Three down, 159 to go. After taking two of three from the Toronto Blue Jays to kick off the 2013 season, the Cleveland Indians now head south for their first crack at the Tampa Bay Rays. To help preview the Tribe’s weekend opponents, I talked to Steve Slowinski, manager of the fantastic site DRaysBay, about some of Rays’ big offseason moves, Tampa Bay’s 2013 outlook, and a couple familiar faces Cleveland fans might recognize this weekend.
You can also read my answers to Steve’s questions on DRaysBay.
Wahoo’s on First: It’s safe to say that the AL East standings will look quite different in 2013 than they have for most of the millennium so far. Where do you see the Rays finishing this year?
Steve Slowinski: Despite all the hyperbole being thrown around about each team—the Yankees are old and done for, the Blue Jays are stacked; the Red Sox are rebuilding, yadda yadda—I see the AL East as incredibly tight and competitive this year. The projection systems seem to plop most of the teams in the AL East around the 85-88 win level, and so really, anything could happen. I could see the Yankees holding things together and putting together another run. I could see the Orioles shoring up their rotation and making the playoffs. I could see the Red Sox…well, no, I can’t really see them in the playoffs, but that’s probably the only real exception.
So generally, I feel like the Rays have as good a chance at winning the division as four of the five teams in the AL East. I’m hesitant to be too optimistic, as there are a number of things that could go wrong for this team—the offense doesn’t click, someone gets injured, they can’t replace Shields’ innings, etc.—but the Rays are good and in position to continue to be good for years to come.
Wahoo’s on First: Most analysts seemed to see Tampa Bay as the big winners of the James Shields trade this winter. Are you happy with the return the Rays got from the Royals?
Steve Slowinski: Definitely. The Rays needed to get a bat, and they couldn’t have gotten a better young hitter via trade than Wil Myers. It’s incredibly rare that a team is willing to part with a prospect of his caliber and hype, so although there’s certainly plenty of risk to it, that’s a deal you have to make when you run a small-market team like the Rays. And when you throw in another top prospect like Jake Odorizzi, how can you say no?
Wahoo’s on First: Evan Longoria‘s new $100 million extension will keep him under team control through 2023, but that’s an awful lot of money for a small-market team to invest in one player. How will that deal look 10 years from now?
Steve Slowinski: I think that deal will look glorious in 10 years. It looks like a bargain now, and with television money flooding the game, inflation in the free agent market, and (fingers crossed!) a new stadium, the Rays should hopefully be able to afford him the entire length of the deal without too much of a problem. I’m sure he’ll be well overpaid by the end of the contract, but hey, with young franchises, you have to actively work to build a history and legacy. And what better way to redefine the Rays’ history by making the team’s first franchise player the same player that hit the most memorable home run in franchise history?
Wahoo’s on First: Two names on Tampa Bay’s 25-man roster will look pretty familiar to Cleveland fans: Shelley Duncan (for whom I have a particular soft spot) and Roberto Hernandez. What do you expect from each in 2013?
Steve Slowinski: Honestly, I was one of the ones rooting for Jeff Niemann to beat out Hernandez for the final spot in the Rays bullpen. I feel like Niemann has more potential when he’s at his best, but unfortunately, it just didn’t look like he was at 100% this spring. The Rays also seemed to fully believe in Hernandez from day one, so I have a feeling they see something in him that they really like. I’m sure his groundball rate is appealing, what with the Rays’ crazy infield defense this year, but I’m guessing they have more than just that up their sleeve. And so, I have this sneaking suspicion that Hernandez is going to have a great year…although darned if I know exactly how the Rays will make that happen.
As far as Shelley Duncan, I wasn’t too familiar with him going into spring training, but wow, he’s a fun guy. I can see why he’s such a fan favorite, as his personality is just so catching. I’m trying to keep my expectations for him low, as it’s likely he’ll get sent down again once Luke Scott comes back from his injury, but how can you not root hard for him? Especially when he’s going through so much personal turmoil at the moment; my heart goes out to the guy.
Wahoo’s on First: What’s your prediction for the series?
Steve Slowinski: Well, what sort of fan would I be if I didn’t pick the Rays to win? The Rays did look shaky in their first series, though, dropping two of three to the Orioles due to some wonky pitching. So I’m certainly not expecting a sweep; I’d be happy with some decent pitching performances and a series win.