ST. PETERSBURG -- Nobody in the Rays organization will debate whether or not the team took a backward step in 2016 -- it did. However, the way the Rays righted the ship in the second half, coupled with the development of some key players, bodes well for an improved product
ST. PETERSBURG -- Nobody in the Rays organization will debate whether or not the team took a backward step in 2016 -- it did. However, the way the Rays righted the ship in the second half, coupled with the development of some key players, bodes well for an improved product in '17.
"There's a lot to be optimistic about as we look towards 2017, and it begins with our starting pitching," said Matt Silverman, president of baseball operations. "We have the ability to bring back what can be one of the top rotations in the game. You combine that with an improved defense anchored by [Kevin] Kiermaier in center, and we can get back to the type of run prevention that has fueled our winning seasons.
"We also have a number of upper-level prospects who will be trying to force their way into our plans. It's encouraging to see that next wave of talent knocking on the door."
• Rays persevere through a tough 2016 campaign
One thing that would help make the team come full circle in 2017 is turning Tropicana Field into a home-field advantage. The Rays did not win their first home series this year until August.
"We've got to win more games -- period -- whether they're on the road or at home," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "There's something to be said for playing at home and creating an advantage. And we need to create that advantage for us. We have to get to where opposing teams come in here and realize that there's something about playing here at the Trop, and playing the Rays, that we're going to go out and play really solid games."
Behind the scenes, the Rays' front office is already looking at ways to improve next year's team. Stay tuned, it should be an interesting winter.
Arbitration Eligible: RHP Alex Cobb, LHP Drew Smyly, RHP Erasmo Ramírez, LHP Dana Eveland, IF Brad Miller, RHP Danny Farquhar, LHP Xavier Cedeño, OF/DH Corey Dickerson, RHP Jake Odorizzi, RHP Brad Boxberger, IF Tim Beckham, OF Kiermaier, and C Bobby Wilson.
Free Agents: 1B/DH Logan Morrison and RHP Kevin Jepsen.
Rotation: The Rays head into 2016 with a wealth of starting pitching, with Chris Archer, Odorizzi, Smyly, Cobb, Blake Snell, Chase Whitley, Matt Andriese, and perhaps Ramirez. The numbers suggest a healthy competition come Spring Training. Seven or eight deep also creates the possibility that the team could use one of their starters to acquire a bat. However, the organization has long held the belief that it can't have enough depth in the rotation, and that belief was validated in 2015, when the starters were hit hard by injuries. Prospects Austin Pruitt, Jacob Faria, Jamie Schultz, and Taylor Guerrieri could also work their way into the mix.
Bullpen: Alex Colomé, Boxberger and Ramirez (if he's not contending for a starting role) should be back. After that, there are questions. Will Enny Romero step forward to match his big fastball with consistent appearances? Can Steve Geltz find his 2015 form after struggling in '16? Do the Rays bring back Eveland and Farquhar, who pitched well down the stretch in '16? Ryan Garton and Eddie Gamboa also pitched well enough to be given consideration. Hard-throwing prospect Ryne Stanek looks like a good bet to earn a spot.
Catcher: Luke Maile, Curt Casali, and Wilson split catching duties at the end of the 2016 season. All three are popular with the pitching staff for their defensive prowess, and going forward, that characteristic will likely trump attempts to improve the offense behind the plate. The Rays tried to do so in 2016 with Hank Conger, and the results were not good. No doubt the team will continue to look for possible upgrades at the position, but catching is the hardest spot on the diamond to fill, so the chances of that happening are unlikely.
First base: Miller didn't work out at shortstop after coming to the team via a trade with the Mariners. However, the Rays really like his power bat and his versatility in the field. Miller will head into the offseason as the starting first baseman, and a guy who can give the team backup help in the outfield and at shortstop.
Second base:Logan Forsythe has been a solid performer for the past two seasons. He makes the routine plays, and he makes plays that shouldn't be made. He's also a tough out in the lineup. Whether he remains as the team's leadoff hitter remains to be seen. However, he'll definitely be the starting second baseman. Nick Franklin, Beckham or Taylor Motter will serve as the backup unless another option develops.
Shortstop:Matt Duffy came to the Rays from the Giants at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, moving from third base to his natural position at shortstop. Duffy's Achilles heel continued to give him problems, so he was shut down to get the surgery he needed to be ready for 2016. From what Duffy showed the Rays during his brief time playing with them, they got a quality shortstop who also can be a special player for pushing along the team concept. Prospect Daniel Robertson could arrive at some point during the '17 season.
Third base: Longoria is the longest-tenured Rays player and remains the most consistent bat in the lineup. He's coming off perhaps his best season. Richie Shaffer or Robertson could serve as Longoria's backup.
Outfield: The Rays' outfield is not as strong as they'd like it to be, though they do have a headline act in center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. He is a game-changer in the field. Complimenting Kiermaier's defensive skills is his athleticism, which has aided his pursuit to become a better offensive player. Steven Souza Jr. will be the starter in right field. In his sophomore campaign, Souza showed glimpses of what prompted the Rays to trade for him prior to the 2015 season. Dickerson will be the left fielder on nights when he's not the DH. That leaves Mikie Mahtook, Shaffer and Franklin as other outfield options. If there's a position where a trade or free-agent acquisition might help, it's in the outfield.
Designated hitter: Dickerson came to the Rays from Colorado prior to this season, and he showed the kind of power the Rays coveted. He'll likely be the everyday DH and occasional left fielder. Dickerson initially struggled while getting used to being a DH, but he seemed to warm up to the idea by the end of the season.
Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2005.