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Rays season preview: Spending binge boosts expectations

The SportsXchange

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays head into the season feeling pretty good about themselves.

After what amounted -- by their standards -- to an offseason spending spree that pushed their payroll to a franchise record $80 million, the Rays feel they can compete not only for a fifth postseason berth in seven seasons, but for return to the World Series.

The Rays re-signed first baseman James Loney and right fielder David DeJesus, added closer Grant Balfour and did not trade ace David Price, who will make a team-high $14 million.

"We don't need anything," manager Joe Maddon said.

Part of that is because of the pitching, a rotation that, even with Jeremy Hellickson out until June 1 following elbow surgery, ranks among the game's best. Price will be followed by Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and, at least temporarily, Jake Odorizzi.

Tampa Bay bolstered the back end of the bullpen by signing Balfour, acquiring Heath Bell and hanging on to Juan Carlos Oviedo, the reliever formerly known as Leo Nunez who spent last season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. With those three right-handers plus righty Joel Peralta and lefty Jake McGee, the Rays feel they have a five-deep crew to handle high-leverage moments.

The team brass is confident the lineup will be better. The same basic group returns, but the Rays will have left fielder Wil Myers, who came up in mid-June and still won the AL Rookie of the Year award, and Dejesus, acquired in an August trade, for a full season.

With a returning core led by third baseman Evan Longoria, and good spring signs that center fielder Desmond Jennings is emerging as the big-time force the Rays were expecting, Tampa Bay expects to have a deeper and more dynamic offense, continuing the high-contact approach it adopted last season and being more aggressive -- and successful -- on the bases.

Continuity is also a big reason the Rays will be strong defensively, returning all four members of an infield that made the fewest errors in the majors and had four Gold Glove finalists -- though no winners -- in Longoria, shortstop Yunel Escobar, second baseman Ben Zobrist and Loney.

Top team officials said they spent the extra money because they were confident the Rays had a chance to be not just good, but great. And after a relatively uneventful spring, in which there were no major injuries or issues, they felt even better about the team's chances.


--LHP Matt Moore escaped serious injury after being struck in the face by a line drive March 23. Moore received stitches for a cut lip but otherwise had no issues, having deflected the line drive with his bare hand. "We were very lucky," Moore said. "Extremely fortunate." Moore was in line to make his final spring start as scheduled March 28 and open the season in the rotation.

--RHP Jake Odorizzi won the fifth spot in the rotation, beating out LHP Cesar Ramos, who went back to his long-relief role, and LHP Erik Bedard, who was released to seek other opportunities. Odorizzi credited teammate Alex Cobb for showing him how to throw a better changeup, specifically the hybrid splitter-changeup Cobb uses well. "The help I got from Cobb was the big determiner," Odorizzi said. "Without him, I don't think I'd be in this situation right now."

--OF Brandon Guyer won the last spot on the bench, beating out non-roster INFs Wilson Betemit and Jayson Nix. Guyer, who came to the Rays in the January 2011 deal that sent RHP Matt Garza to the Cubs, put up solid numbers when healthy at Triple-A (.305 average, .865 on-base-plus-slugging percentage) but he has played in only 18 big-league games. "We haven't seen a lot here, but we really like what he'd done in Triple-A," manager Joe Maddon said. "A combination of skill and the metrics that are behind him indicate this guy should be a pretty good baseball player."

--RHP Mark Lowe was disappointed to miss out on a job in the Rays bullpen, but he thanked the team for granting his release ahead of his March 28 opt-out date so he could seek a big-league job elsewhere. "I knew there was a pretty packed house in the bullpen, and it's just the way it goes," said Lowe, who had a 0.87 spring ERA, allowing just one earned run in 10 1/3 innings. "I couldn't have done anything different, that's basically what they told me. That's all I came here to do is make the decision hard for them."

--RHP Alex Colome was going to start the season in the minor leagues, but the Rays felt good that he could play a major role if they needed another starting pitcher due to injury or inconsistency. However, that changed March 24 when Colome was suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball after testing positive for Boldenone, a performance-enhancing substance.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Welcome to the Club." -- RHP Alex Cobb's text message to LHP Matt Moore after finding out that Moore was hit in the head by a line drive, as Cobb was last June.



1. LHP David Price

2. RHP Alex Cobb

3. LHP Matt Moore

4. RHP Chris Archer

5. RHP Jake Odorizzi

Not trading Price turned out to be the Rays' biggest move of the offseason, one that kept the rotation among the game's elite despite the elbow surgery that will keep RHP Jeremy Hellickson out until around June 1. Price had a tremendous spring, the resulting confidence boost making him even more focused.

In Cobb, Moore and Archer, the Rays have three young pitchers who at times look to be potential future aces. Odorizzi won the fifth spot after an extended spring battle with veteran LHP Erik Bedard and LHP Cesar Ramos. He will be asked to make nine to 12 starts until Hellickson returns.


RHP Grant Balfour (closer)

RHP Heath Bell

RHP Joel Peralta

LHP Jake McGee

LHP Cesar Ramos

RHP Josh Lueke

RHP Brandon Gomes

The unexpected late-spring signing of Balfour -- who went back on the market after a deal with the Baltimore Orioles fell apart over a failed physical -- provided the Rays with the proven closer it looked as if they would be without following the free agent departure of RHP Fernando Rodney.

With Balfour at the back end, the Rays feel very good about the depth they have in a setup crew that includes Peralta (whom they will try to limit to 70 or so appearances), McGee and newcomers Bell and RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo, who likely will open the season on the disabled list after reporting late to camp due to visa issues.


1. LF David DeJesus

2. RF Wil Myers

3. 2B Ben Zobrist

4. 3B Evan Longoria

5. 1B James Loney

6. CF Desmond Jennings

7. DH Matt Joyce

8. C Ryan Hanigan

9. SS Yunel Escobar

There isn't much point in projecting the lineup since manager Joe Maddon changes it on almost a daily basis (averaging 133 for his eight seasons), but the Rays look to be deeper and more dynamic than in years past, primarily because they will have DeJesus and Myers for a full season. The returning core is pretty good, too, led by Longoria and Zobrist and a potentially emerging Jennings, who will bat sixth vs. right-handers but may lead off vs. lefties.

The Rays shifted last year to more of a contact-first approach, resulting in an increase in double plays but a reduction in strikeouts. They plan to continue that this season, as Maddon seeks as much balance as possible, planning to alternate right- and left-handers when possible. Against lefties, the Rays are likely to use INF/OFs Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe. There will be no set designated hitter, with a plan to rotate at-bats primarily among the outfielders, with Joyce likely to be first in line.


C Jose Molina

INF/OF Sean Rodriguez

INF/OF Logan Forsythe

OF Brandon Guyer

Versatility is a key to the Rays' formula, which is why Rodriguez -- who truly can play any position on the field -- is so valuable. Forsythe was acquired from the San Diego Padres with plans to be used similarly, though he can't play center field and is not comfortable yet at first base.

Guyer won the competition for the last spot, filling a role more as a traditional fifth outfielder, beating out UT Jayson Nix and switch-hitting INF Wilson Betemit, both of whom the Rays hope to keep in the organization. Molina will serve as the backup to Hanigan but is still expected to play a significant amount.


--RHP Jeremy Hellickson (arthroscopic elbow surgery in January 2014) started throwing March 12 and continued to report good progress. He is targeting a return to the major league rotation by June 1.

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