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Stuck in a perennial holding pattern after a shocking leap into contention followed by six strong seasons and no movie (yet), the Rays left 2017 as they entered: an okay team without any particularly good reason to believe something more or less is coming in the near future.
Despite numerous question marks in the lineup, the Rays’ pitching staff seems to be getting younger. Top prospects Blake Snell and Jake Faria showed they don’t really need more time in the minors, and fellow arms Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon should be right behind them. With staff ace Chris Archer leading the charge and solid vet Jake Odorizzi behind him, a few upgrades or strong debuts for an Evan Longoria/Steven Souza/Corey Dickerson-led offense might let Tampa Bay ride a strong staff to their first playoff appearance since 2013.
Oh, dammit, Rays.
Offseason in Review:
Key Additions – Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron, Christian Arroyo, Anthony Banda, Daniel Hudson
That’s a fine list of players. Not really great, but you can see where the Rays could use a decent outfielder, a bench bat, a couple MLB-ready young guys, and a solid middle reliever. Especially considering the combined 2018 salary of these players is around $12 million, they are fine supplements to a strong core of players. Good thing the Rays have that.
Key Losses – Evan Longoria, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Brad Boxberger, Tommy Hunter, Denard Span
Well, shit. The Rays hit 228 homers last year, sixth in MLB, and their top four sources of power will be playing elsewhere next year. Morrison, Souza, Dickerson, and Longoria were their only 20+ HR bats, combining for 115 of those bombs. You’ll notice that’s more than half! Don’t worry, though, they’ve also lost another four of their top ten that aren’t even listed up there. Yes, eight of the top 10 power threats from Tampa are gone. Next season’s team leader is a tie between Cron and Kevin Kiermaier.
As much as it’s worth continuing to complain about incredibly light returns for Souza, Dickerson, and Odorizzi, Longoria deserves his own paragraph considering what he means to Tampa. The first of two franchise icons that would eventually reach San Francisco, Longo’s 49.6 career WAR is tops in Tampa Bay franchise history with thirteen wins. He won the rookie of the year in 2008, the franchise’s first postseason appearance, and an extension on top of an extension that ran until 2022 at least suggested he might be a lifelong Ray. While the return for him wasn’t terrible – you will notice Span is listed amongst the losses because he is a negative value player – in retrospect, it was a pretty clear sign that the Rays were about to blow up. They probably need to, but it doesn’t make Longoria’s departure any less frustrating. Sometimes it’s okay to make a bad decision for good reasons.
The Rays are what they are. A good pitching staff will be crippled by the AL’s worst offense, and like hell if reinforcements are coming to save the day. Strong transitions by a few top prospects might let Tampa stick in the race for a little while until the heft of their perennial bullies in New York and Boston is inevitably brought to bear.
There is a surprising amount of individual talent in Tampa Bay, starting with staff ace Chris Archer, who broke out in 2014, burned down the house he broke out of in 2015 and has been rebuilding that safe hidey-hole for two years since. Archer’s a true No. 1 when he’s right, he just needs to return to an era with an 11% HR/FB, and it seems likely a strong start to 2018 leads to him getting moved. That will put youngster Blake Snell in the pole position, and which is completely fine even if he doesn’t use the potential he’s got left. Defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier leads a moribund offense, with only five players projected for at least 1 WAR – he’s arguably the best hitter on this team despite a career .324 wOBA and 106 wRC+.
Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:
Middle infielder Willy Adames is the short- and middle-term solution for the Rays at SS (because long doesn’t exist), and will be in the majors for most of 2018. Almost exactly the same thing could be said of outfielder Jake Bauers, and good debuts from the two of them could suddenly manifest a reasonably productive offensive core alongside Kiermaier. With the Rays going to a four-man rotation through April and possibly well beyond, Yonny Chirinos could be a surprisingly valuable piece, contributing multiple innings out of the bullpen on a regular basis.
There are three highly valuable prospects in Tampa’s pipeline, with Adames and Bauers likely joined by possible two-way player Brendan McKay in the somewhat near future. Considering their wealth of MLB-ready arms, even after Honeywell and De Leon were lost to Tommy John, you would think the Rays have the pieces in place for a legitimate run as soon as 2019. It’s just hard to love again.