Tampa Bay Rays lineup breakdown

SS Yunel Escobar, 3B Evan Longoria, 2B Ben Zobrist and 1B James Loney are some of the Rays' instrumental players.

The core is preserved, and the core is strong.

"Optimism" is the buzzword within the Tampa Bay Rays these days. The reason why is found in the return of so many key faces, from first baseman James Loney to third baseman Evan Longoria to shortstop Yunel Escobar to second baseman Ben Zobrist and more. The good feelings are many. The good feelings are justified.

Turnover is no stranger to this club. This year, though, that’s not a problem, and there are some intriguing additions — catcher Ryan Hanigan and utility man Logan Forsythe — to mix with the returning crew. Chemistry should pick up where it left off from last year’s 92-victory team, and a fifth playoff berth in seven years should be more than a goal. It should be an expectation.

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

OF David DeJesus (.251, 8 HR, 38 RBI): He fit in well after he was claimed off revocable waivers last August after a short stint with the Washington Nationals. The Rays like how he fits into their vision, as evidenced by his two-year, $10.5 million contract awarded last November.

2B Ben Zobrist (.275, 12 HR, 71 RBI): He was one of the Rays’ two All-Star representatives last season, along with left-hander Matt Moore. He’s reserved compared to some of the clubhouse’s extroverts, but he’s a clear leader.   

3B Evan Longoria (.269, 32 HR, 88 RBI): He’s the lineup’s unquestioned heart and soul. He played in a career-high 160 games last season, a year after appearing in a career-low 74.

OF Wil Myers (.293, 13 HR, 53 RBI): He proved the major leagues weren’t too big for him after his much-hyped call-up last June. He became the third Rays player to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award in the past six years, following Evan Longoria (2008) and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (2011).

DH Matt Joyce (.235, 18 HR, 47 RBI): He struggled at the plate throughout last season, his batting average the worst for a year in which he appeared in more than 11 games. He’s expected to become part of the Rays’ revolving door at designated hitter.

1B James Loney (.299, 13 HR, 75 RBI): He became valued quickly for both his bat and glove. Like the rest of the Rays’ infield, he was named an AL Gold Glove Award finalist.

OF Desmond Jennings (.252, 14 HR, 54 RBI): The Rays want him to establish himself as the team’s leadoff hitter, but he may have some work to do to reach that point. He had 20 stolen bases last season, 11 fewer than his career-high total from the year before.

SS Yunel Escobar (.256, 9 HR, 56 RBI): He offered flair, flash and a reason to watch him each night. His glove dazzled, but he also became productive at the plate after hitting an awful .169 last April.

C Ryan Hanigan (.198, 2 HR, 21 RBI): He fought through a strained oblique last season with the Cincinnati Reds, but the Rays are confident in his ability to contribute this summer. Expect him to receive the start in more than half of Tampa Bay’s games.

C Jose Molina (.233, 2 HR, 18 RBI): The Rays rave about his pitch-framing skill. He was awarded a two-year, $4.5 million deal last December.

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INF Sean Rodriguez (.246, 5 HR, 23 RBI): He’s the Rays’ Mr. Everything, now entering his fifth season with the team. He appeared in 96 games last season, a drop from 112 the year before.

INF Logan Forsythe (.214, 6 HR, 19 RBI): He was acquired from the San Diego Padres last January. He has never played in more than 91 games in each of three major league seasons, but he should receive plenty of work with Kelly Johnson’s choice to sign with the New York Yankees in the offseason.

OF Brandon Guyer (no major league stats): He earned a coveted bench spot in spring in a competitive race. A member of the Rays’ system since 2011, he’s a .188 hitter with three home runs and four RBI in 18 major league games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

All the main faces are back.

Continuity, continuity and more continuity. If you haven’t read that word more than 50 times since the start of spring training, you haven’t paid attention. The Rays boast all their big names back in what should be a serious hunt for October. Throw in the guarantee that DeJesus will join them for an entire season for the first time, plus Hanigan’s promise on offense and defense, and the possibilities are endless. The chemistry is strong. The goals? Large.

Can the offense pick up?

It’s no secret the Rays are built around pitching and defense. Still, the Boston Red Sox won the AL East last year and ousted the Rays in the AL Division Series because of superior offense. Tampa Bay ranked eighth in the AL in RBI (670) and ninth in the AL in runs scored (700). By comparison, the Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays all crossed home plate more often. For good to become great, the Rays must do as much damage with their "O" as their "D." 

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Evan Longoria

Another year, same story. There’s no one player who’s more key to the Rays’ success than No. 3. If he’s in the lineup, Tampa Bay has a chance to contend, no matter the opponent, no matter the situation. By his own admission, he was off at times last season, but he still led Tampa Bay in games played, home runs (32) and slugging percentage (.498). He’€™ll be the club’s heartbeat.

Excited? The Rays should be. It’s hard to look at this lineup and say anything other than, "These guys should compete again." Preserving the infield collection of Longoria, Escobar, Zobrist and Loney was the biggest offseason development outside of welcoming back left-hander David Price. There are many, many things to like on paper. Now, it’s the Rays’ job to make that promise come to life.

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