2011 Tampa Bay Rays: Friedman & Co. should just write a ‘Baseball Front Office for Dummies’ book and get it over with.

2010 Record: 96-66, 1st AL East
2010 Prediction: 90-72, 3rd AL East
Diff: 6
2011 Prediction: 2nd AL East

Impact Player: 3B Evan Longoria
Impact Pitcher: LHP David Price
Best Reliever: RHP Joel Peralta
Top Prospect: RHP Jeremy Hellickson

General Manager: Andrew Friedman
Manager: Joe Maddon (404-406, .499)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Joel Peralta, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, RHP Adam Russell, OF/DH Johnny Damon, DH Manny Ramirez, OF Sam Fuld, RHP Rob Delaney, LHP Cesar Ramos

Significant Departures:
1B Carlos Pena, SS Jason Bartlett, LF Carl Crawford, INF/DH Willy Aybar, C Dioner Navarro, OF Gabe Kapler, DH Hank Blalock, DH Brad Hawpe, OF Rocco Baldelli, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Rafael Soriano, RHP Lance Cormier, RHP Joaquin Benoit, RHP Dan Wheeler, LHP Randy Choate, RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Chad Qualls

The Rays won their second AL East title in three years proving that they are the best-run organization in baseball and perhaps in all of sports.  Despite being on one of the tightest budgets in the league, the Rays have managed three straight winning seasons, two division titles and an AL pennant.  This year, however will be a big challenge as many key parts of their success left via free agency.

The Rays are built in a very smart way combining an impeccable drafting record with savvy trades and smartly taking advantage of baseball’s free agent compensation system.

This offseason was one where the Rays saw their franchises’ best player, their franchises’ all-time home run leader and almost their entire bullpen sign elsewhere, and as a result, a lot of people see the Rays taking a step backward.

Having watched closely this offseason, I could not agree less with that opinion.  I think the Rays will not only compete in the AL East in 2011, I think they’ll be better than the Yankees.

Not only are they built for this year, but the 12 draft picks in the first two rounds that they have accumulated ensures that they’ll have a well-stocked farm system for many years.

Starting Rotation
Saying that the Rays may fall back below the .500-mark totally ignores that this team has one of the best starting rotations in baseball.  Led by David Price, who finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting last season, the Rays might be better in this regard than they were last year.

James Shields has been inconsistent over the last two seasons but is still a durable arm logging four consecutive 200-inning seasons and also posting the best K/9 rate of his career.  His 3.75 K/BB was fourth in the AL.  I fully expect him to be solid number-two pitcher this season.

Wade Davis was inconsistent last year, but showed a ton of promise and at 25, should be ready to take the next step and be a very good number-three pitcher; all the ingredients are there.  His K/9 rate was oddly low and should rebound this year, which will help.

The one question mark, in my opinion, in this rotation is Jeff Niemann.  I’ve never been the biggest believer in his abilities and although he is good enough to be a solid back-end option, his peripherals have never been great and at 28-years-old they’re unlikely to get much better.  He may be a tad overrated.

The trading of Matt Garza to the Cubs was the type of move that the Rays have perfected: trading something of value from a position of strength to bolster the farm system.  The Rays made off with a thief’s bounty of prospects from Chicago and at the same time cleared a rotation spot for #1 prospect Jeremy Hellickson who I believe will have a better year in 2011 than Garza.  Hellickson has dominated at every level and has had more than enough time to adjust to pro-ball.  He should step in and be immediately effective.

Barring injuries, the Rays should be able to compete nightly with their rotation.

Bullpen
Rafael Soriano signed with the Yankees, Joaquin Benoit with the Tigers, Dan Wheeler with the Red Sox, Chad Qualls with the Padres, Grant Balfour with the A’s, Randy Choate with the Marlins, and Lance Cormier is still a free agent.

One look at the decimated Rays bullpen and you could assume that they’re in trouble once their starters leave the game.  But as I said in a post last week, that may not be the case.

Joel Peralta will prove himself to be one of the biggest bargain signings in 2011 after coming over from the Nationals for $900,000; he had a 2.02 ERA and 3.02 FIP last year.  Kyle Farnsworth may be scorned upon by most, but I truly believe he’s getting better with age and will be a reliable option late in the game for the Rays.

