Results tagged ‘ Matt Joyce ’

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

Scott Hurt as Rays Beat Twins 7-2

The Rays defeated the Twins Sunday afternoon by a score of 7-2, improving their Grapefruit League record to 7-3.

David Price was on the hill for Tampa, and looked very sharp in his three scoreless innings allowing just one hit and striking out five without a walk (29 of his 41 pitches were strikes).

Three potential Opening Day relievers also made appearances in this game. Jamey Wright gave up a run in one inning, followed by Joel Peralta and Jake McGee who pitched one scoreless inning each.

The offensive got the job done as well, as the Rays compiled seven runs on 10 hits.

Some big hits in this game came from Kelly Johnson (two-run double) and from Chris Gimenez (two-run homer and sacrifice fly). Matt Joyce and James Loney also had an RBI hit each.

Evan Longoria was back in the lineup for this game, and hit a double in three at-bats. Wil Myers had a triple in two at-bats.

It wasn’t all positives Sunday, however, as DH Luke Scott caused some concern after exiting the game with a tight hamstring. He hopes to be back in “a couple of days”, but it definitely still worries Rays fans considering how injury-plagued Scott was in 2012. He missed a pretty good amount of time last season due to the same injury.

Here’s a complete boxscore of yesterday’s game.

Rays Avoid Arbitration With Four, Still Searching FA Market

As the arbitration deadline passed Friday, the Rays avoided arbitration hearings by signing Jeff Niemann, Ryan Roberts, Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce all to one year deals.

Niemann, who was injured most of last season, will earn $3 million in 2013. Joyce will make $2.45 million, which is nearly $2 million more than what he made last season. Ryan Roberts will receive $2.95 million, and Sam Fuld will get $750 thousand.

Tampa Bay fortunately won’t have deal with any arbitration hearings this February, as David Price and Sean Rodriguez already agreed to one-year contracts weeks ago.

Other Rays News and Notes:

  •  The Rays are searching for a center fielder, says ESPN’s Jayson Stark. Stark even suggested that Tampa could be a possible landing spot for the free agent market’s current top prize Michael Bourn. The only centerfielders on the market right now are Scott Podsednik and Grady Sizemore, with Arizona’s Gerardo Parra potentially on the trading block. Desmond Jennings is the team’s starting centerfielder at the moment, and it will likely be that way on Opening Day.
  • Troy Renck of the Denver Post also tuned in on the Rays’ centerfield search. He suggested that Dexter Fowler could make up a potential trade package, considering that Denver likes Jeremy Hellickson.
  • FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi takes an in-depth look at Price’s new contract.
  • The Rays continue to show interest in re-signing reliever Kyle Farnsworth.
  • The Rays hosted their annual prospect development camp last week.

Rays Non-tender Ben Francisco, Badenhop Traded, and David Price Trade Rumors

As the contract tender deadline passed Friday night, the Rays had two rather tough decisions to make in whether to tender OF Ben Francisco’s and INF Ryan Roberts’ contracts. Of the eight eligible Rays at the deadline, Francisco was the only one to be non-tendered.

Roberts—who is expected to make around $3 million in 2013—will head to arbitration along with a group of five other Rays which includes David Price, Jeff Niemann, Sam Fuld, Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez.

The Rays continued their busy weekend Saturday, making their first trade of the offseason. Tampa swapped reliever Burke Badenhop with Brewers minor league prospect OF Raul Mondesi Jr.

Badenhop posted a 3.03 ERA through 62.1 IP in the Rays’ bullpen in 2012.

More Rays News and Notes:

  • Here’s the the link to MLBTradeRumors.com’s Projected Arbitration Salaries.
  • Also over at MLBTR, a list of all the AL non-tenders. The list includes slugging 1B/3B/DH Mark Reynolds, which already has many speculating that the Rays may very possibly pursue him. Reynolds batted .221/.335/.429 with 23 homers and 69 RBI with the Orioles this season.
  • According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, the Rays are open to dealing David Price for the right offer right now as a trade seems ‘inevitable’. Olney also notes that executives around the league believe he will be traded in the next year and that Tampa Bay is not close to signing an extension with him. The Price trade rumors have heated up recently as insiders such as Olney point out the fact that Rays are probably not going to be able to afford re-signing the Cy Young award-winner when he becomes a free agent in 2015.
  • MLBDailyDish.com has more on the topic.
  • The Pirates signed Russell Martin to a two-year deal.

