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Tampa Bay Rays 2014 Preview

<p>The Rays have reached the playoffs four times in six seasons since dropping "Devil" from the moniker, and they did it again in 2013 while with a roster that saw nondescript names like Matt Joyce, Jose Lobaton and Sam Fuld in more than 100 games apiece alongside proven commodities like Evan Longoria and yet another Rookie of the Year - their third in six seasons - in Wil Myers.</p>

The Rays have reached the playoffs four times in six seasons since dropping "Devil" from the moniker, and they did it again in 2013 while with a roster that saw nondescript names like Matt Joyce, Jose Lobaton and Sam Fuld in more than 100 games apiece alongside proven commodities like Evan Longoria and yet another Rookie of the Year - their third in six seasons - in Wil Myers.

Four members of the starting rotation won at least 10 games each, while another, 24-year-old right-hander Chris Archer, was just a win away from double-digits. All five come back for 2014, including former AL Cy Young Award winner David Price (10-8, 3.33 ERA in 27 starts) and emerging southpaw standout Matt Moore, who was 17-4 in 27 starts in just his second big-league season.

Twenty-five-year old Alex Cobb was 11-3 over 22 starts in his second run through the majors as well, and another of the former top rookies, Jeremy Hellickson, went 12-10 in 32 games in his third season. He'll miss the start of the season after offseason surgery, however, which props the door open for first-year prospect Jake Odorizzi to begin the year in the rotation and strut his stuff.

The back end of the bullpen is new again after the re-signing of former set-up man Grant Balfour, who'd spent the last three seasons as a closer in Oakland.

"The big part is complementary pieces. You try to get people that balance each other out," manager Joe Maddon said. "You are trying to get both left-handed and right-handed hitters out at the end of a game, and how does this all play? (General Manager) Andrew (Friedman) does a wonderful job keeping an eye on that, and he gets us the right kind of folks to work with.

"It's all about building confidence and putting them in a position to succeed. It's the understanding of how they can succeed in this role and not let them out there too long where something bad can happen and let them build their confidence."

2013 FINISH (92-71) - Second Place (AL East, Lost ALDS to Boston)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Grant Balfour (RHP), Heath Bell (RHP), Logan Forsythe (IF), Ryan Hanigan (C).

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Jesse Crain (RHP), Roberto Hernandez (RHP), Kelly Johnson (2B), Jeff Niemann (RHP), Fernando Rodney (RHP), Luke Scott (DH)

PROJECTED LINEUP: David DeJesus (LF), Ben Zobrist (2B), Evan Longoria (3B), Wil Myers (RF), Matt Joyce (DH), James Loney (1B), Desmond Jennings (CF), Yunel Escobar (SS), Ryan Hanigan (C)

PROJECTED ROTATION: David Price (LHP), Alex Cobb (RHP), Matt Moore (LHP), Chris Archer (RHP), Jake Odorizzi (RHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Grant Balfour (RHP)

MANAGER: Joe Maddon

IS IT FEAST OR FAMINE FOR WIL MYERS?

A former third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals - acquired in the trade for James Shields - Wil Myers debuted as a 22-year-old in June and proceeded to take the Gulf Coast by storm for the rest of the season while hitting .293 with 13 homers and 53 runs batted in. Then, he got to the postseason and well, disappeared, managing just two hits in 20 at-bats with seven strikeouts in five games. Now that he's penciled in as the Rays' cleanup hitter and full-time starter in right field, it'll be interesting to see if the North Carolinian will bounce back or be swallowed up by a sophomore jinx. His nine hits in his first 33 spring at-bats show signs of the former, which would certainly be welcomed by Maddon and Co. on a team that's not exactly blessed with excess offense.

ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER TOP ROOKIE?

Since turning the corner from mediocrity to respectability in 2008, the Rays have not only been consistent postseason participants - four berths in six seasons - but have also served as a fountain for youthful rookie-of-the-year caliber talents. Evan Longoria won the American League award in the franchise's breakout 2008 season and was followed by pitcher Jeremy Hellickson in 2011 and by the aforementioned Myers in 2013. This year's early candidate is right-handed pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who came along with Myers in the trade that sent Shields to the Royals. He made four starts in seven appearances in a late-season audition in 2013 and will get a starting slot to begin 2014 thanks to Hellickson's offseason arm surgery. If he gets off to the start many are expecting, it won't be long before one of the arms is expendable for additional offensive punch.

IS GRANT BALFOUR THE ANSWER AT CLOSER?

Based on numbers alone, the reacquisition of Aussie flamethrower Grant Balfour was a coup for the Rays after he saved 64 games in three seasons for Oakland. He was with Tampa Bay for four seasons prior to that stint, however, and was intermittently brilliant and maddening along the way while pitching to a 3.33 ERA across 203 appearances, mostly as a set-up man. He struck out an average of 10 per nine innings with the Rays, but walked four per nine as well, and was tagged for 13 homers, too. Both the walk and strikeout numbers ebbed a bit in a starring role with the Athletics, but it's only the most strong-stomached fan who won't experience a bit of uneasiness with him in a tight spot.

X-FACTOR: DAVID PRICE

If you'd have said one year ago that David Price would still be pitching for the Rays come the start of the 2014 season, some would have suggested therapy. But here it is late March and the Vanderbilt-reared lefty is still an ace in a Tampa Bay uniform. That said, making the same statement about Price while looking forward to 2015 would prompt even more blank stares. He'll make $14 million this season for a tight-fisted franchise and will be eligible for salary arbitration prior to next season, lengthening the odds that he'll stick around, especially if the Rays aren't ahead of the pack at the trade deadline. The emergence of Odorizzi and the continued ascensions of Matt Moore and Alex Cobb might soften the blow if he were to be shipped out for bats.

OUTLOOK

Sure, they play in what's long been considered the roughest division in major league baseball. But the Rays have proven up to the task in four of six seasons using a formula that's heavy on pitching and light on big-ticket contracts. Manager Joe Maddon somehow mixes it all into a dynamic and competitive unit that seems far greater than the sum of its parts. He'll need Longoria to put up his usual numbers and Myers to show more of last season's summer persona than fall, but with a pitching staff stocked to the rafters with talent, there's no reason to think Tampa Bay isn't in for another playoff run.

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