11 or Nothing
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After winning the AL East in 2010 and 2008, the Rays' run atop the AL East appears to be coming to a close after losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Rafael Soriano among others, to free agency. Will this new group of Rays be able to shock the world and bring down the Yankees and Red Sox to win the AL East crown?

Catcher:

John Jaso is not your average big league catcher. Although the Rays don't run a Moneyball scheme, Jaso is the perfect Moneyball catcher. The 27 year old hit .263 in '10 with 18 doubles, 5 homers, and 44 RBI in 109 games. Defensively, Jaso was league-average at best, posting a .992 Fld%, just a 23% CS%, and 7 passed balls, the third most in the AL. (He did have an 8.02 RF/9 [range factor per 9 innings], second in the AL.) So what made Jaso a good player for the Rays? His .372 OBP. Even at Triple-A, Jaso hit .271 with 10 homers in 138 games, but he had a .356 OBP. Will we see any signs of improvement from Jaso in 2011? If so, only subtle signs. Jaso had a .282 BAbip (batting average on balls in play) in '10 compared to the league average of .297. He had a 19% LD% (line drive percentage among balls in play), which was exactly the league average, so you could think that maybe if that causes his BAbip to even out, he could hit .275. But, while his LD% was average, his hit way too many ground balls, posting a 46 GB% (ground ball percentage among balls in play). He also posted a 15% IF/FB (percentage of fly balls on the infield [i.e. popups] among balls in play) compared to the league average of 13%. His .282 BAbip was right around where it should have been. In terms of hitting homers, Jason had just a 3.5% HR/FB (percentage of balls hit to the outfield that go for homers) compared to the league average of 7.8%, so you would think that he could hit as many as 15 homers in 2011 if he gets sufficient at-bats. But, that's simply not the case. Jaso just isn't a power hitter. He sacrifices power for contact. Jaso's 74% IP% (percentage of plate appearances that end with a ball in play) compared well to the league average of 69%, but he sacrificed power for contact. Not only did he have just a 3.5% HR/FB, but also he had just a 6.4% XBH% (percentage of plate appearances ending in an extra-base hit), and a 29% X/H% (percentage of extra base hits among the total amount of hits) compared to the league averages of 7.8% and 33% respectively. He's just a contact hitter with no power. Jaso would be lucky to hit 10 homers in 2011. Jaso doesn't strike out at all (9.7% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 18.0%), and he walks a ton (14.6% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 8.7%), but that's all he'll ever be. He's an on-base guy. It's nice to have a player like Jaso, but he's the kind of player that will probably never be an All-Star. Purely because of his OBP, John Jaso is a pretty good player for the Rays.

Jaso will be backed up by Kelly Shoppach. At his best, you could argue that Shoppach is better than Jaso. In 2008, Shoppach hit .261 with 27 doubles, 21 homers, 55 RBI, and a .348 OBP in 112 games for the Cleveland Indians. But, that was not the case in 2011. Shoppach, who will turn 31 on April 29th, hit just .196 in '10 with 8 doubles, 5 homers (as many as Jaso!), 17 RBI, and a .308 OBP in 63 games. He missed from mid-April to early June because of a knee surgery that really derailed his season. Shoppach had a career low 12% LD% (somehow he had a .313 BAbip) along with just a 44% IP%, but I'm hoping we can blame those problems on the knee injury. Defensively, Shoppach actually posted a .994 Fld% (7.63 RF/9) and allowed just 2 passed balls, but he posted just a 17% CS%. Shoppach's upside at this point in his career is somewhere close to his spring training numbers. He hit just .238, but he hit 7 homers and drove in 22 RBI in 17 games. He could provide great power as a backup catcher whenever he has an opportunity to make a start, and he could be a pinch-hitter late in games. At worst, he's an awful backup catcher who's a bad hitter and a worse fielder who would be immediately be cut and replaced by a younger backup. The most likely scenario lies somewhere in the middle. Kelly Shoppach should provide good depth behind John Jaso in 2011.

First base:

It's finally Dan Johnson's time to shine. Johnson, who turned 31 this past August, came up with the Oakland A's and had a good rookie season in 2005, hitting .275 with 21 doubles, 15 homers, 58 RBI, and a .355 OBP in 109 games. But after hitting .234 in '06 and .236 in '07, Johnson was supplanted at first base by Daric Barton, and he ended up being put on waivers and being claimed by the Rays. After spending nearly all of 2008 at Tampa's Triple-A Durham and spending '09 in Japan, Johnson returned to America in 2010, and after hitting .303 with 30 homers and 95 RBI at Durham, he was given another chance in the big leagues. Johnson hit just .198 in 40 games, but he hit 7 homers, including 5 against the Yankees and Red Sox, drove in 23 RBI, and posted a .343 OBP. How will Johnson do with an opportunity for a starting job in 2011? Throughout his career, Johnson has been very unlucky. Johnson has just a .243 career BA, but that's because of just a .250 career BAbip despite a 19% career LD%. When that evens out, Johnson should certainly hit .275 again. In terms of hitting homers, you know that Johnson is a power hitter, and accordingly he owns an above-average 9.9% career HR/FB. He should certainly hit 20 homers in 2011. Johnson probably won't be a great player for the Rays in 2011, but he should be solid. Defensively, Johnson is an average first baseman, owning a .995 Fld% with average range (9.53 RF/9 compared to the league average of 9.49). Johnson will be backed up by starting right fielder Ben Zobrist and starting second baseman Sean Rodriguez. Finally given a second chance, Dan Johnson should be a good player for the Rays in 2011.

