Flush with new faces, Rays eye return to playoffs
AL Cy Young Award winner Price to anchor rotation; Longoria looks to stay healthy
ST. PETERSBURG -- New faces will punctuate the opening of the Rays' fifth Spring Training camp conducted in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Once the team gathers at the Charlotte Sports Park, it will begin the process of incorporating the newcomers into a cohesive unit that will help add the necessary three or four extra wins to earn a playoff berth.
Gone are James Shields, Carlos Pena, Wade Davis, Jeff Keppinger, B.J. Upton, Burke Badenhop and J.P. Howell. In their places are several critical hopefuls for this year's team. Shortstop Yunel Escobar and first baseman James Loney were brought in at the Winter Meetings. Three days after the Winter Meetings concluded, the Rays pulled the trigger on a blockbuster seven-player deal that sent Shields and Davis to the Royals for four prospects, including Wil Myers, who was Kansas City's top prospect.
Other new acquisitions include right-hander Roberto Hernandez and infielder/outfielder Kelly Johnson.
American League Cy Young Award winner David Price will lead a staff many felt to be the best in baseball in 2012. Sans Shields, the rotation will include Jeremy Hellickson along with three others from a group that includes Jeff Niemann, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Hernandez, Chris Archer and newcomers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery.
Offensively, the Rays will need to make up for the loss of Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves, and Keppinger, who signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the White Sox. Having Evan Longoria for a whole season should help shore up the team's ability to score runs. Also returning are the likes of Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist, who can all generate firepower. Myers, who has shown great power while playing in the Royals' farm system, will be looked upon to add some clout as well. In addition, Luke Scott will return, and Tampa Bay hopes he can be healthy enough to deliver on the promise that prompted the ballclub to sign the slugger prior to the 2012 season.
Manager Joe Maddon likes his team, but he believes the Rays will have their work cut out for them playing in the tough AL East.
"It's going to be kind of tight, and it's going to be very tight," Maddon said. "Respectfully, I think every team in our division is going to have an opportunity to get to the playoffs next year -- more so than any time in the recent past."
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Pirates at 1:05 p.m. ET and away vs. Red Sox at 1:35 p.m, Feb. 23.
Home vs. Orioles, April 2 at 3:10 p.m.
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Will Longoria be healthy?
Clearly Longoria is the Rays' best offensive player. With Longoria in the starting lineup last season, they went 47-27. When he wasn't with the team due to a partially torn left hamstring, Tampa Bay was 41-44. Longoria also missed a good chunk of the season in 2011 due to an oblique injury. Despite missing more than half of last season, Longoria hit .289 with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs. The ballclub scored nearly a run more per game during his time on the active roster.
2. Can Hernandez grab a spot in the starting rotation?
In December, the Rays signed Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, to a one-year, $3.25 million deal, with an additional $1.85 million available via incentives. Losing Shields has put the club in a situation where it will have to cover for a lot of innings previously accounted for by the workhorse, who pitched 200-plus innings in six straight seasons. Hernandez looks made to order for what Tampa Bay needs.
3. Will having players participate in the World Baseball Classic be a problem?
Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney will both pitch for the Dominican Republic, where pitching year round doesn't seem to be a problem. Both are used to pitching during winter ball, so it's not likely that having to be ready to pitch in stressful situations earlier than normal will be a problem. Meanwhile, Zobrist will play for Team USA, which means he'll have to get his hitting stroke honed earlier than usual, which might be a good thing based on his slow start in 2012. The only consideration with him will be to make sure he gets rested enough, and Maddon has always been proactive in that regard.
90-72, third in the AL East
Projected batting order
1. CF Desmond Jennings:
.246 BA, .314 OBP, .388 SLG, 13 HR, 47 RBIs in 2012
2. 2B Kelly Johnson:
.225 BA, .313 OBP, .365 SLG, 16 HR, 55 RBIs in 2012
3. 3B Evan Longoria:
.289 BA, .369 OBP, .527 SLG, 17 HR, 55 RBIs in 2012
4. RF Ben Zobrist:
.270 BA, .377 OBP, .471 SLG, 20 HR, 74 RBIs in 2012
5. DH Luke Scott:
.229 BA, .285 OBP, .439 SLG, 14 HR, 55 RBIs in 2012
6. LF Matt Joyce:
.241 BA, .341 OBP, .429 SLG, 17 HR, 59 RBIs in 2012
7. 1B James Loney:
.249 BA, .293 OBP, .336 SLG, 6 HR, 41 RBIs in 2012
8. SS Yunel Escobar:
.253 BA, .300 OBP, .344 SLG, 9 HR, 51 RBIs in 2012
9. C Jose Molina:
.223 BA, .286 OBP, .355 SLG, 8 HR, 32 RBIs in 2012
The new guys
IF/OF Johnson: The 30-year-old spent last season with the Blue Jays. He broke into the big leagues with the Braves in 2005, signed with the D-backs before the '10 season and was traded to Toronto in '11. He has a .255 career average despite dropping to .225 last year.
