Can those plucky Rays pull off a sixth consecutive winning season and fourth straight 90-win campaign despite severe budgetary constraints? Signs point to yes, but the larger question is whether they can return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.
Let's dig in to the 2013 Tampa Bay Rays.
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Under-the-radar offseason transaction
Why would you exercise your option on a 37-year-old catcher who's coming off a season in which he "hit" .223/.286/.355 across just 274 plate appearances? You re-up with a guy like Jose Molina because he's the best pitch-framer in the game today. The Rays recognize that runs are runs are runs, whether you're scoring them or preventing the opposition from scoring them. And Molina helps them greatly on the latter front, even with limited playing time.
You might see the decision to bring back Molina at a cost of $1.8 million maligned in some quarters, but the Rays have their (very good) reasons for doing so.
Fantasy breakout: Matt Moore
"Those who bought into Moore last year, when the hype was at its highest, might be reluctant to do so now even though now might actually be the more reasonable time for a breakout. The Moore we saw last year wasn't the same one who dominated over five minor-league seasons. That one's control issues were behind him, which is partly why so many assumed he'd thrive as a rookie. This one issued 4.1 walks per nine innings, seventh-most among qualifying pitchers. How does that happen? One surefire way is by trying to do too much. Moore was at his worst in April, when he might have been trying to justify the hype. Once he settled in, he was a radically improved pitcher, compiling a 2.88 ERA and 3.6 walks per nine innings during a 17-start stretch from May 28 to Aug. 30. Sure, he had a rocky September, but that's not too uncommon for rookie pitchers. It'll make him more affordable on Draft Day. Now that he's had a year to get acclimated, Moore should come closer to maximizing his David Price-like potential." -- Scott White [Full Rays fantasy preview]
Preventing runs. This, of course, is the nexus of pitching and defense, and the Rays wield that nexus to great effect. Last season, Tampa Bay ranked atop the AL by allowing a measly 3.56 runs per game. Take the home park out of the calculation, and they rank a still-impressive second to the White Sox when it comes to fewest runs allowed on the road.
Is it the pitching? The Rays ranked first in the AL in fielding-independent pitching, which evaluates a pitching staff based on the things over which it exerts the most control (i.e., walks, strikeouts and home runs allowed).
Is it the fielding? The Rays in 2012 placed fourth in the AL in defensive efficiency rating, which is the percentage of balls in play that a defense converts into outs. They've been even better than that throughout recent history.
Yes, the losses of a starter like James Shields and a plus glove man like B.J. Upton are to be acknowledged. However, the prospect of more innings from Jeff Niemann and the fact that new shortstop Yunel Escobar grades out as a plus defensively should more than compensate for roster churn elsewhere.
That's to say nothing of the ongoing skills growth of Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson and the defensive chops of James Loney. And let's not forget that reigning AL Cy Young winner David Pride is still in his prime seasons. In other words, expect the Rays again to rank at or very near the top of league when it comes to keeping runs off the board.
Evan Longoria's penchant for injury. There's no disputing what Longoria can do when healthy (he's a career .276/.361/.516 hitter with Gold Glove-caliber defense at the hot corner), but staying healthy has been a challenge. Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, here's a glance at Longoria's substantial injury history.
Most concerning is that leg strains are the chief culprits, and those tend not to subside with age. Longoria is certainly capable of turning in a full season -- he eclipsed 660 plate appearances in 2009 and 2010 -- but the reality is that he's averaged 127 games per season over his five-year career. At age 27, Longoria is entering what should be his prime, and if generally healthy he's on the short-list of AL MVP candidates for 2013. But can he avoid the maladies that have sapped his value over the years. If the Rays are going to prevail in the again-brutal AL East, then they'll need their best player to be in fighting shape.
First place in the AL East. This is one of those divisions in which, if you squint just so, you can make a case for any of the five teams. The Rays, though, have perhaps the most realistic argument for preseason favorites. They have a strong front of the rotation, they have a history of cobbling together strong bullpens, the defense is an asset, they have some bats, they have a willingness to platoon, and Joe Maddon is among the best skippers in the game today.
Considering the unknown quantities in Toronto, the diminished roster in New York and the likelihood of regression in Baltimore, 2013 could bring a return to the top for the Rays.
Longoria can't stay healthy, Moore doesn't take the next step, the back of the rotation fails to stabilize, Fernando Rodney revisits his pre-2012 career norms, and Wil Myers struggles in his first exposure to the highest level. Throw in an unbalanced schedule in the AL East, and the Rays can't overcome all of it.
They'll be neck-and-neck with the Jays for the AL East title. Even if a few things trend the wrong direction, the Rays have the organizational depth and creative mind-set to compensate. Expect a playoff berth and serious bid for the division crown.
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