Season preview | Tampa Bay Rays optimistic despite early injury concerns

adell@bradenton.comApril 6, 2012 

At this time last year, most baseball prognosticators had the Tampa Bay Rays snugly inside a coffin.

The only thing missing was the final nail.

It prompted Rays manager Joe Maddon to proclaim "reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."

The naysayers are surfacing again, but for different reasons.

A few weeks ago, a lot of Rays were thinking World Series. Now due to injuries, questions have popped up.

But this is when Joe Maddon is at his best.

Plus, the Rays have quality depth.

With last year's closer, Kyle Farnsworth, on the disabled list for the season opener, the skipper gets more opportunity to tinker with his bullpen.

Forced to shed payroll before the 2011 season, the Rays did what they always seem to do under Maddon: exceed

expectations and create another fairy tale in going to the playoffs as a wild card.

The Rays' hopes have been dinged with Farnsworth joining centerfielder B.J. Upton and super sub Sam Fuld on the disabled list.

Maddon says don't worry. He says he has the pieces to mix and match.

"We've never had proclaimed a closer to this point. ... I am not going to proclaim anyone. It's closer by committee," Maddon says.

Baseball starts with pitching and defense, and the Rays have an abundance of both. They've added some offensive weapons, though some critics are calling designated hitter Luke Scott and first baseman Carlos Peña a downgrade from last year's DH, Johnny Damon, and first baseman, Casey Kotchman.

But the Rays have arguably the best starting rotation in baseball and a defense that committed a major-league low 73 errors last season. Those two ingredients compensate for an offense that scored the fewest runs (707) in the American League East.

The Rays wouldn't trade their starting rotation for any in baseball. It's so good two-year starter Wade Davis has been assigned to the bullpen to make room for rookie left-hander Matt Moore.

The 22-year-old Moore will take the fourth spot in the rotation behind today's Opening Day starter, James Shields, David Price and reigning AL Rookie of The Year Jeremy Hellickson. Jeff Niemann, entering his fourth year in the starting rotation, has the second-highest road winning percentage of any pitcher the last three seasons (21-9) and best winning percentage in club history. He barely got the fifth spot.

The Rays' last 165 games were started by pitchers who were drafted by Tampa Bay, the longest such streak in the majors since 1965. For 764 straight games, the Rays have started a pitcher younger than 30. The streak ends today, but Shields just turned 30 in December, and the righty is coming off his best season.

Price had a career-high 218 strikeouts, and the lefty tied for the major-league lead with 34 starts last season. Shields has logged 200-plus innings for five straight seasons.

Farnsworth's status means the Rays just divvy up the work. Consider he had 25 saves in 2011, which was 15 more than his previous high in 2005 with Atlanta. Going into camp last year, there was no closer.

Making things easier is Joel Peralta, who had a career-high 71 appearances last season (second highest in the AL). In the Rays' final 24 games, he did not allow a run in seven appearances with the Rays winning each game, and he picked up four saves.

Fernando Rodney, who had 37 saves with Detroit in 2009, is a closer candidate along with lefty J.P. Howell, who had a good spring. And there is Jake McGee, who held lefties to a .164 batting average last season. Davis could also move to the back end of the bullpen.

The Rays were second in the AL in fewest pitches per inning (15.9), which ranked fourth best in the majors behind leader Philadelphia (15.4). Efficiency is their staple.

They will throw to an improved catching corps, led by war horse Jose Molina, who came from Toronto and can make balls look like strikes and opponents think twice about stealing bases. Jose Lobaton, who swung the bat well this spring, is the backup with the versatile Stephen Vogt the third catcher.

Third baseman Evan Longoria is still the Rays' best position player and fixture in the infield. Despite missing 29 regular season games, he led the Rays in homers (31), RBIs (99) and walks (80) in 2011. From June 11th to the end of last season, his 27 home runs during that span tied for the AL lead.

Maddon loves to tinker with his lineup and says he can do that with this infield without giving up anything defensively.

"At minimum, we have an above-average defender at each position and could have excellent defenders," he said. "We believe in positioning our guys right so we can avoid the other team's luck a little. We really consider everything, but the one thing we might have been missing was Molina."

After a year exodus, Peña returns to first base. He will strike out a lot, but is a defensive gem, extremely valuable in the clubhouse and can drive in runs.

Peña's .239 career batting average that includes 1,292 career strikeouts and a .196 average for the Rays in 2010, doesn't scare Maddon, who says you can never measure his true value through numbers.

Maddon saw enough in Sean Rodriguez to name him his primary shortstop over Reid Brignac. He won't be the everyday shortstop, but as close as you can get, which could translate into many scenarios that include Elliot Johnson and Brignac.

Critics say he can't hit righties (.192 BA last and .212 career), but the 26 year-old Rodgriguez says he has never had the chance. He started at all four infield positions last year.

"I've been playing shortstop all my life, and I have hit righties. But you've got to play against them consistently to be at your best, and I haven't been able to that," the Miami native says. "I am ready and I believe I can do it defensively. It's a matter of going out there every day and getting the chance."

Brignac showed improved hitting this spring but is fighting plantar fasciitis, which didn't help him.

The rest of the infield could feature a lot of different looks with Ben Zobrist, Johnson, Jeff Keppinger and Scott, who will DH and be available at first when he recovers from a torn labrum.

The switching-hitting Zobrist is solid at second base and right field and hit .303 against lefties in 2011. He played in a career-high 156 games last year. Look for him to start at second against righties and play primarily in right field against lefties, but he can play center and left.

Maddon likely will use Keppinger at second against lefties (.324 career average vs. southpaws). His quality at-bats -- he ranks second among career active players as toughest to strike out -- make him valuable, and he has played third, shortstop and outfield.

Until Upton gets off the DL, Desmond Jennings will likely be in center field, and the rest of the outfield could have a different look each day, featuring Matt Joyce, who hit 16 of his 19 homers against righties and batted .290 against them as opposed to .217 against lefties.

Jennings is capable of having a breakout year. From the date of his call-up in the Rays' 99th game last season, he led the team in runs, hits and steals and was second in homers. He has unlimited limited potential, which could dramatically affect the dynamic of the American League East race.

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