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Rays appear to have all the pieces to be a winner

You would think the most obvious way to gauge how good the Rays could be this season would be to walk through the clubhouse and take note of the impressive talent they have assembled.

But the players in the room have taken a different approach: looking for what's missing.

"We all talk about it and we sit there and we try to think of an over-glaring weakness," ace pitcher David Price said. "But we don't have — to me or anyone else in here — an over-glaring weakness. … I think we do have a very solid team. We're all extremely excited. Everybody feels good right now. … I don't know what our weakness is honestly."

Team officials say that categorizing their approach to this season as "all-in" is all wrong. But there is no debate that they took unusual steps — for them, anyway — to assemble a team that can not only compete for a fifth playoff berth in the past seven seasons but stand as a legitimate contender to win the World Series.

"We don't need anything," manager Joe Maddon said. "I really believe that."

The roster is the product of a series of offseason moves they made, specifically in re-signing veterans like first baseman James Loney and outfielder David DeJesus and bringing in established players like closer Grant Balfour and catcher Ryan Hanigan. And one very big move they did not make: the expected trade of Price.

It wasn't quite a spending spree — more like a brisk stroll compared to the binges of their AL East brethren. But, relatively speaking, it is a big deal (especially after finishing last in attendance in 2013) for the Rays to raise opening-day payroll nearly 30 percent, potentially the biggest increase in the majors, from $62 million to a franchise record of nearly $80 million.

"You always want to do as much as you can and put the guys in position to succeed," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "We can usually only do so much … our ability to do vs. others is not as great.

"I don't recall another year where we have done as much as we possibly could … for the 30-, 35-man roster, the coaches, everything else that goes along with it. In that respect, I feel good that we left no stone unturned."

Why this year?

Because, Sternberg said, they felt confident that spending the extra money had a legit chance to pay off in wins.

"That was part of it," Sternberg said. "Sometimes in the past we could have spent some more money — you could always spend more, and you could always spend less — but it still would have left some holes. Question marks. Gaping holes.

"This year, with the money we spent — you never know how things turn out, they have to play the games and there's health and everything else — there was really nothing left to spend that was even remotely possible."

The onfield assets are easy to see, a prime reason the Rays are a popular choice by national experts to win it all.

Price heads a rotation that, with Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer behind him, and Jake Odorizzi filling in for injured Jeremy Hellickson, looks to be arguably the best in the majors.

Balfour gives the Rays a legitimate proven closer they didn't expect to have with Fernando Rodney leaving, firming up a bullpen stocked with experienced (although thus older) arms.

Evan Longoria anchors a lineup they feel is more dynamic and deeper than in the past, and better just based on continuity, continuing their 2013 shift to increased contact and reduced strikeouts.

And, somehow, they have even more positional versatility and the potential for an improved defense that made only 59 errors, breaking the MLB record (yet second to the Orioles), and featured four Gold Glove finalists (though no winners) on the infield, all of whom return.

Maddon has used the word "balance" a lot this spring when asked to describe the team, and that was by design.

"Every year at the beginning of the offseason we have great fear in our ability to execute on the things that we want to do, so our goal and mind-set is to bite it off in small pieces and try to attack it that way," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

"When we headed into spring training, we were pleased with what we were able to accomplish in terms of the well-rounded nature of our team. That's obviously always the goal, but sometimes it's easier to execute on that than others. And sometimes we'll have a clearer strength in one area and a little bit less in another, but the net result is similar.

"But in an ideal world, it would be very much balanced around all the various components, and we feel like we have a chance to have a team that is that."

Completing the package is Maddon's managerial acumen, a significant amount of experience (overall and postseason), plus a load of intangibles, such as maturity, chemistry and a quiet confidence.

The questions they do have are somewhat benign: Whether their plan to rotate DH at-bats primarily among the outfielders works; the age of the back-end relievers; Odorizzi's performance for two months.

"I don't think there's anything that we're really lacking in right now," Longoria said. "If you're looking at a team and trying to rate a team, when you look at a championship-caliber team and you look at what elements you think you need to put one together, we have all of those.

"We have the experience, we have the talent, we have the attitude and we have that good clubhouse chemistry."

In other words, all the pieces.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Building a winner?

In what was an unusually expensive offseason, the Rays spent the money to retain the core of their 2013 playoff team and make some key additions. Among the bigger deals:

$21 million: over 3 years to re-sign 1B James Loney, largest contract for a free agent under Stuart Sternberg regime

$14 million: one-year deal to avoid arbitration with LHP David Price, largest salary in franchise history

$12 million: over two years to sign closer Grant Balfour after his deal with Orioles collapsed

$12 million: options to bring back 2B Ben Zobrist ($7M) and SS Yunel Escobar ($5M)

$9.95 million: over three years to newly acquired C Ryan Hanigan, plus $3.75 million 2017 option or $800,000 buyout

$9.5 million: over two years to bring back OF David DeJesus, plus $5 million 2016 option/$1 million buyout

$5.5 million: salary taken on, of $9 million total, to add RHP Heath Bell

$4.5 million: over two years to re-sign C Jose Molina

They also made three trades, which filled holes and managed assets

. Acquired RHP Bell (from Arizona) and Hanigan (from Cincinnati) for pair of minor-leaguers, RHP Justin Choate and OF Todd Glaesmann

. Acquired INF Logan Forsythe, RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Matt Andriese, RHP Matt Lollis, INF Maxx Tissenbaum (from San Diego) for LHP Alex Torres, RHP Jesse Hahn

. Acquired RHP Nathan Karns (from Washington) for C Jose Lobaton, LHP Felipe Rivero, OF Drew Vettleson

Rays appear to have all the pieces to be a winner 03/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014 9:25pm]

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