Three up, three down: Rays ready to roll
Giants face early schedule challenge while Bucs and Tigers open season looking good
UP: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays aren't big spenders, but they appear prepared to make a big splash. They come out of Spring Training with the best record (16-7-4) and ERA (3.11) among American League teams. David Price had a 3.63 ERA, but he struck out 20 and walked only three in his 17 1/3-inning spring warmup for the regular season.
James Loney had a rebound season with the Rays a year ago, and Tampa Bay gambled on a three-year, $21 million deal in the hopes that it wasn't a one-season surge. Loney looked on target in the spring, leading the team's regulars with a .419 batting average and 14 RBIs.
DOWN: San Francisco Giants
The Giants' hopes for regaining the National League West title rests on a rebound from their rotation. The spring wasn't promising. Oh, Madison Bumgarner was 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA and only two walks, but the four other veteran starters stumbled. Matt Cain (7.47 ERA), Ryan Vogelsong (9.00), Tim Lincecum (5.79) and Tim Hudson (4.26) combined to walk 29 batters in 83 1/3 innings and put together a composite 6.37 ERA.
The Giants don't have much time to get things in order. They open the season with their first 22 games against fellow members of the NL, including six of their first 16 games and 10 of their first 38 games against the Dodgers.
UP: Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates came out of Spring Training with a pitching staff that had an NL-best 3.32 ERA and a second-best batting average of .274, behind only Colorado. What's more, Andrew McCutchen, the most complete player in the NL and last year's NL MVP Award winner, showed no signs of a lapse. He hit .417 with five home runs.
What remains to be seen is whether the gamble on Edinson Volquez pays off. Signed to fill the rotation void left by the departure of free agent A.J. Burnett, Volquez led the NL in earned runs allowed last year after leading the NL in walks issued two years ago, and then compiled a 9.64 ERA in the spring. Charlie Morton gave the Bucs a strong spring (0.82 ERA), easing early concerns about making a three-year commitment to a pitcher who is 30-49 with a 4.72 ERA in 108 big league starts.
DOWN: Texas Rangers
Two years removed from back-to-back World Series appearances, the Rangers open the season with a 25-man roster that includes 17 players who did not play for them a year ago, and with Tanner Scheppers making his first big league start after 115 relief appearances. Scheppers is the first pitcher to make his first big league start on Opening Day since Fernando Valenzuela with the Dodgers in 1981.
That's not all by design. Scheppers got the call because of a neck problem that Yu Darvish developed, landing him on the disabled list. At least Darvish's absence could be minimal, which is critical for a team that was 10-17 with a 5.84 spring ERA, highest of all the Major League teams. The forecast isn't as good for Jurickson Profar (torn shoulder muscle), Derek Holland (knee surgery), Matt Harrison (back surgery) and Geovany Soto (torn cartilage right knee).
UP: Detroit Tigers
Life without Prince Fielder? Well, the early returns were positive for the Tigers, who hit .285 during the spring and didn't have a regular hit below .300. Austin Jackson led the team at .429, and is part of rookie manager Brad Ausmus' attempt to shore up the middle of the lineup in light of the trade of Fielder to Texas.
Ian Kinsler, who came in the Texas trade, moves into the leadoff spot that Jackson filled the past four seasons. Jackson slides into the No. 5 slot, behind Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. The spring blow was the loss of shortstop Jose Iglesias to stress fractures in both shins, but Detroit did acquire Alex Gonzalez, who isn't going to wow with his range but is a proven veteran who knows how to play the game.
DOWN: Philadelphia Phillies
Three years removed from a franchise-record 102 wins and coming off a 73-win season, the Phillies are intent on contending. They definitely are not in a rebuilding mode. Five of their projected starting eight opens the season age 34 or older: right fielder Marlon Byrd (36), shortstop Jimmy Rollins (35), second baseman Chase Utley (35), catcher Carlos Ruiz (35) and first baseman Ryan Howard (34).
There were not a lot of signs of rejuvenation in the spring. The Phils had a Major League-low .222 average and scored 3.4 runs per game, also a big league low. Can they turn the bats on once the season starts?