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MLB Team Previews: 2011 Rays Preview

Kevin Payne

Kevin Payne

Kevin has worked for Rotowire just under a decade and has covered basketball, baseball and football. A glutton for punishment, he roots for his hometown Bills, Sabres and the New York Yankees. He hosts the RotoWire SiriusXM show every Wednesday and Friday and you can follow him on Twitter @KCPayne26.

Tampa Bay Rays Preview
By Kevin Payne, RotoWire Writer

Moving On

The Rays entered 2010 as one of the favorites to not only compete for the AL East crown but win their first World Series. They accomplished their first goal of winning the AL East; finishing first arguably didn't help them as they ran into Texas Rangers opposed to the Minnesota Twins. The Rays made a quick exit from the playoffs, going down in Game 5 to Cliff Lee. As expected, the Rays cut payroll and lost via free agency some of the core players from the past couple of seasons. They'll try to contend again by using a mix of young players along with some seasoned veterans. The question is: do they really have enough to compete this year?

Offseason Moves:

Lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano via free agency.

This came as no surprise as the Rays went into cost-cutting mode. Pena had turned into something of a disappointing season with only a .198 batting average but led the team with 28 home runs. Crawford and Soriano signed with the Red Sox and Yankees respectively, so the Rays will still see them plenty.

Signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to one-year deals.

A smart move from a business standpoint as both players came at a cost of less than $8 million. It's hard to predict how much either has left as they head into the twilight of their careers but there's obviously enough upside with both to give the Rays a shot at contending.

Traded Matt Garza to the Cubs.

This was something of a surprise given that Garza was regarded as their second-best starter last year. Garza was headed to arbitration, which would have cost the Rays (he avoided it and signed a $5.95 million deal with the Cubs) and will look to claim the two or three spot in the Cubbies rotation. Coming back to the Rays in the trade were a handful of solid prospects, including SS Hak-Ju Lee, P Chris Archer, OF Brandon Guyer and C Robinson Chirinos. The move helps restock the Rays system (although they'll also have 11 of the first 75 picks in the upcoming draft) while opening a spot in the rotation for Jeremy Hellickson.

Non-tendered Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, Randy Choate and Lance Cormier.

The Rays overhauled their bullpen in an effort to again, save money. During the offseason the market seemed favorable for middle relievers who were able to cash in. This year the Rays will turn to a crew of new faces to close out games and will need production from them immediately for the Rays to succeed.

Signed Casey Kotchman and Felipe Lopez to minor league deals.

While Safeco could be partially to blame, Kotchman posted only a .616 OPS for Seattle last year, a number that instills little confidence. Lopez is interesting; putting aside a bad 2010 he hit above the .300 mark in 2008 and 2009. Both will likely start out at Triple-A Durham and Lopez is likely the safer bet to see big league at-bats, likely as a utility player.

Traded Jason Bartlett to the San Diego Padres.

After a career season in 2009, Bartlett came back to earth in 2010, hitting only four home runs and stealing 11 bases. The presence of Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez made him expendable as the Rays realized they could provide more than adequate replacement value. In return, the Rays received two relievers to add to the bullpen in Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos. The Rays will look to Ramos to fill the void left by Randy Choate as a lefty specialist. Russell is a dark horse for the closer's role and will likely try and earn a spot as a set-up guy.

Projected Lineup/Rotation

Lineup (vs. RH and LH)

John Jaso Johnny Damon
Johnny Damon Ben Zobrist
Ben Zobrist Evan Longoria
Evan Longoria Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton Dan Johnson
Matt Joyce Sean Rodriguez
Sean Rodriguez Reid Brignac
Reid Brignac Kelly Shoppach


The lineup is up in the air but should become clearer once spring training starts. The Rays once again ran wild in 2010, leading the majors in stolen bases for the third consecutive season. Power could be an issue for this lineup as there isn't anyone here who hit over 22 home runs last year. Instead, the Rays will focus on being patient at the plate by working counts and focusing on OBP. Jaso will likely leadoff when he plays, a spot he posted a .380 OBP from a year ago. The way the Rays go this season will rely heavily on the bottom third of the lineup as Joyce, Rodriguez and Brignac try to prove they are everyday players. Bounce-back years from Longoria and Zobrist along with consistent production from Damon and Ramirez could make this a potent lineup.

