The Rays were supposed to have a master plan that involved their actually knocking on the door of relevance, October action, and all that good stuff come… 2009. We all know how that turned out-a young team this laden with talent can create its own timetable. Last year, the Rays featured the second-youngest pitching staff and lineup in the American League. While precocious hurlers like Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and David Price enjoy a lot of the limelight, the Rays’ chances of turning last year’s early arrival on the post-season scene into a permanent cut-in on the annual duel between the Red Sox and Yankees will depend every bit as much on how well their young hitters develop. Hitting’s usually taken to be the safer bet as prospects go-both in terms of anticipated development and relatively bankable performance records in the years to come-but do the Rays really have that sort of projectable greatness in their lineup?

The easy answer is yes, because the Rays can anticipate some tremendous young position players to step even more firmly toward reaching the high ceilings that perhaps only scouts-and a precise projection tool like Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-ever anticipated. In forecasting the breakout potential of every hitter, PECOTA generates an estimate of how likely the odds are that he might outperform his performance from the previous three seasons by 20 percent. The exciting possibility for the Rays where their cadre of young talent is concerned is that PECOTA very much likes the chances that the best is yet to come for their best youngsters.

Perhaps the greatest excitement, both inside the game and out, over what any single Ray might do concerns what B.J. Upton could be capable of. Only just heading into his age-24 season despite playing in parts of four of the last five seasons with the Rays, Upton’s career has had its share of stumbling blocks, the difficulties of sorting out his position foremost among them. He’s had to move from short to third to second before the organization finally decided that the best place to employ his athleticism to good effect was center; even then, after seemingly finally making the grade in 2007, Upton delivered a significantly disappointing season in 2008, dropping from 24 home runs to nine in almost 100 more plate appearances. However, he still managed to tantalize with a blend of mystery over what he might be capable of, as he was playing through a torn labrum, and then nevertheless managed to put an exclamation point on his campaign by ripping off seven bombs in the ALDS and ALCS rounds.

Upton’s post-season display certainly inspires hope that he’ll blossom into the all-tools offensive force scouts have been dreaming on for years, but his all too frequent inattention to the chores of fielding continue to create questions over whether or not he’ll always be able to find some small way to disappoint the admittedly exaggerated expectations attached to him. However, keep in mind that he isn’t the first tremendously talented hitter who’s had to lose time at the beginning of his career to trying to play an infield spot he couldn’t handle; this is how the careers of future sluggers Gary Sheffield, Ron Gant, and Danny Tartabull began as well; moved to the outfield, all three became A-list sluggers. Despite the disappointments of Upton’s 2008 season, he’s still projected to be an on-base machine for the Rays (getting aboard at a .367 clip), his chance of breaking out beyond his three-year performance record is a healthy one in five, and you have to anticipate that experience and repetition will help improve his fielding in center. Upton already rates as an offensive igniter because of his speed and patience, but getting his power game back to where it was in ’07 will make him an instant down-ballot MVP candidate.

Rating with Upton in terms of how much we all look forward to seeing what he does next, but already ahead of Upton as far as showing up on MVP ballots is last year’s Rookie of the Year, Evan Longoria. Last season’s injury that cost him a month shouldn’t be a sign of any significant future injury risk, and he’s a plus glove at the hot corner to boot. While PECOTA’s being relatively cautious in projecting a season of retrenchment from Longoria, and while it would be nice to see his homer-happy home/road splits even out, there’s no reason to believe that Longoria won’t just continue to live up to the expectations that were loaded onto him from the moment the Rays selected him in the first round of the 2006 draft. He’s already the best non-A-Rod third baseman in the league, but he’s also the one with a chance of erasing even that major caveat in the near future.

Those are the team’s two superstars in the making, but what of the rest of the supporting cast? The Rays have just one other set regular still under the age of 27, the age generally accepted as the statistical peak of a player’s career. (More properly, the age range for a player’s peak runs from 25 to 29.) That’s catcher Dioner Navarro, who like Upton seems as if he’s been around forever, but that’s what a big-league espresso in 2004 and four years in The Show since plus getting dealt twice can do for a young player’s profile. Still only 25 for all that, we can consider him the oldest of the young. His career’s been even more uneven than Upton’s without the same upside, and last year represented the first in which he came close to delivering on his projected potential as an OBP source. Because of his awful 2007, his Breakout mark is a deceptively high 25 percent, since that season lowers his baseline so much that, if anything, he’s in danger of turning into a useful regular instead of consistently hitting as well as he did last year.

The Rays traded for the Tigers‘ Matt Joyce in the offseason, which surprised some, but that’s because last year’s breakout is the subject of some debate. The lefty slugger bopped his way out of Toledo with a hot start, slugging almost a hundred points more than he’d done before at any level, and then got off to a torrid start with the Tigers, hitting 10 homers and slugging .679 in his first 119 PA. But after a high-water game on July 21, he hit a paltry .218/.335/.338 in his last 158, with just two homers, while striking out in 30 percent of his at-bats. Which Matt Joyce will the Rays get when the call for the real one to please stand up comes? PECOTA’s sensibly keeping his past beyond last season in mind, but the combination of Leyland’s sporadic usage pattern of the rookie down the stretch and Joyce’s youth, patience, massive platoon split (he slugged .509 against big-league right-handers, with all 12 of his home runs), and gifts as a strong-armed right fielder might combine to make him an intriguing platoon possibility who might reward the Rays’ faith in him.

Rays Lighting Up the Future in 2009
Player       Age Breakout  AVG/ OBP/ SLG  WARP
D. Navarro    25   25%    .259/.326/.382   2.4
B.J. Upton    24   21%    .267/.367/.424   4.2
M. Joyce      24   23%    .227/.307/.405   0.9
E. Longoria   23   20%    .266/.342/.482   4.2