The Tampa Bay Rays just couldn’t put it together in 2015. The team scuffled their way to an 80-82 record, just six games out of a playoff berth, but they were part of a quagmire in the middle of the American League standings. Injuries also played a huge role in Tampa Bay’s struggles – only five players logged as many as 400 plate appearances, and just five players cleared the 100 inning mark. In 2016, the Rays are hoping for some better luck in terms of health, which could push them to the top of the AL East standings.
Depth Chart (as of 3/15)
C: Curt Casali
1B: James Loney
2B: Logan Forsythe
SS: Brad Miller
3B: Evan Longoria
LF: Desmond Jennings
CF: Kevin Kiemaier
RF: Corey Dickerson
DH: Logan Morrison
SP: Chris Archer
SP: Jake Odorizzi
SP: Drew Smyly
SP: Erasmo Ramirez
SP: Matt Moore
CL: Brad Boxberger
New Faces: Hank Conger, Corey Dickerson, Danny Farquhar, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Steve Pearce, Ryan Webb, Chase Whitley
Departures: JP Arencibia, Joey Butler, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brandon Gomes, John Jaso, Nate Karns, Jake McGee, Daniel Nava, CJ Riefenhauser, Grady Sizemore, Kirby Yates
Position Battles: Steven Souza hit .225/.318/.399 with 16 homers and 12 steals in 110 games last year, but appears to be the odd man out in the outfield mix right now for the Rays since he still has options left and Brandon Guyer doesn’t. But given the health issues that Logan Morrison and Desmond Jennings run into seemingly each year, Souza won’t spend the whole year in the minors. The Rays also have a trio of catchers for two spots, and veteran Rene Rivera could be the odd man out – though both Curt Casali and Hank Conger do have options left.
Tampa Bay has five solid major league starters, which should allow them to be patient with top prospect Blake Snell. And unless the Rays make a surprise addition to their 40-man roster, Matt Andriese and Andrew Bellatti will be two of the guys competing for a final spot in the bullpen – but they both have options left, unlike Enny Romero, whose spot in the bullpen seems to be the most tenuous at this point.
Oh, and then there’s shortstop. Brad Miller is the best, most experienced option, but former top overall pick and former prospect Nick Franklin could push him off the position. Or maybe not – those two have been in a position to step up for years, and neither has.
Injury Concerns: Alex Cobb is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t be a factor until the middle of the season. The same is true for Chase Whitley, claimed off waivers from the Yankees this offseason. Matt Moore struggled in his return from 2014 Tommy John surgery, and his production remains a question mark. Drew Smyly also has to be considered a wild card for the Rays – he was brilliant in 12 starts last season for the team, but shoulder problems cost him more than three months of the year.
Offensively, James Loney missed significant time for the first time in his career, and his offensive struggles could indicate the Rays’ need to go in another direction this season. Desmond Jennings also played in just 28 games during the 2015 season, the most injury-plagued year of his injury-plagued career. Tampa Bay has outfield depth so it shouldn’t be a huge issue, but when healthy, Jennings is a game changer. Oh, and Logan Morrison is here this season too. The 28-year old qualified for just the second batting title of his career in 2015. Celebrate!
Key Player: The straw that stirs the drink for the Rays is their new ace, Chris Archer. In 2015, Archer made 34 starts and threw 212 innings, pitching to a 3.23 ERA while striking out 252 and walking 66. The 27-year old took a huge step forward for the Rays last year, finishing fifth in the AL Cy Young voting, just a point behind Chris Sale in fourth. With the uncertainty surrounding the health of Cobb, Moore, and Smyly, and the potential concerns about the performance of Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez, Archer needs to turn in another dynamic year if the Rays are going to contend for a playoff spot in 2016.
Underrated Asset: Evan Longoria has gone from properly rated, to completely forgotten, to underrated. The 30-year old is coming off his third-straight 160 game season, and hit .270/.328/.435 with 21 homers last season. His defense, once elite, is now merely “average to good” (-1 DRS, 7.1 UZR in 2015). That triple slash looks like a disappointment in the age of Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, and Manny Machado, but his 110 wRC+ still ranked 11th among full-time third basemen last season. Throw in that defense, and Longoria is still a top ten third baseman in baseball, which is pretty stunning considering the rise of all the young players at the position in recent years (the three mentioned earlier along with Nolan Arenado, Matt Duffy, and Todd Frazier to name three more).
The crazy thing about Longoria is that while it seems like he’s been around forever, he’s not that much older than some of his contemporaries at third base. Longoria turned 30 in October. Donaldson and Matt Carpenter turned 30 in November. Frazier turned 30 in February. In his “decline” years, Longoria is right up there with all of those guys – and they’re all the same age. It’s pretty incredible.
Burning Question: Is Kevin Kiermaier going to follow the Andrelton Simmons path in his career?
There’s no real denying that Kevin Kiermaier is one of the best defenders in all of baseball. However, will his bat catch up with his glove? In 2015, his first full season in the majors, Kiermaier hit .263/.298/.420 with ten homers and 18 steals. That’s fine, a roughly league average mark that will play every day with his glove. And hell, Simmons was only a league average hitter in his major league career once, during a 49 game stint in 2012.
But Simmons was a shortstop – no one really expects a huge triple slash. Kiermaier is an outfielder. And though he’s a center fielder, so the bar is a bit lower, we still expect a little more than “just” a glove from someone in his position. Juan Lagares was “just a glove” for the Mets in center field, and they made the decision to go with more offense in the form of Yoenis Cespedes in the second half of 2015 (and presumably, in 2016 as well). If Kiermaier’s offensive production starts falling off, will the Rays simply bite the bullet and deal with it, or will they look to inject more offense in their team at the expense of their defense?
Best Case Scenario: If the Rays stay healthy, they can win the AL East. Of course, staying healthy is easier said than done, but this team clearly has enough talent to compete for the division crown instead of being relegated to also-rans, competing with the Orioles for the cellar.
Worst Case Scenario: Kiermaier’s offense takes another step back. The injury bug attacks Archer and Longoria. Corey Dickerson struggles outside of Coors Field. None of the possible shortstop options takes a hold of the position. It’s a last place season for the Rays, and the team’s unsure stadium situation overwhelms the product on the field.
Most Realistic Prediction: I’ll go out on a limb and say this – if the Rays get 200 innings from Archer, another 180 from two other starters, and at least 600 plate appearances from four of their nine offensive regulars, they’ll win the division. If they don’t, Tampa Bay won’t make the playoffs. It’s really that simple.