OK, it's not that easy to replace a starter who has pitched 200 innings each of the past six seasons and averaged 238 over the past two, but the Rays couldn't turn down the opportunity to acquire Myers, Keith Law's No. 4 prospect and a potential future cleanup hitter. The Rays will bank on their organizational pitching depth to replace Shields' innings, but the risk of losing two years of Shields and acquiring six years of Myers was too juicy to turn down (and Odorizzi is a rotation candidate as well).
The other pickups are classic Rays moves: They get guys who can at least do something. Loney's bat is subpar for a first baseman, but he carries a good glove, and the Rays will be happy if he can replicate his .351 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. Johnson hit just .225 for Toronto last year but has averaged 21 home runs the past three seasons and draws some walks. The Rays are probably just looking to platoon him, so it's another case of the low-budget Rays acquiring what they can. Acquiring Escobar for a minor leaguer is another potential coup; he's been a good player in the past so we'll see whether manager Joe Maddon can get something out of him.
Don't take that lineup too literally; that's just one of 140 or lineups Maddon will throw out there this season. What I like about the Rays is at least they have a plan -- it might not always work out, but they have a plan. In this case, Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez are around to platoon with Johnson and Loney. Ben Zobrist is penciled in as the right fielder in case Myers starts the season in Triple-A to save on his service time, but if Maddon thinks Myers is too good to send down, Zobrist could return to second base or Myers could DH or play left with Joyce DHing or playing first base. If Escobar proves to be a head case, Zobrist can move to short, which he handled well late last season.
In other words, Maddon has plenty of options and versatility here. While the Rays should again remain a solid defensive club even with the loss of Upton in center field, they'll need a couple of guys to increase their production. Keeping Evan Longoria healthy for 150 games is a key, but the best bet is Jennings hitting better than his .246/.314/.388 line. If he's going to lead off, he needs to improve that OBP. The Rays need more from first base (.357 slugging percentage last year was 29th in the majors) and DH (.289 OBP). Scott will get another shot at DH; presumably he's on short leash once Myers gets into the lineup on a regular basis. I think the offense will be improved, but clearly there are question marks after Longoria and Zobrist.
The Rays allowed 37 fewer runs than any other AL club, so there is a margin for error here if the offense improves. As always, the Rays rely on their home park and shifts on defense to help their pitchers out, but no club can begin their rotation with two power arms like Cy Young winner David Price and second-year lefty Matt Moore. The key stat here: Moore lowered his ERA from 4.42 to 3.01 thanks to improved control and curbing his home runs allowed.
Jeremy Hellickson settles in between those two after proving his 2.95 ERA as a rookie wasn't a total fluke as many predicted. Hellickson slightly improved his walk and strikeouts rates, so while batting average on balls in play rose from a historic low of .223 to .261, he still posted a 3.10 ERA. Is he the new Matt Cain, the guy who consistently outperforms his peripherals? His career ERA is 3.06, but his career FIP is 4.46. He'll again be out to prove the stats analysts.
After that, you have Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, rookie Chris Archer, Hernandez and Odorizzi. The guy to watch is Archer: If you saw him down the stretch, he possesses stuff that would make most starters envious. Control has been holding him back, but he's a good breakout candidate.
Finally, the bullpen will hard-pressed to match last year's spectacular season. Fernando Rodney had one of the great relief seasons of all time to lead a 'pen that had a league-leading 2.88 ERA and .208 average allowed. Maddon will have to replace the 182 quality innings that Davis, Howell and Burke Badenhop provided, but a couple of the rotation candidates could end up down here. And call me a Rodney believer; I think he'll be pretty good again, although obviously not 0.60 ERA good.
Anyway, even without Shields, I love this staff. I think Moore develops into a No. 2 with an ERA in the low 3s, and I like Archer's potential.
Heat Map to Watch
Most major league hitters feast off fastballs; that's why they're in the majors, for starters. Which means pitchers can't rely on fastballs alone. The tricky part is that you need to use the fastball to set up the secondary pitches. While Price received a lot of attention for his improved off-speed stuff, it's still his high-octane heater that makes everything else click. For one thing, it's arguably the best one in the game. His average velocity of 95.5 mph was highest among starters (higher than Justin Verlander, who was fourth; teammate Moore ranked third). But Price also moves it around the strike zone. Check out the location against right-handed batters: inside and outside. Righties did hit .264 off the fastball ... but .153 off his curveball, .211 against his slider and .235 off his changeup. But those pitches work so well because of how he sets them up.
David Price went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA to win AL Cy Young honors in 2012.
The more I look at the Rays, the more I like them. I believe they have the pitching depth to absorb the loss of Shields, and the Price-Moore combo could be as good a one-two punch as any club's in the American League. They have the best manager in the league and the parts to let Maddon do his thing.
Do they have enough offense? Can Longoria stay healthy? Is Myers' bat big-league-ready and ready to produce some big numbers? How good will Rodney be at closing out leads?
It's not a flawless team, and if Rodney regresses, the bullpen could have some issues at the back end. But I like this club. Man, the AL East is going to be one rough-and-tumble division.