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2015 AL Wild Card preview

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Will the Rays be able to keep the high-fives flowing in 2015? What teams could bring them to a halt?

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Will postseason baseball return to Tropicana Field in 2015? If the Tampa Bay Rays are to get back to the playoffs, there is one significant opponent standing in their way: parity. As of Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus projected 12 American League teams were projected to win at least 78 games. Only one of the 12 teams - the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Angels of California - are projected to win more than 90 games. Today, we look at the other 11 teams.

DRaysBay spent the winter analyzing the 2015 Rays from every possible angle, including season previews for each player, a look at the non-roster invitees who might contribute, and multiple in-depth pieces about whether the face of the franchise will regain his past form.

Who will present the greatest challenge to the Rays? Do they have enough offense to contend? The season might be a week old, but that just makes our projections seem all the more brilliant...or stupid.

The Teams

Mookie Betts - Photo credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Boston Red Sox

Versus Rays in 2014: 9-10

2015 PECOTA Projections: 88-74 (807 runs scored/735 runs against)

The Red Sox will score runs. Lots of them. In fact, Fangraphs projects 12.9 wins alone from the infield of Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Pablo Sandoval, and Xander Bogaerts. Overall, seven starters are projected to hit double digit home runs and slug greater than .400.

What has been questioned is Boston's starting pitching, or lack thereof after Rick Porcello. Opening Day starter Clay Buchholz had the second-worst ERA- (134) of any starting pitcher in baseball last season, while newcomer Wade Miley had the 16th-worst mark in the league (114). Joe Kelly has a career 86 ERA-, but a poor 10.0% home run to fly ball ratio, and has managed just 327 1/3 innings pitched in three big league seasons. However, in the Red Sox first trip through the rotation in 2015 the starters went 31 1/3 innings, with a 2.30 ERA (2.08 FIP) and 0.83 WHIP.

While it is unlikely the starters will go the entire season averaging nearly 6 1/3 innings per start and less than a baserunner allowed per inning, the starting pitching looks better than anticipated. If that is the case, the Sox offense and the return of a healthy Koji Uehara (2.29 FIP and 0.728 WHIP in 137 appearances in 2013-2014), could make the Red Sox the Rays' stiffest competition for a playoff spot.

Toronto Blue Jays

Versus Rays in 2014: 11-8

2015 PECOTA Projections: 80-82 (786 runs scored/796 runs against)

An offensive core of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and Edwin Encarnacion should mash enough to keep any team in Wild Card contention. The Blue Jays could very likely have six players with at least 15 home runs, and a seventh player, Jose Reyes, who could finish with 50 extra-base hits. PECOTA projects the Toronto Blue Jays to score the second-most runs in the AL. Unfortunately, the Rays' injured pitching staff will face this Blue Jays offense seven times in April.

At the top of the rotation, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, masters of above-league average consistency, can still each provide 200 innings of sub-4.50 ERA. A key to the Blue Jays season could be the development of No. 3 starter Drew Hutchinson, who, at age 24, looks to build off a 2014 in which he posted a 23.4% strikeout rate and 3.85 FIP in 184 2/3 innings. If he does not continue to improve, though, the Blue Jays pitching is very thin.

At the end of the season, six of Tampa Bay's final nine games are against Toronto.

Baltimore Orioles

Versus Rays in 2014: 12-7

2015 PECOTA Projections: 79-83 (675 runs scored/696 runs against)

At first blush, it is difficult to imagine a team with a lineup that includes Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Adam Jones to just be league-average. After all, in 2014, the defending division champs finished sixth in the AL in runs scored. However, their .311 on-base percentage placed them in the bottom half on the league. The team's 6.5% walk rate was second worst in the AL. The team relied on power, with a league-best 211 home runs and 13.2% home run to fly ball ratio. Can the Orioles replicate their 2014 power production, especially with the departure of Nelson Cruz and his 40 home runs?

Similar to the Blue Jays, Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman lead a top-heavy Orioles pitching staff. Can Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Kevin Gausman provide enough quality innings? Gonzalez has shown flashes throughout his career, with a career 17.0% strikeout rate and an 85 ERA-.

