With pleasant Florida temperatures expected, the Tampa Bay Rays commence baseball's exhibition season with a spring training contest against the Baltimore Orioles at Charlotte Sports Park on Friday, February 28, at 1:05 p.m.
It has been business as usual for this perennial contender, since the Rays opened camp in Port Charlotte two weeks ago. Manager Joe Maddon annually balances enabling his veterans to prepare gradually for the lengthy season with the more pressing need to give the club's many younger players a closer look during spring.
Tampa Bay has reached the playoffs in four of the past six seasons, including claiming last's year American League wildcard. With an unusually high payroll nearing $80 million, many believe this year's version of the Rays will be as talented of a squad as their passionate fan-base has ever witnessed.
Though pitcher Jeremy Hellickson will be sidelined into the early part of the 2014 campaign due to elbow surgery, back tightness in second baseman Ben Zobrist has been the only injury of note during spring training.
Additionally, the reporting of relief pitchers Juan Sandoval and Juan Carlos Oviedo was delayed due to visa problems in their native Dominican Republic. Both hurlers are competing for spots in a crowded bullpen and the absence from camp likely did not help their cause.
Training in nearby Sarasota, the Orioles are an A.L. East opponent of the Rays, and earned 85 victories in 2013. After surprisingly reaching the playoffs in 2012 under veteran manager Buck Showalter, the long-suffering club has impressively matured behind sluggers, such as first baseman Chris Davis, catcher Matt Wieters, and outfielder Adam Jones. In fact, the left-handed hitting Davis crushed 53 home runs last year, which topped all of baseball.
Baltimore returns the majority of its 2013 team, but surprisingly added free agent pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez with a 4-year, $50 million deal earlier in February.
For the inaugural game of spring training, the Rays will start 34-year-old pitcher Erik Bedard, who last pitched for the Houston Astros. The free agent signee previously threw for the Orioles from 2002 to 2007 and hopes to earn the fifth spot in Maddon's rotation, with Hellickson out of commission.
Being his first start of the spring, Bedard will likely only see one or two innings worth of action. Similarly, though Maddon will use a starting line-up composed largely of regular players -- with the exception of the injured Zobrist -- most hitters should be expected to compete for only a partial game.
After winning a career-high 16 games in 2013, 25-year-old Chris Tillman will start for the O's.
With 14 total games scheduled at Charlotte Sports Park during the next month, here is the starting line-up for the Tampa Bay Rays for the opening contest of spring training against Baltimore on February 28, 2014.
David DeJesus, LF
Yunel Escobar, SS
James Loney, 1B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Matt Joyce, DH
Wil Myers, RF
Desmond Jennings, CF
Jose Molina, C
Logan Forsythe, 2B
Erik Bedard, SP
Jeffrey Briscoe is the Fort Myers Outdoor Recreation Examiner and covers a diversity of fun topics in Southwest Florida. For a closer look at Tampa Bay Rays spring training, be sure to check out the "Photo Gallery" above.