Steve Slowinski of DRays Bay was kind enough to preview his club for us.
For the Tampa Bay Rays, the 2012 season looks like the season. Last year, the Rays management willing admitted the team was in, according them, "reloading" mode. They knew the team was good, but accepted it might not have been playoffs good. Well, that team went on to win 91 games and earn a Wild Card trip.
This year, they are looking to win the AL East.
Five major storylines surround the 2012 season for the Rays:
No. 1: How will Matt Moore fare in the rotation -- and who goes to the 'pen? The young lefty Matt Moore is the kind of pitcher most teams elevate to the top of the rotation immediately. Once the Easy Bake Oven dings "Completed Pitcher," the team throws his kind onto a plate and serves him to the majors like a brownie made of strikeouts. The Rays, bloated from their gluttony of pitchers, have been able to slow-play Moore, who may well be the best pitcher in team history.
Moore is expected to start the season as the Rays' No. 4 starter, but despite being the de facto favorite, he is in competition with RHP Jeff Niemann and RHP Wade Davis for a rotation spot. Niemann and Davis have both shown flashes of excellence, but neither has been able to stay good or healthy enough to dominate.
Odds are, Davis goes to the bullpen until Niemann (who has a less-favorable contract) gets traded or an injury opens up playing time.
No. 2: Who starts at shortstop? And will they suck? In 596 PAs, the Rays shortstops -- a combination of SS Reid Brignac, 2B Sean Rodriguez and UTIL Elliot Johnson -- hit a putrid .193/.256/.282 (BA/OBP/SLG). Shortstops do not typically hit very well, but the Rays really want greater offensive production in 2012. They brought in INF Jeff Keppinger this offseason, but given Keppinger's iffy defense and less-than-great hitting, the shortstop position comes down to either Brignac or Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is the better hitter, but has looked much better defensively at second. Meanwhile, Brignac has long been touted as the better defender, but he struggled to be anything better than disaster-level with a bat. If Brignac can show he is capable of hitting like a league average shortstop (not a hard feet to accomplish; for a major leaguer, that is), then he could realistically secure the majority of shortstop playing time.
No. 3: The new additions -- Luke Scott and Carlos Pena -- how will they fair? How good will the offense be? The Rays caught lightning in a bottle with 1B Casey Kotchman in 2011, while their designated hitter, DH Manny Ramirez, got caught with something else in a bottle. In 2012, the Rays are hoping to just pay for their electricity. DH Luke Scott is coming off an injury-plagued season and 1B Carlos Pena is going to be 34 this year, and neither hitter is at his peak, but both came relatively cheap and should upgrade the offense considerably.
If Pena cannot maintain a .350 OBP and if Scott still struggles with his recent injury, the team could be turning to minor league veteran 1B Juan Miranda for help -- and that would be tantamount to grabbing the oh sh** handle in the passenger side of a teenager's car -- a bad situation.
No. 4: Jose Molina -- how much will be expected of the 36-year-old? Recent research has uncovered a tragically late and exceedingly valuable nugget: Jose Molina may be one of the greatest catchers of all time. Crazy? In many ways, yes.
Molina's impeccable pitch-framing abilities make him the single most important fielder on the team this year. The Rays are hoping Molina -- who will probably somehow be an offensive downgrade from their punch-less duo of C John Jaso and C Kelly Shoppach -- can catch somewhere between 90 to 100 games this year, but at age 36, it will be tough. If he can catch that many games -- or more -- the Rays and their cheat-code good rotation have a legitimate chance of pitching a season-long shutout. Which obviously would be a record of some sort.
No. 5: Does B.J. Upton or one of the starters get traded? With OF Desmond Jennings in the fold and RF Brandon Guyer waiting to get folded, and OF Sam Fuld... something fold... CF B.J. Upton has become the icing on an already too-sweet cake. He and one of the many starters buried in the system (Niemann, Davis and Alex Cobb) could become considerably powerful trade bait. And given the flexibility of 2B/OF Ben Zobrist, the team could easily trade Upton without considerably altering their starting lineup or even calling on a minor leaguer.
For my money, I doubt the Rays hang onto Upton all season, given that he will be a free agent at the end of the year and is a Scott Boras client (meaning an extension would cost a Taj Mahal or two).
Season Prediction: 98-64, 1st in the AL East*
*Both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox get Wild Card births**, resulting in a highly-anticipated and widely-lauded play-in game, which causes the east-coast-biased media to say the new Wild Card system is the greatest Thing to happen in baseball.
**Of course I'm going to pick the Rays to win the division! They are good and I am a Rays fan; expecting anything else from me is insanity.