2013 Opponent Preview: The Tampa Bay Rays could be dangerous if they figure out how to score runs

USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays can be offensively challenged at times, especially when Evan Longoria isn't in the lineup. Can they score enough runs in 2013 to support their excellent pitching staff? Or will they flail their way to another third place finish in the brutal AL East?

Year after year, the Tampa Bay Rays are able to hang with the big boys in the AL East despite having a payroll roughly 1/3 the size of the New York Yankees. Last season, the Rays were able to hang around until the last week of the season, but the upstart Baltimore Orioles beat them out for the final Wild Card slot. The Rays made headlines by robbing Dayton Moore blind trading for Wil Myers and a few other interesting prospects, and are set up to contend for years to come on their shoestring budget.

Manager: Joe Maddon (8th year)

2012 record: 90-72, 3rd in AL East

SB Nation blog: DRaysBay

First series vs. Tigers: June 4-6 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

Desmond Jennings will be the full-time center fielder in 2013 now that B.J. Upton has moved north to play for the Atlanta Braves. Jennings hit .246/.314/.388 with 13 home runs and 31 stolen bases in 132 games last season, his first full year with the big league club. Matt Joyce will slide over to left field on most days, but Joe Maddon will likely tinker with the lineup when the Rays face a left-handed starting pitcher. Joyce's numbers against lefties -- .201/.288/.325 with just six home runs throughout his career -- are, well, awful. Ben Zobrist will play right field more often this year with fewer outfield options on the bench, but will still see a few games in the middle infield, especially once Myers joins the roster.

Speaking of the middle infield, shortstop Yunel Escobar made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2012. Yunel's eye black fiasco is likely one of the reasons why he was traded twice during the offseason -- though Jose Reyes is also a big reason -- but Escobar seems to have found his footing in Tampa. He is under team control through the 2015 season, giving the Rays plenty of time to decide whether Hak-Ju Lee or former #1 overall pick Tim Beckham are capable of producing at the major league level. Second baseman Kelly Johnson joined the Rays this offseason after a couple of mediocre years with the Toronto Blue Jays. If Johnson can't improve upon his 2012 numbers, Maddon has options in both Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts, a pair of super-utility guys that can play several positions.

The Rays' defense will be above average, but their offense depends largely on the health of Evan Longoria. Longoria only played 74 games in 2012, but the Rays were 20 games above .500 in those contests. They scored 358 runs in games that Longoria played in, but just 339 runs in the other 88 contests, a difference of nearly a full run per game.

First baseman James Loney may become the latest in a long line of reclamation projects that the Rays have had during Joe Maddon's tenure if he can start hitting. The problem? Ever since he hit .331/.381/.538 with 15 home runs in 96 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007, Loney hasn't even come close to matching his rookie year efforts. His performance this spring isn't very encouraging, but maybe the turf at Tropicana Field will have a positive effect on Loney's numbers like they did with Casey Kotchman, another ground ball hitter, a few years ago. Luke Scott may see some playing time both at first base and in the outfield, but will be the team's primary designated hitter. I estimate that one third of his home runs this season come against Tigers pitchers.

Behind the plate, Jose Lobaton, Jose Molina, and Chris Gimenez are battling for two roster spots, unless Joe Maddon decides to roll with three catchers to start the season -- and hey, he might. Gimenez has also played some outfield in his career and is the only one of the three putting together decent numbers at the plate this spring.

Rotation

Reigning AL Cy Young award winner David Price is back for another season, but odds are the trade rumors won't stop swirling until he reaches free agency after the 2015 season. Price won 20 games in 2012, but otherwise had an almost identical season to 2011 when he was just 12-13. His ERA was nearly a full run better in 2012 though, largely thanks to a near-10% increase in groundball percentage without sacrificing his excellent strikeout rate.

