Two surprises could turn the Tampa Bay Rays into front-runners for the American League East title in 2014.
One, David Price was not traded, and two, Grant Balfour has returned for a second tour of duty, this time as the closer. They represent the front and back of a very good pitching staff.
Price is appropriately named since he’s the stud pitcher the Rays can’t seem to afford, while Balfour, who had an extraordinary 2013 season as Oakland’s closer, returned to Tampa after the Orioles pulled the plug on a two-year, $14 million deal when their doctors discovered a knee issue that Balfour claims is irrelevant.
What’s in between — starters Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Jeremy Hellickson (when he returns in two months from an injury), and the rising Jake Odorizzi, and relievers Heath Bell, Jake McGee, and Joel Peralta, makes the Rays pretty solid 1 through 12.
A year ago, Fernando Rodney was a heart-attack closer and the Rays lost games in which they led, because of his ineffectiveness.
Price, who will earn $14 million this season, was available in trade this winter. The 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner and 2010 runner-up was pulled back by the Rays, who weren’t blown away by the packages being offered.
“Yeah, it was a little bit surprising I didn’t get traded,” Price said last week in Port Charlotte, Fla. “With everything the way it worked with [Masahiro] Tanaka, I think people were waiting for that market to develop. People didn’t know if he’d be posted and at first he didn’t want to and then everyone was waiting for the market to be set by him. Everything stayed quiet, and I think because of that I didn’t go anywhere.”
But Price has no guarantee how long he’ll be with the Rays.
“It’s in our hands, really,” he said. “It’s where we are in the standings. If we’re 10 games out, something may happen. If we have the lead or around a wild-card spot, I doubt anything will happen.”
Price’s dream scenario would be for the Rays to be able to keep their better players and build their staff around him.
“This is home for me. I enjoy being here, everybody knows that,” he said. “I’d love to stay here and if we can work something out, that would be really cool. I’m a couple of years away from free agency, so we’ve got time to do stuff.”
Price made 27 starts and pitched 186⅔ innings in 2013, even though he missed six weeks because of a shoulder strain.
“I just want to get back to the 30-plus starter and 200 innings,” Price said. “That’s what I’d done my whole career. When I can achieve those things and just go out there every fifth day, I think good things happen for me. I can help the team more.”
Price credits finding a routine he’s comfortable with as a huge reason he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“It’s very solid and it works for me and easy for me to stick to it,” he said. “I spent years trying different things, but what I have now, how I prepare, how I do my offseason, it’s very good.”
Balfour, 36, had 38 saves last season, after 24 the year before, but he was demoted when he blew a save in September.
He signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Rays, with whom he spent 2007-10, primarily in a setup role. He pitched 74⅔ innings for the Athletics in 2012 with 72 strikeouts and 28 walks. Last season, he had 72 strikeouts and 27 walks in 62⅔ innings.
He’s going from the AL West to the East, a division he’s familiar with, but could it be tougher?
“I don’t know, I haven’t done it here,” said Balfour. “Where I was, was a tough division. A lot of people think it’s a weaker division, but Texas made it to the World Series twice before last year. The Angels stacked their team with hitters. Seattle is a tough squad, too. I know that Boston and New York are always solid teams. New York has gone out to spend money to toughen up that lineup. Boston has professional hitters. Baltimore and Toronto have good hitters. Strong league. I think you have to go into it enjoying the challenge. You know what you’re up against and embrace it and enjoy it. It’s you against me and let’s get after it.”
Balfour said he had opportunities from “multiple teams” after the deal with the Orioles fell through, but the Rays made it an easy decision.
“I know the manager, the coaches, the front-office people, the clubhouse guys, a lot of the players,” Balfour said. “We have a chance to win here. I wasn’t the closer when I was here before, so I’m looking forward to the new role here. It’s a situation I love being in. I’ve been in high-level situations for a long time pitching those late innings, pitching in tight ballgames, and we’ll have those here in this division.”
While Balfour appears to harbor resentment toward the Orioles, all he would say of the deal falling through was, “It was a shock. I know I’m healthy and I’ve proven that. Like I said, I’m moving on from that. I’m a Ray and more than happy to be.”