J.P. Howell was a very consistent lefty until last year when he missed the whole season recovering from shoulder surgery.  If he bounces back and is as effective as before, the Rays bullpen should be okay.  Andy Sonnanstine can be a valuable swing-man and will likely be on the Opening Day roster as well.

The rest of the bullpen will be made up of names not many people have heard about, but all of them are primed to become reliable Major-League relievers.  Left-hander Jake McGee could be a terribly dominant southpaw now that the Rays have converted him to relief and Mike Ekstrom has shown he’s very capable after dominating in AAA last year.

The two relievers acquired in the Jason Bartlett trade with the Padres, righty Adam Russell and lefty Cesar Ramos could also be useful.  Waiver pickup Rob Delaney, and non-roster invites R.J. Swindle, Cory Wade, Dirk Hayhurst, and Jonah Bayliss will also be in the mix to make the team.

Manager Joe Maddon says he will not name a closer just yet and will use a “by committee” approach.  I almost always see this as a good thing.

Catchers
John Jaso is back as the main catching option for 2011 after spending a lot of time in the leadoff spot last season.  His .372 OBP and above average baserunning skills make him perfect for that role even though he is a catcher.  Maddon should be applauded for his unconventional thinking in this regard.  Some have compared Jaso to Jason Kendall in his prime.  Kelly Shoppach seems to have forgotten how to hit, but he is still a solid backup catcher.

The Rays also acquired prospect catcher Robinson Chirinos in the Garza trade and he seems to be no more than a year away from breaking in with the major-league team.

Infielders
With Carlos Pena moving on to Chicago, the Rays do have a notable hole at first base, but they are hoping Dan Johnson finally sheds his AAAA-label and sticks with the team.  He was unbelievable in AAA last year posting a 1.054 OPS.  If he falters, the team signed Casey Kotchman to a minor-league deal and may also consider using Ben Zobrist there.  Chris Carter, who’s also in on a minor-league deal, is an intriguing option who could be primed for a breakout year after holding his own in 100 games with the Mets in’10.

Zobrist will likely see most the time at second base but will move around the diamond to take advantage of his superior defence at several positions.  He fell back to earth offensively in 2010 after a monster ’09, but still had a solid .346 OBP and 3.1 WAR rating.  Sean Rodriguez could develop into a solid power hitter and will see time at second.

Evan Longoria is an MVP-in-waiting and is one of the truly elite third basemen in the game.  Last season he posted an 11.1 UZR rating and a ridiculous 6.9 WAR.  Only Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre posted higher WAR ratings last season in the AL.

The Bartlett trade has made room for Reid Brignac who possesses all the tools to be an All-Star shortstop.  He has more power and on-base ability than Bartlett as well.

Rodriguez can also fill in at short and third while Elliot Johnson and non-roster invites Ray Olmedo, Daniel Mayora and Felipe Lopez will also have a shot at cracking the team.  Lopez has the best shot.

Outfielders
With Crawford gone, the Rays will finally get to see what Desmond Jennings has to offer.  With the acquisition of Johnny Damon to play leftfield, Jennings will likely slide over to rightfield which should be no problem for him.  I believe Jennings will be an All-Star within two years and is my pick for Rookie of the Year.

B.J. Upton is back in centerfield after another year of low batting average.  Even while hitting .237, however, Upton was still a 3.4 WAR player who had a solid walk-rate and stole 42 bases.

Matt Joyce should finally be able to show what he can do and will fit in as a fourth OF and occasional DH.  He may also log some time at first base if all the other options fall through.  Sam Fuld posted a .383 OBP at AAA-Iowa in the Cubs system last year and may have the biggest impact in 2011 of any of the players acquired for Garza.

Rodriguez and Zobrist can also play the outfield.

Designated Hitter
Manny Ramirez was signed for just $2-million this offseason and could be the biggest bargain of the year.  Even in a 2010 that was considered a “down” year for Manny, he still posted a .409 OBP and .869 OPS.  Fully healthy and motivated, he could be very dangerous.

For a look at the Rays’ lineup and roster for 2011, click here.

Overview
The Rays have such ridiculous organizational depth that I have no fears of them falling back in 2011.  Their defensive versatility will allow them to hide some of the holes they have and players such as Hellickson, Jennings, McGee, Peralta and Brignac could be cheaper and in some cases better versions of what they’re replacing.  Led by a solid starting rotation and a core that still consists of some very good players, I expect the Rays to be back in the playoffs in 2011.
Final Prediction: 93-69, 2nd AL East

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