Are the Tampa Bay Rays American League World Series Contenders?
Tampa Bay Rays 2014
Leadership on a Championship Roster
The first names that you think of, when the Rays are mentioned, are David Price and Evan Longoria. David Price has won an American League Cy Young Award, and Evan Longoria has been a leader for the Rays, ever since his rookie season, when the Rays made their first playoff appearance in franchise history. The leadership they provide on a day to day basis is so valuable for a team that is annually in the middle of the pennant race. Longoria with his homeruns in huge moments, and Price with his ability to be the stopper, every fifth day, have played a huge role in the Rays making so many postseason appearances since 2008. With these two players on their roster, the Rays have made one World Series appearance, when they were both rookies, but have not been back to the Fall Classic since 2008. What makes 2014 different for the Rays? What have they done to give their roster the edge over other American League contenders in 2014?
In past years, the Tampa Bay Rays' offense has not always been flashy. Evan Longoria has always been among the league leaders in several offensive categories, but rarely have they had someone among the league leaders in homeruns each season. Right fielder Wil Myers could help to change this in 2014, as he always displayed one of the best power tools of the recent highly ranked prospects to make their major league debuts. In 2012, combined between the top two levels of the minor leagues, Myers hit 37 homeruns. Myers just turned 23 years old in December of last year, and will be beginning his first full season in the big leagues in 2014. He posted a .478 slugging percentage and hit 13 homeruns in a little over half a season as a rookie last year. Myers will most likely be hitting in the cleanup spot for the Rays, where they expect him to produce the most power they have had there since Carlos Pena hit 39 homeruns as the Rays cleanup hitter in 2009. A full season from Wil Myers is the key difference for the Rays' offense this season, as he should mature into their cleanup hitter who will have confidence in that role in the postseason.
Another key player for the Rays offensively this season, is leadoff man Desmond Jennings. Desmond Jennings will be 27 years old for all of 2014, and he will be expected to take that next step forward, to meet the expectations that made him the Rays top prospect when he was down on the farm for them. Throughout his four year major league career, Desmond Jennings has shown five tool ability, and has added a significant number to the Rays win total the past two seasons, but he has yet to have that breakout season. Jennings fits the prototype for an ideal leadoff man, as he has posted good walk percentages and has 73 steals in 91 career attempts. A breakout season at the top of the Rays order for Jennings, could play a huge role in helping their chances as an American League World Series contender.
Further stability at the top of the order for the Rays, will come from late season acquisition in 2013, David Dejesus. He is a 34 year old who will play left field for the Rays, and provides a veteran presence with a little pop from the 2 hole in the Rays lineup. More stability can be found in the middle of the Rays order with second basemen Ben Zobrist and first basemen James Loney. Ben Zobrist consistently is one of the most underrated players in baseball, as he annually ranks among the league leaders in walks, hits for power and plays good defense at 2nd base. The Rays also have defensive specialists at catcher with Ryan Hanigan, and shortstop with Yunel Escobar. Both of these players have offensive talent, but their defense is more notable part of their games, as they round out the bottom of the Rays' order. The Rays have two options at designated hitter right now, with some power, in left handed Matt Joyce and switch hitter, Wilson Betemit. Ultimately, the combination of young players and veterans in the Rays batting order, creates a nice mix, that should allow them to score plenty of runs, while playing good defense behind their pitching staff.
The Pitching Staff
This unit for the Rays, may be the backbone of the Rays team, as they consistently are among the top ranked pitching teams in the American League. Beyond David Price, the Rays had a trio of young pitchers, establish themselves as legitimate top of the rotation pitchers in 2013. Twenty-four year old Chris Archer, 24 year old Matt Moore, and 25 year old Alex Cobb, all had breakout seasons for the Rays in 2013. They expect more of the same success going into next season, because a closer look at their peripheral numbers, suggest that everything they accomplished, is sustainable long-term.
Baseball Reference shows that Chris Archer was able to strike out 7.1 batter per nine innings pitched, to go along with only 2.7 walks per nine innings pitched. He had only 0.90 ground balls put in play against him for every fly ball put in play against him, but his 1.12 walks plus hits per inning pitched, did not allow his ground ball ratio to hurt him. Archer possesses a great fastball, which is most notably complemented by a wipeout slider, and makes him a great asset to have on a team with championship aspirations. Overall, Archer posted a 9-7 record with a 3.22 earned runs average in 2013.
Matt Moore is another young pitcher, that was a top prospect in the Rays system, and had to meet high expectations after his call-up in late 2011. Baseball Reference shows that Moore was able to strike out 8.6 batters for every nine innings he pitched, to go along with 4.5 walks per nine innings pitched. While the walk rate is high, the strikeout rate allowed him to maintain effectiveness, because it did not allow base runners to advance very often. On balls put in play against Moore, only 0.70 of them were ground balls to every fly ball put in play against him. This did shorten his outings some, as not as many double plays were turned behind him, compared to a typical groundball pitcher. This was evident in his 1.28 walks plus hits per inning pitched. However, as a young pitcher, this will be something that he looks to improve on, so that he can go deeper into ballgames in 2014. Moore possesses a great fastball, which is complemented by a plus changeup and curveball. Overall, he went 17-4 with a 3.29 earned runs average in 2013, which makes him a great option for the middle of the rotation on a team with championship aspirations.
Alex Cobb showed a veteran like presence on the mound, during his breakout season in 2013. At 25 years old, Baseball Reference shows that he was able to post an impressive 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, to go along with an impressive 2.8 walks per nine innings pitched. Alex Cobb had a better groundball rate than his two younger teammates on the pitching staff, and it was evident in his final numbers. On balls put in play against Cobb in 2013, there were 1.35 ground balls for every fly ball put in play against him. His walks plus hits per inning pitched was also an impressive 1.15. As a result of these impressive peripheral numbers, Cobb was able to go deep into games, and overall he posted an 11-3 record with a 2.76 earned runs average. Cobb, like Archer, makes a great option for the top of the rotation on a team with championship aspirations.
Tampa Bay expects to once again have a great group of relief pitchers, who hold the lead when given the opportunity, and give their team a chance when trailing or in a tie ballgame. Closer Grant Balfour and setup man Heath Bell have a lot of experience in pennant races, and have done an excellent job of protecting leads throughout their careers. Hard throwing relievers Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, expect to get a lot of chances in the 7th inning or later. Both were solid last year, and have high expectations put on them again for this season. Overall, everyone on the Rays 25 man roster has gained valuable experience in past pennant races, and they are now primed to make a run deep into the postseason in 2014.