The Tampa Bay Lightning have been frustratingly incapable of keeping the puck out of their own net the past two seasons, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a historically bad pass defense in 2012. It would be an understatement to say that the Rays’ neighbors have struggled on defense lately, and the lack of defense has shown itself in the win-loss column for the Bolts and Bucs. Tampa Bay sports fans look to the Rays as the fundamentally sound team in town, and this year more than ever, the Rays need to be strong on defense to make up for losses on the pitching staff and offensively.
The poor defense in town was unfortunately contagious, as the previously elite defensive unit of the Tampa Bay Rays slid down the rankings a bit in 2012, as the Rays registered the worst team UZR total since the “Devil” was removed from the name- and in terms of traditional stats, the Rays led the American League with 114 errors. Joe Maddon’s fielders were still among the top half of the league in team fielding metrics, but for a team that prides itself on pitching and defense, good isn’t good enough.
So how can the Rays bounce back, and be sure that the bad defense in Tampa stops outside the Trop? Most of the work was already done this offseason. James Loney represents a massive upgrade over Carlos Pena as a fielder, with the former Dodger first baseman showing better range at first, and having much less mileage on his legs compared to Pena.
At shortstop, Yunel Escobar is a capable defender, although he is his own biggest enemy in the field. The prevailing opinion on the new Rays shortstop is that he’s able to make all the plays as a defender at shortstop, but he has shown a lack of effort and focus from time to time. Hopefully the Rays’ locker room is able to keep Yunel on track, so he can take a step forward from his solid, but not spectacular, defensive performances. Joe Maddon has told reporters he is grateful to have an every day shortstop for the first time since Jason Bartlett, and Escobar has the potential to have an even bigger impact than Bartlett did with his range and arm at the shortstop position.
The second base “quadtoon” features capable defenders everywhere, and means the Rays will have a solid double play combination, as Escobar can combine with any of the four second basemen to provide solid defense up the middle. Having a capable defender on the other side of second from the Rays stable of second basemen will only serve to make the defense better for both positions, and help get the Rays out of difficult situations more often.
The return of a healthy Evan Longoria locks down the defense at the hot corner, and Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist will continue to provide excellent defense in the outfield. The lack of depth in the outfield means more Sam Fuld in the lineup, which also means more solid defense, and while he’s overshadowed by the talented defenders around him, Matt Joyce always seems to provide a better than expected defensive contribution.
The pieces are in place for the Rays to bounce back and have a great defensive season in 2013. And with one less workhorse in the rotation, and one less B.J. Upton in the lineup, the need for prowess in the field is more pressing than it’s been in years. Let’s hope that the Rays can continue to stand apart from their Tampa Bay counterparts in hockey and football and make sure their defense not just isn’t offensive this season but turns out to be among the best in baseball once again.