What's next for Tampa Bay?
Rays fall short in their comeback bid, but 2014 season looks promising
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- As the Tampa Bay Rays entered the final inning of the final game of the American League Division Series trailing the Boston Red Sox by two runs, the Tropicana Field scoreboard featured a video montage with the obligatory movie clips to inspire the crowd. The Rays showed snippets of John Belushi's big pep talk in "Animal House," Adam Sandler in "Happy Gilmore" and, most notably, Mel Gibson firing up the troops in "Braveheart."
The final clip was only fitting, considering that some of the games in this series took almost as long to complete as the First War of Scottish Independence.
The Rays ultimately lost the war of attrition to the Red Sox, 3-1, to bow out earlier than they would have preferred. As usual, they can take pride in all the praise they receive from competing managers and front-office executives, who cite Tampa Bay as a shining example of an organization that squeezes an awful lot of success out of a bad stadium situation and minimal resources.
Does it ever get tiresome lugging around that "Little Engine that Could" moniker? Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who always has a refreshing perspective to share, said the Rays could take pride in this season even though it ended much too soon for their tastes.
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"From my perspective, I'm really proud of our group," Maddon said. "I just talked to them briefly about that. I don't want to be a cliché, but there's nothing to hang our heads about. There really isn't. We were kind of an up-and-down team. We hit some really good moments and some really bad moments, but at the end of the day we still won 92 games. That's pretty good."
The Rays have recorded six straight winning seasons. Among the 30 big league teams, only the Yankees (with 21) and Cardinals (with six) have current streaks as long. They've also advanced to the postseason four times in the past six seasons. Only the Phillies, Yankees and Cardinals, who also have four playoff appearances each, have been to the postseason as often since 2008.
The Rays did it, as usual, with the old staples of pitching and defense. This marked the fourth straight year that the Tampa Bay staff posted the lowest opponents' batting average in the American League. The Rays became the first team to achieve that feat since the Detroit Tigers did it from 1982-85.
"On any given night we believe we can beat the other guys regardless of our payroll versus their payroll," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "For this organization, it's about pitching, defense and timely hitting. When we have that combination working for us, we can definitely beat any payroll out there. We don't look at the money when we get out there. We just believe in ourselves as a team and we know that we can do it."
The Rays were typically loose and fun-loving right to the end. Before the game, David Price and some other Tampa Bay players kicked around a soccer ball in the outfield. Then the game began, and Maddon's mad genius side took hold. After Jeremy Hellickson retired the Red Sox in order in the first inning and allowed two walks and a single to start the second, Maddon came out and signaled for Jamey Wright. Before the game was through, he used nine pitchers and 22 of the 25 players on his roster. The only players who didn't see action were outfielder Sam Fuld, Price and fellow starter Alex Cobb.
Ultimately, a lack of offense was the biggest culprit for Tampa Bay in the Boston series. The Rays hit .225 and scored a total of nine runs in four games against the Red Sox. Evan Longoria contributed a huge three-run homer in Game 3, but batted .154 (2-for-13) with four strikeouts. And rookie Wil Myers managed only a single in 16 at-bats, for an average of .063.
It was a rough series all-around for Myers, who botched a routine fly ball in the series opener and left Game 3 with cramps in his legs. His best-hit ball of the series came in his final at-bat, when he sent Jacoby Ellsbury to the warning track to catch a long fly ball to center field.
"I had a good year, but the biggest thing was I didn't play well at all during the postseason, and that left a bitter taste in my mouth," Myers said. "I just think I tried to do a little too much in the postseason. I wanted to come up big in every single situation for the team, and I put a little pressure on myself. I got a little bit overhyped. That's a big learning experience for me for the next postseason."
The Rays have plenty of pieces in place to be good again in 2014 -- from franchise staples Longoria and Zobrist to young players such as Myers, Matt Moore and Chris Archer. Nevertheless, Friedman has some roster reshaping in store this offseason. Closer Fernando Rodney, who came to Tampa Bay as a salvage job and recorded 85 saves over two seasons, is a free agent. If his price is too high, the Rays will shift to Jake McGee, Joel Peralta or Juan Carlos Oviedo, the artist formerly known as Leo Nunez.
First baseman James Loney, also a free agent, was a nice find for the Rays. He appeared in 158 games and hit .299 with a .778 OPS for a meager investment of $2 million. Loney is a great fit in Tampa, but if he prices himself out of the market, the Rays will go out and find another first-base bat to fill the void. They've done it with Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman, and Friedman has proven himself adept at working that market.
The Rays are always on the lookout for moderately priced veteran acquisitions, and they got some mileage this year out of Delmon Young and David DeJesus. The Rays have a $6.5 million option on DeJesus, and he made it clear after Tuesday's game that he wants to return.
"This is something I've never been a part of," DeJesus said. "I remember walking into the clubhouse and Joe Maddon saying, 'I want you to be yourself and I want you to run the ball out.' I was like, 'That's it?' The guys were so welcoming, and you have a bunch of guys who can play the game. It's something special. I want to play here."
Friedman's biggest decision in the offseason will revolve around Price, who is eligible for free agency after the 2015 season. Will the Rays hang onto him for another year, or move him for a package of prospects in the same way they traded James Shields and Matt Garza?
The players who've been around for a while expect Tampa's front-office contingent to figure it out.
"We really hope we can keep David, keep the core of guys in this clubhouse and build around that," Zobrist said. "It depends on how much money the organization wants to spend. We'll find out this offseason where we can push the envelope, and other places where they're going to try and save. They're very smart businessmen in this organization. They generally find a way."
The Rays summoned enough talent and creativity this season to perpetuate the organization's winning tradition. In the end, they just didn't win enough.
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