ST. PETERSBURG -- Trying to build a contender for the 2013 season brought several challenges to the Rays' front office.
On one hand, the Rays wanted to maintain the level of pitching excellence achieved in 2012. But they also needed to address the team's play on offense and defense.
Now that Opening Day is close, Tampa Bay appears as though it has done a good job of putting together a team that can build on what it accomplished in 2012, when it posted 90 wins after finishing with a 12-2 mark in the final 14 games.
There's no doubt that if the Rays can repeat what they did on the mound in 2012, manager Joe Maddon will be a happy camper.
For starters, Rays pitchers led the Major Leagues with a 3.19 ERA and a .228 opposing average, and they set an American League record with 1,383 strikeouts. In addition, they were the only team in the last 30 years, save for the 1999 Red Sox, to lead the AL in all three categories.
Tampa Bay had the AL's top pitcher in David Price, who captured the AL Cy Young Award, and Fernando Rodney, who set a Major League record for a relief pitcher (minimum of 50 innings) with a 0.60 ERA while notching a club record 48 saves.
Yes, having the same results from the pitching staff would be money in the bank.
However, James Shields was traded to the Royals in a December trade that will test the depth of the Rays' pitching -- as well as the franchise model of keeping players just the right length of time before shipping them elsewhere and allowing younger players from the farm system to take their place once they have enough seasoning.
Price will again pitch at the top of the rotation, which will include Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Roberto Hernandez or Jeff Niemann.
Having two starters in Shields and Price who have thrown 200-plus innings every year has given the bullpen a better chance to be successful. Without Shields eating up a huge share of innings, the bullpen could be taxed more, which could translate to less desirable matchups at times. The good news for the Rays is that they have solid bullpen pieces in place.
J.P. Howell and Burke Badenhop are gone from last year's bullpen. But Rodney is back, along with Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth, Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos. They will be joined by veteran Jamey Wright, along with either Niemann or Hernandez.
Offensively, the Rays will need to make up for the losses of B.J. Upton and Jeff Keppinger, who left via free agency. But having Evan Longoria for a whole season should help enhance the team's ability to score runs.
If Longoria had been healthy for the entire 2012 season, the Rays would have made the playoffs, simple as that. Unfortunately for the Rays, he sustained a partially torn left hamstring 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.
Also returning are Luke Scott, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist, who can all generate some firepower.
Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson and James Loney have joined the team at shortstop, second base and first base, respectively, which should help the offense, particularly where making contact is concerned.
"I think contact alone is going to give us a different look, while we're going to be able to maintain power from other sources, I think," Maddon said.
Loney has a .282 career average, and though he hit just .249 last year, that is a marked improvement over Carlos Pena's .197. Pena also struck out 182 times in 497 at-bats, while Loney struck out just 51 times in 434 at-bats, so that should bring a welcome change. However, Pena did hit 19 home runs to Loney's six.
"You're looking to balance [out the lineup] constantly," Maddon said. "How do you fill that out? Obviously, James doesn't have Carlos' power, but we've talked about the contact, and his defense is pretty good, also.
"Escobar at shortstop provides something we didn't have, an everyday shortstop, plus a guy who makes contact with the ball on a more consistent basis. You're always looking for the balance among the group."
Tampa Bay's 2012 offense left something to be desired. Then again, the Rays never seem to have the kind of offense to make opposing pitchers call in sick. More surprising -- and disappointing -- was last season's defense. When your club is said to be built on pitching and defense, but you finish last in the AL in defense, some changes are in order.
Of course, many of the defensive problems were caused by the same issue that derailed the offense: Longoria's injury. Not having the Gold Glove third baseman for a prolonged period last season caused a Domino effect for the Rays' infield.
"There were obviously a lot of guys playing out of position, moving around, after he went down," Sean Rodriguez said. "We were just basically trying to fill in holes."
In addition to having Longoria back, having an everyday shortstop in Escobar should help remedy the defensive shortcomings.
"It is going to be a lot easier for us to play better defense this year with the shortstop position being solidified," Longoria said. "I think that was a bit of a trouble spot for us last year. Not in the fact that it was the one position that had a glaring weakness or whatever, it was just the fact that we didn't have one guy that could play there every day. You really kind of look around the league, it's a very stable spot."
While the Rays feel as though they have improved their team in advance of the 2013 campaign, they still play in the AL East, where danger is always lurking around the next corner.
"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."
Then again, Maddon isn't bashful about the 2013 Rays.
"I love the group," Maddon said, "I really do."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less