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Know Your Enemy: Tampa Bay Rays

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In 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays finished 4th in the AL East with a 77-85 record, finishing slightly worse than their Pythagorean number of 79-83. They were the worst in the AL at scoring runs, scoring 3.78 per game (just behind  the Astros at 3.88, then the Astros play in a better park for hitters). They allowed 3.86 runs per game, 5th best in the AL. They always could pitch and play defense, but they just couldn't hit.

The Rays are the poster boys (along with the Twins) for one of Buck and Pat's favorite lines "they play the game the right way", we were treated to the fun of being told they were going to turn things around every time they managed to win a couple of games in a row. I think B and P's constant fawning over them is most of the reason why I've grown to dislike the team.

I really shouldn't dislike them, there is a lot of like about the team. They had the lowest payroll in the AL East (and have had for years) and yet they've been able to be competitive. Last year their payroll was just under $78 million. The Orioles had the next lowest payroll in the division at $109 million. They built their team through the draft and player development. That's admirable.

The Rays have had a pretty interesting off-season, losing their VP of Operations (in the old days we called these guys GMs) to the Dodgers. The man that the Extra 2% was written about was gone. Then, just a few days later, genius manager Joe Maddon left the team to try to become a legend, hoping to become the man that lead the Cubs to their first World Series win in over 100 years.

I figured, I think everyone figured, that Maddon's right-hand man, Dave Martinez would step into the job, but no, he followed Maddon to Chicago. Former Blue Jays catcher Kevin Cash won the job, becoming the youngest manager in baseball, without ever managing a game at any level of ball.

Additions:

Major league free agent signings: Asdrubal Cabrera (INF), Ernesto Frieri (RHP).

Minor league signings: Ronald Belisario (RHP), Corey Brown (OF), Joey Butler (OF), Alexi Casilla (INF), Jake Elmore (INF), Juan Francisco (3B), Jim Miller (RHP), Eugenio Velez (INF), Jonny Venters (LHP), Bobby Wilson (C)

Picked up in trade: John Jaso (C ), Rene Rivera (C ), Steven Souza (OF), Burch Smith (RHP) , Kevin Jepsen (RHP), Jose Dominguez (RHP).

Subtractions:

Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, Wil Myers, Ryan Hanigan, Matt Joyce, Joel Peralta, Jeremy Hellickson, Cesar Ramos, Jose Molina, Cole Figueroa, Oscar Hernandez.

Roster

Catcher: Rene Rivera

Rene came to the Rays in the 3-team trade with the Padres and Nationals. The trade sent last year's catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Padres. Rivera is a 31 year old, right-handed hitting catcher. Last year he hit .252/.319/.432, with 11 home runs in 103 games, his best season in the majors. He's only played 224 major league games. He's a good defensive catcher and gets good marks for framing pitches. Fangraphs has him at a 3.0 WAR last year, a step up form Hanigan's 1.1.

First Base: James Loney

Loney is coming off a down season, hitting .290/.336/.380 with 9 home runs in 155 games for a 0.9 WAR. I'd prefer to get more power out of a first baseman. Like most Rays he's good defensively.

Second Base: Logan Forsythe

Forsythe hit .233/.287/.329 with 6 home runs in 110 games, in his first season with the Rays. Fangraphs has him at a -0.4 WAR. They don't think much of his defense either, giving him a -12.1 UZR/150 at the position. In the Ben Zobrist tradition, he plays all over the field. Nick Franklin was likely to win at least a share of the playing time at the position, but he's out with an oblique injury and may miss most or all of April. Nick hit .160/.222/.247 in 28 MLB games last year.

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera

The Rays big free agent signing, Cabrera, takes over the shortstop job from the traded Yunel Escobar. Asdrubal hit .241/.307/.387 with 14 home runs in 146 games split between the Indians and the Nationals. Fangraphs gave him a 1.8 WAR and a -10.5 UZR/150.

Third Base: Evan Longoria

Evan didn't have a very good 2014, at least by his standards. He hit .253/.320/.404 with 22 home runs. Fangraphs had him at a 3.5 WAR. Evan is likely going to take Derek Jeter's spot of being the most fawned over opposing player by our broadcast team. I'd expect him to bounce back some this year.

