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.

Are the Cardinals about to go on a free agent binge?

John Mozeliak AP
Associated Press
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The Cardinals have always emphasized building from within. In the 2016-17 offseason, however, they may end up being one of the bigger free agent buyers. At least according to some informed speculation.

St. Louis is already in agreement with Dexter Fowler. But Derrick Goold and Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch write today that the Cardinals “could become more aggressive than previously believed,” with Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion as “possible pursuits.” Worth noting that separate reports alleged some interest on the part of the Cards front office in free agent third baseman Justin Turner.

The Cardinals are already losing their first round pick due to the Fowler signing, so any other top free agent won’t cost them more than the money he’s owed. And as far as money goes, the Cardinals have a great deal of it, despite being a small market team. They have a billion dollar TV deal coming online and Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia are off the payroll now. Spending big on a free agent or three would not cripple them or anything.

Encarnacion or Trumbo would be first baseman, which wold fly in the face of the Cards’ move of Matt Carpenter to first base (and, at least as far as Encarnacion goes, would fly in the face of good defense). Getting either of them would push Carpenter back to second, displacing Kolten Wong, or over to third, displacing Jhonny Peralta. If you’re going to do that, I’d say that Turner would make more sense, but what do I know?

Either way, the Cardinals may be entering a pretty interesting phase of their offseason now. And an unfamiliar one as, quite possibly, the top free agent buyer on the market.

 

Bobby Valentine on short list to be U.S. Ambassador to Japan

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Former MLB player Bobby Valentine attends Annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald, BGC and GFI at BGC Partners, INC on September 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald)
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There is literally nothing you could tell me that the incoming administration is considering which would shock me anymore. As such, I saw this story when I woke up this morning, blinked once, took a sip of coffee, closed the browser window and just went on with my morning, as desensitized as a wisdom tooth about to be yanked.

Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reports that Former Red Sox, Mets and Rangers manager Bobby Valentine is on a short-list of candidates for the job of United States Ambassador to Japan:

The 66-year-old, who currently serves as Sacred Heart University’s athletics director, has engaged in preliminary discussions with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team regarding the position.

When contacted Thursday night, Valentine refused comment.

Huh. Given his history, I’d have assumed Valentine would be a better choice for the CIA, but what do I know?

Valentine managed the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League for six seasons, leading the team to a championship in 2005. He also knows the current prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, as both went to USC. Assuming championship teams meet the country’s leader in Japan like they do in the United States, Valentine has at least twice the amount of experience with top political leaders than does, say, Ned Yost, so that’s something.

The former manager, more importantly, is friends with Donald Trump’s brother, with the two of them going way back. Which, given how this transition is going, seems like a far more important set of qualifications than anything else on this list.