At this time last year, the Tampa Bay Rays thought that they had assembled their best team in years. Then the injuries hit, the slumps started, and the bullpen blew up, leading to their worst season since 2007.
Much of the same cast of characters and a few key newcomers are set to be on the roster for next season. For the Rays to get back to winning, several of them must stay healthy and raise their games up a notch. Let’s take a look at some of the names on that list.
Alex Colome: You can’t argue with the minor and major league numbers that Colome has put up to date. His 3.53 ERA in 2014 was actually his highest since 2011, and he even has a 2.50 ERA in 39.2 MLB innings. With the stuff to match such results, Colome possesses significant upside as a major league pitcher, and it is time for him to starting showing that over a full season for the Rays.
Out of options, Colome is now in line to be the fifth starter at least until Matt Moore comes back. After Jake Odorizzi looked strong after a rough start in his rookie year last season, the Rays are hoping that Colome can experience similar success for them in 2015.
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Grant Balfour: The Rays thought they had a real steal in Balfour last year as they signed him for two years and $12 million. Instead, Balfour was a mess from the start with a total lack of control and seemingly no confidence in his stuff. He lost the closer job to Jake McGee and couldn’t even recover in low-leverage spots until the end of the year. Now with McGee out for two months, Balfour needs to get back on track and at least hold down the fort until McGee comes back.
Ernesto Frieri: The Rays have always been known for their bullpen reclamation projects. From Fernando Rodney to Joel Peralta, they have taken the wounded and the weary and turned them into quality assets. This string came to an end last year as Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo turned out to be complete failures. Now they are taking a shot at Frieri and hoping he can be their next success story.
Frieri was a solid closer for the Angels as recently as 2013, but last season was a total train wreck. From the Rays’ standpoint, though, his stuff and ability to miss bats were fine and they just need to help him recapture his command. If they can do so successfully, Frieri will be a fine setup man and an early-season alternative at closer.
Yunel Escobar: Escobar made the Rays look like geniuses in 2013 when he was picked up for a prospect and became one of the top shortstops in the American League. Last season, however, was a total reversal. In the field, he made a lot of stupid mistakes and his range fell off markedly. Even worse, his sullen “nobody loves me” attitude returned. When Escobar is on his game defensively, the Rays have one of the best infields in baseball. He needs to get his head back into the game in 2015.
Nick Franklin: A former #1 pick of the Mariners, Franklin has logged tremendous numbers in six minor league seasons, hitting to a .284/.361/.450 slash line in 1928 at bats. Unfortunately, that has not translated to the big leagues so far as his line is just .213/.289/.358 in 502 plate appearances. The Rays expect a lot more from Franklin and he needs to start rewarding their trust. Franklin has the tools to earn a starting role with the Rays this season, but he needs to put them together.
David DeJesus: The Rays liked DeJesus’ game so much they signed him to a two-year deal with an option at the end of the 2013 season. He can be an ideal top-of-the-order hitter, but first he has to stay healthy. Last year he missed half of the season when he broke his wrist, but he managed a strong a .277/.352/.416 slash line when he was on the field. DeJesus could be the Rays’ best option for the leadoff spot against right-handed pitching, and they have to hope he can be healthy and productive in that role all year.
Desmond Jennings: Jennings plays strong defense in centerfield and is excellent at hitting left-handed pitching. Those are enough for him to be a strong starting outfielder. However, his hitting against right-handed pitching is average when the Rays know it can be better and they also need him to steal more bases than the 15 he swiped last season. We also have to talk about Jennings’ never-ending struggle to decide whether he is a leadoff man or more of a power hitter–he was neither last season.
Steven Souza: It’s a little unfair to point to a guy who was International League Most Valuable Player to kick it up a notch, but that was Triple-A and the Rays need big league production. The Rays are desperate for a middle-of-the-order power hitter and Souza is their best bet to be that guy. The Rays may start him in the minor leagues to begin the season, but when he arrives, they will be expecting big things.
For the Tampa Bay Rays to have a chance at winning the AL East, they will need quite a few things to go right. From the performance of these eight players to Evan Longoria‘s expected rebound to Alex Cobb‘s ascension into a durable number one starter, the Rays are asking a lot from their players and have to hope that they will find a way to deliver.