Now that Spring Training is officially underway, fans of every team are anxiously awaiting the start of the regular season with the thought of "this is the year we'll win it all." Many teams remained quiet during the offseason, but the Rays were certainly not one of those clubs that chose to sit back and wait for the next season to start. While the Angels and Dodgers simply signed stud free-agents (Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke, respectively), the Rays made a huge splash by trading James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals, acquiring a package of talented prospects including top hitting prospect Wil Myers. Even though spring training is simply used to evaluate talent and decide who makes the 40-man roster, this year's spring training could very well be viewed as an addition to the regular season for the Rays. With that in mind, here are some things all Rays fans should keep an eye out for as the regular season rapidly approaches.
Wil Myers' Eventual Call-Up
After acquiring Myers, many Rays fans jumped to the assumption that he would start on the 2013 season on the Opening Day roster. The organization has hinted, though, that Myers will probably spend the beginning of the year with Triple-A Durham.
Personally, I believe this to be the best option when it comes to Myers' future in St. Pete for two reasons: Myers has never had a single major league plate appearance, so thrusting him into the starting lineup—probably 3rd in the order to provide protection for Longoria—is not only a crap shoot, but you're also risking his confidence and harming his psyche. The other reason is that AAA teams are essentially filled with players who just missed making the roster, so it's a "low-end" major-league talent pool. This means that Myers will face pitchers who are major-league ready, but might not have impressed coaches enough during Spring Training to earn a spot on the 40-man roster. Yes, Myers has played a total of 99 AAA games, but 10-15 more games wouldn't hurt, and would make the transition from AAA to the Rays marginally smoother.
Matt Moore's Sophomore Season
The player who had the most pressure prior to the beginning of last season was none other than the hard-throwing lefty, Matt Moore. His sheer dominance in the 2011 playoffs and in the minors made people wide-eyed with excitement, and also created nearly-unrealistic expectations for his 2012 regular season as a starter.
Moore's rookie season did not live up to those analyst's lofty expectations, but by no means was it a bust for him. As a rookie starter in the toughest division in baseball, Moore posted a respectable 3.81 ERA, an 11-11 record and 175 strikeouts through 177 innings pitched. Were there areas of his game that he could improve on? Absolutely; particularly in the command area where he struggled the most, allowing 81 walks. Any flame-throwing rookie is bound to have command issues though, and we can expect Moore to improve in that category as he continues to mature as a pitcher.
The Starting Rotation
Trading away James Shields still stings when I think about it, since the team gave up proven success and veteran leadership for prospects who have yet to prove anything at the major league level. What's done is done, and my lingering displeasure can't change anything. Losing Shields replaced a solid starting rotation with a giant question mark, since Shields and Price were the one-two punch that made the rotation one of the best in baseball.
Speaking of Price, he is now the sole ace in the Rays' starting rotation, which adds even more pressure considering he just won the AL Cy Young last season. The prospect of Price being traded during the season is a looming cloud over the rotation's future as well, since the Rays simply do not have the money to keep Price long term. Should Friedman have no choice but to deal him during the season, he will more than likely demand an abundance of talent in return that includes both pitching and hitting. Not only will that make the rotation incredibly vulnerable, but it unfortunately means that the team is waiving the white flag on the season.
Moving away from Price, we have the rest of the rotation: Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. Moore has much to prove after a solid rookie season, while Hellickson is a dependable starter who isn't flashy, but will get the job done one way or another. The uncertainty in the rotation is who gets the gig for the fifth spot in the rotation. It really all depends on how the four competitors—Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi—perform in spring training.
The starting rotation is still the Rays' main strength, and should get a lot of attention from fans. It really boils down to how the team will fare initially without the veteran, workhorse presence of Shields in the starting rotation, and who (if anyone) will step up to fill his shoes.
Evan Longoria Post-Extension
A handful of players who sign the type of extensions that Longoria accepted tend to lose the desire to play as hard as they did before, not only in baseball, but in sports. Chris Johnson, following his 2,000 yard rushing season, signed a lucrative contract with the Titans and has since under-performed. Hedo Turkoglu was given a contract he (quite frankly) didn't deserve, and has done nothing but play at a sub-par level for the Orlando Magic. The list goes on, but for the purpose of saving time, those two examples will have to suffice.
Longoria is now the face of the franchise, not only now, but the future as well, after signing that extension. As such, he has to play up to the level that his contract is worth: $100 million. When Longoria was called up back in 2008 he tore up major league pitchers, and created a buzz that St. Pete hadn't heard in years. The following two seasons he was even more of a nightmare for pitchers, and was arguably the best defensive third baseman in the majors. Both the 2011 and 2012 seasons were upsetting for Rays fans, since Longoria was plagued by injuries both years that limited him to playing a total of 207 games (74 in 2012).
Will Evan break the trend of "athletes who get big contracts, then fizzle out", and prove to be a worthy investment for the Rays? Let's hope so.
With those four things in mind, the 2013 season will be "show me" themed, since major roster changes were made in the offseason. The staple of the Rays team, however, remains untouched: the pitching. Both the bullpen and the rotation were stellar in 2012, and set the American League record for K's.
There are so many things to look forward to as the 2013 regular season nears, and no one is more giddy with excitement than I am. Wil Myers' call-up, Matt Moore potentially becoming a David Price 2.0, the starting rotation, and whether Evan Longoria plays out of his mind to prove his contract are only four of many aspects of the Rays that are appealing. One thing above all else is certain, though: the 2013 regular season can't come soon enough.