As the first half of the 2013 MLB season nears an end, let’s look back at what went right and what went wrong for the Tampa Bay Rays after almost three months of baseball.
It’s been a frustrating first half for the Rays for multiple reasons, but at 42-39, they’re still very much in competition.
Here are the main winners and losers from the first half of the Rays’ season.
Winner: The offense
The Rays’ offense has been amongst the best in all of baseball this season. Tampa Bay ranks fourth in the MLB in wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) at 109 and ninth in the league in runs (375).
The lineup, which has managed to stay healthy, has really clicked for Joe Maddon’s club. Evan Longoria (.388 wOBA and 47 RBI) has swung the bat very well, along with Matt Joyce (.348 wOBA) and James Loney (.361 wOBA). Ben Zobrist, Kelly Johnson and Desmond Jennings have also been key contributors.
With Wil Myers now in the meat of this impressive lineup, Tampa’s offensive could be even more dangerous in the second half.
Loser: David Price
It’s been a lousy 2013 for David Price coming off a Cy Young award-winning season last year. The Rays’ ace posted a 1-4 record with a 5.24 ERA and 4.03 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) through nine starts before hitting the DL with a tricep strain last month.
Not only have Price’s early-season struggles and injury hurt the Rays, but they haven’t helped out his future trade value much either. On a more positive note, though, he is set to join the rotation this Tuesday.
If one thing’s for sure, the Rays are going to need Price back to to form in the second half if they want to compete in October.
Winner: James Loney
James Loney has enjoyed a nice comeback year with the Rays so far after disappointing 2012 season. Loney’s put up an impressive .314/.367/.474 line with 40 RBI and a 134 wRC+.
He’s been very productive defensively as well, posting a 2.9 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating).
Loser: Jeff Niemann
The Jeff Niemann story is a very unfortunate one. It seems like every time the “Tall Texan” is about to break out into stardom, a big injury ruins his season.
The 30-year-old right-hander won’t throw a single pitch in 2013 due to a shoulder injury that required surgery. Niemann already lost his spot in the rotation in spring training to veteran Roberto Hernandez, so his future as a starter in Tampa Bay isn’t a very bright one, especially now with the emergence of Chris Archer, Alex Colome and Alex Torres.
Winner: Rookie pitchers
It’s been a good season for the Rays’ talented young crop of prospect pitchers. Chris Archer, Alex Colome and Alex Torres have all received some big league playing time this year thanks to injuries.
Archer, who proved he was Major League ready in 2012, has once again flashed his high potential this season. He owns a 4.40 ERA through six starts.
Colome has been solid in his big league debut this season, allowing just four earned runs in his first three starts with the Rays. He’s pitched 16 innings, striking out 12 batters but also walking nine.
Archer and Colome sure have been exciting, but neither have made as big of a splash as Torres. The 25-year-old southpaw has been ridiculously good out of the bullpen, allowing just one run in 23 innings while striking out 31 and walking seven. If Torres can continue to pitch lights out, he’ll find himself in a bigger role on the team.
Loser: The Bullpen
Tampa Bay’s bullpen has been a huge disappointment this year, blowing countless leads late in games after being nearly flawless last season. Rays relievers have posted a 3.79 ERA, which ranks 17th in the league.
Fernando Rodney has regressed significantly as well in 2012, blowing already five saves in 21 opportunities. However, Rodney—like the rest of the Rays’ bullpen—appears to be turning things around now as the ‘pen seems to be going into the second half on a high note.
It hasn’t been an ideal start to the year for the Tampa Bay Rays. With one quarter of the season already behind us, the Rays currently stand at an even 20-20.
The’ve really underachieved overall as a team, as things simply aren’t falling into place for them just yet.
With a strong offense and a struggling bullpen, it’s looked like 2009 all over again so far for Tampa Bay. They missed the playoffs and finished the season with just 84 wins that year, so Rays fans hope their team is not going down a similar path.
After the first 40 games of the 2013 season, here’s a graded evaluation of the Rays’ offense, starting rotation, bullpen and defense.
The Rays currently have the third best offense in Major League Baseball with a wRC+ of 108.
Evan Longoria and James Loney have both enjoyed red-hot starts to the season. Longoria has posted a .417 wOBA and Loney is leading the league in batting at .367.
Kelly Johnson and Sean Rodriguez have both been pleasant surprises. Johnson’s posted a 119 wRC+ and Rodriguez has looked like a much-improved hitter, putting up a .326 wOBA in 60 plate appearances.
