Tampa Bay Rays 2014 Preview

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Thrifty Rays continue to compete with big spenders

The only thing smaller than this team’s payroll is its margin for error. With four postseason appearances in six years — an achievement 10 franchises have never equaled in their histories — owner Stu Sternberg, president Matt Silverman and executive VP Friedman have dexterously stayed within it.

New Year’s Day passed without the intensely rumored trade of David Price. As one of the most desirable players to hit the market in recent years — a Cy Young winner in his prime with two years remaining before free agency — he is certain to command an enormous return. Tampa Bay, however, has the luxury of patience. The club can use him to patch roster holes for this season, wait and assess its pennant prospects at the trade deadline, or defer the decision for a year. As it stands, the team is equipped to return to the postseason with largely the same cast as in 2013. Once again, the pitching and defense will be asked to run interference for an unexceptional batting order. The bullpen roles need to be sorted out, but the starting rotation looks solid with or without its ace. It’s a familiar formula for the Rays — one that positions them for annual AL East contention, but not necessarily for a deep run in October. “There hasn’t been an offseason with minimal turnover,” GM Andrew Friedman said over the winter. “It’s who we are.” But who they are in 2014 may not be discernible until he pulls the trigger on Price. Or not.


Rotation
Price was a different pitcher, for better or worse, last season. His average fastball declined 2.0 mph from 2012, when he won 20 games. He also used it far less frequently, and became more control-oriented following a scare with triceps pain, walking only three of 258 batters in one stretch. He’s had elite success with either approach, and he’s the Rays’ most influential “clubhouse guy.” Similarly, Matt Moore’s heater has cooled off — from 95.3 as a rookie to 92.3 last year, when he lost confidence in it. After starting 8–0 with a 2.18 ERA, he scuffled through a long series of tedious starts, leaning on his changeup due to a baffling lack of fastball command. Though tarnished a bit, he can be a star if he figures it out. Alex Cobb passed Moore in the pecking order thanks to the emergence of a dynamic two-seamer to go with his deluxe changeup. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher who allowed three or fewer earned runs in 19 of his 22 starts. Chris Archer, whose .226 opponents average led AL rookies (min. 100 innings), features crackling stuff and a high ceiling. “He’s got such a strong mental game,” manager Joe Maddon says. “(He) really understands routine and process.” Throwing quality strikes to left-handed hitters has been anything but routine for him. Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year, regressed shockingly. Like Moore, his fastball location evaporated, making his bread-and-butter changeup far less effective. He underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery in January, so he won’t be available until May at the earliest. Rookie Jake Odorizzi is more than ready to step in, and affords the Rays the luxury of easing Hellickson back in slowly, probably out of the bullpen initially.


Bullpen
The Rays have made a science of cobbling together harmonious bullpens, but the back end of this one could be a game of musical chairs. Its composition starts, as usual, with reclamation projects. They need either Heath Bell or Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) to turn back the clock two years. From 2009-11, the duo combined to save 224 games. Since then, the former has been nothing but hittable and the latter has undergone Tommy John surgery. After the Orioles backed off of an agreement with former Oakland closer Grant Balfour citing physical concerns, the Rays swooped in and brought Balfour back to Tampa Bay where he pitched from 2007-10. Balfour, who saved 38 games for the A’s last season, is the favorite to close. If he can, the rest should fall into place. Bell, who still throws hard but has a tendency to hang his curve, could be an effective setup man. Elastic-armed Joel Peralta has been effective in the eighth inning, while a pair of live-armed lefties indulge Maddon’s matchup mania. One-pitch pony Jake McGee threw 84.7 percent of his offerings at 95 mph or higher, and Cesar Ramos, who was actually more effective against righties last season, held opponents to a .138 average with two outs and runners in scoring position.


Middle Infield 

All four infielders were Gold Glove finalists in 2013, including second baseman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar, whose 11 combined errors tied for the third-fewest ever by a keystone combo. Both led the league and set team records for fielding percentage at their posts. Zobrist’s versatility extends to numerous positions. The team’s all-time walks leader, he has driven in more than 70 runs in five straight seasons. Escobar drips with mustard, but the Rays relished his game enough to pick up his option, confident he has more bat than he showed last year.


Corners

Evan Longoria remains the nexus of the offense. Lacking protection, he gets pitched around and is forced to expand the zone, resulting in so-so batting averages and soaring strikeout sums, but only Miguel Cabrera hit more home runs among AL third sackers. His next will match Carlos Peña for the franchise record. The re-signing of James Loney to play first base was a mixed blessing. Having never gone deep more than 15 times in eight seasons, he’s not the positional prototype. On the other hand, there are no prospects in the offing; he was the best available option; he raked .299 against both righties and lefties; and, like Longoria, he has few peers as a defender.


