I can't stress this enough: The Rays are really going to struggle to score runs in 2015. If you look at their lineup from 1 to 9, you are hard pressed to find anyone not named Evan Longoria that may break double digits in home runs. The "crown jewel" from the Wil Myers trade is new catcher Rene Rivera. Yes, they traded the 24 year oldMyers and the main cog that came back from San Diego was out of the league for FIVE YEARS. You shouldn't be netting anybody of value for somebody with a stint on the Camden Riversharks on their resume. Former Ray John Jaso, the main piece in the Zobrist deal, may spell Rivera some but will primarily DH. James Loney will once again man first base. The lefty has always been a consistent hitter, hovering around .300 without striking out an egregious number of times. Nevertheless, he is on the wrong side of thirty and I feel his power numbers will just continue to dwindle. With the departure of Zobrist, second base is a toss-up between two players that both should probably be battling over the last bench spot than a starting position. Logan Forsythe and Nick Franklin have shown over the past several years that they are not Major League caliber players. Franklin is just 24 but he fell out of favor in Seattle so precipitously that he couldn't even get pinch running duties. Forsythe is 28 but had the same thing happen to him in San Diego two years ago. Both may end up making way eventually for a man whose been a bit of a forgotten figure himself, 2008 #1 pick Tim Beckham. Shortstop isn't looking much brighter. Asdrubal Cabrera comes in on a one year deal to add another veteran presence. He doesn't add much else as both his defense and offense have eroded since his All-Star days in Cleveland. It is hard to believe he is only 29 because seeing Cabrera on the diamond gives you the impression that he is much older than that. Third base will probably be Evan Longoria's until he retires. He has been the brick in the foundation of the Rays organization that has stood firm as the rest of Tampa's stars have blown away in Tampa's penny pinching hurricane. Longoria is locked up through 2022 at least and has been the lineup's only consistent source of power and run production during his tenure. I know the last time Tampa blew it up they ended up building a team that made a remarkable run to the World Series. It is just disappointing that they are going to waste a half decade of a potentially great player to do that again. Longoria will get his dingers but his peripheral numbers will suffer once again with the pieces surrounding him.
The outfield is just as unpalatable. Desmond Jennings has five tool talent but is all too often susceptible to brain vacations which make fans and managers go gray rapidly. His speed is being sapped by injuries and his power and average are dwindling because of poor plate discipline. Jennings may not get to see another arbitration hearing in Tampa if he keeps this up. In right field, there is yet another new face in Steven Souza Jr. The main get from Washington in the Myers trade, Souza did very little in his month with the Nationals in 2014. The Rays liked what he did enough the past two years in the Minors though to give him a shot out of Spring Training. If he can stop swinging at everything, he may actually be a bottom of the order asset. From what I've read, scouts are loving themselves some of Rays' centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. A throwback hustle guy who is comfortable in all three outfield spots is a good hand to have. I just personally believe that having the everyday gig under the Trop catwalks may be too much for him to handle. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of reinforcements coming from within to help the lineup either. All of Tampa's top prospects are at least a year, probably more, away from entering the fold.
If you look at the potential of this pitching staff, the lack of offense shouldn't worry you as much. Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Drew Smyly all have impressive pitching arsenals and have shown that they can handle the toughest opposition the American League can offer. Nevertheless, Cobb has dealt with freak injuries more than the other two but time off is time off regardless of how you end up on the disabled list. Fully entrenched as the team's ace, Cobb must prove he can pitch every fifth day for an entire season. Archer nearly pitched 200 innings last year but was hit own worst enemy most nights. His record could have been much better than 10-9 if he didn't take himself out of games with walks in droves. His 72 free passes last year were the sixth worst mark in the American League. Smyly was Tampa's immediate return in the David Price deal and was more impressive than the departed ace in his time in Tampa. Some say that a full season with a guaranteed rotation spot will only help to improve a pitcher like Smyly, who has faced uncertainty and a constant shuffle between starting and relieving his entire career. I am intrigued to see if he can handle the pressure of being a top of the rotation guy, even more so if he has to be bumped up if Archer or Cobb go down. Jake Odorizzi in the four slot is something American League teams need to worry about. He took some lumps in 2014 but he struck out more than a man an inning and started towards the end of the season to mix his pitches better and better. Having Odorizzi and former All-Star Matt Moore, who should return from Tommy John surgery as early as May, at the back of the rotation gives Tampa one of the deepest rotations in the American League. They will need all five at their absolute best to compete.
The bullpen is fairly solid as well. Grant Balfour is temporarily reinstated as the team's closer. That is only the case currently because the man he lost the job to last year, southpaw Jake McGee, is trying to regain full fitness while battling an elbow injury. When McGee returns, the back end of Tampa's pen is strong. Outside of the hard throwing left hander, the duties of the eighth inning will be handled by Brad Boxberger. Boxberger showed promise in two seasons in San Diego. He took it to a whole different level in 2014, striking out 104 in just 64 2/3 innings with a great fastball/changeup combination. Jeff Beliveau (from PROVIDENCE, RI!) stamped himself as the other trusted left hander in the late innings. He doesn't blow people away like his teammates, but he is real tough on left handers and hammers the strike zone. Former Angels Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri provide depth and much needed contingency plans if injuries occur.
Tampa's pitching is too good to have them ranked this low. If you look at that lineup however, they shouldn't be ranked this high. It is the job of rookie manager Kevin Cash to try to balance out his team's overwhelming strengths versus their severely glaring weaknesses. Joe Maddon's shoes are big ones to fill. If Cash can somehow pull out even a Wild Card bid with this impotent offense, he should win American League Manager of the Year without challenge. Either way, there is going to be a whole lot of zeroes on the Tampa Bay scoreboard this season, for both the Rays and their opponents.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #12 (DOWN 10)
PREDICTED RECORD: 76-86
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Evan Longoria (third baseman), Chris Archer (starting pitcher), Brad Boxberger (relief pitcher)
Trevor Utley is just glad that the Dodgers trade for David Price wasn't accepted. It was a whole lot more than Tampa actually got.
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