Early 2013 Outlook

March 7, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon (70) congratulates relief pitcher Josh Lueke (52) after the fifth inning against the New York Yankees during spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

With the Rays currently fighting to stay alive in the wild card race, most attention reasonably is focused on the short-term outlook of the team. However, it is prudent and refreshing to look at the larger picture with regards to the franchise. Friedman's keen ability to refuse to make short term gains at the expense of the long term goals most likely is what is keeping this team competitive. Let's take a look at how next year's team is shaping up.

The encouraging news for the Rays is that most of the strengths of the current team are locked up under contract for next year. Couple that with available funds to spend on free agents and the Rays are looking prime to compete again in 2013.

There has been some speculation that a trade of James Shields or BJ Upton would mark the end of the Rays' storybook run from 2008-2012. Such speculation is unwarranted as the Rays have many of their notable players under contract for many years to come, a shrewd structure for maintaining success.

Of the players on the current 25 man roster, only Carlos Pena, Jeff Keppinger, Joel Peralta, JP Howell, Kyle Farnsworth, and BJ Upton are free agents (Scott, Molina, etc.. have options).

Here is how the 2013 squad looks, as of now:

Bullpen

One of the strong suits of the 2012 team, the bullpen should once again flex its muscle. Fernando Rodney has an option, which, barring an injury, is guaranteed to be exercised. Wade Davis, Brandon Gomes, Jake McGee, Burke Badenhop, Cesar Ramos, and Josh Lueke are all under contract for this year and years to come, hence forming a strong bullpen core for the Rays to build around.

Projected Pen:
1. Fernando Rodney
2. Jake McGee
3. Burke Badenhop
4. Cesar Ramos
5. Wade Davis
6. Josh Lueke
7. Brandon Gomes

Starting Rotation

The tremendous depth of the rotation gives the Rays the ability to move James Shields now or after this season. With David Price's annual salary rising, the Rays simply can't afford to retain both Shields and Price. Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb all figure to return. If the Rays decide to trade Niemann, a spot could open for Chris Archer. Alex Colome and Cesar Ramos should provide depth as starters in Durham next year.

Projected Rotation:
1. David Price
2. Matt Moore
3. Jeremy Hellickson
4. Alex Cobb
5. Jeff Niemann

Infield

If there is one problem area for the 2013 team, it is the infield. Carlos Pena's miserable performance has guaranteed his departure. Luke Scott most likely will say farewell as well; his 5 million dollar option is too pricey for a player with major health concerns and inconsistent performance. Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria should (hopefully) anchor the second and third base positions respectively. Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson's roster spots are not entirely secure, but unless the Rays secure an obvious upgrade, they will be retained.

Jose Molina could return and partner with Jose Lobaton to split catching duties. Although Molina has served as a scapegoat, his high pitch framing value easily compensates for his poor blocking skills. As long as Lobaton's bat shows promise, his spot is secure.

Projected Infield:
1B: ???
2B: Ben Zobrist
SS: Elliot Johnson
3B: Evan Longoria
DH: ???
C: Jose Molina/Jose Lobaton

Outfield

Anchoring the outfield are Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce, who both should return next year and are pivotal to the team's success. Coming off a shoulder injury, Guyer should be in the hunt for at least a reserve role. He and Fuld could potentially serve as a platoon in left field. Shifting Ben Zobrist to the outfield is another option if the Rays find a different and suitable option at second base. Acquiring depth at this position is critical due to the shortage of quality outfielders in both the Rays and Durham teams.

Project Outfield:
LF: Brandon Guyer/Sam Fuld
CF: Desmond Jennings
RF: Matt Joyce

Reserves

The catching position will take one of the four bench openings. Ryan Roberts could give the Rays an infield option versus left handed pitching. The Rays could also keep Keppinger, but with Rodriguez and Roberts on the team, that appears redundant, even if Keppinger is the best hitter of the group. Filling the final spot will be a fourth outfielder, either Guyer or Fuld depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. If the Rays opt not to keep both of them and find a starter for RF (or 2B, which would shift Zobrist for RF), it would presumably be Fuld to fill the spot.

Projected Reserves:
Catcher: Jose Lobaton
Infielder: Sean Rodriguez
Outfielder: Sam Fuld
Utility: Ryan Roberts

Prospects Who Could Make An Impact

In contrast to the outrageous depth present in the low minors, the Rays' upper levels are barren. Nevertheless, there are players who could help the Rays, although most of them qualify as situational role players instead of impact level talent.

Henry Wrigley (25 years old), a first baseman batting .317/.367/.551 combined in AA and AAA, could be in the mix for the 1B position should the Rays not find a competitive starter.

Stephen Vogt (25 years old) had a less than memorable stint in the majors, but has turned his season around in Durham, currently batting .291/.361/.468.

Tim Beckham (22 years old), the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, might give the Rays another option at shortstop if his hitting prowess forces a promotion to the majors sometime next year. So far in 42 games with Durham this year, Beckham has batted .259/.347/.355. If the Rays are unsure about their outfield situation, they could opt to move Zobrist to right field, giving the versatile Beckham a chance at claiming the 2B position.

Rotation depth has been an impressive luxury for the Rays the past several years, and something they should boast again in 2013. Chris Archer should be the first player in line for a call-up if the need arises. Cesar Ramos is being stretched out as a starter, and with his much improved and sharper stuff this year, he could be a backend option. Alex Colome will also start next year in Durham. Alex Torres stock has plummeted, but if he can show that this year was a fluke, he may emerge as another option.

Payroll

So far, Sternberg has been suspiciously silent regarding next year's payroll. His intentions are unclear, but it should be safe to assume that the Rays payroll will be somewhere in between 2011's payroll of forty-one million and 2012's payroll of sixty-four million. Here are some quick projections for the payroll of the 25 man roster.

Player Salary Actual/Projected
Fernando Rodney $2,500,000 Actual
Jake McGee $450,000 Projected
Burke Badenhop $1,215,000 Projected
Wade Davis $2,800,000 Actual
Cesar Ramos $450,000 Projected
Josh Lueke $450,000 Projected
Brandon Gomes $450,000 Projected
David Price $9,112,500 Projected
Jeremy Hellickson $450,000 Projected
Matt Moore $1,000,000 Actual
Jeff Niemann $3,037,500 Projected
Alex Cobb $450,000 Projected
First base
Ben Zobrist $5,500,000 Actual
Elliot Johnson $450,000 Projected
Evan Longoria $6,000,000 Actual
Jose Molina $1,800,000 Actual
Matt Joyce $3,500,000 Projected
Desmond Jennings $450,000 Projected
Sam Fuld $450,000 Projected
Brandon Guyer $450,000 Projected
Jose Lobaton $450,000 Projected
Sean Rodriguez $1,687,500 Projected
Designated Hitter
Ryan Roberts $3,400,000 Projected

All players in pre-arbitration years were automatically assigned $450,000. In reality, you can give or take around $50,000. For the players in arbitration, I ran a loose 25%/45%/65% projection. These are simply estimates, assigned more for generalization than precision.

The total comes out to $43,102,500 without a designated hitter and a first baseman. If Sternberg commits to retaining the current payroll level, the Rays have around 20 million to spend on those positions.

Summary

It is hard to predict how a season will unfold; moreover, it is even tougher when the composition of the roster is unknown. But the early indications are that the Rays will field another competitive team next year, a team that has a strong core and is a few players away from being early post-season favorites.

The Rays run of success that started with the magical 2008 run has been wonderfully impressive. One can not help but be amazed at how the organization has identified and assembled talent that may keep the Rays competitive for years to come. Billy Beane recently claimed that the competitive window for small market teams is ever shrinking as organizations become more balanced in their methods and strategies. Yet somehow, someway, the Rays organization continues to prolong that time period, defying the monstrous disadvantages they face by remaining a competitive, talented team, and one to certainly look forward to for the rest of the year and in 2013.

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