With Major League Baseball free agency in full effect, baseball fans around the nation are bewildered at the rapid signings and confused about the status of their favorite players. While some teams have decided to rise from the inept into the grander tiers of baseball, others have trudged through the sluggish season with relatively minor moves. • Several owners have revitalized their franchises with extravagant acquisitions, most notably the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. However, here in Tampa Bay, loyal Rays fans have suffered heartbreak after heartbreak with the departures of manager Joe Maddon, general manager Andrew Friedman, outfielder Wil Myers and infielder Ben Zobrist, and question the stability and mindset of the organization. Here, we will investigate each position in depth in an attempt to shed light on this seemingly grim situation.
The Rays cut ties with C Jose Molina in November, a player who was highly criticized for his inability to produce runs. The move left the Rays with little depth at the position, until they acquired C Rene Rivera from the Padres as part of the three-team trade that sent Wil Myers to San Diego. Rivera batted .252 with a .319 on-base percentage in 103 games last season, and looks to take over the catcher role in Tampa Bay while saving the Rays millions of dollars.
James Loney, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Rays in January 2014, returns for another season with Tampa Bay. Loney is the lone player for the organization listed as a first baseman. He produced only nine home runs and 69 RBI last season, to the tune of a .290 batting average. In 2015, Loney looks to return to his 2013 form (13 HR, 75 RBI, .299 batting average) and re-establish himself as one of the premier first basemen in baseball.
Fan favorite Ben Zobrist was traded to the Oakland Athletics in January. He was a valuable utility man who could play virtually any position on the baseball field. He will be replaced by Nick Franklin and Logan Forsythe, two promising young players who have improved from Zobrist's veteran guidance and will solidify the position for years to come. In addition, Tim Beckham is an intriguing young star who looks to make his mark in MLB.
The Rays' shortstop for the past two seasons, Yunel Escobar, was traded to the Oakland Athletics in January. His stout defense and offensive reliability will be greatly missed, but recent signee Asdrubal Cabrera will look to compensate for that loss. Cabrera is a former All-Star who will provide the Rays with greatly needed offensive prowess. Even if Cabrera struggles in his first year as a Ray, the shortstop position is loaded with talent, particularly in Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham, who could take over the position if needed.
Evan Longoria, fan favorite and Rays staple for the past six years, will operate at third base for another season. His offensive talents (184 home runs, 635 RBI, and a .271 batting average) in his career garnered him a 6-year, $100 million contract with Tampa Bay in November 2012. Despite producing only 22 HR and 91 RBI in 2014 and not being voted into the All-Star Game, Longoria is optimistic for 2015 and seeks to continue his success with the organization.
David DeJesus returns for his 12th year in the major leagues to patrol leftfield for the Rays. His production dipped last year to 6 home runs, 19 RBI and a .248 batting average. Similar to last season, DeJesus looks to spend much of his time at designated hitter but will also play outfield if needed. Brandon Guyer is a viable option to take over at leftfield, as the outfield logjam has been reduced with the trade of LF Matt Joyce to the Los Angeles Angels.
The absence of OF Wil Myers should open up some more playing time for CF Desmond Jennings, who plans to rebound from an injury-plagued 2014 season. Due to more experience in the major leagues, Jennings should improve from last year's 10 HR, 36 RBI totals and hopefully blossom into the superstar that scouts envisioned during his time in the minors. If he suffers from injuries again, look for phenom Kevin Kiermaier to take over.
Steven Souza Jr.
Rightfield in 2015 will most likely be a platoon between the young and talented Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza Jr. The latter was obtained by the Rays from the Washington Nationals as part of the Wil Myers trade, and is considered one of the most talented young outfielders in the league. Kevin Kiermaier, who infused energy into the Rays last season with his "hair on fire" playing style, also will return as part of a strong rightfielder position.
On the days that either John Jaso or Brandon Guyer are manning other positions, David DeJesus will slip into his original role as the designated hitter for Tampa Bay. He is ready to contribute in a major way for the Rays in 2015 and play better than his poor 2014 season indicates. The talented John Jaso will have a similar role, and will take over at designated hitter on off days for DeJesus or when all of the other field positions are filled.
1. Alex Cobb
2. Chris Archer
3. Drew Smyly
4. Jake Odorizzi
5. Alex Colome
6. Nate Karns
7. Matt Moore
Similar to previous years, the Rays boast a strong pitching staff that figures to remain among the elite in the American League. Regardless of the loss of top pitchers including David Price and James Shields in previous seasons, the Rays' lineup remains daunting as a result of their excellent farm system. Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi are young aces who seek to establish themselves atop the league's stars, and Matt Moore is looking to the 2015 season as an opportunity to return to his dominant form after Tommy John surgery. Upon the trade of pitcher Jeremy Hellickson to the Arizona Diamondbacks and the release of SP Erik Bedard, Drew Smyly will have an increased role with the team. Acquired by Tampa Bay in the David Price trade, Smyly should have competition with the young (but able) Nate Karns and Alex Colome for the final spot in the starting rotation after Matt Moore returns.
Grant Balfour (closer)
C. J. Riefenhauser
As usual, Tampa Bay has a plethora of relievers who will have a significant impact on the fate of the Rays during the course of the season. Jake McGee, who assumed the position of closer after Grant Balfour struggled, will return to the bullpen, where he dominated last season (1.89 ERA, 19 saves, 90 strikeouts). The aforementioned Balfour looks to recover from his pitching misery last season, and will reclaim his spot as the Rays closer en route to his return to the elite closers in baseball. RP Joel Peralta, who has served as the Rays' eighth-inning specialist for the past few years, has been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and his skills will be missed in the bullpen. However, the Rays have a talented lineup of relievers headlined by the newly acquired Ernesto Frieri and the improving Brad Boxberger, and aim to make the bullpen one of the Rays' strengths in the upcoming 2015 season.