Tropicana Thunder: A Tampa Bay Rays Preview

Joe Maddon, making an attempt to exploit umpiring inefficiencies - USA TODAY Sports

A look ahead at the first opponent on the upcoming homestand

Offense: Ben Zobrist - 2B, Desmond Jennings - CF, Matt Joyce - DH, Evan Longoria - 3B, James Loney - 1B, Wil Myers - RF, David DeJesus - LF, Yunel Escobar - SS, Ryan Hanigan - C

With Joe Maddon at the helm, the lineup card is something of an unpredictable thing. He didn't use any one batting order more often than three times last season, and used 147 unique lineups overall. That seems kind of crazy, but the Rays place a lot of emphasis on platooning and individual matchups to get an edge. Maddon rightfully gets a lot of credit for his managerial skills, but his job is made a lot easier by Ben Zobrist, baseball's answer to the Swiss Army knife. Zorilla is a switch hitter that can play all over the diamond and has good on-base skills to lock down a spot near the top of the batting order, not that Maddon would ever commit him to a particular slot. Zobrist is a star-caliber player that continually flies under the radar. Per Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs), he's been the third-most valuable player in baseball since the start of 2009.

Desmond Jennings is one of several underrated complementary guys that makes the Rays' offense work well enough despite a lack of household names. Jennings hasn't been the top-of-the-order on-base machine that the Rays might have hoped for, but he runs the bases well and has better-than-average power for a center fielder. Tropicana Field is a tough place for right-handed hitters to clear the fences, so homer totals in the mid-teens are more impressive than it seems.

The king of hot starts, Matt Joyce is a part-time outfielder and DH that is pretty useful against righties and nonexistent against lefties, because Maddon wouldn't dream of allowing that sort of thing on a regular basis. Joyce has quite consistently hit between 17 and 19 homers in each of his last three seasons as the long half of a platoon. He'll hit for a low average, draw plenty of walks, and stop being useful right around June.

Evan Longoria ranks second in baseball in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement since 2009, just edging out Zobrist. Longoria brings 30-plus home run power to the table along with superb defensive ability at the hot corner. He's dealt with a significant hamstring injury and plantar fasciitis over the past couple seasons, but health looks like the only real potential obstacle to Longoria being one of the greatest players in the game over the next few years.

It's hard to hold down first base when you don't have much power, and it sure looked like James Loney's future as a regular was coming to a close before he arrived in Tampa Bay. In his first season as a Ray, Loney hit more line drives than he ever had en route to a batting average near .300. He's a good contact hitter and an excellent defensive first baseman. The Rays thought enough of his "change-of-scenery guy" act to lock him up at a modest price through 2016.

Last year, Wil Myers emerged as exactly what the Rays hoped they'd get when they sent James Shields packing for Kansas City. Myers and his power bat snagged the Rookie of the Year award despite playing in only 88 games. He strikes out more often than you'd like, but he's just 23 and will most likely be interfering with Dayton Moore's ability to sleep at night for years to come.

David DeJesus has been in the majors since 2003 and got to see the postseason for the first time last year. That'll happen when you burn through the prime of your career on the Royals. It's been three years since DeJesus last hit for a high average, and it's no fluke. He strikes out more often than he used to in his better years. He can still take a walk and can play above-average defense in a corner, so he remains a useful player.

As far as I can tell, Yunel Escobar has two talents: baseball and making people angry. He's an average hitter with modest pop and decent on-base skills, which is great for a guy that can hack it at short. Prior to coming to Tampa, Escobar had been a locker room problem across two teams and two countries. The Braves hated him so much that, after the team traded him to Toronto, his replacement Alex Gonzalez received a standing ovation upon arrival. The Blue Jays dumped him to Miami after they acquired the entire Marlins team, and every veteran is expendable in Miami. It only took the Rays a couple weeks after that to put their hands up and say, "We'll take him! There's no way he's a bigger jerk than Luke Scott!" And lo, it was done.

