As you may recall, it began on June 5, 2008. The night prior, Coco Crisp had slid questionably hard into the knees of Rays’ second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Words were exchanged, but the teams shortly thereafter went about their business. After the game, ever outspoken Rays’ manager Joe Maddon didn’t mince words as he emphatically declared: “I totally felt there was intent to hurt our middle infielder, and that’s what I was upset with….There’s no place for that when you intentionally try to hurt somebody.” In short, Coco Crisp now had a target on his back.
The following day as Crisp stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second inning the entire Fenway crowd could have guessed what was about to transpire. Sure enough, the first pitch Crisp saw was a 90 plus MPH fastball that went unswervingly into his hip. As if he had to think about his future actions for a passing moment, Crisp calmly flipped his bat, dropped his helmet, and then, after contemplation had transpired, charged full speed at the guilty party, James Shields.
After the two unsuccessfully traded punches, Crisp was Terry Tate form tackled, smothered, and body punched by now Red Sox Jonny Gomes, whom had riotously charged from his own bench. This all resulted in a bench clearing brawl, 8 suspensions, and the determination that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were no longer the doormat of the American League East, but a team that would contend for division titles year in and year out.
Since 2008 the Rays have been known for their small market finesse and panache. They have never gone out and signed a marquee free agent nor will they ever think twice about letting a home grown player take his talents elsewhere (Crawford, Upton, Pena, Kazmir). Their front office strategy has been and will be for the foreseeable future to put together an average, balanced lineup that can be compensated for with good to great pitching. Every year they seem to have players that over perform expectations. Call it luck, call it coincidence, or, as I would say, call it good management. Either way this has bred success for the Rays and 2013 should be no different.
Projected 2013 Lineup:
Catcher: Jose Molina (2012 stats – .223/.286/.335/rWAR: 0.8)
Of the thousand Molina brothers who play catcher, here we have 37-year old Jose. In 2012, Jose got the second most AB’s (274) in a season for his entire career while playing/starting in 104 games. That is not a lot of at bats for a season, and he did not fare well in the majority of the plate appearances. The Rays at catcher can be likened to the Sox at SS with the exception that the Rays do not have many stud prospects waiting in the wings. Backing up Molina will both inexperienced options Jose Lobaton or Robinson Chirinos. Chirinos was thought to be the catcher of the future a few years ago, but that certainly has not panned out. Don’t look for much offensively at catcher for the Rays.
First Base: James Loney (2012 stats – .249/.293/.336/rWAR: -0.9 (LAD) -0.3 (BOS))
At first base the Rays have decided to plug in Sox castoff James Loney. To me this smells like a typical Tampa Bay redemption story. From 2003-2007 Loney was ranked in the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects 4 of the 5 years and has always been thought of as a guy with great potential. However, he has never been able to live up to his billing. Last year it all seemed to fall apart for Loney as he hit .249 with only 6 HR and 41 RBI with a negative rWAR. Yet, the previous six seasons in LAD Loney averaged out to a .288 hitter while driving in 70 RBI to go along with 10 HR. Not great, but solid indeed.
Although Kelly Johnson will not put up eye-popping numbers, he has been a solid second baseman for many years dating back to his days in an Atlanta Braves uniform. He is almost a sure fire guarantee for a .260 BA, .340 OBP, 15-20 HR, 60-70 RBI, and a lot of SO (averaging 144 per 162 games). In short he is a role player who could find himself on the short end of the stick when Wil Myers makes it up to Tampa at some point this season. No, Myers does not play 2B, but I could certainly see utility guru Ben Zobrist switching to 2B to make room for Myers in the OF.
Third Base: Evan Longoria (2012 stats – .289/.369/.527/rWAR: 2.3)
Do not be deceived by Longo’s mediocre 2012 rWAR. If Longoria can stay on the field for an entire season he is easily a top 10 position players in baseball. However, health has been a challenge for the multi-millionaire who just signed a 15 year contract worth $144.5 million. I think we all can expect a monster year from Longo. Take out 2012 and Longo averages a rWAR of near 7.0 along with 35 HR, 120 RBI, .275 BA, and .360 OBP. He is a perennial MVP candidate and will be in the discussion if healthy.
Shortstop: Yunel Escobar (2012 stats – .253/.300/.344/rWAR: 2.5)
Coming off of a down year in Toronto, Escobar desperately needed a change of scenery and Tampa could not have been a better place for the embattled SS (see: eye black incident last year). And, in 2013 we should expect the career .282 hitter to bounce back. Although he will not walk all that often his good speed and ability to hit the baseball to all fields make him into a very good #2 hitter in the Rays lineup.
Left Field: Matt Joyce (2012 stats – .241/.341/.429/rWAR: 1.8)
Another Ray in search of a bounce back 2013 season (note: literally every guy so far is in “search of a bounce back season”.. talk about a bunch of question marks). Joyce is another average to good Tampa outfielder. He is Kelly Johnson V2.0 but with less strikeouts. Expect more of the same from Joyce: .260/15HR/60RBI. He, too, could be odd man out when Wil Mayers decides he hates the MiLB, calls the Rays front office demanding a call up in June, gets called up, and then hits 25 HR in 3 1/2 months.
Center Field: Desmond Jennings (2012 stats – .246/.314/.388/rWAR: 3.0)
Another home grown Tampa Bay Ray top prospect, Desmond Jennings came into last season with extremely high expectations. He did not live up to them. Sure, he played great defense and swiped 31 bags, but he hit .246/.314 with 120 SO versus 46 BB in the leadoff spot. That is what we would call a horrible approach at the plate. The Rays season could come down to how well Jennings plays; will he live up to his potential or fall into the Upton category: tons of talent but not great results?
