2014 AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

The 2014 season is almost here! As we continue to sit through Spring Training games, Camden Chat will spend the rest of this week previewing the O's foes in the AL East. Today: the Tampa Bay Rays.

The 92-70 Rays won the AL Wild Card game against the Indians, but lost to the Red Sox in the Division Series. Losing in the playoffs is always disappointing, but a 92-win season is a pretty darn successful one, no matter how you look at it. Tampa Bay used to be a likeable alternative to the hated Yankees and Red Sox, but as the Orioles have improved, they've moved to "(mostly) respectable adversary" status. Let's get to know our enemy a bit better, shall we?

The Rays' roster hasn't had any huge shakeups since last year, really. A few moves were made during the 2013 season, such as the late-season trade to bring David DeJesus on board, but most of the starting pitchers and position players are returning from last year. Lots of trade rumors surrounded David Price this offseason, but he will once again lead the rotation, followed by young starters Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer. The fifth spot in the rotation is up in the air, with the most likely candidates being former Oriole Erik Bedard and prospect Jake Odorizzi.

Tampa Bay's offense will look much like last year's: Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings, Wil Myers, James Loney, and Yunel Escobar are all likely to be in the lineup more often than not. The main additions are DeJesus, who is likely to start in left field, and Ryan Hanigan, who was acquired from the Reds this offseason and will split catching time with Jose Molina. The most notable losses are infielder Kelly Johnson (now a Yankee), catcher Jose Lobaton, former Oriole DH Luke Scott, and outfielder "Super" Sam Fuld. The bench is likely to include familiar utilityman Sean Rodriguez, former Padre infielder Logan Forsythe, and outfielder Brandon Guyer, who got brief call-ups with the Rays in '11 and '12 (and whose last major-league hit was a homer against Baltimore).

The bullpen has seen the most changes. Grant Balfour, he of failed medical examination fame, will take over closing duties from Fernando Rodney. Other additions include well-traveled former closer Heath Bell and twenty-five-year-old former Padre Brad Boxberger. Joel Peralta and Jake McGee are all but certain to retain bullpen slots, while Jamey Wright, Alex Torres, and Kyle Farnsworth are no longer Rays. Apparently, the Rays also need to have at least one pitcher who used to use an alias, as Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona) departs the rotation and team while Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) joins the bullpen.

The Rays are fortunate to have few injury concerns this offseason. The only one that seems to rise above typical Spring Training "day-to-day" status is Jeremy Hellickson, who is out until June due to elbow surgery. Hellickson put together the worst season of his career last year by ERA (5.17), yet posted career-best full-season strikeout and walk rates. Whether his poor results had more to do with past "luck" on batted balls catching up with him or with mechanical issues is hard to say (though DRaysBay has a detailed analysis here). Balfour has had a bit of "dead arm" this spring, but that usually doesn't mean much; it only stands out to me because of the medical concerns the Orioles had earlier in the offseason.

As usual, the Rays' biggest strength is their pitching, both in quality and depth. In the rotation, Price, Cobb, Moore, and Archer all made at least 22 starts and posted ERAs below 3.35 last year, and in addition to Bedard (who may opt out of his contract shortly) and Odorizzi, guys like Cesar Ramos, Alex Colome, and Enny Romero are waiting for their chances. The contrast with the Orioles isn't as stark as it used to be, and the Rays may not have the high-ceiling prospect arms to match Gausman and Bundy at the moment, but their young pitching already in the majors and their ability to deal with losing Hellickson for two-plus months are impressive. The bullpen looks to be pretty good as well, with Balfour, Peralta, and McGee forming a solid core that guys like Bell, Boxberger, and Oviedo can fill in around.

The position players aren't quite as enviable, but still solid. Defensively, they should be quite good: out of likely everyday guys, only Wil Myers and Matt Joyce don't have histories of being above-average or better defenders, and Myers just doesn't have much history at all yet while Joyce is likely to see a lot of time at DH rather than in the outfield. Their bats, besides Longoria, are more of a mixed bag: Zobrist's power numbers have bounced around over the years, Myers may be due for some regression from last year's BABIP-aided batting average, and starters like Loney and DeJesus are projected to be significantly worse than you like to see from traditional slugger positions. Joe Maddon will once again have a lot of flexibility, though, thanks to guys like Zobrist and Rodriguez, and he seems to do a good job making the most of it.

Judging from their willingness to spend and hang onto David Price this offseason, the Rays' front office seems to feel very confident in their chances of contending this year, and it looks to be justified. FanGraphs' projections have Tampa Bay going 85-77, while Baseball Prospectus gives them a 90-72 record and the AL East title. I'm not going to make up a number myself, but the latter seems more likely to me, as this team just doesn't have a lot of weaknesses.

Thanks to DRaysBay for some very useful season preview articles, and as always, FanGraphs for statistics of all kinds.
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