Second base:

Sean Rodriguez, who will turn 26 on April 26th, had a nice first full season in the majors in 2010 (it was not his rookie season), hitting .251 with 19 doubles, 9 homers, 40 RBI, 13 stolen bases (3 CS), and a .308 OBP in 118 games. Like Zobrist and Elliot Johnson, Rodriguez plays everywhere, but at his primary position, second base, Rodriguez posted a league average .984 Fld% with average range (4.78 RF/9 compared to the league average of 4.80). Rodriguez posted an 1.000 Fld% at first base, shortstop, third base, left field, centerfield, and right field, including above-average range at the corner positions. We know what Rodriguez is defensively, but can he improve offensively in 2011? At first glance, you might have to be fearful of a worse year for Rodriguez in 2011. He managed a .324 BAbip despite just a 17% LD%. But, you have to realize how big a factor speed is in BAbip. A faster runner who consistently makes contact can reach base more than the average player because of infield hits and bunt hits. Rodriguez had 14 infield hits and 7 bunt hits. Removing his infield hits and bunt hits from the BAbip equation, Rodriguez had a .300 BAbip. Rodriguez should not be in danger to hit below .250 in 2011. In terms of Rodriguez's 9 homers, he had a 7.6% HR/FB that was right around the league average. But, Rodriguez hit 29 or more homers twice in the minors, so he certainly has above-average pop. While Tropicana Field might negate a bit of Rodriguez's power, expect his HR/FB to go up in 2011 and for him to hit a few more homers. Also, keep in mind that Rodriguez received just 378 plate appearances in 2011. I would not be surprised if Rodriguez hits .265 in '11 with 15 homers, 75 RBI, 20 stolen bases, and a .320 OBP if he receives regular playing time. Sean Rodriguez might not be a great player, but he's certainly a very productive player for the Rays, and he'll be even better in 2011.

Rodriguez will be backed up by Zobrist and Elliot Johnson. Johnson, a 27 year old utility player, had his best overall season in the minors in 2011, hitting .319 with 24 doubles, 11 homers, 56 RBI, 5 triples, 72 runs, 30 stolen bases (6 CS), and a .375 OBP in 109 games. He played second base, shortstop, right field, and left field. He played a very good second base, posting a .987 Fld% with a 4.81 RF/G. (There are no minor league records for innings played by a fielder, so there's no RF/9 I can state. The AL average for RF/G was 4.75 in '10.) Johnson had an unbelievable spring, hitting .341 with 1 homer, 5 RBI, and a .449 OBP. Oh yeah, and 12 stolen bases, easily the most on the team, without being caught a single time. Johnson seems like he can be a decent hitting and fielding backup that could certainly steal some bases when he gets on. He'll also be used as a pinch-runner. Johnson could be the next good utility player the Rays have in the mold of Ben Zobrist. He'll be a good backup. The Rays have good depth at second base.

Third base:

It's always nice to have one of the best players in the majors on both sides of the ball on your team. The Rays look like complete geniuses for signing Evan Longoria to a contract extension even before he made it to the big leagues (it was announced after he came up). Longoria, now 25, had another great season in 2011, hitting .294 with 46 doubles, 22 homers, 104 RBI, 5 triples, 96 runs, 15 stolen bases (5 CS), and a .372 OBP in 151 games. The .294 BA, 46 doubles, 5 triples, 15 stolen bases, and .372 OBP were all career-highs. However, the 22 homers was a career-low. What happened? Well, in order to understand that, let's start with his BAbip. Longoria had a career-high .336 BAbip despite a career-low 20% LD% Why was that? Longoria set a career-high with 16 infield hits. It's not like Longoria became faster, so it must have been that Longoria had more opportunities to beat out grounders. Why was that? Well, everyone first guess must be that he hit more ground balls than ever before. Yet according to Fangraphs, Longoria hit more ground balls in 2009 than in 2010. His 37% GB% in 2010 was actually the lowest of his career. Since that first guess was wrong, I would like to propose a different solution: .that Longoria was more ready to beat out ground balls than before. What I mean is that with 2 strikes, Longoria started looking more for contact rather than trying for contact, but still waiting for a pitch he could drive. Longoria hit a career-low .186 with 2 strikes in '10 with 8 homers. In 2009, Longoria hit .214 with 14 homers in two strikes. He also had just a .289 BAbip with 2 strikes in '10 compared to .333 in '09. Longoria actually had the lowest IFH% (infield hit percentage among ground balls) of his career, according to Fangraphs. So what happened? Well, according to Fangraphs, Longoria only had 12 infield hits in '10. But I told you above that he had 16! Well, that was according to Baseball-Reference. Why is there the discrepancy? Well, line drives can also remain on the infield. Maybe Longoria wasn't quite ready for a few pitches he should have slammed, and rather than hitting those pitches to the outfield as line drives, he hit soft liners to the infield. Four of them had to end up as singles. Longoria sacrificed some power for some additional contact. He had a career-high 66% IP% in '10 compared to 62% in '09 (it was only a 4% increase because the trends that I'm talking about were with two strikes), and a 78% contact percentage (percentage of swings in which he made contact) in '10 compared to 75% in '09. This increase in contact came along with a decrease in power. Longoria's 8.5% HR/FB was easily the lowest of his career, compared to 15.2% in '08 and 12.8% in '09. Longoria's HR/FB is somewhat diluted by some of the weak fly balls he hit because he was just trying to make contact with two strikes. So what can we expect from Longoria is 2011? I would expect an adjustment from Longoria with two strikes in '10 and while his BA might go down a few points, he'll certainly hit 30 home runs. Defensively, Longoria won his second straight Gold Glove, posting a .966 Fld% compared to the league average of .956 and a 2.74 RF/9 compared to the league average of 2.67. Longoria will be backed up by Ben Zobrist, Dan Johnson, Elliot Johnson, and Sean Rodriguez. Evan Longoria had a great season for the Rays in 2010, but expect him to be even better in 2011 as he makes an adjustment to his two-strike approach.

However, Longoria will miss at least the first couple weeks of the season with an oblique injury. That could certainly limit his stats and possibly his production when he returns. You have to hope that Longoria will be OK when he comes off the DL, but we can't know for sure.

