Coming off of their miraculous charge into the playoffs last year, the Tampa Bay Rays look to be key players in the AL East once again. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as we head into the regular season.
Who will be in the Rays’ rotation?
The Rays have been dealing with an issue that most teams would kill to have: There are too many young starters who are under contract. The veteran of the group, James Shields is not even 30 years old and signed an extension with the team last October. David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, who had fine 2011 campaigns, certainly aren’t going anywhere. That leaves four viable major league starters—Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore—for two spots in the rotation. Pitching coach Jim Hickey said in February that they are all going to be starters in camp and that the situation will “work itself out.”
Moore has the least experience but a world of upside (we’ll talk about this in a bit), and Cobb is coming off of injuries that derailed his season. Davis and Niemann have spent more time in the Rays’ rotation over the past few seasons, with varying levels of success: Davis has had a FIP of around 4.70 over his two full seasons, allowing a lot of flyball contact with unspectacular control. Niemann looks to be improving, cutting down on his walks this year for a K/BB of around 3. At the time of this writing, Niemann and Moore seem like the best fits in the starting rotation.
How good is Matt Moore?
Probably the most exciting pitching prospect in the majors right now is southpaw Matt Moore, who joined the Rays last September for some help down the stretch and wound up starting the first game of the ALDS against the Rangers. In addition to his seven-inning effort against the Rangers, Moore had a dominant start (his only regular season one) against the Yankees on Sept. 22 in which he struck out 11 batters in five innings.
His arsenal is that of a pure power pitcher. He possesses a four-seam fastball that can reach the upper 90s, a spike power-curveball in the mid-80s, and a change-up around 87 mph that he seemed comfortable using to righties in his big league appearances last year. He ripped through minor league hitters, posting a K/9 of nearly 13 in just under 500 career minor league innings (94 of his 99 games were starts). Expectations are sky-high based on Moore’s minor league track record, but it remains to be seen if he can translate his success to this point into helping the Rays’ rotation.
How good is Desmond Jennings?
It appears that for the first time in his career, Jennings will start the season on the big league roster. Jennings has been near the top of Baseball America’s top Rays prospects lists for the past few years and finally got a few months to make an impact in the majors after the 2011 All-Star break.
In his 63 games last year, he hit .259/.356/.449, showing an intriguing combination of plate discipline (10.8 percent walks per plate appearance), some power (10 home runs) and speed (20 stolen bases). His career minor league line: .294/.382/.443, with 188 stolen bases in 509 games. He might not be a superstar yet, but Jennings has a nice set of talents and looks to give the Rays more production out of left field (at least offensively) than they got from Sam Fuld last year.
Where’s the production from the middle infielders?
The Tampa middle infield combo was a severe weak spot in 2011. Shortstop Reid Brignac, in particular, struggled mightily; in 264 plate appearances, hit just .193/.227/.221 with only five extra-base hits. Second baseman Sean Rodriguez had some more pop in his bat; his .303 weighted on-base average isn’t much to write home about, but isn’t bad for a second baseman.
Really, having two middle infielders without a whole lot of offense isn’t the biggest problem to have, though certainly the Rays will want Brignac to improve, as his performance last year was among the league’s worst. At the end of January, the Rays picked up utility infielder Jeff Keppinger on a small contract, and he might take some playing time away from both Brignac and Rodriguez. Keppinger is an extreme contact-hitter with limited plate discipline or power, and he doesn’t project to make a huge impact offensively, but he could give the middle infield a little bit of a boost. The corner infielders have plenty of pop, with Evan Longoria patrolling third base and Carlos Pena returning to Tampa as the first baseman.
Will the new Farns continue to lead the bullpen?
The Rays are keeping Kyle Farnsworth around to be their closer for the second year in a row. This, in itself, is rare for the Rays: the last time they had the same closer two years in a row was 2004-2005, when Danys Baez took the ball in save situations. Joining Farnsworth as returning relievers are Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell and Jake McGee. Burke Badenhop has entered the fold and will probably pitch mostly to righties to get the most out of his side-arm, sinker/slider repertoire.
But let’s go back to Farnsworth. He’s a particularly interesting case, as he has changed his pitching style quite a bit over the past few seasons. Previously extremely homer-prone and reliant on his four-seam fastball, Farnsworth has been throwing more cutting and sinking fastballs since 2009, and it resulted in a career-high 50 percent groundball rate last year. He also brought his walk rate down to 5 percent, another career best. Farnsworth might not have the reputation due to his fiery personality and high-profile struggles with the Yankees, but he appears to have made tangible improvements to his pitching style as he has gotten older.
With their late charge last year, the Rays ended up as one of the best teams in the major leagues. With the addition of Pena and the youngsters Jennings and Moore, Tampa might even be more talented this year than last.