2014 Team Preview: The Tampa Bay Rays have a low payroll and high playoff hopes

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays' Opening Day payroll projects to be about 25% of what the New York Yankees will spend, but the Rays may be the team to beat in the AL East.

Before 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays had just one 70-win season in their franchise history. After dropping the "Devil" from their team name before the '08 season, they shocked the baseball world with a 97 win season and run to the World Series, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. Since then, they have not finished below third place in the division and have won at least 90 games in all but one season. Despite budgetary constraints, the Rays have fielded a competitive roster for the better part of a decade, and do not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. This year's roster is largely the same cast of characters that won an AL Wild Card spot last season, but a full year of Wil Myers and a (hopefully) healthier rotation should be enough for the Rays to remain in the hunt in 2014.

Manager: Joe Maddon (9th year)

2013 record: 92-71, 2nd in AL East

SB Nation blog: DRaysBay

Other Rays coverage: Tampa Bay TimesMaxx Tissenbaum's blog

First series vs. Tigers: July 3-6 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

Despite hitting a robust .293/.354/.478 in 373 plate appearances as a 22 year old rookie, Wil Myers was little help to a Rays offense that ranked ninth in the American League with 700 runs scored in 2013 -- 695 if you exclude their Game 163 against the Texas Rangers. Prior to Myers' call-up, the Rays scored 333 runs in 69 games, or 47.6% of their runs in 42.3% of their games. Their difficulty in scoring runs came from the first and third spots in the lineup, where the Rays sported on-base percentages of .323 and .316, respectively. Center fielder Desmond Jennings led off 90 times, but his .252/.332/.410 line in those games was hardly the problem. As long as there are no snakes on the basepaths, he should continue to improve.

Behind the plate, Ryan Hanigan will join Jose Molina to form one of the best defensive catching duos in baseball. Hanigan, who arrived from the Cincinnati Reds this offseason, hit just .198/.306/.261 in 260 plate appearances. As awful as this is, it is not far behind the .233/.290/.304 line the Rays got from Molina in 2013. Tampa has taken the "defense first" ideal to an extreme, and seems to be on the forefront of the pitch framing revolution. Hanigan has been lauded as one of the better pitch framers around baseball, while Molina is probably the reason people track it in the first place.

Unlike other areas on this roster, the Rays don't need to worry about choosing between offense and defense at their corner infield spots. Third baseman Evan Longoria will likely return to his perennial All-Star throne now that Miguel Cabrera is no longer stealing his position's votes. Longo put up a career-worst .842 OPS in 2013, but played in a career high 160 games and had 74 extra base hits in 693 plate appearances. At first base, James Loney and his new three year contract extension will probably hit a speed bump. His bounce-back 2013 season was fueled by a ridiculous 29.8% line drive rate, over 5% higher than his previous career best. Even if he regresses slightly, he is an above average defender who stays healthy, leaving one fewer position for Joe Maddon to worry about when he fills out his lineup card.

Up the middle, expect Ben Zobrist to get the majority of starts at second base again in 2014. Zobrist, a modern day version of Tony Phillips (if one exists), has played every position except catcher since 2010 while putting up a .789 career OPS. Though his offensive numbers took a hit in 2013, his versatility and lack of platoon splits make him an indispensable part of the lineup. He has over 600 plate appearances in each of the past four seasons, and narrowly missed that mark with 599 in 2009. Shortstop Yunel Escobar was a question mark before the 2013 season, but had a spectacular year for the Rays, amassing 3.9 fWAR in 153 games. His glove made up a large chunk of that production, but his 27 doubles and .332 on-base percentage helped fuel a league average season (according to wRC+) at the plate.

In order to appropriately preview a roster managed by Joe Maddon, we need to talk about everyone, though his usual quirky lineup changes were subdued last season. Five Rays had at least 575 plate appearances, the most on a Maddon-led roster since 2010. Players on the 2014 roster projected to be in part-time roles are David DeJesus, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, and Logan Forsythe. Maddon will use DeJesus and Joyce in strict platoon roles, as both posted a sub-.500 OPS against left-handed pitching last season. Rodriguez and Forsythe will play all around the diamond, but playing time will depend on how well they hit. Rodriguez hit a solid .246/.320/.385 in 222 plate appearances last season, while Forsythe's .613 OPS was a disappointment after hitting .273/.343/.390 in 2012.

