2014 Tampa Bay Rays Preview
The 2013 season for the Rays was one of streaks and droughts that ended with the club going 92-71 and making the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons. After entering the year with one of the strongest rotations, lengthy injuries to David Price and Alex Cobb led to an abrupt youth movement in the rotation. Stars emerged in the pitching staff, with Chris Archer making 23 starts to lock down a spot in the rotation and Matt Moore taking a big step to earn his first All-Star selection. The most significant addition during the season was that of outfielder Wil Myers, winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Tampa Bay was one of the hottest teams through the month of July, but injuries and struggles made a scramble necessary at the end of September to make the postseason. After winning the elimination contest in Game 163, the Rays defeated the Indians in the Wild Card game before bowing out to the Red Sox in four games in the ALDS.
The talk of the offseason and Winter Meetings was David Price, with speculation running rampant that he would be traded. Though it could change with the right offer, it appears the Rays will roll with their former Cy Young winning ace in 2014. The Rays broke out of character by making a small wave in free agency and retaining first baseman James Loney on a three-year deal after he had a breakout season. They also stood up and signed free agent closer Grant Balfour to a two-year deal after Fernando Rodney left via free agency. Some smaller trades led to the acquisitions of Ryan Hanigan, Heath Bell, Logan Forsythe, and Brad Boxberger.
The AL East has a revamped look to it and remains a formidable division. The defending World Champion Red Sox have shaved some salaries and have a younger look. The Yankees made their typical free agent spending spree and have a significantly improved roster. The Orioles narrowly missed the playoffs last season and return a core of talent on offense. The Blue Jays are no slouch either, but are clearly separated from the rest of the group. Manager Joe Maddon remains one of the best managers in baseball and the team will continue to use an analytical perspective to play matchups in the lineup and on the mound. Look for the Rays, with a dominant rotation, formidable bullpen, and improving offense, to be right in the thick of the division race in 2014.
Lost Jesse Crain (Astros), Roberto Hernandez (Phillies), Kelly Johnson (Yankees), Ryan Roberts (Cubs), Fernando Rodney (Unsigned), Luke Scott (Unsigned), Jamey Wright (Dodgers), and Wesley Wright (Cubs) via free agency.
In the annual turnover of role players for the Rays, they did lose some significant pieces, but not compared to the past few seasons. Rodney had a popular, arrow-shooting revival the past two seasons as the closer by saving 85 games and posting a miniscule 1.91 ERA. He took a step back last season and is an aging reliever, so the Rays will move on. Crain, acquired in a mid-season trade with the White Sox while on the DL, did not recover in time to take the field for Tampa Bay. Both Wrights had roles in the bullpen, but served in middle relief and are replaceable at those spots. Johnson, Roberts, and Scott were in matchup bench roles and did not stand out enough to retain. Roberto Hernandez ate up the innings, but ultimately is not an option in the rotation for most major league teams at this point of his career.
Re-signed David DeJesus to a two-year, $10.5 million deal.
DeJesus began the season with a struggling Cubs team, playing 84 games and hitting six home runs with 27 RBI before he was traded to the Nationals in August. Less than a week later, he was flipped again to the playoff-contending Rays. He quickly became a regular in the lineup, hitting .260/.328/.413 over 35 games in Tampa Bay. Though DeJesus does not excel in any one offensive category, the Rays seem to like him as a left-handed bat with solid defense that can play all three outfield positions. He will likely be used in a matchup-based rotation in the outfield for the Rays in 2014, playing mostly against right-handed pitching.
Re-signed Jose Molina to a two-year, $4.5 million deal.
Molina worked the 2013 season in a near-identical role to the previous season, sharing the catching duties with Jose Lobaton. As a superior defensive catcher and manager of pitching staffs, Molina had reason to be in the lineup frequently, and played in 99 games. He logged a career-high 283 at-bats for the season, but it did not translate into better totals. He hit just .233/.290/.304 and had only two home runs and 18 RBI. He'll be 38 entering the 2014 season and does not have much fantasy value, but his most significant real-life contribution is on defense and helping out the pitchers. The Rays still have Lobaton, but added Ryan Hanigan to handle a larger portion of the catching duties. The position should be held down by Hanigan and Molina this season.
Traded Justin Choate and a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks in exchange for Heath Bell and also received Ryan Hanigan from the Reds.
The Rays were able to address multiple areas with this trade that include the back end of the bullpen and the catching position. Bell has one year left on his contract and has fallen from the elite closer status he held in San Diego. However, the Rays are known for reclamation projects and Bell could end up being a significant addition to the bullpen. It seems likely he will share set-up duties with Joel Peralta and Jake McGee in the final innings of the game to bridge the gap to the closer Balfour. In need of improvement at the catcher spot, the Rays picked up Hanigan and immediately gave him a new three-year contract. Hanigan took a step back offensively last season, hitting .198/.306/.261 that could be somewhat related to injuries. He is strong defensively and managing a pitching staff, so his OBP last season could be an indicator of a bounce-back campaign on the horizon.
Re-signed Juan Carlos Oviedo to a one-year, $1.5 million deal.
Oviedo landed a major league deal with the Rays, despite not pitching in any games for the team last season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Still, the guaranteed commitment to the artist formerly known as Leo Nunez suggests the Rays have been pleased with the strides he's made in his rehab, and that they believe he can be a contributor in their bullpen. With the Rays' closing job going to Grant Balfour, Nunez will battle to earn high-leverage innings with Peralta, Bell, and McGee.
Re-signed James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal.
After a few seasons in Los Angeles and a short stay in Boston that seemed to display a career on the decline, Loney bounced back as a big player for Tampa Bay and resurrected his career in the process. He played in 158 games, hitting .299/.348/.430 with 13 home runs and 75 RBI. He is a high-contact hitter that posted a .326 BABIP on the year. Another value he brought to the Rays was his strong defense, which led to him being a finalist for a Gold Glove. One knock on Loney's game is that as a first baseman, he does not have the power typically associated with that corner infield position. His career-high homer total is 15, back in his second season with the Dodgers. He still hits for a high average and can produce RBI at a steady rate while playing in almost every game of the season.
Signed Jayson Nix to a minor league contract.
Nix played a key role in helping the Yankees hang in the playoff race as long as they did, filling in all around the infield, and even providing value in deep fantasy leagues with 13 steals, before succumbing to the injury bug himself in late August. Though he has nice value in a utility infield role as a right-handed hitter, the Rays have other players in Logan Forsythe and Sean Rodriguez that also offer this type of ability. If he does crack the final roster, he will likely share at-bats in a platoon role at multiple positions.
Traded Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn to the Padres in exchange for Logan Forsythe, Brad Boxberger, Matt Andriese, Matt Lollis, and Maxx Tissenbaum.
In a bit of a surprise, the Rays parted with a pair of promising young arms in Torres and Hahn, but received a stockpile of interesting players in return. Forsythe was nagged by plantar fasciitis much of the season and had a disappointing hitting line of .214/.281/.332 with six home runs and six stolen bases. The Rays love to use platoons and matchups to maximize a playerís value, and Forsythe offers a right-handed bat capable of playing nearly any position in the infield and outfield. Boxberger is an impressive young arm with solid strikeout rates who can offer another quality option to the bullpen. Andriese is a promising pitching prospect that projects as a middle-of-the-rotation starter and could benefit from the Raysí strong history of developing pitching. Lollis and Tissenbaum are project prospects to add to the depths of the system.
Signed Grant Balfour (Aís) to a two-year, $12 million deal.
Balfour had an exceptional 2013 season as the A's closer, converting 92.7 percent of his save opportunities, aided by his 28 consecutive saves to begin the campaign. Aside from a brief stretch in August where he struggled, Balfour was a rock at the back end of the A's bullpen. Balfour's strikeout rate took a nice bump up in 2013 from 8.7 K/9 to 10.3 K/9, but his H/9 and BB/9 also went up. Balfour is entering his age-36 season, but he has shown no signs of slowing down and should be a solid second-tier closer. After signing a two-year deal with the Rays in January, Balfour appears to be on track to close out games in a strong Tampa Bay bullpen.
Projected Lineup (vs. RHP/LHP)
1. David DeJesus, LF/Desmond Jennings, CF
2. Ben Zobrist, 2B
3. James Loney, 1B
4. Evan Longoria, 3B
5. Wil Myers, RF
6. Matt Joyce, DH/Logan Forsythe, LF
7. Desmond Jennings, CF/Sean Rodriguez, DH
8. Ryan Hanigan, C
9. Yunel Escobar, SS
Manager Joe Maddon and the Raysí front office like to use advanced metrics to play many lineup matchups and platoons in the lineup. The middle of the order will always consist of some combination of Zobrist, Loney, Longoria, and Myers. DeJesus generally does not face left-handed pitching and should share some time with multiple players in the outfield. The Rays have multiple utility-types in Forsythe, Rodriguez, and Zobrist that can adjust and play all over the field. Itís anyoneís guess day-to-day what the order will look like, but it can be an effective offensive unit when healthy.
1. David Price
2. Alex Cobb
3. Matt Moore
4. Chris Archer
5. Jake Odorizzi
Without any offseason trades occurring at this point, it appears Price will return to head up the Raysí rotation going into Opening Day. This rotation remains one of the top groups in all of baseball with the emergence of its young prospects. Cobb and Moore provided the team with breakout campaigns in 2013 and will look to keep improving. Archer had the incredible rookie year and will have his first full-season experience this season. Jeremy Hellickson required arthroscopic surgery in early February on his elbow that will hold him out until at least the end of May. Odorizzi is expected to take the final spot in the rotation and has an opportunity to earn the spot for the season with a strong performance.
Closer: Grant Balfour was a late and surprising addition by the Rays through free agency after a deal with the Orioles fell through. A former Ray, he accumulated 62 saves the past two seasons as the closer for the Aís. As was displayed by his predecessor Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay has been a great environment for saves. The fiery Balfour returns to bring a stable All-Star arm at the back end of the bullpen and has a capable group of pitchers to bridge the gap to the ninth inning.
Key Bullpen Members: The Rays have a stable of talented and experienced arms in the bullpen that will offer some competition should Balfour struggle over the duration of the season. Joel Peralta has been a rock in the set-up role, leading the league with 80 appearances last season and posting 41 holds. He is going to be 38 entering the season with a heavy workload the past few seasons, but he presumably will still take the ball in the eighth initially.
Heath Bell has an extensive portfolio of success as a closer and could be another sneaky acquisition by the Rays if he finds his groove again. He showed improvement in the second half last season when not in the closerís role and his SO/BB rate recovered significantly. Jake McGee has been touted as a future closer with his power left-handed fastball and is looking to bounce back from a tough 2013 season in which he posted a 4.02 ERA and struggled with command.
A question mark that could pay dividends is Juan Carlos Oviedo, the former Marlins closer then known as Leo Nunez. He has not pitched since 2011, but the Rays seem to believe he can be a useful piece in the bullpen once he is deemed ready to pitch.
Notes of Import, Fantasy, and Otherwise:
Can the Rays reach the next level in the postseason?
There can be no questioning the Raysí methods and their competitiveness, having won 90 games in five of the last six seasons under Joe Maddon. They make moves in the front office to maximize lower value assets and develop the talent, especially in the pitching department. Though the AL East is loaded again, the Rays will be in the middle of the postseason race. The teamís decision to keep David Price in the offseason could also be an indicator they want to go all-in this season. If the rotation stays healthy, the offense should be capable enough to take this team deep into the postseason.
Can Chris Archer repeat his brilliant rookie performance?
Archer began the 2013 season with Triple-A Durham before receiving the call to join the major league rotation at the start of June. He struggled a bit initially, then turned on the gas and rattled off a fantastic season, finishing with a 9-7 record and 3.22 ERA in 23 starts that included two shutouts. He showed solid control with a 2.66 K/BB ratio, displaying a dazzling fastball that averaged about 95 mph and a hard slider to keep opposing offenses off balance. A concern with young pitchers is increased workloads and he did throw a career-high 178.2 innings last year, but the jump in that total was not too significant that it should raise any red flags in regard to his value.
Will Desmond Jennings tap into his potential and take a leap forward?
Jennings entered 2013 with high expectations replacing B.J. Upton as the everyday center fielder for the Rays. While he did not take off into a game-changing player, his numbers were very similar to the previous season. He struggled against right-handed pitching, hitting just .231/.311/.386, which led to a platoon with David DeJesus toward the end of the season that could carry over into 2014 in some form. He had career highs of 14 home runs and 54 RBI, but stole just 20 bases. He also mostly hit in the bottom half of the lineup which could have been a factor affecting some of his running opportunities. He still has the tools in his game, now the Rays are looking for him to put them all together for a full season.
How will the Rays use the DH spot in the lineup?
The Rays do not have a prototypical designated hitter on the roster with the departure of Luke Scott via free agency, who struggled in the role last season. In 2013, the team used a total of 10 players in the spot. While Matt Joyce may be one of the first looks in the spot heading into Opening Day, it seems that the Rays will use some sort of rotation through the slot in the batting order. They will have the opportunity to use it to rest some of the regulars from playing in the field, like Longoria, Myers and some others.
The Rays boast one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. A former Cy Young leader tops it off backed by a young, talented unit. The bullpen is rock-solid with plenty of experience in high-leverage situations that give it incredible depth. A year after concerns defensively, the Rays bounced back and were second in MLB with only 59 errors as a team. The entire starting infield was nominated for Gold Glove awards. Wil Myers is a young star that will work next to the face of the franchise in Evan Longoria. Another strength is that the Rays have one of the most interesting and brilliant managers leading the team, Joe Maddon.
The Rays are a little thin on overall depth, offensively. There are many players that can play multiple positions, but behind the bats in the middle of the order, there are not a lot of impact hitters. The minor league system is rich with pitching but is also very thin on hitting that is ready to contribute in the major leagues immediately.
