Evan Longoria

2013 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: is this the year Evan Longoria challenges for the MVP award?

Longoria has been one of the AL’s better players since bursting onto the scene as a 22-year-old rookie in 2008, but he’s yet to take that next step. While he’s never posted an OPS below .850 in five seasons for the Rays, he’s also never topped .900, and he’s been limited to 133 games and 74 games the last two seasons due to injury.

With so many question marks up and down their lineup, the Rays may need Longoria’s biggest year yet if they’re going to return to the playoffs after last year’s absence. All of the new acquisitions — first baseman James Loney, second baseman-outfielder Kelly Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar — were available because they’re coming off very disappointing seasons. The Rays aren’t going to get anything offensively from their catchers, either. The core group of Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist, Longoria and Matt Joyce will be counted on to produce most of Tampa Bay’s runs.

Longoria has two 30-homer and two 100-RBI seasons to his credit. He may well have gotten there again last year had he stayed healthy; he had 17 homers and 55 RBI in his 74 games. And the Rays likely would have made the playoffs had they gotten 150 games from Longoria. The uphill climb appears even more difficult this season with James Shields and B.J. Upton gone. Longoria coming through with a .290-30-110 campaign would make things a lot easier.

What else is going on?

  • The Rays thought enough of Wil Myers’ potential to part with Shields for him, but he didn’t enter camp with any chance of winning the right field job, even after he hit 37 homers between Double- and Triple-A last year. Like other Rays prospects before him, he’ll have to serve the obligatory season-opening stint in the minors to push back his free agency. The Rays’ needs will determine whether he’s up around May 1 or if he remains in Durham into June to guarantee that his arbitration eligibility is delayed as well.
  • With a .235/.297/.265 line in 34 at-bats, Loney isn’t showing anything this spring that suggests he’ll be a better answer at first base than he was for the Dodgers or Red Sox last year. He’ll enter Opening Day with the starting job, but the Rays need to keep an eye open for alternatives.
  • Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) are competing for Shields’ vacated rotation spot. Many believe the Rays will trade Niemann prior to Opening Day rather than keep both. They can afford to make the move because they have top prospect Chris Archer waiting in the wings in Triple-A. Odds are that Archer will turn out to be the real fifth starter come May or June.
  • Matt Moore’s emergence as a legitimate No. 2 starter behind Cy Young winner David Price is another big key for the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb should be rock solid, but it’s Moore who will determine whether the Rays have a very good rotation or one that ranks as the best in the league. The 23-year-old Moore, who was viewed by many as the game’s best pitching prospect a year ago, improved from a 4.42 ERA to a 3.01 mark in the second half of 2012.
  • 2012 surprise Fernando Rodney, new owner of the lowest ERA in major league history, has already quieted the doubters with an impressive showing as the Dominican Republic’s closer in the World Baseball Classic.

Prediction: Second place, American League East.

The Padres non-tendered RHP Tyson Ross

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 04:  Tyson Ross #38 of the San Diego Padres walks off the field as he's taken out of the game in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on opening day at PETCO Park on April 4, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Per a report by MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell, the Padres non-tendered right-handed starter Tyson Ross on Friday, cutting loose their top ace after three seasons with the club.

Ross, 29, was sidelined for the bulk of the season with inflammation in his right shoulder and underwent thoracic outlet surgery in October. His injuries limited him to only 5 1/3 innings in 2016, during which he gave up seven runs and struck out five in a 15-0 blowout against the Dodgers.

Prior to his lengthy stint on the disabled list, the right-hander earned 9.5 fWAR and pitched to a 3.07 ERA and 9.2 K/9 rate in three full seasons with the Padres. He avoided arbitration with a one-year, $9.625 million deal prior to the 2016 season after leading the league with 33 starts and delivering a 3.26 ERA and career-best 4.4 WARP over 196 innings in 2015.

The Padres appear open to bringing Ross back to San Diego, reported Cassavell, albeit not at such a steep cost. Cassavell quoted Padres’ GM A.J. Preller, who was reportedly in trade talks involving Ross but unable to strike a deal, likely due to the right-hander’s recent health issues. Preller denied that those same health issues factored into the club’s decision to non-tender their ace.

With the move, Ross became one of 35 major leaguers to enter free agency on Friday.

Angels’ Pujols has foot surgery, could be sidelined 4 months

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols had surgery on his right foot Friday, possibly sidelining him past opening day.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler said Pujols had the procedure Friday in North Carolina to release his plantar fascia, the ligament connecting the heel to the toes. The three-time NL MVP was bothered by plantar fasciitis repeatedly during the season, but played through the pain in arguably the strongest year of his half-decade with the Angels.

Eppler said the surgery typically prevents players from participating in baseball activities for three months, along with another month before they’re ready to resume playing in games. Opening day for Los Angeles is April 3, and the Angels hope Pujols can be ready.

“He’s at that point in his career where he’s keenly aware of what’s happening with his body,” Eppler said in a phone interview. “I don’t put the timetable on Albert like you would with your younger players. We’ll just see in Albert’s case, as he progresses, what his timetable is.”

Pujols, who turns 37 next month, batted .268 last year with 31 homers and 119 RBIs, the fourth-most in the majors – although his .780 OPS was among the worst of his career. He largely served as a designated hitter instead of playing first base due to problems with his hamstrings and feet.

Pujols heads into 2017 with 591 career homers, ranking him ninth in major league history. He is 18 homers behind Sammy Sosa for eighth place.

After playing in pain until the final week of the Angels’ disappointing season, Pujols began shock wave therapy on his foot early in the offseason, believing he wouldn’t need surgery.

But Pujols’ foot became more painful in recent weeks despite the therapy, and he huddled with the Angels’ top brass to decide on surgery after his most recent trip to see Dr. Robert Anderson in North Carolina. Continuing with conservative care would have required 10 more weeks, forcing Pujols to miss the first half of the 2017 season if he still required surgery.

“He just felt that the pain had gotten to a point where he was comfortable” having surgery, Eppler said. “If we did delay it, you’re just looking at 2 1/2 more months into the season.”

Pujols had a different type of surgery on his right foot last winter, but recovered in time for opening day. He also had plantar fasciitis in his left foot during the 2013 season, eventually forcing him out for the year when his fascia snapped.

Pujols has five years and $140 million remaining on the 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract that pried him out of St. Louis, where he won two World Series and became a nine-time NL All-Star.

The Angels haven’t won a playoff game since Pujols’ arrival and Mike Trout‘s concurrent emergence as one of baseball’s best players. They went 74-88 last season, the injury-plagued club’s worst record since 1999.