Rotation

1. David Price
2. James Shields
3. Jeff Niemann
4. Wade Davis
5. Jeremy Hellickson

Price put together a monster season, owning a 2.72 ERA and winning 19 games. Shields will look to put a terrible season behind him, holding a 5.18 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. A career-high BABIP (.348) along with a career-low strand rate (68.4%) didn't help the ERA. Shields will have to cure his gopheritis, as his 34 home runs allowed were the worst in the American League. Niemann and Davis will try to stay healthy over the full season after dealing with shoulder and back issues. Niemann's 7.69 second-half ERA is concerning, although his shoulder/back injury was likely the culprit. Finally, we'll get to see what Jeremy Hellickson can do over the course of a full season. He held his own over 36.1 innings with the Rays last year, winning four games with a 3.47 ERA. Andy Sonnanstine will open the season in the bullpen and likely be the first person to be called upon should anything happen to one of the starters.

CL: Jacob McGee

McGee has made a successful return from 2008 Tommy John surgery as evidenced by last year. Over two levels of minor league ball he held a 10.8 K/9 mark and allowed only three home runs over 110.2 innings of work. His name is not etched in stone to be the closer but he appears to be the leading candidate. It's a tough transition to jump from the minors straight into the closer's role and typically you don't find lefties filling the role. However, the pedigree is there for McGee who before the 2008 elbow injury was widely considered a top-20 prospect. If McGee isn't ready to handle the role other possible options include Adam Russell, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta.

Notes of Importance, Fantasy or Otherwise:

1. How much can be expected from Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon?

Both players played the majority of their games at DH last year. Since they continue to allow only one of those in a lineup, Damon will be moved to left field. Downgrading defensively from Carl Crawford to Damon will not assist any of the Rays' pitchers. Damon even in his prime was considered an average defender with at best an average arm. Damon is 37 and Manny will be 39 before June 1, so it's difficult to determine if they'll be able to handle the rigors of playing every day. Manny dealt with a calf injury last year and has dealt with knee and hamstring issues in the past. While Damon has been an ironman over the last 14 years, he logged only 36 games in the outfield for Detroit. Damon has seen his power diminish and now heads to a park that won't do him any favors. After posting a 17:7 home/away with the Yankees in 2009, he held a 7:1 ratio with Detroit last year. Manny seemed to be sapped of his power after going to the White Sox, slugging only .319 over 69 at-bats in September. His .420 OBP gives Rays fans hope as they need both players to stay healthy and produce if they have any aspirations for the postseason.

2. When will we see Desmond Jennings?

Unfortunately with the signings of the two aforementioned and the Rays' history with their prospects, Jennings will start the season in Durham. Don't expect to see him until after June 1 even if there's an injury or two in the outfield. He hasn't displayed a ton of power but the speed is legit and will be his fantasy biggest asset once he gets to the big show.

3. Where's the power going to come from?

There isn't a player on the current roster that had more than 22 home runs last year. The Rays lost 47 (29% of the team total) home runs between Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford and it's hard to fathom the Damon and Ramirez combo can replace that. Matt Joyce has the upside to hit 20-25 while Sean Rodriguez could approach the 20 mark. Obviously home runs are not a necessity to win but this is a team that lost their first and third best home run hitters and only finished 12th in the majors last year in that category.

Strengths: Excellent rotation top to bottom, a superstar in Evan Longoria, outstanding minor leaguers, an overall good OBP lineup.

Weaknesses: Questionable bullpen, limited budget to make a deal should they contend and need help, lack of power.

Rising: Evan Longoria - While many were disappointed in the drop in home runs last season (33 to 22), Longo finished third at his position with 15 stolen bases. He attempted 20, so to expect another double-digit season in that category is realistic. The potential to someday hit 40 home runs is legitimate and the Manny signing will help protect him in the lineup. Don't be surprised if that 40-homer season comes sooner rather than later.

