Complete Tampa Bay Rays 2014 Season Preview

Jamal Wilburg@JWilburgCorrespondent IMarch 26, 2014

Complete Tampa Bay Rays 2014 Season Preview

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    David Price returns to lead the Tampa Bay Rays' starting rotation
    David Price returns to lead the Tampa Bay Rays' starting rotationJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    The Tampa Bay Rays are no longer a surprise.

    They finished the 2013 season with a 92-71 (.564) record after winning Game 163 against the Texas Rangers to advance to the American League Wild Card Game. The Rays' season would end after getting eliminated in the American League Divisional Series by the Boston Red Sox in four games.

    In the not-so-distant past, the postseason was a thing the Rays could only imagine.

    The Rays spent the first decade of their existence (1998–2007) as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Devil Rays were annual bottom-dwellers of the American League East, with no winning seasons and no postseason appearances.

    The team’s best finish in their first 10 seasons came in 2004 with a 70-91 record (.435). It was the only season in the Devil Rays era in which they did not finish last in the division. They finished second-to-last (fourth of five).

    In 2008, they dropped the “Devil” off of their name, and the losing ways went with it. The Rays became a winning organization for the first time and advanced all the way to the World Series in their first postseason appearance.

    The Rays have turned that winning season into a winning tradition, winning at least 90 games in five of their last six seasons. They have advanced to the postseason in four of their last six seasons, including two AL East pennants.

    They have maintained all of their success despite the challenges of a low payroll and playing in a half-filled, outdated stadium in a small market.

    The team is poised to keep the winning tradition alive in 2014.

    The Rays' offseason news was focused on key acquisitions of closer Grant Balfour, relief pitcher Heath Bell and catcher Ryan Hanigan. They reversed the trend of trading starting pitchers with two years remaining on their deals by retaining ace David Price. They also re-signed first baseman James Loney, ensuring the entire infield of Gold Glove finalists (Loney, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Evan Longoria) will return intact.

    With the amount of talent on the roster, the Rays will still be among the favorites in the American League.

    Here is a preview of the 2014 Tampa Bay Rays.

    All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. All roster projections are courtesy of MLB Depth Charts. 

Spring Training Recap

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    Jake Odorizzi was named the Rays' fifth starter to begin the 2014 season.
    Jake Odorizzi was named the Rays' fifth starter to begin the 2014 season.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    The ultimate measure of a successful spring training is the ability to evaluate players, assemble the best team possible and minimize injuries. With this criteria in mind, the Tampa Bay Rays had a very successful spring.

    Even though these spring-training games do not count and consist of a lot of minor league players trying to earn roster spots, spring success has typically equated to regular-season success for the Rays. In the two seasons the Rays won the AL East (2008 and 2010), they finished the spring with or tied for the best record in the majors.

    At 15-5-3, #Rays have a good chance to post majors' best spring record for 3rd time in 7 years. Won AL East after doing it in 2008 & 2010.

    — Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) March 24, 2014

    That’s a positive sign for the Rays, as they have been dominant this spring.

    Through 24 games of Grapefruit League play, the Rays have a major league-best 15-6-3 record (.714). Even more important, they will not have any players injured on Opening Day as a result of exhibition play.

    Outfield prospects Jerry Sands and Jeremy Moore were surprising standout players this spring. The two young players each hit three home runs, tying for the team lead.

    Sands hit .324/.361/.735 with eight RBI in 19 games. His five doubles are tied for the team lead with outfielders Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers.

    Moore finished the spring batting .276/.323/.690 with three doubles and five RBI in 14 games.

    Rays manager Joe Maddon shared with Joe Smith from the Tampa Bay Times how impressed he is with the duo. "Both are really interesting," Maddon said. "Both have made tremendous impressions. It's not only about hitting. They definitely—make-up wise—fit into our program.

    David DeJesus also put together a quality spring. He had the best overall production of any player who played in at least 10 games, finishing with a .412/.459/.588 line including four doubles, a triple and seven RBI.

    The most disappointing player this spring was pitcher Erik Bedard.

    With Jeremy Hellickson out to begin the season, Bedard offered the Rays the most flexibility to start the season. If he won the fifth starter job, the other contenders (Jake Odorizzi and Cesar Ramos) could have started their seasons the way the Rays intended them to coming into spring training instead of competing for a temporary job.

    Bedard also would have provided the Rays with an asset they could move once Hellickson returned in exchange for another asset to help the team.

    Instead of the dream scenario coming true, Bedard’s spring performance indicated he would be a nightmare in the rotation.

    His 6.88 ERA in 17 innings over five games (three starts) was the worst of any Rays starting pitcher by far.

