ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays showed an improvement of 12 wins during their 2017 campaign. Trouble was, that still left the team at 80 victories and third place in the American League East.
Thus, the Rays' front office had to roll up its collective sleeves and determine what went wrong along with the direction it wanted to take prior to 2018. Do the Rays try to win, or do they need to head for a total reboot? Trading key players for younger talent could pave the way for a future run.
At this juncture, the Rays are solid up the middle with catcher Wilson Ramos, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, with the second-base position to be determined.
As usual, the Rays have a stable of quality pitchers in their starting rotation, though one or more of that group might be used in trades to bolster the organization. So even if the Rays are active during the remainder of the offseason, they should still have a solid group of starters for 2018 -- provided they live up to expectations.
"We'll see how it shakes out with the roster come Spring Training time," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "You never know. Last year we were making moves and signing guys, I believe, 15th of February, we were adding players."
In no particular order, here are five questions the Rays face heading into the 2018 season.
1. Can Matt Duffy make a successful return after injuries cost him all of the 2017 season?
The Rays acquired Duffy at the 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline in the deal that sent Matt Moore to the Giants. He played well during a brief stint in '16 before undergoing season-ending left heel surgery. The team expected Duffy to make a full recovery and become the team's starting shortstop. Unfortunately, Duffy did not play at all in '17. His injury never quite healed, making another surgery necessary. That one seems to have done the trick, and Duffy is expected to be available for duty in '18, whether it's at shortstop, second base or perhaps even third base after Evan Longoria was traded.
2. Is Jake Bauers the answer at first base?
Bauers opened eyes with his bat (.371/.465/.857) during Spring Training. Not only did he hit for power, but he also showed the patience and plate discipline to have quality at-bats. The Rays do not have a first baseman, with Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda becoming free agents. Brad Miller could move back to first base -- the position he played at the end of 2016 -- or Bauers could earn the spot. If he does, be prepared to watch a truly professional hitter.
3. Will Blake Snell continue on the track he followed in the second half of the 2017 season after a disappointing first half?
Snell's first half brought a mixed bag of results. His stuff played well, but he struggled with his control and could not pitch deep into games. Prior to the All-Star break, Snell went 0-5 with a 4.85 ERA in 10 starts, prompting a trip to Triple-A Durham. After the break, Snell made a few adjustments -- he moved to the center of the rubber -- and enjoyed better results, going 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA in 14 starts. The Rays are hoping his early struggles were just a blip on the start of a promising career.
4. Can Steven Souza Jr. elevate his performance to a higher level in 2018 after showing great improvement in '17?
After an injury-plagued 2016 campaign (120 games), Souza showed a lot of improvement in '17. The power-hitting right fielder batted .239 with 30 home runs and 78 RBIs. He seemed to run out of gas late in the season, hitting .183 in August and .152 in September. The slow finish could be attributed to Souza's not being able to fully condition himself for the season since he spent the previous offseason rehabbing from hip surgery. If he can get a little bit closer to his early months of '17 and find more consistency, the Rays' chances for success will be greatly enhanced.
5. Is Brent Honeywell a lock to find a spot in the Rays' rotation?
According to MLBPipeline.com, Honeywell is the Rays' No. 1 prospect, and for good reason. The right-hander has quality stuff, boasting five pitches and command. And, according to director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics, he's the most competitive player in the organization. Perhaps a bigger question: How many slots in the rotation will be available come Spring Training? Alex Cobb left for free agency, and speculation has the Rays dealing Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi elsewhere, which could make the question a moot point.