A full season of Price and a more consistent Balfour over Rodney at closer should make the Rays a better team. Manager Joe Maddon emphasized in his 14-minute speech to the full squad that the team had to play mistake-free against the Red Sox, who beat the Rays, 12-7, in the season series and, 3-1, in the Division Series.
But it starts with Price and ends with Balfour.
IT ALL DEPENDS
Ellsbury’s impact on race up for debate
How big a loss is Jacoby Ellsbury to the Red Sox, and how big a gain is he for the Yankees?
Shane Victorino seemed to benefit from Ellsbury being at the top of the order and batting behind him, but he didn’t always see it that way.
“Sometimes it’s worse when there’s a guy like that in front of you because you’re up there wondering, is the pitcher going to lift his leg up, is he going to pitch to me, slide-step, throw over to first four or five times?” Victorino said. “There’s positives and negatives. There’s no real answers. Could be a positive because you’re going to get better pitches, more fastballs because he’s in scoring position. But it can be distracting. There are two ways to look at it.”
Overall, “Of course he’s a big loss,” said Victorino. “He’s a good defensive player who gets on base and makes things happen. Jacoby is a great player, which is why he got all that money. Now we have to find a way to stop him.”
Another uniformed person in the Sox organization said, “I don’t think it’s a huge loss because he spent so much time injured. I think there’s a way to make up for his loss. I think going to the Yankees, I believe them losing Curtis Granderson is a bigger loss than Ellsbury is a gain.”
Yet the distraction factor can’t be underestimated. Ellsbury helps win close games.
“The pitcher is distracted the entire time he’s on base,” said a Yankees pitcher. “When he was on, our pitchers had a fit. You’d get all out of synch. You couldn’t focus completely on getting the next hitter out because Ellsbury was bouncing around out there. So to take that away from them and add it to us, it’s big for us.”
While the Yankees had a player with Ellsbury’s speed in Brett Gardner, he’s never been able to hit as well and thus get on base as much.
“He balances our team,” Mark Teixeira said of Ellsbury. “We have guys who can hit the ball a long way and Jacoby gives us that speed and ability to create at the top of the order. I think we’re all excited about it.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Unless I’m missing something or there’s more to come, the Yankees have left themselves short in the bullpen. If David Robertson gets hurt or struggles, what then? Only Matt Thornton has had closer experience. He is also their main lefthander out of the pen. The Yankees have no bullpen depth from either side.
2. The Red Sox don’t issue jersey Nos. 21, 45, and 24, out of respect for Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, and Dwight Evans (though Manny Ramirez wore it), but they have no problem issuing No. 26. Wade Boggs is a Hall of Famer wearing a Red Sox cap in Cooperstown, and Brock Holt is wearing his number. There seems no movement afoot to honor Boggs, the player with the best batting average ever (.369) at Fenway Park. On the Legendary banner near the Red Sox clubhouse at JetBlue Park, all of the franchise greats are depicted. Boggs does not appear. Because he was a Yankee? Is it really that petty?
3. Tampa Bay right fielder Wil Myers has handled his non-play against the Red Sox in the playoffs with maturity and class. Myers, who looks as if he’s going to be an All-Star, said, “It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in baseball. Embarrassing. It’s awful that it happened and I know I’ll always hear about it. But the biggest thing for me is to move on from it and make sure something like that never happens again.”
4. Mark Teixeira’s advice to David Robertson: “Handle the ninth like you handle the eighth and there will be no problems. Dave is one of my best friends. I’m sure there will be times initially when there will be more pressure because he’s replacing Mariano [Rivera]. But he’s just got to be Dave Robertson and if he’s that, he’ll do great.”
5. Why don’t we reserve judgment on whether Scott Boras did right or wrong by declining qualifying offers of $14.1 million on behalf of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales? Last year there was the same blistering commentary on Boras concerning Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse. Bourn agreed to a four-year, $48 million deal on Feb. 11, and Lohse agreed to a three-year, $33 million deal March 25.
