The Rays are a contender. On paper they have the best starting staff in the AL East (although Toronto hopes to dispute that). Offensively however they are no sure thing. After Evan Longoria and maybe Ben Zobrist, no one in their lineup is a lock to put up any positive enough numbers that you can rely on. Plenty of the position players have upside, but many are intrinsically flawed. That means that Tampa players outside the pitchers are going to be a bit hit and miss. Hopefully we can help you decode what’s in store.
Here are 10 to watch in 2013. Even Longoria (3B): The offensive gem of the Rays is a guy plenty of people expect to have a breakout season one of these years. But it hasn’t really happened yet. He’s had good seasons, and even one that was borderline great, but he hasn’t shown that he can stay healthy or productive enough to ever be that elite player. At age 28 this is the time to gamble that he’ll finally put it all together, but only if you can get him at a second- to third-tier price. Don’t pay for elite because he hasn’t shown it yet. Ben Zobrist (2B/SS/OF): Perhaps the best thing about Zobrist aside from his dependability is his multiple position eligibility which includes both middle infield slots. He’ll likely qualify as a top ten player at both of those positions, but he’s clearly most valuable as a second baseman due to the paucity of talent which might make him even rank a top 5. He’s not going to come cheap because none of that is a secret at this point, and that could easily inflate his price past the point of their being any profit in rostering him.
Desmond Jennings (OF): After the above two, Jennings is clearly the next most valuable Ray from an offensive standpoint. Although he failed to live up to the hype of being Carl Crawford 2.0, Jennings had a very respectable follow up to his rookie campaign posting an 85-13-37-31-.246 stat line. His upside at this point is hard to judge -- we may well have seen all there is to see here -- but he’s entering his prime age 27 season and even a moderate uptick could make him a lot more valuable.
Kelly Johnson (2B): It has been a long, hard fall from grace for someone who was once considered to be an elite fantasy choice at second. He still has plenty of power, but after batting less than .230 in the last two seasons and in three of the last five, there is plenty reason to be concerned. There is hope for a rebound, but at age 31, there is plenty of downside too. He’s the epitome of a high risk high reward guy: .250-20 is the upside, .200 and the bench is the down.
Matt Joyce (OF): If your league is deep enough that you are platooning, then Joyce has a fair bit of value. Against lefties he’s pretty much hapless, struggling to maintain a Mendoza-line type average, but against righties he’s managed to hit about .270 with a fair bit of power. If he can get 400 ABs he’s capable of hitting 20 home runs, and the Rays anemic offense otherwise pretty much assures he’ll get good RBI chances -- and I’m thinking career high, but don’t get too excited, his career high is just 75.
Luke Scott (DH): Scott might well find himself in the mix for some field time and could at some time even find himself qualifying as an outfielder or even first base. Sadly he’s similar offensively to Matt Joyce above, except with even less speed. His flailing when facing lefties almost certainly means he won’t see 450 ABs. James Loney (1B): Another Ray who struggles against lefties is the underachieving Loney. He’s never taken the step forward that so many anticipated; 15-.280 is probably the upside here. That makes him waiver wire fodder in shallow leagues and a $1 gamble in the late rounds in deeper ones. That said he’s still in his prime offensive years, but that window is rapidly shrinking. Matt Moore (SP): There is no reason for me to waste words promoting last year’s AL Cy Young winner David Price, but his understudy Matt Moore had a very respectable rookie season. His 3.81 ERA and 1.35 WHIP will scare away many potential bidders, but he might be the best young lefty in the game. He’ll have plenty of bad moments, be subject to pitch counts and have streaks of wildness, but he’s more than capable of taking a significant step forward. Jeremy Hellickson (SP): Hellickson had a fine season last year despite managing just 10 wins for the underachieving Rays. Still his 3.10 ERA and 1.25 WHIP are very attractive. That said, his ERA was significantly better than his xERA. That can be laid at the doorstep of an increase in ground balls generated and a slight increase in K/9. If he can do this consistently there is plenty of upside, but was that GB spike the start of a trend or an anomaly? So a step forward or a step back are almost equally likely.
Jeff Neimann (SP): While I thought about rounding off this 10 to watch with SP Alex Cobb or CL Joel Peralta, I tend to think that Neimann has the most upside to offer for this upcoming season. That said, he has to stay healthy enough to actually do it, as he’s managed to throw just 173 innings over the past two seasons. Still those innings showed a big improvement each time. He’s got big time strikeout potential, doesn’t walk many and has been inducing more and more groundballs. That’s a recipe for long term success if he can keep it up.