While Longoria is hurt, Felipe Lopez will have a big league job. Lopez hit just .233 between the Cardinals and Red Sox in '10, one year after hitting .310, with 18 doubles, 8 homers, 37 RBI, 8 stolen bases, and a .311 OBP in 113 games. Lopez's BAbip fell from .358 to .273 from '09 to '10 due to a decrease in LD% from 22% to 19%. Also, his FB% shot up from 26% and 34%, and since Lopez isn't a power hitter (5.8% career HR/FB, 5.6% in '10), that was a huge problem for him. In addition, Lopez struck out in 18.4% of his plate appearances in 2010 compared to just 14.7% in '09. Lopez had an awful season in 2011 without being lucky, and at age 31 there was no guarantee that he was going to rebound, so he only received a minor league deal from the Rays. (Elliot Johnson beat him out for a roster spot before the Longoria injury). Defensively at third base, Lopez posted just a .920 Fld% with a 2.37 RF/9 in 60 games, and just a .970 Fld% at shortstop with a 3.59 RF/9 compared to the league average of 4.31 in 25 games. But, he did post a perfect 1.000 Fld% at second base with a 5.16 RF/9 in 25 games, and he was also perfect in 2 games at first base. In 1 game each in right field and at pitcher, he received no fielding chances. Speaking of the pitching performance, he actually pitched a scoreless inning against the Mets in a 20 game on 4/17/10, but unfortunately for Lopez, the lineups in the American League are a lot harder. Lopez should be a decent backup as long as he's on the big league roster.

Shortstop:

Reid Brignac had an opportunity in 2010, and he took advantage. The 25 year old middle infielder received playing time with Jason Bartlett struggling, and he certainly played just as well as Bartlett if not better, hitting .256 with 13 doubles, 8 homers, 45 RBI, and a .307 OBP in 113 games. Brignac actually had a .317 BAbip, primarily because of a 23% LD%, but his BA was still around .250 because he strikes out a lot for a hitter with average power (23.6% of his plate appearances). Speaking of his power, he had a below-average 6.7% HR/FB, but there was a clear reason for that. He hit 8 homers against righties compared to none against lefties. Brignac, a lefty batter, hit just .227 against lefties in '10. He could lose some starts against lefties. Defensively, Brignac was pretty significantly below-average defensively at second base, posting a .976 Fld% and a 4.76 RF/9, but he while his .976 Fld% was above-average, although his 4.33 RF/9 was a bit below the league average of 4.40. But, it was a small sample size as he played in just 50 games at the position, so maybe he'll be better in 2011. Still, Brignac is a decent player overall for the Rays. He'll be backed up by Zobrist, Elliot Johnson, and Sean Rodriguez. Reid Brignac might be as good of a player as Jason Bartlett, but apparently that isn't saying very much.

Left field:

Johnny Damon is still around even at age 37, but coming off his worst season in the big leagues, the Rays were able to sign him for a bit of a reduced price, 5.25 million dollars on a 1-year contract. Damon hit .271 with the Tigers in '10, with 36 doubles, 8 homers, 51 RBI, 5 triples, 81 runs, 11 stolen bases, and a .355 OBP in 145 games. Damon had a .312 BAbip in '10 thanks to a 21% LD%, and he took full advantage with a 72% IP%. So how did he hit just .271? In 2009, he hit .282 with a .305 BAbip! The difference was home runs. Damon's BA was higher in 2010 because he hit 24 home runs. In 2010, he hit just 8, and although he had a lower strikeout rate, it counted more because he had less at-bats (11 less to be exact). How will Damon do offensively in 2011? Well, he's bound to hit a few more homers moving from Comerica to Tropicana, and maybe he could hit .280. He certainly won't be the great player he used to be, but he'll still be a pretty good player. Defensively, Damon DH'd 98 times, and rightfully so because he was awful defensively, posting just a .964 Fld% compared to the league average of .984, and a 1.99 RF/9 compared to the league average of 2.07. At this point of his career, Damon is just a pretty good player for the Rays.

Damon will be backed up by Sam Fuld in addition to all the utility players. Fuld, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, hit .299 in 63 games as a backup for the Cubs in 2009, but spent almost all of 2010 at Triple-A Iowa, hitting .272 with 15 doubles, 4 homers, 27 RBI, 9 triples, 21 stolen bases, and a .383 OBP in 112 games. Defensively, Fuld was outstanding posting a .996 Fld% with a 2.58 RF/G that was just above the NL average of 2.58 for centerfielders. At age 29, Fuld isn't really a prospect anymore, but he profiles well as a backup outfielder. He should be fine in his first full season as a backup.

Centerfield:

B.J. Upton never became THAT player. Upton had the potential to be a great 5-tool player, but that just didn't happen. In 2010, Upton, now 27, hit .237 (no average tool), 38 doubles, 18 homers, 62 RBI (just decent power), 89 runs, 42 stolen bases (fine, he's fast), but 9 CS, and just a .322 OBP in 154 games. Defensively, Upton posted a .988 Fld% compared to the AL average of .990, although he did post a 2.77 RF/9 compared to the 2.73 average. He posted just 3 outfield assists. Will Upton ever show signs of being more than a base stealer with a little pop? Well, Upton had a .304 BAbip, but he owns a .334 career BAbip, so that's pretty low for him. He had a 19% LD% that was just below his career average of 20%, but he posted a 59% IP% that was his lowest since 2007. In terms of his 18 homers, Upton was actually lucky to hit that many, posting a 9.2% HR/FB compared to his career average of 7.9%. Upton is a pretty good player, but he'll never be more than a speedster. Upton will be backed up by Fuld and the utility players.  B.J. Upton is a pretty good player at best for the Rays.

