tom jones' two cents
I'm not ready to buy into the Rays just yet.
Plenty of folks are picking the Rays to win the American League East. Sports Illustrated is picking them to win the pennant. Surely, some out there believe the Rays will win the whole thing.
I just don't see it.
Look, there's a lot to like here, a lot to believe in.
Andrew Friedman is as sharp as any general manager in baseball. Joe Maddon is the best manager in baseball. There's still Evan Longoria and David Price and Ben Zobrist. Every year the Rays look a little worse than the year before and yet they end up winning 90-some games and battling for a playoff spot. Recent history says you're a fool to ever doubt this franchise.
Call me a fool.
Here are the reasons I'm not completely sold on the Rays heading into 2013.
The starting pitching has questions
Wait, what? Is someone actually suggesting that pitching could be a concern for the Rays?
Well, yeah. Sounds crazy, I know. For the past five seasons, pitching has been the backbone of the Rays' success. Every year, they lose a key starter and replace him with yet another star. The entire starting rotation, including ace David Price, was not on this team when this whole run began at the start of the 2008 season.
While the Rays were smart to deal James Shields for promising prospects, including the highly touted Wil Myers, there's no question that the starting rotation will be weaker without Shields' 15 victories and, more importantly, his team-leading 2272/3 innings.
It will be difficult for Price to repeat his Cy Young numbers of 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA, but Price is an elite pitcher.
Jeremy Hellickson is on his way to being a workhorse and Matt Moore will eventually replace Price at the top of the rotation, but they still have growing to do. Neither is ready to assume Shields' role. The fourth starter is a good-looking kid, Alex Cobb, but he's just a kid figuring things out.
The starting pitching is still the reason this team will be competitive, but it just doesn't seem likely that it will be as good as a year ago, mostly because of the loss of Shields.
The bullpen will be overworked
Every year, the Rays have to patch together a bullpen. This likely will be the first time since 2004-05 that the Rays will have the same leader in saves in consecutive seasons, assuming Fernando Rodney leads the team in saves again. To me, that's the most remarkable stat associated with the Rays.
The loss of Shields and the innings he ate up will have a major effect on the bullpen. It figures to be a little more taxed this season, and that strain could be a problem. In addition, Rodney is coming off, arguably, the greatest season for a closer in MLB history. There's no way he can repeat that performance.
The Rays had the third-best bullpen ERA (2.88) in baseball — a number that will be difficult to duplicate in 2013, especially now that Wade Davis is gone, too.
The offense has questions
The Rays always struggle to score. They were 11th in the American League in runs last season.
The key is a healthy Evan Longoria. The Rays were 47-27 last season and scored 4.8 runs a game with Longoria. They scored about a run fewer (3.9) and went 43-45 without him.
Let's not dismiss how much the Rays will miss B.J. Upton. He led the Rays in homers (28) and RBIs (78), tied for the team lead in steals (31) and was second in total bases and third in runs. And while many Rays fans grew frustrated with Carlos Peña, he still was third on the team in homers (19) and RBIs (61).
So many questions remain.
What gives you a reason to believe Luke Scott, who begins the season on the disabled list, will be any healthier or better than last season? What makes you think Matt Joyce will suddenly figure out how to hit lefties? How can you argue that James Loney, a .249 hitter last season, and Yunel Escobar, a .253 hitter, will get their act together? You do realize that Desmond Jennings is a career .248 hitter, right? And Myers isn't even here yet.
Longoria is a beast as long as he is healthy, which, come to think of it, is not a given. Ben Zobrist will hit. Maybe Jennings improves. Beyond that, do you really have faith in anyone else in that lineup?
The inability to make moves
During the course of a season, every team has important players who either get hurt or go in the tank.
It happened last season with the Rays. Longoria went down with an injury. So did Scott, Jeff Keppinger and others. As far as going in the tank, well, several players didn't have the seasons they were expected to have — Peña, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez and anyone who wore catcher's gear.
But here's the thing. When the Rays had issues, they brought in guys such as Hideki Matsui, Rich Thompson, Will Rhymes, Brooks Conrad and Brandon Allen. Look at this past offseason; the Rays' moves were full of gambles — Loney, Escobar and the re-signing of Scott.
Let's be realistic here. If the Rays have injuries or need help, they have to sift through yard sales and scrap heaps. They likely will have to make do with what they already have.
This isn't to suggest that the Rays are headed to the cellar of the American League East. The pitching, although not as strong as a season ago, is still better than most teams. Longoria's bat, alone, is worth a bunch of victories. They should play better defense. The division is weaker. And Maddon always seems to have the magic hand.
But, like always, there are plenty of questions about the Rays. This time, however, I'm not sure they have enough answers.