In many respects the Rays are a carbon copy of the Earl Weaver managed Baltimore Orioles. Weaver believed in pitching, defense, and the 3-run homer - and in that order. The Rays have been able to achieve great success since 2008 by following the same formula but 2012 saw a drop off in power and an unusual amount of errors.
Pitching has been the staple of every Rays team since 2008 and their pitching staff has finished with either the first or second best ERA in the AL each year since 2008 except for 2009 when they finished 6th. Since the 2008 season the Rays have led the AL in defensive efficiency (the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs by a team's defense [approximated by 1-BABIP]) every year except 2010 (2nd) and 2009 (3rd). The Rays have also finished above league average in home runs every years since 2008 except for last season when they finished 8th in the league with 175 HR and league average was 179.
The Rays pitching staff held up their end of the bargain in 2012 by leading the league in ERA (3.19), opponents batting average against (.228), and strikeouts (1,383). Their 3.19 ERA was the lowest by an AL team since the 1990 Athletics (3.18), the opponents batting average against was the lowest in the AL since the DH era began in 1973, and their 1,383 strikeouts set an American League record. They were the only AL team with five 10 game winners (Washington and San Francisco did it in NL) and were the first team to accomplish that feat since the 1986-1988 Mets.
Despite leading the league in defensive efficiency in 2012 the Rays defense struggled. The Rays did the unusual in 2012 and became the first team since the 1945 Washington Senators to lead the league in ERA (3.19) and commit the most errors (114).The Rays went from first in fielding in 2011 to last in fielding in 2012. Their defense only allowed 27 unearned runs in 2011 and they matched that total by their 68th game in 2012. Their catchers tied a major league record with 5 catchers interference calls which all came within the first 58 games of the year.
The Rays finished last season with 175 home runs which was below the AL average of 179. This was the first time this had happened since 2008. They finished 4th in HR in 2008 (180), 5th in 2009 (199), 6th in 2010 (160), and 6th in 2011 (172).
Since the end of the 2012 season the Rays have gone a long way toward returning to the DNA by acquiring two strong defenders. They signed free agent first baseman James Loney and traded minor league 2b Derek Dietrich for shortstop Yunel Escobar. The left side of the infield was problematic for the Rays due to an injury to Evan Longoria which forced the Rays to use 10 different 3rd baseman on the season the most of any team since 2003.
The Rays now have to turn their attention to finding sufficient home run power to add to the lineup. They have lost 70 homers from just 4 players: B.J. Upton and his team leading 28 homers, Carlos Pena's19 homers (3rd on the team), Luke Scott's 14 homers, and Jeff Keppinger's 9 homers.
There is some validity that other factors than homers are important for an offense. Some will point out that OBP is twice as important as slugging percentage while others will point to the linear weights of a homer vs a walk. The one thing that can't be argued is that the easiest way to score a run is to hit the ball over the fence and it also makes a managers life a lot easier.
With the Rays pitching staff in place and the defense shored up with Loney and Escobar the Rays have to find a way to replace a good portion of the homers lost. Hopefully, Evan Longoria can stay healthy and increase his homer output from 17 in 2012 to 30 in 2013 and James Loney can add 10 himself. The Rays need to find another 30-40 homers on the market for 2013 either via free agency or trade. They have yet to deal any of their starting pitchers (or Wade Davis) and have money to sign a free agent if they decide to go that route. In an ideal world they would be able to acquire two power hitters - one via free agency and one via trade. Since their was little action at the winter meetings we enter this weekend with a whole host of players available that may interest the Rays.
Mark Reynolds - a RHB who can fill in at first base against LHP and be the designated hitter most of the time. Although he strikes out a lot (insert cooling off Tropicana Field joke here) he has averaged 30 homers per year (23 in 2012) in his career. If he expects a contract similar to Kevin Youkilis' rumored 2 year offers then he's probably priced himself out of the Rays price range.
A.J. Pierzynski - the soon to be 36 year old catcher belted a career high 27 homers and posted a .501 slugging percentage in 2012 and is most likely looking to cash in. He has been connected to the New York Yankees since Russell Martin signed his 2 year deal with the Pirates.It is doubtful that Pierzynski will match his power production in 2013 and should have the buyer beware label next to his name.
Ryan Ludwick - enjoyed a bounce back 2012 season hitting 26 homers and posting a slash line of .275/.346/.531 for the Cincinnati Reds. He seems to enjoy playing in the National League and will be seeking a 2yr deal worth $10M-$12M.
Raul Ibanez - he hit 19 homers in part-time duty with the Yankees in 2012. He will turn 41 in June but may be a perfect low cost platoon DH/bench player.
Travis Hafner - he won't supply the power he once did but his biggest problem is staying on the field. One problem when playing for the Indians was that when healthy he was inserted in the lineup everyday. Joe Maddon may have a more delicate approach with Hafner and like Ibanez could be a low cost platoon DH/bench player. One of Hafner's limitations is that he does not bring a glove with him at all.
Luke Scott - the Rays saw Luke Scott at his worst in 2012. Swinging away at pitches out of the zone, avoiding walks like the plague, and every time he seemed to be coming around he'd be shelved on the DL. The result was the team declining his 2013 option for $6M and instead paying him $1M as a buyout. Scott is now 18 months removed from shoulder surgery and could be a low cost alternative at DH in 2013.
Justin Upton - the cost for Upton would be James Shields. Upton is coming of 2012 season where he posted a slash line of .280/.355/.430 with 17 homers which was slightly below his career average of .278/.357/.475. The 25 year old Upton is under contract for the next three years at $39.5M ($9.75M 2013, $14.25M in 2014, $15.5M in 2015).
Wil Myers - the cost for Meyers would be James Shields. Meyers entered Baseball America ranked as the 28th best prospect on their top 100 list. After hitting a combined .314/.387/.600 with 37 homers between AA/AAA in 2012 he will most assuredly move up into the top 10.
Alfonso Soriano - attractive as a full time DH as he is coming off a fine season where he hit .262/.322/.499 with 32 homers. The cost of acquiring Soriano would most likely be a lower level (tier 2) prospect. The Cubs owe Soriano $36M over the next two years and would most likely be looking for someone to assumr $10M to $12M.
Josh Willingham - signed by the Twins prior to the 2012 season for 3 years and $21M and he responded by hitting .260/.366/.524 with 35 homers. The Twins recently moved both Denard Span and Ben Revere in exchange for young controllable pitching and GM Terry Ryan spoke to MLB Network Radio about his desire and never ending quest to acquire pitching. Could the Rays offer the Twins a package centering around Alex Colome with a lower level minor leaguer to pry Willingham away? The Rays were hesitant to give Willingham the 3 years/21 million during last offseason but could the new TV money soften the $7m due him in 2014?