The Tampa Bay Rays opened their 17th spring training and their sixth at the Charlotte Sports Park on Friday, February 14, when 40 pitchers and catchers reported for physicals and testing, but the first full workout under the watchful eye of manager Joe Maddon and his staff took place at 10 a.m. sharp on Saturday, February 15.
The group expands to 64, including 24-non-roster invitees on Thursday, February 20 when the positional players join-in for the first full-squad workout. In this group are three Rookie of the Year award winners (the Rays are the majors only team to have this distinction) and 21 players that have been acquired via trades by Executive VP of Operations Andrew Friedman.
Additionally, all nine players who started defensively in the Rays final game of the 2013 post-season return, the last time that occurred was spring training 2002.
As well, this includes all four Rawlings Gold Glove Finalists 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.
As in previous years, Friedman has found ways to improve the roster from one year to the next and this off-season has been no different other than the team's payroll increasing to a franchise record $80 million.
The additional monies landed multi-year deals to James Loney (re-signing), Grant Balfour (free agency), Ryan Hanigan (trade) and the $14 million to David Price (avoided arbitration). It also included the one-deals to avoid arbitration with seven others.
High expectations have been bestowed to the team that many feel is better than the 2008 team that went to the World Series, better than last year's team which had more than nine lives with their dramatical run into the post-season.
The reasons are many that have made the Rays contenders since 2008. From the rotation, to the bullpen, including the versatility of the bench that is so well exhibited headline the list. There is a core already assembled, there's familiarity, continuity and then there is David Price.
A leader both on and off the field, Price is essential to the Rays success – on and off the field. Manager Joe Maddon summed it up best in his pre-season, spring conference with the media on Friday afternoon.
“When it’s decided that he’s going to come back, as a manager of the team, you feel pretty darn good about that. He’s so important to what we do on the field, he’s wonderful within the clubhouse and I love what he does when he’s not playing. He’s a wonderful young man and I think he’s going to keep getting better.”
To begin the pre-season preview I'll start with one of the Rays key assets to their success – their pitching. Drafting pitchers has always been one of the Rays most dominate areas and VP of Operations Andrew Friedman has said many times that “there is never enough pitching.”
How true that has become and it was clearly evident in 2013 when Price, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore all spent time on the disabled list along with Jeremy Hellickson who pitched himself out of the rotation.
Up came Chris Archer on June 1 from Triple-A Durham where he initially replaced Price, but would remain in the rotation for the rest of the season. Posting a 9-7 record and a 3.22 ERA, along with 101 strikeouts in 128 2/3 innings pitched. Archer would finish third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Enny Romero would all make their Rays debut toeing the rubber during the 2013 campaign.
Meanwhile, the off-season daily rumors surrounded David Price and even Price himself was prepared for a trade. Fortunately for Price, the fans and more importantly for the Rays, Price wasn't traded and the Rays anted up by avoiding arbitration when they signed him to a $14 million contract.
Price went 10-8 with a 3.33 ERA in 27 starts last year, despite spending 44 games on the disabled list with a left triceps strain. He led the AL with a 5.59 strikeout-to-walk ratio and ranked fourth all-time among AL left-handers in the category. Prior to going on the disabled list, Price went 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA. He rebounded upon his return going 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA.
The 2014 expected rotation of Price, Moore, Cobb, Archer and Jeremy Hellickson has already taken a hit, as Hellickson will miss the first six to eight weeks of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow on January 28.
The organizations minor league pitching depth is plentiful; unfortunately many of the arms might not be ready for prime time on a full-time, albeit short-term stay. With that Friedman signed veteran Erik Bedard to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
Bedard, a 10-year veteran will compete for the fifth spot in the rotation according to Friedman and also for a spot out of the bullpen as the long man. “He’ll come in and compete for the fifth starter job. I don’t know how that will transpire, but he’s also a candidate to pitch out of the pen.”
Also competing for the fifth spot will be Jake Odorizzi and Colome. Odorizzi was the Rays' highest-ranked prospect at No. 56 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list. In his first year with the organization, he split time between Triple-A Durham and the Rays.
He served five stints with the Rays, finishing at 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA in seven appearances, four of which were starts. With Durham he posted a 9-6 mark with a 3.33 ERA in 22 starts.
“A lot of times you get to that point, you lose one of your five starters in January, for most people that would be panic mode,” Maddon said. “That's a credit to Andrew (Friedman) and the guys upstairs. They constantly stay on top and try to stay ahead for moments like this.”
Despite missing more than a month on the disable list with elbow soreness, Matt Moore chased Roberto Hernandez out of the rotation upon his activation in September. Moore completed his second full season going 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA and earned a spot on the AL All-Star team.
Alex Cobb defied all odds and returned to the mound following his absence of 50 games following the horrific injury on June 15 when he was struck by a line drive. Cobb ended the 2013 regular season with an 11-3 record, a 2.76 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and 134 strikeouts in 143 1/3 innings. (Check out on the video on Cobb's off-season venture)
The bullpen again looks to be strong, possibly stronger than last season. Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos are joined by newcomers Grant Balfour, Juan Carlos Oviedo and Heath Bell. Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, Erik Bedard and Brad Boxberger are the candidates that will compete for the final spot.
A healthy Oviedo can be another late-inning option out of the bullpen. From 2009-11 with the Marlins, Oviedo (known as Leo Nunez) saved 92 games, which included 36 in 2011.
Bell, 36, has recorded 168 career saves over 10 Major League seasons with the Mets, Padres, Marlins and D-backs. His 166 saves over the past five seasons rank third in the majors after Jonathan Papelbon (173) and Mariano Rivera (170).
"Heath Bell is also a guy that we've liked for quite a while," Friedman said. "He's still got really good stuff. He missed a lot of bats this year, commanded the zone better than in years past, just a lot of good indicators that we feel can put him in a position to come here and have a lot of success."
Balfour returns to the Rays as the teams closer after spending the past three seasons in Oakland, where he was an AL All-Star last season. In 2013, he was 1-3 with a 2.59 ERA and 38 saves. In the past two seasons, he was 62-for-67 in save opportunities with the A's.
(Jeremy Hellickson) Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome or Eric Bedard
Grant Balfour – Closer
Juan Carlos Oviedo
Coming next will I’ll preview the infield and catchers.
For more info: Tampa Bay Rays
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