Pressing Questions: The Tampa Bay Rays

Andy Behrens
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The Tampa Bay Rays finished with the American League's best record last season (96-66), despite the fact that the Yankees outspent them on player salaries by something like $134 million. Just for reference, the Mets' opening day payroll was approximately $134 million, and that was the fifth-highest total in baseball.

The Rays feature one of the game's best young position players (Evan Longoria(notes), 25, ADP 5.0), one of its elite young starting pitchers (David Price(notes), also 25, ADP 52.3), and they seem to have most of baseball's top prospects. Tampa Bay's system is absolutely loaded with pitching, a strategic reserve from which this team can deal at any time, to satisfy any need. Or they can simply continue their compulsive hoarding of potential aces, which obviously has its benefits, too.

But at the major league level, Tampa has hemorrhaged talent this offseason. There's much to discuss here, so let's get right to the Q&A…

The Rays recently dealt away their starting shortstop (Jason Bartlett(notes)), and a pitcher who'd given them 200 innings in back-to-back seasons (Matt Garza(notes)). They also lost a power-hitting first baseman (Carlos Pena), a base-stealing All-Star outfielder (Carl Crawford(notes)), and a dominant closer (Rafael Soriano(notes)). How are they planning to replace these guys?

OK, c'mon, that was actually, like, five separate questions. Totally unfair. A violation of the rules. We'll deal with this five-in-one mess, but that's all you'll get today. No more questions.

But what about BJ Up—?

No.

And how about Ben Zob—?

No.

Or James Shie—?

Just stop it. We've got enough to deal with here without discussing every bounce-back candidate in the player pool. Let's try to remain focused on the replacement Rays…

We'll begin with the starting rotation, where 23-year-old right-hander Jeremy Hellickson(notes) figures to replace Garza. Over the past year, fantasy analysts have been hyping Hellickson persistently, so you're no doubt aware of his potential. He was fantastic over 117.2 innings at Triple-A last season (12-3, 2.45 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 3.5 K/BB) and he was brilliant in four August starts for the Rays (3-0, 2.05 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 8.5 K/9). At his best, he's basically an artist. While it's never a good idea to load your fantasy roster with young AL East starters, if you're going to take a shot with just one of 'em, this is the guy. The Ks will clearly be there, and his ratios might just beat Garza's 2010 numbers (3.91, 1.25). You'll like Hellickson, even in mixed leagues, and the draft day price tag shouldn't be too scary.

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Back in December, they Rays shipped shortstop Jason Bartlett to San Diego, where he'll ruin the fantasy outlook for Everth Cabrera(notes). Bartlett's departure clears a path in Tampa for Reid Brignac(notes), a 25-year-old who looks like a candidate for a 15/10 season; his single-season minor league high in home runs was 24, and he swiped as many as 15 bases. The concerns with Brignac are his unimpressive on-base skills (.300 OBP in the majors, .337 in the minors), and a worrisome platoon split — he's hit just .167/.253/.212 over 75 plate appearances against left-handed pitching in the bigs. Still, in deeper mixed formats where you need to fill a middle infield spot, Brignac is on the radar. So is last year's failed fantasy sleeper Sean Rodriguez(notes), who figures to be the Rays' second baseman in 2011.

Initially, it appeared as if Crawford's departure would open a spot in the outfield for 24-year-old prospect Desmond Jennings(notes). Like Crawford, Jennings is an elite base-stealer — 37-for-41 last year at Triple-A, 52-for-59 across two levels in '09 — and he's also adept at getting himself on base (.384 career OBP in the minors). But the Jennings Era will apparently have to wait, because the Rays just made a rather bold move in free agency, reportedly signing both Johnny Damon(notes) and Manny Ramirez(notes) for a combined $7.25 million. (Nice to see this team stay true to its founding principles, signing once-great hitters in their twilight years — Boggs, McGriff, Canseco, et al).

There's almost no risk attached to these deals, considering the cost of each player and the replacement options that exist within the organization. Well done, Rays. Ramirez was a punchline last season, yet he still delivered a .298/.409/.460 line over 320 plate appearances. That's a useful player (and a useful fantasy commodity, if you're in a league that uses OBP). Manny will no doubt be a heart-of-the-order DH for the Rays, so the RBIs will be there, even if his power is sub-standard for a fantasy OF/Util.

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Damon gets the left field gig that could have otherwise belonged to Jennings and/or Matt Joyce(notes). Realistically, at age 37, Damon's days as a 20/20 threat are over. He's more of a 12/12 threat at this stage, with the potential to score 80-90 runs. Are those numbers helpful in your league, when delivered by an outfielder? Probably not. But if they are, then by all means, keep Damon on your draft board.

Dan Johnson(notes) will enter spring training as the favorite to start at first base for Tampa, and his profile really isn't so different from Carlos Pena's. Both are 31, both left-handed hitters, both have career averages in the .240s. Pena's power upside is perhaps greater, but it's worth noting that Johnson managed to hit seven homers in just 140 major league plate appearances last season, and he cleared the fence 30 times at Triple-A Durham in only 98 games. He should be a useful end-of-draft selection in deeper mixed leagues. If Johnson doesn't quite cut it for the Rays, then the highly adaptable Ben Zobrist(notes) could enter the mix at first. As things stand today, however, Zobrist looks like he'll patrol right field more often than not. In Yahoo! leagues, he's also eligible at second and first.

OK, you've covered a lot. But you still haven't given us the closer. Keep talking, expert…

Yeah, the closer's role in Tampa is a tough call in late January. The Rays seem to have lost most of their bullpen: Soriano is gone, as are Dan Wheeler(notes), Joaquin Benoit(notes) and Grant Balfour(notes). So there are lots of well-pitched innings to replace in Tampa. The team has added such luminaries as Kyle Farnsworth(notes), Joel Peralta(notes) and Adam Russell(notes), and former closer JP Howell(notes) is continuing his recovery from shoulder surgery, expected back in late April or early May.

The most intriguing name in Tampa's 'pen might just be Jake McGee(notes), a 24-year-old left-hander with a mid-to-high-90s fastball. He has closing-quality stuff, no doubt, having struck out 127 batters over 105.2 innings across two minor league levels in 2010. McGee also performed well in an 8-game end-of-season MLB cameo (5.0 IP, 6 Ks, 1.00 WHIP). The team is leaving all options on the table for McGee right now, but the most glaring need for his services will be in the late innings. He's a fair target for speculators.

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