On the eve of Tampa Bay Rays pitchers and catchers reporting, the Rays traded a catcher and a pitcher (and an outfielder) for another pitcher. The actual day of Rays pitchers and catchers reporting, the Rays signed yet another pitcher. We knew that pitchers and catchers would be reporting, but who would those players actually be? After all the moves and the non-moves, however, the Rays enter the official start of spring training with as much confidence as ever in the group of players they have. The confusion to begin the spring will be worth when we realize just how good everyone can be.
The biggest change the Rays made this season was not compared to last year’s time but compared to what everyone expected them to do. We all thought David Price was a goner, and they held onto him. Will it be the right move for the long-term? That is certainly debatable. But the good news is that the Rays still have another chance to trade Price after the season should they desire to do so, and having Price makes this year’s rotation as scary as ever. Price was a huge reason for the Rays’ playoff run in 2013, but if can have better health and avoid the type of slump he had to begin the season, he could make a significantly bigger impact.
But that doesn’t mean the Rays stayed put on the pitcher front this offseason. The Rays’ top five in their rotation will all return–although Jeremy Hellickson will be out until mid-May–but trades have shaken up the landscape of the Rays’ starting depth. Alex Colome and Enny Romero give the Rays two pitchers who showed impressive potential in their big league debuts last season, but now Colome and Romero are far from alone. The Rays made two major trades, dealing Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn for five prospects headlined by Matt Andriese and Brad Boxberger and trading away Jose Lobaton and a pair of prospects to net Nate Karns. Andriese caught the Rays’ eye with his plus sinker and solid secondary pitches, and he could be the Rays’ first option in case of injury at this point. Karns will be just behind, but his upside is even higher thanks to a fastball reaching the mid-90′s and a dynamic curveball. Just when the Rays’ fountain of pitching was starting to run dry, the Rays replenished it again with even more talent.
They Rays also brought in veteran Erik Bedard on a minor league deal. Bedard gives the Rays the upside of a Roberto Hernandez without the monetary commitment as the soon-to-be 35 year old still misses bats and looks to bounce back after a couple tough years. The Rays remember Bedard from his two dominant years with the Baltimore Orioles, and now they have him on their team and will see what he is capable of. The lefty Bedard will provide starting depth, and it will be interesting to see if he gets a look for the bullpen as well.
Speaking of the bullpen, it looks different but strong once again. Fernando Rodney, Alex Torres, and Jamey Wright headline the departures. To replace them, though, the Rays will rely on an old friend, internal options, and a few players acquired this offseason. Your average fair-weathered Rays fan is going to be a little confused when he sees Grant Balfour back on the team. He will be saying “hey, I remember this guy! Where has he been?” But the Balfour Rays fans remember is not the one coming back as he returns from the Oakland Athletics a proven closer set to take over the Rays’ 9th inning reigns. Behind Balfour are the returning Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, but also Heath Bell, who was acquired in the Ryan Hanigan trade. Bell becomes the latest relief reclamation project, and if the Rays can get him back to a fraction of how good he was from 2007 to 2011, he will make the Rays bullpen even scarier. Juan Carlos Oviedo gives the Rays another ex-closer hoping to reestablish himself, and the Rays saw enough from him to give him a $1.5 million commitment with incentives. Behind those five, the Rays have the group of players who has bounced up and down the last couple of years–Cesar Ramos, Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes, and Jeff Beliveau–but Brad Boxberger and his excellent changeup came over in the Torres trade and Mark Lowe gives the Rays another pitcher who has had a few strong years in the major leagues. Many of the names are different, but the Rays bullpen is primed to get be one of the best in baseball again, and they have the talent and depth to get there.
What kind of team is the Rays when they trade a player the offseason after he hit one of the most memorable home runs in their history? The answer: one who stops at nothing to improve itself. The Rays had the opportunity to acquire Ryan Hanigan, a catcher better than any they have possessed in their history, and they were not going to let it pass them by. Finally on Thursday the Rays traded Lobaton, but it tells you how much the Rays and all of baseball value him that the Rays were waiting for a legitimate offer in exchange for Lobaton and one eventually came. Behind Hanigan, Jose Molina will return for his third season with the team, although he will return to the true backup role in which he has spent most of his career. Unlike their rotation, the catcher position has rarely been a strength for the Rays. But now, for the first time in way too long, the Rays have high hopes for the catcher position both offensively and defensively.
Rays pitchers and catchers reporting rarely features this much turnover. The top four in the rotation is the same, several key bullpen member return, and Jose Molina is back, but it seems like all the underlying players could not be any different. The only thing that matters, though, is that the changes the Rays have made are for the better for both now and the future. The rotation depth is back to full strength, the bullpen is loaded, and the catcher position is better than ever. Once you wrap your head around all the new faces, you will realize that this may just be the best team the Tampa Bay Rays have ever fielded.