Our team-by-team preview of the 2012 MLB season from a fantasy perspective continues today with the Tampa Bay Rays. If you've just jumped on with our series or need a reminder, we are spending a day with each major league team, looking at 9 different fantasy angles for each franchise while also paying homage to the things we watch for as real life fans. The hope is that through this exercise we might all come to a greater understanding of the various environments that contain the players we spend so much time obsessing over. Fantasy baseball would be a lot easier if these guys played in a vacuum, but since they don't, it's a good idea to learn as much as we can about the circumstances that affect their play.
Make sure you check out Kenneth Arthur's spotlight on various Rays players, scheduled to post later today. Our series will continue tomorrow with the Toronto Blue Jays.
2011 in Review & 2012 Outlook
The Rays got off to a terrible start in 2011. Evan Longoria was placed on the disabled list prior to the third game of the season. On April 8, newly acquired Manny Ramirez revealed that he had tested positive for a banned substance and was retiring to avoid serving a 100-game suspension. That morning, the Rays were 0-6 and already 5 games back of first place. They were able to right the ship, however, and by the end of the month, they were over .500 and would never look back. They would continue to play hot and cold, taking first place for 9 straight days in May and falling 11 games back in August. Eventually, they would clinch the wild card in the 12th inning of Game 162 on a walk-off Longoria home run...and then they got beat by in the ALDS by the Texas Rangers for the second year in a row.
Tampa Bay will enter the 2012 season with much of its team intact, with highly touted prospect and ALDS Game One hero Matt Moore arguably the biggest addition to the roster. Even in the crowded AL East, the Rays are in a position where they expect to make the playoffs every year (an extra wild card spot certainly helps). Could this be the year they overcome their struggles in the 5-game ALDS?
The Rays have the misfortune of playing in the only fully domed stadium left in the majors and the worst ballpark ever constructed (slight hyperbole). Tropicana Field yields less runs, home runs, and extra base hits than the average park, which of course means that it favors pitchers. It is worth noting, however, that Tropicana actually ranks above average (3rd highest in the league) when sorting by HR/OFFB, meaning that a extreme fly ball pitcher is still at somewhat of a disadvantage.
Manager & Coaching Staff
According to Baseball Prospectus 2012, Joe Maddon's Rays produce more outs in the field as a result of proactive defensive positioning than any other team by far, which is of course helpful to his pitching staff. He's a popular "players' manager," and I think it's generally accepted that if anybody can help a team bounce back from consecutive early playoff exits, it's Maddon.
Expected Position Battles
Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann will battle for the 5th starter spot, with Alex Cobb in the mix as well. The older Niemann is the best bet to produce fantasy friendly statistics in 2012, but don't be surprised if Cobb is given every chance to win the job.
Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez are expected to compete for the starting shortstop position, and Jeff Keppinger has been brought in as an NRI as well. None of these guys hold much value for mixed leaguers (at least Rodriguez can offer a little speed), but in an especially deep or AL-only league, where shortstop is very thin, plate appearances at the position can have their own sort of value.
Projected Lineup & Rotation
Desmond Jennings - LF
B.J. Upton - CF
Evan Longoria - 3B
Carlos Pena - 1B
Ben Zobrist - 2B
Matt Joyce - RF
Luke Scott - DH
Rodriguez/Brignac - SS
Jose Molina - C
Jennings hit leadoff down the stretch in 2011 while the Rays were fighting for a playoff spot, which tells me that Maddon has confidence in his young outfielder to handle the job year-round.
David Price | James Shields | Jeremy Hellickson | Matt Moore | Niemann/Cobb/Davis
This is certainly one of the better rotations in the league, even with the uncertainty at the end. Hellickson is a regression candidate and Moore could struggle to live up to the expectations that come with being a top 3 prospect in the league, but you could do worse than these four. They play in a good ballpark for pitching, they receive tons of run support, their defense is always position well, and Jose Molina is considered one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Tampa is a good team to pitch for.
The entire bullpen is stocked with high strikeout arms, starting with closer Kyle Farnsworth (more on him below). Joel Peralta might be considered the closer in waiting if he wasn't so old, but as it is, he'll provide top shelf production in three categories. Jake McGee is another intriguing name to watch, though he isn't bankable at this point.
Potential Fantasy Sleeper
My definition of sleeper and yours may vary. I use the term to refer to a player who may be undervalued, no matter his current or expected draft position.
Even in his age 34 season, Kyle Farnsworth still managed to average almost 95 on his fastball and maintain a 7.96 K/9. You shouldn't expect a repeat of the ERA (2.18) or the WHIP (0.99), but Farnsworth's reputation as a journeyman reliever can cloud the judgment of the fantasy player. There's no reason a closer with decent stats on a contending team should be drafted 27th among RPs, but here we are.
Spring Storylines to Watch
The Rays have a surplus of starting pitching and a lack of catching depth, so how's this for wild speculation: Jeff Niemann to a fringe contender for a solid young catcher who can contribute as a backup under the tutelage of Jose Molina.
Follow the Team
MLB.com beat reporter: Bill Chastain (Blog | Twitter)
Tampa Bay Times beat reporter: Marc Topkin (Blog | Twitter)
Tampa Bay Times beat reporter: Joe Smith (Blog | Twitter)
Tampa Tribune beat reporter: Roger Mooney (Blog | Twitter)
SBN: DRaysBay (Blog | Twitter)
Know of any other sites or Twitter accounts that deserve a mention? Let me know in the comments.