2011 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  96 – 66 (1st AL East)
2009:  84 – 78
2008:  97 – 65 (AL Champs)
2007:  66 – 96
2006:  61 – 101

Runs Scored: 802 (3rd, AL to NYY and BOS)
Runs Allowed: 649 (2nd, AL to OAK)

2010 Recap:

The Rays got off to a great start, winning 17 of 23 in April and extending their hot play into May where, on May 23rd, they went to sleep in first place with a 32 – 12 record.  An 11 – 14 stumble in June let the rest of the league back in the race, but once July started, the Rays went back to the front of the division, going 19 – 7, followed by a 17 – 12 August.  From there, the Rays seemed to run out of steam, but played .500 ball after September 1st as the Yankees collapsed to take the division crown.

In terms of mid-season transactions, the Rays mostly unloaded parts that weren’t working.  They released Pat Burrell and Hank Blalock, for example.  They did get Chad Qualls at the trading deadline, but he wasn’t much help down the stretch.

As a team, they hit homers and drew walks, but went through stretches where they couldn’t hit.  The Rays were on the wrong end of two no-hitters despite being one of only three teams to score 800 runs.  They have pitchers who throw strikes, a rather deep bullpen, and an AMAZING team defense.  These two items, as I have written before, make their staff look stronger than it really is.

Starters:

The rotation featured David Price, who had Cy Young worthy numbers in terms of wins (19), ERA (2.72), and strikeouts (188 in 208.2 innings).  Price was backed by Matt Garza (15 – 10, 3.91), James Shields (13 – 15, 5.18), Jeff Niemann (12 – 8, 4.39), and rookie Wade Davis (12 – 10, 4.07).  However, knowing that the Rays made few errors and turned 14 balls per 1000 into outs more than the average team AND they played in a park that helped the staff, you realize that many of those pitchers aren’t quite as good as advertised.  James Shields was more than 50 runs worse than the average pitcher because he puts a lot of balls into play, and he served up 34 homers.  Niemann was 19 runs worse than the average pitcher, and Matt Garza – the new Cub – was 14 runs worse than the average pitcher.  Wade Davis was also -11.

This isn’t new – I wrote about this a couple of years ago when the Rays made the series.  A good defense can make a bunch of pitchers who keep the ball in the park and don’t walk people look very good.

Looking ahead, Matt Garza moved to Chicago where he might get to serve up 50 homers.  At least he’s durable.  The rest of the rotation returns intact, joined by Jeremy Hellickson, who looked great in his 4 starts last summer.  Assuming Shields bounces back some (he can), Davis and Niemann show more growth (possible), and Hellickson remains tolerable over 160 innings, the rotation should be 30 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

On the other hand, the bullpen was amazing in 2010.  Rafael Soriano saved 45 games, supported by Joaquin Benoit and his 1.34 ERA in 63 innings.  Dan Wheeler gave them 64 fair innings, Grant Balfour remained dependable, and even Randy Choate and Lance Cormier weren’t horrible.  Most of this staff is gone.  Right now, the closer looks to be Joel Peralta, the former Royal, Angel, and Rockies reliever who had his best season in 2010 with the Nationals last year – fanning 49 and walking just 9 (4 intentionally) in 49 innings.  In front of Peralta is journeyman fireballer, Kyle Farnsworth who has NEVER been as good as Benoit was last year.  Andy Sonnenstine, who has a very hittable fastball, is there, with a bunch of newcomers, including Ceasr Ramos and Adam Russell, who came from San Diego for Jason Bartlett.  Jake McGee, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, converted to the pen in 2010 and made it to the big leagues.  He’s a power lefty with a nice curveball.  Chris Archer is another hard thrower who might get time in the bullpen this year.  If the starters are going to improve by 30 runs, the bullpen cannot – and no matter what Manager Joe Maddon’s magic, this group will be 50 runs worse than in 2010.