Alex Rodriguez -- Photo credit: Elsa/Getty Images

New York Yankees

Versus Rays in 2014: 8-11

2015 PECOTA Projections: 80-82 (691 runs scored/702 runs against)

A half-decade ago, a core lineup of Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, and Jacoby Ellsbury would have made for more than just fringe Wild Card contention. In 2015, though, last season's mid-season pick-up Chase Headley could quite possibly be the team's best player. In 35 games at Yankee Stadium after the trade, Headley slugged five home runs and posted a line of .265/.390/.434. He is projected to be four win player in 2015. Rodriguez has started strong (.815 OPS and 129 OPS+), and the Yankees may need him if they are to score enough runs to contend.

After Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda, the Yankees are depending on about 450 innings pitched from C.C. Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, and Adam Warren. Also, making matters dire for the Yankees pitching staff is the departure of closer David Robertson and his career 32% strikeout percentage and 66 ERA-.

Starting Labor Day weekend, the Rays and Yankees will play six games in less than two weeks. It could be the final opportunity for both teams to remain in playoff contention.

Detroit Tigers

Versus Rays in 2014: 3-4

2015 PECOTA Projections: 83-79 (738 runs scored/721 runs against)

Is the Tigers' window closing? Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello departed in the offseason, taking with them roughly 400 innings of outstanding  production. Justin Verlander, who has lost nearly two miles per hour from his four-seam fastball since 2012, is on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Joe Nathan, who posted a 1.534 WHIP and 123 ERA- in 2014, remains the closer. Will David Price and Anibal Sanchez be enough to keep the pitching staff afloat?

Miguel Cabrera is still one of the  games' premier hitters but saw his lowest walk percentage since 2008 (8.8%) and the highest strikeout percentage since 2008 (17.1%). Victor Martinez, while still productive, is now 36. Ian Kinsler was a five win player last season, but produced career worst marks in TAv (.257) and walk percentage (4.0%). The Tigers will still score runs, with the above trio being aided by the continued emergence of J.D. Martinez and the arrival of Yoenis Cespedes.

While the Tigers are still the early favorite to win the AL Central, especially after a 6-1 start, this appears to be the most vulnerable they have been in more than a half-decade. They could very well end up down in the Wild Card mud with the Rays.

Cleveland Indians

Versus Rays in 2014: 4-2

2015 PECOTA Projections: 81-81 (705 runs scored/715 runs against)

Sports Illustrated picked the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. While PECOTA is not as high on the Tribe, it is easy to envision them keeping pace with Tampa Bay the entire season.

Defending Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, along with Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer are all age 29 or younger, and are projected to provide Cleveland with 500 innings of sub-4.00 ERA production.

At $6.5 million, Brandon Moss could prove to be one of the off-season's most underrated acquisitions. In 2013-2014, Moss hit 55 home runs and posted an .813 OPS. For his career, he owns a tremendous 15.2% home run to fly ball ratio, and in 82 plate appearances at his new home Progressive Field, he has slashed .333/.439/.629. He could prove to be ideal power bat to place in the middle of Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipinis, and Yan Gomes.

On paper, Cleveland appears to have as good balance as any team in the AL, with their offensive and pitching both expected to finish in top six or seven in the league. Terry Francona is no Lou Brown or Jake Taylor, but he has overseen ten consecutive winning seasons.

Chicago White Sox

Versus Rays in 2014: 5-2

2015 PECOTA Projections: 78-84 (701 runs scored/731 runs against)

What a difference four games makes, huh? When the season opened, many pegged the Chicago White Sox as a sleeper team, led by a core of defending AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu and the ridiculous Chris Sale-Jeff Samardzija-Jose Quintana rotation. After starting 0-4 and being outscored 27-7 in the process, the shine was a bit off the South Side apple, but their pitching is formidable. As we mentioned above, free agent David Robertson solidifies the back end of the bullpen.

Offensively, Abreu has been given some protection in the form of new arrivals Melky Cabrera (125 wRC+ and 54 extra-base hits in 2014) and Adam LaRoche (127 wRC+, 14.0% walk rate, and .817 OPS in 2014).

Nelson Cruz -- Photo credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Mariners

Versus Rays in 2014: 4-3

2015 PECOTA Projections: 87-75 (675 runs scored/621 runs against)

In the run up to the 2015 season, the Seattle Mariners were a chic pick to not just make the playoffs, but win the World Series.

