The Tampa Bay Rays fought through many obstacles to put together another winning season in baseball's toughest division in 2012. After an eventful offseason, it looks like the AL East will be even more competitive this year with the possibility of all five teams being contenders.
Here are four reasons why not to count out the Rays this season.
Reigning Cy Young winner David Price will be leading the young pack of talented arms, followed by former Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, phenom southpaw Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann (or Chris Archer). The six combined for a total of 739.2 IP and an ERA of roughly 3.41 last season.
Tampa Bay's starting five was probably the best in the MLB last year, as the staff lead in both ERA (3.34) and strikeouts (900). Even if the Shields-less rotation doesn't turn out to be as phenomenal as it was last season, it will still be the deepest with MLB-ready top prospects Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi—as well as Roberto Hernandez—backing up the rotation.
Offense was by far the Rays' biggest issue last season, but with some new acquisitions it looks like it should be better in 2013.
Tampa had atrocious offensive production from the DH and first base positions (Luke Scott and Carlos Pena), who combined for just 33 homers and 116 RBI while posting a wOBA of under .310 and a wRC+ of under 100.
Their production as the shortstop position wasn't much better either, as Sean Rodriguez and Elliot Johnson struggled throughout the year until Ben Zobrist took over the position later in the season.
Over the past couple of months the Rays have found players via both the trade and free agent market who will likely upgrade the lineup. James Loney—who's a career .282/.339/.419 hitter—will replace Carlos Pena at first, and Yunel Escobar—a career .282/.353/.390 hitter—will surely provide the Rays with an offensive boost at shortstop (barring injury).
The DH spot is still a hole in the lineup, but it could be filled in the final weeks of the offseason if the Rays decide to pick up an additional bat.
Injuries were no doubt the cause of many of the Rays' team struggles in 2012. Despite having over half of the roster (and most of the lineup) on the DL at least once during the course of the season, the Rays impressively still managed to win 90 games and nearly clinch a playoff spot in a very fierce American League race.
If the Rays had even close to a healthy team in 2012 they most likely would have found themselves playing in October. They saw their franchise cornerstone and offensive catalyst Evan Longoria miss over half of the season, which alone did pretty significant damage to an already mediocre lineup.
If Tampa can keep key players healthy throughout the season better than they did last year, they should be able to stay in the race down to the wire again in 2013.
After a disastrous first decade to begin the Rays' franchise history, the Rays have had winning seasons every year since 2008.
Tampa Bay's outstanding managerial staff of owner Stuart Sternberg, president Matt Silverman, GM Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon has put together a successful franchise long-term that finds themselves in contention year after year despite having such a small budget on such a large market.
If one thing's for sure, the organization is going to continue to do things 'The Rays Way', which has worked well with teams not any better than this one in the past.