Pressing Questions: The Tampa Bay Rays

Roto Arcade

On September 3, Tampa was on the fast-track to the offseason, a whopping nine games behind Boston in the AL Wild Card race.  It appeared the clock had struck midnight for baseball's favorite Cinderella story.

But the Rays, as usual, exuded supreme resiliency slewing the Sox in six of their final seven face-offs. The season capper was even more spectacular.

On the last day of the regular season, in what would become arguably the most exciting day in baseball history, Tampa had its back firmly pressed against the wall. Joe Maddon's bunch desperately needed a win against rival New York to advance to the postseason. Buried by a seemingly insurmountable 7-0 lead heading into the bottom of the 8th, they were, for all intents and purposes, toast. However, the Rays, as they've done so often before, rose from the dead. Timely homers by Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria forced the game into extra innings. Finally in the 12th, Longoria, playing the role of hero, lined a walk-off solo shot down the left-field line, a fitting end to an improbable month-long comeback.

It was the third time in four years, Tampa reached October...

To keep the good times rolling, GM Andrew Friedman's top offseason priorities were to reconstruct the bullpen and find a solution at first base. In an attempt to solve the first dilemma, he added mitt-popper Fernando Rodney and re-signed Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and J.P. Howell. Addressing issue No. 2, he turned to a familiar face, Carlos Pena, bringing in the former 46-homer slugger on a one-year $7.25 million agreement.

Though this year's Rays are largely the same as 2011's, they still have several questions entering spring training. To help fantasy owners decipher the meaningful from the meaningless, here are answers to the most pressing ones:

Carl Crawford's illegitimate son, Desmond Jennings, has generated considerable buzz in early industry drafts. Is he worth reaching for in the early-middle rounds?

Some are banking on the youngster to reach rockstar status in his first full season as an everyday player.

If you're a nonbeliever, it's time you became a groupie.

Yes, his Round 5 price tag (54.3 ADP) may seem a bit exorbitant, but, believe it or not, it's about right. Perusing per game data calculated by Baseball Monster, Jennings was an absolute beast in 2011. Among eligible outfielders, he ranked 11th, one spot ahead of Nelson Cruz and just behind Matt Holliday, at his position. Overall, he checked in at No. 51.

Several owners will understandably express trepidation over Jennings after his sorrowful September last year (.160 BA). But because of his cemented gig in left, spot atop the lineup, excellent eye (0.53 BB/K in '11) and blazing speed, he should contribute sound across the board totals this season. A .270-15-65-110-50 campaign is a very real possibility. If that happens, he'll likely be a Round 2 or 3 commodity in drafts this time next year.

Many feel Matt Moore, arguably the top pitching prospect in the game, is pure fantasy man-candy. After a stellar debut against the Yankees last September (5 IP, 0 ER, 4 HA, 1 BB, 11 K) and sensational ALDS outing at Texas (7 IP, 0 ER, 2 HA, 2 BB, 6 K), is he overvalued or undervalued at his current 100.6 ADP in mixers?

Roughly three weeks ago I asked a Rays scout if Moore was legit. His response: "He's as close to the real deal as it gets."

This spring, the Moore hype machine may blow a gasket from overwork, but believe the inside source, he's worth taking out a second mortgage acquire. On average, the 28th pitcher off the board in early drafts, he's terribly undervalued. Equipped with three plus offerings — mid-90s fastball, curve and change — and plenty of polish, he is poised to reach the AL's upper-echelon sooner rather than later. Over 164.1 innings between Montgomery (AA) and Tampa a season ago he humiliated one batter after another, posting a ridiculous 12.34 K/9. Barring a random landshark attack, he should open the season as the Rays' No. 3.

Obviously, because of his young age and golden arm, Maddon and company may handle the 22-year-old with care. If placed on a Pineda-like plan, he likely won't surpass 175 innings this year. Still, because of his stellar MiLB track-record, he will be a top-20 rotation anchor April-August. Double-digit wins, roughly 200 Ks and an ERA around 3.00 are on the horizon. Slap the leather hard for the southpaw.

Pick your poison: James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson?

Roughly 60 picks separate the two hurlers. Early returns have Shields going around pick No. 67, Hellickson No. 128. Though the sticker price for the latter is substantially cheaper, the former is the better overall buy.

"Smoke and mirrors" best summarizes Hellboy's 2011. On the surface, he excelled in his first full season. His 13 wins, 2.95 ERA and 1.15 WHIP were quite laudable. But secondary ERA measurements painted a more sinister picture. His tERA (4.49) and xFIP numbers (4.72) indicated his ERA should've resembled Wade Davis' and not Shields'. More worrisome, his 5.79 K/9 was a stark contrast from the 9-plus marks he consistently notched in the minors. Hitters were whiffing less, contacting more. That combined with a rather mediocre 3.43 BB/9 and .223 BABIP arrow to a major correction. If he continues to hit bats and his uncomfortable amount of allowed fly-balls (0.78 GB/FB) carry a bit further, it could be a rather hideous season for the sophomore.  An ERA in the low-to-mid 4s is very likely.

As for Shields, the vet made dramatic improvements in several outward and underlying categories last year. He relied more on his offspeed junk, particularly his curve, to attract weaker contact, miss bats and keep the ball in the park. The makeover resulted in a banner year, one that ranked sixth among pitchers per Baseball Monster. If the revamped Shields reappears in 2012, expect another top-15 effort. One of the more reliable starters around, he should contribute nicely across four categories finishing in range of 15-3.15-1.10-195.

At 35, is Kyle Farnsworth a trustworthy late-inning option? If he falters, who is waiting in the wings?

Counting on a journeyman reliever whose career high in saves prior to 2011 was 16 is for the iron-stomached. Rodeo clowns carry less risk. Historically speaking, Farnsworth has rarely posted consecutive solid seasons. For instance, after his 16-save campaign with the Tigers/Braves in 2005, he followed up with an uneventful 4.36 ERA-1.36 WHIP-6 S effort with the Yankees. Point blank: Don't bet on a strong encore.

To be fair, Farns was lights out as TB's primary closer last year. He displayed pinpoint control (1.87 BB/9), drawing ample weak contact (1.54 GB/FB). His 25 saves off waivers were instrumental for many owner championships. But because of his advanced age, injury downside and track-record of inconsistency, he's enveloped in risk, albeit minimal. His current mixed league ADP: 222.4.

If Farnsworth falters, Peralta would be the next man up. His fly-ball heavy rates are a bit unsightly (57.5 FB%), but he was comfortable in the closer's role when pressed into action late in the year. Coming off another dynamite season (2.93 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 8.11 K/9, 19 holds, 6 saves), he has significant odds of totaling 20-plus saves. Savvy drafters should throw a crumpled up dollar at his feet.

Farm Aid. What current cow-milkers could give owners a shot of production later in 2012?

Former No. 1 overall pick, Tim Beckham, has shown slow growth in four minor league seasons. His eye remains out of focus (22.9 K% in '11) and his home run stroke and proficient wheels have yet to emerge. Though Sean Rodriguez is expected to anchor shortstop to begin the season, Beckham could overtake him if he makes significant strides at Triple-A Durham. Watch him … If Beckham continues to develop at a snail's pace, Hak-Ju Lee could surpass the former top pick as the organization's shortstop of the future. After earning a promotion to Double-A Montgomery, he did struggle, but equipped with a keener eye and more speed than Beckham, he might be the better player of the pair, especially for fantasy owners. … Outfielder Brandon Guyer, who cracked two homers in 41 at-bats with the senior club last year, has a decent chance of breaking camp as a backup. Last season at Durham, he tallied excellent all-around production netting a .312-14-61-78-16 line over just 388 at-bats. If the injury bug bites either Jennings or Matt Joyce, the 26-year-old has the potential to be a sneaky good deep-league waiver add.

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