It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Tampa Bay Rays do not have the most talented roster in baseball. On top of that, the past few months have seen their major league roster get at least marginally worse.
While teams like the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and even the San Diego Padres have been loading up on major league talent, the Rays have spent the offseason trading talent like Ben Zobrist for prospects. Signing Asdrubal Cabrera and getting back John Jaso and Kevin Jepsen in trades doesn’t make up entirely for what the Rays gave up in the short-term.
Even after all of the moves, the Rays still have potentially good ballplayers on their roster. This team isn’t a lost cause yet. For this team to contend, however, nearly all of those players must perform at a high level. Last year, whether it was for the Rays or another team, too many of them did not play up to their respective potentials. Let’s take a look at who are those players who need to step up for the Rays in 2015.
Grant Balfour: The Rays thought they had found an important piece to their 2014 pennant run when they signed Balfour, but it didn’t work out that way. Whether it was the injury problems that nixed his deal with the Baltimore Orioles or simply a deterioration of his stuff, Balfour fell far short of expectations as he managed just a 4.91 ERA.
The good news, though, is that Balfour was excellent in September, posting a 2.89 ERA and a 9-1 strikeout to walk ratio in 9.1 innings pitched. In addition, while his two-year, $12 million contract will undoubtedly be a disappointment, the Rays won’t need him to close in 2015. Balfour does not need to repeat his dominant 2013 season–he just needs to return to the days when he was an elite setup man.
Ernesto Frieri: Frieri is another closer coming off a bad year, but he is making just $800,000 as one of the Rays’ reclamation project signings. Frieri pitched to a 3.80 ERA, 37 saves, and a 98-30 strikeout to walk ratio with the Angels in 2013, but his ERA ballooned to 7.34 last season. How did he fall that far in just one year?
The Rays deemed Frieri to be worth a flier because he is healthy and has a big-time fastball. We don’t know who is the real Ernesto Frieri is, but with Jake McGee out for at least the first month of the season, the Rays are hoping for a useful reliever and just maybe a dominant one.
Bobby Wilson: The Rays seem to have made a nice move by bringing in Rene Rivera to be their starting catcher. However, they didn’t do themselves any favors by seemingly giving the backup job to Wilson. He spent parts of five years with the Angels and posted just a .209/.271/.321 slash line in 389 at bats. The backup catcher gets too many at bats to be quite that bad at the plate.
From the Rays’ perspective, Wilson does have a solid track record against left-handed pitching, hitting them to a .241/.313/.451 line in 157 MLB plate appearances (although his minor league track record is less encouraging), and the Rays don’t need him for too long. In a couple of months, Curt Casali or Luke Maile will be ready, right? There is no guarantee that Wilson will hit at all, but if he doesn’t play well, he won’t be on the team for much time.
Evan Longoria: Surprised to see him on this list? Even Longoria needs to up his game. From 2008 to 2013, Longoria slashed .275/.357/.512 with an average of 27 homers and 91 RBI per season. Last season, his 22 homers and 91 RBI were not so bad, but his slash line of .253/.320/.404 was a major disappointment.
Longoria was horrible from mid-April to the end of May, and he never recovered entirely. Even his so-called rebound in September featured only a .760 OPS. We know that Longoria is capable of a lot more than that. He is the straw that stirs the drink offensively and he needs to return to his MVP-caliber years if the Rays are going anywhere.
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Asdrubal Cabrera: Like Longoria, Cabrera was once an extremely valuable player. In 2011, he hit to a .273/.332/.460 line with 25 home runs and 92 RBI. However, while Longoria is coming off one bad year, hasn’t been anywhere near that level since 2012. In 2014, Cabrera’s slash line was .241/.307/.387 with 14 home runs and 61 RBI. He is around an average middle infield starter, but the Rays signed him thinking he could be even more than that.
At shortstop, meanwhile, Cabrera’s defense has slipped and it’s dubious as to whether he can turn in a decent job at that position. Whether he plays there will depend on the next player we’ll talk about. In any event, if he hits, his defense won’t be as much of a concern.
Nick Franklin: A lot has been written about Franklin and his skills and there are always more questions than answers. Can he hit left-handers? Can he hit at all? After all, in 450 major league at bats, his slash line is .213/.289/.358 with 13 home runs, 51 RBI and 140 strikeouts. He played relatively well (96 OPS+) in 2013 and has was a top prospect for years, but the Rays need him to reach his potential at the plate now.
Then there is the question in the field as to whether he is a second baseman, a shortstop, or a super-utility man. With Cabrera fitting better at second base, the Rays are really hoping he can fit as a shortstop. At any rate, the Rays gave up a lot for Franklin and they are hoping that he can prove dependable on both sides of the ball.
Tim Beckham: We all know his story: former overall first round draft choice, seven seasons in the minors, three thousand minor league at bats, two drug suspensions and a torn up knee. We also know that the Rays are desperate for middle infielders and those are the positions that Beckham plays.
This season represents Beckham’s best chance to receive an opportunity at the major league level as he is set to compete for a job in spring training. A spot on the Rays’ bench is a real possibility, and he even has an outside chance of earning more regular playing time. On the other hand, if he fails to contribute, his future will be even more uncertain.
Desmond Jennings: Jennings is a bit like a broken record. Each year you expect him to break out as a power hitter or a leadoff man and each year he disappoints. At least disappointing for Jennings is relative–he’s an above-average centerfielder–but the Rays are still hoping he can be a star. Jennings is 28 years old and into his arbitration year, so if he is ever going to break out, now is the time.
David DeJesus: DeJesus was actually the Rays’ best hitter for a time in 2014, but a broken wrist sidelined him just when everything was going well. Now his place with the team is in question–everything depends on when Steven Souza will be big league ready–but with better health, he can still be a useful player. We will have to see if DeJesus can get a chance and take advantage of it if he does.
It may be too much for the Tampa Bay Rays to ask all nine of these players to take their game to a higher level. However, like the Rays that is on the fringes of contention, anything and everything will help. Can veterans like Longoria and Cabrera rebound while young players like Franklin and Beckham establish themselves as productive players?