In 2009 the Rays performed below expectations, making it easy to lose sight of their strengths. The team still won 84 games in baseball's toughest division. Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson may no longer be on the team but the Rays still have above-average pitching, and better hitting depth than many realize.
It's uncertain what 2010 holds for Tampa Bay. Their 2008 World Series appearance failed to increase their attendance figures in 2009. This will force them to look inward once again to solve problems. That may not be a problem for a young, prospect-rich franchise, which the Rays appear to be. For example, when Akinori Iwamura went down the Rays turned to Ben Zobrist and got an MVP-caliber performance.
Dioner Navarro - .218/.261/.322 VORP: -13.7
A product of the Yankees' system, Navarro was an All Star in 2008. That distinction seems dubious. His OPS+ was 100 even for the season with a .407 slugging. Those numbers may not scream All Star at first glance, but 2009 was abysmal. Don't expect a return to 2008 form for Navarro. With the exception of 2008 he's never posted an OPS+ above 80 in a season in which he's played a decent number of games. His 2008 BABIP was .321. It fell to .233 in 2009, but his true potential is somewhere between those numbers, which means he is at best about a replacement level player. The moral, as always? All Star balloting means nothing.
Carlos Pena - .227/.356/.537 VORP: 24.7
Pena is a serious power threat. He's hit 46, 31 and 39 home runs in each of the last three seasons. In 2009 he hit 39 home runs in only 135 games. He would have easily paced the American League had CC Sabathia not broken his finger with a fastball. The untrained eye may notice that Pena's batting average has fallen from .282 to .247 to .227 in the last three seasons as well, but during that time his BABIP has been .307, .305 and .253. The decline in BA between 2007 and 2008 is probably due to a jump in strikeouts from 142 to 166. That trend continued in 2009. His ticket was punched 163 times before his season ended. His BABIP should improve in 2010, but there's no reason to expect him to strike out any less. Given his power, should Pena learn some plate discipline, watch out.
Ben Zobrist - .297/.405/.543 VORP: 61
I give you the 2009 Fangraphs WAR replacement leader, with 8.6. Prior to 2009 Zobrist had never appeared in more than 62 games. When he stepped in for the injured Akinori Iwamura he became one of the biggest surprises in baseball. The performance was entirely unprecedented. Zobrist posted an OPS+ of 120 in 2008, albeit in only 62 games. His true value lies somewhere between 2008 and 2009 (either of which are excellent for an infielder). In 2008 his BABIP was .255 but it jumped up to .330 in 2009. Zobrist seems unlikely to repeat an OPS+ 146 season in 2010, but 130 seems well within the range of the possible.
Evan Longoria - .281/.364/.526 VORP: 54.7
Longoria has been in the bigs for two seasons, and has been excellent each year. In 2008 his OPS+ was 127. In 2009 it jumped up to 130. At only 23 its difficult to see him getting anything but better in the seasons that come. He has legitimate power, good plate discipline, and plays outstanding defense.
Longoria also has a 9 season contract, the longest in Rays history. Furthermore, he practically gave himself away. He can make upwards of $44 million during the life of the deal, but only $17.5 million of that is guaranteed. Good, affordable, reportedly a good guy, Longoria will be a fixture in a Rays uniform for a long time.
Jason Bartlett - .320/.389/.490 VORP: 58.3
Before we go any further, for anyone keeping score at home, the Rays infield excluding the Catcher position posted OPS+'s between 129 and 146 at every position in 2009. Much was made about the Yankees middle infield (and for good reason) but the Rays were right there with them. The same positions on the Yankees produced OPS+'s between 129 (Robinson Cano) and 149 (Mark Teixeira).
Bartlett had a breakout season in 2009. He'd never posted an OPS+ above 100 in any season prior to 2009 before busting out a 129. His slugging had never been higher than .393 before jumping up to .490 last season. His performance improvement was NOT due to BABIP. He has always had a high BABIP during his career. Given that Bartlett and Zobrist both had breakout years in their late 20's it may be time to have some key members of the Rays infield provide fluid samples.
Carl Crawford - .305/.364/.452 VORP: 42.8
In 2009 Crawford did what he usually does: Got on base a fair amount and stole a ton of bases. Crawford has a career .335 OBP and is a virtual lock to steal at least 50 bases. Crawford does get thrown out a fair amount as well, but his career success rate is 82%, which is above the threshold for adding value to an offense. Crawford plays excellent defense, making him a solid all-around player. Carl is in a contract year in 2010. I expect big things.
