Brian Anderson Q&A: Previewing the Rays’ 2014 season

Playing deep into October should be the mission.  

Like most who study the Tampa Bay Rays, Sun Sports color analyst Brian Anderson sees many things to like with them: Big names back, young stars rising, intriguing additions who should become factors in the club’s chase for a fifth playoff berth in seven years. There’s reason to look ahead.

With the season starting Monday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field, Anderson recently spoke about a variety of issues concerning the Rays as manager Joe Maddon prepares to lead the team for a ninth year.

FOX SPORTS FLORIDA: What are your thoughts on the key faces coming back? How important will those returns be for the Rays?

ANDERSON: I think it will be very important, because as we know, the American League East is tough year-in and year-out. So it used to be, if you were going to contend, you would have to deal with the Red Sox and the Yankees, and that was about it. Now, it’s just about everybody. Obviously, the Rays are right up there. New York, Boston — Baltimore is another team that is very, very dangerous and could contend for a playoff berth. Then Toronto. Toronto, they loaded up last year and got off to a slow start, but they’re a dangerous team also. So I think any time you can bring a majority of core players back from a playoff team at important positions, it’s going to bode well for you going into the season. I think we’ve seen that continuity from last year also carry over here into spring training.

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FSF: David Price is the big name back after an offseason when some expected him to be traded. How important is his return for the overall chemistry in the clubhouse?

ANDERSON: For me, that’s it. When you look at this ballclub, if David Price would have been traded, would this team still have contended? I think absolutely. There’s still a lot of pitching depth, a lot of dangerous pieces to this team — good defense, I think their offense is going to be much improved. However, that being said, when he came back, when spring training started — and I felt just like David felt — if he showed up at spring training and partook in that first workout, he was not going to go anywhere. As the closer it got (to spring training), the better feeling you had he was going to be part of the team this year. And now that that looks like exactly what’s going to happen, that makes you an instant contender. I don’t mean just a contender in the American League East. I think that this team has all the earmarks. Really, there are no glaring weaknesses at all. I think when you add him to the top of that rotation, everybody slots back one — and then you go along with that defense and an improved offense from last year, you’re talking about a team that has World Series capability. No question about it.

FSF: James Loney’s re-signing in the offseason preserves the infield that included all American League Gold Glove Award finalists last year. How key is his return to this overall lineup?

ANDERSON: I think that was the move that got things going for the Rays in the offseason. James Loney, you knew coming off of last year that there were going to be some suitors, and were the Rays going to be able to pony up the money? I think everybody thought, "No," they were not going to be able to do that. But guess what? They stepped up — three years to James Loney and spent a lot of money on him ($21 million). … I think that sent a clear message about what the front office thought about this team and how potentially good it could be.

FSF: Wil Myers is coming off the AL Rookie of the Year Award after his call up last June. What advice would you give him about avoiding a "sophomore slump," and what do you expect from him this season?

ANDERSON: I think coming off the Rookie of the Year, and the fact that he was able to win that award — he wasn’t up the entire season. I think that will drive him. I think that will drive him to see, "What kind of numbers can I put up when I’m up there for 162 games?" And this kid wants to get better and better and better and become an elite player in this game. I think you’re going to see him take the steps to do that. He did win the Rookie of the Year, was up long enough to see a lot of these pitchers one, two, sometimes three times. So if he continues to define his strike zone, you’re going to see those offensive numbers continue to rise. I think he has put a lot of work in defensively. I think you’ll see him get better and better out there with his judging the ball off the bat and taking good routes. We know when he cuts it loose he has got a strong arm. He’s a very confident kid. There’s no question about that. He does not doubt his abilities whatsoever. I think when you put that all in one package you’re excited to see what can come of it.

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FSF: Evan Longoria played a career-high 160 games last year after a career-low 74 the year before with injury problems. In what ways do you expect him to grow this year, and how important is his presence in the daily lineup?

ANDERSON: As far as position players go, he’s the guy everybody looks to. He’s the de-facto leader of this ballclub, especially when it comes to the guys who carry the sticks. So having him in the middle of that lineup — and now you team him up with Wil Myers in the middle there, James Loney around him, (Yunel) Escobar, Ben Zobrist – there are a lot of guys in that lineup that are capable of doing a lot of good things. He’s definitely important. We have seen that. When he has been out of the lineup, the team has not played up to its capabilities. When he is in there, it’s an elite team. I think that will not change. I think the older Evan gets, the more mature he becomes as a person, as a player. He understands his body now and what he needs to do to be ready for a full season, where he needs to cut back in some areas and maybe go a little bit forward in others. But the bottom line is, I still think his best years are ahead of him. Putting him in the middle of that lineup with some very solid hitters around him will not only benefit him — but it’€™s going to give even more opportunities to other guys. You look at the records when Evan plays and when he does not, that speaks volumes.

FSF: There are a few big additions this year — catcher Ryan Hanigan, closer Grant Balfour, reliever Heath Bell. Which particular player are you most interested in seeing? Who do you think will have the most success in a transition to the Rays?

ANDERSON: I’ve obviously been around and seen Grant Balfour do his thing with the Rays and being the closer with Oakland. You know what you’re going to get with him, and that is high intensity. He’s a guy who’s going to go out there and really go right after the opposition and try to end that ninth inning. He’s a big one. I’ll be interested to see Heath Bell trying to bounce back from last year. I know Joe Maddon has said that he looks really good this spring and is in really good shape, and his pitches look crisp. So they’re expecting a good bounce back from Heath. But Ryan Hanigan is a guy that intrigues me because of all that you have heard about him. We didn’t get to see a whole lot of him being over in the National League. But his ability to handle a pitching staff, call a game, frame pitches, being able to control the running game to some extent … certainly, a guy like Hanigan and his reputation will help. It will be interesting to see him do his work behind the plate and see if he can bounce back (to) a couple of years ago where he much better numbers as a hitter than he did last year.

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FSF: As far as players who were on the roster last year, who can rise to have a better year this season?

ANDERSON: The first guy that comes to mind is Desmond Jennings. I think Desmond Jennings is poised for a (big) year. There was a lot going on with Desmond, moving him around in the lineup a little bit, trying to get his swing in order, trying to get his strike zone defined, maybe work the count a little bit better, take some walks in order to take advantage of his speed on the base pads. That’s an awful lot for a guy to handle all at once. And I think now that he has worked through that, had another offseason to kind of reconfigure things in his mind, (he’ll recover). Another guy who has had a tremendous camp, and I fully expect him to keep that churning right into the season, it will also be fun to watch (David) DeJesus out there in left field getting a lot of time out there with a full season with the Rays. And also Matt Joyce. He’s going to play a huge role, getting some time in the outfield and in the DH position. There are a lot of guys that I think really can take it up to the next level. That’s what makes this team very, very dangerous for everybody else in the American League and, quite frankly, all of baseball.

FSF: You mentioned the AL East and how difficult it can be this year. In what ways will that competition push the Rays? Can that race lift them to another level?

ANDERSON: Absolutely. You hear that old phrase, "Iron sharpens iron." That’s exactly what happens here. You’ve got these teams — you know the division is stacked. And you know if you want to win the division, you’ve got to bring it every single night. I think the Rays get that as a ballclub. I think the challenge of rising to the occasion in the AL East is what drives them. I think sometimes when you look at their performances, a lot of times when they’ve struggled against a particular team, it’s a team you figure on paper they should beat… They’re always playing well within the division, because they get roused up for those games. They know how important they are. They know each and every game is going to be a dogfight. I think the fact that the division has continually gotten stronger continues to push this team.

FSF: Do you have any predictions for this team?

ANDERSON: I look at this ballclub, the way it’s constituted right now — obviously, health with any team is a major issue. But I think the way it’s built right now, their eyes should be at the end. Joe Maddon said early in spring training about being the last team and eating last. I think that is absolutely what they should have their focus on. … For me, they are right at the top of the American League East division. It’s going to be a dogfight. I would be disappointed if they did not make a very deep run into October, because I believe this year, they are that good. They are impressive all the way around.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.