2011 pre-season preview: AL East – Tampa Bay Rays
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Tampa Bay Rays (2010 record: 96-66)
Everyone thinks the Rays will take a significant step backward in 2011, but I am not so sure those people are right. Tampa is one of the best-run organizations in baseball, and I think they have the young horses needed to minimize the impact of the losses of veterans Crawford, Garza and Pena. While I don’t believe they can make a playoff run, I think it’s likely they will remain competitive as they re-tool both the lineup and rotation.
As I expected, the front office signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to reasonable contracts, thereby minimizing the impact of the loss of their own free agents. Those deals will enable Matt Joyce to serve as the right fielder and Ben Zobrist to return to the infield, either at first or second base. (I know that won’t be how the season begins, but it likely will be how it ends). RHP Jeremy Hellickson will provide a close approximation of the stats lost by the trade of Matt Garza. Prospect Desmond Jennings will remind fans of a young version of Carl Crawford when he finally arrives at mid-season. Did the team take a step backward? Yes. Does it have to be catastrophic? Probably not.
The Rays, like the Twins before them, have proven that a small market team can compete with their big-market brethren with a sharp front office, good scouting and supportive ownership.
Notable subtractions: LF Carl Crawford, 1B Carlos Peña, SS Jason Bartlett, RP Rafael Soriano, RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Lance Cormier*, RP Dan Wheeler, RP Randy Choate, RP Grant Balfour*, RP Chad Qualls*, C Dioner Navarro, DH Brad Hawpe, IF Willy Aybar*, RHP Matt Garza
Catcher: John Jaso
Designated Hitter: Manny Ramirez
Jaso is not much of an option in a fantasy baseball league, unless you use OBP instead of BA, because he won’t hit for much power or drive in a lot of runs (he’ll hit in the bottom of the batting order, thereby losing RBI-opportunities). But the Rays’ brain trust likes him because he will get on base and play decent defense. He sported a ridiculously high walk rate (15%) last year that enabled him to garner the fourth-highest OBP among catchers with at least 400 ABs, ahead of such notables as Buster Posey and Victor Martinez. And he may have a double-digit home run season in that bat.
Ramirez is no longer the offensive force he once was, and while he won’t be the “heart-of-the-order” producer we have been accustomed to seeing, he can still be a productive offensive contributor. Last year, he had the second-best OBP (.409) among outfielders in either league (a whisker behind Josh Hamilton, at .411). Health could be the big issue for Manny – he can’t contribute to your offensive stats if he isn’t on the playing field. From all reports, he arrived at spring training in terrific shape. After health, the next question is whether he will stay interested if and when the Rays fall out of the pennant race. He’ll post a well-above-average batting average because he still makes solid contact (77%) and compiles a plus hit-rate (35% +/-). He should have plenty of RBI opportunities and score a fair share runs. It seems safe to plan on .290, 18 HR, 75 RBI and 75 R.
Johnson is one of those Four-A players, in my opinion – too good for the minor leagues but not quite good enough for prime time. He had a brutal season for Yokohama (NPB) in 2009 and returned to the US last year with a typically strong campaign in Triple-A. But he again struggled mightily after his promotion to Tampa (.198, 2 HR and 4 RBI in 111 AB). No one knows what to expect from him in The Show in 2011. He could be a huge bust or a really pleasant surprise.
Rodriguez’s splits suggest he will end up in a platoon situation – if he is lucky. He doesn’t hit right-handers especially well (.229), but can hold his own against lefties (.292). While he has excellent power, his contact rate (72%) leaves something to be desired. With such a poor contact rate, his batting average is at the mercy of his hit-percentage. If it should fall from the low-30s (last year) into the high-20s (his typical percentage in the minors), he could find himself watching Ben Zobrist from the bench.
Longoria, 25, has established himself as one of the most valuable players in baseball. His batting average and on-base percentage have increased each year, and his OPS has been remarkably consistent during his three years in The Show (between .874 and .879). He has won consecutive Gold Glove Awards (posting UZR/150s of 12.4 and 16.9) and while he did not repeat as a Silver Slugger Award winner last year, he was the only third baseman in baseball to hit at least .290, with 20+ HR, 100+ RBI, 95+ R and 15+ SB. The question at this point is how productive he will be with the changes in the lineup around him. Johnny Damon won’t set the table like Crawford. And while Manny isn’t the power threat he used to be, he should provide more protection than Pena – so the changes could balance out. Longoria will have to stay within himself and not try to do too much, so patience will be the key.
Is Brignac still a prospect, or has become suspect? His minor league peripherals suggest to me that he was never much of a prospect. In both the minor leagues and major leagues, his strikeout rate has been above league average, while his contact rate, hit rate and walk rate were below league average. If his hit rate should regress toward his career levels, you can expect he will hit .220-.230, which will result in quite a bit of bench time.
Damon had what was arguably the worst season of his professional career last year. He set a career low in stolen bases, and came close to establishing career lows in batting average, home runs, ribbies and runs scored. This happened in spite of the fact that his peripherals were largely consistent with recent years (BABIP, contact rate, hit rate, walk rate). Some pundits chalked up his struggles to Comerica Park, but he actually hit better there than on the road last year. It may be that age has finally caught up with him. if he struggles he’ll play half of the season as Jennings does his final prep work in Triple-A.
Upton’s physical tools are extraordinary, but it is clear that his 2007 season is an outlier brought on by an absurdly-high 40% hit rate. His ratios have settled into a normalized pattern, so we are seeing the real BJ Upton at this point. His contact rate has averaged 71% and his hit rate has averaged 31% over the last two seasons, producing a batting average of .239 over the biennium. He walks more than the league average, but he is increasingly unable to make contact (his K-rate has increased in each of the last three years – 20.9%, 24.3%, 26.9%). At a given point, the word “potential” starts to mean less and less.
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