The staff writers of this fine site participated in our annual MLB Predictions last week. One of our friends on Twitter and the proprietor of the fine Left Field blog called Jonathan Mitchell and me, “homers.” In other words, he was joking that our picks were based on our affiliations to our favorite teams. This really hurt my feelings (not). I am a respected journalist, after all (cough). Now, while Jonathan’s picks might have been biased, mine were certainly based on objective considerations. After all, I did pick the Red Sox to win the AL East last year over “my” team. Jonathan jumped on this Twitter friend’s tweet and said that I don’t believe in the Tampa Bay Rays like I was stupid or something. Of course I am exaggerating…sort of. The bottom line is that I do not believe in the Tampa Bay Rays for the 2012 season. And that conclusion is all unbiased and stuff. Let me explain.
It is difficult to pick against any team managed by Joe Maddon. I have more respect for Maddon as a manager than any other manager in baseball. The guy is outright brilliant when it comes to building a cohesive team and getting the most out of it. I sometime question his lineup choices and his anathema to keeping players at one position for more than one game at a time, but there is no question the guy is the best there is. And Maddon is backed by one of the best front offices in baseball. These opinions are not just mine, but are shared by many who observe baseball for any length of time.
But Maddon and the front office will always be hamstrung by the fact there simply isn’t enough money to fill all the holes all of the time. They are the budgetary Davids to the New York and Boston Goliaths. Despite these restraints, the Rays have managed some well-aimed slingshots and have made it to one World Series and last year came within a whisker of getting there again. So how can I pick against them? I can because those budgetary restraints kept them out of the playoffs in 2009 and can do so again in 2012. It takes time to pull back the strap of that slingshot while everyone else is shooting machine guns at you.
Those that predict success for the Bay Rays (my affectionate name for them), do so based on their vaunted rotation. “Vaunted” is one of those cliche words, is it not? And if memory serves me correctly, the Red Sox had a “vaunted” rotation heading into the 2011 season and so did the Giants. Both finished outside the playoffs. A lot can happen to a pitching staff along the way. Yes, on paper, the Bay Rays rotation looks pretty darned impressive. The addition of Matt Moore now that he is done quarterbacking the Miami Dolphins only makes them look better. What? That’s a different Matt Moore? Oh. Okay. Anyway, Moore is one of the most promising pitchers to come along in quite some time. And he could be as good as advertised. But what of the rest of the rotation?
Let’s start with James Shields. Shields was brilliant in 2011. He completed eleven of his starts including four shutouts. This was apparently after being told something by mad genius, Joe Maddon, which we are told, turned him around from a tentative pitcher to an animal. Just two years ago, Shields seemed like a batting practice pitcher. So who is the real James Shields? The one from two years ago, or last year’s? Wouldn’t it be realistic to believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle of those two? His .258 BABIP is somewhat explained by the wonderful defense behind him. But even so, regression to the mean has to be expected. He still has a tendency to give up the long ball. Shields will be better than 2010, but there is no way he is as good as he was in 2011.
David Price confuses me. His peripherals were almost identical in 2011 as they were in 2010. But his ERA was higher, his win-loss record suffered and his home runs per fly ball rose slightly. He’s been knocked around a bit in Spring Training so far. Everything says that he’s just as dominating as he has always been but he just doesn’t look it. The thought here is that he has a successful season and retains his rank as one of the best starters of the American League.
The rest of the rotation isn’t a lock for me. Jeff Niemann is a behemoth of a guy who has trouble maintaining his mechanics and his health. He always seems on the edge of greatness and disaster in equal measures. And despite my, It’s About the Money, Stupid colleague’s opinion that Jeremy Hellickson can succeed despite low BABIP and low strikeout rates, I’m not buying it. The other candidate, Wade Davis, has fallen and can’t seem to get up.
So overall, this rotation, at least in these eyes, isn’t the mortal lock others give them credit for. And they are backed by a bullpen that seems challenged at best. Fernando Rodney? Kyle Farnsworth? Please, forgive me my lack of enthusiasm there.
Most of my lack of enthusiasm for the Bay Rays’ chances come from looking at their offense. These guys are the opposite of the Rockies. Their home ballpark is a problem for them, especially their right-handed batters. Evan Longoria is a star, but he had a difficult season a year ago. And much of that problem came from his home park. Plus, he has trouble these days staying in the lineup due injuries. Even so, you have to predict a bounce back season for him. But bringing back Carlos Pena seems suspect to me. AL East competitors neutralized him in his final years in St. Pete by throwing left-handers at him. Pena still has power and on-base skills. But the move smacked a bit of desperation.
Ben Zobrist has had two fantastic seasons and one so-so season. It seems reasonable to expect him to have another good season. B.J. Upton finished strong in 2011 but remains an enigma in the lineup. The Bay Rays remain weak offensively behind the plate, at shortstop and at second base. Matt Joyce is an up and coming star as is Desmond Jennings. But overall, this is the weakest offense in the AL East outside of the Orioles.
You can never count the Tampa Bay Rays out as long as Joe Maddon sits in that dugout. The team rarely beats itself and always plays wonderful defense. They consistently get the most out of their talent and as last year proved, you can never take your eyes off of them. But when thoughtfully considering this team compared to the competition in the AL East, they just do not seem to have enough rocks in their slingshot.