Rays will stick to familiar script and expect a familiar result

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Few players in the game are as versatile -- or valuable to their team -- as Ben Zobrist.

Few players in the game are as versatile -- or valuable to their team -- as Ben Zobrist.

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Tampa Bay Rays

2012 Record: 90-72

2013 Projection: 92-70, first in AL East, lose World Series to Nationals

Early in the afternoon of March 15, the Tampa Bay Rays' spring training clubhouse in Port Charlotte, Fla., contained a few dozen professional baseball players who were bereft of their hair -- it was the day of the club's annual charity benefit, in which members of the organization can opt to have their heads shaved to raise money for pediatric cancer research -- and one wild boar who was bereft of his body.

That the boar's head was now stuffed, wearing a Rays cap and hanging on a wall was thanks to designated hitter Luke Scott, who said that he had killed the tusked 215-pound beast with what he called a "zulu spear" during a hunting trip two Decembers ago. Scott made the fatal throw from a distance of 12 yards, and he made it with his left arm -- an impressive feat, because he is not lefthanded.

"I was coming off of shoulder surgery, so I couldn't use my right," he said. "Had to improvise. Gotta adapt."

Improvising. Adapting. Both have been crucial to the Rays' rise from the 10 years of misery with which they began their life, to the five straight winning seasons -- in none of which did their payroll exceed $73 million -- that have followed. And both will be key to their fortunes in 2013, in several ways.

On one level, several Rays will have to adapt to playing a variety of positions, as Joe Maddon seeks to construct the matchup-based lineups in which he specializes, and which are necessitated by their low payroll. At second base, Maddon plans not just a platoon, but what he is calling a "quadtoon," as four players -- Sean Rodriguez, Ryan Roberts, Ben Zobrist and Kelly Johnson, signed from Toronto as a free agent -- will play there. But they'll all play elsewhere, too: Zobrist at short and in right; Johnson at first and in left; Rodriguez all over the infield; and Roberts at first, second and third.

"Doesn't matter to me whether it's first, second, third, left, right, pitcher," says Roberts, who hit 19 home runs as the Diamondbacks' regular third baseman two years ago. "I want to stay in the lineup and do whatever I can do to help us win. That's how everybody is."

The Rays' front office always likes depth and versatility, but this winter they sought it more than ever. "I think we were hypersensitive to the depth issue this offseason, and so we have some of it on our major league roster, and we'll have better options in Triple-A as well," says general manager Andrew Friedman. "So we're not scouring all the lists you don't want to be looking at when you have an injury."

Each season, though, the Rays have had to adapt on a larger level, as they try to stay competitive despite lacking the wherewithal to re-sign most of the assets who have grown into stars, and who therefore have grown expensive, in their uniform. Carl Crawford left. Carlos Peña left. Rafael Soriano left. Matt Garza was traded. This winter, centerfielder B.J. Upton signed with the Braves for five years and $75.25 million, and the Rays traded workhorse starter James Shields to the Royals -- along with fellow starter Wade Davis -- one year before he too was to become a free agent, and would be in position to command even more than Upton.

The downside to trading a 31-year-old innings-eater like Shields, who over the past two years has thrown four more complete games (14) than anyone else, is obvious, but the Rays are constructed to weather the blow. Just ask one of the starters who remains -- David Price, no less than last season's Cy Young winner.

"We're definitely missing a good ballplayer and a better person, but the guys we have to fill his shoes are going to be able to do it just fine," Price says. "We're just going to increase our workload, by 30 or 40 innings total. If we each can just do five, 10, 15 more innings than last year, we'll do just fine."

The Rays' remaining starters are at a point in their careers at which such an increase should be manageable. Matt Moore struggled at times as a 23-year-old rookie last year -- he went 11-11, with a 3.81 ERA in 177 1/3 innings -- but, Price points out, "His rookie year was a lot better than my rookie year, and he was up here for longer than I was, so I thought he threw the ball just fine." (Price's ERA as a rookie in 2009 was 4.42). Jeremy Hellickson, 25, the AL Rookie of the Year in 2011, should also be able to smoothly add innings.

"Hellickson's got a career ERA around 3.00 in the AL East, it's better than mine," notes Price. "I feel like people overlook him all day long. I don't know why. It's probably because he's under six feet and, I don't know, he doesn't throw 95."

