This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 4: The Tampa Bay Rays. You can find previews for teams 30 through 5 here.
2013 Record and Finish: 92-71, second place in AL East (ninth overall); lost ALDS to Boston
2014 Projected Record: 95-67, first place in AL East
The Case For
The Rays have averaged more than 91 wins over the last six seasons and reached the Division Series in three of the last four. Last year, they boasted two of the top three rookies in the American League in rightfielder Wil Myers and starter Chris Archer, both of whom stand to play full seasons in 2014 and can be expected to improve over their solid first-year showings. The team could also get greater contributions elsewhere in their heralded rotation, as David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb all spent time on the disabled list last year. Price in particular was far better over the season’s final three months (2.53 ERA with 13 quality starts in 18 turns) than in the first three (5.24 ERA, five quality starts in nine turns plus a month and a half on the DL), which bodes well for a possible return to his Cy Young form of two years ago. The team also stands to benefit significantly from the addition of Ryan Hanigan, an underrated catcher who excels at all aspects of receiving and had a .370 career on-base percentage before a lousy 2013 season marred by a .213 batting average on balls in play.
The Case Against
The potential gains of Myers and Hanigan should be offset somewhat by regression from first baseman James Loney, whom the team overspent to retain. The lineup thus remains rather pedestrian despite the dynamic presence of Evan Longoria and Myers at the heart of the order. Tampa's starting pitching depth is already being tested with Jeremy Hellickson starting the year on the disabled list following January surgery to remove loose bodies from his pitching elbow. Moore’s control is becoming a significant concern. His walk rate increased in each of the last two seasons, topping out at 4.5 per nine innings last year, a season in which he also led the majors with 17 wild pitches despite throwing just 150 1/3 innings, and this spring, he has walked 11 men in 10 1/3 innings.
X-Factor: Team defense
The Rays have been among the top three teams in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) in five of the last six seasons. Four of those five seasons have resulted in playoff berths, and in the one season they didn’t rank in the top three in PADE, they had their worst season of that stretch, winning just 84 games (the only one of the six seasons in which they failed to win 90) and missing the postseason. Last year, they finished behind only the A’s and Reds, and they are returning largely the same defense this year, albeit with more David DeJesus and Myers in place of Kelly Johnson, Sam Fuld and likely much of Matt Joyce’s time in the field, and the upgrade of Hanigan over Jose Lobaton behind the plate.
Number To Know: 1
That’s the number of teams that have averaged more wins than the Rays’ 91.7 over the last six years. That one team, the Yankees, who have averaged 94 wins, are the only other to have averaged 90 or more wins a year over that span.
Most overrated: Desmond Jennings
"He's always gonna be a question mark. He's not a leadoff hitter, but you live with him if you don't have a whole lot else. When pitchers throw a lot of breaking stuff at him, it slows his bat down, he doesn't go deep in the count and have a quality at-bat."
Most underrated: Yunel Escobar
"I think he has grown up and is gonna have a huge year. When I saw him the other day, he was on every pitch and wasn't missing the fastball. And I think he's one of the better defenders in the American League. I wouldn't put him at the top, but he's pretty good."
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