It's likely the Rays will open the season with the second-lowest payroll in the American League. Of course, they're accustomed to starting from behind. So can a young rotation of unprecedented potential and a stellar team defense ferry Tampa Bay to a fourth playoff berth in five seasons?
Major additions: 1B Carlos Pena, DH Luke Scott, C Jose Molina
Major departures: OF/DH Johnny Damon, 1B Casey Kotchman
1. Desmond Jennings, LF
2. B.J. Upton, RF
3. Evan Longoria, 3B
4. Carlos Pena, 1B
5. Ben Zobrist, 2B
6. Matt Joyce, RF
7. Luke Scott, DH
8. Sean Rodriguez, SS
9. Jose Molina, C
1. James Shields
2. David Price
3. Jeremy Hellickson
4. Matt Moore
5. Jeff Niemann
Closer: Kyle Farnsworth
Set-up: Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee
Important bench players
OF Sam Fuld, C Jose Lobaton, SS Reid Brignac
Prospect to watch: Matt Moore
Although Moore will be an integral part of the Tampa Bay rotation in 2012, he hasn't yet lost his prospect status. So here he is. According to some analysts, the left-handed Moore is the top prospect in all of baseball -- better than even Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. While you can place those three in any order and make a case for it, there's no doubting Moore's once-in-a-lifetime upside. Really, he has it all: outstanding velocity on his fastball, two wipeout breaking balls, an advanced changeup, a smooth and effortless delivery, and outstanding makeup. He's fully capable of contending for the Cy Young as a rookie.
Fantasy sleeper: Jeff Niemann
"Judging by his average draft position, a good number of Fantasy owners seem to think Niemann will be the odd man out in the battle for the fifth starter role. After all, he wasn't even on the playoff roster last year. Wade Davis was. But Niemann's absence was more injury-related than performance-related. Between his back issues, which plagued him both at the beginning and end of last season, he posted a 2.15 ERA in 10 starts, pitching beyond seven innings in four of those starts and recording about a strikeout per inning. Say what you want about Davis' upside, but he's clearly not that type of pitcher -- at least not yet. Even if the Rays go the upside route and give the job to Davis, they'll get enough calls about Niemann that he'll end up starting for someone. And provided he's able to take the mound, he'll pitch well enough to matter in mixed leagues. He's a perfect choice to fill out your rotation in the late rounds." - Scott White [Full Rays team fantasy preview]
Fantasy bust: Matt Joyce
"Wait, this one is labeled wrong. Joyce was a long-awaited minor-leaguer who did nothing but live up to hype when he finally got to play regularly last year, even making the All-Star team. Surely he's more of a sleeper than a bust in waiting, right? Right? Sadly, no. Most of his production last year stemmed from an exceptionally hot May in which he hit .414 with seven homers and a 1.229 OPS. From June 1 to the end of September -- a full two-thirds of the season -- he hit only .226 with 10 homers and a .691 OPS. For the year, he hit only .217 against lefties, likely condemning him to a platoon role again. And because he's already 27 he has less room for improvement than you might think. Joyce's final numbers may look OK but he was by and large a disappointment last year. And if his struggles prevent him from getting full-time at-bats this year, he'll be a waste of a middle-round pick in Fantasy." - Scott White [Full Rays team fantasy preview]
Shields and Price contend for Cy Young honors, and Moore lives up to the press clippings. The defense remains easily the best in all of baseball. On offense, Scott's shoulder holds up and permits a bounceback season, Longoria is healthy and productive, and Jennings capitalizes on last season's success. Even in the AL East, where 80% of the division is playoff-caliber, the Rays can win if those things happen. The smartest organization in baseball keeps on keeping on.
An offense with too many holes gets exploited, and a somewhat suspect bullpen squanders too many leads. Moore suffers a learning curve, and Hellickson endures a BABIP-fueled regression. Mostly, though, playing an unbalanced schedule against the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays proves to be too much, even for the plucky Rays.
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