The Rays fascinate me on a yearly basis, regardless of whether or not they have a shot at being a playoff team, because they always somehow seem to find players in the ashes and create situations for them to contribute. Especially with the bullpen, I'm convinced that the Rays could sign 50 Cent and turn him into an All-Star reliever.
Tampa Bay just always seems to find a way to exceed expectations, usually with the help of the emergence of some unknown or undervalued players (they aren't necessarily one and the same). Hell, nobody would've thought heading into last season that Kevin Kiermaier, of all people, would've posted the 15th highest fWAR in all of baseball, ahead of guys like Anthony Rizzo, Edwin Encarnacion and Nolan Arenado.
And it's always fun when the Red Sox and Rays get snippy.
Evan Longoria remains the anchor of this lineup after all these years, but the additions of Corey Dickerson, who was deifnitely a benefactor of playing in ding-dong factory Coors Field, and Logan Morrison certainly bring an interesting twinge to the Rays lineup. On the whole, there isn't one guy that really sends a tremor through your spine when they step up to the plate, but guys like Logan Forsythe (who was quietly one of the best second baseman in baseball last season) and Desmond Jennings (who played all of 28 games last season) will prove to be vital cogs in the Rays lineup.
Steve Pearce and Morrison are both quintessential Rays pickups. Pearce really stunk up the joint last season after posting a 6.0 bWAR season in 2014. Morrison, of course, is the mercurial personality who certainly has the talent to be a really productive major league player. The duo currently project to be a platoon at first base with the team cutting Red Sox legend James Loney out of spring training and when the Rays make a move to acquire players who have shown promise in the past, it always raises an eyebrow.
Simply put, the Red Sox just have more depth in the lineup. Mookie Betts is the most dynamic player in either team's lineups and with Xander Bogaerts, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia filling out the top of the lineup, Boston simply has more pop and all around skill up-and-down the order. While the lows of some of the guys in the Red Sox lineup probably fall lower than most guys on Rays, the ceiling for multiple players are exponentially higher than many in Tampa.
Chris Archer is honestly one of my favorite players to watch in all of baseball. He's energetic both on and off the field (and was an absolutely dynamite commentator for ESPN during the playoffs), he's electric on the mound and he's got an amazing backstory (this Sports on Earth feature on Archer from Pat Jordan is really great).
Pitching for the Rays, in many ways, feels similar to how the New England Patriots treat the running back position; if someone leaves or goes down with injury, the next man steps up. With David Price in Detroit, many folks expected Alex Cobb to step up as the next ace of the Rays. And then Cobb underwent Tommy John Surgery.
Archer came up through the Rays system as a highly-regarded prospect, but he really made the leap last season and truly became one of the best pitchers in baseball last season, with a 3.23 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 1.14 WHIP and 10.7 K/9. At 27 years old, it would not be surprising to see him get even better. Also, Archer's stirrups are one of the best fashion accessories in all of baseball.
The rest of this rotation has some questions, but nothing more than what the Red Sox have. Jake Odorizzi had some injury issues down the stretch in 2015. Matt Moore is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, but after returning from surgery last season, the 26-year-old southpaw simply wasn't good for the Rays, posting a 5.43 ERA and 4.82 FIP in 12 starts last season. Drew Smyly has also been very good since arriving in Tampa Bay, but also had an abbreviated 2015 season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The depth in the minor leagues certainly is impressive, with top prospects like Blake Snell and Taylor Guerrieri sniffing the major leagues with the Durham Bulls.
The Rays rotation has a slight edge over the Red Sox here. While David Price is clearly the best pitcher of the bunch, Archer certainly is no slouch and Smyly, if he fully recovers from his shoulder woes, is less of an injury concern than Clay Buchholz and has proven to be a worthy No. 2 starter for Tampa Bay. Injury concerns plague the rest of the rotation, but if the group stays healthy, the floor and ceiling of guys like Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore are higher than the mid-to-back of the rotation options for the Red Sox.
Are Jackie Bradley's reverse splits sustainable?
Jackie Bradley has been much better against left-handed pitching over his career, but can we really expect that to continue?
The loss of Brad Boxberger for the first few weeks of the season with a hamstring injury certainly hurts the Rays in this area. As a result, Rays manager Kevin Cash has sent fifth starter Erasmo Ramirez to the bullpen for the time being and are managing with a four-man rotation.
The rest of the group is kind of spotty (although betting that a Rays pitcher becoming an elite reliever is as good a bet as the Patriots making the playoffs). Danny "Lord" Farquhar(d) stood out to me as an offseason addition. While he really stunk in 2015, Farquhar posted 1.1 bWAR in 2014 and was one of the most dependable arms out of that Mariners bullpen. Lord Farquaad returning to form certainly wouldn't be the craziest reliever resurrection project the Rays have pulled off.
As with the lineup, the Red Sox have the clear edge in this department. Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Carson Smith would immediately step in and become the closer on the Rays, which just shows the depth of elite bullpen arms Boston accumulated this season. Simply put, there are infinitely more question marks with this Tampa bullpen than with the Red Sox', but, as we all know, reliever are fickle bunch.
Kevin Kiermaier is a defensive deity in centerfield and is practically everything that the Red Sox want Jackie Bradley to be: a .260 hitter with one of the best gloves in baseball. On almost glove alone, Kiermaier was one of the most valuable players in baseball last season, if you place that much weight on WAR.
Evan Longoria is still a dynamite glove at third base and Logan Forsythe is similarly solid at second base.
The Red Sox and Rays aren't noticeable different defensively. Let's call this a draw.
There's a realistic scenario where the Red Sox lineup completely falls flat again for a second straight year, centered around the performance of Hanley Ramirez and, I guess, Travis Shaw (although I see a situation where Pablo Sandoval retakes that starting position a few months into the season). The Rays lineup certainly isn't flashy, but if Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts continue to take steps towards superstardom, than it's not really all that close here.
I see the big X-factor seperator between these two teams being in the rotation. The Rays have less potential flops in their rotation than the Red Sox and the group, as a whole, could really keep this team in contention, especially if the Red Sox are grasping at straws for starting pitching help come May. And as the Mets showed last season pre-Cespedes, a strong rotation can keep a team in the playoff race.
The Rays certainly have their fair share of questions, as do the Red Sox. I see Boston taking the edge between these two teams, but I think people are sleeping on the Rays a little bit. If Moore really comes back from injury, the platoons of Pearce and Morrison prove to be formidable and the acquisition of Dickerson pays off, this team could be really interesting. In a tough division, the Rays may be a force, but it'll take quite a few question marks paying off.