March 12, 2013; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) in the dugout against the New York Yankees at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Red Sox AL East Roundup: Tampa Bay Rays Q&A

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March 24, 2013; Clearwater, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox fans hold out balls to get signed by players prior to the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Networks Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays have been a perennial contender in the AL East for quite some time and it’s no surprise. I hate Joe Maddon sticking his finger in my eye but the guy can manage and does this franchise ever know how to develop pitchers.

Fansided’s Rays Colored Glasses Editor Robbie Knopf has been out straight leading up to Opening Day. As busy as he’s been I was able to badger him enough so that he eventually sent me his Q&A just in time and worth it. Read on to get Robbie’s take on the Rays and what they’ll need to do to compete for another AL East title.

In your opinion, did the Rays make enough changes in the offseason to help increase their chances to win in 2013?
The Rays’ biggest move this offseason was generally construed as being something that will set them back quite a bit this offseason, and if that was the only thing the Rays did, maybe that would really be the case. Luckily it was not. The Rays made a series of very interesting upside plays, trading for Yunel Escobar and signing Roberto Hernandez, Kelly Johnson, and James Loney, and while the chances of all four of them working out well are pretty small, Hernandez could be a useful starter at the back of their rotation and their offense has a pretty good chance of being improved next season between Escobar, Johnson, and Loney- and quite a bit of expected improvement from their returning players. The biggest lift the Rays could ever get would be Evan Longoria shaking his injury issues the past few years and staying healthy and season. Luke Scott‘s surgically-repaired shoulder is finally fine and he could be primed for a big sophomore season with the team. And then you Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce, two young players primed for breakout years, with Jennings healthy after being bothered by a knee injury and Joyce simply needing a mulligan after a tough 2012. The rotation is great, the bullpen may be even better, and the offense could be improved. Sounds like a team that can go far to me.

What/who have been your most surprising upsides and let downs during this spring training season?
The surprise position player that Rays fans actually got most excited about this spring was actually not a prospect but instead 29 year old catcher Chris Gimenez, who went 14 for 38 (.368). Gimenez lost in a bid to win the Rays’ backup catcher job to Jose Lobaton basically only because Gimenez had a minor league option and Lobaton did not, and he’s a player who made a breakthrough at the plate at Triple-A last year and might just be the player who could give the Rays halfway-defense offense from the catcher position.

It was on the pitching side where the prospects really stood out the most, with starting pitcher Chris Archer allowing just 1 hit in 7 innings of work and Enny Romero allowing just 3 in 5 innings and striking out 4 despite not logging a single game at Double-A in his career. Relievers Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke also looked great and could be big parts of the Rays’ bullpen at some point in 2013 if they keep their strong springs up.

The biggest disappointments had to be that Wil Myers played well, hitting .286 (10 for 35), but he didn’t set the world on fire and was quickly sent down to the minors. Another thing was Jeff Niemann‘s fastball velocity, which stayed in the 85-86 MPH range nearly the entire spring before finally getting up to 88-89 MPH in his last start, killing his trade value and prompting questions over whether he’s hurt. Also getting people worried with their poor performances this spring were Kelly Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, and Matt Moore, although I can’t say I take too much stock in major leaguers’ spring training stats.

Key injuries impact teams both on Opening Day and beyond. What injuries, both short-term and long-term, will most hamper the Rays’ ability to be successful?
If Evan Longoria goes down, the Rays are done. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. He was held to just 74 games in 2012 and the Rays were 47-27 with him and 43-45 without him. The Rays are going to take every precaution with him this year, and if they can keep him on the field, that will make all the difference. The Rays are lucky enough to be able to absorb a short-term injury to any of their pitchers without losing a beat, but they need players like Luke Scott, Desmond Jennings, and Matt Joyce who all saw time on the DL last year to stay healthy as well because they have to squeeze out all the offense they can get.

What are the three keys to success for Tampa Bay to compete for an AL East title in 2013?
1) Evan Longoria has to stay healthy. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the most dynamic players in the game and makes all the wheels turn for this Rays team. If he’s playing well in the middle of the Rays lineup, everything else will just come together.
2) Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore have to step up. Losing James Shields is something the Rays can overcome, but doing so pushes Hellickson and Moore into the 2nd and 3rd spots behind David Price in the rotation. Hellickson has managed great ERAs the last two seasons but has been enigmatic even in doing so. With his curveball emerging as an effective third pitch for him behind his bread-and-butter fastball and changeup, this could be the season that Hellickson emerges as a true number two starter with his peripherals matching up with his performance and 200 innings becoming a possibility. Moore is enormously talented and showed that his rookie year, but his control and command remain concerns and the Rays are waiting for something to click. If that happens and Moore goes David Price 2010, this team could win 95 games, but even if it doesn’t, Moore has to make progress.
3) Desmond Jennings, Luke Scott, and Matt Joyce need to have bounce-back years. The performance of all the offseason acquisitions will be important plus Wil Myers will be key coming from the minor leagues, but Jennings, Scott, and Joyce will pair with Longoria and Ben Zobrist to form the core of the Rays’ offense and they’re talented enough to make this offense middle-of-the-pack in the American League, which is all it has to be given the Rays’ pitching. Jennings and Joyce have untapped potential while Scott has shown that he can be great when healthy, and this has to be the season that all that ability starts to surface on the field.

Predict your AL East end of season standings and why.
1) Rays- I believe in the pitching and Longoria staying healthy, and enough members of the offense will break out to at least keep this team right around 90 wins, which should be all it takes in this division.

2) Blue Jays- Offseason acquisitions were huge, but if I was a fan of theirs, I would be terrified of injury concerns with Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow, Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, and Brett Lawrie (already happened) and the bullpen is already beginning to crumble. I still think they win 86 or 87 games.

3) Yankees- They’re in trouble but not quite as bad as people think with great pitching and a still solid offense. I’ll peg them for 84 or 85 wins.

4) Boston Red Sox- I don’t think there’s a position on the field (other than the bullpen) where I don’t have concerns with this team, but enough of their guys will pan out that they’ll finish at or above .500.

5) Baltimore Orioles- Time for reality to set back in and this is not a very good team. The pitching staff is mediocre at best and the offense is not nearly as good as people think (I even think Adam Jones is bound for regression). This looks like a 75-win team to me.

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