StrategyMarch 4, 2010

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30 Teams in 30 Days: Tampa Bay Rays - 6 comments

By Ray Flores

Today in 30 Teams, 30 Days, we’re going to talk about the team that was named with yours truly in mind, the Tampa Bay Rays. Just like their presumed namesake of the energetic, verbose, quintessential studmuffin writing this, the Rays are a confident, exuberant upstart team, looking to overthrow the corporate-sounding, big money old guard of the Yankees and Red Sox and change the way business is done in the AL East. After breaking through with a seemingly improbable trip to the 2008 World Series, the Rays finished six games over .500 and a ways off the pace from the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a second straight playoff appearance. The Rays had a couple of pleasant surprises to make up for a couple of underachieving key players and with the players and formula intact, there’s optimism that the Rays will rebound with a team running on all cylinders.

Offensive Starters

C Dioner Navarro.218.261.322388325376
1B Carlos Pena.227.356.53791391003570
2B Ben Zobrist.297.405.54391279117501
SS Jason Bartlett.320.389.49090146630500
3B Evan Longoria.281.364.526100331139584
LF Carl Crawford.305.364.45296156860606
CF B.J. Upton.241.313.37379115542560
RF Matt Joyce.188.270.500337132
DH Pat Burrell.221.315.3676414452412

Unsettled: Right field. The Rays took some flak for dealing Edwin Jackson for Matt Joyce, as Jackson was quite the revelation in Detroit while Joyce spent the bulk of last season in Durham, refining his overall game and getting everyday at-bats from which to improve. While Joyce displayed some improvement against lefties, manager Joe Maddon will apparently enter 2010 with a right field platoon between Joyce and veteran journeyman Gabe Kapler. There’s a slight chance Maddon might audition highly touted prospect Desmond Jennings among others in right field, but for the time being, Joyce should figure into winning the right field job outright, if all goes well this Spring.

Target: B.J. Upton. I could go on about how Matt Joyce and Pat Burrell could be the cheapest 20 home run sources you could ever acquire, but if you have a sense of adventure (and extreme patience) and are aiming for that X factor that can make (or break) your team, you should give B.J. Upton another look. “Bossman” Upton endured a difficult season, hindered some by a repaired left shoulder which had not fully recovered to restore his power drive in earnest. Upton had a career-high 40 percent flyball rate, but that did not necessarily mean he was driving the ball with authority as his infield flyball percentage crept up. Meanwhile, Upton’s line drive rate was a paltry 15.4 percent, well below career norms while his contact rate was four percent below league average and last year’s personal mark.

After a downer of a year, you would expect the elder Upton’s draft stock to fall relative from last year at this time, and it has; Bossman’s current MDP has him being drafted as a late fifth round pick. Even for a fifth or sixth round pick, Upton still carries significant risk. While his shoulder may have been the primary factor for his 2009 setback, one can’t rule out that his skills had taken a step back, as his walk rate also took a hefty decline (15.2% in 2008 to 9.1% in 2009) to go along with a below-average contact rate. All risks considered, Upton seems like a solid bet for 40-plus stolen bases and if his shoulder is back to full fitness, he could complement that gaudy SB total with 15 to 20 home runs and a .270 average on the side. Given his potential and the assumption that there will be better days ahead (Upton is only 25), be prepared to reach a round or two for Upton, especially in deeper leagues.

The Rotation

James Shields (R)11-124.141.3216752219.2
Matt Garza (R)8-123.951.2618979203.0
Jeff Niemann (R)13-63.941.3512559180.0
David Price (L)10-74.421.3510254128.1
Wade Davis (R)2-23.721.27361336.1

Unsettled: Heading into Opening Day, there appears to be no lingering uncertainty with the Rays’ rotation, as a talented pair of 24 year-old hurlers in the forms of David Price and Wade Davis will be handed free reign to mature as full-time starters.