Outfield
For a team that struggles to score, the offensive sequencing must work with precision — meaning the Rays will need big years from leadoff man Desmond Jennings and potential mid-order masher Wil Myers. Jennings has yet to develop into “that guy.” Although he’s shown flashes of being an all-around center fielder in the Jacoby Ellsbury mold, he gets himself out too much and can be misplay-prone. Maddon calls Myers “the proverbial five-tool guy. Maybe the six-tool with the makeup.” The 23-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year projected to .293-24-98 over 162 games but will have to amend his three strikeouts-per-walk ratio and shake off a horrid postseason. Steady David DeJesus was re-upped to man left field in a platoon with Sean Rodriguez. Both are rangy and athletic with borderline bats.


Catching
The Rays look to their catchers for defense first. Good thing. Their .636 OPS from the position during the last five seasons is the majors’ lowest. New starter Ryan Hanigan did an injury-impacted .567 last year for the Reds, but he is, as per Friedman, “tremendously talented” behind the dish. A future manager-type who is worshipped by his pitchers, Hanigan threw out runners at twice the rate of Rays receivers in 2013.


DH/Bench 

Unless a much-needed left-handed stick is added, the plan is to rotate the outfield starters and Matt Joyce at DH. He walks into some home runs against righthanders but hasn’t come close to fulfilling his promise. The sparse bench talent as a whole is offset by the endless versatility of players such as Zobrist and Rodriguez, as well as rookie Vince Belnome. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the organization’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, has a chance to stick. Baseball Prospectus once called Jose Molina’s pitch-framing skills “so superlative that it made him the best pitch-for-pitch defensive catcher of the past 60 years.” So there’s that.


Management

The only thing smaller than this team’s payroll is its margin for error. With four postseason appearances in six years — an achievement 10 franchises have never equaled in their histories — owner Stu Sternberg, president Matt Silverman and executive VP Friedman have dexterously stayed within it. To their model of scouting, advanced data analysis and sleight-of-hand money management, Maddon adds a meld of baseball sophistication, motivational sloganeering and everybody-have-fun-tonight zaniness. The total package is the best in the game.


Final Analysis 

If and when the Rays move Price, they undoubtedly will help secure future viability with a package of premier prospects. To secure present viability as a possible contender, they must also get some near-term help coming back. There is a dire need for pop from the left side, another base-stealer, and a bench bat or two. Puttying up every fissure may be unrealistic, but this team has never had the luxury of covering all the bases; it just keeps the pressure on the opposition in hopes of one day getting all the way home if someone else drops the ball.

Lineup
CF    Desmond Jennings (R)    
Hit AL-best .492 (30 for 61) with three HRs when he made contact on the first pitch.
LF    David DeJesus (L)    
Attempting to play a full season for a winning team for the first time in his 12-year career.
2B    Ben Zobrist (S)    
Staffed multiple positions in the same game an MLB-leading 36 times.
3B    Evan Longoria (R)    
No. 3 all time in extra-base hits (373) for a third baseman through six seasons.
RF    Wil Myers (R)    
First player to lead AL rookies in RBIs in fewer than 90 games since Hoot Evers in 1946.
1B    James Loney (L)    
Set Rays franchise record with .351 batting average on the road.
DH    Matt Joyce (L)    
Rays were 35–13 when he hit in either the 2-, 6- or 7-hole in the batting order.
C    Ryan Hanigan (R)    
Gunned down the highest percentage of base-stealers in the NL each of last two seasons.
SS    Yunel Escobar (R)    
Fifth among shortstops in fielding percentage (.982) over the past three campaigns.

Bench
C    Jose Molina (R)    
Second to his brother Yadier among active catchers with 25 career pickoffs.    
UT    Vince Belnome (L)    
Triple-A Durham MVP ranked second in International League with .408 OBP.
OF    Kevin Kiermaier (L)    
Batted .307 in Double-A — .001 away from Southern League batting crown.
UT    Sean Rodriguez (R)    
Committed only one error in 90 total games at five different positions.


Rotation
LH    David Price    
Went 9–4 with 2.53 ERA in 18 starts following return from 47-day DL stint.
RH    Alex Cobb    
Went 2–2 with 3.06 ERA against AL teams that made the postseason in 2013.
LH    Matt Moore    
Was youngest lefthander since Babe Ruth in 1917 to open a season 8–0.
RH    Chris Archer    
Only pitcher ever to defeat the Yankees each of the first three times he started against them.
RH    Jake Odorizzi    
Twice has been removed after pitching at least seven innings of a combo no-hitter in the minors.

