In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays won 91 games, with that 91st win serving as one of the more memorable in baseball history.
They scored 707 runs and allowed 614, which projects to ... 91 wins. So they hit that win-loss record on the head. What can we project for 2012? Let's do a position-by-position analysis.
Catcher: Jose Molina
John Jaso, Kelly Shoppach and assorted backups hit .194/.274/.333 in 2011, so of course the Rays brought in Jose Molina -- for his defense. Molina turns 37 in June and has never batted 300 times in a season, so how much he actually ends up playing remains to be seen. Robinson Chirinos, Jose Labatan and Stephen Vogt are battling for the backup. Offensively, this crew may not be much of an improvement; I'll say an additional seven runs over the 45 runs created a year ago. More on Molina's defense later.
First base: Carlos Pena
Casey Kotchman didn't score or drive in many runs but did get on base (.378) so at least he wasn't a rally killer. Rays first basemen created about 83 runs. Carlos Pena takes over and even hitting .225 with the Cubs he created about 86 runs. Projection systems are calling for a slight decline for Pena as he moves to Tampa. Give him 75 runs plus a few more from his backups and I'll call this one a wash.
Second base: Ben Zobrist
In his three seasons as a regular, Zobrist has been all over the place: a .948 OPS in 2009, .699 in 2010, .822 in 2011. He created about 100 runs in 2011. With weight given to that 2010 performance he's projected to decline a bit. Minus nine runs.
Third base: Evan Longoria
Longoria missed most of April with an oblique strain and then posted a career-low .850 OPS despite mashing 31 home runs in 483 at-bats. Rays third basemen created about 95 runs (85 by Longoria). With an expected spike in his BABIP (.239 in 2011), Longoria's numbers should improve across the board. Plus 15 runs.
Shortstop: Sean Rodriguez/Reid Brignac/Elliot Johnson
Another position where the Rays received little production: A collective .193/.256/.282, good for 35 runs created. Amazing that Tampa made the playoffs with two positions hitting under .200. The production can only improve, although how much depends on who gets the playing time. Brignac has the best glove so will get another chance. ZiPS projects a .239/.281/.338 batting line. Not great, but still better. Overall, let's say an improvement of 12 runs.
Left field; Desmond Jennings
This was supposed to be Johnny Damon's position a year ago but he ended up as the DH after Manny Ramirez flunked out. Sam Fuld got most of the playing time early on before yielding to Jennings. Overall, the Rays got 85 runs from left field. ZiPS is pessimistic about Jennings, projecting a .259/.339/.392 line, which is about 83 runs over 670 plate appearances. Other systems project slightly better numbers. Let's give the Rays five additional runs.
Center field: B.J. Upton
He could improve, I suppose, but logic dictates more of the same. No change.
Right field: Matt Joyce
It will be interesting to see if Joe Maddon gives Joyce a chance to play full-time against left-handers this year or if he'll run Zobrist out to right field against southpaws. Joyce cooled off after his All-Star first half. He should put up similar overall numbers. No change.
Designated hitter: Luke Scott
Damon and assorted friends produced about 87 runs. If Scott matches his 2010 numbers with the Orioles (.284/.368/.535) he'll be a big step up. But those were also his career-best numbers and he'll be 34 in June. I see only a slight improvement of three runs.
Let's compare the 2011 rotation to projected numbers for 2012, cribbed from various projection systems.
2011: 162 starts, 1058 innings, 438 runs
2012: 155 starts, 995 innings, 430 runs
We'll add in the seven missing starts at 42 innings and 20 runs allowed (4.3 per nine innings), bringing the 2012 totals to 1037 innings and 450 runs allowed. That's 20 runs more than 2011 in slightly fewer innings. Is that fair? The projection systems are understandably not completely bullish on James Shields. While he had a 2.82 ERA in 2011, he's also a pitcher with a 3.96 career ERA. His .258 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was eighth-lowest among starters; and while Tampa's defense was arguably the best in baseball, they've had a good defense in previous seasons and Shields' BABIPs didn't approach .258. I'm a little surprised the systems don't foresee a better year from Price. In 2010, he had a 2.72 ERA and 3.42 FIP (fielding independent ERA); in 2011, a 3.49 ERA and 3.32 FIP, albeit with a much better SO/BB ratio. Bill Baer wrote about Hellickson and the reason he's projected to not match the sterling 2.95 ERA he posted as a rookie. As for Moore, the projection systems are conservative by nature so they're not going to match the lofty expectation fans have. It certainly wouldn't be shocking to see Moore post a sub-3.00 ERA over 30 starts. It's also not fair to expect that.
One other issue: Jeff Niemann is actually projected to be better than Wade Davis. I would suggest that if Davis does allow 4.7 runs per nine innings -- not awful, mind you -- Niemann will get a shot at some point. In other words, I think the Davis slot will be slightly better, either because he pitches better or Niemann gets some starts. So I do think it's fair to knock a few runs off the overall total. For now, let's say the rotation allows 15 more runs than a year ago. But more on that in a minute.
The Tampa bullpen in 2011 only had to pitch 391 innings, fewest in the AL. It posted a 3.73 ERA ERA, sixth in the league, allowing 176 runs. I'm slightly skeptical the pen will be as good, but they do have a variety of options, including using Davis or Niemann in a prominent role. I'm going to say no change for the bullpen, other than adding an additional 21 innings and nine additional runs allowed.
So that brings the totals to:
Offense: +33 runs scored, for a new total of 740 runs scored
Pitching: +24 runs allowed, for a new total of 638 runs allowed
We mentioned Jose Molina's defense earlier. Overall, the 2011 Rays easily rated as baseball's best defensive squad, 25 runs better than the No. 2 team, according to Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved. The major changes are Pena for Kotchman at first (both rated about league average) and Molina at catcher. Molina's added value comes in his ability to frame pitches, which studies indicate he's one of the best in the majors at -- maybe as much as 15 to 20 runs over an average catcher. We'll be conservative and subtract 10 runs off the defensive ledger. The rest of the defense should be similar.
So we now get:
Offense: 740 runs scored
Defense: 628 runs allowed
That creates an expected winning percentage of .575 -- or 93 wins.
OK, back to the pitching for a final word. Let's be slightly more optimistic. Let's take 10 runs off the totals for Shields, Price, Hellickson and Moore -- an additional 40 fewer runs allowed. It's certainly a reasonable proposition. This now gives the Rays 588 runs allowed and .604 winning percentage.
Which translates to 98 wins.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. This little analysis doesn't factor in everything -- the change in the quality of divisional opponents, for example. But one reason I like the Rays to beat their Vegas over/under line of 87.5 wins is that as a young team they're a pretty safe team to project. Injuries shouldn't be a major factor. They have depth in the rotation if somebody does go down. Yes, there is a little uncertainty in the bullpen and catcher and shortstop could still end up as offensive black holes, but this looks like a playoff team to me.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.