ST. PETERSBURG -- Oh, what could have been, had the Rays just been able to field the team they thought they were going to have in the 2015 season.
Unfortunately, injuries prevented the 2015 version of the "Little Team That Could," as big pieces of the picture were not available for parts -- or all -- of the season. Not only did the Rays send a lot of players to the disabled list, but also the quality of the players who left was significant. In the end, the sum of those absences showed in the win-loss column.
Under the reign of new skipper Kevin Cash and new president of baseball operations Matt Silverman, the Rays remained competitive throughout the season, and even led in the American League East for a spell, before the weight of what they didn't have finally caught up to them.
A significant moment marked the turn that would send the Rays from a contender for the AL East title to a team scrambling for the second AL Wild Card spot. The Rays stormed into Cleveland in the midst of a 6-1 stretch, then won the first two games of their weekend series at Progressive Field, giving them a 40-30 record on June 20 -- good for a one-game lead in the AL East.
But everything seemed to change the following day, when they lost to the Indians in walk-off fashion on a play in which the Rays' chances of coming up a winner seemed high.
After catching David Murphy's fly ball with Roberto Perez on third, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier's throw to catcher Curt Casali took a quirky hop and the winning run scored. At the time, the loss didn't seem like much, but had they won that day, who knows where the momentum of winning nine out of 10 would have led them?
The Rays remained in first for another week, but then they began to drift. The big swan dive came from June 21 to July 9, when the team went 3-15, pitched to a 4.93 ERA and scored just 3.22 runs per game -- a bad combination for any club wanting to remain relevant.
Despite disappointment in how they finished, the Rays were able to find out a lot about the players who did play -- some of whom would not have accomplished what they did had openings not been created.
Now, the Rays appear in position to turn the corner in 2016, and once again become the "Little Team that Could" among the beasts of the AL East.
Record: 80-82, fourth place, AL East.
Defining moment: Chris Archer's brilliant performance in Houston on Aug. 20 against the Astros, a night that saw the right-hander play the role of No. 1 to the hilt, crossed off all the items on a staff ace's wish list in the Rays' 1-0 win.
Video: TB@HOU: Archer pitches his first shutout of 2015
Archer pitched a shutout, he earned his team a series split against a tough opponent, he saved the bullpen and he rebounded from a tough outing. Archer's line read like a pitcher's dream: No runs on one hit and a walk with 11 strikeouts -- and all on just 98 pitches.
What went right: The starting rotation, led by ace Archer, who moved into an elite classification in 2015, even if his won-loss record did not reflect it.
"His overall body of work has been impressive," Cash said. "The way he's gotten to 200 innings with the strikeouts, lack of walks, lack of hits and what he's provided for us. It's kind of fitting that this is coming at the end of the year. ... He's been really good all year long."
Archer became the seventh pitcher in team history to reach 200 innings, the blue-collar goal that says so much about a starter. He became the first pitcher to turn the trick for the Rays since 2012, when David Price and James Shields both exceeded the mark. Additionally, Archer became the fourth Rays pitcher to record a 200-inning, 200-strikeout season, joining Price, Shields and Scott Kazmir.
Jake Odorizzi continued to be a steady force in the rotation, while newcomer Erasmo Ramirez and rookie Nathan Karns both contributed heavily.
The bullpen had some lapses down the stretch, but got strong performances from Brad Boxberger closing and a host of other reliable arms that Cash could call on.
Solid defense has always been a cornerstone of the Rays for the last several years, and 2015 was no exception. And when people talked about the Rays' defense, they talked most about Kiermaier, who made the unlikely look routine all season.
Video: TB@BAL: Kiermaier covers 63 feet to rob home run
Finally, there was Logan Forsythe, who took advantage of an opportunity to become an everyday player and flourished in the field and at bat.
What went wrong: A lot, mostly on offense and then (again) in terms of keeping players healthy.
First, the health issue. Right out of the gate, No. 1 starter Alex Cobb missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Others followed, like Desmond Jennings, who fought a season-long left-knee problem before major dental surgery ultimately ended his season.
Other players who missed much of the season on the disabled list included Jake McGee, John Jaso, Nick Franklin, Casali, Drew Smyly, Jeff Beliveau, James Loney, and Steven Souza Jr.
Offensively, the team struggled, too, and those struggles were highlighted by Evan Longoria, who did not have a disaster of a season -- he just didn't have a Longoria-like season.
Catching acquisition Rene Rivera, whom the Rays acquired as much for his bat as for his catching skills, had a subpar season and Franklin, whom the Rays hoped would be a major contributor, proved to be a non-factor. Souza's numbers weren't what the Rays had hoped for, but he spent a good portion of the season on the DL, so the jury is still out on the rookie outfielder.
Biggest surprise: Ramirez easily filled this category. The Rays acquired the right-hander from Seattle toward the end of Spring Training. After two rough appearances to begin the season, Ramirez found a spot in the starting rotation and proved to be as consistent as anybody on the staff.
Hitter of the Year: Forsythe. He arrived at Spring Training expecting to see a lot of playing time, but not as an everyday player. Once he got the opportunity to play every day, though, he ran with it. He showed power and a steady approach at the plate while reaching career bests in virtually every offensive category.
Video: BAL@TB: Forsythe gives Rays lead with three-run homer
Pitcher of the Year: Archer gave the Rays a better-than-average chance to win each time he took the mound. He dominated primarily with his big fastball that set up a slider that Price called the best in the AL. On top of how he pitched, Archer understood he needed to step up with Cobb on the shelf, and that's exactly what he did.
Rookie of the Year: Has to be Karns, who didn't pitch much like a rookie after earning a spot in the rotation during Spring Training. Karns finished the season at 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 27 appearances (26 starts), logging 147 innings. "He's been outstanding," Cash said. "When we were going really good as a team, he was right in the thick of that. I think he's evolved as a starting pitcher."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.