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.

Kendrys Morales pitched a scoreless inning Sunday

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Nothing went right for the Blue Jays this weekend. The club was swept in a four-game series against the Athletics, including a 9-2 loss on Sunday. Not wanting to burn out his bullpen in a lopsided game — and perhaps thinking about the general entertainment value involved — Blue Jays manager John Gibbons decided to send designated hitter Kendrys Morales out to pitch the ninth inning. And in typical baseball fashion, he saw better results than some of the dudes who do this all the time.

Morales, who actually pitched in Cuba nearly 20 years ago, worked around a walk for a scoreless inning. He induced three fly outs and topped out at 87.4 mph on his fastball, per Brooks Baseball. He received a standing ovation on the way back to the dugout. Morales hasn’t been hearing that sort of thing for his contributions with the bat recently.

Morales, 34, is batting just .163/.248/.279 with three home runs through 32 games this season. There’s been some understandable clamoring for top prospect Vladmir Guerrero, Jr. to cut into his at-bats. For his part, Morales has been doing everything he can to break out of his slumber at the plate, including ditching the glasses he started wearing during spring training. Hey, whatever works. Morales also had two of Toronto’s four hits on Sunday.

On the heels of Morales’ first MLB appearance on the mound, it feels rather appropriate that the Blue Jays will get their first look at Angels sensation Shohei Ohtani — at least as a hitter — beginning on Tuesday.