This is the part of the countdown that gets difficult. If you have followed to this point, the sixteen teams I have previewed are expected to be on the outside looking in- in regards to being postseason contenders. Of course, teams like the Indians (#21), Pirates (#22) and Braves (#15) all made the postseason last year and should be back in the mix. However, the next 4 teams I preview can all be used interchangeably with the top ten teams on the list (the top ten are all the 2014 playoff teams (in my opinion) with the next 4 just missing out).
I envisioned a scenario where the Rays make the playoffs. With the log jam of teams vying for the last wildcard spot, three of the next four teams are from the American League. The biggest strength the Rays bring to the table is their pitching, both in the pen as well as the obvious starting rotation. Roberto Hernandez was very expendable, but it is also a possibility that the Rays could move one more starter before the main stretch of the 2014 season starts (maybe Jeremy Hellickson or even David Price if a deal can be reached). I like the Rays to be good, but I see them coming a little short of matching their 91-71 season of 2013.
Adding Ryan Hanigan (.198, 2, 21) as the starting catcher gives the team depth in spite of his poor 2013 stats with veteran Jose Molina (.233, 2, 18) as the backup. Jose Lobaton was traded to Washington as part of a deal for RHP Nate Karns. What is interesting about the trade for Karns is the fact that the Rays have another mid to high end starting pitching prospect to work in as they have over the past couple seasons. 2012 saw Matt Moore and Alex Cobb. Last season it was Chris Archer (acquired for Matt Garza) and this season it will likely be RHP Jake Odorizzi (obtained from Kansas City for James Shields). The pipeline will continue to produce solid starting pitchers with the thought of adding more is Hellickson is moved next. Other changes include the loss of DH Luke Scott and closer Fernando Rodney. Veteran Wilson Betemit will share some time at DH with RHPs Grant Balfour and Heath Bell giving the bullpen a boost.
3B Evan Longoria is the franchise player and likely number 3 batter. His 2013 season (.269, 32, 88, .842 OPS) showed its positive and negatives. Many feel that Evan can hit for a higher average and increase his OPS. 1B James Loney (.299, 13, 75) is back on a new contract and is joined in the middle of the order by 2013 AL ROY Myers (.299, 13, 83 in 88 games) and 2B Ben Zobrist (.275, 12, 71, .756). People continue to state that Zobrist is the greatest player in the sport due to his "intangibles". I like Zobrist, but feel strongly that many overstate that case. CF Desmond Jennings (.252, 14, 54, 20 SB) is expected to be a better all around player and will be important to the team's success as will returning LF David Dejesus (.251, 8, 38 in 122 games). Matt Joyce (.247, 18, 47) fills in both at DH and in the OF. SS Yunel Escobar (.256, 9, 56) is interesting as he will be a free agent after the season. I would expect a better season for him, another factor which could make this team playoff worthy. Infielders Logan Forsythe (acquired from the Padres) and Sean Rodriguez will conclude what is a strong bench.
Price (10-8, 3.33 in 27 starts) was much closer to his 2012 Cy Young version (20-5, 2.56) than his stats indicate. Moore (17-4, 3.29) was an all stat last season and will be backed up in the rotation by Cobb (11-3, 2.76), Archer (9-7, 3.22) and Hellickson (12-10, 5.17). Do not be swayed by Hellickson's ERA, something I feel will be much better this season. Odorizzi will be up with the team this season, allowing the Rays to move a pitcher to address another organizational need. Perhaps we will see Karns as well this season.
Once it was likely Rodney (5-4, 37 saves, 3.38) would not return in 2014, the team traded for Bell (5-2, 15 saves, 4.11) from Arizona. Adding Balfour (1-3, 37 saves, 2.59), in my opinion, is an upgrade over Rodney, based off stuff right now. Balfour is a little older, which provides a little concern, but I feel he is an upgrade. The rest of the bullpen includes returnees Joel Peralta (3-8, 3.41 in 80 games), Jake McGee (5-3, 4.02 in 70 games) and Cesar Ramos (2-2, 4.14 in 48 games). Juan Oviedo, who is 32 right now, is an interesting wildcard as he looks to return to the big leagues after missing two seasons after falsifying his identity. If he can be anything close to his 2011 numbers with the Marlins (1-4, 4.06, 7.7 Ks/9), the Rays have even more depth.
Manager Joe Maddon has the ability to get the most out of his team. He has the backing of his players like no one in the games. Winning 92 games is possible, but I think the Yankees will be much better than last season. Vegas has the over under at 88.5, and I think the Rays can be close to that number. However, I have the Rays finishing the season at 84-78, 3rd place in the AL East division.