Right field:

As you've seen throughout this post, Ben Zobrist plays everywhere, but his native position in 2011 will be right field. Zobrist, who will turn 30 on May 26th, certainly had a down year in '10 in comparison to his outstanding 2009 season, hitting just .238 with 28 doubles, 10 homers, 75 RBI, 77 runs, 24 stolen bases (3 CS), and .346 OBP in 151 games. In 2009, he hit .297 with 28 doubles, 27 homers, 91 RBI, 91 runs, 17 stolen bases (6 CS), and a .405 OBP in 152 games. If there was one stat to contrast the two seasons, it's slugging percentage. Zobrist's slugging percentage went into a free-fall from .543 to just .353. What the heck happened? Simply, his homers stopped coming. His HR/FB fell from 12.7% all the way down to 4.7%. To figure out why, we're going to have to look at everything. Zobrist had a .326 BAbip in 2009 compared to .273 in '10, causing the significant drop in BA along with the decrease in homers. The cause for the drop in BAbip was obviously his LD%. Zobrist managed an incredible 24% LD% in 2009, but that fell to just 18% in 2010, while his IF/FB went up from 9% to 13% and his GB% went up from 41.5% to 44.1%. Zobrist's IP% did go up from 62% to 67% and of course his stolen bases went up from 17 to 24, but obviously the decrease in homers and line drives ruined his season. Zobrist may not be a power hitter, but he has to make solid contact rather than just any contact. Zobrist is going to be the leadoff hitter for the Rays in '10. While a leadoff single to start off an inning is nice, an extra-base hit is even better. Zobrist needs to get back to that in 2011. Zobrist hit 4 homers in spring training and hit a homer off of Jim Johnson on Opening Day. He doesn't need to hit 30 homers, but he has to get back on track in terms of hitting the ball better. You have to think that with Crawford and Pena gone, Zobrist is going to step up and maybe not post his 2009 numbers, but certainly have a much better season that 2010. Defensively, Zobrist was perfect in 103 games in right field, posting a 2.26 RF/9 compared to the league average of 2.10, and he was also perfect at first base and in centerfield (with below average range). However, he was decent at best at second base, posting a .984 Fld% that was exactly the league average and a 4.61 RF/9 compared to the league average of 4.80. But, he did post an 11.5 UZR (ultimate zone rating), so he was certainly doing something right. Zobrist also played limited time at third best and left field, posting a .500 Fld% at third (1 error in 2 chances), and not even having a chance in left. He's not only a versatile fielder, but a good one as well. Ben Zobrist had an off-year in 2010, but expect him to come back strong in 2011 and be one of the Rays' offensive leaders.

Zobrist will be backed up by Matt Joyce, Sam Fuld, Elliot Johnson, and Sean Rodriguez. Joyce, 26, had a pretty good season as a backup for the Rays in 2010, hitting .241 with 15 doubles, 10 homers, 40 RBI, and a .360 OBP in 77 games. Joyce actually had a .273 BAbip despite a 19% LD%, but whatever evening out his BAbip will do will be canceled out by his strikeout rate (21.1% in '10), and that he doesn't put many balls in play anyway (59% IP% in '10). He did have a 10.8% HR/FB in '10, but that's expected from a hitter with his pop. Joyce posted a great 2.34 RF/9 in right field with 4 outfield assists, but he posted just a .972 Fld%. Maybe he could take advantage of his range more in 2011. If Joyce plays well, he'll take away some starts from Sean Rodriguez as Zobrist moves to second base. He'll also get some at-bats at DH. The Rays have some nice depth in right field for whenever Zobrist needs a day off or moves to another position.

Designated Hitter:

Manny Ramirez will turn 39 on May 30th, but his 1 year, 2 million dollar contract with the Rays will be a steal if he remains motivated. Not only was Manny unmotivated in 2010, but he also could not stay healthy, missing time with a nagging calf injury and a hamstring stain. When he did play, Manny did OK, hitting .298 with 16 doubles, 9 homers, 42 RBI, and a .409 OBP in 90 games between the Dodgers and White Sox. Manny did that in 320 plate appearances. Let's say Manny stays motivated and relatively healthy and makes 500 similar plate appearances. Projecting his 2010 stats over 500 plate appearances, Manny would hit 25 doubles and 14 homers while driving in 66 runs. That would be just decent production. But in '10, although Manny had a 23% LD% that was right around his career norms, he had just an 8.3% HR/FB, his lowest since 1993. He career HR/FB is 15.7%. Maybe Manny wasn't 'motivated' enough to hit home runs. Let's say his HR/FB returns to the 11.9% that it was in 2009. And of course, Manny also had a low XBH% by his standards (7.8%) and a low X/H% (32%) so let's say those go back up to Manny's 10.4% XBH% and 44% X/H% from 2010. And, let's assume that these additional extra base hits cause Manny to drive in more runs, and his AB per RBI ratio goes from the 6.3 it was in '10 to the 5.6 it was in '09. Now Manny hits 19 doubles, 20 homers, and assuming he walks in 18.5% of his plate appearances as he has so far in his career, 72 RBI. The Rays would certainly take that. The expectations can't be for Manny to have a ridiculous season, but if he's motivated Manny could certainly hit 20 homers and drive in 70 runs. Will Manny do that? I would doubt it, but Manny he could hit 17 homers and drive in 65 or something along those lines. As long as the Rays keep Manny motivated, he should be fine. In case you were wondering (which you shouldn't be), the reason Manny will be playing almost exclusively DH is because he's a completely liability defensively, considering he posted just a .959 Fld% in left field in '10 with a 1.75 RF/9. Manny will have some of his DH at-bats taken away by Johnny Damon and Matt Joyce. If the Rays can keep Manny Ramirez motivated, he should be a pretty good DH for them.