    Bedard allowed the most hits (25) and earned runs (13) of any pitcher in the Rays camp. To put into further perspective how atrocious he was this spring, the two pitchers who gave up the second and third most earned runs (Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore) this spring combined for 14, only one more than Bedard.

    Bedard was released by the Rays on Tuesday.

    Jake Odorizzi was named the fifth starter on Saturday after finishing the spring 1-2 with a 4.24 ERA.

    Grant Balfour also had a less-than-productive spring. The veteran closer posted the second-worst ERA (12.27) on the team. He allowed five runs in 3.2 innings over five games, including no save opportunities. The numbers are not ideal, though the sample size is small. The true test will come once the season begins and he is placed in a high-leverage situation.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Jeremey Hellickson will be out until at least May as he recovers from elbow surgery
    Jeremey Hellickson will be out until at least May as he recovers from elbow surgeryChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Rays enter Opening Day with pitcher Jeremy Hellickson as the only key injury on the roster.

    The 26-year-old right-handed pitcher underwent elbow surgery in January and is expected to return by June. Earlier this month, Hellickson spoke with Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times following his first throwing session since the surgery.

    "It went really well,'' he said.”It felt like I thought. It's been feeling really good, but you never know until you actually get out there and start throwing. So it's very encouraging that it's felt as good as it has.''

    Hellickson will continue throwing on an every other day basis and said in a "best-case scenario" he will return to the rotation in late May with a target of being back by June 1.

Lineup Preview

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    Wil Myers will be playing in his first Opening Day in 2014.
    Wil Myers will be playing in his first Opening Day in 2014.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Projected lineup

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


    • Jose Molina, C
    • Logan Forsythe, IF/OF
    • Sean Rodriguez, IF/OF
    • Brandon Guyer, OF/1B

    The Rays will have an outstanding lineup, built on a foundation of excellent defense to support their pitching staff.

    The highlight of the lineup is the return of all four infield starters from Opening Day 2013. This season will mark the second time in franchise history that the team has had the same four infield starters on consecutive Opening Days since the first two seasons in franchise history (1998-99).

    Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times reported on how the team was able to retain the infield and spoke with third baseman Evan Longoria on the impact keeping the unit intact provides.

    With Evan Longoria the foundation at third base, the Rays kept the rest of the structure in place by picking up options on shortstop Yunel Escobar ($5 million) and second baseman Ben Zobrist ($7 million, plus not moving him back to the outfield), and — the final piece — re-signing free agent first baseman James Loney ($21 million, three years).

    "I think as a unit we're probably able to cover as much ground as any defense in the league, and we're as athletic and as able-bodied as anybody," Longoria said.

    "Coming back this year just gives us that much more confidence. Being able to play with the same guys in the infield — when you understand how the guy next to you plays — it really does make that much of a difference in positioning and just understanding how a guy is going to react when a ball is hit."

    Longoria needs to remain healthy in 2014. In his six-year career, he has only played in at least 150 games in consecutive seasons once (2009-10). He played in 160 games in 2013 and will need to be available for at least 150 games in 2014 in order for the Rays to make the postseason.

    The lineup also includes the Opening Day debut for the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers. He had a breakout season in 2013, finishing with a .293/.354/.478 line with 23 doubles, 13 home runs and 53 RBI.

    There will be pressure for him to maintain that level of production over a full 162-game season. If he can avoid having a sophomore slump, he could find himself in his first All-Star Game this summer.

    The bench has not yet been completely assembled, though. Brandon Guyer has been notified he will make his first Opening Day roster.

    Guyer 'excited' to make first Opening Day roster: The Rays on Tuesday told outfielder Brandon Guyer he'd made ...

    — Bill Chastain (@wwchastain) March 25, 2014

    The remainder of the bench should include backup catcher Jose Molina, Guyer as the fifth outfielder and utility players Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe following the announcement that Wilson Betemit and Jayson Nix did not make the team.

    Maddon announces after game Lowe, Betemit and Nix did not make team, Guyer did make team. Lueke and Gomes still up in air. #Rays

    — Steve Carney (@stevecarney) March 25, 2014

Rotation Preview

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    The Rays and their fans are happy to have ace David Price still on the team.
    The Rays and their fans are happy to have ace David Price still on the team.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected starting rotation

    1. David Price, LHP
    2. Alex Cobb, RHP
    3. Matt Moore, LHP
    4. Chris Archer, RHP
    5. Jake Odorizzi, RHP

    The highlight of the Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation is the surprise return of David Price for the 2014 season. Given the team’s reputation to trade away starting pitchers with two years remaining on their contract, even Price himself thought he would be moved during the offseason.

