Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

SARASOTA - In just a few short years the Tampa Bay Rays have gone from major league afterthoughts to serious contenders. They've catapulted themselves past established AL East powers like the Blue Jays and Orioles - who I watched the Rays beat 8-3 on Tuesday at Ed Smith Stadium - to give the Red Sox and Yankees a run for their money.

A big part of that success has been the talent - specifically the young, homegrown variety - the fanchise has amassed. And all that talent makes Tampa Bay's roster extremely appealing to fantasy owners. Let's have a closer look, shall we?

BREAKOUT PLAYER: Starter Matt Garza is penciled in as the Rays' No. 2 starter behind James Shields, but he may have the best pure stuff on the staff. Though his W-L record (8-12) and ERA (3.92) were disappointments after a stellar 2008 season, keep in mind it was really only his second full season in the big leagues, and he struck out 189 batters in 203 innings. With a little luck and a little more maturity on the mound, the 26-year-old could be in line for a fine season.

BUYER BEWARE: Jason Bartlett had an outstanding 2009, but you have to be a tad skeptical about a player who added nearly 200 points to his OPS from the previous season, raised his batting average 30 points and almost tripled his previous career high in homers (from 5 to 14). I'm not suggesting there's anything fishy going on; I'm just saying we might have seen a once-in-a-career season out of the 29-year-old SS, who's going to cost you a lot more this draft day than he ever has.

ETC: Carl Crawford (top) is a top-10 talent, even if there's a decent chance he gets traded elsewhere by season's end. If that happens, minor league speedster Desmond Jennings instantly becomes a must-own. ... A lot people are down on B.J. Upton, whose stats fell for a second straight year last season after a stellar 2007. But I believe there's still hope for the 25-year-old, who was still recovering from shoulder surgery last year, to be an across-the-board contributor. ... keep an eye on IF/OF Sean Rodriguez, who's tearing it up so far this spring after being acquired in the Scott Kazmir deal and pushing for playing time. ... Evan Longoria is the second-best fantasy 3B in the game behind Alex Rodriguez, plain and simple. ... Carlos Pena is another Ray who could end up getting dealt by year's end, but don't let that scare you away. Can you say contract year? ... The versatile Ben Zobrist demands your attention after an awesome 2009 that came out of nowhere. He's a lot more comfortable this year, as the Herald's John Lembo reports, knowing the Rays will find ways to get him in their lineup, whether it's at second base or in right field. But I do have hesitation when it comes to a player who hit 27 homers in one season at age 28 after a total of 23 in more than 1,300 career minor league at bats. ... I've already spelled out how much I like new closer Rafael Soriano this year ... Want strikeouts? Get No. 3 starter David Price. Want an even cheaper source of strikeouts? Get No. 4 Jeff Niemann (above). Want a late-round sleeper with a ton of upside? Get Wade Davis.

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