Rotation

Joe Maddon made the easiest decision of his year earlier this week, naming left-hander David Price the Opening Day starter. Price struggled out of the gate in 2013, allowing a 5.24 ERA and .811 OPS in his first nine starts. After spending two months on the disabled list with a triceps injury, Price laid waste to the American League down the stretch with a 2.53 ERA and 7.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 131 2/3 innings. Joining Price at the top of the rotation is Matt Moore, who went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA in 150 1/3 innings last year. His peripherals were not as impressive -- I called his numbers "smoke and mirrors" last year before the Tigers lit him up for six runs in two innings -- but he still finished with a 3.95 FIP. He will need to get his walk rate under control in order to repeat his 2013 numbers this season.

With right-hander Jeremy Hellickson on the shelf for a couple months after offseason elbow surgery -- the team is now projecting a June 1st call-up -- there is a battle brewing for the fifth starter spot. Jake Odorizzi, Cesar Ramos, and Erik Bedard are the three remaining candidates after Nate Karns was optioned on Thursday. Odorizzi, a soon-to-be 24 year old right-hander, has six career starts under his belt. He was acquired by the Rays in the Wil Myers deal last offseason. Ramos has logged 141 innings with the Rays in the past three years, but has only made one start. One thing working against Ramos' chances is the lack of left-handed options behind Jake McGee in the bullpen. Bedard accumulated 1.4 fWAR in 151 innings for the Houston Astros last season, but has had an unimpressive spring thus far.

Despite the uncertainty in the fifth starter slot, the Rays sport one of the best four-man rotations in baseball. Right-hander Alex Cobb was dominant for stretches in 2013, allowing a 2.73 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 143 1/3 innings. He churned out ground balls at a 55.8% clip, which ranked fourth in the American League among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. Cobb also struck out 134 batters, falling just shy of fanning a batter per inning. Fellow righty Chris Archer did not tally the strikeout numbers some expected during his rookie season, but he found a way to harness his command and hold teams to a 3.22 ERA in 128 2/3 innings. Archer has a paltry 1.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 769 2/3 minor league innings, but his decreased walk rate -- he essentially halved it last season -- led to a very effective rookie campaign.

The Rays lost a few valuable pieces from last season's bullpen during the winter, but the layer of uncertainty seems to be a yearly occurrence for Joe Maddon. Fernando Rodney, Alex Torres, and Jamey Wright have all moved on, leaving Maddon with the task of replacing almost 200 innings of sub-3.00 ERA production, most of which came from Torres' 1.71 ERA in 58 innings. Grant Balfour will take Rodney's place as the team's closer after signing a two year deal this January. Balfour spent three years in Tampa before his reign in Oakland. Heath Bell, Jake McGee, Josh Lueke, and Juan Carlos Oviedo will slot in behind Balfour in some order.

Tampa Bay Haterade

One of the newer fads I have noticed across the baseball is to wonder whether Andrew Friedman is really the shrewd genius he has appeared to be over the past several seasons. Some have questioned whether Friedman is simply riding the coat tails of the slew of high draft picks the team had when they were awful in the early 2000s. This has not made an impact at the major league roster quite yet, but the Rays' depleted farm system is the sticking point for Friedman's detractors.

On the big league club, only David Price and Evan Longoria remain from the 10-year streak of top-10 draft picks, while 2008 top overall selection Tim Beckham toils around the minor leagues. Since then, the Rays have had 17 (!) first- or supplemental-round picks, two of which appear on Baseball Prospectus' top 10 organizational rankings. It is still too early to tell whether Friedman is able to build a club without top-end first round talent -- Price and Longoria are major reasons why the Rays are contenders -- and the criticism seems quite harsh for a GM who has turned coal into diamonds at seemingly every turn during his tenure.

Player to watch: Matt Moore

Moore's high walk rate led to an elevated FIP in 2013, but he has the raw stuff to be a front-end starter. Much was made of the drop in his fastball velocity last season, but he returned to an old workout regimen during the offseason to better prepare him for the season ahead. Despite missing all of August with elbow inflammation, Moore was a big reason why the Rays were able to replace James Shields' production without missing a beat. He has shown flashes of command -- he struck out 32 batters to just eight walks last July -- but a wild month after his DL stint and a poor playoff showing indicate that he still has work to do. The Matt Moore that shows up in 2014 will go a long way in determining how the Rays fare this season.

Outlook

The Rays have been an offensively-challenged club for most of their history, and 2014 will probably be no exception. Evan Longoria and Wil Myers look primed to do some damage, but overall this team is going to rely on the pitching and defense that has become its staple over the last six years. They may not survive another season without a 200-inning starter, but they have the talent and depth to compete with the big guns of the AL East despite lacking the offensive firepower so prevalent throughout the rest of the division.

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