Despite having terrible attendance at the worst stadium in the majors, Tropicana Field, and a low payroll, the Rays remain annual contenders in the behemoth that is the AL East because of smart drafting and trades. This year's team could be the best yet after the club actually spent some money in the offseason.
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INF Kelly Johnson, DH Luke Scott, OF Sam Fuld, DH Delmon Young, RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Fernando Rodney, LHP Alex Torres, RHP Jamey Wright, LHP Wesley Wright, RHP Jeff Niemann
C Ryan Hanigan, INF Logan Forsythe, RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, RHP Brad Boxberger
Tampa Bay had its sixth straight winning season in 2013, finishing 92-71 (76-78-9 O/U at sportsbooks) and second in the AL East, 5.5 games behind the Red Sox. The Rays made the playoffs for the fourth time in franchise history, beating what had been a red-hot Indians team in Cleveland in the wild-card game before losing in four games in the ALDS to Boston.
The Rays largely won with pitching last year as their 3.74 overall ERA was fifth in the American League and the starters' ERA of 3.81 was third, behind fellow playoff teams Detroit and Oakland. That strong rotation will return intact as the Rays opted not to trade ace David Price this offseason even though he takes up nearly 20 percent of the team's payroll with his $14 million salary. Should the Rays not be in contention by the July trade deadline, it would be an upset if he's not traded. He absolutely will be before the 2015 season as Price will be a free agent after that year and Tampa Bay can't afford him.
Following Price (10-8, 3.33) in the rotation will be Alex Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA), Matt Moore (17-4, 3.29) and Chris Archer (9-7, 3.22). Jeremy Hellickson will be the No. 5 guy, but he's out until May after recently undergoing elbow surgery. Tampa Bay somewhat surprisingly gave free-agent closer Grant Balfour a two-year, $12 million deal. He had 38 saves in 41 chances in 2013 with Oakland. He played in Tampa Bay from 2007-10. He replaces Rodney, with Heath Bell also brought in as a set-up man. Perhaps no manager makes better use of his bullpen than the Rays' Joe Maddon.
The projected starting lineup also looks mostly the same except at catcher where Hanigan, who was acquired in a three-way deal from the Reds, will get the bulk of time behind the plate with Jose Molina his backup (Tampa has a third catcher in Jose Lobaton, who is likely to be traded). The Rays also went out of character by re-signing first baseman James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal. He was essentially brought in off the scrap heap last season and played 158 games, hitting .299 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs. Outfielder David DeJesus also was re-signed. The lineup should be better simply with Wil Myers in it the full season. He was a mid-June call-up and hit .293 with 13 homers and 53 RBIs in winning AL Rookie of the Year honors. But by far the key to the lineup is keeping third baseman Evan Longoria healthy. That has been a chore in the past but Longoria played in 160 games in 2013 and hit 32 home runs. He's +6000 for sports bettors to lead the major leagues in homers this season and is really the Rays' only significant power threat.
The Rays are +1000 on most MLB odds boards to win the AL pennant and +2300 to win their first World Series.
Myers doesn't fall prey to the sophomore slump (Longoria sure didn't after winning the 2008 AL ROY), Longoria has his best season, and Price and Moore are the best 1-2 pitching punch in the AL, leading the Rays to their first division title since 2010. With its pitching staff, this club would be a tough matchup in any playoff series.
Worst-Case ScenarioLongoria falls back into his injury-prone ways, Loney's 2013 was a fluke, the club struggles offensively and is below .500 in mid-July, so fans stay away in droves and GM Andrew Friedman trades Price for prospects.