Why the Rays’ Offense Will Be Good Enough to Win the AL East

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It will be another hard-fought battle for the AL East in 2012, and the Rays will likely be in the hunt to win it all season long. Tampa’s great starting pitching is definitely good enough to win the division, but the question is whether they will hit good enough.

Offensive production was the only thing that stood in the way of an AL East title and postseason success last year. With all the tough competition in the American League, it’s clear the Rays are going to have to hit better than they did in 2011 in order to be serious title contenders.

There are some good reasons to believe that the Rays’ offense will be better in 2012. For starters, offseason acquisitions have already made an impact in the lineup, and they should make the Rays a better team overall this season. The Rays made smart moves by signing Carlos Pena to play first base and Luke Scott to be their DH, replacing Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon from 2011.

It’s early, but it looks like the replacement is paying off and the newer combo will produce more runs for the Rays this year. Both Scott and Pena have start the season off on a tear in the meat of the lineup. Scott is hitting .400/.438/.933 with eight RBI and two home runs. Pena has been the Rays’ best hitter after the first nine games, batting .353/.450/.735 with 11 RBI and three long balls.

As expected, Evan Longoria is also hitting very well, starting his 2012 season with a .333/.436/.545 line along with five RBI and a homer. I think Longoria will have his best season yet this year, which is another reason why the Rays will score enough runs to be at the top of their division.

The Rays have a very strong trio of big boppers in Longoria, Pena and Scott, who will likely lead the team offensively. If those three stay healthy and hit to their potential the Rays will have a great shot at winning the AL East.

Jeff Keppinger and Jose Molina are two more additions that could bolster the offense. Keppinger is outstanding contact hitter who should help lower the Rays’ high strikeout ratios, as well as contribute to the bottom of the order. Keppinger’s already been somewhat of a pleasant surprise this season, coming through with some clutch hits. Molina is no All Star either, but he probably is a better offensive option than both Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso—who were the Rays’ two main backstops last year.

Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton are three more bats that will be key to the Rays’ lineup this season, just like they’ve been in the past. Neither Joyce are Zobrist have started to hit well yet, and Upton has been on the DL since the season began. Once Joyce and Zobrist start to get things going at the plate and Upton returns to the lineup, the Rays will instantly become a more threatening team to their AL East opponents.

The three combined for 247 RBI and 62 homers last season, finishing second, third and fourth in team leaders for both categories (behind Evan Longoria who lead in both). Ben Zobrist hit 20 homers with an impressive 91 RBI, while Joyce was selected to the All Star Game and finished the season with 75 RBI, 19 homers and a .277 average. Upton produced his share of runs as well, collecting 81 RBI with 23 home runs while stealing 36 stolen bases.

The Rays should finally have a consistent leadoff man in the lineup with the full-season addition of Desmond Jennings this year. Jennings—a late-season call-up in 2011—stole 20 bases with 25 RBI and 10 homers in his 63-game rookie season. Having an everyday leadoff guy like Jennings is definitely a big help to the lineup that the Rays didn’t really have last year.

The running game has been a big part of the Rays’ offense in past years, and Jennings huge threat on the base pads provides a big boost with Carl Crawford no longer with the team. Like Crawford, he’s a great base-stealer with excellent speed.

The Rays’ running game hasn’t got off to a good start, however, which is a big reason why the Rays are only 21st in the Majors right now in runs scored. It’s really unfair to judge Tampa’s offense at this point in the season, though, as two of the team’s three main base-stealers are out with injury. Both Upton —who lead the team in stolen bases last year— and Sam Fuld (20 stolen bases in 2011) are on the DL.

Injuries have not only hurt the running game, but they have hurt the offense overall. As I said before, Upton was one of the main run-producers last season, and not having him in the lineup is huge. Luke Scott —another huge piece— was also out with an injury for three games last week. The offense still hasn’t been healthy yet this season, which is why I think it will only get better.

