Tampa Bay Rays pitching preview

After an offseason of speculation, Rays ace David Price returns. The former American League Cy Young winner leads a staff that posted a 3.74 ERA in 2013.

Jerome Miron

One through five, from an ace to a relative unknown, they’re a reason the Tampa Bay Rays will stay alive.

A strong rotation is like a security blanket: It’s trusted, comforting, and when life turns tough, it’s close by to dash the drama.

From David Price to Jake Odorizzi, from Alex Cobb to Chris Archer and Matt Moore, the Rays should feel good about stepping into 2014 with this collection of arms.

Solid pitching is nothing new to Tampa Bay, of course, from its starters to the bullpen. The Rays ranked fifth in the American League in staff ERA (3.74) last season, and no other AL East foe was better. They also ranked first in the AL in hits allowed (1,315) and third in the AL in strikeouts (1,310).

No one man does this alone. Beyond the starting rotation, expect familiar bullpen faces (Jake McGree and Joel Peralta) to complement new additions (Heath Bell and Grant Balfour). Chemistry will develop in time.

Here’s how the Rays’ pitching staff breaks down (with last year’s stats in parentheses).

David Price, LHP (10-8, 3.33 ERA): He’s baaack. After an offseason of speculation and trade rumor, the ace left-hander returns for his seventh season in a Rays uniform. Last year, he fought through a sluggish start and a left triceps strain that placed him on the disabled list starting in May. When he returned in July, though, he channeled the focus of the AL Cy Young Award winner of old. Expect him to be on a mission this summer.

Alex Cobb, RHP (11-3, 2.76 ERA): A dangerous arm, an emerging star. Price always will be the Rays’ "ace" as long as he remains with Tampa Bay, but Cobb can make a strong argument as the club’s top rising star on the mound. The scary line-drive incident is in the past, one that resulted in a mild concussion last year and kept him out two months before his return in August. He should keep momentum rolling from a career year.

Matt Moore, LHP (17-4, 3.29 ERA): He won eight consecutive starts last year on his way to earning his first All-Star Game appearance. He plateaued in June, though, going 2-3 with an 8.39 ERA. He can be erratic, but his success last season showed the strength of the Rays’ rotation depth.

Chris Archer, RHP (9-7, 3.22 ERA): By his own admission, he was more comfortable this spring, and that could translate into a big year. Archer did good things after his call-up last June, though he was still green. After losing three of his first four starts, he won his next five decisions. He faltered late, though, losing four of his next seven decisions to close the year. Stamina should come with experience.

Jake Odorizzi, RHP (0-1, 3.94 ERA): He won the Rays’ fifth starter job this spring after a tight competition with left-handers Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard. Thanks to Cobb, he developed a split/change pitch that has impressed manager Joe Maddon. He was so-so early last season, but he gained comfort late, allowing one run and striking out eight in 11 2/3 innings in three appearances throughout August and September. He’ll work with right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who is expected to miss the first six to eight weeks of the season rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow.

Jeremy Hellickson, RHP (12-10, 5.17 ERA): How will he look? Can he rebound? No other Rays starter has more questions attached to his name than Hellickson. He was unreliable late last year in losing seven of his final nine decisions. His August ERA ballooned to 9.15 in five starts (four losses). He’ll miss the first six to eight weeks of the season while recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. Plenty to prove? Yeah, you can say that.

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Grant Balfour, RHP (1-3, 2.59 ERA, 38/41 saves): What’s old is new again for this hard-throwing Aussie. He returns to the Rays after spending the past three seasons on a West Coast jaunt with the Oakland Athletics. He enjoyed his time with Tampa Bay from 2007 to 2010 so much that he admitted he wished he would have stayed. Maddon granted him the closer tag, so the Rays’ closer he will be.

Heath Bell, RHP (5-2, 4.11 ERA, 15/22 saves): He was part of the Rays’ first big offseason splash as one of the players dealt in the three-team trade between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds last December. He comes with a few doubts — what’s with the 15 blown saves the past two years? But he can stage a recovery here. Now is his time.

Joel Peralta, RHP (3-8, 3.41 ERA, 1/4 saves): This workhorse threw 71 1/3 innings last season, the most since his 87 2/3 with the Kansas City Royals in 2007. Expect him to appear in his familiar eighth-inning spot. He had a career-high 41 holds last season.

Jake McGee, LHP (5-3, 4.02 ERA, 1/5 saves): He’s coming off a year in which he threw a career-high 62 2/3 innings, primarily as the Rays’ relief option in the seventh inning. He declined from his top performance in 2012, when he had a 1.95 ERA after 55 1/3 innings. Look for him to push for a sub-4.00 ERA again.

Cesar Ramos, LHP (2-2, 4.14 ERA, 1/1 save): He lost the fifth-starter competition to Odorizzi, but he gained respect from Maddon along the way. That means Ramos, the Rays’ long reliever last year, could be called upon in more consequential scenarios this summer. His stock may have risen more than any other Rays player this spring.

Josh Lueke, RHP (0-2, 5.06 ERA, 0/0 saves): He appeared in 21 1/3 innings last season, but expect that number to rise this year. He offers experienced bullpen depth, with his 57 1/3 innings of major-league work over the past three seasons.

Brandon Gomes, RHP (3-1, 6.52 ERA, 0/0 saves): He has 74 innings of major-league bullpen experience the past three seasons. He threw 19 1/3 innings last year, but as long as he can stay healthy, look for him to accept a heavier workload.

Juan Carlos Oviedo, RHP (did not play last season because of Tommy John surgery): More work is necessary. A late arrival to camp this spring because of visa issues in the Dominican Republic, his rust showed, and he must work hard and fast to become a reliable bullpen option. He last pitched in the major leagues with the Florida Marlins on Sept. 21, 2011, against the Atlanta Braves.

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Life is good when Price and Cobb lead your rotation. The two combined for 285 strikeouts last year, even with their respective disabled list stints. Price is the known commodity — the Rays’ king on the mound — with his place as one of baseball’s best pitchers secure. But Cobb is growing in a similar way, and he’ll only improve with time. The potential for both is intriguing as they enter another season.

Simple answer: Hellickson. Was last year a hiccup? Was it a mirage? Was it the start of a more serious slide? He was a mess in his final six starts, lasting fewer than three innings three times and never pitching past 5 1/3 in the stretch. He insists no health problems bothered him, so that means the issue was mental. By all accounts, his spring has gone well, and he’ll have no shortage of motivation to prove his doubters wrong when he returns. All eyes will be on him, especially if Odorizzi does well in his absence.

Odorizzi. Sure, Price and Cobb are the headliners of this rotation that has proven commodities at slot Nos. 1-4. But Odorizzi must meet expectations on the back end. Hellickson’s injury is an opportunity for Odorizzi to show he should be a mainstay in the major leagues after a strong close to last season. The spring competition between Ramos and Erik Bedard made him better, but Odorizzi must excel when the numbers count. He has nine major-league appearances (six starts) to his name, so he remains an unknown.

Try finding holes in this group. Price? Please. Cobb? Nope. Moore? Usually, he’s strong. Archer? He has high potential. Odorizzi? He has something to prove, but he can shine. The Rays will remain AL East contenders thanks to these five men. That’s the plan, after all. Their path to October is rather simple: Pitching and defense one night, pitching and defense the next. Rinse. Repeat. Do it all over again.

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