Before the 2012 season, hopes were high in Tampa. The team made a few targeted, medium-priced moves to bring in hitting talent, with the hopes of making another run at the AL East title. Though the team suffered setbacks early in the season (Evan Longoria's injury) and late (the Oakland A's improbable run to the playoffs), the team was relatively consistent in play, and managed a solid 90-72 record on the season.
But, in the end, the Rays wound up finishing three games back of the wild card and five games back of the AL East-leading Yankees, despite actually having the third-best run differential of any team in the majors. The Rays actually scored 120 more runs than they gave up, only surpassed by the Yankees and the Nationals. As unbelievable as it might have sounded five years ago, missing the playoffs, despite the solid regular season, means that this year falls under the "disappointment" banner for Joe Maddon's team.
What Went Right
The Rays had one of the best pitching staffs in the major leagues in 2012, leading the majors in both ERA and FIP. As usual, their rotation was stellar, led by Cy Young candidate David Price and rotation stalwart James Shields. Price won 20 games this season, and led the starting staff with a 2.56 ERA. Big Game James Shields had a legendarily-big game to close the season, setting a single-game Rays strikeout record with 15 punchouts, while also posting a 3.52 ERA and 3.47 FIP. Rookie starter Matt Moore wasn't lights-out, but he was very good, throwing 177 innings in his first full season and striking out 8.88 batters per nine innings. Even Jeremy Hellickson (3.10 ERA) and Alex Cobb (3.67 FIP) were very good at the back end of the rotation, and rookie Chris Archer flashed huge heat (11.05 K/9) in limited starting duty. This is a very, very good rotation that should be excellent for years to come.
The offense had issues (more on that later), but Ben Zobrist had another stellar season for the Rays. Despite coming into the season as a combination 2B / RF, Zobrist was moved to the regular shortstop mid-season, and continued to flourish in that role. While Zobrist is an excellent defensive right-fielder, and an better-than-average second-baseman, he's an average-at-best shortstop. That's ok, though, when you hit .270/.377./.471 with 20 HR, like Zobrist did last season. He's a star.
Also, the Rays managed to draw value out of a couple of low-risk offseason pickups. After closer Kyle Farnsworth went down with an injury early in the season, Fernando Rodney stepped in as closer, and turned in one of the best seasons in baseball history by a closer. Rodney saved 48 games, but more importantly, finished the year with an ERA of 0.60. Believe it or not, this is the lowest ERA of any reliever who pitched 50 innings or more ... in major league history. Considering how terrible Rodney was over the last three years, that's a mighty fortuitous pickup for the Rays. (Also, set-up man Jake McGee also was one of the best relievers in the AL, giving the Rays a potent one-two punch at the end of games.)
The Rays also picked up utility man Jeff Keppinger on the cheap, and he repaid the team by destroying left-handed pitching while spending time at first, second, and third base, as well as DH. While Keppinger wasn't much of a power threat, he posted a .325/.367/.439 slash line, which was about 27% better than league average by wRC+. And Jose Molina may not be an elite hitter, or even a good one, but Max Marchi's pitch-framing catcher defense metrics have an initial report that Molina was worth 50 runs saved as a pitch framer! That's five full wins! If that data is accurate, his benefit to the Rays pitching staff was well worth the minimal investment.
Team MVP: Ben Zobrist
What Went Wrong
The biggest things that went wrong for the Rays ... were the unexpected playoff runs by the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics. The Rays won 90 games, but still finished third in their division and missed both wild card spots by three games. The Rays were still in it until the last week of play, but this is a team who should have had a clear path to the playoffs, given Boston's total implosion. A team like the Rays has to make the most of a limited window to win, given their payroll issues, as the team's young talent is starting to get more and more expensive. It's very likely that center fielder B.J. Upton and one of the team's talented starters will be leaving during the offseason, so the front office will have to work hard and dig deep to replace these assets going into 2013.
The best player on the Rays, Evan Longoria, missed much of the season with a serious injury -- a torn hamstring. Even when Longoria came back from the injury, he was stuck playing DH instead of his usual third base for most of the end of the season. Longoria hit exceptionally well when he could play, hitting 17 homers and posting a career-high 143 wRC+ (he was a 43% better hitter than the league average) over his limited plate appearances. But if he'd been healthy for the whole season, it's extremely likely that the Rays could have made up those three wins that kept them out of the playoffs.
Also, off-season acquisitions Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, who were brought on to provide power in the middle of the lineup, failed miserably. Pena got 600 plate appearances at first base and DH, but couldn't even provide league-average production with his bat as his power numbers cratered from his career norms. Luke Scott was consistently battling injuries, and when he was healthy, he only posted an OBP of .285, which just isn't acceptable from a full-time DH. Neither player can expect to return to the team next season at anything resembling their current contracts.
Lastly, before Zobrist stepped in a shortstop, the combination of Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, and Elliot Johnson was really, really terrible at that position. Brignac never got going, and hardly played, Rodriguez was ok defensively but terrible offensively, and Johnson was bad on both sides of the ball. The Rays have a reputation as a very good defensive team, and if they want to improve next season, adding a new shortstop and moving Zobrist back to second and the outfield might be the right move. It doesn't look like any of these three other players have any business at short for the Rays.
Team LVP: Carlos Pena
Quick 2013 Outlook
The Rays still have the foundation of a great pitching staff, but questions abound regarding the payroll, and whether James Shields will be on the move in the offseason, as the team tries to manage its budget. If Shields goes, the rotation should still be a strength, but it might not be the juggernaut that it was in 2012, and the team will need to lean heavily on young arms like Alex Cobb and Chris "Duchess" Archer.
Long-time Rays center fielder B.J. Upton is asssuredly leaving the team as well, as he'll hit free agency and should demand much more in the open market than the Rays can afford. This likely means that Desmond Jennings will take over as the everyday center fielder, and Brandon Guyer or an offseason acquisition will take over in left field.
With Pena, Scott, and Upton all on their ways out of town, the team will have a number of holes to fill offensively, and not a whole lot of money to fill those holes. Some might be able to be filled via a starting pitcher trade, and Andrew Friedman has shown great ability to pick up useful players on the cheap. But the team will certainly need to add more offensive firepower to compete in the ultra-competitive AL East / AL wild card races next season.
In 2012, the Rays proved that good isn't good enough in the American League. The team will need to repeat its usual magic of adding cheap, good, young players to complement the team's stars in Zobrist, Longoria, and Price, in order to make the playoffs in 2013. It's not an impossible task, as this team has proven its ability in that arena before, but the margin for error is dangerously thin.