Starting rotation:

In 2010, Price finally became that dependable ace that he was supposed to be ever since he was the number 1 overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft. The 25 year old lefty went 19-6 in '10 with a 2.72 ERA, 188 K's, and just 79 walks in 31 starts, a relief appearance, and 208.2 IP. He allowed just 170 hits, a great 7.3 H/9 (hits per 9 innings ratio), and 15 homers, a 0.6 HR/9 (home runs per 9 innings ratio). Was 2010 just the beginning for Price, or should we expect a regression? Well seeing that Price allowed a .272 BAbip in '10, your first thought would be to have some amount of trepidation. But, Price should be fine in terms of hits allowed. In 2010, Price allowed an 18% LD, a 14% IF/FB and a 44% GB%. Maybe his BAbip will go up to around .280 in 2011, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem for Price. He also allowed a 66% IP%, so not that many balls were put in play against him anyway. But, Price did have a 79% LOB% (left on-base percentage- percentage of baserunners allowed that did not score; also known as strand rate) compared to the league average of 72%. LOB% is a lot of luck especially relating to homers. If you allow a walk than a homer, then you allow 2 runs, but if you allow a homer than a walk and than get out of the inning, you only allow 1. Price might also regress in terms of homers allowed in 2011. Price allowed a 1.2 HR/9 in 2009, but that was cut in half to 0.6 in 2010. But, the cause for that drop was a significant drop in HR/FB from 8.4% to 5.4%. Price will take a bit of a step back in 2011. As his H/9 goes up to say 7.7, his LOB% approaches 72%, and his HR/9 goes up to 0.9, his ERA should sneak to right around 3.00. That would still be a great year, but he won't finish second in the Cy Young award voting again in 2011. David Price is a great pitcher for the Rays, but his outstanding 2010 may have set expectations just a bit too high.

James Shields is coming off his worst season in the big leagues, yet he's still slotted as the Rays' number two starter. He better make the Rays confidence in him pay off. Shields, who turned 29 on December 20th, went just 13-15 in '10 with a 5.18 ERA, but 187 K's compared to just 51 walks in 33 starts, 1 relief appearance, a 203.1 IP. He had an outstanding 3.67 strikeout to walk ratio, but his problems were that he allowed 246 hits, a 10.9 H/9, and 34 homers, a 1.5 HR/9. The 246 hits and 34 homers allowed were the most in the AL, and he also led the AL in earned runs allowed with 117. Will Shields rebound in 2011? Well, Shields certainly didn't have an awful season with average luck. That theory seems easily supported because Shields allowed a .344 BAbip in '10. But, he did that while allowing a 22% LD% that was significantly above the league average, a below-average 10% IF/FB, and a 41% GB% that was right around the league average. His BAbip also hurt him more because he allowed a league-average 69% IP%. Shields' BAbip certainly wasn't that far off from what it should have been. Shields had an off-year from his .310 career BAbip, rather than .297 or less. Considering he set a career-high for LD% against him and a career-low for GB% against him and his IF/FB was his lowest since 2010, maybe it does make some amount of sense that he allowed a .344 BAbip. So did he have an awful season or is he just a bad pitcher? Shields is not a bad pitcher. He allowed a 10.0% HR/FB in '10 compared to his career average of 8.8% and a 68.4% LOB% compared to his career average of 71.3%. When everything evens out, Shields should allow less homers and strand more runners. But how will those stats even out? How do these ratios magically return to neutral? While there is some amount of luck in baseball, nearly all improvements are made by adjustments. If Shields worked hard with pitching coach Jim Hickey, he'll have a better season, and if not, he won't. But, knowing Shields, we know that he put the work in, and pending injury, he'll have a much better season in 2011. Will he be able to post the 3.56 ERA he put up in '08? That's doubtful, but the 4.14 ERA he posted in '09 is certainly within reach. (ZiPs has Shields posting a 4.38 ERA, and that might be a bit more likely than Shields than a 4.14 ERA.) James Shields isn't a great pitcher, but he's a motivated one. Expect a rebound in 2011.

Wade Davis received a 4 year, 12.6 million dollar contract extension following his rookie season. Not too shabby. The 25 year old right-hander went 12-10 in '10 with a 4.07 ERA, 113 K's, and 62 walks (a bit off a 2.0 K/BB) in 29 starts and 168 IP. He allowed 165 hits, an 8.8 H/9, and 24 homers, a bad 1.3 HR/9. Davis led all AL rookies in wins, and finished second in strikeouts, and he also led all qualifying AL rookies (162 IP minimum) in ERA. It was a good rookie season, but he will be able to be a good major league pitcher over the next 4 years? Well, it has to worry you at least a little bit that Davis posted a .274 BAbip in 2010. And despite that BAbip, Davis still allowed an 8.8 H/9! Davis' BAbip might not be that far off what it should be, considering he allowed just a 17% LD% and a 15% IF/FB. However, he allowed just a 39% GB%. Davis is an extreme fly ball pitcher (allowing a 44% FB% [fly ball percentage]), and he just allows a lot of hits. Making matters worse, Davis actually had a 78% LOB%. He wasn't unlucky to allow an 8.8 H/9, but he was lucky to strand the amount of baserunners he did. But at least he was unlucky in terms of homers allowed. He allowed an 8.7% HR/FB. But even when that evens out, he'll still probably allow a 1.0 HR/9! Bill James and Marcel have Davis posting an ERA's of 4.09 and 4.01 respectively, but I'll have to agree with ZiPs, who has Davis posting a 4.52 ERA. Unless he has an uncanny ability to strand runners on base, Davis is not a good enough pitcher to post a low-4.00's ERA. He allows too many hits and too many homers. FIP (fielding-independent pitching equivalent of ERA) is a stat that is calculates an ERA for pitchers while only regarding the aspects of baseball that the pitcher can control- strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and homer allowed. The final result of the calculation looks like an ERA. Despite his 4.07 ERA in '10, Davis had a 4.79 ERA. His lack of a 2 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio along with the large amounts of homers he allowed still give him a bad FIP while disregarding his 8.8 H/9.  The Rays better hope Davis makes an adjustment in 2011 or does have that uncanny ability to strand runners, or Davis could be a disappointment and even post an ERA around the 4.79 FIP that he posted in 2011. You have to assume that the Rays know something I don't in signing Davis to the 4-year extension, but it's certainly worth asking whether Davis can be a good major league pitcher. Based on the data available, it's hard not to think that Davis will suffer a bit of sophomore slump in 2011.