RHP Hernandez: The 32-year-old finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2007 after posting a 19-8 record with a 3.06 ERA for the Indians, and he was an All-Star in '10. Cleveland did not exercise a $6 million club option to retain him for the '13 season. He has compiled a career 53-69 record and 4.64 ERA over 184 games (153 starts), and he has limited right-handed hitters to a .243 batting average over his career.
1B Loney: The 28-year-old has a .282 career average with 73 home runs and 459 RBIs and is known as a slick fielder. Loney had an off year in 2012, when he hit .249 with six home runs and 41 RBIs for the Dodgers and Red Sox. He made $6.375 million in 2012, and the Rays will pay him $2 million this season, and he could make another $1 million in incentives.
SS Escobar: His acquisition should improve the Rays' defense while also allowing the club to take advantage of Zobrist's talents. Zobrist finished last season as the club's regular shortstop. Now he will likely be used primarily at second base and right field. Escobar, who hit .253 with nine home runs and 51 RBIs for Toronto in 2012, will make $5 million this year, and his deal includes club options for '14 and '15 at $5 million per season.
OF Shelley Duncan: The 33-year-old spent the 2012 season with the Indians and hit .203 with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs in 81 games. Over the last three seasons with Cleveland, he has totaled 33 home runs with 114 RBIs in 242 games. The right-handed-hitting outfielder also played parts of three seasons in the Major Leagues with the Yankees. He is the son of former Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan and the brother of former Major League outfielder Chris Duncan. He is signed to a Minor League contract with an invite to Major League Spring Training.
RHP Jamey Wright: A 17-year Major League veteran who has a 4.89 ERA over 592 career appearances (246 starts), he went 5-3 with a 3.72 ERA in 66 relief outings for the Dodgers last year. He transitioned to a full-time role in the bullpen in 2008 and has compiled a 4.15 ERA in 357 2/3 innings pitched since then, the second-most relief innings in the Major Leagues in that span. Wright was originally a first-round selection by the Rockies in the 1993 First-Year Player Draft. He has also spent time with the Brewers, Cardinals, Royals, Giants, Rangers, Indians and Mariners. He is signed to a Minor League contract with an invite to Major League Spring Training.
RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo: Formerly known as Leo Nunez, he spent last year with the Marlins' organization but did not pitch in the Major Leagues. The 30-year-old spent the first three and a half months of the season on the restricted list and then underwent Tommy John surgery in September after injuring his right elbow in a rehab assignment with Triple-A New Orleans. The reliever logged 92 saves from 2009-11 as Florida's closer and has a career 4.34 ERA over seven Major League seasons with the Royals and Marlins. His contract with the Rays includes a club option for 2014. He is signed to a Minor League contract with an invite to Major League Spring Training.
Prospects to watch
OF Myers: The 22-year-old certainly has the resume to be considered for a spot in the Rays' lineup. He began the 2012 season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas and earned a May 16 promotion to Triple-A Omaha. He hit a combined .314 with 37 home runs and 109 RBIs. Ranked as the organization's top prospect, the North Carolina native has a .303 average with 64 home runs, 259 RBIs, a .395 on-base percentage and a .522 slugging percentage over four Minor League seasons after being selected in the third round of the '09 First-Year Player Draft by Kansas City. If Myers does not break camp with the team, chances are the outfield will see Joyce in left, Jennings in center and Zobrist in right.
RHP Odorizzi: Acquired in last November's deal with the Royals, the 22-year-old made his Major League debut in September and went 0-1 with a 4.91 ERA in two starts. He spent the majority of the season with Triple-A Omaha, where he was named the team's Pitcher of the Year, going 11-3 with a 2.93 in 19 games (18 starts). Odorizzi began the 2012 season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas and was promoted after going 4-2 with a 3.32 ERA in seven starts. His combined 15 victories tied for third most in Minor League baseball. Originally selected by the Brewers in the supplemental first round (32nd overall) of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, Odorizzi, who is ranked as the Rays' No. 5 prospect by MLB.com, was one of several players traded to the Royals in December 2010 for pitcher Zack Greinke.
LHP Mike Montgomery: The 23-year-old made 10 starts for Northwest Arkansas and 17 starts for Omaha and went a combined 5-12 with a 6.07 ERA in 27 starts. Over the past two seasons, Montgomery has gone 10-23 with a 5.69 ERA and 133 walks. However, from 2008-10, he combined to go 15-10 with a 2.27 ERA, 220 strikeouts and only 79 walks. The southpaw, who is ranked as the Rays' No. 8 prospect by MLB.com, was originally selected in the supplemental first round (36th overall) of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of Hart High School in Newhall, Calif.