    Andrew Astleford from FOX Sports Florida, in a recent report, mentioned that Price’s pursuit of perfection is the key ingredient to his success.

    Perfection is the destination. There's no gray area with David Price. He's 6-foot-6, 210 pounds of Type-A aggression that rolls in like waves from the Gulf of Mexico: He keeps coming and coming, and even the slightest error, the smallest impurity, will command his attention.

    That's why he has become one of Major League Baseball's best at his position. That's why he won the 2012 American League Cy Young Award at a ripe 27 years old. That's why he has had a ridiculous spring, one in which he says this is the "best I've felt in a while," and his February and March comfort should make for a scary April, May, June and beyond for any American League batter not wearing a uniform that reads "RAYS" across his chest.

    Price’s value to the Rays goes beyond his individual skill; he is a team asset as well. He led the team with four complete games in 2013. He averaged 6.9 innings pitched per game started last season reducing the workload for the bullpen on his starts.

    If the Rays are unable to retain Price long-term, the new leader of the rotation will either be Matt Moore or Alex Cobb.

    Moore, was selected to his first All-Star team in 2013 and finished the season with a 17-4 record and a 3.29 ERA. He held opposing batters to a .216 average, the best among the starting rotation.

    Command is Moore’s biggest obstacle to overcome. In 2013, he led the American League with 17 wild pitches. This spring, he had three wild pitches and walked a team-high 15 batters in 14.1 innings, which indicates it is still an issue.

    Cobb, on the other hand, has been a much more consistent pitcher. In 2013, he was 11-3 in 22 starts. He finished the season with a 2.76 ERA and a .228 opponent average. Cobb also allowed the fewest home runs (13) of any Rays starting pitcher in 2013.

    Chris Archer will make his first Opening Day roster coming off an impressive rookie season. The 2013 AL Rookie of the Year finalist went 9-7 in 23 starts with a 3.22 ERA.

    Prior to 2013, Archer had never pitched more than seven innings in a game. By the end of the last season, he already had two complete-game shutouts under his belt.

    Jake Odorizzi will be the Rays' fifth starter while Jeremy Hellickson recovers from elbow surgery. He was 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA in seven games (four starts) with the Rays in 2013. He spent the majority of 2013 with Triple-A Durham, going 9-6 with a 3.33 ERA in 22 starts.

    Odorizzi has been working on a split/changeup this spring. He provided some background information on the pitch to Roger Mooney from the Tampa Tribune earlier this month.

    I had an all right change-up. It wasn’t anything special, wasn’t anything terrible. It was just average.

    I wanted something I could throw more consistent and have more movement as opposed to speed-wise. I don’t know how they are speed-wise compared to each other, but the movement alone on the new pitch makes a world of difference, honestly. Even if it’s bad, it’s got movement.

    He has the chance to put the new pitch and all of his talents on display to start the 2014 season.

Bullpen Preview

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    Grant Balfour was acquired by the Rays during free agency to replace Fernando Rodney as the closer.
    Grant Balfour was acquired by the Rays during free agency to replace Fernando Rodney as the closer.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected bullpen

    • CL: Grant Balfour, RHP
    • SU: Joel Peralta RHP
    • SU: Jake McGee, LHP
    • MID: Heath Bell, RHP
    • MID: Brandon Gomes, RHP
    • MID: Josh Lueke, RHP
    • LR: Cesar Ramos, LHP

    The Tampa Bay Rays bullpen will be a tough unit to face in 2014.

    The biggest component is the free-agent acquisition of closer Grant Balfour for his second stint with the team. He was a member of the 2008 World Series team, though his pitching has been refined since then, when he mostly threw fastballs. Bill Chastain from spoke with Balfour about mixing his pitches between his fastball, curveball, slider and changeup.

    It's one of those things sometimes where you have to back off and slow things down a little bit -- and slow things down a little bit, speed it up, keep them off balance and change, and play that game, as opposed to coming hard, hard, hard all the time. And there's days that I will. I'll mix it up. It's not like I'm going to tell you I'm going to sit there and throw my breaking ball all the time. Because I'm just going to come right at you. It depends on how I feel and who I'm facing

    Setting up Balfour will be the combination of Joel Peralta and Jake McGee.

    Peralta led all Rays relievers in 2013 with 80 appearances and 71.1 innings pitched. Opposing batters struggled against him with a .184 average for the season. He was especially effective inside Tropicana Field, holding batters to a .145 average and allowing only two home runs in 41 home appearances (38.2 innings pitched).