Rays’ 5 Biggest Disappointments Down the Stretch

It’s been an extremely disappointing week for the Tampa Bay Rays. After losing seven of their last eight in the midst of the AL playoff race, they now find themselves with their backs firmly against the wall and at the verge of elimination.

So, as the 2012 season continues to near a upsetting end, who’s to blame for this late season collapse?

The Rays’ September failures have been a team effort, but their are five players who have just been flat-out awful this month.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore appeared to have hit his stride this season after struggling during the early part of the year, but unfortunately those struggles have comeback to haunt him here in September when the Rays least need it.

Moore has has made three starts this month and none of them have been good ones. He suffered the loss in all three, and compiled a 7.43 ERA.

His fastball velocity has been down lately, which is likely a big reason for the poor outings.

Jeff Keppinger

Jeff Keppinger has probably been the Rays’ most consistent hitter all season long. The .317/.361/.419 hitter has hit just .246 with a .220 wOBA and 0 extra-base hits in September.

He’s also seen his strikeout percentage rise to 8.5%.

Matt Joyce

The Rays depend on Matt Joyce to be one of the top bats in the middle of their lineup, and he has not lived up to that expectation recently.

In the last 30 days, Joyce has hit just .182/.289/.288 with just a single home run and eight RBI while posting a low wRC+ of 60. In those 76 plate appearances he’s hit just five extra-base hits—a huge reason why the Rays’ offense has been anemic as it is lately.

Luke Scott

It’s been a disappointing season the whole way through for DH Luke Scott. Lately he’s been especially bad though, having his worst month since his franchise record 0-41 skid back in July.

Scott has hit .182/.200/.341 with just one HR and four RBI in his last 45 PA. Any team with a DH who’s putting up those kind of numbers probably isn’t going to have such a great offense, and that’s been the case for the Rays this year.

Joel Peralta

The wheels have seemingly fell off Joel Peralta here late in the the season. The Rays’ set-up man is 0-2 in with a 5.79 ERA in the last 30 days, putting a big dent in a Tampa Bay bullpen that has been strong all year long.

How Luke Scott’s Return Could Affect the Rays’ Roster Situation

Luke Scott, who has been sidelined with an oblique strain since July, is expected to be activated from the disabled list and rejoin the Rays this week. Scott, a designated hitter, probably wouldn’t be an everyday starter when he initially returns to roster as Evan Longoria is currently in the DH role.

Until the Rays decide Longoria’s hamstring is healthy enough to play third base again, Scott will likely platoon with Longo and serve as a pinch hitter.

The main question to be asked here is who will the Rays option down to make room for Scott on the 25-man roster. Sean Rodriguez—currently batting just .209/.275/.325— definitely seems like the most likely answer at the moment. The only other option really is Ryan Roberts, but the Rays are probably going to hang on to him because he provides more offensive production that Rodriguez. With the rosters expanding to 40 men on September 1, however, this minor league trip should only be a temporary one for Rodriguez.

Another thing to keep an eye on is how the Rays’ infield situation will work out once the roster move is made. Joe Maddon experimentally started Ben Zobrist at shortstop (first time since 2009) for four of the last five games, which strengthened the Rays’ offense by keeping the weaker bats of Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson—the Rays’ only other options at short—out of the lineup.

Hopefully there is more to this ‘experiment’, and Zobrist could see a lot more playing time at shortstop throughout the rest of the season. If he can hold up defensively at short—which he has done so far—the Rays can finally be able to put out the best possible lineup game after game. Monday night was a big step forward for Zobrist to become the Rays’ permanent shortstop for the rest of the year. He got the start with Alex Cobb—the most groundball-heavy starter in the rotation—pitching and performed well again.

So if Zorilla does end up making the transition back to short, his original position, how would the infield shape up once Scott returns? Jeff Keppinger could man third base while Ryan Roberts takes over second, or vice versa, and Elliot Johnson would be on the bench like he has been lately.

Against left-handed starters, however, the field could have a bit of a different look. Keppinger could possibly play first instead of Pena, who Maddon is apparently planning to start less against lefties. Elliot Johnson could get the start at short if Joe decides not to start Joyce, because  Zobrist would have to play right field.

