AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays


The Tampa Bay Rays are becoming the model franchise in Major League Baseball; at least from an on-field perspective.  While they continue to battle the St. Petersburg area to draw fans to the lowly Tropicana Field, the Rays have built a contending ball club and nothing was more imminent than their 91 win season last year that saw them dramatically get into the postseason on the last day of the year.  As we continue our look at the other AL East foes, the Tampa Bay Rays are becoming a major hurdle in the Red Sox path to success.

With team friendly contracts being taken by Evan Longoria and a pitching staff that any major league club would die for, the Rays and their fans have reason to be optimistic heading into this season.  They say pitching wins championships and we’ve witnessed that during the last couple of World Series.  If that trend holds true then the Tampa Bay Rays could be a World Series contender this year.

Devon from the Fansided site, Rays Colored Glasses helped us out with the preview of the Rays and what he discloses may surprise some of you.  Devon predicts that this team could win 99 games this year which would obviously give the Rays the AL East.

Despite this team being obliterated by free-agency two winters ago, they continue to promote from within their system, sign some  free-agents who are within their spending limit and ride their ability to produce unbelievable pitchers.  As Devon points out, he feels this pitching staff is good enough to ride to an AL pennant and a World Series birth.

“I certainly believe the pitching staff is good enough to carry the team. I would put the Rays rotation up there with any in baseball. They did a great job carrying a struggling offensive team last season and now that the offense has been improved, I could see the Rays making the World Series on the backs of the rotation. With Shields, Price, and Hellickson at the top plus Matt Moore and either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann the Rays have not much fall-off one through five.”

But as Devon pointed out, the Achilles heal for the Rays last year was the inability to produce runs.  With both Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman departing Tampa, Devon acknowledges the tremendous job that the Rays front office has done to fill those holes and address the lack of offensive production.

“The Rays had a great offseason, filling all of their biggest holes with great players. The Rays brought in Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, Jose Molina, and Fernando Rodney.  I would say that Pena and Scott are big improvements over both Kotchman and Damon.”

Both Luke Scott and Carlos Pena will certainly bring an upgrade to the offense over the aforementioned Kotchman and Damon but I don’t know if it’s to the extent that Devon thinks.  Last season Pena hit just .225 with 28 homers and 80 RBI.  It’s been a steady decrease from his best season in Tampa back in 2007 when he smashed 46 long balls and 121 RBI.  I’m not saying he won’t produce, I just don’t know if he can be counted on for 100 RBI like he once was.

Like Pena, Luke Scott is another interesting case of hoping for production.  At least with Pena he’s proven he can put up big numbers, while Scott has yet to crack the 30 home run plateau and has never produced more than 77 RBI in a year.  He doesn’t hit for average, just a .264 career batter but did provide decent power for three season prior to last.  Injuries ravaged his 2011 campaign and the Rays will need him to recover if he’s to help this offensively challenged lineup.

There are other threats in the Rays lineup.  The obvious one in Evan Longoria and it’s worth mentioning the name B.J. Upton. But as Devon points out, the Rays could have two sleepers in terms of offensive production.

“I would say Ben Zobrist will have a bigger impact on the offense than BJ Upton. Zobrist has emerged as the Rays second big bat, providing consistency in the middle of the order. Upton is streaky,but when he gets it going he is one of the better hitters in baseball.  Beyond them, I could see Desmond Jennings breaking out to become a big leadoff hitter for the Rays. Also, I would expect Matt Joyce to continue to improve and provide yet another power option.”

This isn’t a team that will get engaged in many slug fests throughout the year and it’s clear they are going to rely on their pitching to win ball games.  Last season they scored just 707 runs, the lowest in the AL East and eighth in the entire American League.  But here’s the difference: they gave up the fewest runs the AL and third fewest in baseball.  That’s how they win and adding Scott and Pena will help but it’s not going to turn this team into an offensive juggernaut.

Which brings me to my next question for Devon.  I asked him if he felt the Rays would be in line to make a major move between now and sometime in July.  His answer was in line with the little trade action the Rays have taken part in leading up to the July deadline in the past.

“I really don’t expect the Rays to do much in the middle of the season. They have been never been a team to change things if they are winning. They don’t really need a big bat since they paid a premium for power with Carlos Pena and Luke Scott this offseason and still have Zobrist and Longoria, who can both hit 20-30 homers. They may pursue a shortstop depending on how Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac do or add another catcher in the season, but not much beyond that.”

Of course there is the case of B.J. Upton who has been involved in trade talks for the past couple of years and Devon agrees that his name could come up again with free-agency looming on the star outfielder.

“If the Rays fall out of contention for some reason, I could easily see them shopping guys like BJ Upton or Kyle Farnsworth, both of whom could be in demand to contenders.”

It seems like every year lately the Rays have been contending in the AL East.  And every year we hear about the attendance issues that continue to surround this ball club and their stadium.  I asked Devon about the lack of fan support and he feels that this  year the Rays need to get off to a good start to spark the interest again.

“I would hope that we would see a rise in attendance figures, but I think it will depend on whether they get off to a hot start. I think the slow start last season discouraged many fans and they just didn’t bother coming out. It seemed to continue all season, but when it got down to the end Tropicana Field was packed.”

“The organization did a good job keeping tickets low priced for the upcoming season, and as long as management doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot by saying stupid things about the stadium or fans, attendance figures should rise. When they say things against fans, I think many stay away just as a protest.”

So there we have it.  A promising season in the waiting for the small market Rays.  They play in the toughest division in baseball and yet they find ways to not only stay competitive, but win.  This season, Devon predicts an AL East title for Tampa Bay and he also feels that this club could be good enough to threaten the 100 win mark.

“I think the Rays will have a great season this year. All the pieces are in place to win a lot of games this season, with the great pitching staff and a developing offense. I think the Rays will win 99 games and win the division this year. It is a bit ambitious, but I think it will all come down to the pitching staffs in the AL East since all of the offenses are not that different. If it comes down to pitching, the Rays will win the division.”

A bold prediction?  Perhaps a little with the offense not guaranteed to produce, but certainly an upgrade from last season.  This team will go as far as their pitching staff takes them and many are predicting that the Rays will finish ahead of the Red Sox again this year.  Another reason for Red Sox Nation to embrace the underdog role and remember, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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Tags: AL East B.J. Upton Ben Zobrist Boston Red Sox Carlos Pena Casey Kotchman Desmond Jennings Evan Longoria Fernando Rodney Jeff Niemann Johnny Damon Jose Molina Kyle Farnsworth Luke Scott Matt Moore Reid Brignac Sean Rodriguez Tampa Bay Rays Wade Davis