February is a wonderful time of the year. Major League Baseball spring training brings hope and aspirations to new and old players. New players, fresh out of high school or college, aspire to be the next Evan Longoria or David Price. Returning players hope they get one more year to play the greatest sport in front of adoring fans. The Tampa Bay Rays have some holes to fill going into spring training.
The only pitcher in Rays history to throw a no-hitter, Matt Garza, went to the Chicago Cubs in early January. The Rays picked up pitcher Chris Archer, and seven other players. Archer should help to stop some of the bleeding in the bullpen.
Jeremy Hellickson will cover the empty slot in the Rays starting rotation. They brought him up from the Durham Bulls late last season. He was 4-0 last year with a 3.47 ERA. Hellickson struck out 33 batters in 36.1 innings.
Other than Garza, the starting rotation remains intact. David Price, James Shields, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis are all back. Niemann missed three weeks in August with a strained shoulder, and never regained his form through the playoffs. Everyone will be watching him during spring training. Shields had a rough season last year. Concentration seemed to be a problem for him.
The Rays traded away most of its bullpen in the offseason, and this could be its greatest challenge in the upcoming year. Only two regulars return. Andy Sonnanstine will be back with his bag full of pitches that keep the batters confused. J.P. Howell returns after having shoulder surgery last season.
Here’s the damage report. The Rays lost Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate and Grant Balfour from the bullpen. The Rays will test several pitchers during spring training to fill these positions.
Also lost were Carl Crawford from the outfield, Carlos Pena at first base and shortstop, Jason Bartlett. The Cubs signed Carlos Pena, and he has been in Dallas working with its batting coach. Crawford went to an AL East competitor, the Boston Red Sox. Good news for Crawford; bad news for the Rays. Bartlett went to the West Coast, and will be playing for the San Diego Padres.
Now for the good news. Evan Longoria is back at third base, and the Rays signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. They bring bats and experience to the mix. Manny will be the designated hitter, and Damon will take Crawford’s position in the outfield. These veteran players will bring excitement to the game and sell tickets. The Tampa Bay Rays hope to increase attendance this year and generate interest in a new stadium.
Pitchers and catchers report this week to the Charlotte Sports Park, the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training facility. During the offseason, the Rays’ bullpen roster took lots of hits, but opportunities exist now for new players to make the team.
The Rays were expected to cut salary, resulting in big changes to their roster, even though the team won the American League East last season. No one expected the sweeping changes that occurred. If they can shore up the bullpen this season, the Rays still can be competitive in a difficult division.
Photo credits: Tampa Bay Rays