It was a year of change for the Tampa Bay Rays like perhaps no other club. Gone were nearly every vestige of the roster that made them baseball’s perpetual overachievers over the past near decade, with David Price, Ben Zobrist and 2013 Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, as well as the architects of the operation in manager Joe Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman. That is a large cross to bear for any team, but especially one as dependent on as specifically of a coordinated effort as the Rays have been.
Yet despite those changes, the new look Rays did compete above expectation for quite some time. Despite taking further damages via injuries their highly anticipated collection of young arms to start the season, perhaps no team in the American League better embodied the idea of the “next man up” than the Rays did, as they held on for as long as they could to their roles as AL East spoilers.
However, there was a shelf life to their time crashing the party, and eventually the young Rays flat got out-talented in route to what looks to be their second consecutive season inhabiting one of the bottom two rungs of the AL East. There are signs for hope, but a similarly complicated road ahead to restoring their position to its previous stature during the Maddon/Friedman reign.
The Rays started off the season with an oddball lineup (which is completely co-signed by the fact that designated hitter and part-time catcher John Jaso was the opening day leadoff hitter), but backed by what stood to be one of baseball’s most imposing young pitching staffs. The despite the recent losses of Price and James Shields, and an injury to staff leader Matt Moore, there was talent in spades on the staff. Chris Archer, Drew Smily, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb possessed a scary amount of everyday talent, while the presence of Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen and Brandon Gomes guaranteed tough support for the young hurlers as well.
And early on, this formula worked out better than anyone could have expected. The Rays opened up the year surprising in control of the AL East, staying at the top of the division throughout April and May. Despite a season-ending injury to Cobb, as well as Moore, Smily and closer Jake McGee being out of action, the pitching staff remained a force, led by the indomitable outings of Archer. This led to the Rays being in first place as late as first day of July.
The rug began to slide out from underneath the Rays right about halfway through the year. The caliber of play picked up in the division, and they could not hold off the surging New York Yankees, and the Baltimore Orioles began to creep up as well. A season-worst seven game losing streak began on June 28th versus the Boston Red Sox and was followed by a sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, then dropping the front two contests of a series with the Yankees. After finally stopping the bleeding with an 8-1 victory on July 5th, they proceeded to drop all four contest of a series in Kansas City, to complete a 1-7 road trip.
It could be said that that trip to New York and Kansas City was the bottom point of the year, but in all reality that stint left the Rays only two games south of .500. Instead, it was the entire month of July that truly doomed the Rays hope of a successful summer. They managed only a 9-16 record for the month, while being outscored by over 20 runs. The offense struggled while the pitching staff finally could not carry the load any longer. Meanwhile, the Yankees stayed hot and the gap in the division got wider and wider.
It proved to be an insurmountable chasm as the Rays have spent the entire second half looking up as their divisional foes have improved their standing as a whole. Their issues of lack of everyday lineup production (their 591 runs are the lowest total in the American League) were too much to sustain in the ultra-productive AL East (home of the top three run producing offenses in the AL – Toronto, New York, Boston).
As usual, it will not be a rapid rebuild down in the Trop. The Rays don't have a particularly deep minor league system and have financial limitations in their ability to bid in the free agent pool. That sounds like a particularly dreary prognostication for a team that, at best, will finish for the fourth consecutive year in fourth place in their division.
But things can look brighter due to some upward trending internal pieces. The pitching staff is young, deep and talented, and projects to be at full strength headed into next season. It boasts a talent that is good enough to give them a chance to win every day and is superior top to bottom in comparison to any other AL rotation. Archer projects to be one of the best arms in baseball for years to come, while Cobb, Smily and Nate Karns are all top talents as well.
Regardless of this though, they will have to get creative to add some run production punch to their everyday offering. Evan Longoria, the team leader in both home runs and RBI at 19 and 70, respectively, has struggled to reach base often enough (.330 on-base %) has been unable to recapture the elite production levels he reached in years past. Only Jaso, Logan Forsythe and James Loney have topped a .280 batting average on the year. Youngster Steve Souza offers raw power, but is still learning the nuances of reaching base at a respectable rate.
One particularly encouraging revelation has been outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who has become a regular highlight reel performer defensively and swings a versatile bat as well. New general manager and president of baseball operations Matthew Silverman will have the arduous task of digging for gold and being forced to find some very specific pieces in order to pick up the pace in Tampa. There are reasons for some optimism, as was shown early in the year, but until they can regain traction as a run producing unit, they stand little to no chance of keeping pace long term in the East.
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