George Christian Pappas, ESPN Radio
We're a matter of weeks away from the start of Grapefruit League action and the Tampa Bay Rays will be gathering in Port Charlotte to prepare for another campaign in the American League East.
It’s a miracle the Rays even made the playoffs last year, which suggests that any additions would work in their favor to ensure a return to the postseason, right? This time around, the executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, and his front-office staff entered the off-season looking to upgrade their major-league product with another season approaching. The franchise bolstered its pitching, locking up touted prospect Matt Moore and adding right-hander Fernando Rodney to supplement the back-end of the bullpen. It also acquired a few veterans to re-energize the lineup. Let’s assess Tampa Bay’s offensive additions heading into the 2012 campaign.
It seemed about a year ago that every analyst, fan, stat junkie and casual fantasy baseball owner was ready to pronounce the Tampa Bay Rays as being out of contention months before the first pitches of the season. Seven key players walked as free agents. Another two established veterans were traded for farmhands. Heck, the Boston Red Sox – one of their arch-nemeses in the American League East – were ready to capitalize on the Rays’ small-market misfortunes, luring all-star left-fielder Carl Crawford to Fenway Park by means of a mega-deal his former employers in St. Petersburg would never be able to match.
A year later, it’s no secret how all that panned out. The Rays surged into the season’s end in historic fashion, overcoming a nine-game deficit in the A.L. Wild Card to displace the Sox, everyone’s preseason World Series favorite, from playoff contention on the last day of the season.
Tampa Bay’s lineup was marred by inconsistency. There were explosive nights when the ballclub plated double-digit run totals; those were offset by the nights when it seemingly couldn’t hit its way out of a paper bag. The Rays’ .244 team batting average was the second-lowest total in the A.L. and the worst for any club managed by Joe Maddon. They had the lowest run production in the East, and though their run-support average was in line with the league mean, it faltered for the top of the rotation. The bats were all too stingy whenever David Price and James Shields took the mound; the pitchers ranked Nos. 63 and 87, respectfully, in support, backed by nearly four runs less than their counterparts in New York and Boston per start.
The front office looked to revamp the batting order with one of the most sought-after free agents on the market, making advances toward signing Carlos Beltran. Friedman was not able to sign the veteran outfielder, but he picked up another one with a potentially sizeable power stroke in Luke Scott.
The Rays inked Scott to a one-year deal worth $6 million with a club option for 2013. The 33-year-old can play the outfield, as well as first base and designated hitter, so he’ll be a fitting replacement for the void left by Johnny Damon. The catch: Scott is coming off of surgery to repair a torn labrum, which ended his season with the Orioles in July. Tampa Bay can only hope that he makes a return to form to match his numbers from 2008-2010, when he averaged a .266/25/71 clip. But if homer plots are any indication of projected power numbers, Scott could be due for a downturn. A simple transposition of his hitting charts in his home ballpark in Baltimore shows that some home runs at Camden Yards would fall short of the fences at Tropicana Field, thus detracting from his production totals.
Even then, there is another caveat to consider: Scott strikes out about twice for every time he reaches base on a walk. That could translate into a lot of runners left stranded while the big bats come up empty waving for the fences, especially with Carlos Pena back in the mix. Recall that Pena agreed to a one-year, $7.25 million deal earlier this month to return to St. Petersburg after one campaign in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. It’s tough to argue against the club’s decision to re-acquire the first-baseman. He’s comparable in the field to Casey Kotchman, who proved to be well worth his minor-league contract in 2011.
The advantage with Pena is that he can do the one thing Kotch couldn’t seem to last year: hit home runs. Serious clubs in a division as competitive as the A.L. East are expected to have a power-hitting first baseman anchor the middle of the batting order. That was most definitely not Casey Kotchman in 2011, as he only left the yard 10 times. Pena swings a left-handed bat in a lineup of mostly righties? Even better. Clearly the Rays value what he can bring back to the lineup with run production more than Kotchman’s ability to hit for a high average (his numbers hovered in the .370s for a stretch of the season before settling at .306).
Two other additions rounded out the Rays free-agent signings for position players expected to contribute at the major-league level. Jose Molina’s signing makes sense, especially after the club sent John Jaso to the Mariners in November for reliever Josh Lueke. Catcher was one of the least-productive positions in the lineup in 2011, as Kelly Shoppach and the platoon of backstops struggled to keep afloat of the Mendoza Line for much of the season. Molina, a career .241 hitter, will bring some improvement to the position.
The only downside is that Jose, the middle-child of the trio of catchers from the Molina family, will be 37 less than halfway into the season. Expect Robinson Chirinos to bear some of the workload behind the plate.
If there was a contest to see which group of position players struggled most in the batter’s box, there’s no doubt that the Rays’ shortstops would take first prize. Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez combined for a .203 average last season. Friedman looked to remedy this shortcoming (pun absolutely intended) with his most recent addition, veteran infielder Jeff Keppinger.
He hit .277 over 99 games for the Giants and Astros in 2011 and brings plenty of versatility to Tampa Bay; after all, the Rays are getting a player who is comfortable at second, third and short. A glaring (positive) statistic from Keppinger’s career line is his ability to avoid striking out. The right-handed utility man has only K’d 142 times in 2,286 plate appearances, which will surely add to his value in the order.
George Christian Pappas covers the Tampa Bay Rays and Major League Baseball for ESPN Radio Gainesville/Ocala. He is finishing his degree in journalism and Spanish at the University of Florida. You can send him questions or comments at
or on Twitter @gpappas99.
Sir Charles with the slam