Below’s a chart of every player’ wOBA compared to their preseason projections (Fangraphs’ ZIPS projections):
Overall Grade: A-
With statistically one of the league’s best offenses, I thought the Rays deserved a high grade here. The difference between an A- and an A+ for me was the first two weeks of the season where the offense was anemic. Since late April, however, the lineup has been scorching hot.
“Disappointing” is the best word to describe the Rays’ starting rotation at the first quarter mark. Tampa’s starters have posted a collective 4.05 ERA (16th in MLB) and a 4.22 FIP (18th in MLB).
Shockingly, the starting pitching struggles have stemmed from the rotation’s front two: David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Price—who’s now on the 15-day DL—is 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA through nine starts and Hellickson is 1-2 with a 5.25 ERA through eight.
There has been two bright spots in the rotation, however, as youngsters Matt Moore and Alex Cobb have both shined. Moore is an impressive 7-0 with a 2.44 ERA and a 9.56 K/9, while Cobb is 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA and a rotation-leading WAR of 0.9.
Roberto Hernandez has been nothing more than decent in his first seven starts. He’s 2-4 with a 4.43 ERA, but he’s actually looked pretty encouraging. His career-high 8.65 K/9 rate, 3.43 SIERA and 3.45 xFIP are possibly signs of a comeback year for Hernandez.
Overall Grade: C-
What was expected to be one of the better bullpens in baseball as turned out to be somewhat of a disaster. Tampa’s ‘pen ranks fourth worst in the league in ERA (4.67) and sixth worst in FIP (4.04).
Closer Fernando Rodney has been suprisingly lousy so far, blowing three saves in 10 opportunities to go along with a 5.28 ERA and a pair of losses. Jake McGee (8.80 ERA), Kyle Farnsworth (6.52 ERA), Jamey Wright (4.24 ERA) and Brandon Gomes (5.40 ERA) have all struggled as well.
The Rays have held leads in 34 of their 40 games this season, and have blown countless leads late in games. The bullpen is simply going to have to improve if the Rays want a shot at competing in October.
Overall Grade: D
They have the best defensive corner-infield combo in the game with Evan Longoria and James Loney, Longoria, as usual, has been nothing short of amazing this season, leading the team with a 3.8 UZR as he continues to play like a Gold Glove caliber third baseman.
In the outfield, Desmond Jennings has done a fine job adjusting to centerfield, posting a 3.2 UZR. Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce haven’t done a very good job in the corners, but Fuld still covers plenty of ground and Kelly Johnson has bolstered the outfield defense a bit.
Johnson’s also played very well at second base thus far, owning a 0.8 UZR at the position.
At shortstop, Yunel Escobar has proven to be the defensive upgrade he was signed for. He gives the Rays the adequate-fielding everyday shortstop they haven’t had since Jason Bartlett in 2010.
As for the Rays’ catching tandem, both Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton have been below average in terms of throwing out runners and blocking pitching. It’s obviously a big minus for the overall defense, but it doesn’t erase the fact that Molina is the best framing catcher in the game.
Overall Grade: B
Another 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.
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. With 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
The Tampa Bay Rays are not new to the MLB trade rumor conversation. Being a small-market team, the Rays do not have many options shopping in the free agent market. To fill in areas of need during the offseason, the Rays are practically forced to trade away some of their young talent. Players such as B.J. Upton, have been in the spotlight of Rays trade rumors for over a year now. As the Rays stand a month and a half into their offseason, new names have emerged arousing the Rays’ Hot Stove. Earlier this week, catcher John Jaso was traded to Seattle for reliever Josh Lueke. It was a move that seemed to come out of nowhere. Many analysts were already projecting Jaso as the Opening Day backstop in 2012. Since the offseason started in October, more possible trade pieces have been named. Pitchers Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb, and James Shields could all possibly end up as trade bait to reel in some offensive production from teams that lack pitching. The questions are, what kind of players will the Rays pursue? What players are they willing to trade away? The Rays’ winter probably won’t be a real busy one, but there’s a lot to be done in the following months.
One player that Rays appear to have an eye on is Yonder Alonoso. The Cincinnati Reds’ Alonso is one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball. Some people even believe that the 24 year-old has the same potential as his teammate Joey Votto. Alonso does resemble the former MVP in some ways. He’s a thick left-handed batter who can hit for average and has power as well. From what scouts predict, he’s the making of a great hitter like Votto. Besides for his phenomenal hitting skills, Alonso is also a first baseman. His ability to play at first makes him even more attractive from the Rays’ perspective. With Casey Kotchman and Dan Johnson possibly not returning in 2012, first base is one of the Rays’ areas to tend to in the offseason.
