When ESPN.com asked me to pick the x-factor for the 2011 Rays, it would have been easy to pick the re-built bullpen, or Johnny Damon’s bat, or Manny Ramirez’s attention span, or the empty lockers of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Grant Balfour, and Rafael Soriano. After all, those are the things we have all been obsessing over since Halloween. But the 2011 Rays, like the 2010 Rays, are built around their starting rotation and will only go as far as the starting rotation leads.
The 2010 Rays were good in many areas. The bullpen was among the Major League leaders, Soriano was great in the 9th inning, and they scored 802 runs, good for 3rd in the American League. But, the 2010 Rays won the American League East because their starting pitchers worked an average of 6.2 innings per start and allowed just 3.1 runs in those 6.2 innings. That gave the Rays offense, who scored 3.7 runs per game during the first 6.2 innings of a ballgame, the opportunity to take a lead and gave the Rays bullpen a lead to protect for just 7 outs. Without the strength of the starting rotation, the 2010 bullpen and offense would not have seemed so competent.
The 2011 Rays rotation has the potential to be just as good – if not better – than the 2010 rotation but still has a lot of unanswered questions that we just didn’t have time to focus on this spring with all the other changes.
- Will Jeremy Hellickson meets the statistical predictions (an ERA around 3.40 with 8-10 SO and 3 BB per nine)? If so, he’ll actually be an improvement over 2010 Matt Garza.
- Will Wade Davis hit a sophomore slump or continue to capitalize on the immense “upside” most scouts seem to agree he has? The old rule-of-thumb had good young pitchers struggling after the league had a season to adjust to their stuff. Most scouts agree that Davis has real talent (perhaps even enough talent to be a front-0f-the-rotation guy) but he’ll need to be ready for the scouts who have been working on his weaknesses all winter.
- Will James Shields come back from the brink and be a 4.00 pitcher after a terribly unlucky 2010? (his BABIP was .341!) The Rays need the Inning Eater James in their 2011 clubhouse to return to his swing-and-miss form.
- Will the real Jeff Niemann please stand up? Is Niemann the pitcher whose command and pitch-selection made him the most consistent member of the starting rotation until his 15-day DL vacation in August or, is he the wildly inconsistent pitcher that worked to a 14.43 ERA in his post-DL starts? He may be both, but the 2011 Rays need the former, not the latter, if they want to compete again the re-loaded East.
- Is David Price ready to take the ball in every big game? I know he’d say yes, and I know he has the talent, but he wasn’t exactly electrifying in his two postseason starts. For the Rays to be great again in 2011, Price needs to rely less on his overpowering fastball and pitch more.
If all these tumblers break the Rays’ way – like they did in 2010 – the rest of the 2011 Rays are good enough to win 90+ games. But, if the engine of this car falters even a little, that might overburden the offense and bullpen and lead to more mediocre results.