Rising: Wil Myers - After starting the year with Triple-A Durham, Myers made his highly-anticipated debut in the middle of June and the slugging began. An elite prospect acquired in the offseason trade of James Shields to the Royals, he helped lead the Tampa Bay offense to the postseason en route to the AL Rookie of the Year Award. After his call to the majors, the Rays put together a 52-36 record in games in which he appeared. In those 88 games, he hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers, 23 doubles and 53 RBI. He hit all over the batting order from second through sixth with the Rays shuffling lineups and matchups. He still has a slight tendency to strike out, with 93 on the year with the Rays, but his aggressiveness swinging at the first pitch shows as a useful tool, as eight of his 13 long balls came on first-pitch swings. Myers and teammate Evan Longoria will be fixtures in the middle of the order in Tampa Bay for a long time and he will quickly be establishing his spot as one of the better power-hitting corner outfielders in all of baseball.
Declining: Matt Joyce - Last season, Joyce put up a very similar campaign to 2012 across the board. He started off with a solid April and May, hitting 10 home runs with 25 RBI over the first two months. He went cold at the plate for much of the remainder of the season and worked mostly in a platoon situation in left field and at DH against right-handed pitching. In the limited time against southpaws, he only hit .164/.190/.309 in 58 plate appearances. He provides solid power in the right matchups as he has approached 20 home runs in each of the past three seasons. With Wil Myers established as the everyday right fielder, Joyce will likely work in a matchup role starting primarily against right-handed pitching for the Rays in 2014, sapping his overall value as a part-time player.
Sleeper: Jake Odorizzi - In his first year in the Rays' organization after being acquired as part of the trade of James Shields to the Royals, Odorizzi spent most of his season with Triple-A Durham. For the second season in a row, he was productive at the Triple-A level, going 9-6 with a 3.33 ERA over 22 starts. He improved his strikeout rate to 9.0 K/9. The young right-hander made four spot starts with the Rays before he was called up for good in September to be a long man out of the bullpen. He has solid location and a well-rounded selection of pitches that project him into the middle of a big-league rotation. Due to offseason surgery for Jeremy Hellickson, Odorizzi is the favorite for the final rotation spot out of spring training and can prove himself immediately to the club.
Supersleeper: Enny Romero - The young southpaw made a meteoric rise in the Rays' organization, ultimately landing in Tampa Bay to make a spot start in September. Romero spent most of the season with Double-A Montgomery, where he went 11-7 with a 2.76 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 27 starts. Despite a slim stature, the lefty can run his fastball consistently around 95 mph. His secondary pitches may still need some fine-tuning, but he is further evidence of how deep the talent runs in the pitching department of the Rays' system. He cut back a bit on his walk rate in 2013 and showed solid poise in his start for the Rays during a playoff chase. He could make a run at a rotation spot in the spring, but will more likely begin 2014 at Triple-A Durham. Should injuries or struggles above him strike, he could end up making starts with the Rays at some point in the season if he improves his command and keeps performing in the minors.
Jake Odorizzi, RHP - See above.
Hak-Ju Lee, SS - Lee, a top position player prospect, was off to an excellent start of the season with Triple-A Durham. In the team's first 15 games, he hit .422/.536/.600 with one home run and six stolen bases. His season ended early after he suffered torn ligaments in his left knee, however. He has played shortstop throughout his career in the minors and is known for solid fielding and a strong arm to go along with great speed. The Rays have Yunel Escobar anchored at shortstop for 2014, which should allow Lee to rehab his knee completely and work back to full speed, most likely in Durham.
Taylor Guerrieri, RHP - Guerrieri, one of the Rays' top pitching prospects, had a scorching start to the season at Low-A Bowling Green. Over 14 starts, he went 6-2 with a 2.01 ERA and 51:12 K:BB ratio. He has a big fastball with a curveball that can miss bats with frequency. In July, he had some elbow soreness, and it was determined he would need Tommy John surgery. He also had a second positive test for recreational drug use that will be 50 games long. Due to the recovery of the ligament replacement surgery, he will not miss any games due to suspension, but it does put him on the watch list for potential future off-field issues. Guerrieri will likely only see minimal game action, if any, off the mound in the 2014.
Enny Romero, LHP - See above.
Alex Colome, RHP - Colome put together a solid season with Triple-A Durham, posting a 3.07 ERA while averaging 9.2 K/9 over 14 starts. He had a few successful spot starts with the Rays, but his season ended after the promotion when he was placed on the disabled list with an elbow strain. He features a big fastball with solid movement that he uses to induce groundballs and his secondary pitches are developing. Injuries have limited him to fewer than 20 starts in both of the last two seasons. The Rays are expected to have a crowded rotation again in 2014, so he may end up in Durham if he does not win a spot in the spring, but he also could convert to the bullpen in the future.