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2013 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Mar 18, 2013, 5:51 PM EDT

Evan Longoria AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: is this the year Evan Longoria challenges for the MVP award?

Longoria has been one of the AL’s better players since bursting onto the scene as a 22-year-old rookie in 2008, but he’s yet to take that next step. While he’s never posted an OPS below .850 in five seasons for the Rays, he’s also never topped .900, and he’s been limited to 133 games and 74 games the last two seasons due to injury.

With so many question marks up and down their lineup, the Rays may need Longoria’s biggest year yet if they’re going to return to the playoffs after last year’s absence. All of the new acquisitions — first baseman James Loney, second baseman-outfielder Kelly Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar — were available because they’re coming off very disappointing seasons. The Rays aren’t going to get anything offensively from their catchers, either. The core group of Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist, Longoria and Matt Joyce will be counted on to produce most of Tampa Bay’s runs.

Longoria has two 30-homer and two 100-RBI seasons to his credit. He may well have gotten there again last year had he stayed healthy; he had 17 homers and 55 RBI in his 74 games. And the Rays likely would have made the playoffs had they gotten 150 games from Longoria. The uphill climb appears even more difficult this season with James Shields and B.J. Upton gone. Longoria coming through with a .290-30-110 campaign would make things a lot easier.

What else is going on?

  • The Rays thought enough of Wil Myers’ potential to part with Shields for him, but he didn’t enter camp with any chance of winning the right field job, even after he hit 37 homers between Double- and Triple-A last year. Like other Rays prospects before him, he’ll have to serve the obligatory season-opening stint in the minors to push back his free agency. The Rays’ needs will determine whether he’s up around May 1 or if he remains in Durham into June to guarantee that his arbitration eligibility is delayed as well.
  • With a .235/.297/.265 line in 34 at-bats, Loney isn’t showing anything this spring that suggests he’ll be a better answer at first base than he was for the Dodgers or Red Sox last year. He’ll enter Opening Day with the starting job, but the Rays need to keep an eye open for alternatives.
  • Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) are competing for Shields’ vacated rotation spot. Many believe the Rays will trade Niemann prior to Opening Day rather than keep both. They can afford to make the move because they have top prospect Chris Archer waiting in the wings in Triple-A. Odds are that Archer will turn out to be the real fifth starter come May or June.
  • Matt Moore‘s emergence as a legitimate No. 2 starter behind Cy Young winner David Price is another big key for the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb should be rock solid, but it’s Moore who will determine whether the Rays have a very good rotation or one that ranks as the best in the league. The 23-year-old Moore, who was viewed by many as the game’s best pitching prospect a year ago, improved from a 4.42 ERA to a 3.01 mark in the second half of 2012.
  • 2012 surprise Fernando Rodney, new owner of the lowest ERA in major league history, has already quieted the doubters with an impressive showing as the Dominican Republic’s closer in the World Baseball Classic.

Prediction: Second place, American League East.

  1. 13arod - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:00 PM

    i don’t know why they sent chris archor down to the minors he was having a good spring and tampa said he was a cainadate for the 5th slot and he played in the majors a couple of times last year

    • thebadguyswon - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:21 PM

      Because they delay the service time of every player they have.

      To the point of starting inferior players in their place.

      • raysfan1 - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:33 PM

        …because they have to plan their budget, including for out years, very carefully.

    • buddaley - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:52 PM

      I think it is more than financial in this case. The Rays do not like to promote anyone to the majors unless they are confident it is for good. Archer still has only a small sample size that his control/command is improved enough, and he still needs work on an off-speed pitch.

      As long as they have 2 viable candidates for the #5 slot (Hernandez and Niemann), they have the luxury of working with Archer in Durham until they are convinced he is fully ready.

  2. proudlycanadian - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    Good luck to the Rays with those cast offs in the starting 9. The pitching had better come up big for them or else they are fried haddock.

    • buddaley - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:00 PM

      By cast offs, I assume you mean Loney, Molina and Kelly Johnson in particular.

      Consider. In 2008 they went to a World Series with cast offs such as Gross, Hinske and Pena (a dumpster dive the year before) playing major roles as starters or platoon partners.

      In 2011 they won 91 games and made the play offs with cast offs Shoppach, Damon, Kotchman and a trio of border line major leaguers at shortstop.

      We forget that being a major league cast off means you are among the best players in the world, and the gap between cast offs and serviceable major leaguers is pretty small and often a moving line. In the right circumstances, used to maximize their strengths (which got them to the majors in the first place) and minimize their flaws, and perhaps with some tweaking of their mechanics or approaches to improve their play, they can contribute to a winning team.

    • indaburg - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:29 PM

      And since when haven’t they had several cast-offs in the starting 9? The pitching will be solid. Other than losing Shields, there is no reason to think that it won’t be. Injuries can happen to any pitching staff, as you are well aware, but barring that, they’ll be fine. Chris Archer is a great talent, and he’s just waiting to be called up. The hitting will be excruciating for us fans to watch. We’ll probably get no hit at some point during the season, but that’s par for the course. I’m thinking another 90 win season. Whether that’s enough to make the post-season, we’ll see.

