Know Thy Enemy 2012: Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are not a surprise anymore.

'Dave Price _1344' photo (c) 2010, Don Johnson 395 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/The Rays are not a surprise anymore. Last season, they hung around the ultra-competitive AL East long enough to challenge, catch up to, and eventually, on the last day of the season, overtake the Red Sox to capture the AL-Wild Card crown. It was one of those moments that will go down in franchise history. When their franchise player, Evan Longoria, struck a baseball in such a way that it scorched the controlled dome air on a line, not high enough to be declared a home run upon impact, but with enough force that it would eventually disappear over the left field fence just curling around the corner of the foul poll. It sunk into that corner like the eight ball into the corner pocket. As it turns out, the Rays were sharks and the Red Sox were the bloodied victim.

Now, as we are about to embark on a new season with fresh hope and 162 games worth of drama in front of us, we know for sure that the Rays are more than just dark horses from the AL East crown. In fact, if the Red Sox’ pitching struggles as it did late in the 2011 season, they’ll be number the number one contenders.

Catcher: Jose Molina (2011 stats – .281/.342/.415) and Jose Lobaton (2011 stats – .118/.231/.147)

Do not expect those numbers from Jose Molina again in 2012. In a small sample size of 191 plate appearances, Molina held a .362 BABIP, highly unusually for someone who runs that bases only slightly faster than molasses. For the past three seasons, Molina has played in 52, 57 and 55 games, now however, he is expected to get the majority of playing time behind the dish, which seems like a scenario destined to end poorly, despite his experience and defensive ability behind the dish. Lobaton has shown the ability to draw a walk at the minor league level, but his bat is unlikely to be a much of anything at the big league level. Don’t be surprised if Robinson Chirinos, recovering from a slight concussion, is the go-to catcher by the all-star break.

First base: Carlos Pena (2011 stats – .225/.357/.462)

Pena returns to the home that made him the star he was once touted to become as a prospect with the A’s back in the “Moneyball” days. However, Pena’s production has fallen off ever since that one year in the sun (2007). He still has a keen eye at the plate and takes plenty of walks, which helps to mitigate the large amount of strikeouts and low AVG. Last season, Pena slugged 28 home runs, but I’m convinced he would have hit 30-35 if not for an early season hand injury. If healthy, there is no reason that Pena can’t get on base at a .360-plus clip and rip 30-plus home runs for the Rays in 2012.

Second base: Ben Zobrist (2011 stats – .269/.353/.469)

Considered a dark horse MVP in 2011, the Zobeast bounced back big-time after a rough 2010 season. His power, speed, on-base skills and resourceful defense were a huge part of Tampa Bay’s success in 2011. His strong skill-set should continue to be a major factor for the Rays in 2012.

Third Base: Evan Longoria (2011 stats – .244/.355/.495)

Based on the offseason commercials, someone had stolen Longo’s hat. Based on the occurances during his 2011 season, however, it seems as though someone had stolen Longo’s luck instead. He started the season by battling an abdominal strain, then suffered through a season in which he ended with an insanely low .239 BABIP – insanely low for his skill set. While his AVG suffered due to a low success rate of his balls in play, his undelying skills continued to flourish as he set a career best 14 percent walk rate and a career low 16.2 percent strikeout rate while posting a robust .251 ISO. In other words, opposing pitchers beware. 2012 might be the best season of Longoria’s career yet.

Shortstop: Reid Brignac (2011 stats – .193/.227/.221) and Sean Rodriguez (2011 stats – .223/.323/.357)

If not for good defensive ability, it’s hard to imagine Reid Brignac holding down a major league job with any team. He’s in danger of becoming the Jeff Mathis of shortstops with extremely poor plate discipline, issues with strikeouts and little power potential. Sean Rodriguez, on the other hand, at least has some upside. The power Rodriguez flashed in the minors is yet to show in the big leagues and his swing is prone to too many whiffs. However, should he find his power strike in the big leagues, he would provide at least some value at the plate while playing good defense at short.

Left field: Desmond Jennings (2011 stats – .259/.356/.449)

There has been a buzz about Jennings for years now. On most teams, he would have been a major league regular much sooner, but the Rays were patient, allowing him extra time to develop and prove he could stay healthy. Between Triple-A and the big leagues last season, Jennings hit 22 home runs and stole 37 bases. Some say he could turn out to be a better version of Carl Crawford, with better plate discipline and more power. I find it hard to doubt them.

Center field: B.J. Upton (2011 stats – .243/.331/.429)

Upton has always been viewed as a player with tremendous upside, but he continues to fail to live up to those once loft expectations. However, after an incendiary September last season, he continues to dangle such promise on a string. A free agent after the 2012 season, this could be the make or break year for the flaky center fielder.

Right field: Matt Joyce (2011 stats – .277/.347/.478)

Joyce enjoyed an all-star first half in 2011 (.290/.351/.513), but faded in the second half, along with his inflated BABIP and production against lefties. Joyce hit .217/.278/.370 against lefties in 2011 and has never had much success againt them in the past. Unless he sees a David Ortiz-like shift in production against lefties in 2012, he’ll need a platoon partner.

