Enemy Territory: Can the Tampa Bay Rays Ride Pitching to a Division Title?
The Tampa Bay Rays are emerging as a model franchise in Major League Baseball, at least from their on field performance. Despite inconsistent support from their local fan base and a stadium that is need of dynamite, the Rays have developed their group of youngsters into a club that can compete not only for the AL East division in 2012, but also a World Series title according to many.
These hopes and expectations are saddled solely on their pitching which could be the best in all of baseball. The rotation is beyond average from one through five. In fact, they currently have two arms battling it out for the final rotation spot. The loser could be used as trade bait and many teams would be calling for either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann. This is dependent on the phenom, Matt Moore being able to transition smoothly to life full-time in the majors. So far this spring Moore has brought on a few doubts with is numbers not being where the Rays were hoping the number two ranked prospect would be. An ERA of 9.00 in just 4 innings of work have the promising arm a little behind in the workload department and now his spot in the rotation could be delayed.
Rays fans don’t seem to be too worried about Moore though. Without him they still have a far above average rotation that has only pitcher in David Price at the age of 30. Everyone else is younger than the elder statesman making this group of arms a rare breed in baseball today.
James Shields could be one of the best pitchers in the American League. His ability to shut down the big lumber in any lumber is beyond impressive and it was highlighted last year when he threw 11 complete games; a simply astonishing feat.
Throw in Jeremy Hellickson as the number three starter, followed up by the aforementioned Davis, Niemann and/or Moore and this team is going to win some ball games from their starters performances alone.
A revamped bullpen from two years ago doesn’t hurt either when Kyle Farnsworth proved he is more than adequate to replace Rafael Soriano as the closer. So now they’ve gone from winning some ball games to competing for a postseason birth.
But is the pitching this team has enough to win the AL East and contend for the World Series? When you look at the rest of the teams in the meat grinder division they all offer explosive power surrounded by tremendous offensive ability. The Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays are considered to be three of the most potent lineups in all of baseball and for the Rays they will see each time 18 times throughout the year. Sure pitching is going to win them some games and they will hang around all season and threaten for a spot in the October dance. But can this Rays offense produce enough runs to win those games when the other clubs get to their arms, namely their starters, and make a push to win the AL East while preparing for a World Series run?
Gone are Johnny Damon, Kelly Shoppach, John Jaso and Casey Kotchman. Certainly not a whole lot offensive prowess among those names, but production non the less.
To help make up for the lack of offense and the lost players, the Rays signed Carlos Pena who ripped the cover off the ball during his previous stint with Tampa Bay. Over four years as a Ray, Pena smacked 144 long balls which included a career high 46 in 2007. Pena should be good for another 25 homers and given that he will see hitter friendly ballparks such as Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium more often, he could well exceed the 30 HR mark. Even though he won’t hit for average or OBP, Pena still poses as a big threat in the Rays lineup.
Luke Scott, who seems to care more about his mouth and running down Red Sox fans than playing baseball, was also signed this off season. While he won’t match Pena’s home run total he could be counted on for 50+ RBI and should he ever truly maximize his potential then 75 RBI’s is within the realm of possibility.
Pena and Scott will compliment an already decent lineup that features the pure swinging Evan Longoria and the streaky B.J. Upton. Ben Zobrist has emerged as a legitimate threat with plenty of pop in his bat, giving the Rays a much needed heavy bat, but at the same time twenty dingers could be his ceiling.
Desmond Jennings is as exciting to watch as any lead off hitter in baseball and he gives the Rays that threat at the top of the order who can turn a single into a double or triple with the swipe of a bag.
Those will be the main culprits for the Rays this season and as always will be led by Longoria. When he’s going, so too are the Rays. Pena and Zobrist will add some punch as will Upton on an inconsistent basis. Jennings will terrorize the base paths when he’s on and if he struggles early the search could be on for a new lead off hitter.
Did the Rays do enough to shore up their offense? Sure they did. Is it enough to help propel them to atop the AL East? I don’t think so. This team will need to ride it’s pitching as far and as long as they can due to the offense still being mediocre.
As I’ve always said, just get into the postseason and anything can happen. The pitching should take the Rays there but to be able to count on a clutch hit at a key time of the game is something that they may not have. Therefore I think they will rely too much on their pitching which will cost them in the long run.
This is still an excellent ball club don’t get me wrong, I just think they need a little more offense to become a legitimate threat for the World Series.
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