We could see all these possibilities happen in the next couple of weeks, but things will be different when Longoria eventually returns to the hot corner. Against right-handers the infield would be the same except either Roberts or Keppinger would play second with Longoria at third. Against lefties Keppinger would probably start at DH instead of Scott, and Roberts would get the start at second. And once the rosters expand in September, Pena (and possibly Joyce) could be relieved of their duties at their respective positions against left-handers.

We know how Joe Maddon and the Rays love their matchups, so don’t be surprised to see any of these possibilities.

In conclusion, Zobrist becoming the Rays’ main shortstop is the key for them fitting as many key bats into the lineup as possible per game. Defense is obviously crucial as the shortstop position, but with Johnson owning a .970 fielding percentage and Rodriguez having a .959 percentage (both below the league average) at short, the move couldn’t be much of a downgrade.

It’s going to be really nice to see the Rays go from having maybe the worst shortstop combo in baseball to having a middle-of-the-order switch hitter as their shortstop.

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)

Hideki Matsui to Sign Minor League Deal; Analyzing the Rays’ Latest Move

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The Rays are apparently on the verge of adding to their offensive depth with another veteran bat. Jack Curry of YES Network reported that the Rays are expected to sign former star slugger and World Series MVP Hideki Matsui to a minor league contract.

Matsui, who played his first season without the New York Yankees in 2011, hit .251/.321/.375 with 12 home runs and 72 RBI for Oakland through 141 games played. Matsui, who turns 38 this June, is obviously out of his prime and his numbers are clearly not where they used to be. However, he did finish the season strong last year hitting .295/.353/.425 in the second half.

Bringing Matsui aboard was definitely a smart move for the Rays, who could use another quality bat on the roster. He’s proven to be a very productive hitter throughout his nine solid years in the big leagues, posting a career line of .285/.363/.467 with a total of 173 homers. His 162-game average of 101 RBI and 23 HR per year is what’s most impressive amongst his overall numbers.

Once Matsui will join the Rays, the question is how he will fit on the roster. Designated Hitter is his primary position now, but he can also play left field. When Matsui gets called up (which will most likely send the newly-acquired Brandon Allen to the minors), there obviously won’t be a immediate starting position for him. The Rays have a solid DH in Luke Scott–who’s also a left-handed batter—and have outfield with no room for him.

What the Rays can do with Matsui though, is platoon, something they’ve fell in love with since Joe Maddon has taken over. The Rays have not yet found an effective hitter to platoon the left-handed bats of Matt Joyce and Luke Scott yet this season—who have never been successful off left-handed pitching—but they may of just found their guy in Hideki Matsui. Although Matsui is also a lefty, he has been much more effective off left-handed pitching throughout his career. His ability to hit decently off lefties is a probably a big reason why the Rays signed him and not Johnny Damon.

His average against both righties and lefties in his career are exactly the same at .285; although he produces a lot more runs against right-handers. Still, it’s probably a better option than Joyce (.199/.274/.329 career against LHP) and Scott (.236/.313/.465 career against LHP). That’s why we can expect to see Matsui get a significant amount of playing time against left-handed pitching this season, as he is probably a better option than the Rays’ DH and corner outfielder (Joyce), who both man positions that he can play. If the Rays decide not to start either Joyce or Scott due to the pitching matchup one day, Matsui and Jeff Keppinger could possibly be the duo to replace them.

No matter how many lefties face the Rays this season, Matsui is probably going to see a pretty good amount of pinch hit appearances. Fortunately, he has had success as a pinch hitter in the past, posting a career .300 average in 50 plate appearances.

Another encouraging split I found interesting from Matsui’s stats is how well he’s hit at Tropicana Field over the years. He’s a career .297/.385/.505 hitter at the Trop, with 43 RBI and 10 homers. In a more hitter-friendly park that Matsui seems to thrive in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his numbers rise from last year’s.

Another reason why this move makes a lot of sense is Matsui’s ability to be consistent with runners in scoring position. Matsui is a career .298/.382/.477 hitter with the runners in scoring position, something that the Rays should be excited about. Tampa’s biggest weakness is hitting with men in scoring position, finishing third-worst in baseball last year with a .224 RISP. If Matsui can come through for the Rays in big situations like he’s done in the past, their offense could become more potent than ever.

