Deciphering The Hype of Five Rays

 By R.J. Anderson //

The Rays season has been remarkable. After starting 0-6 while losing Evan Longoria to injury and Manny Ramirez to retirement, Tampa Bay has somehow rebounded and is fighting it out with the Yankees for first place in the early stages of May. Five players in particular are having standout beginnings—but are they for real?

1. Ben Zobrist

2. James Shields

3. Kyle Farnsworth

4. Matt Joyce

5. Casey Kotchman

Zobrist is mystifying. After a power-laced 2009, his 2010 was a shot back to reality—or at least it appeared. Now, Zobrist is back to hitting for power with an ISO that exceeds his 2009 tally (.282 versus .246). Zobrist’s batting average on balls in play is higher than usual (.313 as opposed to a career .280 mark), but his home run per flyball rate matches his 2008-2009 total (around 17-18 percent), so there is some reason to think he can continue to hit for home runs, even if his batting average slips.

After a rough 2010, Shields is back to being Shields. Always solid, Shields has embraced a new style of pitching by leaning heavily on his secondary offerings earlier in the count. The results so far have led to a reduced home run rate and a tick more groundballs. Expecting Shields to only give up a home run every 18 or so innings is a bit much moving forward, but he should finish with at least 12-to-15 victories.

There were questions over whether Farnsworth could handle a closing gig, but so far everything has been fine. In fact, Farnsworth went the entire month of April without walking a single batter (although his first walk came at a poor time—with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a tied game). Farnsworth is unlikely to hold down an earned run average below 0.75 all season, but is on a good pace to top 30 saves.

Meanwhile, Joyce has been one of the best hitters in the American League so far. He is doing it all—hitting for average, power, and getting on base. Joyce isn’t going to keep up the 956 OPS pace all year, but he will get all the starts against righties and a few against select lefties. Think of him as the AL version of Seth Smith and grab him if he is available.

As good as those guys have been and project to be, avoid Kotchman if possible. Kotchman’s early season line might look like a renaissance, but in reality, he is the same guy as before. A groundball fiend, Kotchman isn’t reliable for power output, and although his batting average on groundballs is holding steady so far, it exceeds his career output and league average by enough to think regression will knock his value down multiple pegs. Maybe take a chance on him in an AL-only league, otherwise, be weary of trying to ride a hot hand.

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