RHP Archer: Only 24, he posted a 3.66 ERA in 25 starts for Triple-A Durham in 2012. Archer led the International League and all Rays farmhands with 139 strikeouts. Acquired as part of the trade that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs, Archer has compiled a 3.89 ERA with 269 strikeouts over two seasons in Tampa Bay's farm system. He served two stints in the Major Leagues in 2012, going 1-3 with a 4.60 ERA in six games (four starts).
SS Hak-Ju Lee: Ranked as the Rays' No. 2 prospect by MLB.com, the 22-year-old set team records at Double-A Montgomery by hitting in 21 consecutive games and reaching base safely in 46 in a row, surpassing the previous mark of 37 set by Longoria in 2007. During the 46-game on-base streak, Lee hit .308 with a .387 on-base percentage. In his second year in the organization, Lee hit .261 with four home runs and 37 RBIs. The slick-fielding shortstop was named the organization's best baserunner last season.
On the rebound
DH Scott: After two trips to the disabled list that caused him to miss 45 games, Scott finished with a .229 batting average, 14 homers and 55 RBIs. The Rays bought out his team option for $1 million and did not exercise his $6 million team option. They then re-signed Scott in the hopes that he can be healthy this year and live up to the promise that originally prompted them to sign him prior to the 2012 season.
RHP Niemann: The 29-year-old went 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA and was limited to eight starts due to injury. He spent three and a half months on the disabled list with a fractured right fibula. Niemann returned to make only one more start on Sept. 1, but he lasted just 3 1/3 innings due to tightness in his right arm. That was later diagnosed as slight inflammation to his rotator cuff.
RHP Rodney: The Rays' closer will play for the Dominican Republic after a historic 2012 season that saw him set a Major League record for a relief pitcher (minimum 50 innings pitched) by recording a 0.60 ERA that topped Dennis Eckersley's record of 0.61 set with Oakland in 1990. Rodney allowed just one earned run in 45 innings pitched over his final 45 appearances. He also established a club record by recording a career-high 48 saves.
RHP Peralta: The 36-year-old senior member of the Rays' staff in 2012 will pitch for the Dominican Republic after finishing his eighth Major League season with a 3.63 ERA and a career-high 84 strikeouts. He tied for second in the AL with 76 appearances and led the Major Leagues with 37 holds, which was the most by an AL reliever since 1974 according to Stats, Inc.
IF/OF Zobrist: He'll suit up for Team USA after another solid season with the Rays that saw him play a career-high 157 games while hitting .270 with 20 home runs and 74 RBIs. According to Stats Inc., he also became the first player since records are available (1921) to start at least 45 games at three positions in a season.
OF Upton: After hitting .246 with 28 home runs, 78 RBIs and 31 stolen bases last season, he signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves. His 113 home runs and 217 stolen bases over the past six seasons made him the only player in the Major Leagues with at least 100 home runs and 200 stolen bases.
RHP Shields: Traded to the Roayls in December, he owned a career 87-73 record and 3.89 ERA with the Rays and is the team's all-time leader in wins, starts (217), innings pitched (1,454 2/3), strikeouts (1,250), complete games (19) and shutouts (eight). The veteran made a club-record four Opening Day starts. In 2012, he went 15-10 with a 3.52 ERA and ranked third in the AL in innings pitched and fourth with 223 strikeouts. It was his sixth consecutive season of at least 200 innings.
1B Pena: The veteran first baseman returned to the Rays in 2012 looking to rekindle the magic of his glory days with the ballclub, but after getting off to an auspicious beginning with a grand slam in his first game back with the team, Pena struggled for most of the season. He hit just .197 with 19 home runs and 61 RBIs. While he did draw 87 walks, that was offset by his 182 strikeouts.
RHP Davis: After going 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA in 54 relief appearances in 2012, the 27-year-old was traded to the Royals in December. Prior to 2012, Davis posted a 4.22 ERA over 64 starts from 2009-11. Davis has dominating stuff and will likely join Kansas City's rotation this year.
LHP Howell: The southpaw went 1-0 with a 3.04 ERA in 55 games in 2012, enjoying a fully healthy year after missing all of 2010 and the first 44 games of the 2011 season due to a left shoulder injury. Along the way, Howell established a club scoreless streak of 27 1/3 innings by not allowing a run from June 14 until Aug. 30. Howell signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers worth $2.85 million.
IF Keppinger: After hitting a team-high .325 over 115 games, making him the only member of the 2012 Rays to hit .300, he signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the White Sox. Keppinger established a career high with nine home runs, despite spending 29 games on the disabled list. He came within 84 plate appearances of qualifying for the batting title. Had he done so with an average of .325, he would have ranked third in the AL.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.