2012 Season Preview

20120305-152438.jpgAnother exciting year of Tampa Bay Rays baseball is right around the corner. The Rays seem confident and ready for a successful 2012 season, and it’s easy to see why. After a memorable 2011 season, the Rays return to Tampa with another very talented group. The front office got the job done this offseason, reeling in three key pieces while only losing two big names from last year. The Rays replaced their 2011 first-baseman/DH combo — Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman — with the big bats of Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. They also filled in the huge catcher hole in the roster, picking up veteran backstop Jose Molina. As the Rays return with filled gaps and arguably the best rotation in baseball, they are definitely serious contenders for a title. They hope to finally get over the hump in 2012, after being defeated by the Texas Rangers two straight years in the ALDS. Here’s an outlook of what to except from the Rays this year.

The Rotation

If one thing’s for sure, the Rays have one of the most talented starting rotations in all of baseball. Last season, the Rays had arguably the best rotation in the league, and this year it’s expected to get even better. Phenom rookie Matt Moore is the newest addition to Tampa’s pitching staff, and will likely find a spot in the Opening Day rotation. However, the Matt Moore hype is not the biggest topic amongst the Rays’ starters this spring. All eyes will be watching the battle between Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis for the fifth spot in the rotation. Having a rotation that’s six starters deep is a great problem to have for any team, and will provide the Rays will security throughout the season. The winner of the battle between Niemann and Davis will probably come down to whoever preforms better during spring training. Although exhibition games have not yet started, my early prediction goes to Niemann here. Both hurlers are qualified for the job, but better numbers and more experience will likely give Niemann the edge in this competition. Also, Davis may suit the long reliever role better than Niemann. Davis doesn’t eat up inning like Niemann does, and Niemann hasn’t had much success throwing out of the bullpen in the past.

Now let’s take a look at the guys in front of the fifth starter. It may just be the best starting quartet in the MLB, as the Rays feature a lineup of four All Star caliber pitchers. James Shields, who had a career year last season, will likely be the Opening Day starter. It’s hard not to award him with the #1 spot after the ridiculous numbers he put up in 2011. “Big Game James” finished third in the Cy Young voting after posting a 2.82 ERA with 16 wins and 11 complete games. It’s hard to except those kind of numbers out of Shields in 2012, but you can still count on him to have another good season. Fellow All Star David Price will likely follow Shields in the rotation. The 26-year-old southpaw had an off-year last season, finishing with a below .500 record and a 3.49 ERA. Price has already proved he’s an ace-type pitcher, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he explodes with a huge season in 2012. We can expect to see Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson in the #3 hole to start the season, which really shows just how scary the Rays’ rotation actually is. Hellickson quickly established himself as one of the top pitchers in the league in just his first full big league season, posting a 2.95 ERA through 189 innings pitched. This season’s ROY winner could very possibly pitching right after him, as Matt Moore seems like a likely fit for the fourth spot. Of course, we all remember Moore’s big league success during his brief stint in the majors last year.

Starting Pitching in the Organization

The Rays are stacked with arms down in their farm system. There are three starters that could make a big league splash this season; Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, and Chris Archer. Cobb already proved he can be an effective starter at the Major League level, when he started nine games replacing the injured Jeff Niemann. Cobb went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in his rookie year. He’s never been considered a top prospect, but I think he’s a bit underrated by scouts. Alex Torres, on the other hand, is a pretty high ranked prospect, as he’s a member of the Rays’ top 10 prospect list. 20120305-151621.jpgWith the crowded rotation, Torres hasn’t really got his chance with the Rays yet, but he does have eight innings pitched out of the bullpen under his belt. There isn’t any good chances that Torres will start games in 2012, but he’ll probably contribute to the ‘pen during the season. Chris Archer, the organization’s #3 prospect (according to MLB.com), could also pitch out the bullpen by the end of the 2012 season. Archer is still developing in the minors, in hopes to become a frontline starter type pitcher in the majors. However, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in the near future, as the Rays simply don’t have a spot for him in the rotation. Still, his excellent fastball-slider combo could make him an effective reliever, and give the Rays a huge boost in the late innings.

The Bullpen

Here’s how I predict the bullpen will look like at Opening Day:20120305-152852.jpg*Correction: For the middle relief role, I intended to put Jake McGee rather than Josh Lueke. 

As you can see, the bullpen will look a little different than it did last season. The 8-9 inning combo will probably be the same, with Kyle Farnsworth as the closer and Joel Peralta as the setup man. The front end of the bullpen will definitely look different, though, as some of the Rays’ new acquisitions will likely find some spots in the ‘pen. The long relief role will obviously go to whoever loses the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation; I’m assuming either Davis or Niemann. I’m also predicting there will be two lefties in the ‘pen, considering how Maddon seems to like having at least two left-handed arms in contrast to just one. J.P. Howell will likely get the ‘lefty specialist’ role, and Jake McGee may take over the middle relief spot. Burke Badenhop, another new face, will probably end up as the bullpen’s groundball guy. With Adam Russell no longer with the Rays, it’s important to have a reliever in the ‘pen to go to when you’re looking specifically for a double play. As for the ‘right-handed specialist’ or the ‘one-out right-hander guy’, Fernando Rodney seems like the best fit for that spot.

But of course, there will be some spring competitions within the bullpen. Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, Dane De La Rosa, Matt Bush, Alex Torres and Cesar Ramos all have shots at a bullpen spot throughout the season. Keep your eyes peeled for Gomes and Lueke, as a good enough spring training performance might earn them a spot on the roster.