The pitching staff, led by Felix Hernandez, Hishashi Iwakuma, and James Paxton, is expected to be among the best in baseball. Former friend and closer Fernando Rodney, now 38, is still hitting 96 MPH with his four-seam fastball, and was excellent for the Mariners in 2014 (48 Saves, 26.6% strikeout rate, and a 77 ERA-).

Offensively, since the start of the 2006 season, the Mariners have scored the fewest runs in baseball and have produced the third worst offensive fWAR. However, for 2015, Fangraphs projects six starters to be worth at least two wins, with a seventh, Nelson Cruz, who owns a career .232 ISO, .500 SLG, and clubbed 74 extra-base hits in 2014. If the Mariners are serious contenders, they will need production not just from Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, but Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino.

Oakland Athletics

Versus Rays in 2014: 4-2

2015 PECOTA Projections: 84-78 (685 runs scored/657 runs against)

The Oakland A's went HAM in 2014, and now they have stumbled out of the bar at 2:00 AM, passed out on the couch, and awoke to the cold light of morning, asking "What the hell happened  last year?" In true A's fashion, though, they have reset on the fly and still have excellent balance.

At 25, Sonny Gray is now the leader of the staff, having posted a 20.4% strikeout rate, 1.19 WHIP, and 83 ERA- in his first full season. Former Rays ace Scott Kazmir is being counted on to the No. 2 starter, due to the departures of mid-season acquisitions Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija,

Also gone is team MVP Josh Donaldson and his cumulative 14.1 fWAR in 2013-2014. During those seasons, Donaldson earned less than $1 million, while producing much more value than that. That is not production that is replaced easily.

The A's, however, will attempt to do so, in part, with dearly departed (from Tampa Bay) Ben Zobrist (119 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR  in 2014) and former New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis (career .761 OPS and .183 ISO). New third baseman Brett Lawrie, traded from Toronto for Donaldson, is still just 25, but has yet to match his 2012, when as a second year player he posted 40 extra-base hits and a 2.3 fWAR.

Fellow new additions Tyler Clippard (career 1.09 WHIP and 72 ERA-) and Billy Butler, who turns 29 this week, should help ensure the A's hangover from 2014 does not prevent them from challenging for the Wild Card in 2015

Texas Rangers

Versus Rays in 2014: 2-5

2015 PECOTA Projections: 79-83 (707 runs scored/727 runs against)

The loss of Yu Darvish was devastating for the Texas Rangers. In other profound understatements, fire is hot and Justin Timberlake mugs way too much at the camera when he hosts Saturday Night Live. The rotation will now be led by Derek Holland, Yovani Gallardo, and Colby Lewis. Of the three, only Holland is expected to have an ERA and FIP under 4.00. Bleak.

Prince Fielder turns 31 in early May, and has seen his OPS, fWAR, extra-base hits, and home run-to-fly ball ratio decrease since 2012. Shin-Soo Choo, in his previous four full seasons, averaged nearly five wins per season and never posted an OPS below .814. Choo will turn 33 in July, and posted just a .714 OPS in 2014.

If Wild Card contention eluded the Rangers, can't we all just sit back and enjoy the perfect baseball creation that is Adrian Beltre? At age 36, he still is projected to be a five-win player and post an OPS in the mid-.800s. God bless his terrifying intensity.

Conclusion

Tampa Bay has its work cut out in the American League. Just under a quarter of the schedule, or 38 games, will be played against what should be the two best offensives in the American League. Boston and Toronto will hammer the ball, but their pitching remains suspect. Baltimore reached the ALCS in 2014, but relies heavily on home runs and a top-heavy rotation. The Yankees, of course, have the resources for a mid-season acquisition if they can score enough runs to remain in contention. Detroit still has an excellent, if aging, roster that should be primed for at least one more deep run. Oakland reset in the offseason, and remains formidable due to their balance. Similarly, Cleveland, Seattle, and Chicago have both improved offenses and strong starting rotations. Texas still has a core of Beltre-Fielder-Choo, but the remainder of their roster is shockingly thin.

Will the Rays have enough to contend in 2015? Or will it be an October free of high-fives, and other cool handshakes I suppose?