The Tampa Bay Rays’ miracle run, which included a nine-game comeback over the final month of the season, came to an abrupt end as the Texas Rangers stopped them in their tracks in the first round of the playoffs. Looking forward to 2012, the Rays appear to have plenty of talent and a few key decisions to make. Let’s start with the starting rotation, which has been an area of depth for the team over the past couple of years.
For the fourth year in a row, the Rays got all of their starts from pitchers under the age of 30. (The last 30-year-old hurler to start for the Rays was Jae Weong Seo, who chipped in five innings on his 30th birthday, May 24, 2007.)
All but five of the Rays’ games in 2011 were started by one of James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, or Alex Cobb, and all of them actually were in a six-man rotation that manager Joe Madden decided to work with for a few weeks in July and August before injuries prematurely ended Cobb’s season. These six pitchers, all of whom were drafted and developed by the Rays, formed a solid starting staff last year.
With Shields’ $7.5 million contract picked up for 2012, all six pitchers are under contract for the upcoming season. There’s already a logjam of major league pitchers, and it’s even more complicated than that.
Waiting in the wings is lefty flamethrower Matt Moore, who had a major league cameo at the end of the 2011 season and stuck out a total of 17 batters in his two starts with Tampa. Moore, who is 22 years old, has been dominating at every level (FIPs under 3.00 every year since 2008) and probably could have a significant impact in the majors if given a spot.
As it stands right now, the Rays’ choice probably comes down to Niemann, Davis, Cobb, and Moore; Shields (now that his contract has been renewed), Price, and Hellickson look to be untouchable.
An area of the Rays’ pitching staff that has significantly less stability is their bullpen. The tables below show the Tampa relievers (minimum 20 innings pitched) ranked by average leverage, dating back to 2008.
Troy Percival 1.79
Dan Wheeler 1.72
Grant Balfour 1.26
J.P. Howell 1.26
J.P. Howell 1.82
Dan Wheeler 1.15
Grant Balfour 1.12
Joe Nelson 1.00
Rafael Soriano 1.82
Chad Qualls 1.24
Grant Balfour 1.20
Joaquin Benoit 1.15
Kyle Farnsworth 1.48
Joel Peralta 1.31
J.P. Howell 1.19
Juan Cruz 0.80
The pennant-winning 2008 team saw plenty of turnover the following year, but the last two seasons in particular have shown that the Rays’ front office has a willingness to rebuild the bullpen. Farnsworth’s 2012 option was picked up, presumably making 2012 the first season since 2006 the Rays will start the year with the same nominal closer as the previous season. (Danys Baez saved 96 games for the Rays between 2004 and 2006.)
With this in mind, the Rays’ bullpen last year wasn’t great outside of Farnsworth and Peralta (3.73 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 4.26 xFIP), and only one of the two will certainly be back in 2012. The Rays have signed a lot of relievers over the past few years, and they probably will be signing more by the time the offseason is done.
The Rays’ offense was middle-of-the-pack last year. Their .320 team wOBA was 13th in the majors; their team wRC+ was 103. Their season featured strong performances from Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria, in particular. Despite having a “down year,” hitting .244, Longoria clubbed 31 home runs and contributed about six wins above replacement. They’re both under contract and will be back in 2012.
B.J. Upton, frequently the subject of trade rumors, had a productive season last year; he’ll be back in the Rays’ outfield in 2012 as well (unless he is traded, which is certainly a possibility).
At the other end of productivity, you have shortstop Reid Brignac, second baseman Sean Rodriguez, outfielder Sam Fuld and the catching tandem of Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso; this quintet of semi-regulars combined for just 4.7 fWAR over 504 total games played.
One player I mentioned who won’t be back is Shoppach, whose 2012 option was declined. This probably opens the door for catching prospect Robinson Chirinos, who got some exposure to the big leagues during the second half of the 2011 season.
Fuld, who started the season strong and soon faded, eventually gave way to prospect Desmond Jennings by August. Jennings, who impressed in his 63 games (.356 OBP, 20 steals), should make a big impact on the top of the order in 2012. Rodriguez and Brignac are young and still stand to be the team’s up-the-middle combo.
To summarize, let’s go over a few general points about what’s facing the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012:
- Too many starters. Admittedly, this is a problem that every team wants to have, but it is, nonetheless, something that will need to be worked out. The Rays need to find a way to get Moore pitching every five days somehow.
- Who is in the bullpen? Farnsworth is, but there are a lot of question marks behind him. Howell returning to his pre-injury form might go a long way.
- Offensive help from within. The Rays obviously will be looking for a stronger performance from Brignac at shortstop, whose .203 wOBA in 2011 was second-lowest in the majors (min. 250 plate appearances). But the key move will be having Jennings’s combination of patience, power, and speed in the lineup every day.
The future certainly looks bright for the Rays. The fact that they have so many young players under contract bodes well for their sustained success.
You can read more of Lucas's work at Beyond the Boxscore and Don't Bring In The Lefty. Also, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DBITLefty.
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