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2014 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Mar 28, 2014, 1:25 AM EDT

Evan Longoria AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: Is this a championship offense?

The Rays have led the American League in ERA two of the last three years, but offense has been a different story. In 2010, they finished third in runs per game. In 2011, they dropped to eighth. In 2012, they were 11th. Last season, they bounced back a bit, coming in ninth. Still, they were a full run per game behind the league-leading — and division rival — Red Sox.

The offseason saw no drastic steps towards improving that mark. However, instead of the typical rummaging through the bargain bin, the Rays did ante up and retain both James Loney and David DeJesus. They also added a pretty good on-base guy in Ryan Hanigan to replace Jose Lobaton and perhaps cut into a little of Jose Molina‘s playing time behind the plate and a mini-Ben Zobrist in the form of Logan Forsythe, who can play all over the place while offering intriguing pop.

Still, if the Rays are going to creep back into the top half of the AL in runs scored, they’re either going to need Evan Longoria to finally have an MVP-type season or Wil Myers to become another Longoria.

Longoria is undeniably one of the AL’s best players. However, he’s also essentially the same hitter he was when he entered the league six years ago. His career highs in average, OBP, slugging, homers, doubles, RBI, runs scored and steals were all set in his first three years in the league. He’s been just fine in the three years since, but he’s never had a transcendent season. Last season, his one career high came in strikeouts; he fanned 162 times, exceeding his previous high by 22.

The 23-year-old Myers appears well on his way to developing into a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy behind Longoria in the order. What remains to be seen is whether he’ll keep hitting for average like he did after coming up last season; he was able to finish at .293 despite striking out 91 times in 88 games. If he’s a true .350-.370 OBP guy, then he should be a worthy All-Star. If he’s more of a .260 hitter and a .330-OBP guy, then he’s just a quality regular, not a star.

With no obvious weaknesses to speak of, the Rays should at least match last year’s offensive production. It should also be noted here that their rankings in runs scored, as well as the numbers of all of their hitters, are skewed by playing in Tropicana Field, which rates as one of the AL’s best parks for pitchers. But the Rays are going to need to do a bit more scoring to close the gap, and while Joe Maddon can keep helping them out with his frequent lineup changes getting the hotter players to the top of the lineup, it’s going to be up to Longoria and Myers to supply most of the power.

What else is going on?

  • One other key offensively is Desmond Jennings, who added 15 pounds of muscle over the winter and is hitting .375/.432/.575 this spring. He’s a rather flawed hitter with his tendency to chase pitches at the letters and higher, but with added power and walks (64 last year, up from 46 in 2012), he can still be a nice regular while player .250.
  • The pitching staff should boast the American League’s second strongest one-two punch, with 2012 Cy Young winner David Price and Alex Cobb both possibilities to win 18 games and post sub-3.00 ERAs. The unheralded Cobb came in at 2.76 in 22 starts last year, striking out 134 in 143 1/3 innings in the process. He’s been awesome this spring, too, striking out 16 and walking just one in 11 2/3 innings.
  • Left-hander Matt Moore is the question mark. His velocity was down last season, and while it has been up at times this spring, he’s walked 15 batters in 14 1/3 innings. The Rays can handle a little wildness from him — with one of the game’s deepest bullpens, they can survive carrying a five-inning starter — but he doesn’t look like the future Cy Young candidate he appeared to be when he entered the league.
  • Rookie Jake Odorizzi beat out Cesar Ramos for the rotation spot opened up by Jeremy Hellickson‘s injury. Hellickson is expected to miss the first two months following February surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow.

Prediction: This is a huge year for the Rays after they expanded the payroll to keep Price, Loney and DeJesus and add Grant Balfour to close; if they don’t make a lengthy run in October, they’re likely to lose money and then trade pieces next winter. They’re in good position to make that run, though; the Red Sox have lost key players from their World Series team and fellow AL contenders Detroit, Texas and Oakland have already been hit hard by injury. The Rays should be in the AL East race all year long, and if they do happen to come up a little short, a wild card spot will still be there for the taking.

First place, American League East.

