Rays 2014: Overlook Tampa Bay at your own peril

This is the latest of our 30 team previews, which will run through March 30.The lesson was learned a few years ago. And it must be repeated every year before opening day. The Tampa Bay Rays cannot be taken for granted.Yes, they have, by far, the American League East’s lowest payroll. They haven’t always been able to keep their homegrown stars. They have an offense that struggles each year to put up runs and they have a bullpen that is seemingly held together with duct tape and twist ties. Yet only two teams in the major leagues have won at least 90 games in each of the past four seasons: the Texas Rangers and those always-forgotten Rays.Evan Longoria (AP Photo)LONGORIA: 'I feel like I'm more of a leader this year'How does Tampa Bay do it? They continually pitch better than their competition. In each of the past four seasons, the Rays have finished in the top five in the American League in ERA. The only other major league teams that can boast that distinction are the Oakland A’s in the AL and the National League’s Atlanta Braves.The Rays’ staff actually took a step backward in 2013 despite winning 92 games and making the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons. The club’s overall ERA was 3.74, fifth best in the AL, after placing first in 2012 and second in the previous two seasons.Tampa Bay’s bullpen, which was the AL’s best in 2012, showed some cracks last season and dropped to seventh in ERA with a 3.59 mark. This year it will have a different look, with veteran Heath Bell expected to close games. The Rays acquired the 36-year-old Bell in an offseason trade with Arizona.Bell flamed out as the high-priced closer for the Miami Marlins in 2012, but he is a three-time All-Star and has 168 career saves. He’ll be set up by rubber-armed Joel Peralta, among others. In Tampa, the bullpen always takes a complementary role to a rotation that continues to produce quality starters. It’s led by 2012 AL Cy Young award winner David Price. Given his success, age (28) and escalating salary, Price is the constant subject of swirling trade rumors.Not a free agent until after the 2015 season, the Rays would receive an impressive package of players for Price if they decide to deal him. But it isn’t easy to jettison someone with Price’s talent. The lefty actually had a bit of a down year in 2013 given the lofty standards he has set. He was 10-8 with a 3.33 ERA, but was particularly good in the second half, posting a 7-3 record and a 2.87 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break.As good as Price was in 2013, two of his teammates put up better numbers. Matt Moore, a 24-year-old lefty in his second full season in the majors, led the team with 17 wins, posted a 3.29 ERA and finished ninth in the AL Cy Young balloting.And Moore and Price were both overshadowed by the inspiring season turned in by 26-year-old righthander Alex Cobb, who was 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts. His numbers may have been more impressive had he not missed two months after taking a liner off the head on June 15. Cobb came back to win five of his final six decisions and allowed more than three runs just once in his last 11 regular season starts after the scary injury.Throw in Jeremy Hellickson, who won 12 games despite a 5.17 ERA, and Chris Archer, who had a 3.22 ERA in 23 starts and finished third in Rookie-of-the-Year voting, and the Rays are in a position to be in every game.That takes plenty of pressure off an offense that finished ninth in the AL in runs scored with 700 in 2013, fewer than any other AL playoff team.The Rays had no .300 hitters last season. In fact, they had only one player who hit more than 20 homers or drove in at least 80 runs—third baseman Evan Longoria.Healthy all season, Longoria played in a career-high 160 games, hit a career-best 32 homers and led the team with 88 RBIs. He and the always-steady Ben Zobrist received much-needed offensive support in mid-June when the Rays promoted ballyhooed prospect Wil Myers.Wil Myers (AP Photo) 2014: Jersey-buying guide | "> Best team promos Myers, who was the key reason the Rays agreed to trade starter James Shields to the Kansas City Royals in December 2012, is as good as advertised. Now 23, he immediately adjusted to the major leagues, batting .293 with 13 homers and 53 RBIs in 88 games, easily winning AL Rookie of the Year.He’ll be back for a full year and so will first baseman James Loney, a potential free agent who hit .299 and played tremendous defense in 2013. He agreed to a three-year, $21 million deal in the offseason. Loney anchored a defense that committed the second-fewest errors in the majors.Strong pitching and tight defense have become a hallmark of Joe Maddon’s teams in Tampa Bay. A master motivator and occasional mad genius, the bespectacled Maddon has become one of the most respected managers in the game. And he’ll continue to earn that respect if the small-market Rays can win 90 games for a fifth consecutive season.Buy your Sporting News 2014 Baseball Yearbook now!Projected lineup C: Ryan Hanigan1B: James Loney2B: Ben ZobristSS: Yunel Escobar3B: Evan LongoriaLF: David DeJesusCF: Desmond JenningsRF: Wil MyersRotationLHP David PriceRHP Alex CobbLHP Matt MooreRHP Chris ArcherRHP Jeremy HellicksonCloserGrant BalfourView from the other dugoutA scout's take on the Rays:“Obviously, the Rays are going to be in it again. They just keep getting pitching and more pitching, but they really needed to solve that first-base situation (the Rays did by re-signing James Loney). They could still use more pop in the lineup. … I’m disappointed in Jeremy Hellickson. When he first came up, he had good command. He was hitting the edges of the plate a lot better than he is now. His breaking ball is every bit as good; he’s just not getting it over the way he once did. I don’t know what Heath Bell does, but they put together good bullpens. (Joel) Peralta has been huge for them. I keep looking for his arm to fall off, but he keeps coming back. The guy I’ve always liked is (Desmond) Jennings, but he hasn’t taken the next step up. Sometimes it takes a while, but he needs to make that jump. He has the tools to be a much better player.”Scout's viewA scout's take on SP Alex Cobb:“Cobb is their young pitcher I like the best. Matt Moore may have better stuff than Cobb, but Cobb has better pitchability and command than Moore does right now. I really like that kid a lot. I love his makeup. He is very intense, very focused and he exudes a lot of confidence. You used to hear people around the game rave about Hellickson and then they raved about Moore. Well, now everyone is raving about Cobb after last year (11-3, 2.76 ERA) and how he rebounded (from being hit in the head with a liner).”Key statNo other major league team had more than seven complete games in 2013; the Rays had nine. David Price threw four complete games and four other Tampa starters went the distance at least once.Bottom lineIf pitching and defense win championships, then the Rays will get their due one of these days. Despite continu

al payroll constraints, Tampa Bay always puts a competitive club on the field thanks to a tremendous pitching staff. With an improved offense led by Myers, 2014 should be no different.This content originally appeared in the Sporting News 2014 Baseball Yearbook. To order a copy, click here