It is that part of the year where pennant race positioning becomes the priority for some, while an early look to the next spring is the forced reality for others. It is time to say an early goodbye to some of our summertime friends who will not be joining us in the fall–up next are the 2016 Tampa Bay Rays.
At this point in the Major League Baseball season, fans hear certain phrases over and over. “These at-bats still count.” “Players are auditioning for a spot next year.” “They’re playing out the string.” “They’re playing to role of spoilers this year.” The Tampa Bay Rays were the little engine that could. The team served as doormat for New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox until making it to the World Series in 2008. That season began a stretch of six straight winning campaigns, including four trips to the postseason. But ever since general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon left in October 2014, the franchise has slipped back to doormat status…and it’s not the pitching’s fault.
Where It Started
With a starting pitching staff in 2015 that gave up less runs than any American League team in a non-strike shortened season since 1968, all the Rays had to do contend this year was hit to their ability and not have the bullpen meltdowns that plagued last season. The Rays finished 14th in the American League in runs scored despite having a league average offense. A formidable starting lineup featuring Evan Longoria, Brad Miller, Logan Forsythe and Corey Dickerson, it was easy to believe that the runs would come in 2016.
Tampa Bay finished the first month of the 2016 season with an 11-12 record, and it only got worse.
Where It Went Wrong
Chris Archer, one of the best young arms in the league, still posted an above average WHIP of 1.235 despite his 4.05 ERA. He still averaged almost 11 strikeouts per nine innings, but Archer’s been susceptible to the long ball. He’s given up a career record 28 home runs this year, putting him fifth among pitchers. This year, this affliction has spread to the rest of the starting rotation. Drew Smyly is in the top three with most home runs allowed, and Jake Ordorizzi can be found right below Archer on the list.
Corey Dickerson, who was traded to Tampa after three seasons in Colorado, performed below average in his first full season away from Coors Field. He posted career record lows in batting average (.243) and on-base percentage (.288). Tampa’s offense moved from bottom rung to just below average (11th in the American League) and the team’s OPS followed suit (.739). The lineup posted the second lowest team OBP in the AL at .310, just above the Oakland Athletics’ .308. Rays pitching continued its prowess posting runs allowed stats in the AL’s top five, even as their offense continued to fail them.
Where It Crashed & Burned
The Rays didn’t necessarily crash and burn, just suffered a thousand little cuts and instances of “shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Twenty-plus games under .500, the Rays were just a few runs away from sniffing 80 to 81 wins. However, the pitching slipped from very good to good and that was enough to derail their season. Outside of Longoria, Miller, Forsythe and Kevin Kiermaier, the offense simply didn’t produce.
Where They Go From Here
Archer surrendered a lot of home runs this year, but he also lead the AL in strikeouts and games started. He’s durable. The Rays have Archer under contract through 2020, so expect him anchor the rotation through his prime years.
Longoria served as Mr. Reliable for the team hitting 30+ home runs for the first time in 3 seasons, while posting a .279/.324/.533 slash line. He held up his end of the bargain. The franchise’s face only makes $13 million next year. If he wasn’t locked in a deal through 2022, some team would pay through the roof for him.
Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier posted career highs in walks, on-base percentage, and home runs; despite missing almost two months of the season due to injury. He also saved 17 runs on defense. Kiermaier’s not eligible for arbitration until 2018. He’s cheap talent, which means the Rays aren’t given up the 26-year-old anytime soon.
Going into 2017, the Rays find themselves in the exact same scenario as the past two seasons. They have a potentially .500 or better team that can get better with offensive improvements. Management will rely on the likes of Kiermaier and Forsythe to for those improvements, while praying that Dickerson’s year could be attributed to nerves and not playing away from the higher altitude in Denver.
Here’s the truth: the Rays remain one batter away from being competitive enough for their AL East division rivals to care. Management understands this, but they don’t have the money to acquire that big bat to contend.
The motto remains the same for Tampa in 2017: Cross your fingers.
Writer. Reporter. New Yorker.