Evan Longoria

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.

Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery could share Cubs’ rotation spot in 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Mike Montgomery #38 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon hasn’t selected a fifth starter for his 2017 rotation yet, but told reporters that he could envision left-handers Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery sharing the spot throughout the year. Neither pitcher was stretched out to the full 200-inning threshold last year, Maddon added, and suggested that the two could alternate innings out of the rotation and bullpen as needed (via MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat).

Anderson, 29, was acquired by the Cubs in January on a $3.5 million deal. He’s coming off a rough 2016, during which he underwent back surgery and missed all but 11 1/3 innings of his last season with the Dodgers. His last full, healthy year in the majors yielded a 3.69 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 5.8 SO/9 over 180 1/3 innings with Los Angeles in 2015.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is vying for a rotation spot after pitching almost exclusively from the bullpen during the second half of the Cubs’ 2016 run. The 27-year-old lefty put up a 2.82 ERA, 4.7 BB/9 and 8.9 SO/9 over 38 1/3 innings for Chicago last year, returning in the postseason to post a 3.14 ERA during the Cubs’ championship finish.

Maddon also mentioned the possibility of throwing a sixth starter into the mix, which would help prevent his other starters from getting overworked too early in the year. Either way, Anderson and Montgomery are expected to get a lot of looks early in spring training as rotation spots are finalized in the weeks leading up to Opening Day.

Michael Bourn to miss four weeks with a broken finger

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 6:  Michael Bourn #1 of the Baltimore Orioles looks out of the dugout as he waits to get on deck to bat during the sixth inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on September 6, 2016 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Orioles’ center fielder Michael Bourn is expected to be sidelined for four weeks while he rehabs a broken ring finger on his right hand, according to reports from the Baltimore Sun’s Peter Schmuck. Bourn broke the finger while playing catch with a football after a spring training workout.

The veteran outfielder re-signed with the club earlier this week on a minor league deal and was prepared to compete for a bench role this season. He’s in line to receive a $2 million salary if he makes the major league roster and can make an additional $3.5 million in incentives based on a set number of plate appearances. Now, however, his chances of cracking the roster out of spring training look considerably diminished, as his current timetable gives him an approximate return date of March 25 if all goes well.

Bourn had an impressive, if short-lived run with the Orioles following his trade to Baltimore last August, batting .283/.358/.435 with two home runs and a .793 OPS in 55 PA. While still somewhat removed from the totals that brought him an All-Star nod with the Braves in 2012, his defensive chops should give the Orioles some depth in center once he’s healthy again.