Last season the Rays missed the playoffs despite a 90-72 record. There’s been some turnover on Joe Maddon‘s roster this winter, most notably the departure of starting pitcher James Shields and centerfielder B.J. Upton. But the Rays have proven in the past that they can get it done on a budget. Can the residents of the tough American League Eastern division get back to the post-season in 2013?
To get the inside scoop on what’s going on in Tampa this season, we brought in resident Rays expert Robbie Knopf. Robbie, the Senior Editor at FanSided’s Rays site, Rays Colored Glasses, was kind enough to answer a few of my burning questions relating to the residents of Tropicana Field. So, without further delay, here’s my Q & A session with Robbie.
CTH: The rotation will be without James Shields and his 227 innings pitched. Who is ready to step up and share some of the workload with David Price?
Robbie: Easy Answer: everyone.
David Price and Jeremy Hellickson both missed a couple starts last year from shoulder soreness, depriving them of somewhere from 10 to 15 innings each, but that’s only the start of where the innings will come from. Especially Hellickson and Moore are going to look to go deeper into games and become closer to 200-inning guys. Alex Cobb spent the first month of the season at Triple-A and had some innings restrictions, but now those are gone and he’s a pitcher with a chance to become a really good innings-eating 3rd or 4th starter in the majors for years to come.
And then you have Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez, with especially Hernandez being a guy who can toss 200 innings. The Rays have said all offseason that they believe all their guys can pick up the innings, and while not everyone will improve as expected, if most of them do then the Rays will actually lose a really good pitcher in James Shields but improve their rotation thanks to the development of their young arms. That’s terrifying for opposing teams.
CTH: New additions Yunel Escober, James Loney, and Kelly Johnson account for one-third of the Rays lineup. Which one of these guys will be under the most pressure to succeed, and which one will make the biggest splash?
Robbie: It’s pretty clear that Escobar is the most talented of the three, and that will put the pressure on him but also makes him my pick for the biggest splash. After the whole thing with the gay slur and more importantly just a terrible season, people are still wondering who this guy really is, and the Rays hope that getting him in their clubhouse that is known to be among the most player-friendly in baseball finally makes his issues resolve itself. I’ll predict that Escobar still has some lapses of focus that prevent him from reaching his full potential but still has a nice season, hitting .280 with a .350 OBP, 12 home runs, nice defense at shortstop, and more stolen bases than in the past, maybe 10 or 12 as well.
CTH: When will we see Wil Myers in the big leagues, and who are some other prospects that could help the Rays this season?
Robbie: Wil Myers is most likely to arrive in the major leagues in June, after the deadlines for 2019 control and Super Two eligibility pass. I think that timeframe is perfect because a lot of people are overlooking the issues with strikeouts that Myers had at Triple-A last season, and spending at least a couple months working on his plate discipline looks the right move regardless of the financials. It also insures that when he arrives, he’ll be completely ready and prepared to wreck some havoc on opposing pitchers.
Beyond Myers, the most notable prospect is Chris Archer, a right-hander who was very impressive for the Rays in 6 appearances (4 starts) last year with a big mid-90′s fastball and devastating slider, and he could be the reason the Rays trade a pitcher like Niemann before long. Archer needs some work on his changeup and control, but once he makes that happen, the Rays will give him every opportunity to become yet another impressive young starting pitcher on their staff.
One sleeper is Brandon Guyer, whose regular position has actually been the same as Myers, right field. Guyer could be the answer if the Rays’ bats struggle before they’re ready to bring Myers up. Guyer missed all of last season with shoulder surgery and is older than prototypical prospect age at 27, but he’s very talented, featuring 20-20 potential at the plate and possibly more, a solid ability to hit for average, and great defense in right field while also being able to handle center for prolonged stretches. Guyer has plenty of risk at this point, but you have to think that the Rays will give him an opportunity to show what he can do. Guyer won’t stand in Myers’ way, but if he hits the Rays’ outfield situation could go from a relative weakness to a major strength.
CTH: I think Desmond Jennings has the type of talent that could make fans forget about B.J. Upton in a hurry. How good do you think Jennings will be this year?
Robbie: Jennings has lots of ability and it’s unfortunate that a knee injury really missed him up last season. Two things I can guarantee: no one will have any complaints about Jennings in centerfield defensively replacing Upton and 30 bases once again is a lock. Beyond that, I think Jennings hits 17 home runs, ups his stolen base total to 40, and gets his average up to .270 with a stronger on-base percentage, quickly becoming one of the most dynamic all-around outfielders in baseball. The Rays have a lot to look forward to this season with Jennings healthy and ready to break out.
CTH: What’s the latest on a new stadium — are the Rays ever going to get out of that dungeon they call Tropicana Field?
Robbie: The Rays are stuck in the Trop for the foreseeable future. The stadium discussions have taken some promising turns, specifically a stadium proposal known as the “Carillon proposal” that sparked quite a bit of discussion, but the Rays’ stance has always been that they will refuse to look at any individual site in the Tampa Bay area until given permission to look at the entire area. Despite a proposal by the Rays to St. Pete mayor Bill Foster and a recent proposed amendment in the St. Pete council to do just that, it hasn’t happened and no new Rays stadium is close to being built. It’s tough for everyone, and the Rays just have to weather the storm.
CTH: What can we expect from ex-Astro Luke Scott in 2013? And is he still sportin’ those wicked mutton-chops?
Robbie: The Rays almost never re-sign anyone, especially players who don’t live up to expectations with the team, but they did just that with Luke Scott and I liked the move. Scott’s surgically-repaired shoulder was still bothering him for most of last year, but he finished strong and now it’s finally healthy, leaving Scott ready to approach his numbers from his big 2010 season. Scott continues to deal with a slew of minor injuries and I don’t think he’s going to come close to being a 30-home run guy, but I say he survives a brief DL stint at some point but puts up great slash stats while also hitting around 20 home runs, and if he gives the Rays that, they’ll be ecstatic.
About his chops, Scott actually shaved them for the Rays’ “Fortune Favors the Bald” initiative to benefit pediatric cancer and has been clean shaven of late, although he has said that he will look to regrow the chops in coming weeks. I was of the opinion that it might be time for Scott to get a new look after his off-year, but it looks like we’ll be seeing Scott getting back to the chops with hopefully his performance on the field being the main difference from his last couple of seasons.
So it looks like the Rays are positioned for another run at the post-season. Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist lead an offense that ranked below average in most categories last season. The formula for success in Tampa revolves around pitching and defense and it looks like this team will go as far as the young arms can take them.
Well, that’s a wrap. A big thank you goes out to Robbie and all of the other writers who helped out with our team preview series. Up next: We unveil our MLB Power Rankings.