Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Rays: 2014 season preview


Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

2013 Recap

92-71 (2nd in AL East) (2nd wild card spot)

Lost to Boston 3-1 in ALDS

The Tampa Bay Rays ended 2013 with a playoff loss to the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox.  They outlasted the odds by ending the regular season with a series at Toronto, followed by a wild card tie-breaker at Texas, and then playing the official WC play-in game at Cleveland.  That gave the Rays the privilege of playing their division rivals and winning their only game of the series at home.  The new playoff format definitely affected the Rays, as Boston had been much more rested compared to Tampa.

Transactions

Key Losses

Kelly Johnson, INF

Delmon Young, DH

Luke Scott, DH

Sam Fuld, OF

Roberto Hernandez, RHP

Jamey Wright, RHP

Alex Torres, LHP

Fernando Rodney, RHP

Jose Lobaton, C

 

Key Additions

Ryan Hanigan, C

Logan Forsythe, INF

Grant Balfour, RHP

Heath Bell, RHP

 

Payroll

The Rays’ payroll for 2014 sits around $75 million, much higher from the $62 million the club had in the books a season ago.  The increase comes partly from Evan Longoria beginning to realize his new contract extension to keep him in Tampa for the next decade.  Another factor is the fact that Tampa Bay chose not to trade its staff ace, David Price, despite all the rumors and speculations that had been surrounding the pitcher since the end of the World Series.

The Rays do have one of the lower payrolls in baseball still, but they might be sellers during the season if the right opportunity comes up.  They traded James Shields a year ago to Kansas City for prospect Wil Meyers, a move that has more than paid off after only a half season of experience for the young right fielder.  The Rays may not find as good a prospect as Meyers again, but Price would certainly command a big trade return if Tampa is willing to trade him.

Player to watch

The Rays have many young stars in the making on their active roster, headlined by ROY winner Wil Meyers.  However, another candidate for the award last season was pitcher Chris Archer.  At 24 years of age, Archer was 9-7 with a 3.22 ERA last season totaling 101 strikeouts in 128.2 innings pitched.

He was originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians, who then traded him to the Chicago Cubs in a deal for Mark DeRosa.  The Cubs then sent Archer to Tampa Bay as part of the Matt Garza deal from 2011.  Archer fits nicely as a third or fourth starter and has the ability to develop into a top of the rotation candidate down the road.  He should improve on his numbers from his rookie campaign after getting his feet wet in the Majors last year.

X-Factor

The new Rays’ closer must be as efficient as Fernando Rodney was over the last few seasons.  The team acquired Grant Balfour and Heath Bell, both of whom are known closers and very good at what they do.  Balfour will most likely be the closer because his velocity is higher and closely resembles what Tampa Bay had with Rodney, but Bell is more than capable of assuming that role if Balfour cannot reproduce the stuff that made him an all-star in 2013.

Regression candidate

With Jeremy Hellickson on the DL to start the season, his return will make or break his season in 2014.  He posted a 12-10 record in 2013 but had a 5.17 ERA which included a stint in the minors.  If Hellickson can’t find his groove again in which he posted an ERA of 2.95 and 3.10 in 2011 and 2012 respectively, the Rays may not be offering him a long term contract any time soon.  He is 26 and a veteran on a staff that has many younger stars who are ready and able to replace him.  Hellickson has had double-digit wins the last three seasons, but he won’t have as many starts to make it four in a row this year.

For 2014

The Rays were a playoff team in 2013 and have plenty of talent on the roster to get them back this season.  They are a close knit team that has fun playing the game, which may have been how they were able to even reach the playoffs a year ago with their stretch of road games at the end of the regular season.

With Longoria and Meyers in the middle of the lineup, there is power to produce home runs and drive in runs.  Besides that, Tampa needs to get on base and play fundamental baseball in order to win ball games.  All-star Ben Zobrist batted .275 last season and James Loney hit .299.

There may be a little less platooning with the lineup as manager Joe Maddon has been accustomed to doing before.  The infield boasts four finalists for the Gold Glove award at their respective positions a year ago.  In the outfield, Desmond Jennings is the best lead-off candidate for the batting order and Meyers should see every inning of every game this season with the talent he has.  That leaves left field, the DH, and catching duties up in the air.

Jose Molina has been the main catcher the last few seasons, but with newcomer Ryan Hanigan, that could change.  Molina is a solid defensive catcher but lacks in offensive production and won’t be a threat on the base paths.  David Dejesus and Matt Joyce are both left fielders but are also both bat left-handed.  That opens the door for utility man Sean Rodriguez to be the best right-handed option for Maddon when figuring out pitching and hitting matchups.

The Tampa rotation is one of the best in baseball.  Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Archer are as good as they come one through four.  If you throw in Hellickson, every pitcher on the staff is dominant and has the ability to be a 10-game winner.  The bullpen lost Rodney but gained Balfour, which might have been an upgrade given the rough patches Rodney went through a year ago.  Another X-factor candidate could be Joel Peralta, who throws more innings than any pitcher I’ve ever seen out of the bullpen.  He is a great setup man who can turn the ball over to the closer with ease.

Tampa Bay’s biggest concern in 2014 isn’t themselves as much as it is Boston and the rest of the division.  The Rays will win games.  The problem is who they win against.  If Tampa can beat up on its division rivals and secure a division title, it would put them in a much better spot to advance in the playoffs from a year ago.

The toughest division in pro sports will be just as competitive as ever, as proven by Boston’s worst-to-first performance in 2013.  Tampa should find success as they have before with Maddon at the helm and find themselves right in the middle of the playoff picture at the end of the year.

Tags: Tampa Bay Rays