Target: Matt Garza. Arguably the Rays’ number one ace at the moment, Matt Garza pitched a career-high 203 innings last year with a K/9 of 8.38, a more than two point increase from his 2008 rate. Although pitching in the hard-hitting AL East will temper his ERA and WHIP from making a dramatic improvement, Garza should post solid ratios and is a sleeper to cross the 200 strikeout threshold. Having been unlucky in getting enough run support, Garza is a shoo-in to post a double-digit win total. Entering in his age 26 season, Garza is one of the better pitching options available in the middle of your draft. In fact, I would prefer taking him over the likes of John Lackey, Brandon Webb, and his teammate James Shields.

The 8th and 9th Innings

Rafael Soriano (R)272.971.061022775.2w/ATL
J.P. Howell (L)172.841.20793366.2 

Chasing Saves: Instead of relying on a closer-by-committee approach, the Rays landed a reliever who they hope can shut down games with power and style in the form of Rafael Soriano. Having split closing duties with Mike Gonzalez in Atlanta, Soriano took over the reins with 27 saves and a dazzling 102 strikeouts in under 76 innings of work. When healthy, Soriano appears to be the guy with the edge in the ninth inning. If Soriano is ineffective or misses time due to injury, the Rays’ closing picture gets a bit murky, with Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour ringing up as possible options. J.P. Howell tends to be Joe Maddon’s favorite situational reliever, but he appears to remain in line as the Rays’ setup man and possible closer. Howell amassed 17 saves and has posted a strikeout per inning since 2008.

Final Thoughts

A treasure trove for significant fantasy talent, the Rays have a young, dynamic squad and the pieces in place to contend for the AL Wild Card and the AL East division. Evan Longoria is arguably the best fantasy third baseman not named A-Rod and is well deserving of being a first round pick. There’s a good chance you could pair Longoria with Carl Crawford in the second round, which would be a nice power-speed nucleus to build your fantasy team around. Carlos Pena was a bit unlucky with a BABIP a tad lower from his career norms, but what you see is what you get from this .247 career hitter: 35-40 home run pop, an equally prodigious strikeout rate, and a sub-.250 batting average.

With regards to The Curious Case of Benjamin Zobrist, the Rays’ second baseman practically came out of left field with a Chase Utley Lite season. Zobrist did not have a track record of hitting for power in the minors, but in just under 200 at-bats in 2008, “Zorilla” mashed a dozen home runs in that span for a 17.4 percent HR/FB rate. In 2009, Zobrist replicated that HR/FB rate en route to a 27 home run season with 17 stolen bases and a .297 batting average on the side. In a way, Zobrist reminds me of where Alexei Ramirez was a year ago on draft day: a 2B/SS/OF eligible hitter who had been a revelation in his age 28 season and a fourth to fifth round pick based off his middle infield eligibility. There is one key difference between Zorilla and Alexei and that’s Zobrist’s history of sporting superior contact skills and that’s a big reason why he’ll play up to or close to value. With his refined batting approach that allows him to drive the ball with more authority, I’ll pencil Zobrist for 20 home runs, 15 stolen bases, 90-100 R/RBI, and the luxury of plugging him in at 2B or SS, depending on how the rest of your draft goes.

Ben Zobrist’s double play partner, Jason Bartlett enjoyed a Jimmy Rollins Lite season with a spiffy .320 batting average to boot (no reason to stop the Phils-to-Rays analogies, no?). While Bartlett’s BABIP was through the roof (.364), he also posted a gaudy 26 percent line drive rate, displaying that he was getting better contact and driving the ball with better force. Although those numbers could regress, Bartlett has managed four straight seasons with a 20 percent line drive rate, which is good enough for me to put him down for 25-30 stolen bases and a .300 average. Given the dearth at shortstop, Bartlett isn’t a bad choice in the middle rounds.

