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Inbox: Will Rays' pitching remain an elite force?

Do you think that our pitching will do as well as it has in the past with James Shields gone? And will Fernando Rodney have another great season?
-- Walker T., Tampa, Fla.

I definitely think the staff will be challenged to cover up the 200-plus innings contributed by Shields. However, the potential is there, and any staff that has David Price at the top is going to be formidable. Obviously, youngsters such as Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson need to step up and consistently pitch late into their starts. A healthy Jeff Niemann would help, as would a solid contribution by newcomer Roberto Hernandez. And don't forget Chris Archer -- he's going to be a good one. There's no doubt that all the pieces are in place to have another great starting staff. As for Rodney, I'm not sure any closer could repeat what Rodney did last year. That was a historic season.

Let's get smart. Trade a mix of Minor League/Major League pitching to Miami for Giancarlo Stanton and his great contract. We'll be set to duel for the World Series for the next five years.
-- Kris B., Osprey, Fla.

Are we allowed to talk about Stanton, or will we be tampering? And if so, who gets fined -- you for asking the question or me for answering it? Anyway, Stanton seems to be the real deal. He is one baseball's great young talents. Watching Stanton take batting practice can be epic. And any time I've seen him taking batting practice, I've always noticed players from the other team hanging around to take a peek at the chiseled young man assault the far reaches past the outfield fences.

In addition to being immensely talented, Stanton's contract is friendly at this stage of the game -- he isn't arbitration-eligible until 2014. However, in my opinion, the Rays are no longer in position to swing a deal for the young slugger. While they have the players they could deal, I can't see them pulling the trigger on such a deal, based on what it would do to the organization's overall depth. But as I've said many times in the past: Trying to figure out what moves Tampa Bay's management will make can give you brain freeze.

I really like our bullpen but I think we could use one or two middle relievers to complement Rodney, Joel Peralta, and Jake McGee. Do you think we will bring one in and if so who?
-- Taylor L., Bradenton, Fla.

In fairness to you, Taylor, your question arrived prior to the decision to bring Kyle Farnsworth back for a third season. The Rays have also added veteran right-handers Jamey Wright, Juan Carlos Oviedo and Juan Sandoval, who were signed to Minor League deals that included invites to Major League Spring Training. Over the past several seasons, Tampa Bay fans have come to expect a veteran reliever to make the club -- Al Reyes, Juan Cruz, Peralta, Joaquin Benoit and Rodney, to name a few. In addition, I would also expect Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes, Dane De La Rosa and Josh Lueke to be in the mix.

Although it is very early, approximately how many wins do you think the Rays will have in 2013? And with the American League East getting possibly more difficult with Toronto's offseason moves, can the Rays again compete for a playoff berth?
-- John W., Gainesville, Fla.

First, I'm not buying all the hype about the Blue Jays, despite the fact they have brought in a boatload of talent. I might have to eat crow on this one, but I have watched baseball a long time and I've rarely seen a team bring in a load of new players -- no matter how talented -- and win a pennant. In recent memory, only the 1997 Marlins come to mind. I don't think Jim Leyland has ever been given the proper amount of credit for leading that team to its 1997 World Series championship.

Now, looking at this year's Rays, I think they have 91 wins in them. I base that on the fact I believe the pitching can maintain the status quo and the offense should improve. If Tampa Bay manages to win 91 games, I believe that would be enough wins to reach the postseason for the fourth time in six seasons -- particularly given the current playoff format.

Tampa Bay Rays, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, Jeff Niemann, Joel Peralta, Fernando Rodney