Falling: Kelly Shoppach - Shoppach appeared to be a great sign when the Rays inked him to a two-year deal. A knee injury shelved him for the first part of the season and by the time he returned John Jaso had emerged as the #1 catcher. Shoppach wasn't supposed to be a key part of the lineup but the Rays liked what they saw in his 21-homer 2008 season. Since that time though, Shoppach has seen his slugging percentage drop steadily each season (.517, .399 and .342). His power came back some over the final two months but his strikeout rate (44.9%) and low batting average will hurt fantasy owners.

Sleeper: Sean Rodriguez - Mr. Versatility played every field position for at least three games last year, offering fantasy owners flexibility when sticking him into their lineup. With the trade of Jason Bartlett, Rodriguez has a good shot at landing the everyday second base job. With a quick glance, his 28.3% strikeout rate suggests that there won't be too much improvement for his .251 batting average. However, he improved his patience at the plate as the season went on. At the end of last July, Rodriguez had only taken seven walks (2.7%) in 259 plate appearances but registered 14 walks (11.7%) over his final 120 plate appearances. He offers a nice blend of speed (13 steals a year ago) and power (nine home runs) from someone who qualifies at second base. With an extra 150 plate appearances and continued growth at the plate, Rodriguez has the upside to put together something close to a 20/20 season.

Supersleeper: Elliot Johnson - The reigning team MVP at Triple-A Durham is too old at 26 to be considered a prospect but could push his way into fantasy relevance this season. He'll likely make the team in a utility role and can play all of the infield positions. Last year in the minors, he hit 11 home runs and went 30-for-36 in the stolen base department. A switch hitter, Johnson could land a good share of playing time if Rodriguez or Reid Brignac slump. After his collision with Francisco Cervelli back in 2008, don't be surprised if he gets brushed back a time or two when they play the Yankees.

Roster

Here's a rundown of players not mentioned above:

Matt Joyce - After coming over in the Edwin Jackson trade, the Rays had high hopes for Joyce. However, his first year with the team raised questions about his attitude and work ethic and he spent most of 2009 at Triple-A. Last season was a different story with coaches raving about his positive transformation. Unfortunately, an elbow injury cost him the first two months of the season and there wasn't a roster spot by the time he was done with his rehab. Joyce spent a short time at Triple-A before finally getting 216 at-bats with the Rays, playing mostly right field. He'll have a good shot of winning most of the time there this spring as a left-handed bat. He'll make for a nice fifth outfielder with pop (HR in every 21.6 at-bats last season) in most formats with 4-5 starts a week.

Ben Zobrist - After a breakout season in 2009, owners expected much better numbers from Zobrist last season. He hit 17 fewer home runs and lost 59 points from his batting average, though he converted 24-for-27 stolen base attempts. This shouldn't come as too much of a shock considering he came out of nowhere in 2009 at age 28 to post that breakout year. Last season's decline may be the result of fatigue after playing in 152 games in 2009 and playing in only 178 games between 2007 and 2008. Zobrist saw most of his time in the outfield last season and could be used all over the field following the departure of a few of the veteran players. He's a virtual lock for 500 plate appearances no matter where he is in the field and should be able to rebound somewhat in the power department.

Dan Johnson - Johnson enters spring training with the opportunity for regular playing time at either first base or DH. After coming back stateside from a stint in Japan in 2009, he signed a minor league deal with the Rays. He mashed 30 home runs with a ridiculous .430 OBP for Triple-A Durham before getting called up to the Rays. While his .198 batting average with the Rays looks suspect, the good batting eye he showed in Durham resulted in a .343 OBP. Johnson looked better at the plate down the stretch, recording five home runs over his last 58 at-bats. With regular playing time, Johnson would make for a nice sleeper in the power categories in deeper formats.

B.J. Upton - Every year since 2007, fantasy owners have drafted Upton while waiting for him to break out with a .290 average and place in the 30-30 club. Reality is probably starting to set in as Upton can always be counted on for steals but the high batting average and power combo doesn't seem to be coming. Last year's home-run total was seven more than his 2009 total, which isn't surprising now that he's more than a year removed from shoulder surgery. To take the next step, Upton will have to improve his batting eye to cut down on the strikeouts (69.4 contact rate last season). He did hit 10 home runs while batting .260 over 192 at-bats during August and September - a possible sign of good things to come. Draft Upton for his speed and moderate power, just temper any lofty expectations in the batting average department.