Matt Moore's rookie season didn't start off so well. Through 10 starts, Moore was just 1-5 with a 4.76 ERA. Once the calendar hit June, Moore showed Rays fans why he was so highly touted in the minor leagues, winning his next three starts en route to a 10-6 record and 3.36 ERA over the final four months of the season. Moore, yet another example of the Rays' excellent management, is under team control through the 2019 (!) season (though the last three years are club options). If Moore continues to pitch like he did during the summer months of 2012, the Rays should be in business, even when Price walks in free agency.

Jeremy Hellickson, once labeled the most overrated player in baseball by a certain infamous former BYB commenter, has truly defied the odds during his first two big league seasons. His career FIP and xFIP are 4.46 and 4.51, respectively, but his ERA is a stellar 3.06. How has he done it? To be honest, I'm not sure. It helps that Hellickson has had good defense behind him throughout his career, and Tropicana Field is more of a pitcher's park than people think. However, Hellickson's road splits are still very good, and he hasn't had an all-world outfield defense behind him, something that you would have otherwise assumed given his extreme fly ball tendencies. It's possible that his numbers come crashing back to earth at some point, but it's hard for me to go against two years' worth of evidence to the contrary.

Alex Cobb is yet another one of those pitchers you have heard about spending plenty of time ripening in the Rays' minor league organization before getting a chance to pitch in the big leagues on a consistent basis in 2012. He was solid, posting an 11-9 record and 4.03 ERA, but his peripheral statistics suggest that he could be a bit better in 2013. He was slightly homer prone, dropping his xFIP down to 3.54, and his walk rate decreased by nearly a full run from his short stint in the bigs in 2011. He's already an excellent option for the back of their rotation, but could be even better if he gets his abysmal road splits under control.

The fifth starter slot has been a battle all spring between Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, and Chris Archer, who was sent down to Triple-A earlier this week. Niemann has been a solid option for the Rays over the past few years when healthy, but only started eight games in 2012 due to injuries. Hernandez, who you know better as Fausto Carmona, is looking to ressurect a once-promising career in Tampa. He has pitched well this spring, striking out 14 batters and allowing seven runs in 21 innings of work.

The bullpen, led by closer Fernando Rodney, will be one of the best in baseball once again. Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jake McGee all return from the 2012 unit, which led the league in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and strikeout rate, and had the third-lowest walk rate.

Spring Training storylines

The Rays haven't gotten a ton of publicity this spring, but what ink has been devoted to them has gone towards the "Wil Myers watch." Myers will begin the year in the minor leagues, as expected, but likely won't be there for too long. The reigning Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year is as MLB-ready as prospects get, but the frugal Rays will keep Myers off of the big league roster for long enough to give them an extra year of Myers under club control, ideally without letting him reach Super Two status. If Myers excels early on, look for the Rays to offer him a contract similar to the one that Evan Longoria signed in 2008 that carried him through his arbitration years at a reasonable salary.

Player to watch: Fernando Rodney

There are five or six players on this Rays roster that have intriguing plot lines heading into 2013, but Rodney gets the nod here because of his ties to the Tigers organization. He became the latest in a long line of relievers to put up ridiculous numbers in the Rays bullpen, saving 48 games with a 0.60 ERA last season. Rodney only had two seasons with an ERA below 4.00 prior to 2012, and now is arguably the most dominant closer in baseball. He continued this trend in the World Baseball Classic, allowing just one hit (and zero runs) in 7 1/3 innings. Rodney's ERA will be higher in 2013, but he could earn himself a decent payday this offseason with another strong effort in 2013.

Outlook

The Rays moved into the upper echelon of their division despite trading away their #2 starter this offseason, largely thanks to the ongoing trainwreck in the Bronx. The pitching should still be excellent, especially if the Rays' young starters can make them forget James Shields. The offense, on the other hand, is a different story. It will help if Wil Myers plays well enough to cost Dayton Moore his job, but there are holes just about everywhere else, especially if Longoria can't stay healthy. Even then, the pitching should be good enough to carry an average offense to the playoffs, especially if the Toronto Blue Jays aren't the world beaters that they seem to be on paper.

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