The second of a four part series, Rival Roundup takes a look at each team of the American League East. The Yankees will play almost half of their games against these four clubs so it is really important to get to know their strengths and weaknesses. We have reached out to our ESPN SweetSpot Network partner sites to contribute their thoughts to the series. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Rays and Tommy Rancel of The Process Report has been kind enough to provide his thoughts that will be sprinkled throughout.
Remember the days when the Yankees only had to worry about the Red Sox and the rest of the division was fairly incompetent? For the past several years, the Tampa Bay Rays have also been tough to beat. In fact, the entire division is strong if you were to look at one set of projections. The Rays won 92 games last year, seven more than the Yankees. Not only did the team finish ahead of the Yankees, they pretty well thrashed the Bronx team in the season series, winning 12 of the 19 games and outscoring the Yankees by 32 runs.
Tommy Rancel believes the Rays will again win 92 games in 2014, and since the team is little changed at its core and perhaps improved in the rotation, Rancel's prediction is hard to argue.
First, let's take a quick look at the Rays' off season. The team lost seven players to free agency. They were: Closer Fernando Rodney, relievers Jesse Crain and Jamey Wright, starter Roberto Hernandez and position players Kelly Johnson, Luke Scott, Sam Fuld and Delmon Young.
On the addition side of the off season, the team signed Grant Balfour and traded for Ryan Hanigan , Heath Bell and Logan Forsythe and that was pretty much it. Balfour is not as good as Rodney had been for the Rays, but he should be serviceable. But Hanigan is a nice pickup to back up Jose Molina and, someday soon, inherit the position.
The bullpen will miss Jamey Wright, but he is going to be 39-years-old in 2014, so the risk is low. The rest of the losses should not hurt the Rays very much as they were marginal players anyway. Losing Roberto Hernandez is an addition by subtraction!
In fact, the off season made the Rays' rotation all that much better since they let Hernandez walk and their other weak link, Jeremy Hellickson, had elbow surgery. That means a full year of the (so far) amazing Chris Archer and a chance for Jake Odorizzi to step up to the next level. Odorizzi has been a consistent winner in the minors and was rated in the top 100 prospects by Baseball America for three straight years. Tommy Rancel believes that Ordorizzi will be the Rays' top rookie.
A rotation of David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi seems pretty darned sweet and the rival of any team in the Majors. And Hellickson's surgery was not of the Tommy John variety and he should be back if Odorizzi struggles. And there are plenty of prospects behind them as Plans B, C and D like Nate Karns, Alex Colome and Enny Romero are ready to step up any time now.
The Yankees have greatly improved their rotation, but with the Rays' depth, I see Tampa's rotation about a win or two better than the Yankees'.
The Rays bullpen is deep as well with proven relievers. Heath Bell has had two straight tough seasons, but his peripherals were much better in 2013 than 2012 and could not have been helped by pitching his home games in the thin, hot air of Arizona. He should fare better in Tampa.
Tommy Rancel sees the pitching staff as being as good as last year, but if Moore and Archer take the next leap, could be even better. He is probably correct.
A lot for the Rays will depend on the team's offense. The team's OPS improved 26 points over 2012 but still came in ninth out of fifteen teams in runs scored. The 2012 team actually scored one more run than the 2013 team did.
Rancel points to two things that could improve the offense. First, a full season from Wil Myers instead of just 88 games should be a great boost to the team's overall run scoring ability. Secondly, a full season of David DeJesus allows the Rays to put him at the lead-off spot and take that pressure and lack of on-base skills away from Desmond Jennings. DeJesus has a lifetime OBP over .350 and that is much better than Jennings' .330 mark.
Jennings is a player that hasn't hit his stride in the Majors. Much more was expected of him but he has become much more like B.J. Upton than the upgrade the team was hoping for. Freed from the lead-off expectations and disappointments, Jennings might settle down and become the hitter he was expected to be. He is having a good spring thus far. Tommy Rancel believes this will be Desmond Jennings' breakout season.
The core of the Rays' lineup with Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, Will Myers and a renewed James Loney should give the Rays an above average lineup. Matt Joyce has fallen out of favor with the Rays, but he could rediscover his stroke too. He is a better DH than what the Rays have had over the past several seasons.
If you were to compare the two teams, the Rays have the advantage over the Yankees at third base, shortstop, second base and right field. The Yankees have the advantage at first base, designated hitter, left field, center field and catcher.
Joe Girardi is not much behind Joe Maddon as a manager. Both handle their teams, bullpens and the press well. Both make moves in the field that backfire at times. The only thing seems to be that Girardi manages differently against the Maddon-led Rays. His decisions seem more stress-related, as if he was trying to keep up with Maddon's "genius."
One true advantage the Rays have is Tropicana. The Yankees hate playing there and it has showed over the years. The team only compiled a .571 OPS there while the Rays compiled an OPS of .810 at Yankee Stadium III. Though the Yankees' record at Tropicana of 4-5 in 2013 was the best win-loss showing in several seasons.
The Yankees play the Rays at Tropicana:
- Apr 17-20 - 4 games
- Aug 15-17 - 3 games
- Sep 15-17 - 3 games
The Yankees play the Rays at home:
- Mar 2-4 - 3 games
- Jun 30 / Jul 1-2 - 3 games
- Sep 9-11 - 3 games
Some key match-ups
- Yankees' pitching against Evan Longoria. Longoria killed the Yankees' pitching staff last year to the tune of a 1.084 OPS. He particularly destroyed CC Sabathia.
- David Price versus the Yankees' outfielders. Other than Carlos Beltran (who Price has never faced), Price has held Ellsbury, Suzuki, Gardner and Soriano to a .203 batting average lifetime (SSS).
- David Robertson versus the Rays. The Rays have a cumulative OPS against Robertson of .467. Compare that to Mariano Rivera over that same time period who only held the Rays to an OPS of .796.
The Yankees need to do better than their 7-12 record against the Rays in 2013 if they hope to leap-frog ahead of the Rays in the 2014 AL East standings. Just as a point of reference, the Rays have a projected win total of 85 wins and the Yankees have a projection of 83 wins. It will take at least 90 wins to win the division. Both of these teams have the talent to get there. The question remains to be seen as to which one of them will.