Remember when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were the embarrassment of baseball? Since becoming the Tampa Bay Rays, they've now reached the playoffs in four of six seasons, winning at least 90 games in five of those seasons and never having a losing record. Last season, the Rays topped the Rangers in Game 163 and then toppled the Indians in the wild-card game before losing to the Red Sox in the ALDS.
Still, the 92-71 record marked the second-best in franchise history and the Rays enter the 2014 season with high expectations. Let's take a look:
Full seasons of DeJesus and Myers along with natural improvement from Myers and Jennings should make the Rays better on offense this time around. They ranked ninth in the AL with 700 runs scored last season.
Jeremy Hellickson is the sixth option here. Rays starters went 65-47 with a 3.81 ERA last season and appear to be just as good -- if not better -- this time around. Getting full, healthy seasons from Price, Cobb and Archer would be a huge plus.
Fernando Rodney returned to being fickle last season and he's now been replaced with Balfour, who is likely bound to be more reliable as closer. Peralta and McGee make for solid, bat-missing setup men and the Heath Bell project should be very interesting -- considering the Rays' track record with reclamation project relievers.
Under-the-radar offseason transaction
Fantasy sleeper: Chris Archer
"With seemingly more than enough starting pitchers to go around in standard mixed leagues, Archer could get lost in the shuffle in yours. He may not have quite the pedigree of Zack Wheeler, but he had the more impressive rookie campaign of the two. As if the season-long numbers weren't impressive enough, he compiled a 2.84 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 16 starts. Yeah, the strikeout rate left something to be desired, but of greater note, he overcame the control issues that held him back in the minors, issuing more than two walks in only two of those 16 starts. With an average fastball velocity that would have ranked third, behind only Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg if he had the innings to qualify, Archer clearly has the stuff for more strikeouts once he learns to make better use of his arsenal. Will he make that leap this year? Hard to say. But even just sticking to the status quo, he's a top 40 starting pitcher with a top 80 price tag." -- Scott White [Full Rays fantasy preview]
The top of the rotation. After returning from injury, Price was back to Cy Young form, going 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA. He struck out 102 while walking just 13 in those 18 starts. Cobb and Moore, meanwhile, combined to go 28-7. In fact, if Archer and Odorizzi perform up to their potential, the entire rotation here is the strength. It could carry the club.
The overall defense should also be mentioned, because the Rays will pick it with the best of them in 2014.
There isn't really a glaring weakness, as this is a well-rounded ballclub. The offensive firepower leaves something to be desired, I guess, so we'll go with that. Outside of Zobrist and Longoria, it could be argued there isn't a reliable bat in the order -- as Myers only has 88 career games under his belt. Everyone else is either inconsistent or not overly exciting.
To reiterate, I don't expect offense to be a huge problem; I just had to pick something for the "biggest" weakness.
The small-market Rays are tasked with competing against the likes of the huge-market Yankees, the world champion Red Sox and formidable Orioles in the mighty AL East -- and, once again, they appear up to the task.
If they aren't, expect Price to be traded in July. But, again, I don't think that'll be on the table. These guys are contenders.
Outstanding defense behind a very good rotation and quality bullpen will limit the opposition and the offense should be able to perform around league average. Considering the run-limiting potential of the Rays with pitching and defense, league average offense will get them to the postseason. And I believe that's where they're headed again, for the fifth time under Joe Maddon's watch. Expect 90-plus wins and no worse than an ALDS exit.
Coming Monday: Previewing the Boston Red Sox