ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays are launching another season with expectations of playing into October. The Toronto Blue Jays have to escape the AL East cellar before reviving talk of playoff aspirations.
The division rivals open the season Monday at Tropicana Field, with David Price and R.A. Dickey taking the mound in a matchup of 2012 Cy Young Award winners.
The Rays are coming off a year in which they won 92 games and made the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons.
The Blue Jays would just as soon forget 2013, when they battled injuries and finished in last place after being a popular preseason pick to contend for a championship.
Toronto failed to bolster its starting pitching this winter and returns with essentially the same lineup as a year ago, yet Dickey thinks the results will be better.
“I think the heartbeat is a lot different this year. I think, one, we’re very comfortable. If I had a word to describe what (spring training) has been, it’s been comfortable. Guys really know that this is a big year for us collectively,” said Dickey, who was 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA last season.
“We’re kind of getting a mulligan this year,” the knuckleballer added. “Last year, a lot of things went wrong. This year, we’re pretty much all healthy. … We’re in a much different place.”
Only the Yankees, Cardinals and Phillies have earned as many post-season berths as the Rays over the past six seasons. And after hiking one of baseball’s lowest payrolls above $80 million to keep most of last year’s roster intact, Tampa Bay anticipates another strong run.
Price was 10-8 with a 3.33 ERA in 2013 after winning AL Cy Young honours two years ago, but he went 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA in 18 starts following the first stint of his career on the disabled list.
The 28-year-old lefty was the subject of trade speculation much of the winter before agreeing to a $14 million, one-year contract to continue anchoring one of the AL’s strongest rotations.
The Rays, often overshadowed in the AL East by the big-spending Yankees and Red Sox, don’t shy away from taking about how good they believe they can be.
“To be honest with you, I thought last year we had more expectations going into the season than we do this year — only because the Red Sox won the World Series and the Yankees have made some pretty big acquisitions. So, that kind of puts us in the shadows again,” third baseman Evan Longoria said.
“There are a lot of expectations from within this team,” he added. “But from an overall perspective, we’ll probably be picked down the ladder a little bit more this year … which is perfectly fine with me because I think we’ve proven time in and time out that if you believe the right things and play the right way, then the rest will take care of itself.”
Toronto pursued free agent Ervin Santana in hopes of improving its rotation, but the right-hander wound up signing with Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays offence has a chance to be potent if a lineup featuring Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera and off-season acquisition Dioner Navarro can stay healthy.
Dickey, who had a solid spring, hopes to revert to the form that helped him capture the NL Cy Young Award with the Mets two years ago.
“I feel prepared,” Dickey said. “I feel confident.”
Besides not trading Price, the Rays re-signed first baseman James Loney, acquired free-agent closer Grant Balfour and traded for catcher Ryan Hanigan, reliever Heath Bell and utilityman Logan Forsythe.
Longoria is confident the manoeuvring has made the Rays better. Still, he stops short of predicting another playoff berth.
“Even when we were the favourites, I would say maybe we are on paper,” the three-time All-Star said.
“We should have that underdog mentality.”
The teams set their rosters Sunday, with the Rays placing injured pitchers Jeremy Hellickson and Juan Carlos Oviedo and shortstop Tim Beckham on the 15-day disabled list.
The Blue Jays put closer Casey Janssen on the DL due to a strain in his left abdominal area and lower back. Backup catcher Erik Kratz was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo.