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Pitching-rich Rays hold aces until the time is right

Pitching-rich Rays hold aces until the time is right

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Tampa Bay Rays.

2011 record: 91-71
Finish: Second, AL East
2011 final payroll: $42.2 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $65 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 2nd
Hashtags: #IQ>$$, #7manrotation, #thatsaballpark?, #re-carlos, #pricetags, #carlwho?, #game162, #legendofsamfuld, #(samhit.240)

Offseason action

Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman (left) held onto his pitchers and gave manager Joe Maddon a three-year extension over the winter.
(AP)

That general manager Andrew Friedman was able to cover first base, to strengthen his bench, to deepen his bullpen, to add a catcher and to **noallow** a designated hitter wasn’t wholly unexpected. Even in the places where teams such as the Rays shop, value could be found.

He spent $7.25 million for Carlos Pena, who averaged 34 home runs over the past five seasons (and, granted, 158 strikeouts), four of those with the Rays.

He signed more left-handed power with Luke Scott, who in a full season is capable of 30 home runs, but in 2011 played 64 games and finished on the disabled list after shoulder surgery. Friedman bought low for $5 million.

He added reliever Fernando Rodney, infielder Jeff Keppinger and catcher Jose Molina at a total of $5.3 million.

That’s all fine. The interesting part is that Friedman was able to upgrade several areas of his wild-card team without parting with a single starting pitcher.

Among the few givens headed into the winter was that the cash-strapped and pitching-rich Rays would move a starter (or two) to improve an offense that was near average by American League standards, but worst in the AL East.

It seemed likely that Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann or even James Shields would go, and that they would bring the sort of riches the San Diego Padres got from the Cincinnati Reds for Mat Latos, or the Oakland Athletics got from the Washington Nationals for Gio Gonzalez, or the Seattle Mariners got from the New York Yankees for Michael Pineda.

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Friedman didn’t play it that way. Instead, the Rays – 29th in the league in attendance and seemingly no closer to a new ballpark that might change that – increased their payroll by almost 50 percent, plugged the holes with cash, and perhaps now wait for late March or late July to take advantage of an otherwise spent market.

Perhaps it made sense to hold back when so many other young and affordable pitchers were available. When it comes time to show his cards, Friedman will still be holding aces.

Reality check

Matt Moore

Now, what to do with all those pitchers.

Unless the Rays intend to assign a starter to each day of the week – “James, you’ve got Mondays, David goes Tuesdays, Jeff you got anything going on Wednesdays? …” – two of Shields, David Price, Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson, Davis, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb won’t be in the rotation.

Shields just had his best season – 16 wins, 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games (after having none since 2008).

Price’s wins were down and his ERA was up over 2010, but his WHIP and strikeouts per nine were up. He’s an ace.

Hellickson, at 24, made 29 starts, carried a 2.95 ERA and was AL Rookie of the Year.

That leaves four for two spots.

The left-handed Moore, at 22 among the game’s top prospects, has made two big-league starts. In the first he shut out the Yankees over five innings in New York. In the second he shut out the Texas Rangers over seven innings in Game 1 of the ALDS.

In his first two full seasons, Davis has won 23 games. Niemann is a steady strike-thrower and is 38-23 over three-plus seasons. Cobb, at 23, posted a 3.42 ERA over nine major-league starts in 2011 (along with a 1.87 ERA over 12 Triple-A starts). He had August surgery to remove a blood clot and a rib (which he keeps in a jar).

Davis could go to the bullpen, which seemed to suit him during two playoff appearances against the Rangers. And Cobb could return to the minors.

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These things tend to work themselves out, and likely will over the next seven weeks, before the Rays open their season with 13 games against the Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.

If they don’t happen organically, however, Friedman will have options, as the rest of the league searches desperately for starting pitching.

Savior

Evan Longoria

For a season spent with a blown oblique, Evan Longoria’s 2011 was hardly a disaster. In his fourth full season, he did bat .244, a career low, in only 133 games. But, he mustered enough torque to hit 31 home runs, 17 over the final two months, including the final-night walkoff that clinched a playoff berth for the Rays and buried the Red Sox.

After two seasons grinding through hamstring, quadriceps and the oblique injuries, he rethought his winter workouts and is expected to come into camp leaner and, he hopes, less susceptible to such injuries.

Even with a rich rotation and what should be a better bullpen, the Rays need to be better offensively, and for that they need Longoria to be healthy and productive in the middle of their order.

A regular man behind him in the four hole – that being the left-handed-hitting Pena – and regular runners on base ahead of him (Desmond Jennings and either B.J. Upton or Ben Zobrist) would do wonders as well.

A hale Longoria carries one of the more lethal bats in the league, and therefore makes the Rays go.