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2014 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays have one of the lowest payrolls in the game and yet, they are projected to be the best team in the American League this year. Money can't buy everything, I guess.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The small-market Rays made the playoffs for the fourth time in six years in 2013, winning a game-163 playoff against the Rangers and then besting the Indians in the Wild Card play-in game before running into the Red Sox and elimination in the ALDS. Unlike in many of the previous offseasons, the Rays entered the offseason with few key players heading to free agency, but they remained active throughout the winter anyway and, once again, showed the baseball world the way to winning without spending. They locked up three key contributors, catcher Jose Molina, outfielder David Dejesus and first baseman James Loney for several seasons while committing just $36 million dollars total. With just a few needs to address, they chose a patient approach to pursuing free agents and dedicated most of their efforts to the trade market, a place where they have become the top predator in recent years. They also resisted the temptation to trade away David Price with his value was at its peak, leaving their excellent starting rotation in tact.

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections have the Rays winning the AL East and posting the best record in the American League. Considering the talent they added at almost no cost to the major league roster, that projection is understandable. The Rays have a powerful young rotation and a versatile group of position players that supports them well on both sides of the ball.

Additions: Ryan Hanigan, Logan Forsythe, Grant Balfour, Heath Bell

Apart from re-signing Loney and Molina, the Rays did not add a single free agent position player to the major league roster this winter. Instead they traded for two players who came at a low cost, both financially and in terms of the cost in players traded away. Hanigan had become expendible in Cincinnati after the team signed backup catcher Brayan Pena and the Reds settled for David Holmberg, who the Rays got as part of their deal for Health Bell, and a player to be named later (Todd Glaesmann) for the pitch-framing expert. The Rays then extended Hanigan with a three-year $10.75 million deal. His bat is not much, but does get on base and given how much the Rays value a catcher who can make their pitching staff better, this deal wasn't too surprising.

The talented and versatile Forsythe cost a bit more in trade. To land the 27-year-old Padre, the Rays gave up a talented reliever in Alex Torres and High-A prospect pitching Jesse Hahn. Fosythe is an excellent fit for the Rays, thanks to a versatile glove that can serve as a backup for both Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. His bat slumped last season, but his struggles had a lot to do with his .255 batting average on balls in play, so some positive regression is very possible. No team is more aggressive in mixing and matching players on a game-to-game basis than Joe Madden' Rays, so Forsythe should see plenty of playing time in situations that he can take advantage of as a result.

The Rays were content to let Fernando Rodney walk this winter and trust in their ability to replace their closer with a low-cost signing or an internal candidate, but they probably never imagined that they would be able to bring back Grant Balfour. The Aussie closer saw the market for his services tank after his deal with Orioles fell apart as the result of the physical. After several more weeks on the open market, Balfour chose to sign a two-year, $12 million deal with his former team. The injury concerns could still sabotage this signing, but it appears to be a very good deal for Tampa Bay right now. If Balfour remains healthy and produces at the same level as he did as a member of the Athletics, it could look like a steal by the time October roles around.

Loses: Alex Torres, Fernando Rodney, Kelly Johnson, Sam Fuld, Jose Lobaton, Luke Scott, Delmon Young, Jesse Crain, Jamey Wright

The Rays have done an impressive job of adapting to the loss of stars like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and James Shields in recent years, and this offseason they had the luxury of not having to try to replace any such key contributor. Closer Fernando Rodney was the most notable player to leave, but the Rays addressed that issue twice over by trading for Heath Bell and signing Balfour, who may well be an upgrade from Rodney at a lower cost. The rest of the departures were role players and part-timers and the Rays are experts at finding those type of pieces. They were so effective at it this offseason that they wound up with a surplus of capable catchers after the Hanigan deal and were able to add another arm to their system by dealing Jose Lobaton to the Nationals.