Designated hitter: Luke Scott (2011 stats – .220/.301/.402)

So, apparently, Luke Scott is not a Red Sox fan. He had this to say about the Sox and their fans,

“Just their arrogance. The fans come in and they take over the city. They’re ruthless. They’re vulgar. They cause trouble. They talk about your family. Swear at you. Who likes that? When people do that, it just gives you more incentive to beat them. Then when things like [the last game of last season] happen, you celebrate even more. You go to St. Louis — classiest fans in the game. You do well, there’s no vulgarity. You know what? You don’t wish them bad.”

OK then. Time to walk the walk Scott. Unfortunately for the Sox, a healthy Luke Scott might just do just that. Labrum surgery cost him much of the 2011 season, but before that he was a player known for 20-25 home run power and the ability to get on-base at a .350-plus clip.

Starting pitcher #1: David Price (2011 stats – 12-13, 3.49/1.14)

Despite a losing record, Price pitched even better than he did in 2010 (19-6, 2.72 ERA). He had a better K/BB rate, amassed more innings and posted a lower xFIP. With a bit more support on both sides of the ball in 2012, Price could contend for the Cy Young.

Starting pitcher #2: James Shields (2011 stats – 16-12, 2.82/1.04)

It was a career year for Shields, who basically duplicated his K/BB rate from 2010, when he posted a 5.18 ERA, but saw a drastic drop from an an inflated .341 BABIP against to a liquidated .258 BABIP against last season. He also fell just shy of 250 innings pitched. History suggests that his BABIP will normalize in 2012, but that will still lead to another valuable season from the bulldog of the Rays rotation.

Starting pitcher #3: Jeremy Hellickson (2011 stats – 13-10, 2.95/1.15)

Take away the sparkling ERA and the numbers paint a picture of a pitcher more likely to be a fringe fifth starter, rather than one that would put up 13 wins and a 2.95 ERA. Hellickson’s 1.6 K/BB rate was well below the league average (2.3) and his absurdly low BABIP (.223) and high strand rate (82 percent) all scream regression from the lungs of the sabermetric world. However, Hellickson is about as good of a bet to fend of that regression as any by showing drastic improvement in 2012. His minor league track record suggests that his 3.4 BB/9 in 2011 might be nothing more than a season long learning curve. That track record, along with a slightly above average whiff rate, suggest that his K/9 could also rise in 2012. If he does indeed take that step forward, it could be lights-out for opposing offenses.

Starting pitcher #4: Matt Moore (2011 stats – 1-0, 2.89 ERA/1.21)

How many lefties do you know that can play an easy game of catch while throwing 94 MPH? That’s what it seems like Moore is doing when he pitches: playing catch. However, his game of catch has the potential to break bats and hands alike. With an electric arsenal and a history of improved control/command in the minor leagues, many are predicting huge things from  Moore in his first full big league season. While there may indeed be a big-league learning curve for Moore, his pure stuff is good enough to catapult him into the elite pitchers of the AL and in short order.

Starting pitcher #5: Jeff Niemann (2011 stats – 11-7, 4.06/1.24)

Rounding out the rotation will be Jeff Niemann, who improved many aspects of his game in 2011, walk rate and ground ball rate among them. Niemman developed more confidence in his two-seam fastball and curveball last season, both of which, if he continues to improve upon them, could lead to another step forward in 2012. Given that the 6-foot, 9-inch Niemann posted a 4.06 ERA and 3.73 xFIP last season, he would be once scary fifth starter, in more ways than one.

Bullpen: Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Fernando Rodney, Jay Howell, Jake McGee, Wade Davis

Two years ago, Kyle Farnsworth learned that a little movement on his fastball could go a long way. Now, he is a legitimate closer and one found on the cheap by the Rays.

Peralta does not offer too many free passes and generated plenty of weak contact last season (15.5 percent contact rate against). However, the chances of him repeating such a feat are not set in stone, nor are his chances of repeating a .218 BABIP against. He still has the skills to be a bullpen asset, but there is at least some risk in counting on him to repeat his 2011 numbers.

Fernando Rodney was one of the most un-Ray-like moves of the offseason. Despite a high velocity fastball and a good changeup, Rodney has never been able to harness his stuff, allowing too many free passes with not enough strikeouts and never having posted at least one WAR in any one season. Not sure what the Rays were thinking here.

Among the bounce-back canditates are lefties J.P. Howell and Jake McGee.

Howell attempted to regain his former stuff after offseason Labrum surgery. Hel had never been known for much control, but his high-end strikeout rate did not return in 2011, leaving him ultra susceptible to the home run ball. Still, he generated a high ground ball rate, so there is at least some hope going forward.

Jake McGee had shown plenty of promise in the minor leagues, posting excellent strikeout rates and showing improvement in his control during the 2010 season at Triple-A. Some saw him as a dark horse for saves in Tampa Bay last season, but his adjustment to major league hitters did not go over so well. There is still potential for McGee to become an impact reliever, but he’ll have to improve against right-handed batters or he’ll eventually be relegated to a LOOGY role.

Conclusion

This team’s pitching, if healthy, can carve the way to not only an AL Wild Card birth, but perhaps a division title if everything comes together. In other words: Those who take this team lightly will be nothing more than sediments of their wake.

Categories: Boston Red Sox

Charlie first started writing about baseball back in 2008 when he opened Fantasy Baseball 365. Since graduating college with a degree in English, he has spent time coaching baseball as well as working in several minor league front offices. He also writes for The Outside Corner and contributes to Project Prospect and ESPN's Sweet Spot. Writer from August 3, 2010 - May 6, 2012

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