    McGee did not have his best season in 2013. He finished the season with a 5-3 record and a 4.02 ERA, a step backward from his 1.95 ERA in 2012. He appeared in 71 games for the Rays last season.

    If McGee can revert to his 2012 version and Peralta can remain consistent, the Rays will have a powerful combination of late-inning relievers for high-leverage situations.

    Then there is Heath Bell.

    As if the Rays did not have enough talent at the back end of the bullpen, they acquired Heath Bell in a trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks this offseason. Bell is three years removed and three teams removed from his three-year run as a dominant closer with the San Diego Padres.

    From 2009-2011, Bell saved 132 games with no fewer than 42 saves in a season. His past two seasons with the Miami Marlins and Diamondbacks have been disappointments, with him posting a 5.09 and 4.11 ERA.

    The Rays have been able to rehabilitate struggling relievers and get quality production out of them. The Tampa Bay bullpen will be very formidable if Bell can follow in the progress of Rafael Soriano, Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney.

    Cesar Ramos is the final confirmation in the bullpen and will serve as the team’s long reliever.

    Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke are the favorites to round out the final two spots in the bullpen after the announcement that Mark Lowe did not make the roster. This is still pending, as Joe Maddon mentioned there could be some other moves in play.

    Hearing that Lowe is odd man out in #Rays bullpen competition, meaning Gomes + Lueke would make opening day roster. Lowe has Friday opt out.

    — Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) March 25, 2014

    But bullpen is not set, Maddon said, that it's not automatic Gomes and Lueke are on. Something else could be in play.

    — Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) March 25, 2014

    #rays Maddon said "there's something else in play" regarding bullpen but wouldn't elaborate

    — RMooneyTBO (@RMooneyTBO) March 25, 2014

Prospects to Watch

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    Jake Odorizzi is certainly a prospect to watch in 2014.
    Jake Odorizzi is certainly a prospect to watch in 2014.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Rays have three pitching prospects worth keeping an eye on in 2014. As the season unfolds, the discussion and rumors about potential David Price trades will not go away, and these prospects are the most likely starters of the future. Alex Colome would have been included in this list if not for his 50-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

    Jake Odorizzi headlines the group of prospects after being named the fifth starter to begin the season for the Rays. He was named the organization’s top prospect by Baseball America in the offseason. Bill Ballew noted in the summary that accompanied the prospect ranking that although Odorizzi was acquired in the James Shields trade along with Wil Myers, there was not the same immediate return on investment as the 2013 Rookie of the Year.

    Odorizzi didn’t provide the same immediate payoff, but he did make impressive strides at Triple-A Durham and emerged as the organization’s top prospect. He went 9-6, 3.33 in 22 starts for the Bulls, finishing third in the International League in strikeouts (124) and WHIP (1.13).

    Nate Karns was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the trade for catcher Jose Lobaton.

    Paul Sporer and Doug Thorburn provided some insight into Karns in their 2014 Starting Pitching Guide. (h/t Jason Collette, The Process Report)

    Karns used a strong Double-A effort to earn his major league debut. He gives the Nats yet another viable arm on hand should they need reinforcements. It’s kind of ridiculous for them to have baseball’s best rotation and such a deep bench. Karns is probably a fourth-starter at peak, but he has a pair of plus pitches with the fastball and curveball.

    Enny Romero was listed as the fifth-best prospect and the pitching prospect with the best slider by Baseball America. He made a single start for the Ray towards the end of 2013. Colome’s suspension may provide an opportunity for him to make a start in the majors if a pitcher has an early-season injury.

    Michael Valancius from provided this insight into Romero’s 2013 season, including his greatest flaw.

    If you digest Romero's season from a run and hit based perspective, it looks quite good. As a 22 year old in Double-A and Triple-A, he pitched 148.1 innings to the tune of a 2.61 ERA with only 114 hits and 9 home runs allowed. In his one major league start, he allowed no runs and only one hit in 4.2 innings of work. But his one major league start exemplifies the greater issue surrounding Romero; though batters struggled to square him up, he walked four batters without striking a single one out. This issue is consistent in the minor leagues; his 6.8 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9 are both extremely mediocre for a top prospect.

    The Rays had 10 different starting pitchers in 2013. If they use as many as eight this season, there is a good probability all three of these prospects will see some time in the majors.

Breakout Candidate

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    This season is Desmond Jennings' opportunity to emerge from the shadows of former-Rays outfielders.
    This season is Desmond Jennings' opportunity to emerge from the shadows of former-Rays outfielders.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Desmond Jennings is in position to have a breakout year in 2014.