Updates on nine
1. Mark Mulder, LHP, Angels — Mulder will have surgery to repair his torn Achilles’ tendon this week. While Mulder will likely return to ESPN, he’s not ruling out another comeback bid next season. But all of that is up in the air as he waits for the swelling to go down.
2. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox — One-year extension at $20 million? Don’t be surprised if this is where it ends up. Ortiz is fully aware of the $20 million-plus players in the game. The list includes Vernon Wells (out of baseball), Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, and Joe Mauer. The only player you could make a case for making more is Miguel Cabrera, and Ortiz knows it. His agents have settled for hometown discounts, accepting that Ortiz is the highest-paid player at his position. But that may not be acceptable this time.
3. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox — Would Lester accept five years at $100 million when Homer Bailey just got six years at $105 million? At 27, Bailey is three years younger, but in no way has he accomplished what Lester has. If Lester has another good season, Zack Greinke’s six-year, $147 million deal might be the closer comparison.
4. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Orioles — In the end, money gets a deal done, but general manager Dan Duquette cited pitching coach Dave Wallace’s experience with Ramon and Pedro Martinez as a factor in Jimenez signing. “Fernando [Cuza] represented the Martinez brothers and he saw how Dave Wallace worked very efficiently with Ramon and Pedro Martinez, but particularly Ramon, who is built very similar to Ubaldo and has a very similar delivery and an excellent changeup,” Duquette said. “I think Fernando saw the opportunity for Ubaldo working with Dave making the same kind of adjustments that Ramon made later in his career.”
5. Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Yankees — With 2,742 major league hits and at the end of his career, will the 40-year-old accept a backup role? Suzuki, who has never played fewer than 146 games, and played in all 162 as recently as 2012, is not expected to embrace being an extra player. There will be some platoon opportunities in right field and at DH, but the Yankees need to find at-bats for Alfonso Soriano, who will DH a lot since he’s still a very productive hitter.
6. Carlos Quentin, OF, Padres — He’s a perpetually injured player who has never lived up to expectations, but righthanded power is hard to come by, and the Padres feel if they can keep him upright for 130-140 games, they may see a 30-homer reward. “To expect that all of a sudden he’s going to be an ironman is unrealistic,” said one team official. “But he makes a big difference for us when he’s in the lineup. He’s a threat. He looks like he’s as healthy as he’s been in a while, so we’ll see.”
7. Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH, free agent — As the price and number of years come down, the chances increase that the financial restrictions could be lifted and the Orioles could get themselves a very good hitter. Morales could bat fifth behind Adam Jones and Chris Davis and in front of Matt Wieters or J.J. Hardy. Morales could get a one-year pillow deal from Baltimore, which would reset his market and give him the chance to put up big numbers, like Adrian Beltre did in Boston.
8. Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, Phillies — Papelbon came into camp with a new attitude and promising outlook (even predicting the Phillies could win the World Series). Papelbon had a terrible attitude and his body language wasn’t good last season, when he blew seven saves. The team tried to deal him, to no avail. It seems, according to one Phillies source, that Papelbon and Ryne Sandberg had a man-to-man early in camp.
9. Oliver Perez, LHP, free agent — The former Met and Mariner was supposed to decide on one of four teams late last week, but it didn’t happen. Perez had a good year in Seattle and seems to be a better option for the Yankees than Matt Thornton.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Buster Posey is a .299 lifetime batter as a catcher and .357 as a first baseman. Mauer is a .328 lifetime batter as a catcher and .324 as a first baseman.” . . . Also, “Derek Jeter has a lifetime .381 on-base percentage and .446 slugging percentage. Cal Ripken Jr. had a lifetime .340 OBP and .447 slugging percentage.” . . . “And, “Among qualified starters, the highest walk rates in 2013 belonged to Jeff Locke (11.8 percent), Ryan Dempster (10.5), Jimenez (10.3), and Felix Doubront (10.1) . . . On Monday, you can wish Gustavo Molina (32), Bronson Arroyo (37), Mike Lowell (40), and Nick Esasky (54) a happy birthday.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.