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Rays spring training preview

Alex Cobb, a key to what’s expected to be an elite starting rotation, says the possibility of a championship season will “be on everybody’s mind.”

Alex Cobb, a key to what’s expected to be an elite starting rotation, says the possibility of a championship season will “be on everybody’s mind.”

ST. PETERSBURG — Stuff happens. The Rays lived it in 2009 when a season of great anticipation and expectation that followed their first, and thus far only, World Series appearance went horribly awry.

Some players counted heavily upon get hurt, others disappoint. Moves that looked good in the winter prove to be terrible mistakes. (Cough, Pat Burrell, cough.) J.P. Howell gives up a walkoff homer to unlikely slugger Ryan Langerhans in a delineating August game. Scott Kazmir gets traded. And the season ends bitterly, in third place, 19 games out.

As the Rays reconvene this week in Port Charlotte to open spring training, there is a similar sense of optimism and excitement — matched perhaps only in February 2009 — among fans, team officials, media and players that they have assembled their best squad yet.

"I don't like to say World Series or bust, but I absolutely think we have a World Series-caliber team," starter Alex Cobb said. "And that's all that's going to be on everybody's mind."

Asked recently how he felt about the current squad, principal owner Stuart Sternberg said, "Probably too good, because when I felt good in the past, that's when we've really fallen on our face, especially 2009. You couldn't feel better."

But, still …

"I could certainly feel better about things, but this is clearly as good a team we could ask for given our constraints, given where we are and just given where we are from a talent standpoint, to be able to bring the infield back and the outfield back and our catcher back, and add to that, certainly with a couple of minuses around," Sternberg said.

"For a team that made the postseason last year, you never know one year to the next, but it's encouraging."

The Rays decided familiarity breeds success, minimizing their usual annual roster makeover to return the bulk of last year's team that won 92 games and got to the AL Division Series, raising the payroll from $62 million to a franchise-high of around $80 million (despite finishing last in attendance) to do so. It could be the first time since 2001-02 that the nine players on the field to start the final game of the previous season are in spring training the next — if Jose Lobaton is not traded by Saturday.

The Rays made a series of somewhat expensive and unexpected moves, such as re-signing first baseman James Loney and extending outfielder David DeJesus, and did not make a widely expected one in declining — thus far, anyway — to trade ace David Price.

They upgraded a traditional weak spot by trading for catcher Ryan Hanigan, added depth to the bullpen and the bench in acquiring Heath Bell and Logan Forsythe, respectively. And they capped the winter by filling arguably their biggest hole in signing All-Star closer Grant Balfour. The only down note was starter Jeremy Hellickson requiring Jan. 29 elbow surgery that will keep him out at least into May.

"I think we have what it takes," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "I'm really excited, super excited about this team and to see it happen."

Sternberg said the primary reason they added Balfour (on a two-year, $12 million deal) was because this group has a chance to be "special." Executive vice president Andrew Friedman has used the word "great," though with the proviso that that has been the case before during their run of an MLB high-matching four playoff appearances in the past six years.

"I feel like we have a roster that complements each other well," Friedman said. "I don't feel like there's any one component that we'll be deficient in. The question is, how many can we excel in? That remains to be seen, but we like the roster we have in place."

The compilation is not without some flaws, and questions. Friedman acknowledges that depth is an ongoing agenda item, and the bullpen is a constant concern. "There has not been an opening day since I've been in this position where I haven't worried extensively about the bullpen and how it will fare," he said.

Expectations are mounting, which manager Joe Maddon welcomes — "Bring 'em on" — and understands.

"I know all of a sudden it stacks up, from the outside looking in, a little bit firmer than maybe it has in the past," Maddon said. "Internally when you come to spring training and you're in our room, we expect to go to the playoffs and the World Series every year regardless of what the names are. But obviously there's a couple more significant cast members this year that maybe give you a better chance to do that."

Maybe better than ever.

Here is a look at how the Rays look heading into spring training:

Offense

After finishing ninth in the AL with 700 runs last year as they shifted to more of a higher-contact, fewer-strikeouts approach, the Rays expect better. It'll help to have full seasons of rookie of the year Wil Myers (right), who came up in mid June and should be naturally improved with experience, and David DeJesus, who was acquired in late August. Ryan Hanigan is being counted on to bounce back from a down '13 to make the catcher's spot more productive. Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings are capable of more.

Hitting coach Derek Shelton said that to have so many returning players familiar with their "team offense" approach is a significant advantage since there won't need to be an extended adjustment period.

But speed again appears lacking, limiting their attack and requiring smarter decisions than they made last year on the bases. They look a bit too right-handed — with five everyday players swinging from that side — and potentially won't have a lefty bat on the bench when facing a righty starter. They'd be well off, too, in keeping Evan Longoria, who played in a career-high 160 games, healthy again and James Loney, who hit .299 with a .778 on-base plus slugging percentage, close to as productive as last season.

Defense

Re-signing 1B James Loney (right ) — and picking up options on 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar — allowed the Rays to keep intact an infield that featured four Gold Glove finalists and committed a major-league-low 36 errors (of a team-record-low 59 total). It's only the third time in franchise history they've had the opening day infield back the next season.

Pairing Hanigan with Jose Molina behind the plate should give the Rays one of the strongest defensive duos in the game. Jennings and DeJesus are smooth outfielders, and they hope Myers will be smoother, with Joyce in the mix in a DH/outfield rotation. Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe are two extremely versatile reserves.

Rotation

With David Price (right), Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer, the starting staff is still among the game's best and the strength of the team. Losing Jeremy Hellickson for a projected 6-8 weeks hurts, but Jake Odorizzi and/or Alex Colome look to be solid replacement options.

Consider that last year the Rays were still among the AL leaders even though Price and Cobb missed extended time due to injuries, Moore also was on the DL, Archer wasn't called up until June 1 and Hellickson and since-departed Roberto Hernandez were a combined 18-23, 5.04 while starting 55 games.

Bullpen

Fernando Rodney, Alex Torres and Jamey Wright are among the departed, but the top five relievers still look quite impressive: solid setup men Jake McGee and Joel Peralta and three veterans who each have had 30-save seasons — Grant Balfour (right), Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo. "About as good a stack of names as we've had," manager Joe Maddon said.

But … Balfour is 36, and the Orioles, for whatever reason, flunked him on a physical. Oviedo hasn't pitched in the majors since September 2011 due to injuries and identity-fraud issues. Bell is 36 and hasn't pitched very well the past two years. Peralta turns 38 in March and has made a major-league-most 227 appearances the past three seasons.

Plus, they'll likely have only two lefties (McGee and Cesar Ramos), and length is a concern as Ramos and whoever wins the final spot look to be the only multiple-inning candidates.

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

Rays spring training preview 02/08/14 [Last modified: Saturday, February 8, 2014 10:41pm]

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