  1. perryt200 - Mar 28, 2014 at 1:56 AM

    Come on. don’t leave us hanging.

    First place, American League East. but what then one and done? How bout the predictions go a bit deeper?

    • bigharold - Mar 28, 2014 at 2:17 AM

      I think he’s out on enough of a limb. If the pitching doesn’t falter and they pitch to the back of their baseball card and if Will Meyers continues to develop and if Longoria finally has that break out year, … that’s some pretty big “if-ing”.

      The Rays have a pretty good rotation but “if” the Yankees rotation pitches to their ability it’s every bit as good and they have a lot more fire power. I don’t see the Rays winnings the AL East but they will be in contention,(no they are not running away with the division chucker), most likely fighting for a WC spot. Nevertheless less it should be a pretty exciting season.

      Now if opening day would only get here

      • tc4306 - Mar 28, 2014 at 6:52 AM

        So you’ve got the Orioles winning the AL East?

        The Red Sox are primed for a step back with unproven youngsters
        like Middlebrooks, Bogarts and perhaps Bradley in key roles. And if not
        Bradley, then you’ve got “great story but not for long” Sizemore.

        And surely you can’t think that the geriatric society in New York or the walk in infirmary in Toronto will do any more than battle for the crumb that is 4th place.

      • Eutaw's Finest - Mar 28, 2014 at 7:17 AM

        Regarding the Yanks rotation, I think we need to be realistic here. For years now we’ve heard about the potential for that rotation, but every year (or at least for the past 3 or so) they never seem to reach that “potential.” At some point we have to look at the question marks and treat them more as unknowns instead of expectations on the high end based on “if” they reach their potential: Tanaka has never pitched in the MLB (ST aside), Sabathia’s weight loss may not effect his pitching either way and he may be the same guy we saw in 2013, Pineda hasn’t pitched in a major league game in over a year, Kuroda at 39 is no spring chicken… there are a TON of question marks. While I do agree at their best- CC from a few years back, Kuroda stays on track, Tanaka lives up to his contract and Pineda pitches like he did before his injury- they have a high ceiling. However,the assumption that all of those events will fall into place is a bit far fetched and slightly unrealistic.

      • spudchukar - Mar 28, 2014 at 9:36 AM

        A whole lot fewer “ifs”, than anybody else in the division. Longoria just has to be Longoria, and Myers to continue his 2013 pace. What people forget is how unhealthy/unlucky the Rays were in 2013 and still recorded 92 wins.

        All four of the 5 starters saw significant down time, and Archer, was a Summer call-up along with Myers. They will be there for the full season, along with Longoria, who also got limited playing time due to DL stints.

        The pitching is so much more solid than any other division rival it is unfair to even compare them. Only the Yankees can come close, and that is if you assume CC will be Price-like, and the chances of that are nil.

        Pouliot sells Moore short. The 24-year old, with only 2 Big League seasons under his belt, posted a 3.29 ERA, and 17-4 record. Sure he walks too many, but to post those numbers with all the walks proves just how dominant his stuff is. Not only that but he was hindered by elbow inflammation for a considerable time.

        The only thing that derailed Cobb was a line drive to the noggin’. And Archer is an ace on the horizon, and if his Spring is any indication he has already arrived. Even if Odorizzi struggles and the Rays have to look elsewhere for a 5th guy, Hellickson will be healthy and ready soon, and with the other 4 so superior even so-so performances from either will more than suffice.

        I still say it won’t be close. The other 4 teams are likely to all struggle to surpass the .500 mark while the Rays threaten to win 100 games.

      • bigharold - Mar 28, 2014 at 4:06 PM

        “What people forget is how unhealthy/unlucky the Rays were in 2013…”

        Nonsense. Nobody had more bad luck and injuries last year than the Yankees, .. nobody. They lost their starting C, 1B, SS, 3B and CF to injuries for all or most of the season. And, despite that they were still playing meaningful baseball until mid-September. By your logic the Yankees should be a shoe in for the playoffs all things considered.