Still, the Rays do have some obvious weaknesses in the lineup, mainly the bottom of the order. Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez and Jose Lobaton are some names that are a bit of a concern.

It’s safe to say the Rays won’t have the best lineup—or overall offense—in their division when comparing them to the stacked rosters of Boston and New York. They likely won’t have to match their rivals’ big bats, though, with such stellar starting pitching and defense as dominant as they have.

Still, the Rays are going to need to come through for them when needed, just like it did last year in their memorable Game 162. The Rays can expect that from their talented young roster this year, as they definitely have all the ingredients for a functional offense.

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6 comments

  1. djpostl

    You hit the nail on the head with the “it’s too early” disclaimer though.
    Scott won’t be healthy enough to contribute all year (he never is, misses at least 30 games a year in his healthiest seasons) and won’t maintain this pace. Neither will Pena for that matter, he’ll revert to a low .200’s BA and high K’s with the home runs.
    The big factor is getting Upton back and hittin 20 Hrs/stealing 30 bases and having Jennings for a full year.
    Just don’t see this adding up to more than a marginal upgrade though.
    Kotchman didn’t have Pena’s thump but he got on at a huge clip, .378 OBP, and put the ball in play a ton, something that plays into your style of offense far better than a high strikeout/station to station style of guy like Pena.
    Damon produced similarly, just a lesser clip than Kotchman. In the end I think it’s a push, gained some power but added a ton of K’s/lost a ton of base runners & pitches opposing hurlers have to throw due to the scrappier style of at-bats (and higher pitch counts they generate) from the guys who left.
    BUT their pitching wil be more consistent than it is, so in the end it’ll be more of the same I think. Great pitching, a high wire act in the bulpen and sporadic bouts of good offensive production.

    • mlblogsyossif

      It’s hard to assume for sure that Scott will miss 30+ games this season, but I can definitely understand where you’re coming from. He’s key to the Rays’ lineup and they’re going to absolutely need him healthy in the postseason. Upton’s also a big piece, as you mentioned. Pena may not be a consistently good hitter, but he doesn’t have the injury concern that Scott does and he provides home run power that both Damon and Kotchman couldn’t match. The Rays offense has proven that it’s better with him in the lineup.

      I definitely see the new combo (Scott & Pena) as better than last years. Kotchman is a better contact hitter and maybe Damon too, but they simply produce less runs. The Rays didn’t just add “some” power with the new combo, they added a lot.

      And Pena knows how to work a count well, actually, he just strikes out a lot. He also walks a pretty good amount too. Scott can also puts up good at-bats, and is a better Designated Hitter overall than Damon (at least right now) when healthy.

  2. Mateo Fischer

    Although it *is* too early to tell for certain and this production is unlikely to continue, I’d also like to point out that it really won’t be hard to match or superceed the production of last year, because although both years were patch jobs, the patches this year are far better than those of last year, and last year they obviously made the playoffs, so unless some other team raises teir win total past what the Rays accomplished last year, it should be enough to get to the playoffs again. For the first time in a while, though, it might easier to win the AL East than it is the Wild Card. I have NO idea how the Yankees accomplished what they did last year and the Red Sox seem to be in an earlier-than-usual state of dysfunction. This is the Rays’ division for the winning.
    -Mateo
    http://mateofischer.mlblogs.com

    • mlblogsyossif

      Ya I agree, I think the Rays have an overall better team this year. They definitely have a great chance at winning the division.

      I don’t know why you’re surprised at the Yankees’ success in 2011. They ridiculously good hitting that was clutch, an outstanding bullpen, and very good defense.

      • Mateo Fischer

        I guess it’s that the names that were showing up on the board aren’t what you would call “elite”. As a person that has followed the Yankees since I can remember, that is really the first time winning the division was a team effort. However, the reason seems “flukey” is that pitchers like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia going out and were throwing 7 scoreless innings. I’m not really surprised that they won given what they did. I was more surprised that they did what they did given the personnel they had. Get it?
        -Mateo
        http://mateofischer.mlblogs.com

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