer—hit the DL nearly three weeks before the All-Star break, weakening the offense to an even worse situation.

At the end of the day, the Rays aren’t exactly too thrilled with where they’re at in the standings at the midseason point, but they have to be pretty satisfied with their position considering the fact that they currently stand only a half-game out of a playoff spot. There’s still plenty of regular season ahead of us, and if anybody can make a second-half turnaround, it’s the Rays.

Let’s take a look at some surprises, disappointments, numbers and team awards from the first half.

Notable Stats

Team average: .232 (28th in MLB)

Team on-base percentage: .314 (22nd in MLB)

Team wOBA: .305 (22nd in MLB)

Team runs per game: 4.22 (16th in MLB)

Team errors total: 71 (2nd highest in MLB)

Team ERA: 3.73 (10th in MLB)

Number of players that have landed on the DL: 14

Pleasant Surprises

Fernando Rodney

Fernando Rodney has not only been the Rays’ most pleasant surprise of the 2012 season, but he has probably been the most pleasant surprise in all of baseball. Rodney has arguably been MLB’s best closer and reliever after the first half of the season. He’s 25 out of 26 in save opportunities and has posted a sparkling 0.93 ERA, earning him his first ever All-Star selection.

Absolutely nobody would have guessed the 35-year-old reliever—who was way past him prime entering the season—would have such an incredible year and become one of the team’s most valuable player, let alone the closer. Coming into spring training Rodney made it clear that he would fight for the closer role, and many simply laughed at his optimism. I think it’s well-known now that Fernando has gotten the last laugh.

Elliot Johnson

Elliot Johnson has quietly been a somewhat productive hitter for the Rays this year. Johnson had very low expectations coming into the season, which he has definitely exceeded thus far.

He has posted a line of .275/.339/.386 with 22 RBI, a .328 wOBA and a 1.1 WAR. The stats don’t seems so great at first glance, but all four of the numbers listed are actually above the league average at the shortstop position. He has the third highest batting average on the team, and his fourth in wOBA and wRC+. As sad or funny as it is (depending on how you look at it), Johnson has been one of the Rays’ most consistent offensive players night after night.

Defensively, however, Johnson has struggled mightily. He owns a .960 fielding percentage at short with a -4.5 UZR and a -1 DRS.

Jeff Keppinger

Jeff Keppinger has been an excellent contact hitter for the Rays this season, and is the only Ray to hit over .300 so far (excluding Evan Longoria). His impressive .310/.362/.411 line and .339 wOBA is a surprise to most.

Keppinger hasn’t been exactly the team’s most productive player, but he is probably the most consistent base-hitter on the team.

Biggest Disappointments

Jose Molina

Jose Molina stats pretty much tell the whole story for his disappointing 2012 season: A .190/.255/.321 line with four home runs and just 13 RBI. The Rays obviously signed him for his defense, but they never would have thought that he would create such a huge whole in the lineup like he has.

Defensively, Molina has done a pretty good job doing what he does best, throwing out baserunners. However, he hasn’t done well blocking balls, as he’s allowed three passed balls while rookie Jose Lobaton hasn’t committed a single one.

Luke Scott

Luke Scott has not gave the Rays the production they expected when they signed him to a two-year deal worth $11 million last winter. He’s posted a very weak .205/.260/.409 line with 11 HR and somehow 42 RBI so far as the Rays’ DH this season.

His .205 ISO and RBI total of 42 suggest that he’s still hitting for power, but the 34-year-old slugger simply is not getting on base or hitting the ball enough. Scott’s 0-41 stretch that he had early this month pretty much sums up his first-half frustration.

Desmond Jennings

Desmond Jennings has a pretty heavy burden being the Rays’ leadoff hitter ever since Opening Day, and has not exactly put up the adequate offensive numbers to be affective in that No. 1 spot in the lineup.

He’s posted a low .298 OBP with a poor .231 batting average. He’s also walked only 8.0% while putting up a high strikeout percentage of 21.3. Being the team’s biggest baserunning threat, getting Jennings on base is crucial for the Rays’ overall offensive success.

As long as Jennings continues to put up on-base percentages at .300 or under, the Rays are probably not going to be scoring too many runs.

Team MVP

1) Ben Zobrist

Ben Zobrist has not been the Rays’ best player by any means, but he has been the most valuable. He hit just .249 with 11 homers and 37 RBI, but he did post an impressive .371 OBP and .353 wOBA. Besides getting on base well, a big reason for his a high value is his ability to stay off the sidelines.

Out of the entire starting lineup, only he and Carlos Pena avoided the DL. With a team with as many injury issues as the Rays, just being on the field game after game is crucial for the team.

2) Fernando Rodney

I mentioned it earlier in the article; Fernando Rodney is likely baseball’s most dominant closer right now. I was very close to putting him atop the team MVP list over Zobrist, but Zorilla’s higher WAR gave him the edge.

