Pressing Questions: The Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay’s turnaround season in 2008 was the start of something good; the Rays have settled in as one of the most bankable franchises in baseball. The consistent win totals tell you all you need to know: 97, 84, 96, 91, 90, 92 (only the Yanks have won more games during that span). Everyone admires you, Joe Maddon. Take a bow, Andrew Friedman.

Maddon did one of his best maneuvering jobs last year, piloting his team five wins past the pythagorean expectation. The Rays were middle of the pack in runs scored (700, ninth in the AL) and ERA (3.59, seventh – though the rotation’s ERA was third in the league). No one on the roster had a monstrous career year – Evan Longoria’s team-best WAR was an unremarkable 6.3. Tampa Bay doesn’t always pummel the opponent with greatness, but this club does so many little things right.

[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

Many wise men consider Tampa Bay the preseason favorite in the AL East. Clay Davenport forecasts a 90-72 record, while Joe Sheehan calls for 95 victories. For the most part, the roster is static – the bullpen added some new pieces, while Kelly Johnson moved on to New York. Tampa Bay has apparently decided not to fix what isn’t broken.

Hop on the Howard Frankland Bridge and let's try to figure this team out from a roto perspective.

Q: Is Grant Balfour safe in the closer's chair?

A: The Rays certainly believe in Balfour, reacquiring him on a two-year, $12 million package in the middle of January. Maddon has tended to dodge the "closer" word in recent seasons (Fernando Rodney's arrow parade to the side), but he emphatically endorsed Balfour for the job shortly after the contract was completed. There's no controversy in this bullpen; we know who the ninth inning belongs to.

That established, there is some controversy tied to Balfour. He was close to a two-year, $15 million deal with the Orioles in December, but Baltimore walked away from the offer after the 36-year-old reliever completed his physical. What did the Orioles find? No one can be 100 percent sure; rumors mentioned possible flags with Balfour's wrist, knee, or shoulder. The relief pitcher emphatically maintained he was healthy (of course), and you can be sure the Rays did their due diligence before making their offer.

Balfour’s stat scan fits the handshake role. He’s maintained an elite strikeout rate (it was 10.34/9 last year) into his mid-30s and his control is good enough. His fly-ball tendencies probably won’t be a problem in his home park (more on that in a second). Maybe a little maintenance will be needed at times – Balfour threw less than 63 innings in two of his three Oakland seasons – but overall this looks like a safe option for your second or third closer. The current 166.9 ADP in Yahoo leagues looks like a giveaway.

Q: Do you have some Alex Cobb propaganda for us?

A: I’m high on Cobb, just like everyone else. The entire Yahoo staff ranks him between 21-25 on the starting pitcher board and his overall industry rank is 25th. He’s no longer a sleeper or even a sneaky value; you have to pay an expectant price for your Cobb salad in 2014.

Cobb was in the middle of a breakthrough year when a terrifying injury sidelined him last June – a line drive conked him on the head. The Tampa righty didn’t pitch for two months, but here’s the thing – he was even better after the return. Cobb posted 3.01 and 1.16 ratios before the injury; he was at 2.41 and 1.14 after his return. His walks crept up in the final two months, but a spike in strikeouts limited the damage. And throughout the year, he did an excellent job keeping the ball on the ground (55.8 percent, around his career mark).

Cobb enters his age-26 season, working for a winning club and a sound defense in a big park. Sounds like a safe place to park your money, and you’re also getting a twinge of upside. The 93.7 ADP tag might sound pricy to some, but I think he’s worth it.

Q: Let's talk life under the catwalk. Is Tampa Bay really a graveyard for offense?

Yes, Virginia, it is – and thank the roto gods for that. While the other four AL East ballparks are doing all they can to float offense, Tampa Bay's location is all about stemming run production.

To get the point fully across, consider the Tropicana Field Park Indicies from the Bill James Handbook (grading from 2011-2013). A score of 100 indicates a neutral factor. As the grid shows below, Tampa Bay's dome doesn't help any kind of offense.

To put it in divisional context, here's how the other four AL East parks grade out for scoring index (again, a three-year sample): Camden Yards 107, Fenway Park 111, Yankee Stadium 107, Rogers Centre 109. That's the reason you generally want to treat AL East pitchers as guilty until proven innocent. But obviously Tropicana Field is the outlier in the bunch. There's no Hit Show here.

Q: Hey, David Price is still in town?

Price and the club agreed to a $14 million deal a month ago; he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season. It seems Tampa wants to take 1-2 more shots at the title while Price is on board, though the Rays are the type of forward-thinking team that could dangle Price in trade talks if the season dictates it (be it for long-term improvement or as a cash-out if the club isn't contending).

Price’s stat scan had some curious movement in 2013; strikeouts fell but his control was elite (1.3/9). His ground-ball rate fell by eight percent, but a little more fortune on the HR/FB meter was appreciated. A triceps injury cost Price a month of starts, and a 10-8 record was a fluke given his performance and environment.

You need a projection range to work with, and here’s what I’m expecting for 2014: 14-15 wins, an ERA in the low 3s, a WHIP around 1.13, 175-180 strikeouts. I consider myself agnostic with Price this time around; I'm not going to target him or shy away from him. We'll see what the rest of the room thinks.

Q: James Loney re-signed for three years? You’re not paying for that .326 BABIP, right?

A: Not so fast, spreadsheet boy. Although Loney’s hit rate looks a little suspicious at first glance, it’s only 18 points higher than his career mark. And Loney makes a lot of his own luck, consistently squaring the ball and hitting it hard. Last year’s line-drive rate was a zesty 29.8 percent, and it’s 23.6 percent for his career.

We know what Loney isn’t, mind you – he’s unlikely to hit more than 12-13 homers and he doesn’t run much. But if some deeper pools, a .300-63-12-67 type of year can help you. The Rays did a nifty job with this reclamation project.

Q: How about a quick Longoria word on the way out?

A: While he's certainly a fine ballplayer, Longoria has turned into the opposite of Jayson Werth in recent years – a player who might be a little overrated because of his team-friendly contract. Longoria’s career .275 average doesn’t move the needle, and he’s stopped running over the last three years (just six bags). Sounds like a third-round roto pick to me. I'm shocked some pundits would take Longoria before Edwin Encarnacion, but that's fine – after all, it's a game of opinions.

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