Tampa Bay's pitchers were ridiculous last season, leading all of baseball in both team ERA (3.19) and WHIP (1.17), ranking third in total strikeouts (1383).
Basically, they rolled out an entire staff of Stephen Strasburgs (3.16 ERA, 1.15 WHIP). Hardly seems fair, but they did it.
In four of the past five seasons, the Rays have ranked either first or second in the American League in team ERA, so we've come to expect pitching dominance from this group. Not coincidentally, Tampa has also won 90 or more games in four of the last five years. This is a design-on-a-dime team that seems to shed high-priced players each season, yet always returns to the pennant race. It helps, obviously, that the farm system coughs up useful prospects each year.
Sure, Tampa's regular starting lineup will include a few names that you'd pay to not own in fantasy — James Loney, Yunel Escobar, a lesser Molina. But the rotation appears to be loaded (despite the loss of James Shields) and the bullpen should be excellent again.
The Rays' offseason wasn't quite as splashy as Toronto's, and they don't have the spending advantages of Boston or New York, but this franchise will nonetheless contend in the East. The roster isn't short on fantasy assets, so let's get to the Q&A...
Q: OK, first topic: Fernando Rodney. What the heck was that? Where did it come from? Can it possibly happen again?
A: Tampa has done well with free agent dumpster dives in the past, but the Rodney signing was an all-timer. Unimaginably successful. It's still tough to wrap one's head around his crazy age-35 season. There was nothing on Rodney's resume — nothing — to suggest he was capable of a dominant year. Over his previous four seasons, his best seasonal ERA was 4.24 and his lowest xFIP was 4.27. He was coming off a year in which he'd walked 28 batters in 32.0 innings. Rodney was plainly bad at pitching, at least by major league standards.
And then he saved 48 games for the Rays, finishing with dead ball era ratios: 0.60 ERA, 0.78 WHIP. Rodney actually ranked as the 15th most valuable fantasy player in 2012, regardless of position. That's no small feat for a guy who only contributed in three categories, and who only pitched 74.2 innings.
How exactly did he do it? Well, one positive trait that Rodney always possessed is stellar velocity. Let's begin with that. The man has always thrown hard, if not accurately. His average fastball was 96.1 mph last season (career 95.1). When he's going well, he can pile up Ks.
But to everyone's surprise, Rodney's walk rate plummeted last year, from an absurd 7.9 BB/9 in 2011 to 1.8 in 2012. The Rays obviously made a few tweaks with the veteran righty, notably shifting his position on the rubber toward the first-base side. You wouldn't normally assume that such a small adjustment could transform a multi-year disaster into the best reliever in baseball history — Rodney's ERA was the lowest ever in a single season — but it clearly had an impact.
It should go without saying that no pitcher can post a sub-1.00 ERA without experiencing a little good luck (.220 BABIP), so I'm not about to argue that Fernando will repeat last year's insane performance. However, I'm also not going to assume that he'll revert back into Bad Rodney. You can subtract 10 saves from last year's total and add two runs to his ERA, and we'd still be talking about an excellent fantasy campaign. I'll have him ranked as a top-five closer for 2013.
(Note: While I'll be slotting Fernando among the upper-tier relievers, he's actually Exhibit A in the case to just ignore saves altogether on draft day. This is clearly a category that can be addressed in-season. Rodney was our game's top RP last year, yet he was an April pick-up).
Q: You sound fairly bullish about a rotation that won't have Shields in 2013. That must mean you think highly of ... who? Matt Moore? Alex Cobb? Chris Archer?
A: All of the above. And a couple other guys, too. Moore, 23, is a hard-throwing left-hander who delivered obscene strikeout rates in the minors (12.2 K/9 in 2011, 12.9 in 2010), then whiffed 175 batters in 177.1 innings in his first full major league season. His swinging-strike percentage last year was among the best in baseball (11.8), topping the rates posted by Verlander, Kershaw, Strasburg and Felix (and many others). If Moore can dial down the walks just a bit, he'll be a terror.