The Infield

20120305-151614.jpgThe Corners:

First Base- Carlos Pena will be manning first base for the Rays this season, just as he did from 2007-2010. There is some depth at the position, as utility infielders Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez can both fill in at first. Zobrist, who can play every position outside the battery, actually fields the position decently. That’s definitely good to have in mind in case of an injury. Outfielder Matt Joyce can also be added to the depth chart. Joyce has started his first base practice this offseason, and may continue to work on it throughout spring training.

Third Base- Evan Longoria will be the Opening Day third baseman for the fourth straight year. The Rays do have some depth at third, with Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson. Zobrist also has the ability to play the hot corner, but it’s really the last role he has to worry about.

Up The Middle:

Second Base- “Zorilla” will be the Opening Day second baseman, continuing to provide the Rays with great defense at the position. Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Keppinger and Elliot Johnson will all backup Zobrist at second throughout the year.

Shortstop- The shortstop position is the biggest question mark for Opening Day. Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Keppinger and Reid Brignac will have a three-way battle this spring for the starting role. The early favorite seems to be Rodriguez, but Keppinger and Brignac will definitely give him a run for his money this spring. Both Brignac and Rodriguez are good defensively, but Rodriguez gets the edge because he’s the better offensive player overall. Keppinger is a bit below average defensively at second base, but he’s probably a better contact hitter than the other two. His lifetime batting average of .281 is a lot higher than both Brignac’s and Rodriguez’s career averages. Still, my prediction is that Rodriguez will get the Opening Day shortstop gig.

The Catchers

The Rays filled in a big roster hole this offseason when they signed veteran backstop Jose Molina. Molina will be Opening Day catcher, but he’s not able to play more than 80-90 games this season.. Unfortunately, the Rays are pretty weak catching wise behind Molina. Rookie catchers Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos, along with veteran Chris Gimenez, will battle this month for the Opening Day backup role. All three have little offensive ability, as well as little experience (especially Lobaton and Chirinos). It’s hard to say who gets the early edge here, but I think it goes to Gimenez. The thing that stands out with Gimenez is versatility. His ability to play the corner outfield and the corner infield is what may separate him from Lobaton and Chirinos in the end. When it’s all said and done, Gimenez is going to have to perform well enough during spring training to earn himself the backup job.

The Outfield

Left Field- Rookie Desmond Jennings will most likely be the Opening Day starter in left field. Sam Fuld will be backing him up all season long, as playing left field is what he does best.

Center Field- Luckily for the Rays, they will enjoy another season of B.J. Upton playing centerfield every day. Sean Rodriguez, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, and Matt Joyce could all potentially fill in at center if needed.

Right Field- Matt Joyce will be the Rays’ starting right-fielder, and will be backed up by a pair of talented outfielders throughout the season. Both Ben Zobrist and Sam Fuld will fill in at right when needed.

The DH

Luke Scott will be the Opening Day designated hitter, which is a change from his usual starting outfield role. Sam Fuld is technically the backup DH, but if Scott were to be injured Maddon would probably put Fuld in right field and let Matt Joyce play DH.

The Bench

The Rays will have four bench players to round out their Opening Day 25-man roster. One of the bench spots will obviously be a backup catcher, so that narrows it down to Lobaton, Chirinos and Gimenez. Again, my prediction is that Gimenez will win the backup spot. There will be to infield bench players on the Opening Day roster, making a competition between Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Jeff Keppinger (assuming Sean Rodriguez gets the starting job). My prediction is that Elliot Johnson will be just edged out here, meaning Brignac and Keppinger will start the season off the bench. That leaves one outfield bench spot, which will most likely go to Fuld.

The Minors

20120305-151627.jpgThe Rays don’t have a big list of position player prospects that could arrive in 2012, but there are two names that immediately jump out. Outfielder Brandon Guyer made his MLB debut last season, during his short 15-game stint. Guyer hopes to get more playing time this year, and probably will if he continues to put up offensive numbers in the minors. Guyer hit .312 with 61 RBI and 16 stolen bases for AAA Durham in 2011, which was the season after he hit .344 with 58 RBI and 30 stolen bases in Class-AA ball. Still, the Rays’ crowded outfield is what’s getting in the way of significant playing time for Guyer.

Shortstop Tim Beckham could also get some playing time this year as a September call-up. The former #1 overall draft-pick has slowly progressed in the minor leagues, and could get his first MLB stint if he continues to improve this year. Beckham hit .271 with 12 homers and 70 RBI through his 131 games with both AA Montgomery and AAA Durham.

Season Predictions

Team MVP: Evan Longoria

Team Ace: David Price

Rays players in MLB Awards (Regular Season): Matt Moore (ROY), Evan Longoria (Gold Glove), Joe Maddon (Manager of the Year), and Evan Longoria (Silver Slugger).

Rays’ 2012 Record: 97-65

Rays’ 2012 AL East Finish: 1st place; tied with the New York Yankees’ record but will win the division by head-to-head record.

Rays’ 2012 Postseason Finish: Win World Series

I truly believe this is the season the Rays are finally going to pull it off. I look at it this way: the Rays had a great team last year, and they clearly have a better roster coming into 2012. With the full-season addition of Desmond Jennings, the outfield has improved. With the addition of Carlos Pena and more depth in the infield, it’s safe to say that a great infield has got even better. With the 2012 return of Matt Moore, an unbelievable starting rotation should be even more incredible. Barring any key injuries, the Rays flat-out have a better ball club in 2012. I see the Rays getting over that ALDS hump this year as inevitable.

As for the player predictions, you may be a bit surprised by my choice for team ace. Price has already proved he can be one of the top pitchers in the league, and I believe he just had an off-year last season. Whoever will be the Rays’ top pitcher in 2012 will likely not be the best starter by much at all. James Shields, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson all have the potential for huge seasons this year.

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