Catching:

John Jaso earned his way ahead of Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach by catching well enough and getting on base at a .375 clip.  Teams ran on Jaso some, and the young Jaso has much to learn, but he helps out.  Kelly Shoppach struggled at the plate, but did hit 5 homers in 158 at bats.  Navarro is gone.

Infield:

A couple of years ago, the infield was a solid Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena.  Now, only Longoria – an MVP candidate – remains.   Longoria can hit and field with the best of them and even stole 15 bases in 20 tries.  Bartlett’s bat and glove has fallen off in recent years since he injured his ankle in 2009 and will be replaced by Reid Brignac, who is younger, just as good a hitter, and more mobile.  Sean Rodriguez got a chance to play the infield and hits for some power, can run the bases, and is solid in the field.  Mr. Everywhere, Ben Zobrist, backs them both up.  Carlos Pena is gone, to be replaced by either Dan Johnson (a patient power hitter who, like Pena, failed to hit .200 last year), and possibly Johnny Damon.  I think the offense will remain solid, though it could lose 20 runs at first base overall if Johnson can’t improve in 2011.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford had an MVP-type campaign in 2010, fielding as well as any left fielder, and generating nearly 130 runs of offense with the bat (average and some power) as well as his feet (47 steals).  He’s in Boston now, with Johnny Damon taking over.  Damon is okay, but not anywhere near what Crawford can provide – and he’s going to need time off.  Options include Matt Joyce or Sam Fuld.  In center, B.J. Upton is still frustratingly productive.  He is an above average offensive performer – quick bat, power, speed – but frustrating in that he strikes out a LOT, keeping his average under .240.  Defensively, he remains above average but, again, doesn’t seem to be as good as he could be.  In right, Ben Zobrist fell off from his 2009 season in terms of average and power, but still was productive because he plays solid defense and gets on base.  (I’d let Joyce play left all year and see if he can hit 30 homers knowing he’s a better fielder than Damon, too.  Damon can DH and back up three positions, even providing some production.)

DH:

Pat Burrell couldn’t cut it and Hank Blalock wasn’t the answer.  Willy Aybar fell off last year, though Matt Joyce might have been a decent answer if they let him do it.  Looking ahead, though, the Rays took a cheap flyer on the craziest great hitter of the last two decades, Manny Ramirez.  Say what you will about him, Manny can STILL hit.  He missed a lot of time last year, but when he left Los Angeles, he was hitting .311, with a .410 OBA, and a .510 SLG.  He didn’t hit as well with the White Sox, but he had a .420 OBP.  He won’t do that in Tampa, but he could certainly go 20 – 110 – .285, with walks and doubles.  Johnny Damon could platoon some with him, letting Matt Joyce play left field.

Down on the Farm:

Jeremy Hellickson we noted – the new fifth starter for the Rays – as he went 12 – 3 with 123Ks in 117.2 innings for AAA Durham.  Desmond Jennings, a potential Carl Crawford clone, fell off in terms of his batting average, but he still gets on base and he can FLY.

Jake McGee made it from Montgomery in AA through Durham before getting a cup of coffee with the Rays.  In AA, McGee fanned 100 in 88.1 innings, showed good command (getting better, anyway), and looked awesome in 11 AAA appearances (27Ks, 3 walks, one ER in 17.1 innings).  Alex Torres and Alexander Cobb were solid for Montgomery, winning records, good strikeout rates.  Cobb has better control, but both are young and will spend 2011 in Durham.

Former #1 pick Tim Beckham finished his season with A+ Charlotte and seems to have stalled, but having watched him in the minors, he sure is the one guy on the field you can’t help but notice.  He’s still only 21, so there is time for a step forward.  The best of Charlotte is the young staff, led by Matt Moore, who fanned 208 in 144.2 innings with his powerful fastball and curveball.  Joe Cruz showed solid command, going 13 – 6 – 2.85 in his 142 innings and will start 2011 in AA.  Then you have reliever Zach Quate, who fanned 90 in 72.1 innings, saving 25 games, with great control.

