Tampa Bay Rays preview: Will youth be served in the AL East?
When you consider this past offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays, what becomes clear is the club’s biggest move — dealing for top prospect Wil Myers from Kansas City — is the epitome of this Rays team moving forward. The pieces with which the Rays’ front office was willing to part, both in this trade and in free agency, are all contingent on the Myers acquisition.
In 2012, a 90-win season was not enough to earn the Rays a postseason berth, even though the Detroit Tigers won the AL Central with just 88 wins. This was due, in part, to the resurging relevance of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East; a trend not soon to disappear in 2013.
As the Tampa Bay Rays face a wide-open Eastern division, they do so without key contributors, B.J. Upton and James Shields, who helped Tampa to three playoff appearances in the last five years, including a World Series appearance in 2008.
Enter Wil Myers.
The departure of Upton leaves the Tampa Bay Rays wanting stability in the outfield, yet their dominant front of the rotation caused both Shields and Wade Davis to become expendable. Under the leadership and master puppetry of manager Joe Maddon, the Rays look set to contend with the best in the American League in 2013.
Tampa Bay Rays pitching
Pitching has been the bread and butter of the Tampa Bay Rays organization of late. Nevermind that David Price won his first Cy Young Award in 2012, he was also the ace of a pitching staff that lead the major leagues in ERA a year ago and one which has been among the top five in ERA four of the last five seasons. With a healthy Jeremy Hellickson and an experienced Matt Moore behind him, the front three in Tampa’s rotation not only looks dominant, they look young.
At the back end, it seems likely that Alex Cobb — who has posted a 2.81 ERA this spring — will take the fourth spot, while Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona) are fighting for the final position. Niemann appears to have survived trade talks for the time being and, assuming both remain on the roster, should be the Rays’ fifth starter where Hernandez has experience as a middle reliever.
To that point, bullpen depth seems a question for the Rays, but again, Maddon has proved adept at piecing together a mixture of journeymen and minor leaguers to form a reliable core of relievers.
Fortunately this season, Maddon is afforded the luxury of Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning once again, where he closed out 48 of 50 possible save opportunities in 2012 while posting just a 0.60 ERA. Shutdown performances from Rodney may prove invaluable for a Rays team that was middle of the pack in runs scored a year ago.
Tampa Bay Rays position players
The Tampa Bay Rays middle infield has been a rotating door in recent years, but with the acquisition of Yunel Escobar at shortstop, that skill slot seems secured for the moment. Still, the second base position seems a question between Ryan Roberts and Kelly Johnson.
Given his versatility, I would not be surprised to see Ben Zobrist in the infield occasionally in April as well. This could afford at-bats to Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld, who will likely be platooning with Zobrist and Desmond Jennings until the Rays feel comfortable recalling Myers to fill an everyday role in center field.
This will be the biggest uncertainty for the Rays: 1) When to open the gate to Myers and 2) how to replace Upton. The two seem relatively symbiotic.
At the corners, perennial All-Star Evan Longoria will man third base while James Loney continues the trend of misfit first-basemen finding a home at Tropicana Field. Jose Molina presents another veteran presence behind the plate.
Tampa Bay Rays opening day lineup
- Desmond Jennings CF
- Yunel Escobar SS
- Ben Zobrist RF
- Evan Longoria 3B
- Sam Fuld DH
- Matt Joyce LF
- Ryan Roberts 2B
- James Loney 1B
- Jose Molina C
Tampa Bay Rays prospect watch
We saw the same with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper a year ago: watch them have their way with triple-A pitchers before making a May debut with the big club. This will be the trend, fans hope, for Myers this season. He is hitting .286 this spring and will likely start the season with triple-A Durham, having batted .304 for the Royals’ affiliate in Omaha a year ago.
The departure of Upton leaves the Tampa Bay Rays wanting an everyday center fielder, perhaps, but moreover, it leaves Tampa looking for another fan-favorite. Albeit an unproven talent, the reward far outweighs the risk for this deal, and baseball fans have been excited to see the payoff in Myers.
Still, there is versatility amongst the Tampa outfield, so the need for Myers is not immediate, though I expect the decision to come sooner rather than later.
Two other prospects to watch are pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Enny Romero. Odorizzi came over with Myers in the Shields trade and it will be interesting to see if he inevitably proves to be Shields’ replacement. Odorizzi ranks 45th among baseball’s top 100 prospects, and the Rays have made a habit of pulling from their farm system for impact pitchers midseason.
The same goes for Enny Romero, who represented the organization at last year’s All-Star Futures game in Kansas City. While I do not expect to see Romero with the big club this season, the rise for Futures participants is often a rapid one, typically with dominant results, just ask Evan Longoria, who represented the Rays in 2007.
With the upstart Orioles, the injured Yankees, the struggling Red Sox and the new-look Blue Jays, the AL East can be anyone’s for the taking. My prediction from the outset has been the Orioles will take the division, but the chemistry of their roster is so similar to the Rays that it could prove to be a dogfight between these two through the end of August and into September. I stick by my convictions with the Orioles winning the division in 2013, but if the Rays miss a playoff spot for the second year in a row, they will have certainly underperformed. Tampa Bay should likely earn a wild-card berth at the very least when October rolls around.