StrategyFebruary 26, 2011

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30 Teams in 30 Days: Tampa Bay Rays

By Michael Kropman

In 2010, the AL East belonged to the Tampa Bay Rays. They coupled timely hitting and team speed with one of the AL’s best rotations to topple the mighty Yankees and banged up Red Sox and finish with an impressive 96-66 record by season’s end. Unfortunately for them, their playoff experience was brief, as they drew the eventual AL champion Texas Rangers in the first round. While the youthful Rays put up a valiant effort, coming back from a 2-0 hole to tie the series, they just could not overcome the buzz saw known as Cliff Lee, who handed them two of their three playoff defeats.

The offseason was largely a step back for the Rays as they lost arguably their best player, Carl Crawford, to the division rival Red Sox. Also leaving town were team home run leader/defensive whiz Carlos Pena, steady short stop Jason Bartlett, innings eater Matt Garza, bullpen stalwart Joaquin Benoit, and AL saves leader Rafael Soriano. While one might think this would signal an exciting yet tumultuous youth movement in 2011, the Rays also went out and signed AL East veterans Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez hoping for bounce back seasons from each.
While a second AL East championship may be an overly optimistic projection, Tampa Bay has some very intriguing players, particularly in their young rotation. A 2011 wild card berth is a bit unlikely to happen, but if everything breaks right for them, it is not entirely out of the picture. Regardless, it should be another exciting year in Tampa Bay, despite what the empty seats in the Trop might suggest.
In “30 Teams in 30 Days,” the Fantasy Baseball Cafe will preview each team in Major League Baseball on a daily basis. In addition to projecting starting lineups, rotations and closing situations, the Cafe will identify potential targets for 2011 fantasy baseball drafts.
Offensive Starters

C John Jaso.263.372.378575444339 
1B Dan Johnson.198.343.414157231111 
2B Sean Rodriguez.251.308.3975394013343 
SS Reid Brignac.256.307.385398453301 
3B Evan Longoria.294.372.507962210415574 
LF Johnny Damon.271.355.4018185111539w/DET
CF B.J. Upton.237.322.42489186242536 
RF Ben Zobrist.238.346.35377107524541 
DH Manny Ramirez.311.405.510328401196w/LAD

Unsettled: Left field and first base. At this point, Johnny Damon is turning into a question mark as far as his offensive production concerned. His numbers last season in Detroit impressed no one and at 37 years old, and there isn’t much hope of him returning to his old AL East ways. Once Carlos Pena left for Chicago, it left a pretty large hole at first base that went to the only other real option the Rays had: Dan Johnson. While he’s shown good power in the minors, his batting average and strikeouts are worrisome.
The X-factor in the Rays organization is top prospect Desmond Jennings, or as some refer to him, Carl Crawford Jr. Despite his brittle history, he’s seen as an absolute burner that would fit in perfectly to the Rays’ speed game. I can see one of two scenarios unfolding: either Damon is ineffective and Jennings take his spot outright or Dan Johnson can’t get it done at first, leading to a Ben Zobrist move to first and Jennings snagging the vacant outfield spot.
Target: Sean Rodriguez. Rather than discuss the obvious first rounder (Longoria) or the crap shoot performers (Upton, Zobrist), let’s discuss last year’s spring training darling: Sean Rodriguez. It’s funny how if a hot sleeper doesn’t produce as expected right away, they fall off the map the following year. Right now, S-Rod’s MDP sits at 252 despite holding eligibility at second base, third base, and outfield.
Last season at this time, there were many discussing Rodriguez’s power potential, but a year long platoon with Matt Joyce kept him from achieving what people thought could be a nice breakout season. The reality is, he swatted nine home runs and stole 13 bases in fewer than 350 AB at age 24. While the batting average against right-handers needs some improvement, the power/speed potential is still there, and he’s still young enough to improve. If he can shake the platoon situation with a hot start and get a full slate of ABs, a 20-20 season is a reasonable ceiling for him.
The Rotation
David Price (L)19-62.721.1918879208.2 
James Shields (R)13-155.181.4618751203.1 
Jeff Niemann (R)12-84.391.2613161174.1 
Wade Davis (R)12-104.071.3511362168.0 
Jeremy Hellickson (R)4-03.471.1033836.1 

Unsettled: The order. The Rays have made it pretty clear that their starting five going into the season will be Price, Shields, Niemann, Davis, and Hellickson. The only question is when each will be slotted. Aside from Price, there is a case to made for any of the other four being the No. 2, although it will probably end up being last season’s unluckiest pitcher, James Shields. If I had to guess, Niemann would be third, followed by Davis and Hellickson for the sole reason of limiting the youngsters’ innings. If any of these guys were to struggle or get injured, the Rays has incredible depth in their farm system just waiting to come up. Both Matt Moore and Chris Archer have ace potential and will quite possibly see some time with the big club later on this season, if not sooner.
Target: James Shields. While Jeremy Hellickson is the name on everyone’s lips this season as the breakout guy for the Rays this season, James Shields is the guy you should be taking a hard look at when looking to fill your No. 5 pitcher slot. While it may look as if he’s regressed for two straight seasons, his underlying statistics tell an entirely different story. Last season, he suffered from a 35% hit rate, 68% strand rate, and 14% home run per fly ball ratio, all career worsts.
Yes, his walk rate has increased the past few seasons, but it is still at elite levels (18th lowest in all of baseball). The most intriguing statistic however, is the sharp spike in strikeouts in 2010. Coming off seasons of 6.7 and 6.8 strikeouts per 9, Shields bumped that number up to 8.3, also good for 18th among all major league starters. Couple that with an xERA of 3.64 and an xWHIP of 1.17, and he becomes a major bounce back candidate for the upcoming season. You could do much worse with your 17th round pick.
The 8th and 9th Innings
Jake McGee (L)13.011.1613336110.2in MiLB
J.P. Howell (L)172.831.20793366.2in 2009

Chasing Saves: There is a lot of speculation going on as far as the Rays’ closing duties are concerned. Names from McGee to Howell to Farnsworth (gulp…) to a full on closer by committee have been mentioned in one place or another. For now, it may be best to avoid the situation altogether come draft day, but there are a few names to consider when filling out the back end of your roster, specifically, McGee and Howell. And no, I don’t think Kyle Farnsworth is or ever will be the answer for the Rays or your fantasy squad.
Jake McGee is an intriguing long term possibility for the Rays. He’s been long thought of as the closer of the future. The big question is: is the future now? He seems to have ironed out past issues related to his work ethic and has recently been quoted as saying that he wants the closing gig all to himself. That kind of closer mentality has endeared him to manager Joe Maddon, and he may very well start the season stopping games. If McGee struggles however, expect J.P. Howell to get the next crack at the job once he returns from a torn labrum in mid April.
Final Thoughts
It should be an interesting year for the Rays in real life, as well as fantasy. Rays will be drafted throughout the draft from studs to mid rounders to end game fliers. There is a lot of possible value to be had from the scrappy Tampa Bay lineup, so keep a sharp eye on how spring training progresses for them.
On the pitching side, expect all five starters to be drafted at some point, particularly in 14-teamers and above. Their rotation, despite being very good last season, still has quite a bit of upside. If they can begin to approach said upside, Tampa Bay could be a surprising force in 2011.
Check back tomorrow for our preview of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Mike Kropman is a transplanted New Yorker currently teaching high school math up in little old Rhode Island. He enjoys P90X, watching Yovani Gallardo pitch, and Super Bowl 42. You can catch up with him in the Cafe under the user name Inukchuk.
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