The Tampa Bay Rays are poised to make a run at the American League East pennant in 2012. The team that was supposed to be doomed for failure with the loss of key players like Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, and Rafael Soriano pulled off the unthinkable by making the postseason in 2011. This offseason should paint a more optimistic picture.
Unlike last year, the Rays will not be losing two of their best hitters and their entire bullpen.They will have a solid nucleus going into the off-season which they can build upon, and more upcoming prospects in the farm system that can add value to the team down the line.
Actually, one could say that the Durham Bulls made the postseason in 2011, and not the Rays. Casey Kotchman, Desmond Jennings, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb were among the players that made a significant impact to the Rays playoff run after starting the season in the minor leagues. The Rays will have to continue to find minor league prospects that are ready to compete on the major league stage since principal owner Stu Sternberg has already said that the team's payroll will likely remain where it is going into next season.
While this may not sound like the way to field a competitive team in the AL East, this is the same model that has led the franchise to the playoffs three out of the past four seasons. Only the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies have accomplished the same feat. Although it may not be ideal situation, it is still realistic that the team can continue to be among the elite teams in baseball. Manager Joe Maddon and Executive VP Andrew Friedman have built a team based on solid starting pitching, timely hitting, and solid defense. They still have the players to fulfill that philosophy.Pitching
Thanks to the emergence of Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Alex Torres the Rays have a total of eight pitchers that could pitch in the rotation next season. Cobb should be ready in time for Spring Training, but likely will start next season in Durham.
There are going to be a lot of trade rumors swirling around for James Shields, but the Rays can pick up his $7.5 million option, and that is a steal for a starting pitcher that can throw complete games and allow the bullpen to get rest. However, if the right offer is made the team will have to listen to it.
The most likely pitchers to be traded are Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. The team might be best suited using Davis in the bullpen to start the season, and perhaps later as a sixth starter or rotation fill-in should an injury strike.
The addition of a quality reliever should solidify the bullpen that will return largely intact.Lineup
The Rays lineup needs help especially at catcher and shortstop. Don't expect the Rays to pickup Kelly Shoppach's $3.2 million option. The team will likely try to find a replacement or attempt to sign him back later at a lower price. The team really needs to get better offensive production from both positions where they ranked among the bottom in baseball.
B.J. Upton will continue to be brought up in trade rumors. It doesn't make sense to trade Upton without adding another outfielder to the lineup. Desmond Jennings can move to center field, but that would leave a gaping hole in left field that Sam Fuld cannot cover, no matter how popular he is on Twitter. Supposedly teams like the Washington Nationals are willing to overpay for the services of Upton. If that proves to be true, then it makes sense to trade him. However, if the team doesn't get a major league ready shortstop or catcher in the deal it would not be worth the loss.
The team must also address the situation at first base and designated hitter, where both incumbents are free agents. They could decide to bring back either Casey Kotchman or Johnny Damon, and Andrew Friedman has indicated that both players will be in the discussion when the team begins looking for solutions. They may opt to fill one or both positions through free agency or the trade market.
Maddon and Friedman will have their work cut out for them again to try to sustain the success they have achieved over the past four seasons with their clearance rack budget. But with the ongoing debacle in Boston, they should be in a good position to fight it out with the Yankees for the AL East Pennant in 2012.