Right Field: Ben Zobrist (2012 stats – .270/.377/.471/rWAR: 5.5)
I think we can all agree that Zobrist is easily one of the most underrated players in the game today. Through his first 4 full seasons in the MLB his rWAR is as follows: 8.3, 4.2, 8.5, 5.5. That is really, really good. Yet, you never hear about Zobrist on the national level. Sure, baseball fanatics and sabermetric gurus know how valuable he is to the Rays, but the guy deserves some more publicity. Perhaps that is the way that he, Joe Maddon, and the Rays like it: under the radar.
Designated Hitter: Luke Scott (2012 stats – .229/.285/.439/rWAR: 0.1)
Ah, Luke Scott, the most hated man in Red Sox nation for about 10 minutes until he got hurt for the second year in a row and finished the season hitting .229 (see: 2012 comments about Sox fans). Well, we haven’t heard much from old Uncle Luke since those comments, but I would venture to say we might if muttonchops decides he wants to stay healthy and his 20-25 bombs that he is accustomed to doing. Let’s hope not.
I tally that at 7 of 9 question marks in the Rays lineup. Yep, Wil Myers will be up before June.
Projected 2013 Pitching Staff:
Starting Pitcher #1: David Price (20-5, 2.56 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, Cy Young, rWAR: 6.4)
Price’s potential was in full bloom last year when he had a dazzling 2013 campaign and was rewarded with the American League Cy Young. Expect his remarkable 3.05 FIP to regress a bit, but look out for more of the same from Price as he is now established as one of baseballs best pitchers.
Starting Pitcher #2: Jeremy Hellickson (10-11, 3.25, 1.25, rWAR: 2.9)
As a fantasy baseball owner I’ll be the first to tell you that I despised owning Hellickson and dropped him midway through the season because of his frustratingly low K/9 rate and an average WHIP. Lucky for Hellickson, the MLB is not fantasy baseball. Despite his average WHIP and K/9 (and an alarmingly high 4.44, 4.60 FIP in the last two years – Bill James no like) he is a very good and, more importantly, reliable pitcher.
Starting Pitcher #3: Matt Moore (11-11, 3.81, 1.35, rWAR: 1.2)
In his first full Major League season Matt Moore was what many top pitching prospects are in their first MLB campaign: relatively average. I would expect that to change drastically in 2013. Take a look at these two rookie seasons:
The first pitcher on that list was David Price (2009) while the second was Matt Moore (2012). Both were rookies and Moore easily produced the better numbers. Does that mean Moore will be better than Price in a few years? Probably not, but it does suggest that Moore is in for a much better year than 2012.
Starting Pitcher #4: Alex Cobb (11-9, 4.03, 1.25, rWAR: 0.7)
Cobb is coming off a very underappreciated 2012 season. Although his numbers are not gaudy, they are solid and should improve considering he is only 25 and will be in just his second full big league season. If his ERA and WHIP can even marginally improve the Rays will have an above average 4th starter on their hands, which is more than the Red Sox can say for themselves right now. He seems to be in line for what could be a breakout 2013 campaign.
Starting Pitcher #5: Jeff Niemann (2-3, 3.08, 1.11, rWAR: 0.6)
This could be the final chance at a MLB rotation spot for the former 2004 4th overall pick. At 6’9”, Niemann is a tall glass of water who used to be regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball. Those prospect days are long gone, and this could be the end of the line for the 30-year old. Joe Maddon is giving Niemann the first crack at the 5th spot in the rotation, but if he begins to falter do not be surprised if the Rays look to up and coming RHP Chris Archer.
Pitching continues to be the Rays strength, as they seem to breed arms in their Minor League system. If the Rays pitch well, which we can all but guarantee, they will be in contention for the division come September.
Closer: Fernando Rodney (48 for 50 SV, 0.60, 0.78)
The above four anchor a bullpen that led the American League with a 2.88 ERA last season. Yes, surprisingly better than the Orioles. Last year,like many of you, I waited and waited for Rodney to blow up and regress back to his career 3.75 ERA, yet he never did. I mean he finished freaking 13th in MVP voting! You might be able to find Hall of Famers who never finished that high in MVP voting for an entire career! How he finished the season with a 0.60/0.78 line I have no idea, but in 2013 we should be able to expect a fair amount of regression back to the mean. I blame it on deer antler spray.
All jokes aside, the Rays will once again have one the best bullpens in the American League. Their staff as a whole should be regarded as one of the best in baseball.
I’m not sure how much needs to be said about Wil Myers on this preview since he is the #4 prospect in all the land according to Baseball America, but I guess I will say a few things. One, he is younger than most of us at 22 year of age. Two, he hit 37 bombs last year in the minors in only 134 games. Three, he won the 2012 MiLB Player of the Year. Four, the Rays 2013 starting OF hit a combined 47 HR last season in many more games than 134. Five, if Myers is not in a MLB uniform before June either something has gone extremely wrong or Matt Joyce has hit 20 HR in 2 months.
Other top prospects of note according to Baseball America:
36. Chris Archer, RHP: Could find himself in the Rays rotation if Cobb or Niemann falter or get hurt.
62. Taylor Guerrieri, RHP
90. Hak-Ju Lee, SS
92. Jake Odorizzi, RHP
Oh, and if you were wondering, the Rays have plenty of pitching prospects.
Prediction: 93-69, 2nd in AL East and 1st Wild Card