As AL East gets tighter, new faces key for Rays

As AL East gets tighter, new faces key for Rays

As AL East gets tighter, new faces key for Rays
ST. PETERSBURG -- Unfinished business will greet the Rays' coming season with the hope that the team can return to the playoffs in 2013.

Once the Rays report to Port Charlotte, Fla., in early February, they will begin the process of molding a team capable of adding the necessary three or four extra wins to earn a playoff berth.

But the faces will be changed.

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Gone will be James Shields, Carlos Pena, Wade Davis, Jeff Keppinger, B.J. Upton and perhaps others.

In their places are several critical pieces for next year's team. Two were brought aboard at the Winter Meetings, when the team acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar and first baseman James Loney. Three days after the Winter Meetings concluded, Tampa Bay pulled the trigger on a seven-player blockbuster deal that sent Shields and Davis to Kansas City for four prospects, including the Royals' top prospect, Wil Myers.

No doubt more work will take place prior to the beginning of Spring Training, but the Rays have managed to put some cornerstone pieces into place.

American League Cy Young Award-winning left-hander David Price will lead a staff many felt to be the best in baseball in 2012. Without Shields, the staff will also have Jeremy Hellickson, along with three others from a group that includes Jeff Niemann, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and newcomers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery.

Offensively, the Rays will need to make up for the loss of Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves. But having Evan Longoria for a whole season should help shore up the team's ability to score runs. Also returning are the likes of Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist, who can all generate firepower. Myers, who has shown great power while playing in the Royals' farm system, will be looked upon to add some clout as well.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon likes his team, but he believes the players will have their work cut out for them in the tough AL East.

"It's going to be kind of tight, and it's going to be very tight," Maddon said. "Respectfully, I think, every team in our division is going to have an opportunity to get to the playoffs next year. ... More so than any time in the recent past."

While there is optimism the Rays can be a championship club, they enter 2013 with their share of questions:

1. Will Longoria be healthy all year?

If Longoria had been healthy for all of the 2012 season, the Rays would have made the playoffs, simple as that. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, he was not, thanks to a partially torn left hamstring he suffered at the end of April. He did not return to the lineup until early August, and the impact of not having him in the lineup was profound. Longoria had minor surgery in November to clean up his hamstring. He is now optimistic that his hamstring issues are behind him. The Rays can only hope their best player's optimism is well-founded.

2. Can Loney be a productive addition at first base?

Based on what Loney's numbers looked like in 2012, one would not think he was the solution for filling the void at first base. But the Rays have had good luck at grabbing players when they've had a little dip in production and then seeing that player return to form. Loney is going to show a good glove, and a good bat might not be that far away. He has a .282 career average, and even though he hit just .249 last year, that is a marked improvement over Pena's .197. Pena also struck out 182 times in 497 at-bats, while Loney struck out just 51 times in 434 at-bats. However, Pena did hit 19 home runs compared to Loney's six.

3. Can Fernando Rodney have another season like the one he delivered in 2012?

Rodney stepped in as the Rays' closer in 2012, and all he did was put up a 0.60 ERA with 48 saves in 50 opportunities. The odds of Rodney repeating his freaky 2012 season would be remote for any closer of any ability. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, if Rodney does anything close to what he did in 2012, the club will be fine with him anchoring the bullpen. Given the many innings that the starting staff eats every season, Rodney should again be put in good situations where he can find success.

4. Will Jake McGee continue to progress toward becoming one of the top relievers in the game?

McGee spent his first full season the Major Leagues in 2012 and emerged as one of the AL's best relievers. His 1.95 ERA ranked third among AL relievers and seventh in the Major Leagues. He has an overpowering fastball that tops out at 97 mph, and his confidence has clearly blossomed -- he believes he belongs. So it's easy to believe that McGee can reach the lofty plateau to which he seems to be headed.

5. Can Moore become the pitcher everybody believes he can be?

Had Moore reached what was forecast him in 2012, he would have won 30 games, he would have run away with the Cy Young Award and he probably would have hit a few home runs during Interleague Play. Alas, Moore's rookie season in 2012 showed splashes of brilliance mixed with occasional lapses. In the end, Moore finished with an 11-11 mark that included a club record for rookies with 175 strikeouts. Despite some of Moore's struggles, the southpaw seemed to figure out some things and that points to a strong performance in 2013.

6. Who will take over for Upton in center field?

Jennings appears to be earmarked to take over in center field this season, which likely would move Joyce to left field and Zobrist to right. Jennings has been a standout left fielder, so there's no reason to believe he won't be able to make the move without any problems. Myers could be a candidate to play center field, too, but he has not played as much outfield as Jennings, so he could be better suited for one of the corner spots.

7. Will Escobar be a good citizen?

Escobar has had some highly publicized displays of immaturity in the past. However, few clubhouses are as fun and loose as Tampa Bay's, and Maddon allows the players to govern their own clubhouse. Given that, Maddon does not feel that Escobar will add any further antics to his resume. If that indeed is the case, the Rays will come away with a pretty nice shortstop.

8. Can Tampa Bay's bullpen thrive without Shields' 200-plus innings in the equation?

Having two starters who throw 200-plus innings like the Rays have had with Shields and Price has given the bullpen a better chance to be successful. Without Shields eating up a lion's share of innings, the 'pen could be taxed more, and that can translate to less desirable matchups at times. The good news for Tampa Bay is that the club has solid bullpen pieces in place and will likely bring to camp a few veteran free-agent relievers as the Rays have successfully done in the past.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.