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2013 Team Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

The internet darlings are ready for a fourth straight season of 90+ wins and a return to the playoffs.

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Notable Numbers

.277: The Tampa Bay Rays don’t allow many balls in play to fall in for hits, sporting the lowest opponent BABIP in baseball. While generally this is chalked up to variance, they also happen to be a great defensive team with aggressive and progressive defensive alignments helping them out. In fact, over the last three years that mark is .273, which is a great sign for its sustainability and also for the team’s pitchers who may otherwise look like regression candidates.

77.2%: I can’t really figure out what it means, but the Rays had the second lowest contact rate in baseball last year. Combined with the fact that they also have one of the lowest swing rates at just 44.8%, the Rays don’t put a large proportion of total pitches in play (in fact, they were also tops in walk rate and fourth in strikeout rate). At the same time, they see a league average amount of pitcher per plate appearance at 3.84. Can someone explain this disconnect to me? Do they just decide "swing on the first pitch" or "grind it out?" I know this is a preview but I ran into it, so why not ask?

2012 Season in Review

The Rays continue to be internet darlings, posting their third straight 90-win season and their fifth straight winning record. 90-72 was only good enough for third in the AL East and not good enough for the playoffs at all. The Rays had a consolation prize in David Price winning the Cy Young award, but I doubt the franchise sees that as something as financially valuable as playoff revenue. Still, it was a great team that actually underperformed based on run differential, and it seems like expectations are reasonably high for 2013.

Key Offseason Moves

Acquire Raul Mondesi: Oops, wrong Raul Mondesi. Move along.

Acquire the Jays middle infield: The rays dealt Derek Dietrich to the Marlins for Yunel Escobar and then signed Kelly Johnson, marking the third different team those two have played for together. Neither is elite but the price was certainly right, with Escobar costing a mid-level prospect and Johnson costing just $2.4M. They only combined for 2.1 fWAR last year but both can be expected to rebound from career-worst seasons.

Traded Big Game James: Ahh yes, "the big deal." The Rays sent James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and additional pieces. It was heralded as a big win for the Rays, sending a good-not-great starter out for a fully controllable, potentially elite bat, as well as other usable pieces. When you figure in that the Rays are more than capable of filling Shields’ role with in-house candidates, the deal looks like a huge win (even if they are keeping Myers in the minors for service time reasons).

Depth Chart

Jeff Niemann is out of options, so I lose my chance to make Archer jokes all season. That sucks. Elsewhere, things are pretty set in the Ray’s line-up – they’re flexible and platoon-heavy, so only a handful of players may get full playing time loads. That’s been a staple of Joe Maddon teams, and it’s worked thus far. There’s really not much to say here, with any perceived "battles" settled via a platoon tag.

Check out the Rays 2013 Depth Chart at MLB Depth Charts.

2013 Outlook

Yeah, the Rays are really good. Scares me to say it as a Jays fan, but I think they remain the favourite in the division. Maddon’s (or the organization’s) ability to get the best out of his players is unmatched, and he might be the best manager in baseball. He somehow manages the hitters like an old-school team but ultra-mega-micromanages the bullpen, leading to very small marginal improvements that can add up. Add in the reigning Cy Young winner, two perennial top players in Zobrist and Longoria and a stable of ready and capable arms, and it’s tough to knock this team for much more than having unsexy names on the line-up card. They’re making the playoffs...and probably winning the division (I'm booing myself).

Check out the Rays 2013 ZiPS projections at FanGraphs.

Bold Prediction

Evan Longoria, AL MVP. If healthy he could go .290-30-100 with a .380 wOBA at a premium position, which at least gets him in the conversation. Throw in a successful Rays season and the fact that I’m going to bump that to a nice round .300-35-110, and I think you’ve got your Most Valuable Player.