The Rays relied on a collapse by the Red Sox last year to get into the playoffs. Myworld can’t really see that happening again in 2012. At least the Rays are not losing a significant number of free agents like they did after the 2010 season, but they still have to play small market baseball as long as the team they call Tampa plays in Saint Petersburg and it takes a ride down a long causeway where they warn you to make sure your fuel tank is full, before you can get to the stadium Tampa calls home. At least the parking is free. It would be like a team in Orange County calling themselves Los Angeles (whoops, they’ve already done that. Never mind).
General Overview: Last year they lost their whole bullpen, their starting firstbaseman and leftfielder. They collected a bunch of draft picks for these departures, but they won’t be of any immediate help. This year, they again lost their first baseman (Casey Kotchman) and left fielder (Johnny Damon) to free agency, but they kept their bullpen, or at least most of it. What might make things very interesting is that if they want him they got Manny Ramirez back. He still has to serve a significant drug suspension, but he might be useful in a playoff run or as trade bait. Or the Rays could choose to just release him. He only signed a one year contract last year, but does the fact that he didn’t play for them and the Rays had him on the restricted list mean that this contract is still valid? Only the attorneys know for sure, but the transaction column reads that Manny was reinstated to the Rays.
Why They Will Win: They have one of the deepest rotations in baseball with James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Nieman, Wade Davis and David Price. They could trade one of these pieces before the season starts to improve themselves in another area. They also still have some talented depth in the minor leagues that could come up and replace someone in the rotation in case of injury. That is how Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore got their opportunities. Evan Longoria is considered one of the best third baseman in baseball. He only hit .244 and drove in 99 runs and they called it a down season. Many would sell their soul to steroids to have such a down season. Desmond Jennings looks like he could be a Carl Crawford clone that can play centerfield, which means that a trade of B.J. Upton is inevitable.
Why They Won’t Win: The hitting is pretty vanilla. They were near the bottom in hitting, though they had enough juice in their bats to hit enough homeruns to still score enough runs to put them in the middle of the pack. They lack a player to play first, unless they think Juan Miranda is going to repeat their first base surprises like Pena and Kotchman did in previous years. Catching lacks presence and Ben Zobrist is solid at second or right field, but where he doesn’t play is a question mark. They have a hole at short with a trio of hitters that couldn’t hit themselves out of a brown paper bag and their DH will not put any dread in a pitcher’s mind. They lack a consistent closer, even though they got 25 saves from Kyle Farnsworth last year. They also got six blown saves from him as well. So even though the starting pitching will keep them close, their bullpen is just not strong enough to protect their leads on a consistent basis.
Top Prospects to Make the Roster: If it is one thing the Rays can always trot out it is prospects. They may not always be the best tool to win you games now, but they play the game with a lot of energy, churning up the veterans who want to show the young kids that they still have game too. Matt Moore appears a cinch to make the rotation. He was one of the Rays better starters last year in a late callup. The only reason he would not make the opening day roster is because they didn’t trade one of their other five pitchers. There are enough question marks in the outfield that Brandon Guyer can make it as a fourth outfielder and with some success fit in the starting left field or DH job. If it is one thing he can do is hit. Don’t let that .195 average fool you. Alex Torres could find a role in the bullpen if he has a good spring. One of either Jose Lobaton or Stephen Vogt will make it as the backup catcher. Vogt is valuable in that he can play a number of other different positions, so the Rays could keep both around.
Long Range Prospects: The Rays got a bunch of those too. Chris Archer could be the next starting pitcher that knocks on the door of the rotation. The Rays may spend the next twenty years without having a starting pitcher throw for them that is over thirty years old. Alex Colome could work his way into the bullpen by mid season. The Rays also do not have that much certainty at short and Tim Beckham could work his way into the starting lineup with a good season. The Rays certainly have no answers at that position among the current group. Hak-Ju Lee is another possibility, but he is a step behind Beckham, but long range the better fit for the position. A former shortstop and now reliever Matt Bush could have the magazines and newspapers buzzing with his resurrection in the pen. There are not many pitchers that can throw as hard as Matt. The recently acquired Josh Lueke could create the opposite buzz, especially among the female fans, with his callup. Let’s hope Josh has learned his lesson.
Significant Transactions (as of December 25): Not any worth mentioning, unless you think the acquisition of relief pitchers Josh Lueke and Brook Badenhop (who should be a shortstop) is significant. They did sign a player who could be their starting catcher in Jose Molina as a free agent, unless one of the prospects mentioned above takes it away from him. Juan Miranda would like to continue the Rays signing of free agent firstbasemen that overcome adversity and become starters with a good spring. Juan does not have the pedigree of Carlos Pena or Casey Kotchman, who were both considered top prospects in their earlier years. Juan has his Cuban background to fall back on.
Expected Finish: As the Republicans are fond of saying, myworld kicked the can for a couple days without posting who the third place team in this division was because we were hoping that the Rays could make one significant acquistion to justify a higher ranking. But they didn’t so they will have to settle for third place. They can not rely on another Red Sox collapse in 2012 to make the playoffs, especially when the wild card team will come from the West in 2012. Red Sox fans may think a collapse is inevitable, but they can sometimes be very fatalistic.