The offseason, once again, proved busy for the small-market, always-tinkering Tampa Bay Rays. A team that wasn’t on the championship trajectory a decade ago has produced contenders season after season since 2008 by cobbling together strong pitching, solid defense and above-average offense. In recent years, despite losing fan-favorites Carl Crawford, B.J Upton, James Shield and Scott Kazmir, the Rays continue fielding quality teams filled with young talent.
The 2008 season broke the ice for the Rays. Transitioning from the Devil Rays and a history of losing, the “new” Rays reached the World Series and have been trying to get back ever since. This year will be no different. It’s a new season, and the Rays have a new team to send out on the field yet again; one with prospects and one that’s ready to win.
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The Rays gave up several good players in the offseason, including “Super Sam” Fuld, Kelly Johnson, Luke Scott, Delmon Young and Fernando Rodney. Most of the offseason moves were made to solidify the bullpen (an area the Rays have always struggled to maintain). Fans were spoiled by Rodney’s personality for the past two seasons, so they will have to transfer their loyalty to a new closer. New closer? I think we’ve seen this guy before – welcome back, Grant Balfour, who returns to the Rays as a closer after spending 2007-2010 in Tampa as a relief pitcher.
The outfield looks a lot like last season with David DeJesus in left, Desmond Jennings in center and 2013 Rookie of the Year Wil Myers in right. Designated hitter Matt Joyce will serve as a backup in the outfield, along with Brandon Guyer and Kevin Kiermaier, both up from triple-A Durham and competing for spots on the 25-man roster. Sean Rodriguez reprises his super-utility role in the infield and outfield, and he’ll be joined by utility-players-in-training Lance Nix and Logan Forsythe, who was acquired from the Padres along with Brad Boxberger and three minor league players in exchange for Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn.
The infield has a few new faces in camp, too — Tim Beckham, Vince Belnome and Hak-Ju Lee (Lee sat out most of the 2013 season because of knee injury) are on the active roster and will work alongside starters Ben Zobrist (2B), James Loney (1B), Evan Longoria (3B) and Yunel Escobar (SS) this spring. Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina will share catching duties.
The Rays finished 11th in the majors in both runs scored (700) and home runs (165) last year. A full season of Myers (.293, 13 HR, 53 RBI in 88 games), Longoria (.269, 32 HR, 88 RBI) and Loney (.299, 13 HR, 75 RBI) means the Rays have the foundation to score even more runs this year.
After an offseason rife with trade rumors, the Rays kept No. 1 starter and 2012 NL Cy Young winner David Price (10-8, 3.33 ERA) — at least until the summer trade deadline. Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA), Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29 ERA) and Chris Archer (9-7, 3.22 ERA) round out the first four rotation spots. Jeremy Hellickson, however, isn’t expected to make his 2014 debut until May following surgery on his right elbow. With the No. 5 spot up for grabs, expect Jake Odorizzi to be a strong contender. Odorizzi, who will be 24 by opening day, was drafted by the Brewers in 2008 and traded to the Royals in 2010 (where he made his major league debut), before being acquired by the Rays (along with Mike Montgomery, Patrick Leonard and Wil Myers) and sent to triple-A Durham. In his two seasons in triple-A, Odorizzi has compiled a 20-9 record, with a 3.15 ERA in 231.2 innings of work (including 107.1 innings in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League).
The loss of Rodney, Torres and Jamey Wright means the Rays have overhauled the bullpen. Balfour returns to Tampa after earning 62 saves (including 38 last year) as Oakland’s closer in 2012-2013 and immediately improves the backend of the bullpen. Heath Bell will attempt to resurrect his career yet again with his third team in three seasons. After three consecutive 40-save, under-3.00 ERA seasons with the Padres from 2009-2011, Bell has converted only 34 of 49 save opportunities the last two seasons. Still, Bell has a closer’s mentality and will serve as Balfour’s setup man along with innings-eaters Jake McGee (62.2 IP) and Joel Peralta (71.1 IP).
Opening day 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
We watched the blossoming of a superstar last season with the introduction of Myers. Every game was full of excitement after Myers made the jump, and this spring, several prospects are lined up to be the next big thing in Tampa. The prospect torch now belongs to Odorizzi (No. 1 in the Rays system), Lee (No. 2), Beckham (No. 9) and Kiermaier (No. 10) — all are in camp and all under 24 years old. Continue to keep your eyes on Myers – the 2013 season was just the beginning of what will be an exciting baseball career — and Odorizzi could be the breakout player this season.
As all fans of World Series-less teams like to proclaim, “2014 is the year.” Each new season introduces what looks like a brand new team to Tampa Bay, however, that’s become the Rays blueprint — bring in some rookies, and raise ’em up. With help from veteran players like Longoria, Zobrist and Loney, this new team will have an opportunity to make baseball history.
So, why this year? It’s about time. The Rays will play hard from opening day to the postseason, they’ll struggle in the first playoff series, but will regain momentum and take the championship — a championship that would go a long way in solidifying the fan base as well as securing a long-term future in the Tampa Bay area.