Cobb is a 25-year-old right-hander who excelled after the break last season, striking out 66 batters over his final 79.1 innings, delivering a 3.40 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in the second half. He's a ground-ball specialist (2.53 career GB/FB) who does his pitching in a friendly park, and he'll be a late-rounder in most drafts. Definitely a pitcher of interest for fantasy purposes. Archer, 24, struck out 36 hitters in 29.1 innings at the major league level last season, plus another 139 in 128.0 frames at Triple-A Durham. If you streamed this kid when he made his big league debut in 2012, you're no doubt a loyalist. Archer gave us 25 Ks in 18.2 innings over his first three starts for Tampa. Control has been the big issue with Archer in the past — 5.1 career minor league BB/9 — so he's something less than a sure thing. He is, however, a young pitcher with legit fantasy potential.
Tampa also picked up 22-year-old Jake Odorizzi in the Shields trade, a talented right-hander who could enter the rotation conversation this spring. He's coming off a terrific year at Omaha (11-3, 2.93 ERA, 7.4 K/9), and he finished his season in Kansas City as a September call-up. Taylor Guerrieri, 20, is years away from reaching the majors, but he ranks among baseball's best pitching prospects. He put up silly numbers in the New York-Penn League last season: 1.04 ERA, 52.0 IP, 45 Ks, 5 BB.
Q: Any chance Wil Myers opens the season in Tampa?
A: Not a great chance, no.
It's not that Myers isn't ready to face big league pitching — he was a monster in the high minors last year across two levels, banging out 37 homers, driving in 109 runs and hitting .314/.387/.600. But the Rays have all the usual business-of-baseball reasons to delay his arrival, detailed here by the Tampa Tribune's Roger Mooney:
While the Rays like to delay the arbitration/free agent clock on all their young players, Myers will most surely begin the year at Triple A Durham so he can continue to develop and so he can build the confidence that comes with playing everyday before he faces the bright lights of the major leagues for the first time.
"I've always felt that it should be easier for a young player to make the team season in progress as opposed to out of spring training," [manager Joe] Maddon said.
Myers is an elite hitting prospect, one of the few minor leaguers who should be drafted and stashed by fantasy owners. He'll strike out a fair amount whenever he arrives (140 Ks last year), so perhaps he won't hit for average right away. He figures to be a solid asset in the power categories, though. He'll be worth the wait; expect a May-June debut.
Q: What happened to the 20/40 season that Desmond Jennings was supposed to deliver? Was it just delayed until 2013, or will it never happen?
A: Well, I'm still a believer in Jennings, and a buyer. In a campaign that disappointed nearly everyone, Jennings still went 31-for-33 on the bases while hitting 13 homers and scoring 85 runs. If it weren't for a DL visit in May (knee), he would have likely finished as a 15-35 player, which ain't bad. I can't say he was unlucky on balls-in-play last year (.298 BABIP), and I don't know that we'll ever get a .300 season out him, but I do think he can get back to his 2011 rates. That year, in a partial season with Tampa, he hit .259/.356/.449, while homering 10 times and stealing 20 bags (in just 63 games). The ceiling for Jennings, in my view, is still something like 100-20-65-45-.270. I won't price him as if he'll actually reach those numbers, but I'll be targeting him as an upside play in mixed leagues. (In A.L.-only, probably not. In a format like that, where the free agent pool is a wasteland, you can't afford many misses. Don't pay the expectant price).
Q: Can't help but notice that the "projected starters" list over there on the right is kind of a cluttered mess. Care to comment?
A: Well, this team has a bunch of guys who offer positional flexibility — dudes like Ben Zobrist, Ryan Roberts, Kelly Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson. It's really one of the under-discussed strengths of this roster; Zobrist's multi-position eligibility (2B/SS/OF) is obviously a key to his fantasy value. The Rays could very well choose to platoon Johnson and Roberts at second, bumping Zobrist to the outfield. (I should mention, however, that Kelly's career splits suggest he can handle LHPs just fine). There's a case to be made for a platoon at first, too, as James Loney is coming off a brutal year.
Q: OK, one final question: Is Evan Longoria healthy? His hamstring wrecked my season in 2012.
A: The Rays apparently think Longoria is healthy — they gave him a nine-figure extension back in November. He played only 74 games for Tampa last year due to hamstring issues, then had a "minor procedure" during the offseason to address the injury. It sounds like he's feeling good at the moment...
''Two weeks after the surgery, I felt like it had never happened,'' Longoria said. ''It was that good. The surgery helped that much.''
...so there's no obvious reason to downgrade him on your draft board. He's carried a third-round price in early mocks (ADP 35.18 at Mock Draft Central), but I'm expecting him to be more expensive in March, when we're drafting for keeps.