2016 AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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With the season just around the corner, the staff at Sons of Sam Horn is taking a look at the Boston Red Sox’ division rivals. The Tampa Bay Rays are first on the docket, and they feature what may be the most potent rotation in the division. Pete Hodges gives us his preview of the small-market team and what to expect from them. 

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80-82 4th Place 13 GB

Logan Forsythe 153 GP 33 2B 17 HR .281/.359/.444 122 OPS+
Evan Longoria 160 GP 35 2B 21 HR .270/.328/.435 110 OPS+
Kevin Kiermaier 150 GP 12 3B 18 SB .263/.298/.490 97 OPS+
Chris Archer 212 IP 252 K 3.23 ERA 1.137 WHIP 122 ERA+
Jake Odorizzi 169.1 IP 150 K 3.35 ERA 1.152 WHIP 105 ERA+
Erasmo Ramirez 163.1 IP 126 K 3.75 ERA 1.133 WHIP 105 ERA+

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For the first time since 2005, the Tampa Bay Rays no longer had a bespectacled manager; however, the results were the same as in 2014 – fourth place, finishing only above the hapless Boston Red Sox. The failure of the 2015 season can easily be laid at the feet of the offense. While the pitching staff ranked fourth in the American League in runs allowed and led the division in that statistic, the offense was second to last in runs scored in the AL.

Tampa Bay spent 27 days in first place, but they peaked early. June 30 would be the last day the Rays would sit atop the AL East, and they would soon take their worst stumble of the season. From June 24 to July 9, Tampa went 2-13 on their way down to fourth place in the division.

The season wasn’t a complete lost cause, though. Chris Archer solidified himself as a bonafide top-of-the-rotation starter, while Kevin Kiermaier won a Gold Glove award doing his best Curtis Granderson-lite impersonation.

Offseason Recap

General manager Matt Silverman must have recognized the flaws in the 2015 roster because he moved to fix them when he sent relief pitcher Jake McGee and minor-league starting pitcher German Marquez to the Colorado Rockies for outfielder Corey Dickerson. Dickerson will immediately slot into the middle of the order and provide some much needed pop. Although he will likely see his numbers decrease since he is leaving the friendly air of Coors Field, he is still expected to be an offensive force. Silverman also dealt from a position of strength when he traded SP Nate Karns, OF Boog Powell, and RP C.J. Riefenhauser to the Seattle Mariners for shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison, and RP Danny Farquhar. This allows them to slide Morrison in at designated hitter while replacing Asdrubal Cabrera – who had performed well on a one-year stopgap deal – at shortstop.

Pitching Staff

The Rays rotation will once again be led by Chris Archer. The righty was able to increase his K/9 from 8.00 in 2014 to 10.70 in 2015, while dropping his BB/9 from 3.33 to 2.80. If he’s able to maintain those rates, then the future is bright for the veteran ace of the rotation.

Jake Odorizzi took a step forward in 2015 as he cut down on his BB/9 (3.16 to 2.44) at the expense of his K/9 (9.32 to 7.97), but saw an overall improvement in performance as weak contact led to more outs.

Following Odorizzi is left-handed Drew Smyly, who made just 12 starts in 2015 because of two disabled-list stints caused by a torn labrum in his shoulder. If the shoulder issues are truly behind Smyly, then the Rays have another potential great, young pitcher on their hands.

Matt Moore also made just 12 starts in 2015 as he made his return from Tommy John surgery. The lefty was considered in the running for ace of the staff with Smyly before Archer seized the throne. Now completely healed, Moore could provide ace-level performance from the middle of the rotation.

The final starter is Erasmo Ramirez, who filled the same role last year. He seemed to finally put the pieces together as he improved his BB/9 from 3.13 in his previous major-league experience to 2.20 last year, while keeping his strikeout totals consistent. If Ramirez can keep up these numbers he will be a valuable back-of-the-rotation starter.

The Rays sacrificed bullpen depth in the offseason when they traded McGee to acquire Dickerson, and that looked like a great move at the moment – and still does. However, their closer – Brad Boxberger – suffered a tear in his abdomen that required surgery and he will be out for eight weeks. Fortunately, that eight weeks included two weeks of spring training and the right-hander is slated to return sometime in mid-May. Alex Colome, who made 13 starts last year before being converted into a reliever, will likely be assuming the closer duties in the interim. After Colome, Danny Farquhar is expected to be the eighth inning man, and Xavier Cedeno will reprise his role as the lefty specialist.

Lineup

The 2016 Tampa Bay lineup should score more runs than it did in 2015. The offseason addition of Dickerson is a step in the right direction, but Miller isn’t considered an upgrade over Asdrubal Cabrera as they both hit for a wOBA of .319 last season. The same can be said for Logan Morrison and the DH spot. His career line wOBA of .325 is just a tick below the .328 mark that Tampa Bay designated hitters produced in 2015.

However, there is hope for the offense. The Rays signed first baseman Steve Pearce, who hit 15 home runs in 92 games last year for the Orioles. They also have prospect Richie Shaffer in AAA Durham, who hit 26 HR between AA and AAA in 2015 and can play either corner position. Curt Casali will likely split catching duties with Rene Rivera, and he offers much more pop than Rivera or J.P. Arencibia did last year. Tampa Bay will need to move James Loney off the roster or make him a bench player as his .280/.322/.357 line from last season is not suited for the cold corner.

Best Case, Worst Case, Most-Likely

The Tampa Bay Rays are looking at an uphill battle once again. They improved their chances for 2015, but unfortunately for them, so did all the other teams in the AL East. While Boston and New York boast two of the best bullpens in baseball, and Toronto and Baltimore can score a bunch of runs against anybody, the Rays are going to go into the season with what is not only the best rotation in the division, but what might be the most promising rotation in all of baseball. But the offense may not be able to score enough runs to get the job done, and the bullpen may not be able to hold onto leads against the tough offenses of the AL East.

The best-case scenario for the Rays is that all four potential aces fulfill that potential and Erasmo Ramirez takes another step forward. Silverman will also need to get creative and move Loneyz in order to make room for Pearce and/or Shaffer. If all of that happens, then perhaps the Rays could win 91 games and grab a wild card.

The worst-case scenario is that Matt Moore’s Tommy John surgery altered his delivery in a way that forever negatively affects his changeup, making him a different and less effective pitcher. Smyly’s shoulder could never properly heal as well. The offense could revert back to 2015 levels, as it’s possible Dickerson’s numbers were Coors Field assisted, and the Rays are the worst team in the AL East and drafting in the top five in the 2017 Rule 4 draft after going 66-96.

The most likely scenario is Chris Archer competes for a Cy Young Award, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore have up-and-down seasons, and the offense ends up slightly better than last year but still not very good. This is likely going to be another fourth place finish for the Rays in a tough division, finishing with an 82-80 record.

Click here for the Baltimore Orioles preview.
Click here for the New York Yankees preview.
Click here for the Toronto Blue Jays preview.

Pete Hodges has written about the call up of a top prospect, an odd tradition, Leo the Lip.

Follow Pete on Twitter @PeterWHodges.

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