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.

Albert Pujols hit his 597th career home run

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Angels DH Albert Pujols smacked his 597th career home run, a two-run shot in the top of the first inning during Wednesday night’s 5-2 loss to the Rays. The blast was off of Erasmo Ramirez and marked No. 6 on the season for the future Hall of Famer.

Pujols finished 1-for-3 with the homer and a walk. After Wednesday’s game, he’s hitting a lackluster .244/.296/.378 with 34 RBI and 14 runs scored in 186 trips to the plate.

Pujols currently ranks ninth on baseball’s all-time leaderboard and is three shy of joining the 600-homer club. He’s currently 13 home runs away from tying Sammy Sosa for eighth all-time.

Chris Sale’s streak of starts with at least 10 strikeouts ends

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Red Sox starter Chris Sale entered Wednesday’s outing against the Rangers with at least 10 strikeouts in eight consecutive starts, tying a record he already shared with Pedro Martinez. He failed do break the record, racking up only six strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings. Fortunately, the Red Sox scored seven runs in the bottom of the seventh to put him in line for the win. Sale gave up four runs (three earned) on six hits and a walk.

After Wednesday’s outing, Sale is sitting on a 2.34 ERA with a 101/14 K/BB ratio in 73 innings. So far, so good for the Red Sox, who acquired Sale from the White Sox in December.

Sale previously racked up 10 strikeouts in eight consecutive games between May 23 and June 30 in 2015 with the White Sox. Pedro Martinez accomplished the feat for the Red Sox between August 19 and September 27 in 1999.