No. 7 Rays: The flawed little team that could

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Price gets $14M deal ahead of arbitration exchange
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David Price's future with the Rays is one of baseball's top story lines. (AP Photo)

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Tampa Bay Rays.

2013 record: 92-71
Finish: Second, AL East
2013 payroll: $64.6 million (28th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $81.8 million (27th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 7
Rays in six words: They’re smarter, so save it nerds.

OFFSEASON ACTION
The Rays did not trade David Price, and instead will pay him $14 million to pitch, the most they’ve ever paid anyone for a single season of baseball. They also re-signed James Loney for $21 million over three years, which was somewhat surprising, but reflects their love for the steady, defense-first, affable first baseman.

It appears the Rays will carry the largest payroll in their history, one GM Andrew Friedman already has called “unaffordable” and “not … sustainable,” and they haven’t written their first check on it yet. Good thing Evan Longoria is so inexpensive.

[Related: No. 8 Nationals: Are they ready to win the NL East? ]

It’s a big boy league, and nobody manages it better than the Rays do. They still could trade Price, who is two seasons from free agency, but they believe in this team – as they should – and the fans love the big lefty, and perhaps they’d be better served delaying any decisions on Price until mid-summer. He is, after all, one year removed from his Cy Young season, and the undisputed leader of a young staff whose members follow him around like ducklings.

While the core remained, the Rays have some potentially meaningful turnover. Gone are Fernando Rodney, Roberto Hernandez, Kelly Johnson, Sam Fuld and Luke Scott, among others. In their places, Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, Brad Boxberger, Ryan Hanigan and Logan Forsythe.

A few holes remain, and the Rays didn’t score the bat they could use. But that might have only come in exchange for Price, and they weren’t ready to make that move yet.

REALITY CHECK
It’s still the AL East, in spite of rumors otherwise.

The Boston Red Sox won 97 games, then the World Series, out of a division everyone agreed had gone temporarily soft. The Rays won 92.

That so infuriated the New York Yankees, they’ve spent nearly a half-billion dollars to catch up, and they won 85.

None of them, last year at this time, was favored to win the division.

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Matt Moore should be the Rays' next great lefty. (USA TODAY Sports)

Which leaves the Rays right about where they always are. That is, untroubled by their own flaws, undaunted by the competition, unbothered by the empty seats around them, short one reasonable ballpark. And in the AL East’s upper division.

If they are to continue along as the little organization that could, it’ll again be with pitching and defense, because they raise pitchers and they find defenders and they live with whatever offense comes along.

In a division thick with starting pitching, the Rays’ rotation – green as it is in parts – should rival the rotations in Boston and New York. That is, assuming Price stays put. In that case, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and, likely, Jake Odorizzi will follow the ace. (Jeremy Hellickson had “loose bodies” removed from his elbow in late January and could miss the first two months of the regular season.) A year ago, Price missed about five starts because of forearm tightness, Cobb missed about 10 with a concussion, and Hellickson wasn’t very good. Improved health and greater precision should lead to better things for them in ’14, and Cobb, Moore and Archer are just getting started.

Of course, for the Rays, the struggle often comes in the batter’s box and they were just about at the AL average in runs last year. Longoria played in 160 games and, as often happens when he stays on the field, finished in the top 10 in AL MVP balloting. Wil Myers showed up early in the summer and produced well enough to be Rookie of the Year. And nobody, it turned out, complained about B.J. Upton not being around.

The Rays could be a little light at DH, and could be vulnerable to left-handed pitching, and could use a big right-handed bat. But, then, if they had all those things, they wouldn’t be the Rays.

SAVIOR
The temptation is to go with Myers here, because a full breakout season – big power numbers, a bit lighter on the strikeouts – could mean the difference between a division-winning Rays team and merely a competitive Rays team. But he’s 23, with 335 big-league at-bats, and a lot to learn, so that would be unfair.

So it falls to Evan Longoria, in his prime, their stud. Once in a while, a team has to hit its way to wins, and the Rays’ O starts with Longo. The Red Sox led the game in runs last season, and will hit again. The Yankees bought up Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran (along with Masahiro Tanaka), so their ordinary offense will improve. And that means Longoria had better get his at-bats, because it all goes so much better for the Rays when he does.

HAIKU
They play in a dump,
Before hardly any fans,
And win, the Ray way

Previous teams
No. 8 Nationals
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No. 11 Yankees
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