Previewing the AL East: Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays have enjoyed nothing but winning seasons under Joe Maddon since their name change prior to the 2008 season. With this is mind, we can probably expect nothing but the same in 2014.

If anything, the team brings an improved version of last year’s roster to camp this year, a roster that lost in the ALDS to the eventual world champion Boston Red Sox. This offseason, the Rays lost a couple of guys from last season’s playoff run – most notably Fernando Rodney, Kelly Johnson, and Jose Lobaton – but the team has also made some key additions.

The Offseason:

As we entered the offseason, the only talk surrounding the Rays was when they were going to trade David Price and what mega-prospects they would receive in return for the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner. However, rather than follow the traditional mold of a Rays offseason, by trading away valuable chips for prospects that could help the team compete either the next season, or in the future, the team decided to keep their ace and address some of their weak spots in what appears to be an attempt at a championship run in 2014.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay RaysSome of the team’s notable transactions this offseason:

- Acquired RHP Heath Bell and C Ryan Hanigan in a
3-team trade with ARI and CIN (Later extended
Hanigan for 3 years, $10.75MM)
– Resigned 1B James Loney for 3 years, $21MM
– Signed RHP Grant Balfour for 2 years, $12MM
– Acquired INF Logan Forsythe from SD
– Resigned C Jose Molina for 2 years, $4.5MM

Now that the calendar offseason is complete, the Rays payroll projects to be right around $80MM this season, a new franchise record and a figure that GM Andrew Friedman has been on record for saying is not sustainable with their current revenues.

When the offseason began, the team completed a trade with Arizona and Cincinatti to acquire RHP Heath Bell (ARI) and C Ryan Hanigan (CIN). At the time, it appeared as if the Rays had acquired another reliever, in Heath Bell, that would more than likely revive his career playing for Joe Maddon just as Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Fernando Rodney, among others have.

The team also finally solidified the catcher position for the first time since Dioner Navarro was a member of the team with the acquisition of Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan isn’t just a one-year rental either, as the team extended him for another three seasons the day they acquired him (let’s just say the team has sought after the 33-year old catcher for a couple of seasons now.) Rays fans will no longer have to watch Jose Molina strike out and allow passed balls on a gamely basis like they have for the past three seasons (sorry if you’re a Jose Molina fan: I’m just not.)

With these two moves, the Rays were buying low on players who figure to rebound in 2014, something that’s typical of them, but I think Rays fans were just as shocked, and excited at the same time, to see the team resign James Loney and Grant Balfour.

James Loney received the largest free agent contract the team has ever issued, but the 29-year old found a home with the Rays last season and is definitely deserving of it. With these two signings, the team will finally have an established closer on day one, and a formidable first basemen for the first time since the 2011 form of Carlos Pena. The team appears complete and ready to compete in the 2014 season.

Joe Maddon isn’t the type of manager to use the same lineup often, as we’re used to waiting for game-time to see exactly how the lineup will shake out, but let’s take a look at what the team’s starting lineup projects to be…

Projected Starting Lineuphi-res-182942750-outfielder-wil-myers-of-the-tampa-bay-rays-bats-against_crop_exact
w/ 2013 statistics

1. LF David Dejesus (.251AVG, 8HR’s, 38RBI’s)
2. 2B Ben Zobrist (.271AVG, 12HR’s, 71RBI’s)
3. 3B Evan Longoria (.269AVG, 32HR’s, 88RBI’s)

4. RF Wil Myers (.293AVG, 13HR’s, 53RBI’s)
5. 1B James Loney (.299AVG, 13HR’s, 75RBI’s)
6. DH Matt Joyce (.235AVG, 18HR’s, 47RBI’s)
7. SS Yunel Escobar (.256AVG, 9HR’s, 56RBI’s)
8. CF Desmond Jennings (.252AVG, 14HR’s, 52RBI’s)
9. C Ryan Hanigan (.198AVG, 2HR’s, 21RBI’s)

Ryan Hanigan is the only new face projected to be in the everyday lineup this season, so it seems we can expect similar results offensively from a team that ranked 7th in the league in team batting average and 9th in runs scored and team home runs.

The Rays have never been one of the top offensive teams in the league, but they have one of the best defenses in the game, as the team was second in MLB with a .990 team fielding percentage in 2013. Looking at the lineup more closely, even if James Loney doesn’t repeat last years performance, the team should get better production out of the catcher’s position this season with Ryan Hanigan, a position that has always crippled the organization offensively.

Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce have shown flashes of brilliance, but I think Rays fans will agree with me when I say it’s time for these guys to put it together for a full season. There’s also a reigning rookie of the year on the roster in Wil Myers who should see improvements in his stat line with a full season of play if he can avoid the prototypical sophomore slump.

However, just as always, the Rays are nothing without their talented young pitching staff leading the way. Here’s a look at how the teams pitching figures to look for the upcoming season…

David_Price_2014Projected Pitching Rotation:
w/ 2013 statistics

SP LHP David Price (10-8, 3.33ERA)
SP RHP Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76ERA)
SP LHP Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29ERA)
SP RHP Chris Archer (9-7, 3.22ERA)
SP RHP Jake Odorizzi (0-1, 3.94ERA)
CP RHP Grant Balfour (38 saves, 2.59ERA)

The Rays once again had one of the best rotations in baseball in 2013, despite losing both Wade Davis and James Shields, as Alex Cobb and Chris Archer both broke onto the scene. Archer finished second in AL ROY voting to his teammate, Wil Myers, and Cobb led the staff with a sparkling 2.76ERA. David Price is also seemingly back in 2014, but we all know how Andrew Friedman operates and even Price said he won’t be sure until opening day rolls around.

Jeremy Hellickson will miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season after undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery, but Nate Karns (acquired from WSH) and Jake Odorizzi will compete for the rotation’s fifth spot, either of which should be able to fill in adequately for Hellickson while he’s out.

Looking at the bullpen, the team lost RHP’s Fernando Rodney and Jamey Wright, but gained RHP’s Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, and Brad Boxberger and should be getting a somewhat healthy Juan Oviedo in 2014. Rays fans should be nothing but optimistic about the bullpen, as we’ve seen Maddon rebuild a playoff-caliber bullpen from scratch, as he did following he 2010 season, and this season Maddon will have more than enough proven arms to go to in the late innings from day one.

Overall:

Joe Maddon’s Rays won’t be able to head to spring training as underdogs this season, as they’re accustomed to being, but instead as the exact opposite. Despite the Yankees spending spree this offseason, the Rays are considered by many to be the pre-season favorites to take the division crown in 2014.

This is not a surprise, either, as the team has five 90-win seasons since their 2008 turnaround, the most in baseball. The Rays have a more than capable lineup, along with what should be one of the games best pitching staffs, and the one thing I’m sure everyone, not just Rays fans, is excited for is how Wil Myers will perform in his first-full season.

Can the team finally capture it’s first world series title despite making the playoffs four of the last six seasons? I guess we’ll see.

2014 PECOTA Projection: 89-73 (tied with BOS for division lead)

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