This weekend, Tampa Bay Rays pitchers and catchers finally reported. Things were interesting right down to the wire as the Jose Lobaton trade for Nate Karns and the recent signing of Erik Bedard added two more interesting arms, and now everything is set to begin. The Rays enter spring training with their strongest team in years, and Rays fans should be excited about the team’s prospects in 2014. Here are four reasons I’m particularly looking forward to the 2014 Rays season.
1. A full year from Wil Myers: Myers’ performance in 2013 showed enormous promise. There were some at bats where he’d swing wildly at balls in the dirt and didn’t swing at right down the middle. Over time, however, he just kept getting better. By the end of the season he was just behind Ben Zobrist for the highest on-base percentage among Rays regulars, hit 13 homers, drove in 53 runs, and won the AL Rookie of the Year award. I wrote earlier how Myers’ rookie year stats were comparable to the rookie years of both Willie Mays and Will Clark. I’m excited to see Myers, with something still to prove, play even better in his first full season in 2014.
2. The Return of David Price: The Rays re-signed Price at the relative bargain of $14 million for the 2014 season–a big number for the Rays but still less than the Yankees gave Japanese star Masashiro Tanaka, who still has not thrown a major league pitch. What excites me about Price is not just his ability, but his leadership. Last season, every starter said how much they appreciated and learned from Price. I will never forget Price, as the Rays’ last pitcher, warming up in the bullpen on short rest during the ninth inning of ALDS Game 4 because the team just might need him. Price’s combination of leadership and pitching skills make him special whether or not he has another Cy Young Award-caliber season.
3. Defense: My middle school gym teacher posted a sign that I never forgot: “If they never score, you will never lose.” The Rays return every member of their gold-glove finalist infield. They upgraded outfield defense with David DeJesus set for their first full season with the team, and they may improve their defense even more if Kevin Kiermaier earns significant playing time. Adding Ryan Hanigan behind the plate should significantly cut down the number of stolen bases allowed. Bill James once wrote that “much of what we think is pitching is defense.” The Rays’ improved defense should help the pitching staff excel and keep the Rays in almost every game.
4. Depth: The Rays projected starting five of Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Jeremy Hellickson looked to be one of the best in baseball. Then Hellickson recently required elbow surgery that might keep him out until June–and the Rays did not break a sweat knowing how strong their starting depth is. Jake Odorizzi is set to take his place after breaking out in 2013, and he will face competition from a score of talented pitchers: Alex Colome, Enny Romero, and recent acquisitions Matt Andriese, Erik Bedard, and Nate Karns. The Rays’ projected starters are strong, but so are their replacements if the starters falter. In the bullpen, meanwhile, the Rays have as many interesting arms competing for spots as ever with only two of Mark Lowe, Brad Boxberger, Cesar Ramos, Josh Lueke, and Brandon Gomes set to make the big league roster. Finally, the Rays also have infield and outfield depth in the organization that includes Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, Jayson Nix, and Wilson Betemit to protect them from injuries to position players. The Rays will hope for health, but they will find a way to stay afloat no matter where the inevitable injury takes place.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ payroll is at an all-time high, and it looks to be worth it. With a little luck, the Rays have a great chance to win the AL East and return to the World Series.