To know that you’re chances of winning the game are extremely high every time you enter the final inning with the lead is really a special thing. The Rays have had that privilege in 2012 thanks to Rodney, who is really the reason the Rays have not completely fallen out of the AL East race right now.

3) David Price

As expected, David Price has lead the Rays’ talented rotation this year. The All-Star southpaw has had a great first half of the season, posting a 11-4 record with a 2.82 ERA and 105 strikeouts through 111.2 innings pitched. The numbers say it all for Price, who has lived up to all the expectations thus far in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Matt Joyce (.279/.387/.512, 11 HR, 34 RBI)

Why the Rays’ Offense Will Be Good Enough to Win the AL East

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It will be another hard-fought battle for the AL East in 2012, and the Rays will likely be in the hunt to win it all season long. Tampa’s great starting pitching is definitely good enough to win the division, but the question is whether they will hit good enough.

Offensive production was the only thing that stood in the way of an AL East title and postseason success last year. With all the tough competition in the American League, it’s clear the Rays are going to have to hit better than they did in 2011 in order to be serious title contenders.

There are some good reasons to believe that the Rays’ offense will be better in 2012. For starters, offseason acquisitions have already made an impact in the lineup, and they should make the Rays a better team overall this season. The Rays made smart moves by signing Carlos Pena to play first base and Luke Scott to be their DH, replacing Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon from 2011.

It’s early, but it looks like the replacement is paying off and the newer combo will produce more runs for the Rays this year. Both Scott and Pena have start the season off on a tear in the meat of the lineup. Scott is hitting .400/.438/.933 with eight RBI and two home runs. Pena has been the Rays’ best hitter after the first nine games, batting .353/.450/.735 with 11 RBI and three long balls.

As expected, Evan Longoria is also hitting very well, starting his 2012 season with a .333/.436/.545 line along with five RBI and a homer. I think Longoria will have his best season yet this year, which is another reason why the Rays will score enough runs to be at the top of their division.

The Rays have a very strong trio of big boppers in Longoria, Pena and Scott, who will likely lead the team offensively. If those three stay healthy and hit to their potential the Rays will have a great shot at winning the AL East.

Jeff Keppinger and Jose Molina are two more additions that could bolster the offense. Keppinger is outstanding contact hitter who should help lower the Rays’ high strikeout ratios, as well as contribute to the bottom of the order. Keppinger’s already been somewhat of a pleasant surprise this season, coming through with some clutch hits. Molina is no All Star either, but he probably is a better offensive option than both Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso—who were the Rays’ two main backstops last year.

Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton are three more bats that will be key to the Rays’ lineup this season, just like they’ve been in the past. Neither Joyce are Zobrist have started to hit well yet, and Upton has been on the DL since the season began. Once Joyce and Zobrist start to get things going at the plate and Upton returns to the lineup, the Rays will instantly become a more threatening team to their AL East opponents.

The three combined for 247 RBI and 62 homers last season, finishing second, third and fourth in team leaders for both categories (behind Evan Longoria who lead in both). Ben Zobrist hit 20 homers with an impressive 91 RBI, while Joyce was selected to the All Star Game and finished the season with 75 RBI, 19 homers and a .277 average. Upton produced his share of runs as well, collecting 81 RBI with 23 home runs while stealing 36 stolen bases.

The Rays should finally have a consistent leadoff man in the lineup with the full-season addition of Desmond Jennings this year. Jennings—a late-season call-up in 2011—stole 20 bases with 25 RBI and 10 homers in his 63-game rookie season. Having an everyday leadoff guy like Jennings is definitely a big help to the lineup that the Rays didn’t really have last year.

The running game has been a big part of the Rays’ offense in past years, and Jennings huge threat on the base pads provides a big boost with Carl Crawford no longer with the team. Like Crawford, he’s a great base-stealer with excellent speed.

The Rays’ running game hasn’t got off to a good start, however, which is a big reason why the Rays are only 21st in the Majors right now in runs scored. It’s really unfair to judge Tampa’s offense at this point in the season, though, as two of the team’s three main base-stealers are out with injury. Both Upton —who lead the team in stolen bases last year— and Sam Fuld (20 stolen bases in 2011) are on the DL.

Injuries have not only hurt the running game, but they have hurt the offense overall. As I said before, Upton was one of the main run-producers last season, and not having him in the lineup is huge. Luke Scott —another huge piece— was also out with an injury for three games last week. The offense still hasn’t been healthy yet this season, which is why I think it will only get better.

Still, the Rays do have some obvious weaknesses in the lineup, mainly the bottom of the order. Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez and Jose Lobaton are some names that are a bit of a concern.

It’s safe to say the Rays won’t have the best lineup—or overall offense—in their division when comparing them to the stacked rosters of Boston and New York. They likely won’t have to match their rivals’ big bats, though, with such stellar starting pitching and defense as dominant as they have.

