Major League Preview

Rays Have Great Expectations For 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA.—Executive vice president Andrew Friedman passed on opportunities to leave town. Manager Joe Maddon extended his contract. Starters Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann are both—surprisingly—still there, as is center fielder B.J. Upton, along with the rest of the core of their squad.

But there is something very new, and very different, in Rays camp this year: Expectations.

Gone are their days as the unlikely underdogs. The label as the The Little Team That Could no longer applies. They are now much more the hunted than the hunters.

The Rays are primed for continued success following their third appearance in the playoffs in a four-season span, capped off by the stunning September run and Game 162 dramatics that got them there. They head into 2012 full of optimism after an offseason when they unexpectedly increased their payroll more than 50 percent (to about $65 million) with an uncharacteristic splurge (by their standards) in spending $18 million on free-agent additions.

"I believe this team is capable of getting back to the World Series," Maddon said. "Absolutely."

The Rays have their reasons, starting with a rotation that legitimately runs eight deep, a defense that features above-average to elite defenders at every position, a bullpen with more depth and experience than they've previously had, and an offense bolstered by the free agent additions of first baseman Carlos Pena, DH Luke Scott and lefty-killer Jeff Keppinger.

"We're planning on winning the World Series this year," infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist said. "That's the goal, and from day one here looking forward, that's what we're focused on."

Some teams would be concerned about such hype and ask their players to tone it down. Maddon has encouraged his guys to embrace the raised expectations and welcomes such bold talk.

"Love it," he said. "I love the fact that we're handling the expectations properly. Expectations equal the fuel, and if you run away from that then it probably becomes combustible and you end up in flames . . . I believe as a group we have humble baseball players here. I believe humility is a real strong human quality. But I don't think that false humility is. So you don't go out there and just deny things or push back because you consider it superstitious, even though I'm just a little-stitious. You have to be concerned about that kind of thing—when you really don't admit to and you're always making excuses, I think that actually takes away. I like the idea that people feel that way about us."

The one concern the organization would have, Friedman said, would be if the Rays let it go to their heads. And he's not exactly worried.

"The only way or time it can become a problem is if you take on that mentality of, 'We're that good,' or 'We don't have to work,' " Friedman said. "I think our guys have gotten to the point with the culture Joe's created in the clubhouse with our coaching staff, it's not an impediment, it's not an issue, it's not a risk factor I think it might be in other places."

Six Starters, Five Spots

Veteran James Shields sets that tone, with a work ethic second to none among starting pitchers. He leads a staff that led the American League last year with a 3.53 starters ERA (second lowest in the league over the last 20 years) and 1,058 innings (most by an AL team since 2005), and not only surprisingly returned intact but—in the to the victor go the spoils category—adds rookie lefthander Matt Moore.

Barring an injury or at this point an unexpected trade, the Rays will open the season with six starters who could pitch, prominently, for any major league team: Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Davis, Niemann and Moore. Most likely, one will open the season in the bullpen. Undoubtedly, all six—and likely Alex Cobb and Alex Torres, who will be sent to Triple-A, as well—will make key starts. Even with the benefit of good health and minimal injuries, the Rays still have used at least seven starters in each of their four winning seasons and would rather have the extra arms than have to go looking.

"With razor-thin margins in this division, maintaining depth and having guys that can pitch successfully in the American League East to start as many of your 162 games as you possibly can is imperative for us to have success," Friedman said.

"I don't know how, or what's going to happen, but I do know we're going to use more than five starting pitchers this year. It might not be the cleanest fit on Opening Day, but we have to take a long-term view of 162 games. And we feel like we're a much better team with that depth than without it."

Even Better Defense

The defense, already tidy coming off a 2011 season of a major league-low 73 errors and an AL-best .988 fielding percentage, figures to be just as good or better, with Pena replacing Casey Kotchman at first and Jose Molina moving behind the plate.

The bullpen similarly looks to be improved, with Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, two question marks last spring when the entire pen was reconstructed, now entrenched in their late-inning roles; Brandon Gomes and Jake McGee more predictable after their rookie seasons; and the addition of Fernando Rodney, the former Tigers and Angels closer looking to bounce back, plus Burke Badenhop and Josh Lueke.

But the biggest change is to the offense. After scoring the fewest runs in the AL East last season (707) and getting battered by the Rangers in the Division Series, the Rays felt they had to do something to improve their production.

In place of Johnny Damon and Kotchman, who combined for 26 home runs, they now have Pena and Scott who, if they match past production, should be good for around 50 home runs. Factor in having Desmond Jennings, an impressive midseason callup, atop the lineup for a full season (as well as having Evan Longoria healthy all year), and Keppinger to face any and all lefties, and the potential to score more seems in their grasp.

"It's something we identified and wanted to do something about," Maddon said. "It is exciting. The biggest obstacle or task is going to be developing the batting order, and how does the batting order flow based on these new names? It's got a chance to be very thick from one through nine on a nightly basis.

"Any time you can add Carlos's power, Luke Scott's power, and then you have the other guys who are coming on: the Matt Joyces of the world, who probably has not reached his power potential in the major leagues yet either. The fact that Desmond Jennings showed what he did last year. Longo looks great right now, and B.J. I think in the past couple of years our power potential has been underestimated a bit among the guys that had been there. I think you're going to see guys that are now more veteran players and have a better understanding of what they're doing at the plate. You're going to see more power out of them, and then they're going to be accented with these other two guys. It's really exciting."

Put it all together, and the Rays are in an unusual spot: favored to get back to the playoffs.