The Rays made the playoffs for the third time in four years by stealing the wild card on the last day of the 2011 season, putting them in the same class as the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East.
The key to their success? Pitching. In terms of depth and ceiling, no other organization compares.
And the best of the bunch from a pure talent standpoint made only one regular-season start last year. With Matt Moore expected to join probable Cy Young contenders James Shields and David Price at the top of the rotation, somebody has to go, and it won't be reigning AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. So who, then? Wade Davis, the high-upside hurler who preceded Hellickson and Moore in the Rays' seemingly never-ending line of pitching prospects, or Jeff Niemann, the former fourth overall pick who has averaged 12 wins over the last four seasons? Does one shift to the bullpen? Does one get traded? Honestly, both could stand to go. As of now, up-and-comer Alex Cobb isn't even in the discussion, and he posted a 3.42 ERA in nine starts last year.
Throw in Alex Torres, Alex Colome, Chris Archer and Taylor Guerrieri, who are all working their way up the minor-league ladder, and the Rays won't have to worry about what derailed the Red Sox last year. They'll never have a hole in their starting rotation.
But what of their hitting? Not exactly their bread and butter, but they have their mainstays in Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. By replacing Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon with Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, they'll likely gain in on-base percentage whatever they lost in batting average. And with a full season of Desmond Jennings they'll be adding another potential All-Star to the mix.
And so the little team that could just keeps on keeping on, serving as a present-day version of the 1990s Braves with their factory of starting pitching.
If the formula is as true now as it was then, their winning ways are only beginning.
Breakout ... Matt Moore, RP
When a top prospect with almost zero major-league experience generates as much hype as Moore has, you're usually better off avoiding him in Fantasy. Any amount of on-the-job learning, and his numbers won't match the investment. But Moore showed what makes him different in only his second major-league start last year, which also happened to be Game 1 of the ALDS at Texas. With that pressure on that stage against that lineup, he allowed just two hits in seven shutout innings. That's poise. In those seven innings, he showed he's not scared, nervous, intimidated or otherwise in over his head and it's not like his stuff was ever in question. The Rays are clearly believers, actually pushing proven pitchers aside just to get Moore on their opening day roster. And because of his gradual increase in innings in the minors they're already counting on him for 200 innings, which should easily mean 200 strikeouts. If the other numbers fall in line, what's stopping him from being an ace (and one with RP eligibility at that)?
Bust ... Matt Joyce, OF
Wait, this one is labeled wrong. Joyce was a long-awaited minor-leaguer who did nothing but live up to hype when he finally got to play regularly last year, even making the All-Star team. Surely he's more of a sleeper than a bust in waiting, right? Right? Sadly, no. Most of his production last year stemmed from an exceptionally hot May in which he hit .414 with seven homers and a 1.229 OPS. From June 1 to the end of September -- a full two-thirds of the season -- he hit only .226 with 10 homers and a .691 OPS. For the year, he hit only .217 against lefties, likely condemning him to a platoon role again. And because he's already 27 he has less room for improvement than you might think. Joyce's final numbers may look OK but he was by and large a disappointment last year. And if his struggles prevent him from getting full-time at-bats this year, he'll be a waste of a middle-round pick in Fantasy.
Sleeper ... Jeff Niemann, SP
Judging by his average draft position, a good number of Fantasy owners seem to think Niemann will be the odd man out in the battle for the fifth starter role. After all, he wasn't even on the playoff roster last year. Wade Davis was. But Niemann's absence was more injury-related than performance-related. Between his back issues, which plagued him both at the beginning and end of last season, he posted a 2.15 ERA in 10 starts, pitching beyond seven innings in four of those starts and recording about a strikeout per inning. Say what you want about Davis' upside, but he's clearly not that type of pitcher -- at least not yet. Even if the Rays go the upside route and give the job to Davis, they'll get enough calls about Niemann that he'll end up starting for someone. And provided he's able to take the mound, he'll pitch well enough to matter in mixed leagues. He's a perfect choice to fill out your rotation in the late rounds.
|Projected Lineup||Pos.||Projected Rotation|
|1||Desmond Jennings||LF||1||James Shields||RH|
|2||Ben Zobrist||2B||2||David Price||LH|
|3||Evan Longoria||3B||3||Jeremy Hellickson||RH|
|4||Carlos Pena||1B||4||Matt Moore||LH|
|5||B.J. Upton||CF||5||Jeff Niemann||RH|
|6||Matt Joyce||RF||Alt||Wade Davis||RH|
|7||Luke Scott||DH|| |
|8||Jose Molina||C||CL||Kyle Farnsworth||RH|
|9||Sean Rodriguez||SS||SU||Joel Peralta||RH|
|Top bench options||RP||Fernando Rodney||RH|
|R||Jeff Keppinger||IF||RP||J.P. Howell||LH|
|R||Sam Fuld||OF||RP||Burke Badenhop||RH|
|As much attention as Stephen Strasburg has gotten since his debut two years ago, some talent evaluators think Moore is even better. Hard to argue after his postseason start.|
|Lee doesn't profile as a 20-homer guy but his wide range of offensive skills makes him something like the Shane Victorino of shortstops. That's worth stashing long-term, right?|
|He's already 26, so Guyer probably isn't part of the Rays' long-term plans. But his numbers suggest he's a pure hitter, which they could use from the right side to pair with Joyce.|
|Torres debuted as a reliever last year but his future is in the rotation if he can overcome his command issues. He'll be one of the first up if a need arises midseason.|
|Command issues caused the former Cubs farmhand's stock to slip a little last year but he still has a high ceiling and will likely get a look at some point this season.|
|Best of the rest: Alex Colome, SP; Taylor Guerrieri, SP; Tim Beckham, SS; Drew Vettleson, OF; Josh Sale, OF; Jake Hager, SS; Dane De La Rosa, RP; Tyler Bortnick, SS; Marquis Fleming, RP; Kyeong Kang, OF; Matt Bush, RP; and Ty Morrison, OF.|
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