StrategyFebruary 25, 2012

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30 Teams in 30 Days: Tampa Bay Rays

By Michael Kropman

Coming into 2011, there was surprisingly little talk of a Rays repeat as AL East champions. The Red Sox had stacked their roster and were widely considered World Series favorites. And of course, the mighty Yankees always posed a threat to secure one of the two playoff spots that always seem to fall to the second best team in baseball’s toughest division. As they say, however, that’s why they play the game. Thanks to an epic Red Sox September collapse, as well as the most exciting last day of the season baseball has seen in years, the Rays snuck into the playoffs for a second straight year. Thanks to secret weapon Matt Moore, they jumped out to a one-game lead on the eventual AL champion Texas Rangers. However, that would be the only playoff win they could muster, as the bats of Texas proved to be too much for the young Rays, sending them home still in search of their first World Series title.

Widely considered to be the best run team in baseball, the Rays’ seemingly bottomless well of minor league talent has once again put them in a position to make waves in 2012. Matt Moore and Desmond Jennings will look to make impacts on what is perhaps the most exciting team in baseball. GM Andrew Friedman also brought back slugger and defensive whiz Carlos Pena to reclaim his spot as Rays first baseman, which rounds out a team that is set up to compete in the brutal AL East for years to come.

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 2012 fantasy baseball drafts.

Offensive Starters

C Jose Molina.281.342.415193152171w/TOR
1B Carlos Pena.225.357.4627228802493w/CHC
2B Ben Zobrist.269.353.46999209119588 
SS Sean Rodriguez.223.323.3574583611373 
3B Evan Longoria.244.355.4957831993483 
LF Desmond Jennings.259.356.44944102520247 
CF BJ Upton.243.331.42982238136560 
RF Matt Joyce.277.347.47869197513462 
DH Luke Scott.220.301.402249221209w/BAL

Unsettled: Shortstop. Last year in this space, I recommended a target of Sean Rodriguez with a late pick as a middle infielder. Oops. Long seen as a sneaky power source that could one day put up a 25 home run season, Rodriguez’s batting average woes have kept him from claiming a full time job and realizing his potential. As of right now, shortstop is up for grabs between Rodriguez and disappointing prospect Reid Brignac. Regardless of the outcome, neither is worthy of a roster spot to begin the year. If Rodriguez can somehow improve his batting average, he has the potential to put up a season much like Danny Espinosa, so keep an eye on the position battle during spring training.

Target: Evan Longoria. In many of the expert mocks I’ve seen, Longoria tends to go around eighth. However, is MDP is 14.1, so that tells me that he is still extremely undervalued in many leagues. Last season, Longoria hit nine more home runs in almost 100 fewer at bats. He also made gains in his strikeout and walk rates. The problem, of course, was the 50 point plunge in his batting average. There is a very simple explanation for this: his incredibly unlucky .240 hit rate. There’s no reason to expect this misfortune to strike again, so a return to a .280-.290 average is highly likely this season. If he can keep his gains from last year, you’re looking at a possible MVP candidate. I would consider taking him as early as the middle of the first round. If he slips to the end of the first, he could be an incredible value there.

The Rotation

David Price (L)12-133.491.1421863224.1 
James Shields (R)16-122.821.0422465249.1 
Jeremy Hellickson (R)13-102.951.1511772189.0 
Matt Moore (L)12-31.920.9521046155.0in MiLB
Jeff Niemann (R)11-74.061.2410537135.1 

Unsettled: Jeff Niemann. An argument can be made that the top four in the Rays’ rotation is the best in baseball. However, the No. 5 spot is a bit of a tossup at this point. While Niemann struggled out of the gate last season, he quietly put up very nice numbers in the second half, posting a 3.41 ERA that was confirmed by metrics such as xFIP (3.38) and xERA (3.28). While Wade Davis is still in the mix for the final rotation spot, he is clearly the inferior of the two. What Joe Maddon decides, however, remains to be seen.

Target: David Price. As much as I wanted to place Matt Moore here, I feel as if the hype will have reached sufficiently high levels if his spring is even remotely good. While his MDP is currently 131, I can see that number shoot up the closer we get to the season.

David Price, on the other hand, has been flying under the radar a bit. I think this has a lot to do with the 0.77 increase in ERA and a drop to 12 wins (from 19 in 2010). However, if you look more closely, you’ll see that this was actually a nice little growth year from the 26 year old. In 2011, Price’s strikeouts went up, his walks went down, and he improved in FIP, xFIP, and WHIP.

If you want ace numbers with a fairly cheap investment (his MDP is 47), Price is your man. He’s also one of the few top pitchers with a good bit of upside, as well. I’d be perfectly happy with him as my No. 1 pitcher (in fact, I snagged him with the last pick in the 4th round of the Top 60 mock), and you can always pair him with his teammate Matt Moore a few rounds later for a possibly devastating duo.

The 8th and 9th Innings

Kyle Farnsworth (R)252.180.99511257.2 
Joel Peralta (R)62.930.92611867.2 

Chasing Saves: I think Kyle Farnsworth owes Mariano Rivera a fruit basket. After leaving New York three years ago, Farnsworth began to integrate a cutter into his arsenal. The result? The best three-year stretch of his career (FIP below 3.20 and xFIP below 3.50). While he missed some time last season due to elbow issues, there’s no reason to expect a non-injury related collapse next season, making Farnsworth a fine No. 2 closer on your fantasy squad. If Farnsworth’s elbow acts up again, Joel Peralta should be able to step in and provide very good numbers, as he did last season for a stretch.

Final Thoughts

Once again, the excitement on the field was high in Tampa, while the crowds were low. The Rays continue to put out a quality team despite a low salary, and 2012 looks to be no different. This squad offers a great mix of speed, power, and youth, and you’d be wise to target many of them in your redraft and keeper leagues.

Check back tomorrow for our look at the Toronto Blue Jays.

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