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Tampa Bay Rays 2014 spring training preview: Infielders, catchers and more

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The Tampa Bay Rays opened their 17th spring training on Friday, February 14 with their first official workout coming on Saturday, February 15 when pitchers and catchers took to the various fields at Charlotte Sports Park.

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With spring training now in full swing, 63 of the 64 invited players have reported. The lone missing player is reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo who is still dealing with visa issues. The entire roster consists of 33 pitchers, 7 catchers, 12 infielders and 12 outfielders.

From this group of 64, 21 players have been acquired via trades by Executive VP of Operations Andrew Friedman and 24 players are non-roster invitees. Additionally, three players in the group have won the Rookie of the Year award (Evan Longoria, Jeremy Hellickson and Wil Myers), making the Rays the only team in the majors to have this distinction.

All nine players who started defensively for the Rays in their final game of the 2013 post-season are back in camp. That’s the first time that has been the case since spring training 2002.

This includes all four of the infield starters from Opening Day 2013: James Loney, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Evan Longoria. On only two other occasions has the Rays Opening Day starting infield from one season been in training camp the next: 1998-99 and 2008-09.

Part two of the pre-season preview leads us to the Rays stellar infielders, who were all Rawlings Gold Glove Finalists for the 2013 season, the catchers and the team's infield depth.

The Infielders

Undoubtedly, this infield was another key asset to the team’s success in 2013, which led to the unexpected three-year, $21 million deal given to James Loney.

“He knows how much he's wanted here,” manager Joe Maddon said regarding Loney.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who addressed the local media during the first week of camp was asked about the payroll for the upcoming season, specifically the Loney signing and responded:

“I think we were fortunate that we were able to get James (Loney) back to play first base. I wouldn't say that was promising at the end of the year. We just don't necessarily go sign a guy for that kind of money just to spend it.”

The infield of Loney, Zobrist, Escobar and Longoria were the best in the majors in 2013 as they committed a major-league low 36 errors. Escobar led all major-league shortstops with a .989 fielding percentage. Zobrist led all AL second baseman with a .993 fielding percentage.

Along with stellar defense, the group but up decent offensive numbers as well. Going around the diamond, James Loney came into camp last spring trying to re-establish his value on a one-year, $2 million deal and came through big time.

He contributed not so much with the long ball, hitting just 13, but provided 75 RBIs, along with a .299 average, .348 OBP and a .430 slugging percentage. His 33 doubles were third on team only behind Zobrist and Longoria.

Despite only hitting 12 homers on the season, Ben Zobrist added 36 doubles (second only to Longoria), 11 stolen bases, 71 RBIs along with a .275 batting average, .354 OBP and a slugging percentage of .402.

Yunel Escobar was one of Andrew Friedman's first acquisitions via a trade following the 2012 season, as he was acquired on Day 2 of the Winter Meetings from the Miami Marlins.

"Yunel is a quality Major League shortstop," said Friedman. "He's a good defender. Has occasional pop. We feel like he really helps solidify our infield defense, which should be a real strength."

Friedman was right on, as he hit .256 with nine homers and 56 RBI and made the decision a very easy one for the team to exercise Escobar's $5 million option for the 2014 season.

Rounding out the diamond is Evan Longoria, the face of the franchise enjoyed one of his most satisfying seasons in 2013 by staying healthy and playing in a career best 160 games.

Longoria hit .269 with 32 homers and 88 RBI and as he enters this season, Longoria is in striking distance of a number of franchise records.

His 162 home runs are one shy of Carlos Pena's team record, his 544 RBI are just 48 shy of Carl Crawford's mark (592), his 200 doubles are 15 shy of Crawford’s team record and his 373 extra-base hits are 51 shy of Crawford (424).

The Catchers

Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina will backstop the Rays this season. Acquired via a three-team trade, Hanigan arrives not because of his offense, but his defense. With that being a major factor, the Rays immediately extended him through 2016, with an option for 2017

Hanigan has thrown out 40% of would-be base thieves in his career and led the league in caught-stealing percentage in each of the last two seasons. He also excels at fielding, blocking wild pitches and preventing passed balls, giving him the 4th highest Total Zone rating among active catchers.

Hanigan will move into the starters’ role, with Jose Molina returning to a familiar role as a backup. Re-signing Molina was important for the Rays because of the work he does with the pitching staff.

Reducing Molina's workload will be an asset because of where he is in his career and with that the Rays could see better production and a much sharper player behind the dish.

“Players don't like to play less, but guys like J-Mo are so valuable and what they do are so underrated by a lot of folks but not by us,” said manager Joe Maddon.

Infield Depth

Versatility is the name of the game for and the Rays want the bench players to cover as many positions as possible. They also wanted to have versatile players at Triple-A Durham, who can come up to the big club and fill a need in case of an emergency.

The additions of Logan Forsythe and Jayson Nix, along with the return of Sean Rodriguez give the team just that.

Rodriguez can play all four infield and all three outfield positions, making him the team's super utility player. Last season he batted .246/.320/.385 with five homers in 96 games.

It's not everyday that the Rays trade a pitcher, but they did that by giving up Alex Torres for Forsythe. Friedman has coveted Forsythe for sometime as he can play second base, shortstop, third base and the corner outfield spots.

Nix offers a great deal of versatility in the field, an asset that attracted the Rays. He has experience at second base, shortstop, third base, left field and right field in parts of six major league seasons split between the Rockies, White Sox, Indians, Jays and Yankees.

Nix was signed to a minor league deal which allows him to look for a job elsewhere if he isn't on Rays opening day roster and it also allows him to opt out of the contract on June 1 even if he is on the Rays' major league roster.

The Rays also signed veteran Wilson Betemit, who can play all four infield positions, to a minor league deal.

In addition, the Rays depth continues at Triple-A Durham where shortstop Hak-Ju Lee is expected to return full time after missing the majority of 2013 with a knee injury.

Others that could see time at the major league level at some point during the season are Durham infielders Vince Belnome and Cole Figueroa.

Infielder Tim Beckham, who played in a limited role when called up last September, won't be available until mid-season at best after undergoing surgery to repair his torn ACL of his right knee.

For more info: Tampa Bay Rays

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