Bullpen
RH    Grant Balfour (Closer)    
In three years in Oakland as a setup man and closer, Balfour held opponents to a .187 average and registered a hold or save in 105 of 116 save situations.
RH    Heath Bell     
Tied Huston Street for most home runs allowed (12) by an NL reliever.
RH    Joel Peralta    
Set major-league record (calculated since 1952) with 41 holds in 2013.
RH    Juan Carlos Oviedo    
Saved 92 games for Marlins from 2009-11, when he was known as Leo Nunez.
LH    Jake McGee    
Was saddled with third-highest inherited runners scoring percentage (46.2) in majors.
RH    Brandon Gomes    
Has held right-handed hitters to .195 average in career, but .318 vs. lefties.
RH    Jeremy Hellickson    
Opponents’ average with runners in scoring position rose from .194 in 2011-12 to .333 last season.

2013 Top Draft Pick
Nick Ciuffo, C
The Rays have drafted only one catcher who’s ever had as many as 150 hits in their uniform (Toby Hall, in 1997). If Ciuffo becomes the second, it won’t be for quite awhile. The 19-year-old South Carolina High School Player of the Year batted .258 without a homer in rookie ball, but threw out 14-of-37 base-stealers, after being picked 21st. His left-handed swing might produce average power eventually, but he’s not really dialed in to the strike zone right now. He’s been compared by some scouts to A.J. Pierzynski for his bat and intensity, but with more defensive tools. GM Andrew Friedman describes Ciuffo as “very animated” and “extremely driven.” The club signed him for slot away from South Carolina, which had offered him a scholarship when he was 14.

Top Prospects
RHP Taylor Guerrieri, (21)
Last June, Guerrieri was one of the top pitching prospects in the game. By October, he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery while serving a suspension for recreational drug use. Boom or bust.
RHP Jake Odorizzi (24)
Took a step forward in the second half and may ultimately outperform the No. 4 starter tag pinned on him.
LHP Enny Romero (23)
Has command issues to conquer, but showed off his live arm in a key spot start late last year. Groomed for the 2015 rotation.
SS Hak-Ju Lee (23)
Speedy, slick defender who was off to .422-hitting start in Triple-A before blowing out his knee on April 20.
CF Andrew Toles (21)
Rocket led Midwest League with .326 average and 16 triples, and stole a team-record 62 bases. Awful SO-to-BB ratios, though.
RHP Alex Colome (25)
Explosive stuff, but inability to physically handle a starter’s workload will probably relegate him to relief duties.

Beyond the Box Score
Faithful Fans A Tampa Bay Times story alerted the Rays front office to a group of their most “devoted” fans — elderly Benedictine Sisters who donned team jerseys to watch every game on their tiny, archaic tube television, cheering good plays and grousing about losses. So last August, the club invited them to make the 90-minute trip to The Trop, where they were assigned VIP seating and presented with a modern TV to rock at the monastery.
Scouting Slump Joe Maddon calls the draft “our version of free agency,” but lately it’s been a poor substitute. As of Opening Day last year, none of the 253 players the Rays drafted from 2008-13 were on an MLB roster. They were the only team in baseball that did not have a draft pick during that span in the majors. By September, four had made debuts, albeit two (Derek Dietrich and Zac Rosscup) with other teams.  
Techno Joe It comes as no surprise that Maddon is looking forward to this season’s instant replay innovations. “Of course I like it,” says the progressive poobah. “I like flat-screen TVs with high definition. I like air conditioning in my 1956 Bel Air. I like computers. That group that argues against technology and advancement, I challenge them to throw away all this stuff. Their microwaves, throw them away. To just bury your head in the sand and just reference old-school all the time is really a poor argument.”
Relocation Reset The 2013 Rays were the first team with the lowest turnout in the majors ever to reach the postseason. The last two editions were the first 90-win teams in history to finish at the bottom of a league in patronage. Negotiating a way out of their lengthy Tropicana Field lease with the city — ostensibly to build a new ballpark — has become more of a possibility with the mayoral defeat of polarizing hard-liner Bill Foster by Rick Kriseman. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has lost patience: “You look at a club that’s competitive that’s averaging 18,000 people a game. That may have been OK in 1956. It’s not OK today.”
Wins at All Costs The Yankees are the only team to win more regular-season games than the Rays since 2008 — 564 to 550. For that privilege, they’ve shelled out approximately $905 million more dollars in salary — or $64.7 million per victory.

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