2. Tampa Bay Rays
2012: 90-72, 3d place, 5 games back
2013 projection: 90-72, 2d place, 3 games back, wild card berth
Do the additions and subtractions balance? After making the postseason in 2010 and 2011, the Rays finished out of the money in the AL postseason race last season. The Rays’ Achilles’ heel in 2012 was their inability to score runs and win close games. With No. 2 starter James Shields shipped off to Kansas City for the promise of slugging outfielder Wil Myers, the young starters will have to slide up a spot and try to replace the consistency that Shields provided the Rays for the past seven seasons.
What’s changed? The Rays shipped veteran righty James Shields and pitcher Wade Davis to Kansas City in order to get highly touted outfielder Wil Myers. The 22-year-old batted .314 in the minors last season with 37 home runs, including 22 in Triple-A. Desmond Jennings, who batted .246 last season, will move from left to center field with Myers on board.
The Rays also acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Marlins. Escobar batted .253 with nine home runs and 51 RBIs in a career-high 145 games. The Rays should now have some stability at the position after using Elliot Johnson, Ben Zobrist, and Sean Rodriguez at short in 2012.
First baseman Carlos Peña, who batted only .197 last season, is taking his talents to Houston to be the Astros’ DH while light-hitting James Loney, who had a cup of the coffee with the Red Sox after the trade heard ‘round the world, joins the Rays to play first base.
Infielder Jeff Keppinger, who hit .325 for the Rays last season, signed a 3-year deal to play for the White Sox.
The Rays also have to replace B.J. Upton’s 28 home runs and 78 RBIs as the Braves signed the free-agent outfielder to a $75 million contract in the offseason.
What’s stayed the same? Tampa Bay again will look to Evan Longoria to be the big power bat in the lineup. The All-Star third baseman signed a $100 million contract extension in the offseason, but played in only 74 games last season because of a partially torn left hamstring. He still managed to hit 17 homers and drive in 55.
Ben Zobrist, 20 homers and 74 RBIs last season, returns at second base and is expected to bat ahead of Longoria in the third spot and outfielder Matt Joyce, who batted .241 with 17 homers and 59 RBIs, will hit behind Longoria.
Ryan Roberts, who hit .235 between Arizona and Tampa Bay in 2012, moves over to DH as Luke Scott, no friend to Red Sox fans, is gone.
Veteran Jose Molina, 37, is back behind the plate.
Even with No. 2 starter Shields gone, the Rays are expected to have plenty of quality pitching depth.
Reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price, 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA and 205 strikeouts, is back to lead a staff that was ranked the best in the majors last season with a combined 3.34 ERA.
25-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 Rookie of the Year, chipped in with 177 innings, a 10-11 record, and 3.10 ERA last season.
Matt Moore, the 23-year-old lefty with the big upside, went 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA in his first full season and finished 2012 strong.
Former first-round draft choice Jeff Niemann, 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA in eight starts, and 25-year-old righty Alex Cobb, 11-9 with a 4.03 ERA, are expected to round out the rotation with help from Chris Archer, the Rays’ No. 2 prospect, who made his major league debut last season.
Fernando Rodney, who closed 48 games and finished with a 0.60 ERA last season, will close again with help from Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Cesar Ramos.
Can the young arms now leading the Rays pitching staff excel without Shields? Can Longoria stay on the field and put up the big power numbers for six months? Those are the big questions the Sons of Joe Maddon must answer. All eyes will also be on Myers and how much impact his bat brings to the middle of a lineup that has struggled to score runs when it needed them. If the pitching holds up and if the Rays, who finished 12th in the AL in runs scored last season, can find a way to score, don’t be surprised if they are knocking on the door to the playoffs yet again. The prediction here is second place in the AL East and another trip to the postseason as one of the wild-card representatives in the American League.