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Rays optimistic for '14 as Price question looms

Rays optimistic for '14 as Price question looms

Rays optimistic for '14 as Price question looms

ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon conveyed a ho-hum attitude when asked about the ever-changing nature of the Rays' roster.

"I'm telling you, I am, we are so used to it by now," Maddon said. "Of course you don't want to lose [certain players], but I know we can fight through it."

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Maddon has faith in the front office's ability to assemble a team that can reach the playoffs. Rays fans have grown equally comfortable trusting the team's management to field a quality team. Six consecutive winning seasons and four trips to the playoffs in that span will do that for a fan base.

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A constant for each of those teams has been change. And, as usual, change is in the air as the Rays look to 2014.

"It's who we are," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "We've had a lot of change, really, every offseason. There hasn't been an offseason with minimal turnover. The important thing is that for the most part, our core guys have stayed in place, and we've been able to supplement around our core group."

Next year's roster is not yet complete. But new faces already are on the way, such as reliever Heath Bell and catcher Ryan Hanigan. The question of who will play first base was recently answered when the team opted to bring back James Loney, leaving David Price's fate as the lone order of remaining business. While Price is of course a major piece, the Rays seem content to see how it will play out. If they get what they want for the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner, they will trade him. If they don't, there are worse things than having Price as the Opening Day starter.

The Rays are confident that they can once again advance to the postseason in 2014, but like the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball, they will enter the season with their share of questions. Here are 10:

1. Can Evan Longoria stay healthy?
Longoria is the team's best player. With him on the field, the club's chances of winning are significantly greater than if he is not. Flash back to 2012, when he played in just 74 games due to a partially torn left hamstring. Tampa Bay posted a 47-27 record in those games and went 43-45 when he did not play.

Longoria played 2013 on a surgically repaired hamstring and saw action in 160 regular-season games. He is a tough out, can hit for power, is a team leader and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. If he has another healthy season, the Rays can expect great things from him as he enters the prime of his career.

2. Will Wil Myers dodge the sophomore jinx?
Wil Myers arrived in 2013 and performed as advertised, putting together a year worthy of the AL Rookie of the Year Award. If the Rays can get the same performance from him for a full season, the results will be fun to watch.

Myers wouldn't be the first player to follow a quality rookie year with a less-than-stellar second season. Dodging the sophomore jinx normally has less to do with luck than the player's ability to adjust. After the exposure that comes with a season in the Majors, Myers is a known commodity to other teams. How quickly he adjusts to how they decide to pitch him will go a long way toward determining whether he has another quality season.

3. Is Hanigan the answer at catcher?
The Rays and Hanigan agreed to a three-year contract extension covering the 2014, '15 and '16 seasons worth a guaranteed $10.75 million, with a club option for '17.

"Ryan Hanigan is a tremendously talented defensive catcher," Friedman said. "Really shuts down the run game. Takes a lot of pride in what he does behind the plate. And we also like what he can do in the batter's box, especially against left-handed pitching. He's a guy we've had our eye on for a while, and so when we had the opportunity to acquire him, we were aggressive to do so."

Respected for his defensive and game-calling skills and his ability to get on base as a patient hitter, Hanigan still endured the worst offensive season of his career in 2013.

Limited to 75 games, Hanigan batted .198 with a .306 on-base percentage, two homers and 21 RBIs. Injuries nagged the catcher throughout a year that included two stints on the disabled list because of a strained left oblique and a sprained left wrist.

If he can bounce back, the Rays might finally have the everyday catcher they have desired for so long.

4. Do the Rays have the right candidates to close?
The Rays have not designated a reliever to be next season's closer. Fernando Rodney, who closed for the team the past two seasons, is a free agent, and given what he's asking for, it does not appear he will be back. That leaves Bell, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Joel Peralta and Jake McGee as the prime candidates.

Based on how the Rays do business, they likely have a pretty strong sense that Bell or Oviedo -- both of whom have closed successfully in the past -- can regain their form to the point where one or the other could grab the job. If they can't, it's likely the club will go through the season using a bullpen by committee. Though that's not the ideal scenario, it has been effective in the past.

5. If Price is traded, can the Rays staff fill the void?
Should Tampa Bay trade Price, the remaining rotation would include Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer with Jake Odorizzi as the likely fifth starter.

Without Price, the Rays would face a problem similar to what they experienced after trading James Shields. Not only would they be down an ace, but they would also be losing a significant number of innings. Price has pitched 200-plus frames in three of the last four seasons. Certainly, Price's departure would leave a huge gap, but the talent is on hand to potentially fill it.

6. Who is the best candidate from the Minor Leagues to make the jump to Tropicana Field?
Odorizzi is the best bet, given the prospect that Price will be traded. If Price is traded and Odorizzi doesn't win the job, right-hander Alex Colome could be a candidate to make the jump to the Major Leagues, with left-hander Enny Romero coming in as a longshot.

Kevin Kiermaier could also get promoted this season. The Rays like the speedy outfielder so much that he found a spot on the roster for their Wild Card game against the Indians. Talk to almost anybody in the organization about Kiermaier, and you will hear rave reviews of his defense.

7. Can Yunel Escobar put together another quality season?
Escobar proved to be a steal last season when he took over at shortstop and stabilized the position with steady play, not to mention off-the-charts defensive highlights. He was no slouch on offense, either.

Escobar has all the tools to be a great player. He is in the last year of his contract, which should add some incentive to his game.

8. Are Moore and Cobb ready to make the step up to elite status?
Moore and Cobb both showed stuff in 2013 that indicates that they can be elite.

Moore got off to a fast start before experiencing a brief stretch where he struggled. He also overcame an elbow problem, but finished strong. When he's on, he has swing-and-miss stuff.

Like Moore, Cobb had to endure a stint on the disabled list after taking a line drive off the side of his head. He made a courageous return, and he was the club's best pitcher at the end of the season.

9. Will Hellickson return to form?
Hellickson's 2013 season had everyone scratching their heads trying to figure out what went wrong -- including Hellickson.

Some suspected he had physical issues, which all parties denied. Others felt like he relied too much on his best pitch, the changeup. He rarely escaped an outing without having a bad inning. Those hiccups made the lines for most of his starts appear worse than they were.

Hellickson is a competitor and he has quality stuff, making him a good bet to return to form.

10. Can the Rays expect to contend in 2014?
Absolutely.

With the re-signing of Loney, the Rays will have everybody back from the starting lineup that finished the season. That means they will have full-season contributions from David DeJesus and Myers. In addition, they will have Hanigan to bolster the catching.

Overcoming the potential loss of Price and finding someone to fill Rodney's shoes are their biggest obstacles, but the Rays have shown that they have the ability to thrive in an atmosphere of change.

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

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