For the fourth time in the last six seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays have reached baseball's postseason, where they lost to the eventual 2014 champion Red Sox in the ALDS. In fact, those four playoff appearances since the 2008 season are tied for the most (with the Yankees) in the American League. Like their three playoff appearances prior to 2013, the Rays did a little bit of everything to get there: pitching, defense, and offense. They'll need to do more of the same to get back to October in 2014.
It was widely expected around Major League Baseball that the Rays would trade ace David Price this past winter. After all, Price has just two years left on his deal before becoming a free agent, and the type of strong talent they could get in return for him would be quite immense. Instead, Tampa held onto their left-hander in hopes of a championship run. Behind Price, in whatever order, are Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer in what should be a very formidable 1-4 in the rotation.
Because Jeremy Hellickson will be out until around mid-May following elbow surgery, the Rays held a competition for the fifth starter spot between Erik Bedard, Jake Odorizzi, and Cesar Ramos, in which Odorizzi won. As a result, Bedard opted out of his deal and will become a free agent, while Ramos will go back to the bullpen for Tampa. All told, Rays' starters sported a 3.81 ERA and 3.89 FIP last season, good for third and fourth in the AL, respectively.
On offense, the Rays put up an even 700 runs in 2013, good for just 9th in the AL, but their 108 wRC+ was tied for third-best in the league. Leading the offensive attack was Evan Longoria, who played a career-high 160 games, compiled 693 plate appearances, and hit .269/.343/.498 (133 wRC+). Last year's Rookie of the Year winner, Wil Myers, batted .293/.354/.478 through 88 games and 373 PA's, which totals out to a 131 wRC+. If those two hit like they did last season moving forward, Tampa should have a lethal 3-4 combo in the middle of their order for years to come.
Late-season pickup David DeJesus hit well after being acquired by the Rays and should bat atop Tampa's lineup against right-handed pitching. Rounding out the rest of the outfield are center fielder Desmond Jennings and corner outfielders Brandon Guyer and Matt Joyce, though the latter is expected to see plenty of time at DH this season.
Around the rest of the infield are shortstop Yunel Escobar, do-it-all Ben Zobrist, and first baseman James Loney. Loney, by the way, was signed to a three-year, $21 million contract this winter, which happens to be the richest deal the franchise has ever given to a free agent. Other infielders that are expected to see action are former Padre Logan Forsythe and Sean Rodriguez.
Finally, behind the plate are catchers Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina. Both can't hit all that much, though Hanigan was hurt last season and has a fairly decent offensive track record for a catcher. The Rays aren't necessarily employing these guys for their offense; their defense is what makes them who they are. Both Hanigan and Molina are very good defensively behind the plate, especially when it comes to pitch framing. Like the Yankees, the Rays appear to be ahead of the curve when it comes to catchers who frame pitches well.
After spending three years in Oakland, the Rays brought back reliever Grant Balfour for two years and $12MM. Mainly a setup man during his previous days with the Rays, Balfour will replace Fernando Rodney as the team's closer. The Rays also brought in Heath Bell from the Diamondbacks, even though he has looked pretty bad the last two seasons. It always seems like the Rays dig up a reliever who seems to be just about finished, yet they flourish when they come to Tampa (2011 Kyle Farnsworth and 2012 Fernando Rodney come to mind). Bell could be that guy for the Rays.
Also leading up to Balfour are Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, Juan Carlos Oviedo, and Ramos. Mark Lowe and Josh Lueke (gross) are battling for bullpen spots as well, with Brad Boxberger and Brandon Gomes also in the mix. In total, the Rays' bullpen last season pitched to a 3.59 ERA and 3.36 FIP, good for seventh and second in the AL, respectively.
Finally, on defense, the Rays should feature a very strong group. Along with the noted pitch framers Hanigan and Molina, Tampa should have a very strong infield defense, led by Longoria and Loney at the corners. The middle of the infield should be pretty good as well, with Escobar at short and Zobrist and second, though the latter is good wherever he plays. In the outfield, Jennings did see a decline in his numbers after being moved to center, though Myers and DeJesus are solid defenders at the corners. Last season as a team, the Rays committed the second-fewest errors in the AL with 59. In terms of advanced defensive metrics, Tampa finished fourth in the AL with a 4.9 UZR/150 and seventh with an 8 DRS.
The Rays will, once again, be towards the very bottom in team payroll throughout the game. Despite this, the team should be right in the middle of the hunt for the AL East crown, given its strong pitching depth, youth on offense, and manager Joe Maddon calling the shots in the dugout. I currently have the Rays finishing second in the division, but a jump to first, or a drop to third (or even fourth) aren't totally out of the question, either. The AL East should be a dogfight again, and the Rays figure to be right in the middle of it in 2014.