Maybe Davis' sophomore slump in 2011 will be similar to Jeff Niemann's sophomore slump that he went through in 2010. Niemann, who turned 28 on February 28th, finished 4th in the 2009 AL Rookie of the Voting after going 13-6 with a 3.94 ERA, but went 12-8 in '10 with a 4.39 ERA, 131 K's, and 61 walks in 29 starts, 1 relief appearance, and 174.1 IP. He allowed 159 hits, an 8.2 H/9, and 25 homers, the same bad 1.3 HR/9 that Davis posted. But something very strange happened to Niemann from '09 to '10- his BAbip actually went down from .302 to .266. He cut his 21% LD% to just 15%, and he increased his GB% from 41% to 44%. His LOB% even stayed about the same, going down slightly from 73.7% to 73.4%. So why did he do worse? Well first of all, he wasn't able to take advantage of the lower BAbip as much because he decreased his IP% from 72% to 69%. But that's not the real reason. Niemann's HR/9 jumped from 0.8 in '09 to 1.3 in '10 because his HR/FB shot up from 6.0% to 10.0%. So how will Niemann do in 2011? Well if he can allow a 15% LD%  again, causing a BAbip around .270 again while his HR/FB evens out to around 8.0%, causing his HR/9 to go down to around 1.0, Niemann should be able to put up an ERA under 4.00 again. Jeff Niemann made a big adjustment in 2010, only to let unlucky in another regard. If everything evens out for Niemann in 2011, he'll certainly have the best season of his career.

Jeremy Hellickson excited the baseball world from the moment he came up, going 7 innings in his major league debut against the Twins on August 2nd, earning the win as he allowed just 2 runs on 3 hits, and struck out 6 while walking just 2. Hellickson, who will turn 24 on April 8th, made 4 major league starts for the Rays, and he was just as dominant if not more so, going 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA, 25 K's, and just 4 walks in 26.1 IP. He did allow just a .209 BAbip, but he allowed just a 13% LD%. Hellickson did post a 7.20 ERA in 6 September relief appearances, but he was filling an unfamiliar role. Hellickson has the potential to be as good as he was in those four August starts. Maybe that won't be this year, but nevertheless, Hellickson is one of the front-runners for Rookie of the Year. Will he be good enough to win it? First, let's take a look at his gaudy minor league stats. Overall in the minors, Hellickson went 49-16 with a 2.71 ERA, a 9.8 K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings ratio), and a 2.1 BB/9 (bases on balls [walks] per 9 innings ratio). He held batters to a 7.4 H/9 (.290 BAbip), and a 0.7 HR/9. Takings his outstanding 7.4 H/9 out of the picture, Hellickson still managed a 2.91 FIP. But, talking his whole minor league career obviously encompasses the lower levels in the minors, where an outstanding prospect in Hellickson dominating the competition. Hellickson actually owns his third-best ERA at any level in the minors at Triple-A (2.47), but he did post a 2.43 ERA at SS-A and a 2.67 ERA at Low-A. Let's look at Double-A, where Hellickson struggled the most (3.27 ERA) among all the levels in which he played 5 or more games (he had a 6.00 ERA in 4 games at Rookie ball in 2005), and then Triple-A. At Double-A, Hellickson made 24 starts over 2 seasons, which isn't that far off from how many games he'll start for the Rays in 2011. He went 7-5 with a 3.27 ERA, 141 K's (9.6 K/9), and 29 walks (2.0 BB/9) in 132 IP. He allowed 125 hits, an 8.5 H/9 (.313 BAbip), and 19 homers, a 1.3 HR/9. The 8.5 H/9 and 1.3 HR/9 were the second-worst of his career at any level, again trailing only Rookie ball. He posted a 3.71 FIP. That might be the worst case scenario for Hellickson, pending injury. He's that good. At Triple-A, Hellickson basically pitched as much as he will for the Rays in 2011, making 30 starts. He went 18-4 with a 2.47 ERA, 193 K's (9.9 K/9), and 50 walks (2.6 BB/9) in 175 IP. He allowed 134 hits, just a 6.9 H/9 (.231 BAbip), and just 9 homers, a 0.5 HR/9. He managed an outstanding 2.71 FIP. We probably won't see another FIP like that from Hellickson until if and when he wins the AL Cy Young. The most likely scenario for Hellickson's FIP in 2011 certainly isn't his 2.91 career FIP in the minors- it's much more similar to the 3.21 FIP that's the average between his 3.71 FIP at Double-A and his 2.71 FIP at Triple-A. How will that FIP translate into an ERA for Hellickson? Well, looking at the FIP's and ERA's of the Rays 5 starters in 2010 (the 4 pitchers listed above plus Matt Garza), they averaged a .24 decrease from FIP to ERA. But, taking out James Shields, who had a .94 increase from his FIP to his ERA, they averaged a decrease of .54. That would put Hellickson's projected ERA somewhere from 2.67 to 2.97. Let's adjust that to 2.77 to 3.07 because of the defensive downgrade from Carlos Pena to Dan Johnson and from Carl Crawford to Johnny Damon.  Because of Hellickson's great strand rates in the minors (77.8% career LOB% in the minors, 81.0% at Double-A, 77.3% at Triple-A) let's put him at the lower range of that. I would project Hellickson's ERA in 2011 to be around 2.87. (That doesn't mean that Hellickson necessarily deserves that ERA- it's just that the Rays play great defense and he plays in a pitchers' park.) Would that win him Rookie of the Year? It would certainly place him in the top two or three players in the voting if the Rays can score him some runs and win him some games. It was also put him on the outside edge of the Cy Young conversation. That would be pretty ridiculous, considering it would be the best ERA among starting pitchers on the team according to what I've said in this post. But Hellickson is just that good. He has the ability to post a 5 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just 7 homers every 90 innings. Expect a grand entrance for Jeremy Hellickson in his rookie season in the big leagues.

Bullpen:

If you've read any of my other previews, you know that immediately after the 'bullpen' section of my previews, I put a 'closer' section. However, the Rays are going with a closer by committee approach. I'm just going to group all 7 Rays relievers in this section and give my opinion about if and how each reliever relates to the closer role.

