The Rays and Blue Jays will begin the 2014 season today at Tropicana Field with wildly different expectations placed upon them, due in part to their wildly different offseasons.
Toronto remained almost entirely silent, with its one major splash the signing of catcher Dioner Navarro. The Blue Jays seemed content to lean on the core that created extremely high hopes up north when last season began.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, was busy as usual all winter. The Rays spent more than in previous years to re-sign first baseman James Loney and bring in closer Grant Balfour. They held on to outfielder David DeJesus. They traded for catcher Ryan Hanigan and reliever Heath Bell. But perhaps the biggest move of the Rays' offseason was the one they didn't make: Ace left-hander David Price will start on Opening Day for Tampa Bay despite the rampant trade speculation that surrounded him all winter.
It's an interesting juxtaposition -- the Rays being praised for the big move they didn't make and the Blue Jays being criticized for all the ones they could have made. But Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon believes Toronto will still be a dangerous opponent in the grueling American League East.
"Nobody is talking about Toronto this year, and that's not good, because I really believe they're going to be better just based on last year's experience," Maddon said. "You look at their lineup right now -- and I know people are going to talk about their pitching a bit -- but their lineup is really thick. ... It's a coin flip on how this is all going to shake out [in the AL East] this year."
As much as Maddon likes what the Blue Jays did this offseason, he's also a big fan of the way executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman constructed the Rays' roster. Their starting rotation is once again loaded with young talent, and slotting AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Wil Myers alongside Evan Longoria in the lineup for a full season should enhance Tampa Bay's offensive output.
The Rays reached the playoffs again last year, but they insist that won't be enough this time around. They want to push further into the postseason, and Maddon believes his club is capable of doing just that.
"I believe we can definitely win our division this year," Maddon said earlier this spring. "I think that every year, but I totally believe that this year."
Then again, the same was expected of Toronto last season after a winter of blockbuster trades and major additions. The end result was disappointing: an injury-plagued season, some of the AL's worst pitching numbers, only 74 wins and a last-place finish in the division. Last year's struggles have created significantly lower projections for the 2014 Blue Jays, but there's belief within Toronto's clubhouse that the team will surprise some people.
"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 this camp has been, it's been comfortable," said Opening Day starter R.A. Dickey, now in his second season with the Blue Jays. "Guys really know that this is a big year for us, collectively. We're kind of getting a mulligan this year.
"Last year, a lot of things went wrong. This year, we're pretty much all healthy, we're here, we've been here all spring, we've been able to [form] relationships with one another and now we're in a much different place than we were last year. And it's a much more comfortable place."
Will that comfort lead to the kind of success that eluded the Blue Jays last season? Can the Rays capitalize on keeping Price and the amount of talent they've put together around him? Fortunately for both clubs, the wait to find out is almost over.
Blue Jays: Dickey ready for lidlifter
• Dickey's follow-up to his unbelievable 2012 National League Cy Young Award-winning campaign didn't go as planned. The veteran knuckleballer gave Toronto plenty of innings (224 2/3) over 34 starts, but he finished 14-13 with a disappointing 4.21 ERA. He believes this season will be different.
"I feel prepared. I feel confident, which is great," Dickey said. "Last year, I didn't feel very confident simply, because I didn't feel as prepared. I'm really looking forward to getting started and being able to adjust my schedule this year in a way that really maximizes my preparedness has been great."
Dickey figures to start this year on a positive note, if his career numbers at Tropicana Field are any indication. He's 2-1 with a 2.79 ERA in seven games (five starts) at The Trop, with opposing hitters batting .188/.253/.289 against him there.
• Right-hander Dustin McGowan will fill out the Blue Jays' starting rotation as the No. 5 starter, beating out J.A. Happ, Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers and Marcus Stroman for the nod. It's an encouraging chapter in the story of a pitcher who's undergone three right shoulder surgeries and spent countless days on the disabled list. He'll start the Blue Jays' home opener on April 4 against the Yankees.
"I always had the resolve to push through," McGowan said. "There's no quit in my blood. There were times I thought it may not happen anymore, but it wasn't going to be from a lack of trying. That's why I kept pushing hard -- for moments like this."
Rays: Infield intact
• Barring any late injuries or surprising lineup choices, the Rays should trot out the same Opening Day infield they did last year: Loney, second baseman Ben Zobrist, shortstop Yunel Escobar and Longoria at third base. If that's the case, it'll be the first time since 1998-99 the Rays have started the same infield on consecutive Opening Days.
All four were Gold Glove Award finalists a year ago, and Maddon made very little secret that he thought Loney and Escobar, at least, deserved the honor. Either way, Tampa Bay believes the continuity will serve the club well again in 2014.
"I think it's going to be great. You have to play defense," Loney said. "The Rays, probably more than most teams, they value those kinds of things, because they've kind of evolved as far as putting importance on those kinds of things."
• This will be Price's third Opening Day start, but he's still seeking his first victory. The 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner's history against Toronto bodes well for him, as his .867 career winning percentage against the Blue Jays is the best all-time among pitchers who have started against them at least 15 times.
• Longoria is nearing a few franchise records. He's one homer shy of Carlos Pena's club record, 15 doubles away from Carl Crawford's mark, 48 RBIs behind Crawford's record and 51 extra-base hits away from Crawford's record.
• This is the third Opening Day matchup between the Rays and the Blue Jays, with the two clubs having split their previous meetings.
• Toronto hasn't won a series at Tropicana Field since April 6-8, 2007, with Tampa Bay going 19-0-1 in series play since then. The Rays' 147 wins over the Jays and their 83 wins at Tropicana Field are their most against any opponent.
• Before the game, the Rays will raise their 2013 AL Wild Card banner to the catwalk above left field.