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Saturday, February 15, 2014
AL East showdown: Red Sox vs. Rays

By David Schoenfield

The Boston Red Sox go into the 2014 season as the defending American League East champions. Not only do they have the World Series target on their backs, they also have four divisional foes trying to unseat them. During the next few days, we will compare the champs to each challenger within the division in a "Tale of the Tape" format. All listed player projections are from Dan Szymborski's ZiPS machine. We did the Blue Jays here, the Yankees here and the Orioles. Last up, the Tampa Bay Rays.

2013 Final Record
2014 Projected Standings from Baseball Prospectus
Key Additions
Key Losses
Catching
Boston decided to move on from Saltalamacchia and replaced him with Pierzynski (.312 wOBA). Pierzynski and David Ross (.288 wOBA) give the club a very experienced -- as well as aged -- duo at the position. Pierzysnki has played at least 125 games for 12 consecutive seasons and is coming off the best two-year run at the plate of his career. When he has been catching, opposing baserunners have converted 71 percent of their stolen base attempts, going 125 of 176.

Tampa Bay has eschewed offense for defense since trading away John Jaso and acquiring Jose Molina (.276 wOBA). What Molina lacks at the plate, he more than makes behind it as he has finished first and fourth in the past two seasons in pitch framing as measured by Runs Above Average. They enhanced the pitch-framing value by acquiring Ryan Hanigan (.298 wOBA), who is also very adept at the skill. Combined, the two players have been 77.6 RAA over the past two seasons. Hanigan also led the National League over the past two seasons by throwing out 47.4 percent of potential basestealers.

Advantage -- Tampa Bay

Infield
For the first time since 2009, Tampa Bay returns its entire starting infield. All four members were Gold Glove finalists and the Tampa Bay infield finished second to Baltimore for most Defensive Runs Saved in the American League. James Loney (.316 wOBA) returns after a surprise bounce-back season, and Ben Zobrist (.342 wOBA) will spend a large majority of his time at second base rather than moving all over the field. Yunel Escobar (.308 wOBA) gave the team its best shortstop play in quite some time after a rough start out of the gate and the team needs Evan Longoria (.362 wOBA) to have back-to-back healthy seasons to lead the offense. Sean Rodriguez (.295 wOBA) and Logan Forsythe (.314 wOBA) provide depth from the bench.

The strength of the Boston infield is on its right side. Mike Napoli (.350 wOBA) and Dustin Pedroia (.340 wOBA) combined for 25 runs saved defensively while providing above league-average production at their respective positions. The left side of the infield is a larger question mark as Boston let Stephen Drew leave via free agency and is entrusting the shortstop position to the talented yet inexperienced Xander Bogaerts (.333 wOBA). Bogaerts earned that role with an impressive showing late in the season and throughout the postseason. Will Middlebrooks (.312 wOBA) showed excellent power but struggled to get on base and cost the team eight runs defensively at third base.


Advantage -- Tampa Bay

Outfield
The Tampa Bay outfield defense was a weakness for the club in 2013. The group was 20 runs below league average. David DeJesus (.315 wOBA) will be in left field when right-handed pitchers are on the mound, Desmond Jennings (.321 wOBA) has center field, and Wil Myers (.341 wOBA) is expected to play most games in right field. Matt Joyce (.342 wOBA) will share duties in right field when not serving as the designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Forsythe, Rodriguez and Brandon Guyer (.318 wOBA) could get time as well as both DeJesus and Joyce need platoon partners against left-handed pitchers.

Boston is asking a lot from Jackie Bradley Jr. (.308 wOBA) to fill Ellsbury's shoes in center. Ellsbury, who was worth 9.1 and 5.8 wins above replacement in his two most recent full seasons, also saved 13 runs defensively last season. Manager John Farrell platooned Jonny Gomes (.327 wOBA) and Daniel Nava (.322 wOBA) as they managed the intricacies of playing left field in Fenway Park. Shane Victorino was everything the club expected and more in right field, fighting through injuries to save 24 runs in right field while providing above-average offensive production during 122 games. Reclamation project Grady Sizemore and Mike Carp offer depth from the bench.

Advantage -- Tampa Bay

Starting Rotation
Boston enjoys the rare luxury of being able to return its entire starting rotation a season after winning it all. Jon Lester (197.2 IP, 3.77 FIP), John Lackey (166 IP, 4.10 FIP), Clay Buchholz (128.2 IP, 3.89 FIP) and Jake Peavy (149.1 IP, 3.67 FIP) give the club a formidable foursome. There are a few names in play for the final spot, such as Ryan Dempster (149 IP, 4.44 FIP), Felix Doubront (137.1 IP, 4.15 FIP) Brandon Workman (124 IP, 4.49 FIP) and Drake Britton (110 IP, 5.05 FIP). Boston enjoys depth at this position in the upper levels of the organization.

Tampa Bay had four of its five starters spend time on the disabled list in 2013 while Jeremy Hellickson and the since-departed Roberto Hernandez led the team in the starts. The Rays decided to retain David Price (207 IP, 3.27 FIP) rather than trade the ace two years ahead of his free agency. Alex Cobb (200 IP, 3.31 FIP) made strong strides forward last season around the two months he missed while recovering from the line drive to the head off the bat of Eric Hosmer. Matt Moore (174 IP, 4.06 FIP) looks to work on consistent fastball command while Chris Archer (155 IP, 4.13 FIP) works on improving against left-handed batters. Hellickson will open the season on the disabled list, allowing Jake Odorizzi (91 IP, 4.36 FIP), Nate Karns (126.1 IP, 4.15 FIP) and others to compete for fifth starter job.

Advantage -- Boston

Bullpen
In 2013, Fernando Rodney became the first pitcher to lead the Rays in saves in consecutive seasons since Danys Baez in 2005-2006. To replace Rodney, the Rays bring back a familiar face in Grant Balfour (65 IP, 3.71 FIP), who returns after three successful years in Oakland. Joel Peralta (55 IP, 4.12 FIP), Jake McGee (65 IP, 3.08 FIP) and Heath Bell (55 IP, 3.74 FIP) will lead the charges in bridging the gap between the starters and Balfour. Juan Carlos Oviedo (45 IP, 4.13 FIP), Cesar Ramos (40 IP, 4.00 FIP), Josh Lueke (35 IP, 3.86 FIP), Brandon Gomes (30 IP, 3.92 FIP) and Brad Boxberger (10 IP, 3.71 FIP) will compete for the remaining roles.

Boston's bullpen is anchored by Koji Uehara (52.1 IP, 2.10 FIP), who has a 1.93 ERA in the past four seasons and has struck out 35 percent of the batters he has faced. The only concern with him is that he has yet to throw more than 50 innings in consecutive seasons. Perhaps that is why Boston signed Edward Mujica (63 IP, 3.54 FIP) to give them a strong insurance policy a season after watching both Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan go down with injuries. Junichi Tazawa (73.1 IP, 3.41 FIP) should again play an effective role. Craig Breslow (57 IP, 4.01 FIP) and Burke Badenhop (63.2 IP, 3.63 FIP) give the club a strong left/right combination to use in matchup situations to help get the ball to Tazawa, Mujica and Uehara.

Advantage -- Boston

These two teams are very evenly matched on paper, as the PECOTA predictions show. Over the past three seasons, Tampa Bay holds a one-game advantage in the head-to-head matchups, 28 to 27. The advantages each team has over the other in the positional groups are slight. The only distinct advantage one team has over the other is at designated hitter as David Ortiz remains a formidable presence in the lineup while the Rays prefer to use the position as a half-day off from playing 90 games a year on turf.