Another year of change has arrived, but there are few reasons to anticipate different results.
The Tampa Bay Rays enter their season opener against the Baltimore Orioles at 3:10 p.m. ET Tuesday at Tropicana Field boasting one of the more remarkable competitive streaks in recent major league history. From 2008-12, only the New York Yankees (479) and Philadelphia Phillies (465) have more victories than the Rays’ 458. Tampa Bay’s three postseason appearances in the span are tied with the Texas Rangers and St. Louis
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Cardinals for second-most, behind the Yankees’ and Phillies’ four.
Yes, right-hander James Shields (Kansas City Royals) and center fielder B.J. Upton (Atlanta Braves) are gone. But Rays manager Joe Maddon has preached “a process” throughout the spring, and that vision, one which has proven successful the past five seasons, will be tested this summer.
“The different things that guys have been working on are starting to come into play in a positive way,” Maddon said Saturday, following the spring training finale.
“The attitude has been great. The message has been gotten out, and I feel good about that.”
Let’s examine what we learned about the Rays during spring training as they prepared for the 2013 season.
What’s not to love about Juan Sandoval’s story? After some savvy scouting from reliever Joel Peralta in the Dominican Republic, the right-hander was signed to a minor-league contract in January and given a chance to showcase his talent in front of Maddon and others in spring training.
Remember, Sandoval is blind in his right eye, the result of three buckshot pellets being sprayed into his cornea on Feb. 4, 2006. He finished with a 6.75 ERA in 9.1 innings. Beyond the numbers, though, his tale of resilience spread across the country and became the spring’s feel-good narrative.
Sandoval eventually was sent to Class AA Montgomery, where his quest to reach the major leagues continues. There’s something to be learned for us all in Sandoval’s chase: With dedication, anything is possible — even when one eye offers nothing but darkness.
Little was consistent about Matt Moore’s spring. He led all Rays pitchers with 14 walks, partly because of a mechanical flaw in his delivery that he fought to correct throughout Grapefruit League play. The left-hander’s last appearance was more encouraging, when he gave up just one hit and struck out five in four scoreless innings during a tie with the Detroit Tigers on Saturday.
Maddon still trusts Moore. The 23-year-old pitched 177.1 innings in 31 starts last season. It’s obvious the manager thinks Moore can work his way out of this slide, which is a good sign for the young player.
Sure, the spring numbers weren’t encouraging — Moore finished with a 3.80 ERA in 21.1 innings — but the pitcher closed the exhibition season on a high note. Will his momentum continue?
Waiting for the call
Wil Myers’ major-league debut will happen in time, perhaps near the middle of the season. He became a celebrity of sorts at Charlotte Sports Park, the reaction predictable after he was named the jewel of a six-player December deal with the Kansas City Royals that sent right-hander James Shields to the Midwest.
Maddon talked about making Myers a more rounded player throughout the spring. The potential for power is there — Myers hit .286 with one RBI in 35 at-bats — but the Rays would like to refine his defensive skills in the outfield before he receives a call-up.
Certainly, Myers won’t mind playing for Class AAA Durham, located a short distance from his residence in Thomasville, N.C.
Still, it was easy to pick up on Maddon’s anticipation when he spoke about the young hitter in the past month. The future could be exciting. But the future must wait.
Five Things We Learned
1. Fernando Rodney will be one of the game’s best closers … again: It seems unreasonable to think Rodney will beat his record-setting 0.60 ERA from last year, but he looked stellar in pressure situations while helping to lead the Dominican Republic to a World Baseball Classic title last month. Tampa Bay coaches must watch his health, especially late in the summer, so Rodney’s arm avoids fatigued from overuse.
2. The Rays will trust Roberto Hernandez to recover from a forgettable 2012: The former Cleveland Indians pitcher beat out Jeff Niemann for a rotation spot in the spring’s most contested battle. Between problems with his right ankle and identity fraud, the man formerly known as Fausto Carmona only pitched 14.1 innings (7.53 ERA) last season.
3. Evan Longoria has found new inspiration away from the diamond: The three-time All-Star always has been one of the most driven players in the Rays clubhouse. But the birth of his daughter, Elle Leona, on Feb. 20 gave him a deeper life perspective.
4. There will be a time for Myers and right-hander Jake Odorizzi, but it’s not now: The top two young talents that arrived from the trade with Kansas City will require more seasoning before they reach Tropicana Field for good. Both will begin at Class AAA Durham.
5. Luke Scott must overcome injury once more: He’ll begin the season on the 15-day disabled list after sustaining a right calf strain from drinking too much alkaline water. Health setbacks are nothing new to the veteran designated hitter, having only played in a combined 160 games the past two seasons.
If each member of the rotation picks up more innings without Shields, there’s reason to think the Rays can compete for an American League East crown. Tampa Bay’s bullpen figures to be one of the major leagues’ best again, if it stays fresh enough to meet that potential. Maddon has established a standard of excellence in a short time, and even without Shields and Upton, Tampa Bay should win at a consistent clip.