The Tampa Bay Rays will spend less than a third of what the Dodgers or Yankees will spend on player payroll in 2013 ($59.9 million vs. $200 million-plus), but they might be better than either team. That's what several years of smart drafting and shrewd personnel moves will do for you. This winter was no different, as Andrew Friedman and company turned two years of James Shields and five of Wade Davis, both solid-to-very-good pitchers, into a boatload of Kansas City's top prospects, most notably outfielder Wil Myers, rendered superfluous thanks to the Royals' infatuation with Jeff Francoeur. They also let center fielder B.J. Upton walk in free agency, deciding to replace him with internal solutions and spare parts. Sometimes those spare parts work out (Carlos Pena 2008-9), and sometimes they don't (Carlos Pena 2010 and 2012, Luke Scott). What might be in store this year?
CF Desmond Jennings (R): .263/.337/.417, 15 HR, 36 SB, 5.0 WAR
RF Ben Zobrist (S): .264/.369/.440, 18 HR, 15 SB, 5.7 WAR
3B Evan Longoria (R): .273/.366/.516, 33 HR, 6.4 WAR
LF Matthew Joyce (L): .260/.354/.467, 20 HR, 2.8 WAR
2B Kelly Johnson (L): .241/.328/.407, 17 HR, 12 SB, 2.1 WAR
SS Yunel Escobar (R): .276/.344/.377, 9 HR, 2.7 WAR
DH Ryan Roberts (R): .249/.328/.395, 11 HR, 1.4 WAR
1B James Loney (L): .279/.337/.406, 7 HR, 0.6 WAR
C Jose Lobaton (R): .237/.330/.366, 7 HR, 1.8 WAR
Jennings was Tampa Bay's top outfield prospect for years, but finally played his first full season (sort of) last year at the age of 25. He moves from left to center to replace Upton, and though he struggled in full-time duty last year (97 OPS+), he should improve in 2013. Zobrist is probably the most under-appreciated player in the game today. He can play six positions and play them well, gets on base often, has decent pop in his bat, and adds value on the bases. You know how many players have more wins above replacement over the past four seasons than his 25.1? Miguel Cabrera (25.9), Albert Pujols (25.4), and...that's the list. Assuming the Rays pick up his 2014 and 2015 options, they will pay a mere $20 million over three years for one of the most valuable assets in baseball. That's just business as usual for the Rays. Longoria, at 27 perhaps the best all-around third baseman in the game, is locked up for the next decade at an average of $13 million per year, plus a team option in 2023 at that same rate, another huge bargain given his production with both the bat and glove.
The rest of the lineup after those three is somewhat more piecemeal. Joyce provides pop but needs a right-handed caddy, as his platoon splits are big. Johnson can hit, but has been inconsistent throughout his career. Escobar has now worn out his welcome in both Atlanta and Toronto, but is a quality shortstop with both the bat and the glove when his head is screwed on straight. Roberts' spot could just as easily go to Scott or Sean Rodriguez or Sam Fuld. Loney is working on his last opportunity to prove that he can be an everyday player, as he has been the worst-hitting first baseman in baseball for a few years now. Neither Jose Lobaton nor Jose Molina can hit much at all, but they can handle a staff (especially Molina). This lineup should change significantly around June, when Myers will almost certainly get called up and bump one of Joyce/Roberts/Loney to the bench, with Zobrist likely switching positions to make up the difference if Loney gets the axe. Myers has big power and a very good eye, and might get dropped right into the cleanup spot on this team when he gets the call.
Defense has been a Tampa Bay hallmark since they first became competitive back in 2008, and it is no different this year. Molina, Longoria, and Zobrist are all elite with the leather, Zorilla as mentioned above at several positions. Jennings should capably fill Upton's shoes in center, and Escobar and Loney are also very good defenders. Rodriguez and Fuld provide leather off of the bench, and the versatility of several players on the roster allows Joe Maddon to tinker with the lineup as much as he needs to.
LHP David Price: 216.0 IP, 202 K, 63 BB, 3.13 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 5.4 WAR
LHP Matt Moore: 202.0 IP, 232 K, 84 BB, 3.25 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 3.7 WAR
RHP Jeremy Hellickson: 187.0 IP, 151 K, 65 BB, 3.51 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 1.8 WAR
RHP Alex Cobb: 169.0 IP, 152 K, 56 BB, 3.72 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 3.1 WAR
RHP Jeff Niemann: 118.0 IP, 94 K, 35 BB, 3.81 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 1.8 WAR
The Rays will open the season without Shields in the rotation for the first time since 2006, but this club has stockpiled so much pitching through the draft that it doesn't really matter. Price won the American League Cy Young last year, and deservedly so; he's a 27-year-old southpaw who has gotten noticeably better every year, and might get too expensive for the Rays beyond this season; expect ceaseless trade rumors if the Rays fall out of the race by June. Moore is three years younger and under team control through 2019; in his first full season last year he racked up tons of punchouts but also a lot of walks, something he will need to work on in order to reach Price's level as an elite pitcher. Hellickson, Cobb, and Niemann are all capable, although the giant Niemann (6'9", 270) is coming off of an injury-plagued 2012. Behind the front five are Cesar Ramos and a deep stable of prospects: Jake Odorizzi, Chris "Duchess" Archer, and Mike Montgomery are the three closest to the majors.
The other thing that the Rays have been great at over the past few years is finding relievers on the scrap heap and turning them into inexpensive stars, best exemplified by the way Fernando Rodney took the league by storm a year ago. He is back to close in 2013, with Joel Peralta, Roberto Hernandez, and Kyle Farnsworth the most notable arms behind him. It should also be noted that the Rays possess one of the best tactical managers in the game in Maddon, who massages his roster constantly in order to get the most out of what he gets from management. The bet here is that the Rays will take advantage of a topsy-turvy AL East to claim, or at least come close to, one of the wild card spots.