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Rays spring preview: Air-tight infield returns

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Published:   |   Updated: February 12, 2014 at 06:55 AM

The Tampa Bay Rays begin spring training Saturday, when pitchers and catchers have their first workout on the practice fields at the Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.

Much excitement surrounds this team, which finished second in the AL East in 2013 and beat the Cleveland Indians in the one-game wild card. The Rays added to that talent base over the winter, which has many thinking the 2014 team can be stronger than last year.

This is the second in a three-day series by The Tampa Tribune and TBO.com looking at the nine most pressing issues surrounding the Rays heading into spring training.

Previously, we looked at the rotation, bullpen and catchers. Today, it's infield defense, the outfield and designated hitter.

INFIELD DEFENSE

For the first time since 2009, the Rays return their starting infield from the previous season, and all it took was a three-year, $21 million deal to get first baseman James Loney to re-sign after a stellar first season in Tampa Bay.

“He knows how much he's wanted here,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Third baseman Evan Longoria, shortstop Yunel Escobar, second baseman Ben Zobrist and Loney formed the best infield in baseball in 2013, with all four finalists for Gold Gloves at their respective positions.

The Rays' infield committed a major league-low 36 errors last season. Escobar led all major-league shortstops with a .989 fielding percentage. Zobrist led all AL second baseman with a .993 fielding percentage.

Having an air-tight infield is part of the Ray Way, and having a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman makes the whole thing work. Loney follows Travis Lee, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman as above-average first basemen.

The Rays are built on run-prevention. It begins with the starting pitching and continues into the bullpen. Having an infield that can turn ground balls into outs provides great peace of mind for a pitching staff.

OUTFIELD

Who's in left?

With Desmond Jennings in center and Wil Myers in right, left field will be the revolving door to the outfield.

Expect Matt Joyce, David DeJesus, Sean Rodriguez and newly acquired Logan Forsythe to play left field. Brandon Guyer, who is out of options, could also see time there if he makes the club.

But there will be movement in center field and right field, as well, as Joe Maddon shuttles players through the DH spot to keep their legs from getting beaten up on Tropicana Field's Astroturf during long homestands.

DeJesus should find himself in center field on days when Jennings is off or serving as the DH. Guyer can also play center field and could find himself in that mix.

DESIGNATED HITTER

And that brings us to the designated hitter.

The Rays are using the DH by committee this season for two reasons: To get players off their legs while keeping their bats in the lineup, and because they have not done a good job of bringing DHs into the organization.

Last year, Rays DHs combined to hit .219, which was 11th among the 15 AL teams. They were 11th in slugging percentage (.382) and 11th in on-base plus slugging percentage (.696).

Rays DHs did hit 20 home runs, which doesn't sound like a lot until you realize that was tied for the fifth-most in the AL.

So expect to see Wil Myers, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, David DeJesus as well as Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and James Loney rotating at DH this season.

Thursday: depth, minor-league impact players and the division.

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