Saying Kyle Farnsworth has a bad rep is an understatement. Farnsworth, signed to a one year, 2.7 million dollar contract by the Rays this offseason, with an option for a second year, has always had the 'stuff'. He has a 100 MPH fastball and an unhittable slider, but no command. Farnsworth not only has given up 3.9 walks per 9 innings, but he has allowed 1.3 homers per 9 as well, and even allowed an 8.6 H/9. He owns a 4.39 career ERA that's mediocre at best. But in 2010, Farnsworth, who will turn 35 on April 14th, appeared to finally make some sort of breakthrough. After posting a 2.19 ERA and saving 16 games in 2005, Farnsworth posted just a 4.55 ERA from '06 to '09. But in 2010, Farnsworth was able to stop the bleeding and have a pretty good year, going 3-2 for the Royals with a 3.34 ERA, 61 K's, just 19 walks, and 9 holds in 60 relief appearances and 64.2 IP. He allowed 55 hits, a 7.7 H/9, and just 4 homers, a 0.6 HR/9. But, you had to notice that Farnsworth only recorded 9 holds. Farnsworth has averaged 15 holds per season since 2001. (A hold is when a reliever retains a team's lead in a save situation without actually recording a save.) So why did he appear in less save situations? Of course, because he appeared in games with less pressure. aLI is a stat that registers the average amount of pressure a player is under per appearance, with 1.00 being average. In 2010, Farnsworth had just a .87 aLI, compared to his 1.1 career aLI. Under less pressure, Farnsworth was able to succeed, but what about when he returns to regular pressure with the Rays in 2011? In 2010, Farnsworth allowed just a .204 BAA in low leverage situations, and .188 in medium leverage situations, but .333 in high leverage situations. He'll be facing a lot more high leverage situations for the Rays, so if those numbers hold true again, he'll be awful. But also, in reality, Farnsworth wasn't even that great in low and medium situations. He allowed just a .252 BAbip in those situations. There's only one reason to have any amount of hope in Farnsworth- this is his final chance to be that relief pitcher, that unhittable lockdown closer who blew by every hitter. If Farnsworth fails, he may never get another opportunity to pitch anywhere where he has an opportunity to close. He 2005, Farnsworth allowed a .159 BAA in 102 high leverage plate appearances. Can he do that again? You wouldn't normally think so, but with the right motivation, and with the right opportunity, you never know. (Prediction: Farnsworth posts a 3.50 ERA even while pitching in high leverage situations and saves double-digit games for the first time since '05.)

Joel Peralta is a relatively similar pitcher to Farnsworth. Peralta, signed by the Rays this offseason to a one year, 9.25 million dollar contract, turned 35 on March 23rd, and had his best season in the majors with the Nationals in 2010, going 1-0 with a 2.02 ERA, 49 K's, just 9 walks (4 of which were intentional), and 9 holds in 39 relief appearances and 49 IP. He allowed 30 hits, a 5.5 H/9, and 5 homers, a 0.9 HR/9. Peralta forced the Nats to call him up in late June after an outstanding half-season in the minors, going 2-0 with a 1.08 ERA, 38 K's, just 7 walks, and 20 saves in 28 relief appearances and 33.1 IP. Is Peralta going to be a productive big league reliever from here on out? You would up so, but there are some obvious red flags. First of all, Peralta allowed just a .203 BAbip in '10. He allowed such a low BAbip despite allowing a barely better than average 18% LD%, and just a 26% GB%. He allowed a crazy 56% FB%. However, many of those fly balls were really popups- Peralta allowed an amazing 20% IF/FB. Nevertheless, he was certainly at least somewhat lucky in terms of BAbip. He also allowed a bit too few homers, considering he had a 6.8% HR/FB. But the good news is that even if his ERA jumps .75, he would still post a 2.77 ERA. But, Peralta managed just a 3.02 FIP and a 3.43 xFIP (what Peralta's FIP would have been if he allowed a league average HR/FB), so maybe an ERA under 3.00 is a bit too optimistic. In addition, just like Farnsworth, Peralta didn't pitch in too many high pressure games, ending up with a .72 aLI that was significantly lower than even Farnsworth's aLI in '10. However, maybe Peralta isn't as much of a risk under high pressure as you would think he would be. Peralta allowed a .204 BAA in low leverage situations and a .057 BAA in medium leverage situations, but he still allowed a .179 BAA in 30 high leverage plate appearances against him. Peralta certainly won't be as great as he was in 2010, but he can certainly manage a low-3.00's ERA. Maybe he'll even get a chance to save a few games. Joel Peralta was a great sign for the Rays, and he should be a good reliever for them.

Considering that J.P. Howell saves 17 games for the Rays in 2009, you would think that he would be a favorite for the Rays' closer job in 2011. But, Howell missed all of 2010 with a shoulder surgery on his left, pitching shoulder. Howell, who will celebrate his 28th birthday on April 25th, expected to be out until at least mid-May in 2011. Could he be the Rays' closer after he comes back? Obviously, if he's healthy and pitches well, then of course, and if he struggles some other player will close. There's honestly no point of mentioning his '09 stats for the Rays, because you never know how Howell will pitch when he comes back. J.P. Howell is the X-factor in the Rays bullpen. He could be anywhere from an effective closer to a non-factor for the Rays 2011.

Andy Sonnanstine was a pretty good starter on the 2008 AL Champion Rays winning 13 games, but after posting just a 6.77 ERA in 2009, Sonnanstine was demoted to the bullpen in 2010, and although he was certainly better than he was in '09, he didn't impress anybody, going 3-1 with a 4.44 ERA, 50 K's, 27 walks, not a single hold, but 1 save in 37 starts, 4 relief appearances, and 81 IP. The 28 year old right-hander allowed 83 hits, over a hit per inning at 9.2 per 9, and 11 homers, a 1.2 HR/9. Is he going to do any better in his second season as a full-time reliever? Maybe he'll make an adjustment, but there's no proof from the stats that that's going to happen. Sonnanstine had a .277 BAbip in '10 compared to his .310 BAbip despite posting a 19% LD% that was exactly his career average. He did post a career-high 45% GB% and a 15% IF/FB. Maybe you could argue that his BAbip was right around where it should be, but he certainly wasn't unlucky. In terms of homers allowed, he allowed an 8.5% HR/FB, so he was just a bit unlucky. Maybe when that evens out, he'll have a 1.0 HR/9. He also managed all these stats while posting just a .51 aLI. Sonnanstine's career-best in ERA is 4.38 (from when he was a starter in '08). Why should we expect him to be any better than that? Unless Sonnanstine all of a sudden starts thriving out of the bullpen, he won't be any better than a halfway-decent reliever for the Rays in 2011.

