Posted: Thu February 21, 2013 3:20PM; Updated: Tue March 5, 2013 6:51PM
Michael Beller
Michael Beller>INSIDE FANTASY BASEBALL

Fantasy baseball 2013 team previews: Tampa Bay Rays

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Desmond Jennings of the Tampa Bay Rays
Desmond Jennings disappointed fantasy owners last season, but is poised to bounce back in 2013.
Jeff Golden/Getty Images

Fantasy baseball 2013 draft prep central: Rankings, position primers and much more

The Rays had the best year of any team to miss the playoffs in 2012, going 90-72, but finishing three games behind the wild-card winners, Baltimore and Texas. This will be a different outfit from years past. Gone are B.J. Upton, James Shields and Carlos Pena. In are James Loney, Yunel Escobar and super-prospect Wil Myers, whom the Rays received from the Royals for Shields. Sam Fuld will likely start every day in place of Upton. Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann figure to be in the rotation on Opening Day, and Chris Archer, the centerpiece of the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs two years ago, could also factor into the mix.

Though many of the faces are new, this is still the Tampa team we've watched grow from plucky overachiever to perennial contender. Evan Longoria, David Price and Joe Maddon are the heart of the club. They'll try to OBP and defense the opposition to death, making Ben Zobrist the prototypical Ray. But if this team is to compete in the always challenging AL East, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore will have to step up to give the Rays the starting pitching they've been able to count on since they've become one of the league's model franchises.

Myers could also end up being this team's X-factor. He was named the Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .304/.378/.554 with 24 homers and 79 RBI at Triple-A Omaha. To say the Royals took a serious gamble by dealing the 22-year-old budding star is an understatement of epic proportions. Of course, no one was surprised that it was general manager Andrew Friedman and the Rays on the other side of the deal. We'll keep Myers out of the projected lineup for now, but he's a guy you'll want to be well aware of on draft day.

Projected roster

Lineup:

1. Desmond Jennings, CF
2. Yunel Escobar, SS
3. Ben Zobrist, 2B
4. Evan Longoria, 3B
5. Matt Joyce, RF
6. James Loney, 1B
7. Ryan Roberts, DH
8. Jose Molina, C
9. Sam Fuld, LF

Starting rotation:

1. David Price
2. Jeremy Hellickson
3. Matt Moore
4. Jeff Niemann
5. Alex Cobb

Others: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi

Bullpen: Fernando Rodney (closer), Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Cesar Ramos, Roberto Hernandez

Key questions

Can Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore step up? The Rays, post-Devil era, have always been built around pitching, defense and on-base skills. With Shields now in Kansas City, the responsibility of supporting 2012 Cy Young winner Price in the rotation falls to Hellickson and Moore. With Hellickson, owners can feel pretty confident in what they're getting. Working at the major league level for two full seasons now, his numbers have been remarkably consistent. In 2011, he went 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 4.44 FIP and 117 strikeouts in 189 innings. Last year, he was 10-11 with a 3.10 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 4.60 FIP and 124 strikeouts in 177 innings. His FIPs suggest he has been a bit fortunate, but he'll have that same sparkling Rays defense behind him this season. We can safely expect his 2011 and 2012 numbers to be his floor this year, making him a wise investment as a No. 3 or 4 starter, depending on league size.

Moore is a bit trickier to predict. He struggled mightily to start the year, posting a 4.42 ERA, 4.46 FIP and 1.45 WHIP before the All-Star break. However, he turned it around after the break, lowering those numbers to 3.01, 3.25 and 1.21, respectively. Fangraphs tells us that Moore started throwing a much more effective slider during the second half of the season. He threw it about twice as often as before, and his swing-and-miss rate on it jumped tenfold. The bet here is that the real Moore is the one we saw after the All-Star break, especially given the hype surrounding him and the fact that he doesn't turn 24 until mid-June. If I can only have one of these two Rays hurlers, give me Moore all day.

What should we make of Wil Myers? The Royals have put together an impressive youth movement, led by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and post-hype All-Star Alex Gordon. However, the linchpin of that plan seemed to be Myers, who raked at every single level by the age of 21. That's why it was such a shock to see the Royals ship him to Tampa this offseason, even if they did get Shields in return. The Rays could start Myers in the minors, especially given their propensity to delay a young star's service clock, but he'll be in Tampa for the majority of the season. With Sam Fuld and Ryan Roberts currently penciled in as everyday players, it's easy to imagine Myers racking up somewhere near 500 at-bats. He may be just 22, but he destroyed minor league pitching at every level to the tune of a .303/.395/.522 career slash line. We can't expect every prospect to come to the majors and pull a Trout, but Myers has the talent to be an impact player right away. With the right amount of playing time, he'll be a fantasy starter, even in leagues that only start three outfielders.

Can Desmond Jennings put his ugly 2012 behind him? Jennings was the darling of many a fantasy pundit last year, present company included. He never got going, and ended up hitting .246/.314/.388 with 13 homers, though he did contribute 31 steals. His wOBA, a metric that takes into account everything a player can do on offense, weighted in proportion to its true run value, was a below average .309. Put simply, it was a dreadful year.

His .298 BABIP suggests a little bad luck, but that's before you see that he had serious trouble squaring the ball up last year. He had an infield fly ball rate of 18.1 percent and had a ground-ball rate of 42 percent. That's a lot of weak contact. Throw in the fact that he struck out 21.3 percent of the time, and everything starts to add up.

With all that said, I'm buying in again. This is just his age-26 season, and he remains a supremely talented speed threat with a bit of pop who will hit at the top of the Rays' offense. I can't show you any pretty stats from last year to get you excited. You're just going to have to take a leap of faith with me. With a reasonable increase in solid contact, it's not hard to imagine a 20/35 year for Jennings.

Sleeper

Alex Cobb: Cobb acquitted himself well in his first full year in the majors, going 11-9 with a 4.03 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 1.25 WHIP and 106 strikeouts in 136.1 innings. His peripherals suggest he was a bit unlucky. In addition to the FIP nearly half a run lower than his ERA, his 68.5-percent strand rate was below league average. It's rare for a pitcher on the Rays to dramatically underperform his FIP, meaning a regression to the mean in both those stats will result in organic improvement. With an additional 10 starts or so, he should push north of 160 strikeouts as well.

Bust

Fernando Rodney: I don't devote a ton of time to closers, because I think they're all vastly overrated in fantasy leagues. If you believe that the famously erratic Rodney turned over a new leaf at age 35 and will come anywhere near matching his video game numbers from last year (0.60 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 48 saves, 76 strikeouts in 74.2 innings) well, then, I've got an e-mail from an African prince written in all caps that I'll forward to you.

Breakout

Wil Myers: The pedigree is there, the minor league track record is there and the playing time will be there. He may not be Trout, but he doesn't need to be to become 2013's breakout player and the AL Rookie of the Year. He will be both of those.

AL-only players to know

Yunel Escobar: The mercurial shortstop will help you out in whatever rate category your league uses and could be a good source of runs if he slots in the two-hole.

Matt Joyce: He has quietly been a reliable source of power, totaling 36 homers and 134 RBI the last two seasons, and should hit in the middle of the order.

Chris Archer: The power righty fanned 139 batters in 128 innings with Triple-A Durham last year. He's likely to spend some time in the starting rotation.

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