Justin Ruggiano - Ruggiano spent another season at Triple-A Durham last year, buried beneath a pile of outfield prospects. For the second straight season at Durham, he recorded 15 home runs while stealing at least 22 bases. Despite the glut of outfield options for the Rays, there's a chance he could make the team with a strong spring as a reserve outfielder. If that doesn't happen, look for him to spend another season at Triple-A.

Reid Brignac - With the Rays' decision to trade Jason Bartlett to San Diego, Brignac likely will get first crack at the starting shortstop position this season. Brignac hit six home runs over the second half (112 at-bats) but his OBP (.269) dropped 60 points from the first half. He still strikes out too much (25.6 percent) but his glove should be enough to keep him in the lineup on a regular basis. There's some potential here for double digit home runs and a handful of steals (the Rays love to run) if he wins the job out of spring training.

John Jaso - Jaso was one of the bigger surprises for the Rays last season, taking advantage of an early injury to Kelly Shoppach and a slumping Dioner Navarro to become the team's primary catcher. Jaso ended up hitting leadoff most nights when he was in the lineup, using an outstanding batting eye (59:39 BB:K ratio) to a .372 OBP. He'll share catching duties with Shoppach now after Navarro was non-tendered and should get the lion's share of playing time out of that platoon. He's a decent choice as a No. 2 catcher (especially if your league uses OBP); just be sure to realize the likelihood for limited power and speed numbers.

Sam Fuld - Fuld is a good defensive center fielder with an excellent batting eye, passable base-running skills and little power. At 29, he's not a prospect, but could make the Rays' roster as a reserve option capable of playing all three outfield spots after being acquired as part of the Matt Garza deal with the Cubs in January.

Wade Davis - Davis had a very good first season as a full-time starter for the Rays, finishing 12-10 as their No. 4 option. An imposing force on the mound, he finished with a 4.07 ERA and a 1.351 WHIP which isn't too bad considering the division he pitches in. After a stint on the DL due to shoulder soreness in early August, Davis showed no ill effects after returning. Over the first half of last season, Davis struggled to keep the ball in the park allowing 18 home runs, but he showed signs of improvement during the second half and only allowed six more. Davis also improved his control, lowering his walk rate over the first five months after starting out with a gaudy 5.32 BB/9IP mark in April. Davis will be a name to remember in mid-late rounds of fantasy drafts and should open as either the No. 3 or No 4 starter for the Rays this season.

Jeremy Hellickson - Hellickson did nothing to tarnish his elite prospect status, dominating at Triple-A and carrying that success over to the majors. After pitching his way to a 2.45 ERA (1.177 WHIP) at Durham, he held a 3.47 ERA (1.101 WHIP) in 36.1 innings with the Rays. After the season ended, he was awarded Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year for 2010. There were many who thought Hellickson should have been called up sooner and used more with the big club given his success and their struggles in the rotation. The Rays resisted that urge and allowed him to gain confidence and experience which should pay dividends this year. Between the two levels he struck out over a batter per inning and held opposing hitters to a .238 average. Hellickson has three plus-pitches, with a killer changeup to use as his out-pitch. He relies on location and movement rather than power. One of the few prospects in baseball with legitimate No. 1 upside, the Rays made room for him in their rotation by trading Matt Garza to the Cubs in January. With a rotation spot of his own, Hellickson is an excellent sleeper and a candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.

Jeff Niemann - Niemann was one of the bigger surprises in baseball to start the season, going 7-2 over the first half with a 2.77 ERA. Upon a closer look, a BABIP under .251 and an elevated strand rate in each of the first three months helped these numbers. After the All-Star break he wasn't the same, battling both back and shoulder injuries. Niemann went on to post a 7.69 ERA during the second half and never looked as good as he did in the first half. He should be healthy and ready to pitch in the third spot of the rotation. Although he's not overpowering, Niemann has the advantage of a 6-foot-9 frame that makes his pitches come from a higher plane to opposing hitters. He's worth a late-round flier if he shows he's healthy in the spring.

