Last year, the Rays were a fantastic Cinderella story. They purged the devil from their name, and, coupled with the recent purging of Vince Naimoli from their owner's box, and those two things combined with a remarkable influx of young talent skyrocketed them from league laughingstock to the top of the most stacked division in baseball, and the American League. The lineup is solid from top to bottom, the rotation is rife with young stars, and the farm system is stocked with top-drawer talent. They should be a power for years to come.
The lineup should be improved this year, with Pat the Bat joining a healthy Bossman Upton to create a formidable core. An improved Evan Longoria, a healthy Carl Crawford, another year of development for Dioner Navarro, plus talented slugger Matt Joyce (acquried from Detroit) means this team will score runs. Plus, Dan Johnson is gone!
As for pitching, the talent level is extremely high. Kazmir, Garza, Shields, and Sonnanstine are as good a 1-4 as there is in the league, and David Price might be ready to make it an eye-popping group. Plus, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and more are right behind those guys. The bullpen got some fluky performances in some spots (we're looking at you, Grant Balfour), but that's the nature of relievers - throwing so few innings means anything can happen. We just hope they don't trust Troy Percival to close all season again.
PECOTA projected record: 95-67, 1st in AL East
KCSD projected record: 98-64, 1st in AL East
Yeah, we're pretty high on these guys. But they can do it all, and they seem to have improved across the board over the offseason, except in the 'pen. We don't like that they have to play so many games against the stacked AL East; that and a potentially suspect bullpen are the only things keeping them from the 100-win plateau in our eyes.
Around the Horn
C Dioner Navarro: .290/.350/.420, 10 HR. Navarro has been kicking around the majors since 2004, when he came up as a 20-year old Yankee. He put together the sort of season people had been expecting from him last year, and we like him to keep improving...because he's only 25. We were surprised, too.
1B Carlos Pena: .250/.380/.500, 30 HR. The definition of a late-peak guy, Pena embodies the Rays' meteoric rise to the top. He emerged from the land of fallen prospects two seasons ago to jack 46 ding dongs, and though he fell off last season, he should have another year or two as a masher left in him.
2B Akinori Iwamura: .260/.340/.375, 6 HR, 10 SB. Aki regressed in just about every way last year, and we think he'll do so again.
3B Evan Longoria: .275/.350/.500, 25 HR. Longoria's got to cut down on the K's to become a truly great player, but he's only 23. We think it's safe to give him some time.
SS Jason Bartlett: .270/.330/.370, 5 HR, 15 SB. Bartlett somehow won the team MVP award last year, despite not being a terribly useful hitter. So we assume guys really like him. And he can handle himself with the leather. So: Jason Bartlett is a GOOD GUY.
LF Carl Crawford: .300/.350/.430, 15 HR, 50 SB. Crawford had a pretty bad year last year, but he's still just 27, so we're gonna go ahead and say that it was the injuries that got to him. We like him to return to form.
CF B.J. Upton: .300/.400/.500, 20 HR, 40 SB. We're really high on Upton. He's 24, he's finally settled in at center field, and he's an absolute monster at the plate. We would pay to watch him play.
RF Gabe Gross: .250/.340/.440, 15 HR. Gross is useful enough we guess, but we still don't really like him at all. Probably because his name is Gross.
From the Bump: Starters
LHP Scott Kazmir: 180 IP, 3.20 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 190 K, 70 BB. Yeah, we're really high on him, too. Did you know he's 25, too? We're so glad the Mets traded him.
RHP James Shields: 200 IP, 3.50 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 160 K, 45 BB. Another guy we like a lot, despite the fact that he has a really dumb nickname ("Big Game" James). We don't like anything about that name at all BUT he's a really good pitcher. So we'll give him a pass. Kinda like if you go to Starbucks and the barista really screws up your order only she's really hot so you don't really care that much.
RHP Matt Garza: 175 IP, 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 130 K, 50 BB. Another great talent. Dude really got hot after he saw a sports psychologist, and he, too, is 25, so he could be even better than we're expecting.
RHP Andy Sonnanstine: 180 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 120 K, 35 BB. It's starting to really sink in how amazingly talented this rotation is. Sonnanstine puts up numbers that would make him an ace on other teams - albeit really, really bad teams - and he's slotted in at 4 here. And he has freakish control...we also didn't know that. See, kids, blogging is good for you!
LHP David Price: 120 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 100 K, 40 BB. Three things about Price: #1, we're Facebook friends with him. #2, we weren't THAT impressed with his postseason performance. Seems like he got lucky. And he always seemed like he was going deep in counts. Yeah, it's impressive 'cause he was such a young'n, but still. #3, he may need just a touch more seasoning in AAA before he's ready to be the dominant pitcher he eventually will be. So we're hedging our bets with his projection - if they rush him up, you can expect higher ERA and WHIP numbers; if he waits, they should be better.
From the Bump: Relievers
Closer RHP Troy Percival: 50 IP, 5.00 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 35 K, 30 BB, 15 SV. We really don't know the Rays' bullpen situation that well; Percival was great in the first month, but not very good for the rest of the season - and yet they left him in the role all year. And he's 40. And once retired with arm problems. We're sorta scared of Percival.
Setup man RHP Dan Wheeler: 60 IP, 3.40 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 50 K, 20 BB, 10 SV. Again with the uncertainty about the save situation. Also, again with the fact that Wheeler sorta scares us. So does Grant Balfour. And J.P. Howell is tossing in the WBC, which scares us. This bullpen could really blow up the rest of the team if they can't repeat last year's performance. On the other hand, they're gonna have to be really bad, because this team can hit and pitch with the best of them.