That was Then...
Since dropping the “Devil”, the Rays have been a consistent franchise. Four of their past five seasons they’ve won 90 or more and have not finished lower than third in the AL East in any one of those seasons.
Last season it was 90 on the button and the Rays found themselves three behind the surprising Orioles for the coveted second Wild Card spot.
David Price proved what everyone had long known about him - that he is one of the most dangerous pitchers in the AL – leading the league in ERA, earning a share of the AL wins lead with Jered Weaver and topping 200 strikeouts in the process.
What fans didn’t know was how good Fernando Rodney would be. His 48 saves were impressive enough, but his 0.60 relief ERA was record-setting, earning him Comeback Player of the Year honours.
The Rays were still in the thick of it in the East despite getting less than a half-season out of franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria.
Joe Maddon has been re-upped and the team has been remodeled for 2013.
...This is Now
Without James Shields, the onus falls on David Price to replicate his 2012 Cy Young form while the likes of Moore develop.
What makes the Rays one of MLB’s model franchises is not its on-field success but its ability to thrive and survive with the means at its disposal.
The Rays don’t have deep pockets, so the reality of keeping many of their players long-term can often be dicey. Two such examples were the off-season decisions to let B.J. Upton leave via free agency and to trade number-two starter James Shields.
The speed of Desmond Jennings and the versatility of Ben Zobrist allowed the Rays to let Upton go without much concern. The Rays pilfered the Jays’ double-play combination plugging Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar in up the middle.
As for trading Shields? Well that’s where the creativity comes in. The Rays knew Shields’ age (30) combined with the projected upside of Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson meant that he was – in the long run – not an essential piece.
They played a desperate Royals team into a big return and got not only Wil Myers (see: YOUTH WATCH) who will probably anchor the Rays outfield for a few years but also starter Jake Odorizzi, himself a top-50 prospect according to MLB.com.
The team will be fine in the long run and should be as competitive as usual in the East. Whether or not they are a playoff team in 2013 depends on how early the remade roster clicks and how great a leap Moore and Hellickson make this year.
Every year, we look for players 26-years-old or younger that could make an impact on their team in the upcoming season. The player might have already established himself with a regular role with the team, or he could make their mark later on in the season.
Past Picks: 2012 - Matt Moore, 2011 - Sean Rodriguez, 2010 - Desmond Jennings, 2009 - David Price, 2008 - James Shields, 2007 - Jeff Niemann, 2006 - Rocco Baldelli, 2005 - Delmon Young, 2004 - B.J. Upton, 2003 - Dewon Brazelton
On the strength of their young pitching, the Rays open the rankings at 7.
SP David Price is the top-ranked Ray, at 33rd overall.
Staff ace LHP David Price is an early-round pick in any format, perhaps just a bit behind Verlander and Kershaw among starting pitchers.
Second-year LHP Matt Moore struggled at times as a rookie, but has great stuff, so he tantalizes with his potential.
RHP Jeremy Hellickson isn't quite as appealing for fantasy, because his strikeout numbers are low, but until the ERA goes up, he's worthy of consideration.
Veteran RHP Jeff Niemann and up-and-coming RHP Alex Cobb are also viable picks, so pitching is an obvious strength, right on to closer Fernando Rodney, who could be good, but can't possibly duplicate his off-the-charts 2012 season.
The bats are less impressive. Ben Zobrist can be a nice pickup not only for his versatility, but getting his production at second base is a win.
3B Evan Longoria is an elite third baseman, but back-to-back years with fewer than 500 at-bats makes him risky to be considered a true fantasy stud.
Looking for breakout seasons, check out CF Desmond Jennings or rookie RF Wil Myers, the latter of whom isn't expected to start the season in the bigs, but is a bona fide power threat who could be a difference-maker as soon as he's called up for good.