Alonso’s not really a slick fielder like the first baseman the Rays have had in the past, but his offensive production could be a huge boost for the team. In just his second MLB season, Alonso put up excellent numbers for Cincinnati. He hit an impressive .330 and knocked out five homers through his 47 games. This is guy I believe the Rays should seriously go after. The former #1 draft pick has only a year left on his contract, he’s young and healthy, and he can simply rake the baseball. A hard-hitting first baseman who can also serve as a DH; sounds like a perfect fit for the Rays. The question to ask now, is who would the Reds be looking for in return? According to sources, the Reds are looking for starting pitching and ideally a No. 2 in the rotation. James Shields is the type of pitcher they are looking to get out of a Yonder Alonso trade. If the Rays are willing to give away Shields to bolster their mediocre offense, Alonso could easily be a Ray. Shields is not the only pitcher that the Rays could trade. Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann are both young arms that the Reds may like in their starting rotation. Wether the Rays decide to go with the Davis/Niemann offer or the Shields offer, a deal could very well be in their reach.
The Reds are not the only team after Davis and Niemann’s services; the Colorado Rockies also seem to have a bit of interest. Maybe not so much anymore though, as they just recently made a deal to pick up a young starter to fill in the rotation. On Wednesday the Rockies found pitching in the Angels’ Tyler Chatwood, trading catcher Chris Ianetta. It wasn’t the greatest of news for the Rays, as Ianetta would be a nice pick up considering the Rays’ catching situation. After the Rays signed Jose Molina, any possibility of making a deal with Colorado quickly diminished. If the Rockies are still looking for more pitching, they do have Ian Stewart to offer. But because he is a third baseman and the Rockies already made their main move, a deal with Colorado seems highly unlikely.
In the last few years, pitching has been the main source for the Rays’ trade away rumors. The one exception to that is center fielder B.J. Upton. The fact that Upton is still a Ray after two consecutive Trade Deadlines where he was almost traded, is a surprise to many. The Washington Nationals are one team that have been interested in Upton for a while now. With the potential in Desmond Jennings and Brandon Guyer now obvious, the long-anticipated B.J. Upton trade seems more likely than before. What the Nationals have to offer is young farm talent, including a catcher that the Rays should keep an eye on. 22 year-old Derek Norris is one of the Nationals’ top catching prospects, and is a possible trade piece with Wilson Ramos emerging as their future catcher. Of course Norris would be just a part of a B.J. Upton trade.
Infielder Blake Kelso and right-handed pitcher A.J. Cole are two more minor leaguers that could interest the Rays. Kelso is a utility player, that is known for impressing scouts with his ‘Rays style’ of baseball. The other guy is A.J. Cole, who is a 19 year-old pitcher who has great potential as a big league pitcher. These are all guys that the Rays could use in the future, but I’m still not sure how much I like the idea of Upton being traded. After all, he did just have his best year since 2008 and it seems as he might be on the way up. With the Rays in need of offense, keeping Upton is clearly the right move. Last year Upton finished top three in the five major offensive stats for the team, including first in stolen bases. Losing B.J. would be a pretty big blow for the team, especially considering their efforts to boost the offense. Upton is only going to get better I believe, and his improvement is noticeable. He may still strikeout a ton and hit for a low average, but there’s also a lot of things he does right. On the defensive side of his game, he’s probably even better. To start, there’s only a few center fielders in the big leagues with the range Upton has. This gives him ability to play shallow and still be able to snag the deep flies. In addition to his speed, Upton also has a cannon of an arm. His accuracy is not exactly spot on, but he can throw the ball hard and far. At the end of the day, any pitcher would love to have B.J. Upton playing in center field for their team. B.J. Upton has been a piece to the Rays’ puzzle ever since their magical run in ’08. The team without Upton would be hard to picture.
To recap it all, the Rays should pursue the big bat of the Reds’ Yonder Alonso. As for Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Alex Cobb, I think it’s very possible that one will be traded away this winter. Regarding the B.J. Upton trade rumors, Upton is pretty much a must-keep for the Rays’ 2012 roster. The list of Rays trade rumor names is short, but if the right moves are made the Rays will have another successful season next year. In the MLB Hot Stove, it’s about quality not quantity.