After winning 90 games in 2012, it's pretty clear that the Tampa Bay Rays have established themselves as perennial playoff contenders, even if they didn't make the playoffs last year. But with teams battling age and injury (New York) and teams expected to take a step back in 2013 (Baltimore), the field is a bit less crowded to grab a spot. But without B.J. Upton and James Shields, can the Rays still hang around as serious contenders out of the American League East this season?
Depth Chart (as of 2/27)
C: Jose Molina
1B: James Loney
2B: Kelly Johnson
SS: Yunel Escobar
3B: Evan Longoria
LF: Matt Joyce
CF: Desmond Jennings
RF: Ben Zobrist
DH: Luke Scott
SP: David Price
SP: Jeremy Hellickson
SP: Matt Moore
SP: Alex Cobb
SP: Jeff Niemann
CL: Fernando Rodney
There are quite a few new faces to point out around Tropicana heading into the 2013 campaign, including three on the infield. The Rays brought in a pair of former Toronto middle infielders, in Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson. The former is a noted cancer, so it'll be interesting to see how his personality works with Joe Maddon. Johnson has yet to find the same success that he found with his career season in 2010, with Arizona. James Loney will probably post a decent batting average, but don't expect much in the way of power from the first baseman. He should be much more consistent with the stick than Carlos Pena was, at least.
The Rays will kick off 2013 without two of their mainstays: B.J. Upton and James Shields. Upton left via free agency, much to the surprise of absolutely no one. With Jennings in center and the potential emergence of Wil Myers in right, the Rays will be just fine without Upton in the lineup. You could almost say the same for Shields, given the Rays' pitching depth throughout the system. J.P. Howell was an unfortunate loss for the bullpen in free agency and Jeff Keppinger was a nice guy to have around, simply because of his versatility, but his departure likely won't be too noticeable.
When you talk about rookies that can make an impact with this team, you're essentially referring to one guy: Wil Myers. The Rays' prize of the offseason may not start the season in the bigs, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't expect to see him soon. Ben Zobrist is versatile, so he could transition to the infield if the Rays can't find a solution at second base. Which would open the door up for Myers. After a season that featured a .987 OPS and 37 home runs in the minors, it's no secret that folks all around the organization are excited to see what he can do at the big league level. Shouldn't be long before we all find out.
For the most part, spots in the field seem to be locked down. Kelly Johnson could end up fighting Ryan Roberts for the starting gig at second base. As noted previously, Zobrist could make a transition to second and take it from both of them, while making room for Myers. Just a thought.
We've seen Evan Longoria experience health issues of some sort in each of the past two seasons. Last year, he managed to play in just 74 games. Even if he was brilliant in that limited action, the Rays need Longoria healthy if they hope to make any some noise as potential title contenders this season. The good news is that Longoria sounds like he's healthy and rejuvenated heading into the new season.
When will Wil Myers make his jump to the bigs and join the Tampa Bay Rays permanently?
The Toronto Blue Jays fall flat on their faces, the Orioles regress, and those two rivals in the AL East battle each other to stay out of the cellar. While all of this is taking place, the Rays run away with their division. The pitching is outstanding and Wil Myers puts up Bryce Harper numbers in his first year as a pro after being called up in late April.
Evan Longoria hurts…something, Wil Myers struggles in his transition to the big league level, and Yunel Escobar does something incredibly stupid. It's hard to imagine a team with such a deep pitching staff letting all of that offensive stuff affect them, though.
Actually, the best case scenario may not be too far off from what realistic expectations are for the Rays in 2013. They have enough offense to carry them through the regular season and they have one of the best starting staffs in the league. The high profile moves from Toronto and Los Angeles are preventing them from getting the attention that they deserve. But this is a team to be reckoned with in the American League this season.