2011 pre-season preview: AL East – Tampa Bay Rays

CF BJ Upton

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 Additions: LF Johnny Damon, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, RHP Joel Peralta, DH Manny Ramirez

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

The offense:

Catcher: John Jaso

Infield: Dan Johnson (1B), Sean Rodriguez (2B), Reid Brignac (SS) and Evan Longoria (3B)

Outfield: Johnny Damon (LF), BJ Upton (CF) and Ben Zobrist (RF)

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.

Zobrist offers a stable skill set. He has averaged an 80% contact rate, while performing considerably better than the major league average in both strikeout and walk rates. His hit rate has averaged 29% in the major leagues (or in his major league equivalents), and that number should improve a few ticks. There is some nice upside here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he progressed towards his 2009 performance in the upcoming season.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: LHP David Price, RHP James Shields, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, RHP Jeff Niemann, RHP Wade Davis

Closer: RHP Kyle Farnsworth

The five starters had a combined 3.96 ERA last season, which would have been good for first in the division.

Price has outstanding skills, but his metrics indicate that much of his success last year was due to good fortune. He has consistently posted hit-rates in the high-20s (28% in 2010) early in his career, so that may be the norm for him and should not serve to discount his skills in any analysis. But his strand rate (79%) is ridiculously high, which is reflected in his xERA (which is almost a run higher than his actual number).

Many pundits are proclaiming that Shields will have a big rebound season due to the belief his HR/FB rate (14%) skewed all of his numbers in 2010.  But I’m not among those who feel Shields is headed for a HUGE rebound. The peripherals indicate his performance will improve, but it says here he will struggle to get his ERA close to 4.00.

Hellickson was the top pitching prospect in baseball for most of last season. After going 12-3, with a 2.45 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, he earned a promotion to Tampa and went 4-0, with a 3.47 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. His repertoire includes five pitches, all of which he can throw for strikes on a consistent basis. He is an elite pitcher in the making and will offset the loss of Garza. He will be the AL Rookie of the Year — take that to the bank.

Niemann started well last year, but, after suffering a shoulder strain mid-season, he limped home and into the off-season. He is not as good as his first-half numbers or as bad as the second-half stats. His pre-break ERA (2.80) was based on an unsustainable hit rate (24%) and an impossibly high strand rate (81%). His second-half ERA (7.69) largely resulted from a miniscule strand rate (57%) and a sizable increase in his walk rate. Assuming he will progress towards MLB-average statistics, his ERA should be closer to 4.20 in 2011.

Davis is a nice pitcher for what he is – a 5th starter. He pitches to contact, his K-BB ratio was 1.8 (well below the 2.5 that I prefer in a starting pitcher), and his GO/AO was just a 0.78. It says here that he’ll win 13 games – tops – and post a 4.20 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

With the mass defections of relievers via free agency and JP Howell still sidelined by last May’s labrum surgery, the closer’s role will be filled by either Farnsworth or Joel Peralta when the season gets underway. They don’t inspire confidence, but rookie southpaw Jake McGee could be ready to assume the job by mid-season. The bullpen will be a work in progress – it won’t be as effective as last year, but I don’t think it will be a disaster either. Assuming Howell or McGee end up as closer, the other plus Farnsworth and Peralta give the club a decent relief corps.

Prediction for 2011: 3rd place (85-77)

The MLB odds place the Rays over/under win total at about 84.5. I am taking the over, by a nose. With all of the losses the club experienced this year, there is a tendency to overlook this team, but I think such thinking is folly. The front office has built an excellent business model, which allows them to compete with divisional rivals Boston and New York despite having far less in terms of financial resources. Hellickson, Jennings and McGee will go a long way to replace Garza, Crawford and Soriano by the start of next season. And because of the prospects waiting in the upper minors (see below), they will not slide very far before regrouping.


Top prospect Jeremy Hellickson

Top Five Prospects:

1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
2. Matt Moore, LHP
3. Desmond Jennings, OF
4. Jake McGee, LHP
5. Josh Sale, OF

Hellickson is going to be an outstanding big league pitcher. He was a fourth-round pick out of high school (Des Moines, IA) back in 2005 and has been brought along slowly. It is an approach that is about to pay huge dividends. He had an excellent season in Triple-A (Durham) in 2009, and followed that up with an even-more-outstanding campaign last year (12-3, 2.45). He then went 4-0, 3.47, in ten games (four starts) in the major leagues at the end of the season.

His best pitch is a changeup, which rates a “70” on the scouts 20-80 scale. He throws it in the low-80s and with great depth, giving him an excellent out pitch against left-handed hitters. It serves as a nice complement to his repertoire of three fastballs: a four-seamer he throws in the low-to-mid 90 and keeps low in the strike zone, a two-seamer that is a tick slower but that gives a different look to the four-seamer, and a cutter that is still a work in progress. The four-seamer doesn’t move very much, but the others both have pretty good movement. He also has a slighty-above-average curveball that he throws for strikes, but the pitch could use some refinement.

He mechanics are outstanding. He has a clean repeatable delivery. He throws all of his pitches from the same arm angle, increasing the deceptiveness of his offerings. He should develop into the No. 2 guy in the rotation by the end of the season.

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