Still, the Rays are going to need to come through for them when needed, just like it did last year in their memorable Game 162. The Rays can expect that from their talented young roster this year, as they definitely have all the ingredients for a functional offense.

Have the Rays Been Too Hesitant to Trade a Starter?

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Ever since the offseason began, there has been a big discussion surrounding the Rays on whether they would trade their surplus of pitching for a bat. The Rays have been looking to trade a starter for a while now, but apparently haven’t found a deal.

During the winter, the Rays really had three roster holes they needed to fill; catcher, first base and DH. Somewhat surprisingly, they turned to the free agent market for their needs. The Rays snagged veteran backstop Jose Molina, signed left-handed slugger Luke Scott to be their DH and brought back first baseman Carlos Pena.

The front office got the job done, but were there better options on the trade market?

The fact is that the Rays have eight legitimate starters for 2012, and probably more in 2013. James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Alex Torres and Alex Cobb could all make an Opening Day MLB rotation on most other teams, while prospect Chris Archer will definitely be in that mix soon. The Rays offense is weaker than their outstanding starting pitching, so it would make a lot of sense to trade at least one starter for a hitter when you have three ‘extra’ starters.

The Rays clearly possess the necessary pieces in order to construct a deal, but who could they have traded for during the offseason. Three names immediately come to mind: first baseman/outfielder Yonder Alonso, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and catcher Yasmani Grandal. The two best prospect first basemen in all of baseball and a top prospect catcher were all traded this winter on deals the Rays could of very easily made.20120409-124959.jpg

In the deal that sent Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal to the Padres, San Diego only gave up their No.1 starter (Mat Latos) in exchange for both of them and two more arms (Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger) from Cincinnati. With the starting pitching the Rays have, there were plenty of ways the Rays could have traded for both Alonso and Grandal if the Reds were looking for just one good arm to add to their rotation.

As for Anthony Rizzo, he was traded to the Cubs in exchange for minor league pitcher Andrew Cashner. Looking at who Chicago gave away for Rizzo, there’s absolutely no way that Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, or Alex Torres could not bring this future star first-baseman to Tampa Bay.

This trio’s big bats seem like they would have been a perfect addition to the Rays’ roster, but how would they actually fit on the team? If Luke Scott and Carlos Pena were never signed, we can assume that Alonso and Rizzo would be able to play DH and first base for the 2012 season. With Rizzo being the better defensive first baseman, he would likely man first while Alonso would be the DH.

As for Yasmani Grandal, he would be the backup catcher behind Molina and would get a significant amount of playing time. Looking at the Rays’ catching situation behind Molina, they probably wish they had him now.

The Rays would obviously have to choose either the Rizzo/Alonso combination or the Pena/Scott combination (or possibly a mixture), so which would be the better decision? There are plus sides and negative sides to both decisions. With the Scott/Pena combo (which is having a great start to the season by the way) the Rays have now, there is a bit of a long-term concern. Pena will be a free agent after the 2012 season, and Scott will be a free agent in 2013.

If the Rays signed both Alonso and Rizzo to long-term deals, they would have better security at the DH and first base positions. We know how Andrew Friedman loves to lock up young talented players long-term, which is the main reason why I think this would have been a good deal for the Rays. However, I believe that the Rays’ offense may be a bit better short-term with Scott and Pena in the roster.

It’s too early in the season to say anything for sure, but Scott and Pena have much more experience and have proven what they can do at the big league level. The short-term aspect is why I think the Rays chose Scott and Pena. They’ve made it very clear they’re going for it all this season.

What I find the most surprising in the Rays’ search to trade a starter is that they still haven’t made a deal to bring in a catcher to backup Molina. Not surprisingly, the Rays are still searching for a backup catcher. According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, Tampa has been pushing to acquire Oakland’s Kurt Suzuki, but Billy Beane isn’t very interested in Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis.20120409-125007.jpg

The Rays will most likely sign somebody eventually, but it may not be via trade. Ivan Rodriguez is one free agent catcher that the Rays pursue. If the Rays don’t decide to turn to free agency for their catching needs, who could they trade for?

Ryan Hanigan and Travis D’Arnaud could be two future possibilities. Hanigan—who the Rays have already discussed acquiring—has a questionable future in Cincinnati because of the emergence of top prospect catcher Devin Mesoraco. D’Arnaud—who’s also a top prospect catcher—may not have a future in Toronto because J.P Arencibia, who has established himself as the team’s starting catcher there. The Blue Jays have already discussed trading him, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rays go after him.

The Rays have waited to find the right deal to trade some of their young pitching talent, but I think they’ll find some better opportunities as the trade deadline nears. It’s still too early in the season to conclude that the Rays have been over-hesitant to trade away their pitching surplus. What matters is what the front office decides to do in the future, and I think we’ll see the trade many have been anticipating once the deadline arrives.

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