Right Field: Steven Souza

A big piece in the three team trade. Souza is #37 on Baseball America's MLB top prospect list. He's had a tough spring, hitting .132/.195/.316 in 14 games. ZiPS figures he'll hit .228/.304/.396 with 15 home runs in 110 games this year.

Center Field: Kevin Kiermaier

Keirmaier looks to be the Rays leadoff man. He hit .263/.315/.450 with 10 home runs in 108 games last year, his rookie season. . He is an excellent defensive CFer. Fangraphs has him at a 4.0 WAR.

Right Field: Desmond Jennings

Desmond hit .244/.319/.378 with 10 home runs in 123 games. Fangraphs had him at a 3.3 WAR. He played center field last year and is a very good defensive outfielder but he doesn't have the strongest arm, so left might be a better spot for him.

DH: John Jaso

Jaso was picked up in trade from the A's. A defensively challenged catcher, the Rays will use him mostly at DH. In the past they have used the DH to rest their regulars. Jaso hit .264/.337/.430 with 9 home runs in 99 games in Oakland. Unlike most Athletics, he hit much better at home (.280/.374/.460) than on the road (.248/.300/.401) last year.

Rotation:

The Rays rotation has been hit hard by injuries. Matt Moore is out until June, after Tommy John surgery last year, Drew Smyly and Alex Cobb are both out with tendinitis in their throwing arms. Both will start the season on the DL. And Alex Colome was late to camp with visa troubles, and now is on the DL with pneumonia (and I thought the Blue Jays cornered the market on strange injuries). It might be May before he's back with the Rays.

Their rotation, at the start of the season, looks to be: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Nathan Karns and then they will pray for rain (or, more realistically, power outages at Tropicana Field). Possibilities for the for the last 2 spots are Matt Andriese, Everett Teaford and Mike Montgomery.  They might try to make it through April with 4 starters.

Archer gets the opening day start. He was 10-9 with a 3.33 ERA in 32 starts last year. He had 72 walks and 173 strikeouts in 194.2 innings. With 59 career starts, he's the most experienced of the pitchers likely to start the season in the rotation.

Odorizzi went 11-13 with a 4.13 ERA in 31 starts, in his rookie season. He only threw 168 innings in those 31 starts. He'll have to go deeper into games this season.

Kerns was a 12th round pick in the 2009 draft by the Nationals. He came over to the Rays in a trade before the 2014 season. He was 9-9 with a 5.08 ERA in 27 starts at Triple A Durham, walking 62 and striking out 153 in 145 innings. He made 2 late season starts for the Rays. This spring he has a 4.67 ERA in 5 starts.

Bullpen

Grant Balfour Closer (RHP)

Brad Boxberger (RHP)

Jeff Beliveau (LHP) (he'll be loved when the team moves to Montreal)

Kirby Yates (RHP)

Ernesto Frieri (RHP)

Steve Geltz (RHP)

Kevin Jepsen (RHP)

Lefty Jake McGee will start the season on the DL after elbow surgery this winter. He might be back late May.

They have a good bullpen, but the chances are that they will be overworked, at least early in the season. With the youth making up the rotation, I'm not expecting their starters will be going deep into games.

Outlook

Last year the strength of the team was the pitching. This year, at least early in the season, the pitching staff is decimated by injuries. I don't see enough (or really any) improvement in the offense to offset the problems in the rotation.

New manager Kevin Cash has big shoes to fill. Joe Maddon was a very popular manager and had some very good Rays teams to lead. Cash has most of his pitching staff on the DL.  I wonder how the Ray fans and media will treat him if the team gets off to a slow start.

I'm interested to see their attendance numbers, especially if the team starts the season slow. Last year they had their lowest numbers since 2007, drawing just 17,858 per game. This year, without Maddon, with a team that doesn't look to contend, how many are going to make the drive out to St. Peterburg to sit inside Tropicana Field on a beautiful Florida day.

I didn't see how they could contend before all the spring injuries. With the injuries, I think finishing out of last place would be a minor miracle.