A brief preview of a team we play this week.
Dates we play them: 4/20-4/22 at home, 5/27-5/30 @ Tampa Bay
Offense: A potential lineup: Jason Bartlett-SS, Carl Crawford-LF, Ben Zobrist-RF, Evan Longoria-3B, Carlos Peña-1B, B.J. Upton-CF, Pat Burrell-DH, Sean Rodriguez-2B, Dioner Navarro-C. Bench: Reid Brignac-MI, Willy Aybar-UTIL, John Jaso-C.
Jason Bartlett, one of the original piranhas, bats leadoff for Tampa. Bartlett was a piece of the now laughable Delmon Young trade (Minnesota never makes mistakes!). He's off to a bit of a slow start, but this is mostly due to bad luck (.256 BABIP). There is no way in hell he repeats last season. Expect him to be in the range of 2.5-3.4 WAR when the season ends. Carl Crawford is awesome. The best left-fielder in baseball never developed the 20 homer power scouts hoped for, but is unreal with the glove and being the premier base thief in recent memory. Fun fact: Crawford is currently fourth (and will be second at the end of the year) amongst active players in steals. Who holds the top two spots, you ask? Our very own Ozzieball hitters! Last season's biggest breakout player, Ben Zobrist, has a home in right this season. He also has one of the more creative nicknames in recent baseball history, but when you actually look up what a Zorilla is you begin to wonder if you'd actually want to be called it. He won't be worth 8.6 WAR again. That number still blows my mind (he was the most valuable hitter in all baseball last season). Expect some intense regression. When Carl Crawford leaves Tampa at the end of the year, Evan Longoria will begin his assault on the Tampa Bay record books. He'll accomplish this handily, seeing as Tampa got him to sign the most ridiculously team-friendly contract ever. He doesn't really do anything bad, as he even throws in about 10 steals a year just for kicks. I was really hoping he was Italian, so I'd have an excuse to post this. Wait.
Peña's average will come back up this season. If his hand holds up, he should post his fourth consecutive season of more than 30 homers. He also helps keep the fans cool with the gusts generated from his mighty strikeout swings (163 last year). B.J. Upton has to live with the fact that his younger brother is already a better baseball player than him. That can't feel good. Good odds of that happening when you both go number one in the draft. When they took the Devil out of the Rays, B.J.'s bat started to drop off. He's still crazy fast (86 steals the past two years). His speed and good defense will keep him around, and he should have a better year with the bat. Pat Burrell seems to have forgotten that he used to be good at hitting baseballs. 14 homers and a .682 OPS is not what you look for when you drop $16 million on a DH. At least it's the last year of it, because he is looking like a sunk cost. Sean Rodriguez was the main return in the Scott Kazmir trade. All of this for Victor Zambrano. Well done Tampa. His numbers in the minors have been insane. Dioner Navarro pretty much has to have a better season than last year. A .231 BABIP? Really? He's not amazing, but he's serviceable. When Kelly Shoppach gets off the DL, don't be shocked if he replaces Lil Pudge.
Pitching: A potential rotation and closer: James Shields-RHP, Matt Garza-RHP, Jeff Niemann-RHP, David Price-LHP, Wade Davis-RHP, and Rafael Soriano-RHP.
James Shields is the first cousin of the Legend. James has been worth over 4 WAR the past three seasons and doesn't get as much credit from the main stream as he deserves. He has great control (career 3.68 K/BB) and will clear 200 innings each season. He throws two fastballs, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. His changeup is phenomenal and he threw it for just under a quarter of his pitches last season (23.7%). He also isn't scared to bury a pitch in your ribcage. Matt Garza is the other great return for Delmon Young. I was thrilled to see him leave the division. Garza will throw around 180-200 innings, striking out over 160 batters. He does have a tendency to give up long balls (19 and 25 the past two seasons), but pitches well enough to not let this kill him. He throws two fastballs in the mid-90s, and mixes in a curve, slider, and changeup. All but the change are plus pitches. He spent a day last season talking about teen pregnancy, as his son Matthew was born shortly after he graduated high school. Niemann throws four pitches, but occasionally decides to throw a changeup as well. If he can repeat his rookie season, the Rays will have a potent top three starters that could combine to around 11-12 WAR. The scariest thing about this rotation? Every starter is under 30. David Price struggled in his first full season in the majors, but part of this was due to unrealistic expectations. His dominance in the 2008 playoffs set the bar high. He operates under the Mark Buehrle school of thought, only taking about 5-7 seconds between getting the ball from the catcher and sending it right back. When the 24-year old cuts down on his walks, he will be deadly. His fastball jumps around from 90-94, but to really succeed he needs to get his slider back. Like Garza, he can struggle with homeruns (1.19 HR/9 last season). Wade Davis has struggled in his first two starts so far, but should turn it around before too long. In a mere 36.1 innings last season, he registered 1.2 WAR. He's always walked his fair share of hitters, which seems to be the main knock on him. He is the classic four pitch pitcher, showing a fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. I expect big things from Wade. The Rays went out and decided to acquire a known closer this season, which is something they shied away from in the past. Soriano started his career with the Mariners, but was sent to Atlanta for Horacio Ramirez. God bless Bavasi. Last season, Soriano split closing duties with Mike Gonzalez as they both tend to get hurt and go through stretches of ineffectiveness. When he has control, Rafael is very effective. He thrives off his powerful fastball and solid slider.
Outlook: The Rays are a good team, but won't win the AL East this year. They do have a chance at passing the Red Sox though, if Boston continues to drop games. That being said, they're probably better than us. Prediction: 3-4 record for us.