The Tampa Bay Rays have the necessary pieces to win the American League East in 2014.
Most franchises and fanbases probably feel that way at this time of year only to be disappointed as the season develops.
For the Rays, there is more than just a date on the calendar to provide the excitement.
They are coming off of their fourth postseason appearance in the last six seasons with every key contributor still on the roster. Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times summed up how continuity makes this spring different from the usual.
The lack of turnover makes this different than a typical Rays spring, when there are usually enough new faces to require name tags. Player after player has reported this week talking about how excited he is to see the team kept intact, so much so that you expect to hear the Turtles' Happy Together among the tunes blaring from the iPad in Maddon's office.
The Rays added the talents of relief pitcher Grant Balfour and Heath Bell on top of retaining key players, including pitcher David Price and first baseman James Loney.
One thing that can be counted on is the Rays will continue to be a team with strong pitching and defense.
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the Rays at spring training.
All statistics courtesy of baseball-reference unless otherwise noted. All quotations obtained firsthand from official Tampa Bay Rays notes from the Rays Communications staff unless otherwise noted.
Ryan Hanigan's ability to catch runners stealing is an ability the Rays lacked in 2013.
Opposing baserunners stole 119 bases against the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013.
Jose Lobaton was the catcher behind the plate for 63 of those stolen bases and finished the year with a 14 percent caught-stealing percentage.
Enter Ryan Hanigan.
Hanigan and Jose Molina will be the Rays catchers for 2014. The duo excel at framing pitches as well as throwing out baserunners attempting to steal.
Hanigan led the National League in 2012 and 2013 in caught-stealing percentage. Molina led the American League in the same category in 2008 and 2010.
The other value a veteran catcher brings to the table is the ability to help develop young pitchers. Rays pitcher Chris Archer, preparing for his first full season in the majors, described his feelings about Hanigan after throwing to him for the first time early in spring training.
When he got traded over, I got his phone number and welcomed him, because I had an idea that I would be working with him quite a bit—at least half the time. He said that he was already studying film the day he got traded. But to get out there and throw with him the first time was special, because he’s worked with power arms who can also pitch over there with the Reds. So I’m going to use all of his knowledge, and I think that having him is going to help me succeed because I’m going to have to do a lot less thinking. He’s going to know how to attack batters.
Hanigan will also provide some assistance on offense with a career .262/.359/.703 line.
The Tampa Bay Rays four infielders all finished 2013 as AL Gold Glove finalists
The Tampa Bay Rays infield is filled with returning AL Gold Glove finalists James Loney, Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria and Yunel Escobar.
If they are all healthy on Opening Day, it will mark the second time in franchise history the team has returned the same infield from the previous year. The only other season was 1999, following the franchise’s inaugural season.
James Loney re-signed with the Rays this offseason with a three-year, $21 million contract. He finished 2013 hitting .299/.348/.430 with 13 home runs and 75 RBI.
His return was the most questionable of the Rays infielders after his breakout performance last season. He described his desire to return to the organization to Roger Mooney from the Tampa Tribune:
It’s that feeling you want to experience like everybody else, especially since I knew this place, I knew the people here, I knew they were committed to winning.
Super-utility player Sean Rodriguez provides the best backup option for the Rays. He played in 23 games (17 starts) at first base for the Rays last season.
Ben Zobrist returns as the Rays second baseman. He started in 117 games at second last year, marking only the second time in his career he started at the same position for more than 90 games (118 games at second in 2011).
In 2013, he continued to be one of the most consistent hitters in the lineup with .275/.354/.402 line with 12 home runs and 71 RBI.
Aside from Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe is the next most viable backup candidate for Zobrist. He was acquired by the Rays from the San Diego Padres in the trade that included relief pitcher Alex Torres in exchange. He is a career .241/.310/.349 hitting utility man who can offer some more versatility to the roster.
There is no question who the Rays third baseman is.
Evan Longoria played in 160 games in 2013, the most in his six-year career. He finished the year batting .269/.343/.498 with 32 home runs and 88 RBI.
Even with his success early in his career, he still sees areas he would like to improve (h/t usatoday.com):
Of course, there are things I'd love to accomplish," he added. "I'd like to hit for a higher batting average. But in reality, I just want to hit for a better batting average when there are runners on base, when there's a chance to a hit to directly impact the game.
Longoria has a career .293 batting average with runners on base.
Yunel Escobar is returning for his second season with the Rays.
He was decent at the plate with a .256/.332/.366 line. He set career highs with 129 starts and 27 doubles.
Escobar’s largest impact came with his glove.
He finished 2013 with the best fielding percentage (.989) of any shortstop in the majors. Rays manager Joe Maddon was disappointed Escobar did not win a Gold Glove last season.
Hak-Ju Lee is a prospect who could add some depth at shortstop for the Rays. He was batting .422/.536/.600 with six stolen bases in 15 games for Triple-A Durham last year before a season-ending knee injury.
Lee offers an element of speed that is lacking from the Rays roster. He averaged just under 32 stolen bases per season in his first four full seasons in the minors.
Wil Myers is looking to build off of his 2013 AL Rookie of the Year performance.
The Tampa Bay Rays outfield will have a better defensive performance in 2014 than 2013. Last season they finished with a .987 team fielding percentage, just below the league-average .991 mark.
Luke Scott (.833) and Kelly Johnson (.965) were the only individual players below the league average. Both players are not on the team this year, which should result in a more defensively sound outfield.
His bat was also consistent with a .251/.327/.402 line with eight home runs and 38 RBI. He was particularly effective batting leadoff, with a .303/.384/.592 line in the first at-bat of the game.
Matt Joyce will provide the most competition for the starting left field job. He had more power production last season hitting 22 doubles, 18 home runs and 47 RBI. He fell just short in overall consistency with a .235/.328/.419 line.
Joyce ended last year on a very low note with a .089/.232/.143 line in the month of September.
It will be a battle for the position, but DeJesus’ ability to bat leadoff is more than Joyce can offer right now.
Desmond Jennings reported to spring training with an additional 10 to 15 pounds of muscle on his frame. He finished 2013 with 139 games played, 31 doubles, 14 home runs and 54 RBI, all career highs.
The aspect of his game that was noticeably missing was stolen bases. Jennings stole 20 bases after coming off 31 steals in 2012. To put it in further perspective, he stole 20 bases in 2011 in 63 games.
Kevin Kiermaier made his major league debut in Game 163 last year for the Rays. He will likely start the season with Triple-A Durham. He can develop into a contributor for the Rays this season.
Kiermaier had a combined .295/.362/.431 line and 21 stolen bases with Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham last year.
With the loss of Sam Fuld, the Rays are short on solid defensive outfield replacements, which could create a need for Kiermaier’s services.
Wil Myers is set to become the 12th Opening Day starter at right field in the Rays 16-year history. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year will provide some consistency and excellence to the position.
Myers made his major league debut on June 18, 2013 and never looked back. His .293/.354/.478 line with 23 doubles and 13 home runs in his rookie season.
As long as he does not have a sophomore slump, he should project to hit more than 20 home runs and 100 RBI this season, providing some offense to support the Rays’ excellent pitching and defense.
The Tampa Bay Rays will have a platoon of players rotating through the designated hitter spot in the lineup this year. The player who is likely to see the most time as the DH is Matt Joyce since David DeJesus is projected to start in left field.
Joyce will need to improve his .155/.271/.310 batting line he put together in 48 at-bats as the Rays DH last season. He appeared in 22 games at DH, the most of any returning player.
Evan Longoria (14) and Wil Myers (11) were the only two other players who appeared in more than three games at DH in 2013 for the Rays.
Grant Balfour returns to the Rays as their closer for 2014
The Tampa Bay Rays want the bullpen to return to being an area of strength.
In 2013, the Rays relief pitchers had 42 save opportunities and blew 18 of them. Fernando Rodney led the collapse with eight blown saves. Jake McGee and Joel Peralta were the only other relievers with multiple blown saves, accounting for four and three respectively. Kyle Farnsworth, Alex Torres and Jamey Wright each contributed a blown save, as well.
With this in mind, it makes sense that the Rays bullpen will include three pitchers that have experience as closers. Grant Balfour, Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo will be new assets for the Rays, particularly with their save credentials. All three have saved over 35 games in a single season during their career.
Oviedo was on the roster last season but did not play as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Rays manager Joe Maddon spoke about the importance early in spring training.
Getting good, other names, the fact that we bring guys in and do a lot of research on them, and I think the most important this is to try put them on the most appropriate kinds of hitters, people that match up against their skills the best we possibly can. Sometimes it’s not always that way.
Adding experienced relievers to join McGee, Peralta and Cesar Ramos provides the Rays with quality depth as well as experience.
Maddon also mentioned the impact depth has on keeping the bullpen fresh, another issue from last season.
Last year, Joel Peralta was in 80 games; that’s pretty heavy. I think Jake [McGee] was around 70; that’s more amenable. Again, when you have this many good names like we do this year, hopefully you’ll match them up properly and not abuse anybody.
The Rays ended 2013 (after 162 games) six games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East despite blowing 18 saves. The improvement to the bullpen gives the Rays more than enough pitching to cut that in half and be in position to win the division.
The Rays have a very deep pool of starting pitching at spring training.
David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer will be in the rotation to start the year, barring injury.
Injuries are a part of the game, and surgery to repair loose bodies in his elbow will keep Jeremy Hellickson out of the rotation, likely until May.
His absence creates an opportunity for competition for the final spot in the rotation.
Jake Odorizzi is the early favorite to start the season in the rotation ahead of fellow pitching prospects Alex Colome and Enny Romero.
Erik Bedard is the non-roster invitee to spring training with the best shot at earning the No. 5 starter spot. The rays signed him to a minor league deal before spring training.
Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman told Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times that they have had previous interest in Bedard.
He's a guy that we've liked in the past, and we're anxious to get him in here and be around him more," executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "He'll come in to compete for the fifth starter's job. I don't know how that will transpire. And he's also a candidate to pitch out of the pen.
It would be very surprising if Bedard fills in for Hellickson to start the season. Even if he is impressive during spring training, he has consistently allowed a concerning amount of early season home runs.
Last season, Bedard gave up 10 home runs in 11 games (nine starts) before the end of May. He only gave up eight home runs in 21 games (17 starts) for the remainder of the season. Of the 121 career home runs hit against him, 57 were hit between March and May.
The Rays gave up the third-fewest home runs (153) among AL teams in 2013. A team built on pitching and defense relies on run prevention for success.