If the Rays' starters, as Price predicts, can make up for Shields' departure, then the trade will have only upside for the organization -- and the upside is significant, as Tampa Bay received four top minor leaguers, including Wil Myers, who slugged 37 home runs in the minors last season and is rated by Baseball America as the game's fourth-best prospect.

"We had a little bit of depth on the pitching side, but an area where we weren't nearly as deep was with guys that have a chance to be really good offensive performers," says Friedman. "Wil stood out as one of those guys. Both James and Wade are really good pitchers, so for us to do a deal with Kansas City, Wil Myers had to be in it."

Myers admits he grew a bit frustrated last season, waiting for a call-up to Kansas City that never came. He'll begin the season in Triple-A again, though in Durham, N.C., which is about 45 minutes from his hometown of Greensboro. "It should be pretty sweet," he says, though his aim remains clear. "My goal is to be in the big leagues, so that's what I'm working towards."

"He's going to be with us at some point," says Maddon. "When, I'm not 100% sure. When you get a guy like that, you want him to play everyday." Maddon wants Myers to spend his time in Durham working on nuances like defense and baserunning. "He can be above average in his entire game, and not just hitting and hitting for power," the manager says.

Soon, though, Myers should arrive in Tampa Bay, where he'll likely provide the team with a power boost it can use -- the Rays were 11th in the AL in runs last year, and eighth in homers -- and where he'll likely remain for six years or so, as his club continues to adapt, to improvise, and to win.

Biggest Addition: Yunel Escobar

Last year the Rays gave 391 at-bats to a trio of shortstops -- Elliott Johnson, Reid Brignac and Rodriguez -- who hit a combined .235 and produced a total of six home runs and 42 RBIs while playing the position. The 30-year-old Escobar, acquired from the Marlins for minor leaguer Derek Dietrich a few weeks after he was sent to Miami as part of November's blockbuster Blue Jays-Marlins trade, didn't do all that much better by himself (he hit .253, with nine homers and 51 RBIs), but he retains the potential for much more that none of that trio seems to possess. He should also stabilize the position, which likely won't be a major part of Maddon's carousel, and allow Zobrist, who is a superior defender at second and in right than he is at short, to play where he plays best.

Biggest Loss: B.J. Upton

The Rays might be in better position to replace Shields' contributions than those of Upton, who departed after six seasons in which he averaged 19 home runs and 36 steals and played a generally stellar centerfield. The onus will fall on 26-year-old Desmond Jennings. In 2012, the former top prospect had a reasonably productive first full season in the majors (he hit .246, with 13 homers and 31 steals), although it didn't seem that way to him.

"No, I don't think I did well," he says. "I want to get on base more. I want to score more runs. I want to strike out less."

Jennings' minor league batting eye seemed to desert him in Tampa -- his on-base percentage was never lower than .362 in parts of three seasons in Durham, but .314 last year -- but this spring he has shown signs he has recovered it. His OBP through 26 exhibition games was .424, and he drew nine walks, against four strikeouts.

What They Do Best: Strike people out

Rays pitchers struck out 1,383 batters in 2012, the most ever in the American League. The team leader was Shields, with 223, but his share can be replaced due to those heavier workloads from Price and Moore -- each of whom struck out nearly a batter an inning last season -- and in particular from quickly improving No. 4 starter Alex Cobb, 25.

Cobb totaled 106 whiffs in 136 1/3 innings over 23 starts last season. He only throws around 90 miles an hour, but, says Price, "his ball just moves all over the place. He's fun to watch throw, when you can get as many swings and misses as he does without having overpowering stuff."

What They Do Worst: Keep Evan Longoria healthy

The Rays missed out on a wild-card berth last year by three games, and a healthy Longoria might have made all the difference, as he reminded them by slugging three home runs in their meaningless regular season-concluding win over the Orioles. A torn hamstring in late April sidelined him for 85 games, during which Tampa Bay went 41-44 -- and this a season after he played in just 133 games, due to a strained oblique.

Of the club's effort to keep him in the lineup, says Maddon: "We're trying. For me, the difference may be to truly get him to take a day off. How can we rest this guy in a way that permits him to stay on the field more often? He's the RBI guy. There's certain hitters that just know how to drive in a run and others that do not. He knows how."

For all of their versatility, the Rays know that they need at least 150 starts from their lineup's centerpiece.

Bottom Line

A pitching staff that led the majors with a 3.19 ERA and should again be the AL's best, paired with a relentless and versatile lineup, will make the Rays legitimate World Series contenders -- provided that Evan Longoria stays healthy.