Players to Watch

Wil Myers hit an impressive .293/.354/.478 in 373 plate appearances last season to confirm the widely-held opinion that the Royals had made a big mistake with the James Shields trade. His ceiling could be even higher than that impressive first showing, but 2014 will be a crucial test for the 24-year-old right fielder. Myers posted strikeout rates north of 20 percent throughout his journey up through the minor leagues and that rate landed at 24.4 percent in the majors last season. With a solid walk rate and .362 batting average on balls in play, the effect of those strikeouts was not felt much in Myers batting line, but if the league adjusts to him and forces him to make more weak contact or- worse yet- to strikeout even more, he could take a serious step back this season. He is likely to be an impact player for the Rays for many years, but it remains to be seen how quickly he can adapt to a league that adapts at a very rapid pace.

Tabbed as the heir-apparent to Carl Crawford as the next star of the Rays' outfield since he was a prospect, it is easy to forget that Desmond Jennings is still only 27 and entering just his third full season as a major league regular. For some fans, it might also be easy to overlook just how good he has been. He hasn't posted impressive batting averages or lofty home run or stolen base totals, but he has done just about everything very well. Last season, he walked 10.5 percent of the time, struck out at a league-average rate and hit for plus-power. His batting averages on balls in play have never been as strong as one might expect from a relatively fast runner, but if his strong batting eye is any indication, he should be able to find pitches he can drive more and more as he gains experience. He is already a plus defender, so any progress at the plate could easily elevate him to the superstar level of production in the next year or two.

In 143 1/3 innings, Alex Cobb posted the best ERA of any Rays' starter. He was also just a tick behind Matt Moore in K/9 rate, with a rate of 8.4. That above-average strikeout ability is made even more impressive by the fact that he led the staff in groundball rate as well, with a 55.8 percent rate, the fifth highest rate of grounders of any pitcher with at least 100 innings last year. Cobb is 26-years-old this season and he is the best candidate to take over as Rays' ace after David Price leaves for richer pastures at this point. Players with plus-strikeout rates and elite groundball rates are extremely rare and if Cobb keeps up his 2013 numbers over 30+ starts, he could easily find himself in the Cy Young conversation.

Best Case Scenario

It is not often that the projections for a team represent something close to the ideal scenario, but that is the case with the 2014 Rays. On paper, this is an excellent team and that should translate to the field of play just fine. The starting rotation might be the best in baseball, even without the injured Jeremy Hellickson. Their park has a tendency to leave their offense underrated, but this is a group that can rake with the best of them. Assuming the stars all stay healthy and the Rays magic with part-time role players continues, this might be the best team we have ever seen in Tampa Bay. There is 100-win upside here and a division title and World Series run are very easy to imagine.

What Could Go Wrong

As strong as this Rays team appears, it is a team that is very dependent on a few stars. Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are still the heart and soul of the lineup and David Price and Alex Cobb drive the rotation. The versatility built into this team gives the Rays a chance to maximize the production they get from role players and gives them a plan-B that won't cost them money they don't have, but it can't fix every potential issue. If a few of the players destined for part-time roles end up try to replace the key everyday players, things could go South quickly. Many of the Rays' second-tier players like James Loney, Yunel Escobar and Chris Archer could regress badly after surpassing expectations in 2013. The bullpen was not really a strength for the 2013 team and it could be a distinct weakness this year even with the additions of Balfour and Bell. With far less money to spend than the Red Sox and Yankees, and a farm system that is short on big-time trade bait, the Rays may not be able to effectively address their shortcomings in-season this year. If the division race gets away from them and too many clubs stand between them and the Wild Card, the aggressive deal-makers in the Rays front office could easily become sellers and remake American League pennant races with a fire-sale unlike any we have seen under the current CBA.

Final Thoughts

Though the Rays are not immune to a collapse, the odds that they will not be a factor in the AL East this season are slim. Andrew Friedman is easily the best general manager in the game and I shudder to think what he might do if he had even a mid-market team's ability to spend at his disposal. In another other division, the Rays might walk over the competition straight to the playoffs, but in the AL East, they will have to battle hard to reach what the projections have pegged for them this season. They might be the favorites to win the division but it is race that leaves no room for error. Even if things don't go perfectly, it is hard to imagine the Rays missing the playoffs entirely. If this team doesn't take the division, it probably won't take an extra game for them to secure their Wild Card spot this time around.