        “.. CC will be Price-like, and the chances of that are nil., …Pouliot sells Moore short., .. The only thing that derailed Cobb was a line drive to the noggin’., .. Archer is an ace on the horizon, … if Odorizzi struggles and the Rays have to look elsewhere for a 5th guy, Hellickson will be healthy and ready soon,..”

        That is a a whole lot of conjecture and a lot of “ifs”. By that I mean that it’s more a matter of your opinion and that you really don’t have hard evidence to make it anything but opinion. It’s not that to you say your opinions have no basis in fact but it also clearly assumes a great deal. You are assuming that every Rays pitcher will, at a minimum, pitch as well as last year or better, that none will have an off year, injury or regress. And at he same time Yankee pitchers will do worse or worse than expected. To paraphrase an observation in this thread; “.. the chances of that are nil.”. I’m not 100% certain that the Yankees will Win the AL East nor even make the playoffs but I am 100% certain they will be competitive, just like the RS and O’s.

        “… it won’t be close. The other 4 teams are likely to all struggle to surpass the .500 mark while the Rays threaten to win 100 games.”

        That isn’t conjecture, that’s wishful thinking. If you think the Rays are headed for some uninterrupted cake walk to the AL East you will be in for a disappointing Summer. You need to oil up the “Excuse-a-tron 5000” because you are going to have to explain the Rays failure to win 100 games. God forbid they don’t make the playoffs. The “Excuse-a- tron 5000” will have to go into warp drive.

  2. themanytoolsofignorance - Mar 28, 2014 at 5:46 AM

    I this is accurate. First place with Will Myers hitting like Yasiel Puig and getting his hair styled by the muppet Animal. Along the way some team will no-hit them, David Price will tweet or say something sexist, the team will hire another player with questionable morals, Joe Madden will be cooler than everyone else on planet Earth, and Evan Longoria will get injured. this is the rays way.

    Just ask Longoria. he’ll tell you

  3. Eutaw's Finest - Mar 28, 2014 at 6:30 AM

    I’d like to think that the Rays will fall off in some area of their game, but even when their bats slump or pitching falls off for a a short stretch, the other areas of their game seem to elevate and keep them in the race throughout the entire season. As an O’s fan? It’s frustrating. I envy that starting rotation. And as good as our bats are in Baltimore, they always seem to keep the O’s in check.

    On a side note, Alex Cobb? You suck. That’s 2 Orioles you’ve plunked in the head now since 2012. You better hope Cruz is okay after last night!

    • jashton11 - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:30 AM

      I hope Cruz is OK, but I seriously doubt Cobb threw at him intentionally. It sounded like a curveball that got away. And given everything Cobb went through last year with getting hit in the head by a liner, he’s one of the last people I’d expect to go headhunting.

      • Eutaw's Finest - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:33 AM

        Oh no, I don’t think he did at all. Just unfortunately ironic that he’s faced the O’s in ST for 3 years now and 2 of those years he has plunked a yard bird in the head (Reimold in 2012). Dumb luck and nothing more.

      • jashton11 - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:49 AM

        Sorry for reading something into your original comment that wasn’t there. Like I said, I hope Cruz is OK. I was at The Trop last year when Cobb got nailed, and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen at a game. You never want anyone to get hit in the head.

  4. phillysports1 - Mar 28, 2014 at 8:12 AM

    I have them winning the division this year , Toronto and Baltimore WILDCARD picks . Boston and NY missing playoffs .

  5. therooneyskilledwebster - Mar 28, 2014 at 9:13 AM

    I’ve come up with the perfect “walk up” music for what could very much be Price’s final season in the Big Guava ( unless they plan on his 2015 arbitration $ taking up about 1/3 of their meager payroll) before he flees for greener pastures and a city where baseball may actually be appreciated:

    • spudchukar - Mar 28, 2014 at 9:40 AM

      Baseball is plenty appreciated in the Tampa Bay area. What fans do not appreciate, is the sorry-assed stadium, that is difficult to get to. The area supports both their hockey team and football team just fine. And their TV ratings are increasing rapidly. Make fun of them all you want, but you along with many, many Tampa Bay residents will be watching them in October, not just in 2014 but for many years to come.

