Springtime Storylines: Do the Tampa Bay Rays have the best rotation in baseball?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: Do the Rays have the best rotation in baseball?

The Phillies and the Giants certainly have something to say about it, but the Rays have a great claim to the title.  And even if they don’t fit your definition of “best,” it’s hard to argue that they’re not the deepest.

Last year the Rays had the best ERA in the American League, and they had to face the two best offenses in baseball — the Yankees and the Red Sox — a lot. This year, with the addition of Matt Moore, they’re likely better. Add in David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson, it’s hard to find a better 1-4 than the ones the Rays have. As for the fifth spot, they’ll go with Jeff Niemann, but if he doesn’t work they could use Wade Davis, who would make most teams’ rotations.

But the depth doesn’t end there. As Jonah Keri put it recently, “The Rays’ second five: Wade Davis, Chris Archer, and the three Alexes, Cobb, Torres, and Colome … could very well be better than the Orioles’ actual rotation.”

The point here is that the Rays never seem to run out of arms.  And if for some reason the bats are lacking, they have all of the pitching depth in the world from which to deal.  And that’s the stuff that makes a team that can’t compete on the balance sheet into one that has competed and will continue to compete in the toughest division of baseball for the foreseeable future.

So what else is going on?

  • To go with that pitching is the game’s best defense. I think that a lot of people who never seem to think the Rays can compete and then act shocked that they do are discounting just how much being able to pick it helps a team. How many games do you watch a year where it all turns on one big inning and that big inning happened because of an inning-extending error? I see a few from every team. And then the Rays go and make the playoffs by a single game. This is not an accident.
  • Kyle Farnsworth surprised us all by being a fairly reliable closer last season. How much confidence should we have that he’ll continue that? Maybe he can — at times it looked like he actually learned to pitch instead of throw last year — but if this team has a potential weakness, it could be the pen.
  • Pitching and defense is nice, but not enough, and the Rays had a pretty power-deficient lineup last season. Out goes Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman, in comes Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. Both have struggled quite a bit this spring, but if they’re their usual selves, the lineup is gonna have more thump. Not sure it’s better, however.
  • Evan Longoria had a slight down year last year in terms of OPS and average, thanks in part to some injuries. But he hit 20 homers with a .907 OPS in the second half last year and is having a great spring. It’s weird to talk about an established star having a breakout year, but part of me smells an MVP campaign in the offing.

So how are they gonna do?

They always find a way, don’t they?  If Pena and Scott have decent years, this could be a special team. If they don’t, they can still be quite good thanks to that rotation.  They should be in it all year, and with the added wild card this season, they have to be considered strong playoff contenders, even in that stacked AL East.

Video: Jake Arrieta hits a 465-foot home run off of Zack Greinke

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Jake Arrieta‘s bat is in midseason form already. The Cubs’ ace swatted a solo home run to center field off of Zack Greinke in Thursday afternoon’s Grapefruit League exhibition game, his first homer of the spring.

The blast went 465 feet, according to MLB.com’s Daren Willman.

Arrieta has hit two home runs in each of the past two seasons. Madison Bumgarner (eight) and Noah Syndergaard (four) are the only other pitchers to match or exceed his output in that department.

Greinke, meanwhile, is hoping to bounce back after a miserable 2016 season. He finished with an uncharacteristic 4.37 ERA in 26 starts in his first year with the Diamondbacks.

Luis Valbuena to miss four to six weeks with a strained right hamstring

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Angels first baseman Luis Valbuena will miss the next four to six weeks with a strained right hamstring, Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times reports.

Valbuena, 31, signed a two-year, $15 million contract with the Angels in January and was on track to get the lion’s share of the playing time at first base. While he’s out, however, C.J. Cron will handle first base on a regular basis. When Valbeuna returns, the two will likely form a platoon.

Last year with the Astros, Valbuena hit a solid .260/.357/.459 with 13 home runs and 40 RBI in 342 plate appearances.