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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Active winter raises Rays' expectations as camp nears

ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Moore stayed in contact with the other members of the Tampa Bay Rays' rotation throughout the winter by texting, which allowed the pitchers to share thoughts on the team's offseason moves.

And ... ?

“We're excited,” Moore said. “That's a word I've used a bunch already.”

The excitement begins with David Price, who wasn't traded as management went against the grain and gave the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner the richest one-year deal ($14 million) in team history.

It continued when first baseman James Loney was re-signed to a three-year deal, Ryan Hanigan was brought in on a three-year contract to beef up the catching, and Heath Bell was acquired to add depth to the back of the bullpen.

Grant Balfour, who helped pitch the Rays to the 2008 World Series, returned to the organization fresh off an All-Star season with Oakland to assume the closer duties.

Those moves in the wake of a 92-win season, in which the Rays won the American League wild card and returned to the division series, are fanning the flames of excitement as spring training nears.

Some believe this is the best team the Rays have brought to spring training, which begins Friday when pitchers and catchers report to Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.

“I completely agree with that statement,” right-hander Alex Cobb said.

Of course, Cobb has a vested interest in the topic since he is one of the starting pitchers counted on to help the Rays reach the postseason.

“We definitely have a chance to be pretty good,” outfielder Matt Joyce said.

When asked for his expectations this season, Joyce said, “I see a lot. (Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman) and those guys are at it again. They know what they're doing, they've done a great job in the last couple of years putting together teams that can be successful, and they did it again this offseason.

“They're spending a little bit more money brining guys back, like Price. ... Obviously we're so excited having him back. He's a huge part of the team. He's a huge boost to the clubhouse. But overall, bringing guys like Loney back, Balfour, those are huge additions to the team.”

Rays manager Joe Maddon is not about to compare this team with any of the previous six since every team beginning in 2008 went to camp with a chance to be pretty good.

“People trying to draw comparisons, which one is better? It's great. I love it,” Maddon said. “I believe it's one of our best groups, no question, but I don't know if it's our best group.”

The answer will unfold once the regular season begins March 31. For now, it is an interesting debate.

The 2009 club, fresh off the organization's first World Series appearance, was believed to be one that could win a World Series title. Price did not make the Opening Day roster, and Troy Percival was trying to make one last gallant run at being a closer. The Rays finished third that season.

The 2010 team had six All-Stars in the Opening Day lineup: left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Peña, right fielder Ben Zobrist, shortstop Jason Bartlett, third baseman Evan Longoria and catcher Dioner Navarro. B.J. Upton was in center field. Pat Burrell was the designated hitter, though his days with the team were numbered. Kelly Shoppach was brought in to share the catching duties with Navarro.

James Shields, the Opening Day starter, anchored a rotation that included David Price, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis.

Rafael Soriano was the closer. The bullpen included Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier and Andy Sonnanstine, who left the rotation to replace the injured J.P. Howell. Joaquin Benoit, who would finish with a 1.34 ERA in 60ß innings that year, began the season at Triple-A Durham while he completed the final stage of his comeback from shoulder surgery.

Those Rays eventually won the American League East but were gutted in the offseason, taking the 2011 spring training squad out of this conversation.

There was excitement surrounding the 2012 team, especially with the return of Peña. But the Rays were still looking for a shortstop to replace Bartlett, who was part of the post-2010 season exodus. Moore, who dazzled when called up late in the 2011 season, was beginning his first full year in the big leagues.

Could Kyle Farnsworth handle the closer role? Turns out he wouldn't have to, but who guessed Fernando Rodney was about to explode on the scene?

The Rays had plenty of question marks last season as they headed to Port Charlotte. No one outside the organization knew what to make of Loney and newly acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar.

Right fielder Wil Myers was going to be a huge piece of the 2013 season, but he was not going to open the season at the big-league level.

Longoria's hamstrings were an issue.

What would the outfield look like without Upton? How much would the team miss Shields?

Would the offense show a pulse?

Now look at the Rays, who have spent more than $80 million on payroll with the idea of having a big year.

The infield of Loney, Zobrist, Escobar and Longoria were each finalists for Gold Gloves.

Despite a late-season fielding slump, Jennings has played well in center field.

Rodney is gone, but Balfour is back, and the bullpen has the potential to be as solid as any the Rays have assembled.

The production behind the plate should improve with Hanigan being the frontline catcher.

It has yet to be seen what Myers and David DeJesus can bring to the team over the course of a full season, but the Rays saw enough of DeJesus during the late stages of 2013 to sign him to a two-year contract with a team option for a third season.

Jeremy Hellickson could miss as much as the first two months of the season after having minor surgery on his right elbow on Jan. 29. Rookie Jake Odorizzi is expected to fill his spot in the rotation.

Still, Price, Cobb, Moore and Chris Archer bring as much potential to the rotation as any of the previous six rotations and possibly more if Price returns to his 2012 form and the other three continue to develop.

“You can argue 2010, that was a pretty good team. And 2008 turned out to be pretty good also,” Maddon said. “All I know is I like the names a lot, but I just can't sit here and tell you unequivocally that this is the best team we've ever had. We've had some good teams go to spring training in the past, also. ... I like the names. I say that every year. I think Andrew did a great job of balancing everything out is the best way to describe it.”

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