The Tampa Bay Rays underdog status no longer applies to their upcoming 2012 season. Now, the team faces higher expectations than ever before. A few baseball analysts and fans have already predicted that the Rays will go as far as the World Series this year, a notion that excites the team’s numerous fans in the Bay Area.
Thousands of people piled into Tropicana Field for the annual Fan Fest on February 18. The Rays showed their appreciation for their fans by providing many fun-filled activities and player-fan interactions. The day proved to be a success, with more than 25,000 fans attending to support their team and the new season.
Down south of Tampa Bay, spring training officially started on February 20 for Rays pitchers and catchers in Port Charlotte. Rotation and position battles will take place during the weeks prior to and during the spring training games. After all, no roster spot is completely solidified until opening day.
The Rays pitching starting rotation is arguably one of the best in the Majors. So far, the lineup appears to be occupied by returning players James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson (2011 AL Rookie of the Year), Wade Davis, and Jeff Niemann. Last year this unit boasted one of the best team-earned-run averages in the majors, a feat they look to repeat in 2012.
Rookie Matt Moore will also compete in spring training for a possible spot in the rotation. Moore made his Major League debut late September last season. He received widespread recognition for striking out eleven Yankee players in the span of five innings of a game, as well as shutting out the Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. If Moore receives significant playing time, he could be a Rookie of the Year candidate, keeping that award in St. Pete.
Over the offseason, veteran Carlos Pena signed a one-year contract with the Rays, returning to Tampa Bay after a year with the Chicago Cubs. Fans look forward to welcoming the first baseman back home to the Trop. Casey Kotchman, the first baseman of the 2011 season, signed with the Cleveland Indians.
Spots for second base and shortstop are up for grabs. Contenders for the positions will most likely be Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, and Jeff Keppinger.
Other notable deals and contracts that took place over the winter break include big names Jose Molina and Luke Scott. Both veteran players signed contracts for their respective catcher and designated hitter roles. Kelly Shoppach, Johnny Damon, and Dan Johnson will part ways for the 2012 season as they leave behind memories Rays fans will remember forever.
Also, club manager Joe Maddon recently signed a $6 million contract extension through 2015.