ST. PETERSBURG - Designated hitter Dan Johnson #24 of the Tampa Bay Rays fouls off a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the game at Tropicana Field. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Rays play in one of the toughest divisions in baseball, but they might have the most complete team among the competition.
I'd like to think that the Ghosts of Baseball Past, Present, and Future came to visit the Rays in the offseason, and told if the Rays didn't stop hoarding starting pitchers, that the team would end up in a sparsely populated dome and playing in the AL East against teams that had billions of dollars to spend. That's how we arrived at the reality we're in now.
They told the Dickensian ghosts to bugger off. They preferred to keep all of that pitching. Glorious, glorious pitching. If you think that's unlikely, here's something that's more unlikely: the Rays getting a season-saving home run from Dan Johnson that also hit a guy in the Charlie Browns:
There was no real reason to include that other than I like to watch it whenever possible. Back to the first point, which is that the Rays have starting pitching breeding like Tribbles. Here are five pitchers who probably aren't going to make the rotation:
How many teams in the majors would be better off if that were their starting rotation? I'd trust that five more than what the Orioles have, certainly. Until the Rockies get some of their injured pitchers back, they could be in the conversation. Those are just the pitchers the Rays have in a glass case. If every single one of their pitchers decided to quit baseball and form a dance troupe, they could still field a legitimate five-man rotation.
They won't have to, of course. They'll have five different starters in one of the most talented rotations in the majors. James Shields left the bad bounces and bad BABIP in the past, turning his outstanding peripherals into an outstanding season. David Price's ERA shot up, but his strikeout and walk numbers both went in the right direction. That's the top of the rotation, and the scary thing is that Shields and Price haven't had their best seasons at the same time. They'll anchor the top of the rotation.
There are question marks after that, but no more than any other team has to deal with. Matt Moore is an unknown quantity, as are all rookies, but the odds are good that he am become death, destroyer of worlds and bats. Jeremy Hellickson has some BABIP-related red flags, but to attribute all of his success to good luck is to ignore just how good he was in the minor leagues. Minor leaguers who can keep their BB/9 around 2.0 while pushing their K/9 over 9.0 are rare creatures. Wade Davis's downside is as a innings-eating, league-average guy; his upside is as something more, which would explain his four straight finishes in Baseball America's top-100 prospects from 2007 to 2010.
That's the good news. Well, the great news. The lineup, though? It's not bad news. It's just not as exciting as the rotation. A manatee doing backflips and throwing M-80s at you wouldn't be as exciting as the Rays' rotation, though, so don't think that the Rays have a bad lineup. It's easy to look at the raw numbers and be underwhelmed, but don't forget that Tropicana Field somehow became the most extreme pitching park in the American League when no one was looking. The team had a 105 OPS+ -- which accounts for the park factors -- good for fifth in the AL (and just behind the Yankees, who aren't getting younger).
Jose Molina probably didn't figure out how to hit at the age of 36, so there will likely be one soft spot in the Rays' lineup. The rest of the hitters should be average or better, and with players like B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings, average comes with a decent chance at something much more. Carlos Pena should equal Casey Kotchman's production, substituting more power at the expense of the high batting average, and adding to his franchise home-run record.
And because this is a Rays preview, I have to mention Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. Here's the analysis: Both of them are good. Both of them should help the Rays score runs. Please credit Baseball Nation on your own website if you include a similar note. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott aren't as good, but they should be perfectly acceptable behind the Longoria/Pena/Zobrist middle of the order.
So if the Rays have a phenomenal rotation and an underrated lineup, what's the problem? The division, mostly. The Yankees and Red Sox are still impressive collections of talent. Even with the twin powers sitting out most of the offseason free-agent insanity, they're still teams with advantages the Rays can't touch. They're teams that can afford to take on another team's expensive contract if they get desperate (Wandy Rodriguez, for one), whereas the Rays are pretty stuck with what they have, for the most part.
While the Rays are at least the second-most complete team in the AL East, and I'd guess that they're a lot closer to the Yankees than a lot of people give them credit for, it's still a tough division. After predicting the Yankees to succumb to age-related decline for the past four or five years, one of these years I'll be right, but it's still a good team. The Red Sox still have the offense, even if their pitching is a question. The Blue Jays will have a full year of a Brett Lawrie, and they made all sorts of midseason changes that could improve the team in 2012. The Orioles all have mothers who love them very, very much.
The Rays are probably the team that benefits the most from the extra Wild Card -- trying to pick three playoff teams from the Rangers, Rays, Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels was going to get messy. With some breakout seasons from some of their younger players, like Moore or Jennings, they might not need the Wild Card at all.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
In an offseason filled with left-handed DH options, the Rays spent a decent amount of money on Luke Scott. If he gets back to where he was in 2010 (144 OPS+, 27 home runs), it was a brilliant deal. But if he still has lingering shoulder pain and his production remains down. the Rays will probably wonder if they should have re-signed Johnny Damon and put the extra money towards ... anything. Anything at all.
B.J. Upton is still just 27, and while he's probably never going to achieve the heights he did in 2007, he wouldn't shock anyone if he went nuts on the league. He's settled in as a low-average glove guy, which is certainly something that the Rays can use, but he should be better one of these years.
Matt Moore dominates and struggles, with each up and down getting more attention than it probably should. The Rays appear in the play-in game unless they're playing a tiebreaker for the division.