2014 AL East Preview: Tampa Bay RaysCan Joe Maddon manage his way to a fifth postseason in seven years?
2013 Record: 92-71, second in AL East, No. 1 Wild Card; won Wild Card game vs. Indians, lost ALDS to Red Sox
Manager: Joe Maddon (9th season)
Key Additions: C Ryan Hanigan, P Grant Balfour, RP Heath Bell, SP Erik Bedard
Key Losses: RP Fernando Rodney, RP Alex Torres, SP Roberto Hernandez, C Jose Lobaton
Offense: The Rays will return pretty much the same lineup that carried them to a Wild Card berth last year, and as much as Maddon may juggle it, not much changes in theory. It all starts with linchpin Evan Longoria, but the Rays had four other guys hit at least .250, smash between 12 and 20 homers, and drive in 50 to 80 runs last year. A full season of David DeJesus helps the defense and means that Ben Zobrist can concentrate on second base, which could help him be even better offensively than the .275-11-72 line he posted in 2013. Add in a lefty masher in probable DH Matt Joyce and solid all-around shortstop Yunel Escobar, and this is a circular lineup that is almost interchangeable around Longoria and leadoff man Desmond Jennings. Bonus points if Hanigan can produce more like 2010-12 (.278 in 786 at-bats) than last year (.198 in 222 ABs) and justify the Rays' decision to sign him and trade emerging Jose Lobaton. The bench is also realistically set, unless a Minor League signee like Wilson Betemit or Jayson Nix pushes past trade acquisition Logan Forsythe to be the 25th man.
Rotation: The Rays are one team whose rotation is always "reload" instead of "revamp," and 2014 is no exception, making them perhaps the most dangerous quintet from top to bottom. Ace David Price had a down 2013 (if you call 10-8 with a 3.33 ERA "down"), but is a free agent after 2014 and has that much more motivation to get back to his Cy Young form of 2012. The current trio behind him is young, but Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer combined for a 3.09 ERA in 422 1/3 innings over 72 starts last year, so they're no slouches, either. Jeremy Hellickson had elbow surgery in early February and will miss the first six-to-eight weeks of the season, but the Rays have Jake Odorizzi to fill his slot in the interim, and if he falters or someone gets hurt, there are options; Alex Colome made a handful of MLB starts last year, Nathan Karns was acquired from Washington in the Lobaton deal, and the team inked lefty Erik Bedard to a Minor League deal, so it's a deep bunch.
Bullpen: When compared to the blockbuster of 2012-13, this was a tame offseason for the Rays - but they did the one thing they needed to do, which was settle the bullpen. Lose closer Fernando Rodney and key set-up man Jamey Wright to free agency? No problem, as they traded for Heath Bell and swooped in to sign Grant Balfour after his Orioles deal went south. Those two will be the back end in some alignment, and with the steady Joel Peralta, emerging lefties Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos, and perhaps Brandon Gomes and/or former Marlins closer Juan Carlos Oviedo in the mix, they'll have the usual Joe Maddon bullpen full of interchangeable hard throwers. Bedard could also factor in as well.
Player to Watch: Price. We'll put it in equation form: Contract year + subpar 2013 season = early Cy Young candidate. Runners up are James Loney and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, the latter to see if he wards off a sophomore slump and the former to see if he can repeat and/or build on a career year offensively.
Why they will win: They're a typical Joe Maddon team. You can point to any individual part of the team - the never-ending and often-dominant rotation, the balanced offense, the shut-down bullpen - but really, it's Maddon who makes the whole of his team much more than the sum of its parts. Nobody can do more with less, and if there's any team in baseball where the system matters more than the parts, it's the Rays.
Why they will lose: Anything goes wrong that's beyond mad scientist Maddon's control. The biggest "risk" is either bullpen's re-built back end or a rotation having four starters who are all under age 26 and could regress, but Maddon can at least try to re-work things if either happens. Offensively, any combo of a sophomore slump for Myers, a long-term injury for Longoria, or a return by Loney to his previous offensively-deficient form could drastically alter the middle of the lineup and eventually turn this carriage back into a pumpkin come October.