His ability to get runners in is not the only reason why Matsui is known as a clutch hitter. Year after year, he’s been able to turn it on late in the season and into the postseason. He’s a lifetime .289/.378/.454 hitter in September/October (regular season). His postseason stats have been even more impressive, posting a career line of .312/.391/.541 with 39 RBI and 10 HR in 56 games. In the Fall Classic, the “Godzilla” unleashed in his two World Series. He’s compiled a .389/.463/.750 line with 12 RBI and four HR.

With the likelihood of the Rays making their third straight postseason appearance in 2012, Matsui could be a crucial part to their success in October. A clutch hitter like Matsui is a perfect addition to this ballclub, which has lacked some clutch hits in the last couple of years.

The biggest reason why Andrew Friedman went out and made this move may be the fact that Matsui is a good Luke Scott insurance policy. Although a major Scott injury would hurt the team, it would not as big as a blow as it would if Brandon Allen were to replace him. Scott has struggled with injury issues in the past, and hasn’t played over 135 games in a season since 2008 when he played 148 games (the only time he played over 135 games in his career). He was hurt most of the season last year with a shoulder injury, and has already missed a few games this year with a hamstring strain. Turning 34 this June, his chances of a an injury-free season are not getting better.

With the addition of Matsui, the Rays are given offensive security probably better than they’ve ever had. It’s clear that this is another very intelligent move by the Rays front office, and can only make them an even better team.

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.

2012 Season Preview

20120305-152438.jpgAnother exciting year of Tampa Bay Rays baseball is right around the corner. The Rays seem confident and ready for a successful 2012 season, and it’s easy to see why. After a memorable 2011 season, the Rays return to Tampa with another very talented group. The front office got the job done this offseason, reeling in three key pieces while only losing two big names from last year. The Rays replaced their 2011 first-baseman/DH combo — Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman — with the big bats of Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. They also filled in the huge catcher hole in the roster, picking up veteran backstop Jose Molina. As the Rays return with filled gaps and arguably the best rotation in baseball, they are definitely serious contenders for a title. They hope to finally get over the hump in 2012, after being defeated by the Texas Rangers two straight years in the ALDS. Here’s an outlook of what to except from the Rays this year.

The Rotation

If one thing’s for sure, the Rays have one of the most talented starting rotations in all of baseball. Last season, the Rays had arguably the best rotation in the league, and this year it’s expected to get even better. Phenom rookie Matt Moore is the newest addition to Tampa’s pitching staff, and will likely find a spot in the Opening Day rotation. However, the Matt Moore hype is not the biggest topic amongst the Rays’ starters this spring. All eyes will be watching the battle between Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis for the fifth spot in the rotation. Having a rotation that’s six starters deep is a great problem to have for any team, and will provide the Rays will security throughout the season. The winner of the battle between Niemann and Davis will probably come down to whoever preforms better during spring training. Although exhibition games have not yet started, my early prediction goes to Niemann here. Both hurlers are qualified for the job, but better numbers and more experience will likely give Niemann the edge in this competition. Also, Davis may suit the long reliever role better than Niemann. Davis doesn’t eat up inning like Niemann does, and Niemann hasn’t had much success throwing out of the bullpen in the past.

Now let’s take a look at the guys in front of the fifth starter. It may just be the best starting quartet in the MLB, as the Rays feature a lineup of four All Star caliber pitchers. James Shields, who had a career year last season, will likely be the Opening Day starter. It’s hard not to award him with the #1 spot after the ridiculous numbers he put up in 2011. “Big Game James” finished third in the Cy Young voting after posting a 2.82 ERA with 16 wins and 11 complete games. It’s hard to except those kind of numbers out of Shields in 2012, but you can still count on him to have another good season. Fellow All Star David Price will likely follow Shields in the rotation. The 26-year-old southpaw had an off-year last season, finishing with a below .500 record and a 3.49 ERA. Price has already proved he’s an ace-type pitcher, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he explodes with a huge season in 2012. We can expect to see Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson in the #3 hole to start the season, which really shows just how scary the Rays’ rotation actually is. Hellickson quickly established himself as one of the top pitchers in the league in just his first full big league season, posting a 2.95 ERA through 189 innings pitched. This season’s ROY winner could very possibly pitching right after him, as Matt Moore seems like a likely fit for the fourth spot. Of course, we all remember Moore’s big league success during his brief stint in the majors last year.

