Tampa Bay Rays Preview

The Tampa Bay Rays have evolved into one of baseball’s model small-budget franchises. The Rays have enjoyed six straight winning seasons and in that same timeframe made the postseason four times and won the 2008 American League pennant. The one thing they have yet to do is win the World Series. Is this the year? Our Notebook Nine points of emphasis will set the tone for 2014 in Tampa Bay…

*The smart money likes Tampa Bay as we come into the new season. Their betting odds to win the World Series are 15-1, which is on a par with the 2013 champion Red Sox. The Rays Over/Under number on the win futures is 88.5, a tick above the Sox. If you want to just take Tampa to win the American League the odds are 8-1. This isn’t a team that can get away with sliding under anyone’s radar, even if they can’t actually get real live fans to come to the games.

*It’s been about pitching in Tampa Bay and will continue to be so this year. Matt Moore stepped up and became the big-time starter everyone knew he had the talent to be, winning 17 games. Alex Cobb and Chris Archer each had ERAs in the lows 3s (a difficult thing to do against a steady diet of Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles). And there’s a new prospect on the rise—Jake Odorizzi, one of the four players Tampa acquired when they shipped James Shields to Kansas City prior to last year. Odorizzi will get his chance early in the year.

*Jeremy Hellickson is the X-factor in this situation. The 26-year-old righthander seemed to be coming into his own after good years in 2011 and 2012. Then he struggled to a 5.17 ERA last year. It looks like he wasn’t right physically, and offseason elbow surgery was the result. Hellickson is projected back for mid-May (the reason Odorizzi will likely get an opportunity early) and his return to effectiveness is vital if Tampa Bay is going to play at the World Series-caliber level it takes to survive in the AL East.

*If Hellickson is an X-factor, then David Price is the Y or Z factor or something else completely off the charts. The lefty who won the 2012 AL Cy Young Award is the undisputed ace of this staff and the best pitcher in the American League outside the city of Detroit. Price is also in the last year of his contract, due to get big money and on a team that’s notorious for two things—never paying big money and doing a superlative job identifying prospects to acquire from other teams. All of which is why Price trade talks are already rumored and if Tampa Bay doesn’t play well early, this could be the ultimate summer trade sweepstakes.

*Manager Joe Maddon will work with a revamped bullpen, where more than just the names will change. Fernando Rodney struggled in the closer’s role as was allowed to walk via free agency. Rather than turn the bullpen over to some no-name young kids, the Rays have brought in a couple veterans. Grant Balfour, who spent three years with this team (2008-10) is back after closing games in Oakland the past three seasons. Heath Bell, after subpar years with Miami and Arizona the past two years, is looking for redemption Tampa Bay. A Balfour-Bell combo could be the Killer B’s or it could be a Killer Blowup (terrible humor I know, but its true).

*Evan Longoria continues to be the focal point of an offense that doesn’t have depth. Longoria, in what for him, was a relatively off year, hit 32 home runs and slugged .498. I would expect his .343 OBP will increase and you have to think this guy is going to win himself an MVP award one of those years. At least if Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera decides to return to the human race and make the honor open to mere mortals again.

*Longoria is going to need help though, and it that regard Tampa has to love what they saw from Wil Myers in little more than half a season last year. The rightfielder who was the centerpiece acquisition in the Shields trade, posted a stat line of .354 on-base percentage/.478 slugging and popped 13 home runs. He can join with Longoria to finally give this team a 1-2 punch.

*The ultimate success of the offense hinges around the question marks. Can second baseman Ben Zobrist bounce back from an off year in 2013 and return to being one of the AL’s most productive middle infielders? James Loney posted a .348/.430 stat line—not great for a first baseman, but much better than previous years. Was coming to Tampa in 2013 what revitalized him or was that a fluke? Desmond Jennings made improvement last year with a .334 OBP. Can the speedy centerfielder kick that up 15-20 points and set the table for Longoria/Myers? And can Matt Joyce, the DH whose .419 slugging percentage is way too mediocre, show he can produce consistently while getting full-time at-bats?

*Ultimately, the biggest question mark is this—will the front office ever go all-in to win a World Series? Tampa Bay will never be able to spend big. But other small market teams have taken their shots. Do they keep Price even if means losing him in free agency in the offseason? Do they take on a contract at the trade deadline rather than shedding? You can’t criticize the Rays’ front office—they’re successfully swimming with the sharks with only a fraction of the resources. But it’s the question that has to be answered before you pick them to win the whole thing.

I’m going to pick Tampa Bay to go Under its 88.5 win prop number. I think the latter question has been answered decisively over the years, and the Rays would prefer to roll over consistent winning teams, rather than take a chance on winning it all. And that approach is perfectly defensible. But if Price does get moved, than 89-90 wins is a pipe dream for this season, given the caliber of the AL East.

And even if Price stays, I don’t think the offense is deep enough to win any more than 90 games, which doesn’t provide a lot of maneuvering room on the Over side of that number.