Perhaps some of you were a bit concerned about my mental health when I talked about how much I like the Tampa Bay Rays this season on a recent Baseball Today podcast. I even went so far as to name them my pick for the American League wild card, over a certain team that plays its home games in New York. Blasphemy! Hey, the Rays have won the division two of the past three seasons, and despite key defections to the team's core -- Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, the bullpen -- I'm expecting big things. And in general, when a team thrives, it also does so statistically, which helps fantasy owners.
Here are just a few reasons I like the Rays this season, and why fantasy owners can gain an advantage through their success:
Jeremy Hellickson is the real deal: I have the 23-year-old right-hander pegged as the top rookie in the AL, and after watching Matt Garza sputter through a few nasty spring outings, I actually think Hellickson can outperform the pitcher whose spot he takes. Hellickson is an elite prospect and no, I don't have concerns about him facing the offensive-minded AL East squads, including the mighty New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Like the ESPN Fantasy projections, I view Hellickson as the Rays' second-best starter, a potential ace with strikeouts, and I see him posting a better ERA and WHIP than Garza. And in my mind, he's still underrated in fantasy.
Ben Zobrist is leading off: I think Zobrist will ultimately add first base eligibility to his already-interesting combination of second base and outfield, but the primary reason I see him returning to top-50 status is because manager Joe Maddon is trusting him as the team's leadoff hitter. Zobrist hasn't previously had success in this lineup spot, but I'm not reading much into that. He swung the bat well (.750 slugging percentage) this spring, and it just doesn't add up for me that a disciplined switch hitter with power and speed could struggle consistently in the batting average category like he did last season. I see a 20-20 season, with a .275 batting average and close to 100 runs scored, on the horizon, which is why I seem to be getting Zobrist in more than a few leagues.
The bullpen is just fine: Sure, fantasy owners would prefer to avoid Kyle Farnsworth at any and all costs, if possible, but he looks like the Opening Day closer to me. Even if he stops getting saves at some point, he's capable of helping a deep-league fantasy team with 70 decent relief innings. Youngster Jake McGee had a terrific spring (0.82 ERA), and perhaps he usurps the role by the end of April -- I expect him to get save opps at some point this season -- and I'm certainly keeping my eye on the recovery of lefty J.P. Howell. But the point is, a big league team can turn over its entire bullpen and still thrive. Farnsworth, McGee, Joel Peralta and even Juan Cruz miss bats -- as in, they strike people out -- so this is not a team weakness. One note on 6-foot-8 reliever Adam Russell: I saw him pitch a few times in Florida, and he looked awfully hittable. He has allowed 20 hits in nine spring innings. I'd remove him from closer consideration. Ultimately, as I blogged last week (save projections for all 30 teams!), I think McGee gets the most saves, but Farnsworth is ownable as well.
Briefly: I'm not so high on right-hander Wade Davis anymore, and I wonder if Chris Archer, the power right-hander acquired from the Chicago Cubs in the Garza deal, is one of this season's relevant fantasy pitcher call-ups. ... Johnny Damon seems to be getting ignored in mixed-league drafts, and I concur he's not worth top-50 outfielder status. I'll take the under on him reaching double digits in either home runs or stolen bases. I would, however, take the risk on a bounce-back campaign from Manny Ramirez. ... Dan Johnson can draw walks and hit the occasional home run, but I see the Rays playing Zobrist quite a bit at first base this season, with Matt Joyce and speedy prospect Desmond Jennings seeing more than 350 at-bats in the outfield corners. Joyce has 20-homer potential, but needs to be platooned against lefty pitchers. Johnson might hit .220. If all you have is a dollar in an AL-only league, I'd go with Johnson over Joyce, but I see this situation changing by June. ... Reid Brignac seems a popular sleeper to many, and his owners have to love his .383 spring batting average. However, he drew zero walks along the way, and backup Elliot Johnson can really run, not to mention he's a capable fielder. Johnson was 11-for-11 in stolen base attempts this spring, and adds versatility.