Sep 23, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays pinch hitter James Loney (21) is congratulated by teammates at home plate after he hit the game winning home run during the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Baltimore Orioles 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Great Expectations for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014

Could Rays fans be seeing bigger celebrations in 2013? Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 season is shaping up to be very exciting for the Tampa Bay Rays. After a very productive offseason, the Rays will be looking to improve on their 2013 campaign. As hard as it is to fathom after the Rays won 92 games and made it to the ALDS last season, 2014 could be even better.

This offseason, the Rays shelled out money to keep free agents James Loney, David DeJesus, and Jose Molina. To compliment the signings, the Rays acquired Ryan Hanigan from the Cincinnati Reds in a trade and signed Grant Balfour to close games. A trade with the San Diego Padres netted them more goodies. But just how good will this team be? Are the Rays World Series bound or is it too early to get hopes up?

Pitching will no doubt factor into how far the Rays go this year. The starting five of David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Jeremy Hellickson are as good as it gets. Injuries derailed the starting staff last season and even before spring training, Hellickson went under the knife. However, Jake Odorizzi, the other acquisition in the Wil Myers trade, is ready to step in and become a regular in the starting five. If not, Erik Bedard was brought in on a minor league contract to stake his claim in the rotation. No matter who mans the fifth spot, the Rays will sport one of the best starting staffs in baseball.

The bullpen has gone through somewhat of a makeover, but only a good way. Grant Balfour returns to Tampa Bay as one of the best closers in baseball, and recent additions Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo have closing experience as well. Add them to mainstays Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, and the Rays will be able to shorten games with the quality of their bullpen arms.

Another key acquisition, as far as the pitching staff is concerned, is catcher Ryan Hanigan. He has received high marks for the way he handled the Reds pitching staff, and Rays pitchers are already raving about him. Factor in a 40 percent rate throwing out potential basestealers, and Rays pitchers are in good hands. One concern is that Hanigan is questionable to stay healthy for the full season as he has played 100 games just once in his career. The good news: Jose Molina is a capable backup, so it is not as though Hanigan has to play every game.

To help out the pitchers further, Tampa Bay’s infield sports four Gold Glove finalists from 2013. Evan Longoria is arguably the best defensive third baseman in baseball, Yunel Escobar makes playing shortstop look easy, Ben Zobrist is as steady as ever at second base, and James Loney’s defense has never been called into question throughout his career. The outfield is more questionable, but there is room for optimism. Desmond Jennings was inconsistent in center last year, but he is too good an athlete not to rebound. Wil Myers’ defense is still a work in progress, but he has nowhere to go but up. Providing some stability are David DeJesus and the backup Brandon Guyer, both capable of strong defense in all three outfield spots. The defense is also improving, and we can expect more consistent defense this season. It is pretty safe to say Rays pitchers will not need to get too many extra outs this season.

Offensively, the biggest question is whether or not Wil Myers will have a sophomore slump. We have to wonder how he will do, but Myers can look no further than Evan Longoria to see a player who got even better his second year. Speaking of Longoria, he had a productive 2013 but will hope to avoid the big slump that made his numbers suffer. The Rays believe that Longoria is MVP material. Maybe in 2014, that could really be a possibility. Behind Longoria, James Loney and Ben Zobrist provide dependable middle-of-the-order hitters. Loney could regress somewhat in 2013, but happy with the terms of his new deal, Loney’s offense could get even better. Ben Zobrist, meanwhile, could be primed to rebound after his power output disappeared in 2013. Then there is David DeJesus, who gives Joe Maddon a true leadoff hitter against righties, and Desmond Jennings, who has a big year ahead as he hopes to keep his starting centerfield job. The Rays’ offense looks as strong as ever, and several key players could be primed to break out.

The Rays bandwagon appears to be full ahead of this magical season. People in the know are proclaiming the Tampa Bay Rays the team to beat in the American League, and their talent across the board shows why. This is a very good team and quite possibly the best one the Rays have ever seen. Enjoy the ride.

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Tags: Ryan Hanigan Tampa Bay Rays Wil Myers

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