      • florida76 - Mar 28, 2014 at 10:56 AM

        Rays must win the WS this year to have any hope of staying in the Tampa Bay area, hence, the moves this offseason. There’s been no real movement towards a real stadium, despite the huge sense of urgency. Rays are working on a three peat of last place MLB attendance rankings, and that’s just inexcusable.

        It’s debatable whether the TB market is major league, the Bucs have had numerous blackouts recently. The Lightning were on their way out of Tampa with low support, until their miracle year 2004 turned things around. Experts familiar with the lease know the Rays start gaining leverage in a couple years, so that document is hardly ironclad.

        The issue about the stadium location is funny. Before 2008, few talked about the stadium location when the team was horrible and attendance was poor. The mantra was how if the team simply became competitive, attendance would surge to acceptable levels. So it’s just feeble to harp on the stadium location now that the team has been vastly more successful than anyone could have imagined, and the club is still drawing flies.

      • spudchukar - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:19 AM

        Winning certainly helps put fans in the seats. But is has been some time since the Lightning have been really good, maybe yet this year, and yet they have maintained good attendance.

        The Bucs have been awful lately, thus the blackouts.

        And while the stadium location isn’t as bad as many use as an excuse, it isn’t in a particularly easy access for Tampa residents, and the traffic on the interstate can be messy.

        Not sure if the Rays “have to win” the WS in order to stay, but getting there or getting close would certainly encourage fans, management, and MLB.

      • therooneyskilledwebster - Mar 28, 2014 at 12:44 PM

        So your sorry assed stadium is their excuse for an annual 50-55% capacity since the 2008 season despite being a perennial contender? I’ve been to about 8-10 games there when I’ve come down from Boston since their inaugural season. Hell, I even have my precious Bobby Seay autograph from one of their first fan experience’s circa ’97-’98. One of the few Stadiums where I was able to enjoy a game and a cigar at the same time.

      • spudchukar - Mar 28, 2014 at 12:48 PM

        It has a lot to do with it. Plus, the location doesn’t help, and then there are a lot of tranplants, whose loyalties lie elsewhere.

        There is something incongruous, when the TV viewership is so high, and the attendance so low. Maybe folks are just too old to get to the park, and prefer the confines of their living room, but perhaps the other “excuses” are real.

  6. unclemosesgreen - Mar 28, 2014 at 9:21 AM

    I hate this preview so much, because I can’t argue with it.

  7. bronx77 - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    Everything is built on “ifs”. You never know whose season is going to break right. It could happen to any team in this division. All these teams could end up anywhere in the standings it all depends on injuries in this division. The Yankees can have another snake bitten season and finish last or they can stay healthy and claim a wild card spot. The rays can run away with the division or be the same rays they have been for years now and frustrate there fans with what could have been. I think the Red Sox took a definite step back this year but then again they where supposed to compete with the yanks for last place last year. That’s the beauty of baseball. You never know how the season will unfold. I can’t wait. My prediction:

  8. 13arod - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    Eutaw’s Finest ur just mad because the O’s dont have good pitching like us rays do move along with u sucky O’s fighting for 3rd place while we are in first place

  9. 13arod - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    Eutaw’s Finest stop being a crybaby and man up he didnt do it on purpose like i sad early Cobb is better then any of ur sorry O’s starting pitching

  10. bigmeechy74 - Mar 28, 2014 at 12:01 PM

    There are a lot of really dumb comments in this section

  11. bucsraysbolts - Mar 28, 2014 at 2:32 PM

    I don’t care what team you pull for, in what division, etc… The Rays, along with the rest of the AL East will be competitive. Seems like the team that wins the division is the team that stays the healthiest the longest. If the Rays starting pitching starts to drop due to injury (last year Price with his arm, Cobb’s head etc…) we could be in trouble.
    Also, something to note, the Rays don’t have the speed they’ve had in the past. Jennings is really our only speedster. The Rays play like an NL team, swiping a bag when they can. Last year they didn’t do it as much, and this year will be even less.
    The good news is, I don’t have to have a heart attack every 9th inning with the lead because Rodney is gone.
    None the less, baseball season needs to hurry up and start.

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