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For the second time in three years, the winner of the AL East wasn't the Yankees or Red Sox. It was the Rays, who have done their best to compete with that elite duo despite not having near the history or resources.
But it may have finally caught up to them.
Granted, they're still in good shape long-term. They still have a minor-league system brimming with prospects like Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore, and they still have a strong nucleus in place with Evan Longoria and David Price. But anytime a team loses players of the caliber of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza and Rafael Soriano, you have to expect it to fall off a bit.
The Rays haven't completely waved the white flag, signing Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez late in the offseason just in case the Yankees' suspect pitching leaves the door open for the wild card. But other than having household names, the two aren't so different from the other castoffs littering the roster.
At least the exodus of talent creates new opportunities for players who might not get to contribute otherwise. Matt Joyce and Dan Johnson offer intriguing OPS potential, and new middle infielders Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac could provide some cheap pop. But the Rays will likely spend much of the year shuffling different players in and out of the lineup, looking for a perfect combination that isn't there.
If nothing else, you can still count on their pitching staff. Starters Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson (who is, by all indications, the next great thing), all deserve roster spots in Fantasy. And eventually, hard-throwing left-hander Jake McGee should be able to fill Soriano's void at closer even if he has to split opportunities with Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta right out of the gate.
Bounce-back player ... Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF
Zobrist's performance last year prompted an "I told you so" from everyone who thought his 2009 season was a mirage -- and yeah, maybe it was too good to be true. But his 2010 was equally too bad to be true. He hit only .177 in the second half, which was clearly an anomaly for a player who hit .318 during his minor-league career. So what was his excuse? He had a sore back all year that no doubt affected his swing. With an offseason to recover and regroup, he should be able to continue his high-OPS ways, which actually began in 2008, well before anyone gave him any notice in Fantasy. True, he may never hit 27 homers again, but with his high walk rate and ability to steal 20 bases, he only needs to hit 15 or so to be a high-end Fantasy performer. The expected rebound in batting average should be enough to get him there.
Breakout ... Jeremy Hellickson, SP
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The Rays kind of took all the drama out of this pick by giving us a sneak peak at Hellickson last year. The results were impressive even for a prospect of his caliber. He posted a 2.05 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in four starts before Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis returned from injuries. His time in the bullpen, where he clearly doesn't belong, is the only reason his ERA finished as high as it did. His walk rate of 2.0 per nine innings is almost inconceivable for a rookie and would have ranked him in the top 10 if he had enough innings to qualify. By keeping his pitch count low, he should be able to pitch six and seven innings consistently, avoiding some of the usual pitfalls for rookies. Then again, he shouldn't have to do much on-the-job learning of any sort. Hellickson will slip into the middle rounds just because he's a rookie, but he has ace written all over him.
Sleeper ... Matt Joyce, OF
Yeah, the Rays kind of messed up Joyce's golden opportunity by signing Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez late in the offseason, but nobody really thinks they're going to meet the team's offensive needs, do they? Neither looked particularly good down the stretch, and neither is young enough to play every day. In other words, Joyce is still getting his chance, and if his trial run last year is any indication, he's ready to take advantage. If you're having trouble seeing the potential here, look beyond the .241 batting average. The guy is an OPS machine in the making. His walk rate is impressive, and he showed the power to hit 25-plus homers over a full season. The Rays have been waiting for this kind of performance from him since they acquired him for Edwin Jackson in 2008, so you can bet he's getting the nod at the lineup's first opening. If you can afford to stash him in a deeper league, you won't regret it.
|Projected Lineup||Pos.||Projected Rotation|
|1||John Jaso||C||1||David Price||LH|
|2||Johnny Damon||LF||2||James Shields||RH|
|3||Ben Zobrist||RF||3||Jeff Niemann||RH|
|4||Evan Longoria||3B||4||Wade Davis||RH|
|5||Manny Ramirez||DH||5||Jeremy Hellickson||RH|
|6||B.J. Upton||CF||Alt||Andy Sonnanstine||RH|
|7||Dan Johnson||1B|| |
|8||Sean Rodriguez||2B||CL||Jake McGee||LH|
|9||Reid Brignac||SS||SU||Joel Peralta||RH|
|Top bench options||RP||Kyle Farnsworth||RH|
|R||Matt Joyce||OF||RP||Mike Ekstrom||RH|
|R||Kelly Shoppach||C||RP||Adam Russell||RH|
|Rays cleared spot for him by trading Garza to Cubs. Could challenge Price for title of staff ace.|
|Ramirez, Damon signings will delay him. Still considered long-term solution to Crawford's departure.|
|Former starting pitcher prospect was lights-out in 'pen. Will close eventually, if not right away.|
|4||Matt Moore||21||SP||Class A||Double-A|
|Overshadowed by Hellickson just like Hellickson was overshadowed by Price. An ace in his own right.|
|Likely would reach majors this year if had stayed with Cubs. Still not far off after 2.34 ERA last year.|
|Best of the rest: Alexander Colome, SP; Alex Torres, SP; Josh Sale, OF; Jake Thompson, SP; Hak-Ju Lee, SS; Alex Cobb, SP; Brandon Guyer, OF; Cesar Ramos, RP; Justin O'Conner, C; Drew Vettleson, OF; Leslie Anderson, 1B; Tim Beckham, SS; Elliot Johnson, SS; Rob Delaney, RP; Justin Ruggiano, OF; Jose Lobaton, C; and Robinson Chirinos, C.|
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