David Price - Price turned in one of the league's most dominating pitching performances last season, finishing 19-6 in his second year in the rotation. He had a 2.72 ERA and struck out 188 batters over 208.2 innings. Price finished second to Felix Hernandez in the Cy Young vote, earning four first-place votes. His success last season can be attributed to raising his K/9IP rate by almost one and increasing his average fastball (95.3 mph) by more than two miles per hour. His "out" pitch is a nasty slider that has a lot of late breaking movement, baffling right-handed hitters. Price enters the season as a top-10 pitching option looking to build on last year's success.

James Shields - Shields struggled through last season, ending the 2010 campaign with a career-high 5.18 ERA. A case of gopheritis appeared to be the problem as Shields finished second to only Rodrigo Lopez with 34 home runs allowed. Besides the home runs, it's tough to pinpoint the root of his problems. His velocity by a small margin was the best of his career, as was his 8.3 K/9IP rate. One possibility is the league had seen enough of his stuff to start hitting him hard. Shields will reprise his role as a top-half of the rotation starter as he looks to put his 2010 struggles behind him.

Michael Ekstrom - Ekstrom spent the 2010 season bouncing back and forth between the Rays and Triple-A Durham, spending more time with the latter. He posted solid numbers at Durham (2.79 ERA, 1.276 WHIP) and didn't look overmatched in limited time with the Rays. He will fight for a middle relief spot in the bullpen and could end up with a seventh-inning setup role.

Kyle Farnsworth - After an injury-plagued 2009 season, Farnsworth was healthy in 2010 and returned to posting good strikeout rates (8.49 K/9IP) with strong velocity (94.9 mph average fastball). His ERA with the Braves (5.40) wasn't impressive, but he threw just 20 innings in Atlanta. While his strikeout rate was good, it wasn't the 10.0-plus K/9IP mark of his career. Even though he'll be 35 this season, there's still reason to think he can be a productive setup man once again.

J.P. Howell - Howell re-signed with the Rays in December after missing all of 2010 recovering from shoulder surgery due to a torn labrum. He isn't expected back to start the year but should make his debut at some point in the first half. Before the injury, he was arguably the Rays' best reliever and will look to reclaim a setup role. He likely won't pitch the number of innings to effectively contribute as far as peripheral stats and there is no guarantee he'll return to his old form. Keep him on your radar but temper any lofty expectations.

Joel Peralta - After ditching his slider in 2009 and sticking with his split-finger and changeup as breaking pitches, Peralta finally put together a major league season to match his Triple-A numbers. His rocky track record made the Nationals unwilling to go to arbitration with him, but he landed with the Rays and fits their mold as a low-risk/high-reward bullpen asset.

Andy Sonnanstine - Sonnanstine started the year in the Rays' bullpen and then made four spot starts later in the season. A hamstring injury landed him on the DL and while his numbers improved last year (he shaved more than two runs from his ERA), nothing indicates much upside. Look for him to compete for a long- or middle-relief role in the spring.

Adam Russell - At 6-foot-8 and 255 pounds, Russell is an imposing figure with potentially dominant stuff. In 2010 he spent the majority of the season at Triple-A Portland with a 4.88 ERA and 1.59 K/BB ratio out of the bullpen. He's shown better control in previous stops, but a 5.6 BB/9IP is concerning. In his September callup he had a 10.5 K/9IP with a 50 percent groundball rate. In the offseason he was traded to Tampa Bay where he'll battle for a bullpen role in spring training. With improved control, he could surprise.

Prospects

Matthew Moore - After a slow start at High-A Charlotte, Moore not only figured things out, he had one of the best seasons for a minor league pitcher in 2010. Over the first half of the season he had a 6.08 ERA and struck out 78 batters in 60.2 innings. The second half was a complete 180, as he held a 1.39 ERA while striking out 130 over 84 innings (a 13.9 K/9IP mark). Moore was the first minor leaguer to eclipse 200-strikeout mark in the last five years (when some guy named Francisco Liriano did it). Moore will likely begin the season at Double-A Montgomery and should make it to Durham by season's end. Grab him if your keeper league has a minor league system and look for him to be with the Rays by mid-to-late 2012.

