Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The names have changed, but will the results stay the same for the Tampa Bay Rays?
Always a money-conscious franchise by necessity, the Rays have nonetheless been a winner in recent years by making sound free-agent signings and striking it rich with young pitching.
They'll need that formula even more in 2013 after the latest round of changes to what had been the core of a lineup that had made three playoff appearances in five years.
Gone to the Kansas City Royals via trade is workhorse starting pitcher James Shields, a double-digit winner and 200-plus innings pitcher for six straight seasons; and super-athletic center fielder B.J. Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Atlanta Braves after combining for 51 home runs, 159 runs batted in and 67 stolen bases in the last two years.
Prospect-turned-regular Desmond Jennings will take over Upton's old spot in the middle of the outfield after playing 111 of his 132 games last season in left. The 26-year-old Alabama native was seventh in Rookie of the Year voting in 2011 in just 63 games, then hit .246 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 31 steals in year No. 1 as a legitimate full-time starter.
Jennings, incidentally, will make $486,900 in 2013.
"I feel like center field is my natural position," he said. "It's what I played throughout the minor leagues. It will be a little bit different from last year, but that's what I like. I feel like I get better reads out in center. There's more responsibility. You've got more ground to cover, but it's a position I love to play."
Making up for Shields' absence, while more glaring, may be easier for a team whose composite 3.19 earned run average was the best in the majors since 1990.
The Rays enter the schedule with reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price in the No. 1 starter's slot, followed by hard-throwing 23-year-old lefty Matt Moore, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, three-time double-digit winner Jeff Niemann and 25-year-old prospect Alex Cobb.
Niemann was limited to just eight starts last season by a broken leg in 2012, but he's 40-26 across 97 career big-league appearances, a 60.6 win percentage that's second on the team to Price's 66.3.
And waiting in the wings at Triple-A, just the No. 36 prospect in the majors according to Baseball America, 23-year-old Chris Archer (139 strikeouts in 129 minor-league innings in 2012).
"We are a turnover team. We do change things on an annual basis," manager Joe Maddon said. "Welcome to the Rays."
2012 FINISH (90-72) - Third Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Wil Myers, Yunel Escobar, Jake Odorizzi
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: James Shields, B.J. Upton, Jeff Keppinger, Wade Davis
PROJECTED LINEUP: C Jose Molina, 1B James Loney, 2B Kelly Johnson, 3B Evan Longoria, SS Yunel Escobar, LF Matt Joyce, CF Desmond Jennings, RF Ben Zobrist, DH Luke Scott
PROJECTED ROTATION: LHP David Price, LHP Matt Moore, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, RHP Jeff Niemann, RHP Alex Cobb
PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP Fernando Rodney
MANAGER: Joe Maddon
HOW GOOD CAN THE STARTERS BE?
Three words. Still. Darn. Good. As one scout put it during spring training last year, "The starting pitching depth is ridiculous. Their second five starting pitchers are as good as some of the other starting fives out there." And the landscape doesn't change all that much without Shields. A former No. 1 overall pick (2007), Price followed a subpar 12-13 record in 2011 with his first 20-win season (20-5) a league-best earned run average for starters (2.56 in 211 innings) and 205 strikeouts and 173 hits allowed, which translated to a 12th-place finish in MVP voting. Moore was just 11-11 in his first full season as a starter, but posted a 3.01 ERA in the back half of the year after the number was 4.42 in the first half. Hellickson slumped from 13-10 to 10-11, but still allowed just 163 hits in 177 innings and saw his strikeouts rise from 117 to 124 in 12 fewer innings. Niemann was kept in spring training ahead of Archer, most likely to maintain a year of contract service on the youngster, and Cobb was 11-9 in 23 starts in 2012.
OK, BUT WILL THERE BE ENOUGH OFFENSE?
The Rays were 11th in runs scored, 13th in hits 12th in batting average and 11th in slugging percentage among American League teams last season, yet still managed 90 wins. Many think things would have been different had it not been for continuing injury problems for Evan Longoria, who managed 17 homers and 55 RBIs in just 273 at-bats in 74 games. He went for 33 and 99, respectively, across 483 at-bats in 133 games a season before. Elsewhere, as much or more will be needed from the aforementioned Jennings, second baseman-turned-right fielder Ben Zobrist (.270, 20 HR, 74 RBI) and designated hitter Luke Scott (.229, 14 HR, 55 RBI). Also in the wings is No. 4-ranked big-league prospect Wil Myers, who was brought from the Royals in the Shields trade. In 134 games at Double-A and Triple-A last season, Myers hit 37 homers, drove in 109 runs and hit .314.
MORE RESPECT FOR RODNEY?
Not many would have expected a 35-year-old journeyman reliever whose earned run average hadn't dipped below 4.20 since 2006 to have a season like Fernando Rodney did in 2012. Along the way, he pitched 74 2/3 innings, struck out 76 batters and recorded 48 saves while allowing just nine runs (five earned) and earning a fifth-place nod in Cy Young voting and a 13th-place nod in MVP balloting. It'll be interesting to see what level the now 36-year-old is nearer to as an encore - his career numbers (3.75 ERA) or his remarkable high watermark - especially after a high workload through a deep run in the spring's World Baseball Classic.
X-FACTOR: 1B JAMES LONEY
The exit of Carlos Pena prompted the offseason acquisition of James Loney (one year, $2 million), who skidded to just six home runs and 41 runs batted in across 144 games with Toronto and Boston last season. Previously, he'd managed at least 10 homers per season for five straight years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, including a sixth-place finish in NL rookie of the year balloting in 2007. Ominously, Loney hit just .235 in his initial 14 spring games, which could prompt a quick roster move by the Rays to get Myers into the fold.
The changing of the guard in the AL East would presumably mean good things for the Rays, who'd spent a half-decade wrestling with the Red Sox and Yankees. However, the offseason moves by the Blue Jays make them an automatic threat, and the 2012 resurgence by the Orioles provides another obstacle. All that said, assuming the Tampa Bay pitching is as good or better than last season - especially in spots 2-5 - and Longoria can be Longoria for a whole season, they're certainly in the mix and would have to be considered a favorite to win the division simply because they know the route.