24 year old lefty Jake McGee had an outstanding 8-relief appearance major league debut in 2010, posting a 1.80 ERA. McGee should make his full-season debut in 2011, as long as he pitches well. McGee posted a 3.57 ERA with a 10.2 K/9 in 19 minor league starts, but once he was promoted to Triple-A and became a full-time reliever, he was outstanding, posting a 0.52 ERA and a 14.0 K/9 in 10 starts and a relief appearance. However, he had a ridiculous 91.7% LOB%. But, there weren't that many runners on to begin with as he allowed just a 4.7 H/9 and a 1.6 BB/9. But, the back-and-forth continues as McGee didn't allow a single home run. McGee has electric stuff (94 MPH fastball, 77 MPH slider with nice bite), but we'll have to see whether he has the poise to be an effective big league reliever. A 0.75 ERA in 10 spring training relief appearances was certainly a good sign. Jake McGee has the potential to a great middle reliever for the Rays, even a closer, but we'll have to see whether he can handle big league hitters in his rookie season even without the good luck he had in the minors.

Adam Russell, who will turn 28 on April 14th, has 51 major league relief appearances under his belt (including 2 in 2011) but has never been able to stick on any big league club. Russell was drafted and made his major league debut with the White Sox, but then he was traded to the Padres in the Jake Peavy trade. Just a year and a half later, the Padres traded him to the Rays in the Jason Bartlett deal. Russell owns just a 4.53 major league ERA despite just a .50 aLI. In the minors, Russell owns just a 3.93 ERA, 3.83 in the past 3 seasons at Triple-A, where he's pitched exclusively in relief. He has recorded 23 saves, 14 of which came in 2010. In 2010, Russell went 4-9 with a 4.88 ERA, 51 K's (8.9 K/9), 32 walks (5.6 BB/9), and the aforementioned 14 saves in 50 starts and 51.2 IP. He allowed 58 hits, a 10.1 H/9, and 4 homers, a 0.7 HR/9. However, he did allow a .351 BAbip. He has the ability to be a decent major league reliever. If Mike Ekstrom wasn't so awful in spring training (10.13 ERA), there's no chance that Russell would have made the Rays with a 6.30 ERA. Still, he's on the team, and maybe with a legitimate opportunity, he'll pitch OK. Adam Russell should be a decent reliever for the Rays in 2011.

Cesar Ramos, a 26 year old lefty also acquired in the Bartlett trade, was awful in 14 big league relief appearances for the Padres in '10 (11.88 ERA), but he did pretty well at Triple-posting a 3.28 ERA, although he struck out just 63 (5.9 K/9) and walked 43 (4.0 BB/9) in 15 starts, 15 relief appearances, and 96 IP. He allowed 90 hits, an 8.4 H/9, and 7 homers, a 0.7 HR/9. He allowed a .289 BAbip, although he did have a 78.3 LOB%. Ramos somehow has persevered through not being to strike out very many batters to be a decent minor league relief pitcher. But, it makes a lot of sense why he has  a 6.00 career major league ERA in 21 appearances. He's a lefty, so it was worth giving him another chance, but also considering he had a 6.17 ERA, it's hard to expect anything better than a halfway-decent season from Ramos if he even lasts the whole year in the bullpen. Cesar Ramos is a decent reliever at best for the Rays.

In 2008, Juan Cruz had an outstanding season with the Arizona Dimaondbacks, posting a 2.61 ERA. But, considering he was a Type-A free agent (the team that signed him would have to forfeit their first round draft pick unless they were one of the worst 15 teams in MLB the previous season), and he had posted just a .88 aLI and 8 holds in '08, every team neglected to go after him until the Royals finally signed him on February 28, 2009. However, after posting a 5.72 ERA in '09, he was released in April of '10 and didn't pitch in professional baseball the rest of the season after undergoing right shoulder surgery to remove a cyst. But, the Rays signed Cruz to a minor league contract this past offseason, and after posting a 0.90 ERA in 9 relief appearances, Cruz made the big league roster. How will he do? Well, if his shoulder is fully healed, maybe he could return to being that pitcher who struck out over a batter per inning from '01 to '08. But even during that time period, he had 4.00 ERA, mostly because of a 4.6 BB/9 and a 0.9 H/9. If he's healthy, Cruz should put up similar numbers. Juan Cruz should be a decent reliever for the Rays in 2011.

Overview:

The Rays have a pretty good offense, a solid defense, and a very good rotation, but their bullpen is going to really hold them back. They have no proven closer, and at least three of their relievers are unknown commodities. In order for the Rays no contend, the bullpen needs to be solid, and that doesn't appear to be in the works. Andrew Friedman (the Rays' GM) better find some relievers in trades, or the Rays could have one of the worst bullpens in the big leagues. Whether through career-years or trades, the Rays need a solid bullpen to contend with the Yankees and Red Sox, but that's going to be awfully tough.

(For my AL East previews, I'm not going to list a prediction for the standings because obviously I'm biased.)

April 6, 2011  05:49 PM ET

Hellickson's breaking ball is nasty. 10 K's today through 5.2.

The Rays offense looks pretty bad. Especially without Longoria.

 
April 6, 2011  06:20 PM ET
QUOTE(#2):

Hellickson's breaking ball is nasty. 10 K's today through 5.2.The Rays offense looks pretty bad. Especially without Longoria.

Yep. The Rays are playing like it's '98 right now. Not good. It will be tough for Hellickson to win the ROY if he can't get any wins.

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