Starting Pitching in the Organization

The Rays are stacked with arms down in their farm system. There are three starters that could make a big league splash this season; Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, and Chris Archer. Cobb already proved he can be an effective starter at the Major League level, when he started nine games replacing the injured Jeff Niemann. Cobb went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in his rookie year. He’s never been considered a top prospect, but I think he’s a bit underrated by scouts. Alex Torres, on the other hand, is a pretty high ranked prospect, as he’s a member of the Rays’ top 10 prospect list. 20120305-151621.jpgWith the crowded rotation, Torres hasn’t really got his chance with the Rays yet, but he does have eight innings pitched out of the bullpen under his belt. There isn’t any good chances that Torres will start games in 2012, but he’ll probably contribute to the ‘pen during the season. Chris Archer, the organization’s #3 prospect (according to MLB.com), could also pitch out the bullpen by the end of the 2012 season. Archer is still developing in the minors, in hopes to become a frontline starter type pitcher in the majors. However, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in the near future, as the Rays simply don’t have a spot for him in the rotation. Still, his excellent fastball-slider combo could make him an effective reliever, and give the Rays a huge boost in the late innings.

The Bullpen

Here’s how I predict the bullpen will look like at Opening Day:20120305-152852.jpg*Correction: For the middle relief role, I intended to put Jake McGee rather than Josh Lueke. 

As you can see, the bullpen will look a little different than it did last season. The 8-9 inning combo will probably be the same, with Kyle Farnsworth as the closer and Joel Peralta as the setup man. The front end of the bullpen will definitely look different, though, as some of the Rays’ new acquisitions will likely find some spots in the ‘pen. The long relief role will obviously go to whoever loses the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation; I’m assuming either Davis or Niemann. I’m also predicting there will be two lefties in the ‘pen, considering how Maddon seems to like having at least two left-handed arms in contrast to just one. J.P. Howell will likely get the ‘lefty specialist’ role, and Jake McGee may take over the middle relief spot. Burke Badenhop, another new face, will probably end up as the bullpen’s groundball guy. With Adam Russell no longer with the Rays, it’s important to have a reliever in the ‘pen to go to when you’re looking specifically for a double play. As for the ‘right-handed specialist’ or the ‘one-out right-hander guy’, Fernando Rodney seems like the best fit for that spot.

But of course, there will be some spring competitions within the bullpen. Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, Dane De La Rosa, Matt Bush, Alex Torres and Cesar Ramos all have shots at a bullpen spot throughout the season. Keep your eyes peeled for Gomes and Lueke, as a good enough spring training performance might earn them a spot on the roster.

The Infield

20120305-151614.jpgThe Corners:

First Base- Carlos Pena will be manning first base for the Rays this season, just as he did from 2007-2010. There is some depth at the position, as utility infielders Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez can both fill in at first. Zobrist, who can play every position outside the battery, actually fields the position decently. That’s definitely good to have in mind in case of an injury. Outfielder Matt Joyce can also be added to the depth chart. Joyce has started his first base practice this offseason, and may continue to work on it throughout spring training.

Third Base- Evan Longoria will be the Opening Day third baseman for the fourth straight year. The Rays do have some depth at third, with Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson. Zobrist also has the ability to play the hot corner, but it’s really the last role he has to worry about.

Up The Middle:

Second Base- “Zorilla” will be the Opening Day second baseman, continuing to provide the Rays with great defense at the position. Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Keppinger and Elliot Johnson will all backup Zobrist at second throughout the year.

Shortstop- The shortstop position is the biggest question mark for Opening Day. Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Keppinger and Reid Brignac will have a three-way battle this spring for the starting role. The early favorite seems to be Rodriguez, but Keppinger and Brignac will definitely give him a run for his money this spring. Both Brignac and Rodriguez are good defensively, but Rodriguez gets the edge because he’s the better offensive player overall. Keppinger is a bit below average defensively at second base, but he’s probably a better contact hitter than the other two. His lifetime batting average of .281 is a lot higher than both Brignac’s and Rodriguez’s career averages. Still, my prediction is that Rodriguez will get the Opening Day shortstop gig.

