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December 20, 2013
Fantasy Team Preview
Tampa Bay Rays
Baseball is awash in money, with each team receiving a substantial bump in revenue thanks to new national television contracts that kick in for the upcoming season. With that in mind the Rays finally ventured into the free agent market, and even took on money in trades. So what did they get for all their free-spending ways? James Loney, Ryan Hanigan, and Heath Bell. I know, it might not seem like much, but given the revolving door* at first base they’ve had these last several years, this commitment to Loney is a big one (the biggest free agent contract in club history, no less). Let’s not forget last season’s late pickup of David DeJesus, who was signed to a three year deal as well. Add in Bell and Hanigan (acquired in Andrew Friedman’s long awaited first three team trade) and the Rays made shrewd moves to bolster key roster spots, all on the relative cheap. The new Rays are the same as the old Rays, eh?
*It’s worth noting that revolving door might have rejuvenating powers
Knowing the Rays, there are an awful lot of ways their lineup will shake out over the course of the season. The above represents a best guess as of their current roster and facing a right-handed batter (hence Joyce in the cleanup spot over Myers). The positions are also fluid, as Zobrist is a swiss-army knife, and many players will likely be cycled through the DH spot. There isn’t much outside of the usual intrigue here: Can Longoria stay healthy? Can Myers avoid a sophomore slump? Can Loney repeat his standout success from last season? Zobrist is steady, Jennings might not be what we once hoped, but he’s still useful (and still retains upside). Even the bottom of the lineup is functional for fantasy. Escobar has value in deeper leagues given the dearth of available shortstop talent and Hanigan will seek to reproduce his walk-heavy ways in the AL. Whether he can is to be determined, but if he does, he could be worthwhile in two catcher or deep leagues.
Don’t put too much stock in either of the names past Rodriguez here, as it’s likely the Rays seek out some veteran bench option in free agency or via trade. Molina can be ignored for fantasy purposes (at the plate, as his pitch framing is most certainly valuable when evaluating TB pitchers). Sean John Rodriguez gets decent run for a bench bat, and can fill in at multiple positions, which is always useful. Beyond that though, there’s not a lot of there there. No speed, little power, below-average batting average. Let’s see who they acquire before washing our hands of the Rays’ bench, but it might be prudent to get the soap and water ready.
Things could look quite different come the start of the season, but as of now, Price is still a Rays and leads a rotation with a ton of fantasy potential. Price’s injury last season and subsequent drop off in strikeouts might have people avoiding him as a fantasy ace, but that’s a bit premature. While the strikeouts did drop, so too did his walks. Additionally, he started throwing his fastball a lot more in ’13 and with more fastballs comes fewer missed bats. If he reverts back to his previous pitch mix, it’s reasonable to assume an uptick in strikeouts. Nothing is for sure of course, Price did lose velocity on his fastball if you’re looking for a reason to worry. That said, he’s still an elite pitcher and belongs atop fantasy rotations.
Cobb submitted his best season in ’13, thanks in part to a career-best BABIP. Don’t let that lead you to thinking a major regression is coming though. The BABIP wasn’t significantly better than prior seasons, and Cobb upped his strikeout percentage by over four percentage points while seeing his walk rate rise less than one percentage point. An extreme groundball pitcher, Cobb was a functional fantasy player while striking out around 18 percent of batters. If he can replicate his 23 percent from ’13 he’ll once again be an extremely valuable pitcher. Even with a bit of regression on that strikeout rate, if you expect something between his last two seasons with a little more emphasis on 2013, you’ll likely be rewarded. A couple things to watch for: Cobb has never eclipsed 150 innings at the major league level, and his FIP was substantially higher than his ERA. Don’t expect 200 innings of sub-3.00 ERA and you should be happy with your investment.
Hellickson finally had the regression that had been predicted and defied so many times over. All this while his strikeout rate trending upwards and his walk rate trending downwards. The culprit was BABIP, something he appeared to master his first few seasons in the majors. Nothing was markedly different about his profile though—he even saw a decrease in his HR:FB rate—except for a bizarre uptick in his bunt-hit percentage which went from 17 percent in 2011 to 11 percent in 2012 before ballooning to 33 percent last season. While the upside is limited, expect a return to the Hellickson we’ve known prior to 2013—or at least a reasonable facsimile.
In an effort to be brief (ha, I know), I’ll merely mention that the top two arms not mentioned are Jake Odorizzi and Enny Romero. Odorizzi is the more polished of the two but lacks a true strikeout pitch. Romero works with a little more stuff, but probably requires more minor league seasoning. Both are viable fantasy options if they’re getting starts, thanks to the Rays ability to win, play defense and both of their catchers sublime framing.
This bullpen is something of a beautiful mess. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Despite the Rays’ continually innovative strategies, a traditional closer is something they’ve used quite frequently. In this sense, someone like Heath Bell might make sense. They are spending a pretty penny on him (especially for them), but a word of caution: Bell has an option that will vest for 2015 if he finishes 55 games in 2014, so there is a good chance he doesn’t see a full season in the closer role, in Tampa, or both. Bell is worth adding speculatively, but don’t pay too much knowing that there’s little chance that the Rays allow that option to vest.
Peralta and McGee are both worthwhile in leagues that value holds and either has a shot at closing, though neither have done it with much consistency before. Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) is something of a darkhorse, as he has experience and he re-signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason despite still working his way back from injury. The injury is the biggest question here, and if Bell isn’t closing, I think Oviedo works his way into the job.
Less of a darkhorse and more of a longshot is Torres. Lefty closers aren’t nearly as common, so that’s working against him (as it is with McGee), but Torres’ true value to Tampa comes in his ability to spot start and go multiple innings. Taking that flexibility away by putting Torres in the closers role doesn’t seem like something the Rays seem likely to do. He merits mention anyway as a possible starting option should injury or ineffectiveness strike though, and his stuff plays at the back of a bullpen.
One last name not on the roster: Alex Colome. He’s already made his major league debut, and while he’s been starting in the minors, many believe his long-term home is in the bullpen.
Closer: Bell vs. Oviedo (vs. McGee vs. Peralta)
Player to Target: Chris Archer, SP
Player to Avoid: Matt Moore, SP
Deep Sleeper: Alex Torres, SP