    He is going into his third full season with the Tampa Bay Rays and his second season as the starting center fielder. This season should offer him the chance to display his talent without the added pressure of replacing a long-term starter.

    In 2012, he replaced Carl Crawford in left field and then replaced B.J. Upton in center field last season.

    Bench coach Dave Martinez told Joe Smith from the Tampa Bay Times he believes this is Jennings’ year.

    I think this is the year you see Desmond Jennings shine. I know he's had really good numbers in the past in the minor leagues, he's done well in the big leagues. But I think you're going to see Desmond this year put up some really big numbers, I really do. He's very confident, he's healthy, he's ready to go.

    In 2013, Jennings finished with a .252/.334/.414 line with 31 doubles, 14 home runs and 54 RBI (all career highs). Missing from his production was speed on the bases.

    Jennings stole 20 bases in 139 games last year after stealing 31 bases in 132 games in 2012. In 2011, he used his speed to swipe 20 bases in only 63 games.

    Rays manager Joe Maddon also spoke with Smith and believes the key to success for Jennings is improving on his .334 on-base percentage from last season.

    Once he starts doing that, everything else is going to really take off. His base-stealing will get better, his confidence will drive up, you're going to see him do even better stuff on defense. If he can arrive at that 35 percent at least getting on base, this guy will become an elite player. He's on the borderline of that right now.

Top Keys to Success

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    The Rays need Evan Longoria and the rest of the starters to have a healthy 2014.
    The Rays need Evan Longoria and the rest of the starters to have a healthy 2014.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Rays' success boils down to one very important factor: staying healthy.

    The 2014 Rays will be a very talented team, perhaps the most talented team the franchise has ever fielded. As talented as the major league roster is, the minor leagues lack quality depth.

    Tampa Bay can probably afford a pitcher or two to go down to injury, but they have minimal position player depth.

    The Rays need all four of the Gold Glove-caliber infielders to stay healthy, because they do not have a quality backup at any of those positions.

    The team has some super-utility players, including Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe, but no options that make you feel comfortable if a starter has an extended stint on the disabled list.

    Former top-overall draft pick Tim Beckham is out for the year, and Hak-Ju Lee is out for about a month with a left calf strain following a left knee injury last season, reducing shortstop depth.

    #rays say SS Hak-Ju Lee will miss 3 to 4 weeks with a left calf strain. It's not related to left knee injury that cost him most of 2013.

    — RMooneyTBO (@RMooneyTBO) March 24, 2014

    The Rays will be as successful in 2014 as they can stay healthy. A few injuries to key players, and the year could turn bad fast.

    Another key for the Rays is for starting pitchers to get quality starts.

    The bullpen is talented, but it contains a lot of veterans who will need rest to stay healthy and effective, especially toward the end of the season and in the postseason.

2014 Tampa Bay Rays Season Outlook

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    The Rays start the 2014 season against the Toronto Blue Jays.
    The Rays start the 2014 season against the Toronto Blue Jays.J. Meric/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Rays want to “Eat Last” in 2014.

    The new team mantra was suggested to manager Joe Maddon from third baseman Evan Longoria after reading Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together And Others Don’t by Simon Senek in the offseason.

    Maddon told reporters in his introductory press conference that he wanted the Rays to eat last this year. "It makes sense, leaders do eat last," Maddon said.  "I'd like for us to be the leaders and eating last this year." (h/t Steve Carney, 620 WDAE)

    The new slogan is in line with the team’s goals to win a World Series after being eliminated in the American League Divisional Series in their last three postseason appearances.

    Before the Rays can even be among the last at the table, they will need to make the postseason. Many experts and even early Vegas odds have them selected as the favorite to win the AL East over the defending World Series-champion Boston Red Sox.

    ESPN's @dschoenfield picks Rays to win AL East: "I believe their run prevention will be the best in the league."

    — Dave Haller (@HallerDave) February 7, 2014

    Early Vegas odds have #Rays winning AL East

    — DRaysBay (@draysbay) February 26, 2014

    Jon Morosi from FOX Sports believes the Rays have enough talent to represent the American League in the World Series in 2014.

    Yes, during our @MLBONFOX and @yardbarker #SABRSchool hangout, I made my World Series pick: Cardinals over Rays.

    — Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) March 19, 2014

    Given the talent on this roster and the Rays’ history over the past six seasons, there is no reason to not believe the Rays can be a World Series contender this year.

    The team has talent, experience and is hungry. The hunger should serve as the driving force for them to “eat last.”

    2014 Prediction: 92-70, AL East Champions

    Agree or disagree with the prediction? Feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter.