Rays spring training review and season lookahead

David Price is happy to remain in a Rays uniform and he showed that throughout spring training.

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Little change, few major losses, no problem.

Spring training can be a tricky beast, but for the Tampa Bay Rays, life looks good as the calendar prepares to flip from March to April. Left-hander David Price was welcomed back. So was first baseman James Loney. Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar continued to roam the clubhouse.

"Continuity" was the spring’s theme, and for good reason.

Ready for the results to count? The Rays are.

You know the picture looks pretty when the camp’s biggest drama was deciding the fifth-starter job. This could have been a spring of unknowns, one of rebuilding and reinvention after the loss of key names. But upheaval never happened, to the Rays’ benefit. Now, they’€™re primed to threaten for the American League East title and a playoff berth again.

Let’s examine what we learned about the Rays during spring training as they prepared for the 2014 season.

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Left-hander Cesar Ramos. He went from a relative obscure role in the bullpen (long reliever) to someone who placed himself in serious contention for the Rays’ fifth-starter job. The title eventually went to right-hander Jake Odorizzi, a logical choice. By all accounts, though, Ramos finished a close second in a three-man race that also included left-hander Erik Bedard.

Ramos closed the spring with a 3.45 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings. Manager Joe Maddon said Ramos could receive work in more consequential moments this summer, all because of his spring work. Not bad for the sixth-year player. Not bad at all.

Left-hander Erik Bedard. When the Rays signed the 10-year veteran to a minor-league deal Feb. 14, some assumed he would be a favorite to slide into the fifth-starter job vacated after right-hander Jeremy Hellickson’s surgery. But Bedard never looked as sharp as his two younger competitors for the title, Odorizzi and Ramos. Bottom line, he was disappointing.

Bedard’s spring ended with a 6.88 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 17 innings. The Rays released him to explore starting opportunities elsewhere throughout the major leagues, but he was re-signed last Friday and will report to Triple-A Durham. Not the ending some expected.

Right-hander Nathan Karns. The Rays don’t have a headline minor-league name awaiting a promotion, unlike last year when Wil Myers’ arrival to Charlotte Sports Park created a stir. But Karns did some impressive things after he joined Tampa Bay as part of a four-player trade with the Washington Nationals on Feb. 13.

He allowed four hits, struck out three and walked two in 6 1/3 innings. Maddon routinely praised him. With Alex Colome’s 50-game suspension because of a PED violation, someone like Karns could be valuable because of the depth he offers.

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1. Continuity is important. Want big names back? The Rays have them, with the return of impact players like Price and Loney. Want comfort? There was a sense of familiarity throughout the spring. Want reasons to believe the Rays can contend? Keeping the core preserved enhances that chance, and there should be no getting-to-know-you phase with so much of the chemistry from last season’s playoff run already present. So many good things.

2. David Price is ready. Call it comfort. Call it relief. Call it renewed purpose. Whatever you label it, Price looked like one of the game’s best on the mound all spring.

He earned a 2-0 record with a 3.63 ERA in four Grapefruit League starts, striking out 20 and allowing just three walks. All the qualities were there: Command, control, velocity. It’s obvious he wanted to stay with Tampa Bay all offseason, and it showed in the way he carried himself in the clubhouse with the drama past him. This is his home. This is where he’s happy.

3. Ryan Hanigan is a workhorse. Much remains to be learned about what the eighth-year player will offer the Rays, but early returns look good. Before spring workouts, he studied tape of all Rays starters against AL East competition to gain an early read on their tendencies. Not a bad way to make an impression.

He’s known as an intense, dedicated presence behind the plate. Sure, it was just spring, but his defensive numbers were solid: He converted 55 putouts and was 1 for 4 in throwing out would-be basestealers. Look for him to receive most of the starts at catcher.

4. The bullpen will be interesting to watch. Losing faces like Jamey Wright, Alex Torres and Fernando Rodney was a blow. But pickups like Grant Balfour and Heath Bell are intriguing, if nothing else. Balfour went 38 of 41 on save attempts with the Oakland Athletics last season, so you know what you’ll receive from him. Bell’s ERA totals the past two years were ugly — 5.09 with the Miami Marlins in 2012 and 4.11 with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season — so he has some work to do to show he still has the right stuff. There’s time.

Throw in those two names with stalwarts like Jake McGee and Joel Peralta, and there’s the potential for solid bullpen work to be done. Like any ‘pen, there are unknowns, especially come late in the season. But the talent is there to deliver some damage.    

5. Little drama is good. Consider how different this spring could have gone. Price could have been dealt early in the offseason. The Rays could have welcomed a new first baseman with the loss of Loney in free agency. There could have been a major injury to Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist or Yunel Escobar. And on. And on. And on.

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Instead, the Rays will go from spring training to Opening Day with momentum. Unless something wild happens — a few major injuries or other unforeseen setbacks — this team should contend for the American League East title. No drama, no problems.

All in all, this was a sweat-free spring for the Rays. The fifth-starter competition offered the most intrigue, plus a bench spot (Brandon Guyer) and a few bullpen roles were decided, but those were small issues compared to what Tampa Bay could have faced: Replacing Price, moving past Loney, etc. Little change meant good news.

Now, it’s time to maximize potential. Now, it’s time to move past the what-ifs. Now, it’s time to place into practice what’s possible. The Rays are trending up, but they must do the work to become the contenders many expect them to be.

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