Forecasting 2011:

I don’t see how the Rays are going to repeat winning the AL East crown in 2011, but they won’t be bad and they should take a Wild Card spot.  The rotation may be slightly better, but the bullpen will be well off from last year.  The defense will be better at short (Brignac is better than Bartlett), but worse in left (Damon or Joyce instead of Crawford) and I’m not sure Johnson is better than an aging Carlos Pena at first.  The catching might improve a touch, and more Jaso is better than more Dioner Navarro offensively.  The Rays are better at DH.

I see the offense being good, but a touch worse – maybe 770 runs.  And the runs allowed number will likely go up by 30 runs to about 680.  That puts the Rays at 91 wins, which some will see as a surprise – but not me.

Trade Analysis: Better Late than Never – Jake Peavy Joins White Sox

In May, when Jake Peavy was first traded to the White Sox, he told GM Ken Williams, “Not yet, the timing isn’t right.”  Apparently, the trade deadline was the right time.  If you get told “we have to move you” for sixty straight days, at some point staying is less appealing.  So, one of San Diego’s best pitchers ever heads to the south side of Chicago for four young pitchers.

Chicago Gets:  A pitcher on the DL through August with ankle tendon issues, but could be making rehab starts in a couple of weeks.  Otherwise, Peavy is a dependable ace who eats innings and dispatches batters. They are paying for six starts in September – but also get Peavy for the next three years with an expensive option for 2013.  The top end of the Sox rotation going forward will be stable and solid:  Peavy, Buehrle, Floyd, Danks – arguably as good a rotation as anybody.

San Diego Gets:  It’s worked for some teams, but I’m not comfortable unloading an ace for prospects.  There aren’t many Jake Peavy types out there.  Anyway – four prospects means a one in four chance in replacing him.  Let’s see if they have a fighting chance.

Clayton Richard is already a fifth starter.  Looking over his minor league numbers he wouldn’t have struck me as much more than that, but he’s showing a little improvement and his overall stats in 2009 (so far) aren’t that bad (4 – 3, 4.65, decent K/9, but too many walks).  At 25, he has a little more room for improvement and to Richard’s credit, he’s improved every year through the system.  He may wind up a 3rd or 4th starter option.

Aaron Poreda already got a call to the bigs, but he’s probably not ready.  Just 22, he’s a former first round pick (2006) and his minor league numbers are more impressive than Richard.  If it’s me, I put him in long relief for the rest of this year and next and hope he’s in the rotation for 2011.  Poreda needs to work on his control – but it hadn’t been horrible in the minors.  Time getting out major league hitters in low stress situations would be the best thing.  He may not become an ace, but with a positive vibe, I’d take a third starter.

Dexter Carter is an interesting addition, in my opinion.  Carter has STUFF – blowing away batters at lower levels of the minors.  Hitters in the SAL league can’t wait for Carter to advance to AA.  He was a later round selection, but if anybody is going to turn into an ace, it’s a guy who strikes out 143 in 118 innings with just 32 walks.  When he makes the Padres in 2011, you’re adding him to your fantasy team and scooping up his rookie Topps card.

The fourth guy, Adam Russell, has had a shot in the bigs and isn’t really a prospect.  He’s gotten better over time – but at 25, he failed as a starter in the minors and has turned into a middle relief/mop up guy.  As of today, he’s a fringe MLB talent;I’d call him organization depth.

Winner?  Through 2010, probably Chicago.  However, if Dexter Carter continues to amaze and Aaron Poreda turns it up a notch, it could actually be a winner for San Diego.  I like what the Padres got in return – someone to absorb innings this year, two guys who could be in the rotation two years from now – possibly three if Richard keeps improving.  Two years from now, if the young guns are getting outs in the majors, the winner will be San Diego.