2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: Is this a championship offense?

The Rays have led the American League in ERA two of the last three years, but offense has been a different story. In 2010, they finished third in runs per game. In 2011, they dropped to eighth. In 2012, they were 11th. Last season, they bounced back a bit, coming in ninth. Still, they were a full run per game behind the league-leading — and division rival — Red Sox.

The offseason saw no drastic steps towards improving that mark. However, instead of the typical rummaging through the bargain bin, the Rays did ante up and retain both James Loney and David DeJesus. They also added a pretty good on-base guy in Ryan Hanigan to replace Jose Lobaton and perhaps cut into a little of Jose Molina’s playing time behind the plate and a mini-Ben Zobrist in the form of Logan Forsythe, who can play all over the place while offering intriguing pop.

Still, if the Rays are going to creep back into the top half of the AL in runs scored, they’re either going to need Evan Longoria to finally have an MVP-type season or Wil Myers to become another Longoria.

Longoria is undeniably one of the AL’s best players. However, he’s also essentially the same hitter he was when he entered the league six years ago. His career highs in average, OBP, slugging, homers, doubles, RBI, runs scored and steals were all set in his first three years in the league. He’s been just fine in the three years since, but he’s never had a transcendent season. Last season, his one career high came in strikeouts; he fanned 162 times, exceeding his previous high by 22.

The 23-year-old Myers appears well on his way to developing into a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy behind Longoria in the order. What remains to be seen is whether he’ll keep hitting for average like he did after coming up last season; he was able to finish at .293 despite striking out 91 times in 88 games. If he’s a true .350-.370 OBP guy, then he should be a worthy All-Star. If he’s more of a .260 hitter and a .330-OBP guy, then he’s just a quality regular, not a star.

With no obvious weaknesses to speak of, the Rays should at least match last year’s offensive production. It should also be noted here that their rankings in runs scored, as well as the numbers of all of their hitters, are skewed by playing in Tropicana Field, which rates as one of the AL’s best parks for pitchers. But the Rays are going to need to do a bit more scoring to close the gap, and while Joe Maddon can keep helping them out with his frequent lineup changes getting the hotter players to the top of the lineup, it’s going to be up to Longoria and Myers to supply most of the power.

What else is going on?

  • One other key offensively is Desmond Jennings, who added 15 pounds of muscle over the winter and is hitting .375/.432/.575 this spring. He’s a rather flawed hitter with his tendency to chase pitches at the letters and higher, but with added power and walks (64 last year, up from 46 in 2012), he can still be a nice regular while player .250.
  • The pitching staff should boast the American League’s second strongest one-two punch, with 2012 Cy Young winner David Price and Alex Cobb both possibilities to win 18 games and post sub-3.00 ERAs. The unheralded Cobb came in at 2.76 in 22 starts last year, striking out 134 in 143 1/3 innings in the process. He’s been awesome this spring, too, striking out 16 and walking just one in 11 2/3 innings.
  • Left-hander Matt Moore is the question mark. His velocity was down last season, and while it has been up at times this spring, he’s walked 15 batters in 14 1/3 innings. The Rays can handle a little wildness from him — with one of the game’s deepest bullpens, they can survive carrying a five-inning starter — but he doesn’t look like the future Cy Young candidate he appeared to be when he entered the league.
  • Rookie Jake Odorizzi beat out Cesar Ramos for the rotation spot opened up by Jeremy Hellickson’s injury. Hellickson is expected to miss the first two months following February surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow.

Prediction: This is a huge year for the Rays after they expanded the payroll to keep Price, Loney and DeJesus and add Grant Balfour to close; if they don’t make a lengthy run in October, they’re likely to lose money and then trade pieces next winter. They’re in good position to make that run, though; the Red Sox have lost key players from their World Series team and fellow AL contenders Detroit, Texas and Oakland have already been hit hard by injury. The Rays should be in the AL East race all year long, and if they do happen to come up a little short, a wild card spot will still be there for the taking.

First place, American League East.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).