The Rays had the best year of any team to miss the playoffs in 2012, going 90-72, but finishing three games behind the wild-card winners, Baltimore and Texas. This will be a different outfit from years past. Gone are B.J. Upton, James Shields and Carlos Pena. In are James Loney, Yunel Escobar and super-prospect Wil Myers, whom the Rays received from the Royals for Shields. Sam Fuld will likely start every day in place of Upton. Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann figure to be in the rotation on Opening Day, and Chris Archer, the centerpiece of the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs two years ago, could also factor into the mix.
Though many of the faces are new, this is still the Tampa team we've watched grow from plucky overachiever to perennial contender. Evan Longoria, David Price and Joe Maddon are the heart of the club. They'll try to OBP and defense the opposition to death, making Ben Zobrist the prototypical Ray. But if this team is to compete in the always challenging AL East, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore will have to step up to give the Rays the starting pitching they've been able to count on since they've become one of the league's model franchises.
Myers could also end up being this team's X-factor. He was named the Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .304/.378/.554 with 24 homers and 79 RBI at Triple-A Omaha. To say the Royals took a serious gamble by dealing the 22-year-old budding star is an understatement of epic proportions. Of course, no one was surprised that it was general manager Andrew Friedman and the Rays on the other side of the deal. We'll keep Myers out of the projected lineup for now, but he's a guy you'll want to be well aware of on draft day.
1. Desmond Jennings, CF 2. Yunel Escobar, SS 3. Ben Zobrist, 2B 4. Evan Longoria, 3B 5. Matt Joyce, RF 6. James Loney, 1B 7. Ryan Roberts, DH 8. Jose Molina, C 9. Sam Fuld, LF
1. David Price 2. Jeremy Hellickson 3. Matt Moore 4. Jeff Niemann 5. Alex Cobb
Moore is a bit trickier to predict. He struggled mightily to start the year, posting a 4.42 ERA, 4.46 FIP and 1.45 WHIP before the All-Star break. However, he turned it around after the break, lowering those numbers to 3.01, 3.25 and 1.21, respectively. Fangraphs tells us that Moore started throwing a much more effective slider during the second half of the season. He threw it about twice as often as before, and his swing-and-miss rate on it jumped tenfold. The bet here is that the real Moore is the one we saw after the All-Star break, especially given the hype surrounding him and the fact that he doesn't turn 24 until mid-June. If I can only have one of these two Rays hurlers, give me Moore all day.
His .298 BABIP suggests a little bad luck, but that's before you see that he had serious trouble squaring the ball up last year. He had an infield fly ball rate of 18.1 percent and had a ground-ball rate of 42 percent. That's a lot of weak contact. Throw in the fact that he struck out 21.3 percent of the time, and everything starts to add up.
With all that said, I'm buying in again. This is just his age-26 season, and he remains a supremely talented speed threat with a bit of pop who will hit at the top of the Rays' offense. I can't show you any pretty stats from last year to get you excited. You're just going to have to take a leap of faith with me. With a reasonable increase in solid contact, it's not hard to imagine a 20/35 year for Jennings.
AL-only players to know