Ryan Hanigan has been a part-time catcher for years. He has little power, but typically hits for a decent average, draws walks, is great at gunning down base stealers, gets high marks for pitch framing, and has never struck out in more than 11 percent of his plate appearances at this level. In 2013, he fell out of favor with the Reds by randomly hitting .198 over 222 plate appearances. Bargain-hunting Tampa Bay promptly swooped in, acquired him, and extended him for multiple seasons. Oh Rays, that's so ... you.

Bench: Jose Molina - C, Logan Forsythe - INF, Sean Rodriguez - UTIL, Brandon Guyer - OF

Pitching: Starting Rotation: David Price - LHP, Chris Archer - RHP, Jake Odorizzi - RHP, Cesar Ramos - LHP, Erik Bedard - LHP; Closer: Grant Balfour - RHP

David Price is an extremely tough customer. No, he didn't get the Cy Young again last year, but he led the American League in walks per nine innings on his way to another fine season. He has great command of his mid-90s fastball, changeup, curve, and cutter. He's murder on lefties, as one might imagine, and happens to pitch in one of the worst home parks for right-handed hitters. Price's talent alone would have been enough to make him great, but the fact that the Rays have consistently fielded a very good defensive team during his tenure hasn't hurt his image one bit.

There is a seemingly endless stream of young Rays pitchers who get promoted to the big leagues and waste no time posting ERAs below 4.00. Chris Archer is the latest model from the factory, a pitcher that comes with mid-90s heat and throws lots of sliders. Someplace in transit between Durham and Tampa Bay, Archer mysteriously figured out how to throw strikes. His 2.7 BB/9 in 2013 was far lower than anything he managed at any minor league level.  So far this season, the control has only gotten better.  Archer has yet to allow a home run this season and as of this writing leads the American League in FIP.

Jake Odorizzi is probably best known for the fact that he's been traded for Zack Greinke and James Shields in his young career.  He'd like to add more impressive feats than that to his legacy, but he's had an inauspicious start to his big league career.  Odorizzi has a good low-90's fastball, but big league hitters have had an easy time making contact with his off-speed pitches.  So far in 2014, he's been walking far too many hitters than a pitcher with his repertoire can support.  Ideally, Odorizzi would pitch for a team that can be patient as he hones his craft, but more than half of Tampa's better starters are disabled and the Rays haven't played meaningless first-half games since 2007.  There's plenty of pressure on him to step up.

Cesar Ramos has been a capable swingman for the Rays for a couple of years, but injuries to Alex Cobb and Matt Moore have forced him into the rotation. He's a natural choice for spot starts given that he mixes four pitches, all of which are adequate but none of which are great. Ramos has had some control problems this year in the early going, resulting in a 4.91 ERA. He's a good guy to have around, but if he makes too many starts for your team, things have gone pretty wrong.

2014 serves as evidence that good teams, too, will turn to Erik Bedard in their time of need. Bedard keeps getting chances because he was once great for the Orioles, but he hasn't been much better than a replacement-level starter over the past few seasons. He's still been able to miss bats as he trucks on into his mid-30's, but walks have become a problem in recent years. Bedard's average fastball velocity has gradually dropped down to the high-80s as he's aged. Given that he's left-handed, there might be some hope for him as a situational bullpen arm if his stuff plays up in relief.

To the best of my knowledge, the Australian government has yet to issue a formal apology for Grant Balfour. The loudmouthed Aussie gets a good amount of strikeouts and allows lots of fly balls. He's a great fit for cities with parks that suppress homers, like those in Tampa Bay and Oakland. Balfour has consistently allowed a low rate of base hits, and this has allowed him to develop into a reasonably good closer over the past several seasons.

Outlook & Prediction: I originally had the Rays edging out the Red Sox for first place, but I think the season-ending injury to Matt Moore hurts them enough to swing the tide. Tampa Bay doesn't have great options for the rotation as they wait for Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson to return. Predicted record and finish: 89-73, 2nd place, AL East

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