Despite not making the playoffs in 2012, the Tampa Bay Rays had a very good season. They won 90 games in the American League East, finishing in third place, and were strong on both sides of the ball, posting the eighth-best wRC+ in the majors and the best overall FIP.
That being said, the front office had a busy offseason with B.J. Upton becoming a free agent and James Shields becoming more expensive. So after these last few months of movement, here are some of the questions facing the team as we head into the 2013 season.
What is the rotation outlook after trading Shields?
In December, the Rays pulled off a shocking deal, sending Shields, Wade Davis and Elliot Johnson to the Royals for prospects Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi and Patrick Leonard. Though Tampa was applauded (as always) for getting a lot of young talent back for a relatively pricy Shields, a reliever, and a spare part, the deal did make the Rays weaker for the upcoming year.
Shields, 31, had a fantastic 2012 campaign, pitching to a 3.47 FIP across 227.2 innings. He was a nice bridge in the rotation between ace David Price and youngsters Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore. The Rays do have the depth to compensate for the loss with guys like Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez, and even though they should be good enough, the quality of the innings probably won’t be as high. Of course, they still have a more experienced Hellickson and Moore, who both will have to take another step.
How far will Fernando Rodney regress?
The immediate reaction to this question is probably “very far.” After all, Rodney, almost 36, had a career year, setting the record for lowest ERA ever posted by a relief pitcher (0.60) as the Rays closer. Before 2012, he had a career 4.29 ERA. Even if he had a career ERA that was relatively low, it would still be close to impossible for him to repeat this performance. However, there is reason to believe that Rodney’s numbers weren’t just a fluke.
First, one big reason why he was able to cut down the runs he allowed was because he reduced his walks. Heading into last year, he had issued almost five passes per nine innings over his career. In 2012, he dropped that down to just 1.81. One reason could be that he has moved where he stands on the rubber. RJ Anderson of Baseball Prospectus wrote about how Rodney has shifted all the way to the first base side of the rubber from the middle. As he points out, it was a radical shift, and it may have helped Rodney mechanically, at least a little bit.
So yes, there will be a decent amount of regression from Rodney, but maybe not as much as we think if this continues to work.
How will they replace Upton on offense?
This is really going to be the biggest question for Tampa. Upton posted a .323 wOBA and hit 28 homers last season despite getting on base at only a .298 clip. One thing the Rays will need to stay above water on offense is a healthy year from Evan Longoria. Longoria, who just received a huge 10-year extension, played in only 74 games last year, though he posted a .378 wOBA. A full season of the third baseman really would help soften the blow of losing Upton.
Desmond Jennings will be filling in for Upton in center field, and while he didn’t have a great season overall in 2012, he had a very good second half (110 wRC+). He hit the disabled list with a knee injury, and his plate discipline seemed to take a step back, but he’s still young (26) and obviously still can get better at picking the right pitches to hit.
I’m not sure the Rays can completely replace what Upton brought in the speed and power departments (and also on defense for that matter), but better years out of these two guys is a good start in trying.
What impact will Wil Myers have?
When the Shields/Myers deal went down, one of the first questions asked was whether Myers was going to start the season with Tampa or with Triple-A Durham. The consensus seems to be that the 22-year-old outfielder will start the year in Durham and will be called up at some point in the middle of the season for service time reasons.
Baseball America recently ranked Myers the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball, and he also was named the 2012 Minor League Player of the Year by the publication. These honors were well deserved: He hit .314/.387/.600 with 37 homers between Double-A and Triple-A. Though strikeouts are a slight concern, he did whiff less frequently as the season went on, even with the level change.
As stated above, the trade made the Rays weaker for the upcoming year, but it also made them stronger for the long term by adding a young, cost-controlled, and potentially powerful bat to their lineup. Myers may not play a big role now, but he could be a nice shot in the arm down the stretch and beyond.
How do they stack up in the American League East?
The already strong AL East seemingly has gotten stronger over the past few months.
Starting north of the border, the Blue Jays added some impact ploayers via a couple of trades. They acquired starting pitchers R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, along with shortstop Jose Reyes and utility man Emilio Bonifacio. With all that and the signing of Melky Cabrera, Toronto looks ready to contend and appears to be an early favorite to win the division.
The other bottom-feeder of the division in 2012, the Red Sox, got better as well. They added Shane Victorino, a damaged Mike Napoli, and other miscellaneous pieces to their offense and Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan to their pitching staff. They very easily could be right back in contention.
Despite losing Nick Swisher and Russell Martin to free agency and suffering some injuries to key players before the season has even started, the Yankees are coming off a 95-win campaign and are always a bet to be right in the thick of things come September. They maintained the status quo with their pitching (Rafael Soriano being the exception) by retaining Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, and Mariano Rivera and added Kevin Youkilis and a healthy Brett Gardner on offense.
Finally, the Orioles didn’t do much this winter, but as we saw last year, we can’t count them out despite a shaky rotation.
There’s a lot of upside in this division, but there’s also a lot question marks. The Rays are not blown away by any team on paper here and could win the division, take a Wild Card, or even miss the playoffs altogether again; there’s just so much uncertainty all around. However, barring big injuries, this team should be right in the thick of things throughout the year.