The first ten years from their inception, the Tampa Bay Rays finished last every season, never winning more than 70 games. They have since appeared in the postseason four of the past six years, with the franchise’s first World Series run in 2008. Armed with some of the best talent in the game, wizard manager Joe Maddon leads a revamped Rays who look to make another deep October push.
The pitching staff is anchored by 2012 Cy Young winner David Price. In 27 starts last year, Price was an underwhelming 10-8, watching his ERA rise to 3.33 and strikeouts per nine innings ratio dip to 7.3. The Rays have traditionally let their high-profile players (BJ Upton and Carl Crawford) leave via free agency and Price seemed distracted while dealing with his unknown contract status. This is his final year of arbitration and as Price seeks a Kershaw-type deal (which the Rays will not match), the organization will want to win a title with Price before his likely departure. Alex Cobb had a breakout season in 2013. His 2.76 ERA would have qualified amongst the league lead had he avoided injury. He was also clutch in the one game playoff shutting down a hot-hitting Cleveland Indians team with 6.2 innings of no-run ball. After back-to-back 11 win seasons, Cobb is poised for a much bigger year. Matt Moore burst on the scene in 2011 pitching only nine September innings before starting and winning Game 1 of the ALDS. Even with the Rays protecting the arm of their prized possession by monitoring his pitch count, Moore managed to be very efficient in 2013 winning 17 games while only throwing 150 innings. For his career, he averages a strikeout per inning and should only get better this season. Flying under the radar is ace-in-the-making Chris Archer. The rookie sensation went 9-7 in 128 innings last year including two shutouts. He ranked in the top-10 for groundball outs, boasting one of the best sinkers in the league. Considering the Rays play 57 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, three of the top hitting teams in the AL, for Rays pitchers to be so effective speaks volumes about their talents. Price, Moore, Cobb and Archer can be top-2 starters in any other team and each can win a minimum of 15 games this year.
As valuable as Price is to the franchise, the Rays success revolves around the health of superstar Evan Longoria. With over 30 home runs in three of the past five years, Longoria’s enormous potential has yet to be seen. Since taking over as the AL’s best third baseman, opposing pitchers have rarely challenged Longoria at the plate, as his OBP and walks have consistently increased. Reigning Rookie of the Year Wil Myers provides the much needed protection for Longoria giving the Rays a formidable one-two punch in the middle of the lineup. A full year of Myers (he was promoted to the Majors only in the middle of last season) forces pitchers to not throw around Longoria. This will give the third baseman more opportunities to see fastballs as 40 home runs and 120 RBIs are reachable numbers. Leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings has seen his walks ratio has nearly double since his rookie season. Approaching his fourth year, Jennings will be a fantasy team’s catalyst improving on his walks allowing for more stolen bases.
The team’s biggest question surrounds that of super-utility player Ben Zobrist. After playing every position except pitching, Zobrist finally found a home as the team’s second baseman. After consecutive 20-homer seasons, he slipped to 12 last year. Approaching his 33rd birthday, he is likely past his prime. If Zobrist’s numbers slide again, the Rays will look to upgrade the position via trade.
Since taking over the Rays, Maddon has been a magician getting his message across to his young team and motivating the players. Longoria is a classic example and the strides he has made are seen in his stats. With improvements throughout the team, this could be the year the Rays win their first World Series.
All stats are courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference. com/.