Lost in the madness of this off-season and the collapse of September is that the Rays needed a whole lot of help to make the playoffs last year. Just as it's amazing that the Red Sox were able to miss the playoffs by just one game despite a 7-20 September, it's kind of strange that a team who needed their opponents to play poorly in order to make the playoffs got just that and then some, and still barely made it. The Rays are a real good team, just like the Sox, but despite the fact it took a Boston collapse to make the playoffs via photo finish, there is this perceived gap in talent between the two that's fascinating to see.
As usual, the Rays are a threat in the AL East. The excitement over them is just maybe being blown out of proportion a bit, in the same way people aren't giving the Red Sox -- who finished just one game worse -- their due credit. They can certainly keep Boston from October again, but for some reason, the Red Sox keeping Tampa Bay out doesn't seem to be something people consider realistic.
The projected roster comes (mostly) from MLB Depth Charts. (Any changes made are to reflect the likely season lineup, not the one augmented by current injury concerns.)
C - Jose Molina: Molina is intriguing, as he's looked like a poor catcher based on traditional defensive measures and his bat. Advanced catcher research, much of it by Max Marchi, has shown that teams who have employed him might have known what they were doing, though, as he's significantly better at his job behind the plate than everyone else. He's not perfect, nor elite, but he's better than many have given him credit for over the years.
1B - Carlos Pena: The 2012 version of Carlos Pena is an upgrade on the 2012 version of Casey Kotchman. Of that, there's little doubt. Whether or not he's an upgrade on the 2011 version of Casey Kotchman is another story, though. Kotchman might have been lucky, but that luck lasted him the entire season, and helped him to a 128 OPS+ and above-average defense. Pena will likely help them keep that level of offense, but improving on it is another question entirely, one Pena might not be qualified to answer.
2B - Ben Zobrist: With his back healthy once more, Zobrist didn't quite reach the levels of his ridiculous 2009, but he improved on his disappointing 2010. When combined with his defense, anything close to his combined line of the last four years (.266/.364/.459) would be huge for the Rays, who need Zobrist at his best in a lineup that is good, but not great.
3B - Evan Longoria: He's the most productive player on the Rays, thanks to his glove and a career 136 OPS+, the result of a .274/.360/.515 line. Had he been healthy for all of 2011, the Red Sox likely would have missed the playoffs by more than a game. Then again, if Kevin Youkilis had been healthy all year, Evan Longoria never would have been a Game 162 hero. The hypotheticals nullify each other, reality persists.
SS - Sean Rodriguez: Please explain to me why Mike Aviles (.288/.318/.419) is a potential liability at shortstop, but Sean Rodriguez (.229/.307/.357) is considered a solution. Granted, coming off of Reid Brignac's .193/.227/.221 half-season, Rodriguez does start to look desirable.
LF: Desmond Jennings: Jennings got all the love in the world for hitting like crazy after his July promotion, but then struggled just as much in September as he had succeeded beforehand. The real answer to his value for 2012 can likely be found around his career line of .259/.351/.440. He's got some pop, definitely has the patience, and his defense will make up for anything he has given back with the bat, if he gives back anything at all. I like Jennings a lot, but if you're expecting him to be a superstar, you might be overshooting things.
CF - B.J. Upton: Upton has never quite been as good as everyone thought he could (excepting 2007, when he was absolutely that good). He's still been plenty productive, though, and has hit .257/.325/.425 since becoming a full-time player. As he's a quality defensive player, that line is certainly tolerable in center field. He's in the last year of his contract, and Jennings will likely slide over to center in the future, but with the second Wild Card added, the chances of Upton's being dealt mid-season have plummeted.
RF - Matt Joyce: Joyce has hit .265/.351/.478 the last two years, and like seemingly everyone else on the roster, also plays his position well. He's an underrated part of this team, and while he struggles against lefties, he crushes right-handers.
DH - Luke Scott: The Rays are taking a risk here with Scott, as he hit .220/.301/.402 last year with the Orioles while dealing with a shoulder that required surgery. From 2006 through 2010, though, Scott hit .272/.357/.512, so there's potential for a huge rebound campaign here. Then again, Scott has hit just .248/.329/.434 on the road in his career -- it's often forgotten about, but Camden is a hitter's park -- and is now in Tropicana, a stadium that isn't lefty-friendly.
Shields had a fantastic campaign in 2011, and even if he slides back some, he's still a highly-productive arm for the Rays. David Price is arguably the top starter on the team, in non-2011 years, and he'll be 26 this year. Jeremy Hellickson had a lot of help posting his 2.95 ERA last year, but that defense is still in place, and Hellickson will likely strike more hitters out his second time around. (Unless he's got a case of the Wade Davis, anyway.) Matt Moore is likely going to be an excellent pitcher, and even if it takes him some time to get going, like it did for Price, he's a great option for the back of a rotation. Jeff Niemann is often forgotten about, but he's an average pitcher when he's healthy; if he's not healthy, the Rays have not only Davis, but an entire Triple-A rotation, many of whom are ready for the bigs, in the wings waiting to take his place.
The rotation and defense are the real strengths of the Rays, and the reason they succeed despite a lineup that doesn't look intimidating next to Boston's or New York's. Preventing runs works just as well as scoring them.
The bullpen is nowhere near as strong, but there are enough intriguing arms here to complement the rotation. Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta are the two veterans who have shown themselves capable of shutting down opponents, and prospect Jake McGee is likely stuck in the pen from now on as he looks to become the same. The rest of the pen has some upside, but plenty of downside, too, as do most bullpens. Whether the team has a handful of pitchers they can rely on or plenty rests heavily with Wade Davis and his transition to a relief role. Just like with the rotation, though, there are plenty of other options in the organization, should the ones on hand falter.
The Rays, as stated, are real good. They're a likely playoff team, but so are two others in the AL East, as well as a pair of teams out west. Not all of these clubs can make the playoffs, and there are things that might need to break in the Rays' direction -- just like with the Red Sox -- before we just throw them a 2012 playoff spot. If Moore and Jennings continue to develop and succeed, Luke Scott bounces back, and the Rays can stay relatively healthy, their chances are as good as anyone's.