Desmond Jennings - Jennings enters the 2011 season penciled in as the replacement in left field for Carl Crawford. One of the best outfield prospects in baseball, Jennings owns a similar skill set to the player he's replacing. One of the fastest players in the minor leagues, Jennings has the potential to hit for a little pop while posting a solid batting average. He struggled out of the gate last year, likely due to suffering a wrist and then a shoulder injury. After hitting just .244 between April and May, Jennings hit .353 in June once he was completely healthy. At this point, his greatest fantasy asset will be his speed, and he swiped 37 bags (90.2 percent success rate) at Triple-A Durham. It may take some time for his power to develop, but at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds he should be good for double-digit home runs in the near future. Don't be afraid to go the extra dollar (or round) to snag him in dynasty leagues, he projects to be an outstanding player.

Josh Sale - The Rays used their 17th overall pick to snag the power bat out of high school in Seattle. One of the more polished hitters in last year's draft, he known for having a solid work ethic and an overall excellent makeup. He'll likely start the year at low-A ball and look for a possible late-season promotion to high-A.

Alex Torres - Torres turned in a solid season at Double-A Montgomery, finishing with a 2.77 ERA and 150 strikeouts over 142.1 innings. His biggest concern is the high walk rate; for the second straight season he walked close to one batter for every two innings pitched. He's not as big of a prospect as Matt Moore or Alexander Cobb, but the talent is definitely there. Look for him to start the season at Triple-A Durham with the possibility of getting a late-season call-up.

Alexander Colome - Colome fared well during a 2010 campaign spent mostly at Low-A Bowling Green. As evidenced by the strikeout rate (9.3 K/9IP), he has good stuff, but the issue to this point has been consistently controlling it. While the ceiling here is high, he's far from a finished product and it's unlikely that he'll advance past Double-A this season. Beyond that, the Rays' deep farm system will ensure that he gets the necessary time to develop. Consider him worthy of a spot in deeper keeper leagues, but Colome may not get a chance to start for the Rays until 2013.

Tim Beckham - The first overall pick from the 2008 draft hasn't lived up to lofty expectations as of yet. However, Beckham will only be 21 this season, which means there's still plenty of time for him to right the ship. Nothing from his High-A Charlotte numbers last season stick out, but there were a few encouraging signs. For the season, he showed better judgment at the plate, nearly doubling his walk rate from the previous season. He changed his approach at the plate during the season and didn't try to hit a home run in every at-bat. Beckham hit all five of his home runs in the first half but improved his OBP (.370) by 62 points during the second half. He still strikes out at a high rate (22.5 percent) and will get a chance to improve that likely starting the season at Double-A Montgomery. There's still a lot of upside here but he's going to have to produce and soon if he wants to retain prospect status.

Alexander Cobb - Cobb turned in an outstanding season at Double-A Montgomery, winning team MVP honors. He finished the season 7-5 with a 2.71 ERA while striking out 128 batters over 119.2 innings. The organization sent him to the AFL where over seven starts (25 innings), he finished 1-3 with a 6.12 ERA. After his time there, he stated that he worked a lot on developing a cutter, which likely explains his struggles. He'll likely start in the rotation at Triple-A Durham with an eye on the bigs in late 2011. The Rays' logjam of starting pitchers could force him into the bullpen for his first taste of the big leagues.

Chris Archer - Archer pitched well at High-A and Double-A last season, using a low-90s sinker in combination with a solid slider and curve. He struck out more than a batter per inning at the two levels combined and allowed just six homers in 142.1 IP, thanks to that sinker. Archer could stand to improve his command - 39 walks in 70 Double-A innings - but he's still just 22 years old and has some promise as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Expect him to start in the high minors with a big league debut in late 2011 or 2012, but the Rays have little reason to rush him after acquiring him as part of the Matt Garza deal with the Cubs in January.

Hak-Ju Lee - Lee hit .282/.354/.351 with 32 steals in 485 at-bats for Low-A Peoria in the Midwest League last year, and drew positive reviews for his speed, on-base skills and defense. He hasn't shown any power, but he didn't turn 20 until November, and there's still time for him to develop, given his 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame. Expect Lee to see time at High-A and possibly Double-A this year, even after the Cubs traded him to the Rays as part of the Matt Garza deal in January.