3 Reasons to Be Optimistic for Tampa Bay Rays' 2014 Season

Jamal Wilburg@JWilburgCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2014

3 Reasons to Be Optimistic for Tampa Bay Rays' 2014 Season

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    Gerald Herbert

    Opening Day is here for the Tampa Bay Rays.

    The long wait through the winter has passed, and the 2014 season starts for the Rays with a home series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

    One of the beautiful aspects of Opening Day is the high level of optimism that is shared by fans of all 30 major league teams. Die-hard fans across the country find hope in an inflated spring training statistic, offseason acquisition or hope that a previously underperforming player will have a rebound or breakout season.

    As the season plays out, those hopes will dwindle down for most franchises. The flame of hope for 20 teams will extinguish as the season ends, and 10 teams advance to the postseason. As the postseason progresses, every team will spend this winter looking toward the 2015 MLB season with hopeful optimism once again.

    It is an annual cycle that makes the game fun to watch.

    With the 2014 season set to start, here are three reasons to be optimistic the Tampa Bay Rays will be the last team standing at the conclusion of the season.

    All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

3. Roster Continuity

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    Gerald Herbert

    The Tampa Bay Rays will have a record payroll in 2014 of around $80 million.

    As the Rays have proven over the past six seasons, teams can win without spending over-the-top dollars on free agents and top-tier talent. Even with the record salaries, the Rays still have the fourth-lowest payroll in baseball.

    In order for the Rays to accomplish their goal of a fifth postseason appearance in seven seasons, they will have to overcome divisional opponents with much deeper pockets. Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune described the financial competition they are up against in a recent article:

    They will compete for a playoff spot in the unforgiving AL East, home to the free-spending New York Yankees ($200 million payroll) and Boston Red Sox ($150 million). The Red Sox who just happen to be the defending World Series champions. Baltimore ($102 million) opened its checkbook this season. Toronto ($127 million) did so last year only to see the season blow up because of injuries and poor pitching, but the Blue Jays still have a dangerous lineup.

    Helping the Rays compete will be a roster that could turn out to be the best in franchise history.

    David Price, James Loney and David DeJesus were critical players to retain for the 2014 season.

    It is a big deal when the Rays retain any of their critical pieces. Typically, the offseason is a time of player departure and fans' jerseys turning into instant throwbacks.

    This offseason was different.

    Instead of the Rays trading away a top-of-the-rotation starter like James Shields or losing a great defender like B.J. Upton, they are bringing back their players. In addition to the retention, relievers Heath Bell and Grant Balfour were added to complete what should be one of the best bullpens in baseball.

    Matthew Pouliot from NBC Sports also noted some of the offensive improvements the Rays made this offseason:

    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.

    There is certainly a lot to be optimistic for when a team wins 92 games and returns its core players and add some improvements to areas of weakness during the offseason.

2. Elite Defense

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    Gerald Herbert

    The Rays have to win with defense.

    One reason is Tropicana Field is one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball.

    The other reason is elite defense is a much more affordable skillset than offense.

    An $80 million payroll does not allow the ability to sign or re-sign players to huge multi-year deals that elite offensive players get.

    The Rays will return their Opening Day infield intact for only the second time in franchise history. James Loney, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Evan Longoria were all finalists for the American League Gold Glove at their positions in 2013.

    Escobar and Loney were new to the Rays in 2013. Having a full season under their belts should provide more chemistry for the infield combination that contributed to the team finishing with the second-best fielding percentage (.990) in the majors last season.

    The addition of Ryan Hanigan provides more defensive talent for the Rays. Hanigan and Jose Molina rank third and fifth, respectively, in caught-stealing percentage of the active catchers with at least 400 games played.

    Desmond Jennings will also be in his second full season in center field joined by David DeJesus and Wil Myers.

    With a defense of this caliber, the Rays should be able to remain competitive and win a good share of games even if the offense is struggling.

1. Starting Pitching Depth

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack

    The Rays' biggest strength is their starting pitching depth.

    David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer were locks to be in the starting rotation this year. Jake Odorizzi will start the year with the Rays as the fifth starter after winning the job in spring training to replace Jeremy Hellickson while he recovers from elbow surgery, as per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

    A lot of attention gets paid to the pitchers that make the rotation to begin to season. However, if you look at the pitchers that will be starting 2014 in Triple-A Durham, it is clear the Rays have an abundance of arms.

    Aside from Odorizzi, the Rays have other young prospects in Enny Romero, Nate Karns and Mike Montgomery that could all be starters on other major league rosters. In addition to the prospects, Erik Bedard has re-signed with the team, adding a starter with 10 years of major league experience to the Triple-A staff.

    Injuries are the quickest way for offseason optimism to turn into a midseason crisis, especially if it happens to a key starter in the rotation.

    In 2013, the Rays saw Price, Cobb, Moore and Hellickson all miss time while recovering from injuries. Archer, Odorizzi, Romero and Alex Colome were called up from Durham at various stages last season and started a combined 31 games.

    The Rays are already starting the season without Hellickson. If another pitcher goes down, or if Price gets traded, they are fortunate to have the organizational depth to keep pushing toward the postseason. That is the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Rays in 2014.