Complete Tampa Bay Rays 2014 Spring Training Preview

Jamal Wilburg@JWilburgCorrespondent IFebruary 10, 2014

Complete Tampa Bay Rays 2014 Spring Training Preview

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    MIKE CARLSON/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Rays are preparing to begin their spring training for the 2014 season. The team is coming off another successful season, making the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons.

    Unlike many recent years, the Rays do not have to begin spring training discussing the loss of any marquee players needing to be filled with an unproven prospect.

    That fact coupled with the amount of talent added to the roster has this year’s team being mentioned as perhaps the greatest Rays team ever. That is quite an expectation to set, considering the team has won at least 90 games in five of their last six seasons and made the World Series in 2008.

    Rays manager Joe Maddon shared his excitement on this year’s team with Roger Mooney from the Tampa Tribune.

    You can argue 2010, that was a pretty good team. And 2008 turned out to be pretty good also. All I know is I like the names a lot, but I just can't sit here and tell you unequivocally that this is the best team we've ever had. We've had some good teams go to spring training in the past, also. ... I like the names. I say that every year. I think Andrew did a great job of balancing everything out is the best way to describe it.

    No matter how the team looks on paper, it will mean nothing if the Rays do not bring it all together on the field.

    That process starts when pitchers and catchers report on Friday.

     

    All statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Offseason Recap

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    The biggest story of the Rays offseason is the David Price trade that never happened.
    The biggest story of the Rays offseason is the David Price trade that never happened.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Key Losses

    Kelly Johnson, INF

    Delmon Young, DH

    Luke Scott, DH

    Sam Fuld, OF

    Roberto Hernandez, RHP

    Jamey Wright, RHP

    Alex Torres, LHP

    Fernando Rodney, RHP

     

    Key Additions

    Ryan Hanigan, C

    Logan Forsythe, INF

    Grant Balfour, RHP

    Heath Bell, RHP

     

    The Rays offseason saw a lot of contributing players leave but should result in an overall improvement of the team. The largest story of the offseason was the transaction that never happened with David Price.

    Instead of shipping away their best player, as they were expected, the Rays reloaded and enhanced the roster in order to make another postseason run.

    The primary void left after the offseason is the lack of a true designated hitter on the roster with the departures of Luke Scott and Delmon Young. Instead, the team will use the DH spot to allow players to get a break from the Tropicana Field Turf.

    It will be tough for the Rays to replace the defensive impact Sam Fuld offered as a late-inning substitution. However, when you look at the final roster heading into spring training, it is tougher to find a spot for Fuld on the 2014 team.

    Other than DH, the Rays have plenty of players able to step up into the roles of departed players.

    The addition of Grant Balfour in the bullpen should negate the loss of Fernando Rodney.

    Rodney’s 2013 season was a disappointing encore to his 2012 season where he finished with an MLB record 0.60 ERA. His 3.37 ERA and nine blown saves from 2013 should be easy to replace with Balfour.

    Aside from keeping Price, there were a few other surprises for the Rays in the offseason. First, the team was able to re-sign first baseman James Loney, enabling them to keep the infield intact with 2013 Gold Glove finalists.

    The team also acquired Heath Bell from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ryan Hanigan from the Cincinnati Reds in a three-team deal to add more depth to the bullpen and enhance the defense at the catcher position.

Injury Updates Entering Camp

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The most notable injury for the Tampa Bay Rays entering spring training is the loss of Jeremy Hellickson following surgery to remove loose bodies in his elbow.

    Hellickson told Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune that he originally thought the pain was due to adjusting to throwing a baseball after taking time off after the season.

    It would feel good for a week, and then it would go back to feeling irritated, not comfortable. I just kind of wanted to wait until I got on the mound and see how it felt.

    Things appeared to go well for Hellickson after his first bullpen session on Jan. 15 but changed just a few days later, he said.

    Then I got on the mound three days later, and I couldn't even straighten out my arm. It just kind of locked up. I threw about 10, 15 pitches in that bullpen. Came away and it didn't feel good at all, not comfortable.

    With Hellickson expected to be out until at least May, the Rays will have to utilize one of their pitching prospects, likely Jake Odorizzi, in the rotation much sooner than expected.

    The other injury of significance heading into spring training is the loss of infielder Tim Beckham to an ACL tear in his right knee. He is expected to miss six to eight months recovering from the December surgery to repair the ACL.

     

    #Rays INF Tim Beckham to miss significant portion of '14 season after tearing ACL in right knee. Made it to majors end of last season.

    — Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) December 13, 2013

     

     

    Beckham had to overcome a lot of mistakes to make it to the majors.

    Just when things started to look like they were going in the right direction for the former first-overall pick from the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, he hit a significant setback with the injury.

    Beckham finally made it to the majors in 2013. He was listed as the Rays' ninth-best prospect by Baseball America heading into this season and had a strong chance of making his first Opening Day roster.

    Rays manager Joe Maddon spoke very fondly of Beckham to Bill Chastain from MLB.com during the baseball winter meetings.

    Beckham really showed well at the end of the season when we threw him into some moments right there. A lot of people did not expect a lot, and he handled it extremely well. Beyond the physically getting a base hit to win the game, whatever, the way he handled it emotionally, I'm so big on that. If you're going to play in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, you better be emotionally in control of yourself.

    Beckham’s injury depletes the already limited depth available at shortstop for the Rays. Their other top prospect at shortstop, Hak-Ju Lee, is returning to action this spring coming off of a knee injury of his own last April.

Coaching Staff Analysis

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    Scott Iskowitz/Associated Press

    Joe Maddon, Manager
    Derek Shelton, Hitting Coach
    Jim Hickey, Pitching Coach
    George Hendrick, First Base Coach
    Tom Foley, Third Base Coach
    Dave Martinez, Bench Coach
    Stan Boroski, Bullpen Coach
    Jamie Nelson, Major League Coach
    Scott Cursi, Bullpen Catcher
    Don Zimmer, Senior Baseball Advisor

    The Tampa Bay Rays coaching staff will return fully intact for the 2014 season. During the offseason, all of the coaches received new two-year contracts that puts them in sync with manager Joe Maddon, who is also signed through 2015.

    At what point will the Rays coaching staff be on the hot seat?

    Eventually, simply being consistently competitive and reaching the postseason will not suffice. A championship must be won.

    Maddon was hired as the Rays manager in November 2005 making him the third-most tenured manager in baseball.

    One thing in Maddon’s favor over the long run, even without a championship, is his ability to get the most return on investment of budget-friendly players. It would be hard for Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to find another manager that is as able to work within the same financial constraints.

    With that said, the payroll for 2014 will greatly exceed expectations. If it is true that to whom much is given much is expected, the stakes for Maddon and his staff are higher than ever in 2014.

    Another question facing this coaching staff is how long they can all stay together. Specifically, how long before another team hires one of the assistants to fill a vacancy with the hopes of duplicating the Rays' success?

    During the offseason, the Chicago Cubs interviewed Rays bench coach Dave Martinez for their vacant manager position. Martinez shared with Mark Gonzales from the Chicago Tribune how he felt his accomplishments with the Rays could translate to the Cubs goals.

    We have helped develop a bunch of young kids at the major league level. But at the same time, we've tried to build a strong mindset of winning with these young players. We're trying to build a winning culture.

    The Cubs ultimately hired Rick Renteria to be their manager, allowing the Rays coaching staff to return with no changes.

    Expect Martinez to continue to be a hot name for future manager vacancies.

Lineup Preview

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Lineup

    1. David Dejesus, LF
    2. Ben Zobrist, 2B
    3. Wil Myers, RF
    4. Evan Longoria, 3B
    5. James Loney, 1B
    6. Desmond Jennings, CF
    7. Yunel Escobar, SS
    8. Matt Joyce, DH
    9. Ryan Hanigan, C

     

    Bench

    1. Jose Molina, C
    2. Sean Rodriguez, OF
    3. Brandon Guyer, OF
    4. Logan Forsythe, INF

     

    The Rays will field one of their most talented lineups in franchise history in 2014. The roster is not the greatest offensive threat in baseball but will be very sound defensively in typical Rays fashion.

    The team returns all four Gold Glove finalist infielders and has upgraded defensively at catcher with Ryan Hanigan.

    Reds manager Bryan Price described Hanigan’s ability to work with pitchers with Joe Smith from the Tampa Bay Times.

    People like to throw to him, and that typically comes with trust and success. He has a great feel. He's a guy that's good with reports and adjustments. He wants to do something early or come out of character, to make an adjustment, if he sees something. He's a very crafty guy. He's really good. You can put him behind home plate and by the first at-bat he'll have some understanding of strengths and weaknesses (of the hitter).

    The Rays bench should be composed of a backup catcher, an outfielder and two utility players. Sean Rodriguez has truly been a super-utility player for the Rays over the past two seasons and likely will make the roster again in this role.

    Forsythe is a player the Rays regarded highly enough to trade away Alex Torres to get Forsythe in return. (h/t Tampa Bay Times)

    As the calendar turned into January, we started really focusing on areas of weakness, places that we wanted to be aggressive to augment," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Logan Forsythe is a guy that we had tried to get previously and a guy that was very high on our target list. From our standpoint, we dealt from an area of depth to address an area of weakness.

    The loss of outfielder Sam Fuld creates the need for an outfielder on the roster that should be filled by Brandon Guyer since he is out of options unless granted an injury exception.

Rotation Preview

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    David Price, LHP

    Matt Moore, LHP

    Alex Cobb, RHP

    Chris Archer, RHP

    Jake Odorizzi, RHP

     

    David Price has not been traded.

    That is a very good sign for the Rays postseason potential following an offseason of speculation that sounded of certainty that the Rays would deal their ace in the same manner they dealt James Shields and Matt Garza before.

    The 2012 AL Cy Young award winner returns to lead a staff that is young, talented and has postseason experience. Price finished 2013 strong after a rocky start that saw him spend over a month on the DL. After the All-Star break, he bounced back to a 7-3 record with a 2.87 ERA.

    Matt Moore is looking to improve on his 2013 All-Star season. He finished 2013 with a 17-4 record. Had he not missed more than a month because of elbow soreness, he might have come close to a 20-win season. One area Moore needs to improve greatly is his control. He led the AL with 17 wild pitches and was sixth in the AL with 76 walks.

    Alex Cobb was the most consistent Rays starter in 2013 despite receiving the least amount of run support on the staff with 3.3 runs per game started. Cobb also overcame missing two months of the season after getting hit in the head by a line drive to finish with an 11-3 record and 2.76 ERA in 22 starts.

    In 23 starts Chris Archer finished 2013 with a 9-7 record and 3.22 ERA. His performance was impressive enough for him to finish third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.

    Jake Odorizzi is the favorite to begin the season in the starting rotation with Jeremy Hellickson recovering from surgery.  

Bullpen Preview

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Grant Balfour, RHP, Closer

    Heath Bell, RHP

    Brandon Gomes, RHP

    Jake McGee, LHP

    Juan Carlos Oviedo, RHP

    Joel Peralta, RHP

    Cesar Ramos, LHP

     

    The Rays bullpen is loaded with talent and experience. The offseason acquisition of Grant Balfour solidifies what should be one of the best bullpens in the majors. By signing Balfour to a two-year, $12 million deal, the Rays also signal their belief in the potential this roster has to compete deep into the postseason.

    That does not mean that the Rays are “all in.”

    Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg explained the logic of increasing the payroll and signing Balfour to Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times.

    When you see the opportunity for somebody like (Balfour), the way the payroll has grown around it, in some respects, it's the price of success. If you didn't have these kinds of players, we'd be looking at a whole different kind of payroll.

    The bullpen also got some help with the addition of Heath Bell from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the three-team trade that also brought in catcher Ryan Hanigan from the Cincinnati Reds.

    Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers told Zach Links from MLB Trade Rumors that he felt Bell still has a lot to contribute to a team.

    Bell's velocity is still very good, his average velocity was very comparable to what we saw in San Diego and what it was in Florida...For Heath, it's all about location. He's able to hit his spots...but the thing I saw, he didn't land his curveball as effectively as he did in San Diego.  He had a 12-6 curveball to set up his fastball...I still think he has a lot left in the tank, one thing I've always liked about him is that he has a very resilient arm.

