2012 Will not be nearly as easy as 2011 ended for the Rays. Nobody is going to gift wrap them a playoff spot. Divisional foes will (likely) not suffer through the single worst regular season collapse in baseball history.
Tampa Bay finished the 2011 season by going 15-10 in September. Not exactly stellar numbers, but plenty good enough to close the Wild Card gap on the Boston Red Sox, who were 7-20 in the last month of the year. And the Rays benefitted from a final series against the Yankees, who all but admitted that they wanted Tampa to make the playoffs over Boston. Don’t expect to see any of that again.
The Rays are a good team, don’t get me wrong. They have one of the best young pitching rotations in the league, with David Price, James Shields and newcomer Matt Moore all potential threats to reach 15+ wins and 200+ Ks. And while Kyle Farnsworth can be erratic and unpredictable from game to game, his numbers in 2011 (25-for-31 in saves, 51 Ks in 57.2 IP, 2.18 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP) would suggest that he can handle the pressure of closing in the American League, against lineups like New York, Boston, Anaheim, and Texas.
The offense may pose a problem though. In 2011, the Rays scored only 707 runs – last in the division, ninth in the AL, and sixteenth in all of baseball. When the pitching is as good as it can potentially be, they still might be forced to win a lot of 1-0 or 2-1 games. But that’s not a position that you want to be in, especially as the season grinds on into July, August and September. They were able to hang on and win games because the pitching staff allowed only 614 runs all year; best in the AL, and sixth best in the majors. But the offense still consists of basically two solid bats in Evan Longoria and BJ Upton (assuming he doesn’t get traded mid-season). With the possible exception of Ben Zobrist, everything else around those two stars is a patchwork lineup, at least until Desmond Jennings either breaks out or flames out.
In the offseason, the Rays did very little to reshape their roster. They brought Carlos Pena back on a one-year deal after he left for the Cubs in 2011. Tampa didn’t lose too much off of last season’s roster, as Casey Kotchman, Kelly Shoppach and Andy Sonnanstine all signed free agent deals elsewhere, and Johnny Damon has presumably retired. They inked a handful of journeymen types to one-year contracts; names like Jeff Keppinger, Jose Molina, Fernando Rodney and Luke Scott. The type of guys that won’t make All-Star Games, but you just know one of them will have a game-winning hit or get some big outs late in a crucial game late in the season.
All in all, the Rays are pretty much coming into 2012 with what they had to end 2011. It was enough last year, but it might not quite get it done this time around.
Prediction: 87-90 Wins, 3rd in AL East