The Tampa Bay Rays begin spring training Saturday, when pitchers and catchers have their first workout on the practice fields at the Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.
Much excitement surrounds this team, which finished second in the AL East in 2013 and beat the Cleveland Indians in the one-game wild card. The Rays added to that talent base over the winter, which has many thinking the 2014 team can be stronger than last year.
Over the next three days, The Tampa Tribune and TBO.com will look at nine areas of interest as the team heads into spring training. We start with the pitching rotation, bullpen and catching.
Like every Rays team dating back to 2008, this year's edition will by driven by starting pitchers.
By not trading David Price during the offseason, the Rays return a rotation that helped the team win 92 games and the AL Wild Card in 2013 despite Price, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore all spending time on the disabled list and Jeremy Hellickson having a down year.
Those four, along with AL Rookie of the Year finalist Chris Archer, who joined the rotation June 1, combined to win 59 games.
Moore was a 17-game winner and earned a spot on the AL All-Star team. Cobb was 11-3 despite missing 50 games when he suffered a concussion after being struck by a line drive June 15.
Hellickson will miss the first six to eight weeks of the season because of arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow Jan. 28. Jake Odorizzi, who made four starts last year is the favorite going into spring training to fill Hellickson's spot.
“A lot of times you get to that point, you lose one of your five starters in January, for most people that would be panic mode,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “That's a credit to (executive vice president of baseball operations) Andrew (Friedman) and the guys upstairs. They constantly stay on top and try to stay ahead for moments like this.”
And what if Odorizzi is pitching well when Hellickson is due to come off the disabled list?
“What a great problem to have,” Maddon said. “Who doesn't want that?”
A strong rotation makes for a strong bullpen, and the Rays have worked that tandem over the last four seasons.
Mainstays Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos are joined by newcomers Grant Balfour, Juan Carlos Oviedo and Heath Bell. Brandon Gomes is in the mix for the final spot.
The Rays are familiar with Balfour, their new closer, from his three-plus seasons in Tampa Bay before he went to Oakland in 2011 and turned into an All-Star closer. Bell and Oviedo, who spent last season with the Rays while he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, are unknowns.
“Bell has had some wonderful years. He's struggled somewhat over the last couple, but we still think he has it in him,” Maddon said.
Those two along with Peralta and McGee should build a solid bridge to the ninth inning.
“You put those four names together, those are four good names, man,” Maddon said.
Assuming Oviedo's elbow is fine and Bell regains some of the form that allowed him to save 168 big league games over 10 seasons, Maddon will use the first month of the season learning which roles best suit both pitchers.
“I have to develop the relationship where the trust exists,” Maddon said.
The reason Jose Molina was re-signed was because of the work he does with the pitching staff. It is that very reason why the Rays traded with the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Ryan Hanigan.
Hanigan is also one of the top major league catchers in throwing out base stealers. He caught 40 percent of would-be base stealers in 2013, the third-highest percentage among catchers with at least 50 games played. His 43.3 success rate in 2012 was second only to Jose's brother Yadier Molina (45.7 percent). That skill will be challenged by the Rays pitchers, who are not very skilled at holding runners on base.
Hanigan will be the front-line catcher, moving Molina to his familiar role of backup.
“It's good for us in the future, and it's also good for J. Molina, because based on where he's at in his career to not put too much of a workload on him you're going to get an even better player this year,” Maddon said. “Players don't like to play less, but guys like J-Mo are so valuable and what they do are so underrated by a lot of folks but not by us.”
The acquisition of Hanigan makes Jose Lobaton expendable. While the Rays are trying to move Lobaton, it is possible they will begin camp Saturday with three catchers on the major league roster. Maddon said that is not a horrible thought, because it gives the Rays insurance against an injury. It also gives the Rays a trade chip late in spring if they feel they need to go outside the organization to add another player to the big league roster.
†Wednesday: Infield defense, outfield depth and designated hitter.