Watching Joe Maddon’s team every year, you get a real sense of appreciation for the way he manages to get every last drop of production out of his players. Sometimes, you have guys that simply don’t work out with the team, like Pat Burrell or (for a very brief time) Manny Ramirez. Sometimes, players revitalize their careers in Tampa Bay, like James Loney a year ago or Fernando Rodney before him. And sometimes, failed prospects in other organizations blossom into stars, like Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena, and Matt Joyce. Throw in the usual crop of young talent that the Rays produce through their minor league system, and you have all the makings of an organization that can compete year-in and year-out despite a bargain basemen payroll. Going into 2014, these are the key questions I have about this year’s Rays squad.
Was James Loney’s new contract a wise move?
Loney was a breakout star for the Rays in 2013 after never living up to the hype he earned with the Dodgers. He hit .299/.348/.430 with 13 homers, his best season since 2007, when Loney smashed 15 homers in just 96 games while putting together a .331/.381/.538 line in Los Angeles. Between those two seasons, Loney’s production ranged from awful to mediocre. Needless to say, the Rays are betting on 2013 being a predictor of future success for Loney, who turns 30 in May.
But after a molten start to the year, Loney hit just four home runs and had a .700 OPS in the second half – and those second half stats would look a lot worse were it not for a strong September, which we’ve learned to not put too much emphasis on. A three-year, $21 million contract for a free agent is a huge investment for a team like the Rays, especially considering how heavily backloaded it is. If Loney struggles in 2014, Tampa Bay will be on the hook for over $18 million over the next two years, and that’s not exactly a great position for them considering the impending free agencies of David Price, Ben Zobrist, and Yunel Escobar after 2015.
Is this FINALLY “the year” for Matt Moore?
The Matt Moore hype train has been in full effect going back to 2010. However, in his two full major league seasons, Moore has been good but not great thanks to 160 walks in 337 innings in the majors. Tampa Bay inked Moore to an insanely favorable contract extension before the 2012, so it’s not as if they’re on the hook for a ridiculous amount of money. But Moore will be 25 in June, and I’m sure the Rays would like to see some improvement in his command.
There’s obviously been a lot to like about Moore thus far in his brief major league career, but if he’s going to reach his ceiling as one of the best pitchers in baseball, he needs to cut the walks down. David Price broke out in 2010 (turning 25 in August of that same year) and elevated himself to the top level of pitchers in baseball the next year – could Moore follow that same path?
How will the revamped bullpen perform?
The Rays let closer Fernando Rodney walk away after two brilliant years, assuming he’d get a nice multi-year deal from another team. Instead, Rodney got a nearly identical deal to the contract that the Rays gave Grant Balfour. Balfour and Heath Bell will be replacing Rodney and Alex Torres, who was traded to the Padres, at the back-end of Tampa Bay’s bullpen. Wesley Wright and Jamey Wright are also gone, replaced by…well, guys that the Rays churn out like it’s their job (Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes, etc).
Rodney may have been erratic, but he was still effective as Tampa Bay’s closer, while Torres was incredibly good and pitched multiple innings on several occasions. Replacing that pair with Balfour and Bell, both of whom have that same “erratic” label, might be a big gamble for the Rays, especially considering how rough Bell’s last two years were. But then again, this is the Rays – I never really count them out. If either Balfour or Bell struggles, the Rays have guys like Joel Peralta and Jake McGee right there that can take on a more advanced role as the season goes on.