Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Tampa Bay Rays Fantasy Report

posted by Jon Williams

Photo from fOTOGLIF
The Tampa Bay Rays are like many fantasy owners, they want everyone on their team to come at a bargain price. It is not a bad idea. However, a major league roster with this strategy will find they struggle to compete in a division like the American League East. Considering the massive store of talent collected on Tampa Bay’s major league roster and within their minor league system, you would be right to believe they have the talent necessary to acquire any player that might be available. However, the Rays prefer a spread the risk approach. They make small trades and signings for undervalued veterans and cost-controlled prospects. It is a solid approach to team building that emulated by other small market franchises hoping to influence their divisions. The only question is if this approach weakens or strengthens their ability to grow from a small market franchise into a medium or larger one. The Milwaukee Brewers are living proof that it can be done.

The 2009 season was a disappointing one for the Rays, mostly due to disappointing performances by key personnel. Scott Kazmir clearly had one of those disappointing seasons. Before the Rays sent him to the Los Angeles Angels (a deal that reduced the payroll and brought in even more prospects), Kazmir pitched 111 innings in 20 starts that resulted in a 8-7 record with a 5.92 ERA, and 1.541 WHIP. B.J. Upton was expected to start slowly due to his recovery from shoulder surgery but few would have anticipated the season long absence of power and production. Free agent acquisition Pat Burrell batted just .221/.315/.367 with just 14 homeruns in 476 plate appearances. Dioner Navarro failed to build on his lucky but still promising 2008 season. In fact, Navarro had the worst season of his career with a 52 OPS+ in 410 plate appearances, but this may have been due to an injured ulnar ligament in his left elbow. Akinori Iwamura missed most of the season due to injury but that may have been a blessing in disguise. The Rays were happy to trade Iwamura after the season knowing they had Ben Zobrist to fill his position.

However, it was not all bad news. The studly Evan Longoria is a Tampa Bay Ray. The aforementioned Ben Zobrist had an MVP quality season that by some measures ranked him as the best hitter in the American League in 2009. Shortstop Jason Bartlett had a career season with a slash of .320/.389/.490 with 14 homeruns and 30 stolen bases. Carl Crawford returned to first round form by slashing .305/.364/.452 with 15 homeruns and 60 stolen bases. The pitching staff is loaded with talent with more in the pipeline. James Shields, Matt Garza, and Jeff Niemann were all above average starters in 2009 with two extremely high quality former prospects, David Price and Wade Davis, expected to fill out the rotation in 2010. The Rays may face an uphill battle in the American League East but with a loaded minor league system and a roster full of high-end young players, there is a lot to be optimistic about.

Fantasy Focus

Ben Zobrist, 2B
If you were paying attention, you saw that Ben Zobrist stepped up his performance beginning in 2008. His spectacular 2009 season was just proof that the improvements he made were not just the result of a small sample size. He has always demonstrated the ability to draw walks and make solid contact. He has shown improving power the last four years but especially in the 2008 season. Zobrist gives a considerable amount of credit for his improvement to private hitting coach Jaime Cevallos, known as the swing mechanic. Here is a quote from an interview that Cevallos gave Tommy Rancel of D’Rays Bay in April of 2009.
I asked if a team gave Zobrist 500 at-bats in a season how many home runs he'd hit. Cevallos didn't hesitate, "30 plus."
We all know what happened after that. Coincidence? Probably. Clearly, the training that Zobrist was receiving had a result and it was the result intended.

Zobrist’s 2009 slash of .297/.405/.543 with 28 doubles, 7 triples, 27 homeruns, and 17 stolen bases may seem impossible for Zobrist to duplicate but I do not think they are. Obviously, Zobrist had an otherworldly first half, and a merely great second half. Nevertheless, even if we double his second half numbers (an interesting but not predictive practice) Zobrist would have a line of .298/.395/.490 with 26 doubles, six triples, 20 homeruns, and 12 stolen bases in just 510 at-bats. Hitting high in the batting order and likely to play every day at second base, almost guarantees that Zobrist will receive closer to 600 at-bats.

But besides the positive trending in his stats there is also his superb plate discipline. He swings at pitches outside the strike zone just 20.2 percent of the time in his career – far below the major league average. He has a career walk rate of 11 percent and has exceeded that mark the last two seasons. He has strong linedrive rates (an indication of strong BABIPs), and a 17.45 HR/FB percentage the last two seasons. There is very little not to like.

Zobrist needs a repeat to convince most fantasy owners that he can maintain a high rate of production. The fan predictions on FanGraphs.com are solid but far short of his 2009 marks. This may indicate that his auction price could stay in a reasonable range. He will qualify at 2B and OF in most leagues and even shortstop in some leagues. He should be a solid value pick in most leagues in the third or fourth rounds and could provide first round value.

Jason Bartlett, SS
There is little question that Jason Bartlett had a career season in 2009. The question to answer is how much of that stellar performance we can expect to see in 2010. Bartlett’s .368 BABIP is significantly higher than his career .330 BABIP. His 2009 8.7 percent HR/FB is more than double his career average. His 26 percent linedrive rate is high, his career average is 21.8 percent. His isolated power increased to .170 when his career mark is just .107 including the 2009 season. These are all stats I expect to see closer to his career rates in 2010. However, Bartlett showed some increased skills not to be ignored. His plate discipline was very good. He swung at just 20.9 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. Bartlett’s walk rate increased (along with his K-rate, but he still makes excellent contact).

Many Rays fans on the better fan sites seem to believe that Bartlett’s improvements were almost entirely fluke but I do not believe that is the case. I have also heard that the Rays would rather move Bartlett than prospect Reid Brignac. I can see the logic in the idea but I doubt the Rays are trying to move either at this point. The 2009 season may always be the best in Jason Bartlett’s career but I expect another good one in 2010.

David Price, RHP
After a reign as the best pitching prospect in the minors, many fantasy owners believed that Price would come to the majors and immediately dominate the competition. That was a mistake. Price struggled with his control at AAA Durham in both 2008 and 2009 in small samples. Therefore, it was not a complete surprise that those control problems followed him into the major leagues. However, as the season progressed Price saw his control improve. His strikeout rate fluctuated as he learned to harness his stuff. As the season ended (especially in August) Price was once again looking like a potentially great pitcher. His walk rate was falling and his groundball rate was increasing. His K9 was just 5.9 in the second half but I would not worry about it at this point. I expect a better season in 2010 for Price though not without a few more growing pains. In the end, it should be worth it.

Searching for Sleepers

Jacob McGee, RHP
If you take a brief glance at Jacob McGee’s Baseball-Reference page, you will ask why the Rays are not making room for him in their major league rotation. He will appear in the majors this season. McGee could even debut in the bullpen out of Spring Training. His ability to strike out batters and to induce groundballs indicates that he can be a potentially dominating closer. The Rays have no one else in their bullpen (without demoting someone that projects into their rotation) with the potential to dominate like McGee. The Rays have just acquired Rafael Soriano who may become their 2010 closer. But McGee qualifies as a sleeper candidate for this year and in the near future.

Best Team Blogs for the Tampa Bay Rays

Drays Bay - http://www.draysbay.com/

Rays Index - http://www.raysindex.com/

Rays Report - http://www.tboblogs.com/index.php/sports/related/C142/

Dock of the Rays - http://dockoftherays.com/

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