As I said before, I believe Matt Garza has unseated James Shields as the Rays’ ace, as Shields’ hit rate (thanks to a 20.5% line drive rate) was to his undoing. Shields had still shown tendencies to pitch worse away from The Trop (a 4.62 road ERA) and although he could be flying under the radar, let’s just say “Big Game James” isn’t “worthy” of that title to be the #1 fantasy ace as some banked on entering last season. David Price’s control was all over the place last season, but has the stuff and the skills to put it all together as long as he keeps locating the strike zone with regularity and is worth speculating on just past the middle rounds. Wade Davis does not quite possess the top stuff Price does, but should be an endgame target, given his strikeout potential and decent command. Jeff Niemann turned in a quietly solid season last year, but if you’re a firm believer in xFIP, Niemann had a 4.53 xFIP, as opposed to a 3.94 ERA, so some correction might be in order.

True to his Cafe name as The Artful Dodger, Ray Flores is a Dodger fan who applauds Tampa's fixation with naming their teams the Rays and their stadiums Raymond James (James happens to be his middle name). While being artful doesn't best describe him, Ray is a web developer, consultant, and you can find him out and about with the sunshine out unlike some baseball team named after him.
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6 Responses to “30 Teams in 30 Days: Tampa Bay Rays”

  1. Fantastic article, but I’m a bit surprised to see the Shoppach/Navarro situation not listed as “unsettled”. Shoppach with full PT would make for an interesting late-round option, sort of like Iannetta pt. 2, and definitely a better option than his competitor.

    Also, Zobrist might end up playing RF on a consistent basis to start off the season on the off chance that Brignac (converting to 2B) impresses the Rays brass in ST, and it wouldn’t hurt for Jennings to get a little more seasoning in AAA. Still, I think the most likely outcome is Brignac being a bust with below average power/speed/defense, Zobrist at 2B full-time, and Joyce holding the fort for Jennings’ midseason arrival.

  2. User avatar AussieDodger says:

    According to the Rays president, Jennings will only be playing in 2010 in “an emergency situation”.
    The 2B/RF spring battle is Joyce vs Sean Rodriguez, with Zobrist playing the loser’s position.
    Both are allegedly excellent fielders, so it’s pretty much a hitting battle.

  3. User avatar AquaMan2342 says:

    Nice work Ray….and on short notice too!

  4. Ah good call Aussie, I completely forgot about Sean Rodriguez. There is still the off chance that Brignac will outperform either one but that’s still unlikely to happen.

  5. Yes, I meant to write a bit about Shoppach/Navarro, but simply forgot. If Navarro struggles like he did last year, Shoppach could be a fascinating deep sleeper for 20 HR power.

    I also forgot that Sean Rodriguez was what the Rays got in return for the Kazmir trade. He reminds me of Brandon Wood in that he possesses solid power but needs to shorten up his swing to avoid striking out so often as he tends to do. FWIW, Sean Rodriguez homered in back-to-back games now and I’d also say he has a step up over Brignac to win some 2B PT. As Aussie said, I suppose Joyce will be platooned with Rodriguez, as Zobrist will alternate between 2B and OF.

  6. Fenway Punk says:

    Make that back-to-back-to-back games now with Rodriguez. I see no reason to start Rodriguez in AAA, he has nothing left to prove at that level. If the Rays are smart (which they are) they start grooming him as their new everyday 2-bagger. As far as Jennings goes, he’s a Crawford trade away from being the everyday left fielder, which is a matter of “when” not “if.” The recent signing of Hank Blalock could suggest that a Carlos Pena trade is more sooner than later aswell. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zobrist away from second base, and have him platoon at first base and right field. Zobrist is a far more effective hitter when he’s not playing the middle infield.
    In regards to their pitching, these guys have a staff that is easily top 5 in all of baseball. That being said, I would stay away from Shields. His numbers have steadly gone in the wrong direction now since 2008. One more name to keep on your radar: Jeremey Hellickson. This dude has owned at every minor league level, and will probably get the nod as soon as he isn’t arb eligible for this year.


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