As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.
PART 3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS
Last season was supposed to be the time that the Tampa Bay Rays dropped from contention in the American League East. After all, they lost their star outfielder in Carl Crawford, their slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, their league-leading closer in Rafael Soriano and almost all the elements of what was a very good bullpen in 2010.
Yet, the Rays made the playoffs with a miracle finish that overtook a Boston Red Sox team that choked its way to the finish line. The Rays qualified with a 91-71 record but they lost in the first round of the A.L. Division Series against the Texas Rangers.
What is in store for the Rays in 2012? Do they have another miracle or two left in them?
It is real easy to see what the Rays strategy is for 2012. Run out the best five starters you have and keep them in the game as long as you can to cover up a weak middle of the bullpen and hope the offense can muster enough stolen bases and home runs to eke out a victory.
Right-hander James Shields was the poster boy for this team. In 2010, he was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. Last season, he was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games. The question is will Shields pitch like he did in 2010 or 2011? As the dean of the staff at age 30, his fortunes will set the tone for the rest of the staff.
The ace of this staff was supposed to have been David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010. Price, 26, fell from his perch with a 12-13 mark and a 3.49 ERA. The problem is that Price is basically a one-pitch pitcher: his fastball. His breaking stuff was inconsistent and as a result he was a .500 pitcher. Price needs to harness control of his slider and develop even a decent change-up in order to be successful.
Many people were stunned the Rays dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. But the Rays knew they had rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson ready to jump into the rotation. Heliickson, 24, pitched as the Rays hoped with a 13-10 record and a 2.95 ERA. While Price is still searching for a change-up, Hellickson uses his as a weapon and the Rays hope he gets even better.
The Rays used right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots last season. But both pitchers struggled with command and injuries in 2011.
Davis, 26, was 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts and Niemann was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 23 starts.
One of these two pitchers is likely to lose their starting spot this spring. The Rays believe 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore may be ready for prime time in 2012. Moore made one start during the regular season, a five-inning shutout of the Yankees. Then he threw a gem to defeat the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Moore is a consensus pick to follow Hellickson as A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Though this is the best rotation in the division, there are still concerns. If Shields and Price do not pitch well and Hellickson and Moore do not follow up on their success, the Rays are in big trouble. This is a team that does not have much of Plan B behind its five starters.
The Rays luck in 2011 even extended to their bullpen in 2011.
They replaced Soriano with former Yankee scapegoat Kyle Farnsworth as their closer and Farnsworth ended up pitching well. (Yankee fans may let out a primal scream now). Yep, Farnsworth, was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA and he saved 25 games out of 31 chances.
Journeyman right-hander Joel Peralta also did a nice job replacing Joaquin Benoit, who left to sign with Detroit. Peralta, 35, was 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA and he added six saves. Veteran right-hander Juan Cruz also helped tighten up the bullpen in the late innings but he was allowed to leave as a free agent.
So the Rays will be building their bullpen around Farnsworth and Peralta in 2012.
The Rays did pick up former closer Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels. Rodney, 34, has good stuff but has been bothered with back problems. He was 3-4 with 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011.
The Rays are hoping left-hander J.P. Howell will get over his arm problems and pitch like he did in 2009 when he was 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, Howell struggled and was 2-3 with 6.16 ERA in 46 games.
The Rays bullpen likely will be rounded out by disappointing left-hander Jake McGee, right-hander Brandon Gomes and the loser of the battle between Davis and Niemann for the final spot in the rotation.
There is no guarantee Farnsworth and Peralta will pitch like they did in 2011. There also is some real soft spots in middle relief and the lack of an effective left-hander may really hurt in a division filled with lefty hitters like Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira.
That means manager Joe Maddon might be forced to leave his starters in the game longer than he might like to cover up the deficiencies and that takes its toll on those starters late in the season. The bullpen is an area of some concern.
The Rays have always been a running team who like to bunt, take extra bases and force opponents into making errors. The loss of Crawford did not change that in 2011. However, the Rays newest emphasis is on the home run.
The Rays had five players hit 16 or more home runs in 2011 and they re-signed first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent and he hit 28 for the Cubs last season.
The team still revolves around third baseman Evan Longoria, who shook off another season of injuries to hit .244 with 31 home runs and 99 RBIs. The batting average has to be worrisome but Longoria is the team’s only real all-around threat as a hitter and power source.
The Rays also was boosted by a comeback season from Ben Zobrist, who hit .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs. He will likely play a lot at second base and some in right-field as he did last season.
The Rays also rely on the power and speed of centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.
Rookie Desmond Jennings arrived and he played well in 63 games. He hit .259 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs as the team’s leadoff hitter. The Rays have high hopes he will surpass Crawford as an athlete and player.
The Rays also caught a bit of luck when Matt Joyce finally began to live up to the promise he showed with the Detroit Tigers. Joyce started off hot but collapsed badly after the All-Star break. He finished with a .277 batting average with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs as a platoon right-fielder and DH.
Sean Rodriguez figures to be the primary shortstop in 2012 though he hit just .223 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. That is because incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac was worse, hitting .193 with one home run and 15 RBIs.
The Rays also reshuffled their catchers for 2012 and they are looking to start former Yankee backup Jose Molina as a starter after he hit .281 with the Blue Jays. Molina, 36, was signed because the Rays were getting beat at their own game. Teams like the Yankees and Rangers were stealing on them at will.
Molina figures to end that with his defensive abilities and arm. However, an offense that relies on the stolen base will be slowed considerably with Molina on base. That is the big tradeoff.
To show how much more the Rays are valuing power, look no further than the signing of left-hander Luke Scott as the team’s primary DH. Scott averaged 28 home runs from 2008 through 2010 with the Orioles before injuries short-circuited his 2011 season. Scott and Joyce will certainly slow down any running game. But the Rays will hit their share of home runs in 2012.
Maddon uses his bench a lot and he will again in 2012.
Brignac will battle career backup Eliot Johnson for the backup middle infield job. Johnson is the better hitter but Brignac is a bit better on defense.
For a while it looked Sam Fuld was going to be the next Pete Rose. Instead, reality set in and he ended up being the next Reggie Willits. But Fuld does provide speed and effort off the bench as an occasional outfield starter and pinch-runner.
Rookie Jose Lobaton will likely back up Molina. Lobaton hit .118 in 34 at-bats last season. The Rays do have a hitting catcher in Robinson Chirinos, however, his inability to throw base-stealers make him a project behind the plate for right now.
This bench is merely adequate. Maddon will use it a lot but there is not much of substance to it.
The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers may be most interesting world championship team in history. They beat the Yankees in four straight games to win the World Series despite having one power hitter in Frank Howard, who led the team with 28 home runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the team with 88 RBIs.
How did they win? Well, they had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres combine to win 58 games and they had Maury Wills and Davis’ brother, Willie, combine to steal 65 bases.
So they relied on pitching, defense, line-drive hitters and speed and athleticism to win. This is similar to what the Rays would like to build in 2012.
They will go as far as their rotation will allow them to go. Maddon will have to rely on them a lot.
As far as offense goes, Maddon is actually counting more on the home run than the stolen base because only Jennings, Upton and Zobrist are consistent base stealers. Maddon will use his other players like Longoria and Rodriguez to steal in certain situations.
But this team did need the Red Sox to go through a monumental collapse to make it 2011. I do not think their luck extends to 2012. They will not fall precipitously as they should have last season. But I do not see them winning the division. They look to be a contender for second place with the Red Sox. Nothing more and nothing less.
ON THURSDAY – PART 4 BOSTON RED SOX