As Alexander Pope stated in his poem ‘An Essay on Man’, hope springs eternal in the human breast. That sentiment is never truer for baseball fans when the four words they have been longing to hear since the final out of the season has been recorded are uttered – pitchers and catchers report. And while hope may be nothing more than a fleeting phantasm for some teams; with the Tampa Bay Rays, the dream of a playoff berth and a run deep into the postseason may turn into reality.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism around the Rays, despite the losses of James Shields and B.J. Upton. With an offseason of rest, Evan Longoria should be fully healthy, which alone would likely improve a lineup that struggled to score runs last year. Yunel Escobar may solidify shortstop, and give the Rays a legitimate offensive threat at that position for the first time since Jason Bartlett in 2009. Even though he may start the year in the minors, Wil Myers may be able to provide at least a level of protection for Longoria in the lineup, and may be that second power bat the Rays so desperately needed last season.
Reasons for optimism can be found with the pitching staff as well. Matt Moore took a step forward in his progress over the second half of 2012, improving his strikeout to walk rate and posting an ERA of 3.01 over his final 14 starts. If Jeremy Hellickson is able to finally develop an ability to generate strikeouts, he could turn into a solid replacement for Shields. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi may headline the next wave of talent into the rotation, and may have a chance to do so this season. Fernando Rodney may never be able to replicate his historic 2012 campaign; however, the rest of the bullpen is still a solid group and should be able to step up if Rodney falters.
Then there is the rest of the division. The Yankees are getting old, and are going to be relying upon the contributions of a lot of players on the wrong side of thirty. The Orioles won 93 games last season despite having a run differential of +7 for the season, due in large part to an improbable 29-9 record in one run games – the highest winning percentage of any team since 1890. The flurry of moves made by the Red Sox this offseason might make them more competitive, but they still appear to have a bit to go before being a contender for the division. And while the Blue Jays appear to be the class of the American League East on paper, the Marlins were considered to be contenders before 2012. Will the acquisitions of a number of injury risks really make Toronto the team to beat?
It may not be an easy road, particularly given that the Rays play in one of the toughest, if not the toughest division in baseball. Yet, as the winter gives way to spring and the weather warms up, it is far to dream and hope of a championship run. Perhaps this winds up being the year that the Rays make that dream a reality.