Things are always complicated with the Rays. • Coming off a season in which they won 90 games despite being ravaged by injuries and heading into one with their division considered as wide open and winnable as ever, they would have seemed positioned to stay relatively intact and to bid to extend their run of contention to an impressive sixth straight season. • But that's not how they do business. Can't be, they say. • So when they gather in Port Charlotte this week to open spring training, more than a half-dozen key players, including workhorse pitching leader James Shields and top homer/RBI man B.J. Upton, won't be there. • Some are gone for dollars, some for sense. • "It's always difficult, and it's always an issue that is extremely prevalent in our thought process of balancing the now and the future," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "And obviously the most difficult thing to do is to thread the needle where you have a very realistic chance of playing competitive games in September and putting yourself in a better position for the future."
"But we're optimistic that we've been able to accomplish that."
Besides Shields and Upton, the departed include Jeff Keppinger, who was the Rays' top hitter; Carlos Peña, who ranked third in homers and RBIs; and three members of their American League-best bullpen: Burke Badenhop, Wade Davis and J.P. Howell.
One issue: The best of the dozen or so players they acquired, blue-chip outfield prospect Wil Myers, is projected to be a future star but may not be of much, if any, help this season. Same for the next-best prospect, pitcher Jake Odorizzi.
Another issue: The moves chopped off $28 million of 2012 dollars (and $36.3 million in 2013), but the net result, due to raises for incumbents, was negligible. The Rays basically maintained a payroll in the low $60 millions.
For now, they'll fill some spots internally with younger/cheaper players, others with discount-aisle replacements, veterans with pedigrees of past success but present-day questions: Yunel Escobar, Roberto Hernandez, Kelly Johnson, James Loney. Having Evan Longoria healthy, and Luke Scott, will be key, too.
For it to work again, the Rays are going to need a convergence of good — play, health, karma, timing, luck, etc.
Even without Shields and the extra 40-50 innings he worked, Friedman believes the rotation "will continue to be a strength." The bullpen was reinforced, in talent and depth.
The infield defense looks to be better, the outfield a matchup-driven puzzle. The bench is deeper. The lingering question is the offense, which will be more contact-oriented, and they hope more productive overall.
"We probably feel better about the 13 position players we have this year than last year in that our depth is extended," Friedman said. "We're not going to challenge any runs-scored records, but we're going to be a deep lineup that's dynamic, that adds value on the bases and also in the batter's box, and with guys that also play defense."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]
Here's a look at the changes the Rays have made and the potential impacts this spring training:
What they did: Traded right-hander Shields to the Royals; signed right-hander Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona).
What it means: Subtracting a 200-inning workhorse and the acknowledged veteran leader of an otherwise young staff is risky business. Their hope is that right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who didn't get through six innings in 14 of 31 starts last season, and lefty Matt Moore, who was inconsistent as a rookie, are ready to shoulder more innings (each threw 177) and responsibility as the Nos. 2-3 starters behind Cy Young Award-winning ace lefty David Price. Shields' "replacement" will come from which two make the rotation from the trio of right-hander Alex Cobb (impressive in most of his 23 starts last year), Jeff Niemann (coming back from a season lost to injuries) and Hernandez. Cobb probably has an edge.
What we say: The rotation is clearly weakened, though Moore could close the gap quickly.
What they did: Traded right-handers Davis to the Royals and Badenhop to the Brewers; lost left-hander Howell as free agent (Dodgers); re-signed free agent right-handers Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth; signed Hernandez and right-hander Jamey Wright (minor-league deal).
What it means: A strong bullpen is more vital with the potential of an increased workload in Shields' absence. The back end is intact, with Farnsworth, setup men Peralta and lefty Jake McGee, and righty closer Fernando Rodney, who would make the Rays happy if he is just close to as good as he was as last year. The void will be the 70 innings of better-than-you-thought "bridge" work by Davis, who made a team-high 23 appearances of more than one inning. Cesar Ramos is set to take Howell's spot as the other lefty. Badenhop will be replaced as the ground-ball specialist by Hernandez or Wright (or both).
What we say: There are questions, but there is depth, too. Overall, even.
What they did: Lost first baseman Peña (Astros) and infielder Keppinger (White Sox) as free agents; designated for assignment infielder Elliot Johnson and second baseman-shortstop Reid Brignac; acquired shortstop Escobar from the Marlins; signed first baseman Loney and infielder Kelly Johnson.
What it means: Improving the defense was a priority, and the additions of Escobar and Loney (considered by some better than Peña and Casey Kotchman) should do it, plus the return to health of Gold Glove third baseman Longoria. Second base looks to be a four-way job share among Kelly Johnson (who also will get time in leftfield), Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez (back to a super utility role) and Ben Zobrist (who will play in rightfield and occasionally at shortstop, too). Jose Molina and either Jose Lobaton or Chris Gimenez will again handle the catching.
What we say: The defense is better, the offense unclear. Even for now.
What they did: Lost centerfielder Upton as a free agent (Braves); re-signed free agent designated hitter Scott.
What it means: For all Upton's supposed flaws, he will be missed, at the plate, on the field, in the clubhouse. Desmond Jennings slides from left to center, where he played 419 of his 455 minor-league games. The corners will be manned by a combo of Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld (a lefty hitter who will face many lefty pitchers), plus Johnson and Roberts (who will get spring looks), Rodriguez, maybe Scott.
What we say: The Rays are weaker, though Jennings could have something to say about that.