      • proudlycanadian - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:43 PM

        Cast-offs and soiled laundry be darned. The Rays fans have had reason to trust Maddon and the pitching staff.

      • unclemosesgreen - Mar 18, 2013 at 9:28 PM

        Between norovirus and “Irish flu” there’s been a decided lack of estrogen around these parts today. Hope your sick are improving.

        The hitting will improve when Wil Myers gets called up and Ben Zobrist gets to permanently bench whoever is hitting the least in the infield.

      • indaburg - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:01 PM

        Aw, you missed us. Big softie. It’s getting better.

        Zobrist always manages to get in the lineup somehow. I can’t wait for Wil Myers. I still think we’ll get no-hit once.

        Cool gravatar.

  3. gotampabay52 - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:09 PM

    Rays will win the AL East

  4. Kevin Gillman - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:17 PM

    I agree Evan is the key here, but I also believe the cast-offs they picked up can produce, because they have in the past with Joe Madden as the manager. Who would have thought just a few seasons ago, Matt Joyce would be the All-Star player he was last season? I see Kelly Johnson having a good season, and all Loney has to do is play good defense anyway. The team can take the AL East, they just need to.

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:50 PM

      I have seen Kelly Johnson stink too often, to share your enthusiasm. Escobar is another matter. He has played well often, but is still inconsistent.

      • Kevin Gillman - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:58 PM

        As much as Kelly has stunk, he has also had good seasons. In fact, if we go by this trend, the dude has a good season every other year. 2009, he had a good season, followed by a bad 2010 season. He had a good 2011 season, followed by a bad 2012 season. But regardless, just hitting .260 for him would be fine, with the core players all being healthy, and productive.

      • Kevin Gillman - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:02 PM

        Wait a second, I just checked his stats, he has had 2 bad seasons in a row, so you’re right, just too inconsistent.

      • proudlycanadian - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:53 PM

        The one thing that he has excelled at is striking out.

    • spol85 - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:04 PM

      Matt Joyce an All Star player? He hit .241 with 17 HRs with 59 RBI. He is just awful against lefthanders hitting under .210 last year. The Rays may play him full time but until he starts to produce against lefties, then he will always be better suited as a platoon player.

      • Kevin Gillman - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:05 PM

        Wasn’t he an All-Star last season?

    • spol85 - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:54 PM

      Joyce made the All Star team in 2011 not last season.

      • Kevin Gillman - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:59 PM

        Okay my mistake, but I stand by what I said about who would have thought Joyce would have even made the All-Star team about 3 years ago? Madden takes players, and has them play to their full potential somehow. So the Rays have a good shot at the AL East crown.

  5. markofapro - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:41 PM

    Maddon will get best out of his team. 1st place.

  6. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:12 PM

    And the Rays likely would have made the playoffs had they gotten 150 games from Longoria

    Just for fun, let’s look at games played in the last 3 years:

    Longoria – 358
    Arod – 358

    Yes Longoria is 10 years younger than Arod, but maybe he’s got a bit of the injury bug too?

  7. chill1184 - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:13 PM

    The boys in Tampa Bay are always a threat to be recognized, no matter what players they may lose to FA they always have a plan to fill that hole quite nicely. With the birds in Baltimore and Toronto thrusting themselves back in baseball relevancy after years of being the dark the AL East looks like it will be one of the most interesting division fights this upcoming season.

  8. spudchukar - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    What seems to be missing from this conversation, is comparison. Those who believe the Rays will falter cause they have questions at SS, 2B, 1B, and catcher must have collective amnesia. They haven’t had any production from those positions in years and still they contend until the final week of the season.

    I have doubts about Loney, Escobar, Kelly, and Molina, Lobaton/Gimenez/Chirinos group, but they cannot be worse than those who occupied the positions in the past few years. Plus they have depth with Rodriguez and Roberts and a better bullpen outlook than years past.

    Come September count on the Rays to be in the mix.

  9. tc4306 - Mar 18, 2013 at 11:27 PM

    Very poor defense cost them a spot in the playoffs last year. Escobar at short will be a big improvement. Joyce/Myers, Jennings and Zobrist in the OF will be fine.

    Scoring will be a problem but Maddon will mix and match lefties Johnson, Loney, Scott and Joyce with righties Roberts, Rodriguez and Duncan. They’re not the Angels but with their pitching they should score enough to be in the hunt.

    Second in the Division is a reasonable prediction, but they could just as easily finish 3rd or 1st. Can’t see them worse than 3rd without a lot of injuries/bad luck.

  10. sportsfan22 - Mar 19, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    Loney will hit better than Pena…but less home runs. Escobar is an upgrade at short offensively and defensively. Luke Scott is coming back fully healthy.Get fuld back as he brings energy iff the bench. Kelly Johnson has pop and won’t play full time S-rod can just face lefties and platoon with Johnson. Forget about the catcher but gimnez has been raking this spring. I actually like this team. They had elliot johnson and drew sutton starting last year!! Now Have more depth then last year. People forget how good Nieman is, he had freak injury last year taking a ball off his foot. He is the #5 starter. And how the rays clubhouse always gets together helps players have fun and perform.

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