    Juan Carlos Oviedo, formerly known as Leo Nunez, is another new asset the Rays will have in 2014. Oviedo has not pitched since 2011 and is coming off of Tommy John surgery.  He has a career 4.34 ERA and recorded 36 saves for the Marlins in 2011.

    The remainder of the bullpen includes returning pitchers Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta.

    On paper, it seems the only thing that could stop this bullpen is injury.

Prospects to Watch

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    Hak-Ju Lee could provide the Rays with much needed depth at shortstop.
    Hak-Ju Lee could provide the Rays with much needed depth at shortstop.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Vince Belnome, INF

    Belnome has played first base, second base and third base during his five-year career in the minor leagues. He is an important prospect to watch because the Rays lack infield depth, particularly at first base.

    If James Loney were to need a day off for any reason, the Rays do not have many options to turn to. Sean Rodriguez is the only returning player that played first base for the Rays last season, outside of Loney.

    Belnome was named the Most Valuable Player for the Triple-A Durham Bulls following a fantastic 2013 season. He finished the year with a .300/.408/.446 line in 127 games.

    He was named the Rays prospect with the best strike-zone discipline by Baseball America.

     

    Hak-Ju Lee, SS

    Hak-Ju Lee is one step closer to the majors with Tim Beckham out for the season because of injury. Lee should know a thing or two about knee injuries; his 2013 season ended after only 15 games because of torn ligaments in his knee.

    He compiled a .422/.536/.600 line in his abbreviated season with Triple-A Durham. If he is fully recovered, he can provide speed and shortstop depth, two assets the Rays are lacking.

    He is the Baseball America No. 2 Rays prospect and Best Defensive Infielder.

     

    Kevin Kiermaier, OF

    Kevin Kiermaier started 2013 in Double-A Montgomery, got promoted to Triple-A Durham and ended the year by making his major league debut.

    His efforts resulted in him being named the Rays organization’s best defensive player as well as the Most Valuable Player for the Montgomery Biscuits in 2013. In his 97 games with Double-A Montgomery he had an impressive .307/.370/.434 line.

    He played 39 games with Triple-A Durham finishing with a .263/.338/.423 that included a .327 average with runners on and a .313 average with RISP.

    Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman told Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times in September that he believes Kiermaier is a top defensive player.

    "He is as good of a defender as there is in professional baseball in our opinion," Friedman said. "He is really gifted in the outfield and also has a tremendous arm. We felt he has a chance to be a real weapon for us late in the game."

    Baseball America ranks Kiermaier as the Rays' No. 10 prospect. They also name him the best defensive outfielder and best outfield arm.

Breakout Candidates

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Desmond Jennings, CF

    Desmond Jennings is overdue for a breakout year. The Tampa Bay Rays center fielder is heading into his third full season in the majors and is poised to have his best season yet.

    In Jennings' first two full seasons in the majors, 2012 and 2013, he played in 132 and 139 games, respectively. In 2012, he spent some time after suffering a knee sprain and also missed time in 2013 because of a broken finger.

    Jennings made strides in 2013, improving his strikeout and walk numbers as well as hitting a career-high 14 home runs, 31 doubles and 54 RBI.

    He was missing his speed on the bases.

    Jennings stole 20 bases in 139 games last season. He stole the same amount of bases in only 63 games in 2011.

    If Jennings can put it all together in 2014, he could finish the season with a .270 average with 30 stolen bases and 20 home runs.

     

    Wil Myers, RF

    Wil Myers broke onto the scene in the manner you would expect a top prospect to. He made his major league debut on June 18, 2013, and played outstanding baseball for the remainder of the season, resulting in him winning the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year award.

    In 88 games he compiled a .293/.354/.478 line for the Rays. He displayed some promising power with 13 home runs, 23 doubles and 53 RBI.

    It is not too far-fetched to envision Myers' sophomore performance to include 25 home runs, 40 doubles and 100 RBI.

Position Battle Predictions

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Rays' biggest battles in spring training will be fifth starter in the rotation, catcher and left field.

     

    Fifth Starter

    The injury to Jeremy Hellickson will open a spot for a fifth starter.

    Jake Odorizzi is the favorite heading into spring training and the most likely to fill the void.

    Odorizzi played in seven games for the Rays in 2013 including four as a starter. He finished the season 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA over 29.2 innings pitched.

    He was most successful against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .208/.377/.627 line.

    One concern with Odorizzi is the command of his four pitches (fastball, curveball, slider and change-up) as pointed out by Michael Valancius from draysbay.com

    The common perception is that the high floor right-handed pitcher is entirely major league ready and, while not offering a ton of upside, can easily slide into the rotation and be an effective 3/4 starter. However, if Odorizzi wants to establish himself in the major leagues, there are several things he still needs to work on. While displaying solid control in his stint with the Rays, the young righty's command lagged behind, leading to a high hit rate. For a guy without overpowering stuff, commanding pitches (ie., locating them where intended) is imperative.

    Competing with Odorizzi for the spot in the rotation will be Alex Colome primarily.

    In his scouting report on Rays top prospects, Marc Hulet from fangraphs.com believes if Colome can be more consistent, he can add some average secondary pitches to his fastball.

    Colome has a chance to have three average secondary offerings to pair with his mid-90s heat. He throws a slider, curveball and change-up although he needs to become more consistent with the offerings. His control took a step forward in 2013, but he needs to do a better job of keeping the ball down in the zone.

    He started three games for the Rays in 2013 finishing with a 1-1 record and 2.25 ERA. He allowed only 14 hits over 16 innings. He was also effective in Triple-A going 4-6 in 14 starts with a 3.07 ERA.

    The biggest obstacle for Colome is staying healthy, which will likely have him start the season with Triple-A Durham, as Hulet also pointed out.

    After making 28 starts in 2011, Colome has failed to start more than 17 games each of the past two seasons while dealing with injuries. The 2014 season will be an important one for the right-hander; he needs to stay on the mound to both prove he can stay healthy and to further his development. He’ll very likely open the year in Triple-A.

    Enny Romero’s name will also come up in the discussions for the rotation spot. Although Romero had an impressive 2013 in the minors, finishing with an 11-7 record and 2.61 ERA, he has not spent enough time in Triple-A to start the season in the majors. Only one of his 28 starts in 2013 was at the Triple-A level. In that outing he allowed only four hits and two walks in eight shutout innings.

    Romero was called up to the majors for an emergency start in September. He pitched 4.2 shutout innings and gave up only one hit in his major league debut.

    Winner: Jake Odorizzi

     

    Backup Catcher

    The addition of Ryan Hanigan and re-signing of Jose Molina during the offseason seem to indicate that Jose Lobaton will not be with the Rays in 2014. The Rays and Washington Nationals have been rumored to be in talks about trading Lobaton.

    In the event that a deal is not made for Lobaton, he would be battling for the backup catcher position.

    In 2013, Lobaton barely edged out Molina, playing in 100 games to 99, respectively. The numbers shift when you look at games started at catcher last season. Molina started 87 games at catcher compared to 76 starts for Lobaton.

    Lobaton’s production offensively is much greater than Molina’s. In 2013, Lobaton had a .249/.320/.394 line with seven home runs, 15 doubles and 32 RBI. Molina, on the other hand, had a .233/.290/.304 line with two home runs, 14 doubles and 18 RBI.

    Winner: Jose Lobaton (if not traded)

     

    Left Field

    The battle for the left field will most likely come down to David DeJesus and Matt Joyce. DeJesus finished 2013 with a .260/.328/.413 line in 35 games with the Rays.

    DeJesus’ offensive numbers do not drop significantly when you look at his platoon splits. He has a career .252/.321/.342 line against left-handed pitchers, which is not significantly lower than his .289/.365/.447 career line against right-handed pitchers.

    Matt Joyce is a different story.

    He finished 2013 with a .235/.328/.419 line in 140 games with the Rays.

    Joyce’s platoon splits are consistently disappointing against left-handed pitching. His career .260/.354/.481 line against right-handed pitching is night and day to his .194/.270/.322 line against lefties.

    If Joyce can revert back to his 2011 All-Star version of himself, this could be a tight position battle. In 2011, he had a .277/.347/.478 line and hit a career high 19 home runs, 32 doubles and 75 RBI.

    The loser of the battle for left field will likely fill the designated hitter role since the team lacks a true DH.

    Winner: David DeJesus