The Catchers

The Rays filled in a big roster hole this offseason when they signed veteran backstop Jose Molina. Molina will be Opening Day catcher, but he’s not able to play more than 80-90 games this season.. Unfortunately, the Rays are pretty weak catching wise behind Molina. Rookie catchers Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos, along with veteran Chris Gimenez, will battle this month for the Opening Day backup role. All three have little offensive ability, as well as little experience (especially Lobaton and Chirinos). It’s hard to say who gets the early edge here, but I think it goes to Gimenez. The thing that stands out with Gimenez is versatility. His ability to play the corner outfield and the corner infield is what may separate him from Lobaton and Chirinos in the end. When it’s all said and done, Gimenez is going to have to perform well enough during spring training to earn himself the backup job.

The Outfield

Left Field- Rookie Desmond Jennings will most likely be the Opening Day starter in left field. Sam Fuld will be backing him up all season long, as playing left field is what he does best.

Center Field- Luckily for the Rays, they will enjoy another season of B.J. Upton playing centerfield every day. Sean Rodriguez, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, and Matt Joyce could all potentially fill in at center if needed.

Right Field- Matt Joyce will be the Rays’ starting right-fielder, and will be backed up by a pair of talented outfielders throughout the season. Both Ben Zobrist and Sam Fuld will fill in at right when needed.

The DH

Luke Scott will be the Opening Day designated hitter, which is a change from his usual starting outfield role. Sam Fuld is technically the backup DH, but if Scott were to be injured Maddon would probably put Fuld in right field and let Matt Joyce play DH.

The Bench

The Rays will have four bench players to round out their Opening Day 25-man roster. One of the bench spots will obviously be a backup catcher, so that narrows it down to Lobaton, Chirinos and Gimenez. Again, my prediction is that Gimenez will win the backup spot. There will be to infield bench players on the Opening Day roster, making a competition between Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Jeff Keppinger (assuming Sean Rodriguez gets the starting job). My prediction is that Elliot Johnson will be just edged out here, meaning Brignac and Keppinger will start the season off the bench. That leaves one outfield bench spot, which will most likely go to Fuld.

The Minors

20120305-151627.jpgThe Rays don’t have a big list of position player prospects that could arrive in 2012, but there are two names that immediately jump out. Outfielder Brandon Guyer made his MLB debut last season, during his short 15-game stint. Guyer hopes to get more playing time this year, and probably will if he continues to put up offensive numbers in the minors. Guyer hit .312 with 61 RBI and 16 stolen bases for AAA Durham in 2011, which was the season after he hit .344 with 58 RBI and 30 stolen bases in Class-AA ball. Still, the Rays’ crowded outfield is what’s getting in the way of significant playing time for Guyer.

Shortstop Tim Beckham could also get some playing time this year as a September call-up. The former #1 overall draft-pick has slowly progressed in the minor leagues, and could get his first MLB stint if he continues to improve this year. Beckham hit .271 with 12 homers and 70 RBI through his 131 games with both AA Montgomery and AAA Durham.

Season Predictions

Team MVP: Evan Longoria

Team Ace: David Price

Rays players in MLB Awards (Regular Season): Matt Moore (ROY), Evan Longoria (Gold Glove), Joe Maddon (Manager of the Year), and Evan Longoria (Silver Slugger).

Rays’ 2012 Record: 97-65

Rays’ 2012 AL East Finish: 1st place; tied with the New York Yankees’ record but will win the division by head-to-head record.

Rays’ 2012 Postseason Finish: Win World Series

I truly believe this is the season the Rays are finally going to pull it off. I look at it this way: the Rays had a great team last year, and they clearly have a better roster coming into 2012. With the full-season addition of Desmond Jennings, the outfield has improved. With the addition of Carlos Pena and more depth in the infield, it’s safe to say that a great infield has got even better. With the 2012 return of Matt Moore, an unbelievable starting rotation should be even more incredible. Barring any key injuries, the Rays flat-out have a better ball club in 2012. I see the Rays getting over that ALDS hump this year as inevitable.

As for the player predictions, you may be a bit surprised by my choice for team ace. Price has already proved he can be one of the top pitchers in the league, and I believe he just had an off-year last season. Whoever will be the Rays’ top pitcher in 2012 will likely not be the best starter by much at all. James Shields, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson all have the potential for huge seasons this year.

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