B.J. Upton - .241/.313/.373 VORP: 6.3
B.J. Upton is overrated. In 2007 he posted a 136 OPS+ with 24 homers. He's steadily lost his power since then. His slugging went from .508 in 2007 to .401 in 2008 and then down to .373 in 2009. This is the opposite direction a player's performance should take at age 24. Upton was rehabbing from shoulder surgery most of last season, but unless that injury originated in 2008 the surgery doesn't explain his decline from '07 to '08. Upton's reputation is for being fast, and while he does steal a lot of bases he also gets caught 25% of the time, which is pushing onto the wrong side of the success rate. B.J. remains a plus outfielder, but he was a replacement level player in 2009 and showed signs of an attitude problem. He'll need to regain some of his power in 2010 to live up to his reputation and potential.
Gabe Gross - .227/.326/.355 VORP: -3.8
Gross isn't very good at the game of baseball. Only once has he posted an OPS+ above 100, although his 2009 showing of 79 is bad even for him. At least he's ok defensively.
Pat Burrell - .221/.315/.367 VORP: -3.9
The Rays signed Burrell to add power to a lineup that was somewhat below average in 2008. He turned out to be a tremendous dissapointment. Burrell had put up a slugging of at least .500 every season since 2005 until he played in Tampa Bay where he posted the first sub .400 slugging of his career. According to Fangraphs, nothing changed for Burrell in 2009. His BABIP, strikeout and walk rates were all in line with his career performance to date. As a result, no one on Fangraphs is predicting a return to form.
James Shields - ERA: 4.14 WHIP: 1.325 VORP: 31.5
The Rays have good, young pitching. Shields is just the beginning of a list of good starters and relievers. His ERA+ was 109 in 2009 and it has been better than 120 in seasons past. Even if he never returns to his 2007-08 form, Shields still promises to give the Rays 200+ innings of better than average pitching in the AL East.
Matt Garza - ERA: 3.95 WHIP: 1.261 VORP: 40.7
Matt Garza is a good pitcher. He broke the 200 inning mark last season, and has posted ERA+'s of 116, 119 and 114 each of the last three years. He'll be 26 next season, and figures to anchor a better than advertised Rays staff.
Jeff Niemann - ERA: 3.94 WHIP: 1.351 VORP: 34.9
Is anyone else picking up a trend here? We make a big deal about the Yankees and Red Sox 1-3 starters, but these pitchers for the Rays are right up there. None of these three is as good as CC Sabathia, but all three of them were as good or better than both A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. Neimann had a breakout season in 2009, but at 26 years old its hard to imagine he's about to regress substantially.
David Price - ERA: 4.42 WHIP: 1.348 VORP: 12.7
David Price turns 24 next year. In 2008, at the age of 22 he was Joba-esque out of the bullpen for the Rays, posting a 228 ERA+. Converted to a starter in 2009, Price came down to Earth a bit, but still managed an ERA+ of 102. Bill James predicts a solid 2010, slightly improved from 2009. Its not Javier Vazquez, but its strong production from a number 4 starter with so much upside.
Andy Sonnanstine - ERA: 6.77 WHIP: 1.656 VORP: -20.1.
Ok, this guy stinks. But it took us four starters to get to a bad pitcher. Even without Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson the Rays still have a strong to excellent pitching staff.
J.P. Howell - ERA: 2.84 WHIP: 1.2 VORP: 21.6
Howell broke out in 2008 as the Rays closer, posting an ERA+ of 199. He regressed slightly in 2009, but established himself as a reliable arm out of the pen, this time posting an ERA+ of 159. As with all the Rays pitchers, Howell is young, turning 27 next season. He should continue to provide solid late inning services in 2010.
Taken as a whole, the Rays still look very good. In fact, their 2009 performance seems to have been a real case of underachieving. Five of the Rays hitters posted OPS+'s above 100, and four of them were 129 or better. In addition, B.J. Upton may not be the best hitter, but when healthy he's also a 100 OPS+ or better performer, giving the Rays at least six legitimate hitters in their lineup. That may not be able to go pound for pound with the Yankees or Red Sox, but on most days the Rays don't have to.
Their pitching is strong as well. They have four legitimate starters and a solid closer. Andy Sonnanstine is bad, but most teams don't have three good starters, let alone four.
The Rays seem like a 90 win team right now. If a player such as Dioner Navarro or Pat Burrell has a comeback year in 2010 that number could easily jump into the mid-90s. The Rays have most of the pieces in place to contend for the Wild Card in 2010. Unfortunately for them, they lack the financial resources to make any moves that may be able to put them over the top.