“Game 162″ as they refer to it in Tampa, by was all accounts the culmination of lady luck and resilience by the Tampa Bay Rays. Between the Boston Red Sox’s late-season collapse and loss to Baltimore on the last day of the season, and Tampa coming back from eight games down to start September and five runs down in game 162 to win the wild-card, the ‘never-say-die’ Rays focused on one consistency all year, and it paid off: fundamentals.
The Rays do the fundamentals better than any other team in baseball. They steal bases, execute bunts, play excellent team defense, take the extra base, and move runners over. These qualities make Tampa a playoff threat every year.
Being able to perform the fundamentals well has compensated for the lack of power in the Tampa line-up. All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria is the slugger on the team and can do it all, providing power, speed, and gold-glove defense. Other players who have had big power years but have not displayed the power consistently, include: center fielder B.J.Upton, second baseman Ben Zobrist, and outfielder Matt Joyce.
Luke Scott was signed on to provide some added pop and Carlos Pena was brought back to play first base. Sean Rodriguez provides flexibility at all infield positions and Sam Fuld does the same for the outfield.
The player to watch this year is outfielder Desmond Jennings. In only 247 at-bats last year, Jennings hit .259 with 9 triples, 10 home runs, 25 runs batted in, and 20 stolen bases. If he is able to keep up that pace, a 25 home run, 80 RBI, 40 stolen base season is not out of the question. Expect the Rays to stick to what has worked for them, and that is manufacture runs and not wait for the home run, like several American League teams do.
Pitching is the Rays strength, and they may posses the best starting staff in the league. All-Stars David Price and “Big Game” James Shields lead the staff, which includes Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore, who as a rookie last year started game 1 of the ALDS vs. the Texas Rangers and pitched 7 shutout innings of two-hit ball.
With such a deep and talented rotation, the Rays could trade one of their prized pitchers for another power hitter or add to the depth of their bullpen. But with having young pitchers in Hellickson and Moore, who may be on an innings limit, having six reliable starters may be the route to go.
Every year so-called “experts” pick the Red Sox or Yankees to go 1-2 in the division, and over the last few seasons the Rays have disrupted that pick. Although they are a small market team and do not have a high payroll, it all comes down to fundamentals for the Rays, and fundamentals win ball games. Look for the Rays to earn one of the two wild-card berths in the American League this year.