You may have heard this before, but life in the AL East is rough. Especially if you’re the low budget Rays. There are the Yankees, spending billions of dollars every season and never not winning. There are the Red Sox, doing the exact same thing (until recently). Even the Blue Jays are a smart, rich, and savvy organization these days! Not only that, in a year when the Red Sox were kind enough to be terrible, the Baltimore Orioles decided to just be all sorts of clutch and opportunistic and awesome, one-run-game-winning their way all the way to the top of the division. What is a poor team with a terrible home stadium to do?
Win, apparently. Just like every season. Win a bunch of games and continue to exceed expectations. The magic Rays elixir has been documented elsewhere, and it continues to produce results. By pulling every single minute gram of value out of every level of the operation, the Rays, usually with one-quarter the budget of the big boys, field a competitive team and shake up the status quo. This season? It didn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy ending, and nothing was going to top last year, but the Rays were still a successful team. Despite narrowly missing out on the playoffs by three games, the Rays managed a better record than the Tigers (image that—yay divisions!) and remained competitive with the Orioles, Yankees, Rangers and Angels for the bulk of the season. Perhaps a bit disappointing, but impressive nonetheless.
The most surprising Rays player, maybe the Major League’s most surprising player, was Fernando Rodney. Close to worthless for much of his entire career, he completely dominated in 2012. The change? The Rays reportedly moved him a few inches to the side of the rubber, thus transforming Rodney from replacement-level to All-Star (9.16 K/9, 0.60 ERA, 2.4 fWAR). Sounds simple enough! Aside from the strong Rodney-anchored bullpen, the Rays were once again one of the best run preventing teams in all of baseball. They combined stellar defensive players with massive strategy and shifting (like, say, occasionally using 5 infielders at a time), and kept opponents off the board on a regular basis. Having the best pitching staff in the game certainly doesn’t hurt, either. David Price had yet another Cy Young caliber season, followed by a whole slew of young and cost-controlled players, seemingly one right after the other. Despite all of this success, the Rays finished near-last in offensive production, which brings us to one of the season’s biggest “what ifs” or “missed opportunities” or “strokes of bad luck” or “whatever”: Evan Longoria. The Rays massively talented third baseman battled a nagging hamstring injury for most of the season, costing him as much as three months of playing time. Losing your best player hurts any team, but for the cash-strapped Rays who need every little thing to break their way, losing a potential MVP from the middle of the order proved to be devastating. Longoria still managed to post an fWAR of 2.4, but when you consider his previous career low was 5.5, and his most recent season was 6.1, his prolonged absence seems to have been the difference between making the postseason and not.
Like they do every year, the Rays will have to reevaluate and reload. Old and disappointing sluggers Carlos Pena and Luke Scott will be moving on down the road, as will a number of bullpen arms. Occasional clean-up hitter (!) Jeff Keppinger is a free agent. The most noticeable departure will be Bossman Junior himself, B.J. Upton, the enigmatic outfielder, while perhaps never completely fulfilling his inflated potential, is still in line for a large payday out on the open market, and will command a price the Rays will be unable to pay. Disappointment or no, Upton has still managed to be a very solid and serviceable player for the Rays, providing 23 fWAR to the team during his time in Tampa. Reliable 3-to-4 win players are hard to come by, and the Rays will need to find that production elsewhere if they hope to compete in the crowded AL East once again. Something tells me they’ll manage.