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3 ways the Rays can still get better in 2019

MLB.com @RichardJustice

The Rays head into the new year in a good place. After a dramatic reshaping of their roster, they rode youth and a reimagining of their pitching staff to the second-best record in the Majors the final two months of the 2018 regular season (36-19).

They did it with the American League's second-lowest staff ERA (3.75) and an offense that got progressively better, averaging 5.1 runs per game over the final six weeks. Among AL teams, only the A's, Yankees and Red Sox had better offenses.

The Rays head into the new year in a good place. After a dramatic reshaping of their roster, they rode youth and a reimagining of their pitching staff to the second-best record in the Majors the final two months of the 2018 regular season (36-19).

They did it with the American League's second-lowest staff ERA (3.75) and an offense that got progressively better, averaging 5.1 runs per game over the final six weeks. Among AL teams, only the A's, Yankees and Red Sox had better offenses.

And because the Rays finished the season with 17 rookies on their 35-man expanded active roster -- including 10 of the 19 pitchers -- there's optimism throughout the organization.

Blessed with rare payroll flexibility, Tampa Bay has added infielder Yandy Diaz, catcher Mike Zunino and right-hander Charlie Morton. This is where the offseason gets tricky.

The Rays have the ability to add, say, another hitter, but have to be mindful of blocking some of the young players who led the drive to 90 wins in 2018.

That said, there's still a workable wish list, including:

1. Designated hitter
The Rays had some interest in Nelson Cruz before the 38-year-old reportedly signed a one-year, $14 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. 

Video: Nelson Cruz slugs his way to free agency in 2019

2. Bullpen
Chaz Roe is penciled in to close games at the moment, and while that could mean his pitching either the first or ninth inning, the Rays will keep an eye on a deep reliever market that may not be sorted out until February. Tampa Bay seems almost certain to add someone before Opening Day, although team officials seem to have placed it lower on their priority list.

Hot Stove Tracker

3. Impact players
To put it another way, if the Rays can land one of the best players at his position, they're going to try and do it regardless of what it does to their depth chart. Thus, the interest in Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Even after acquiring Zunino from the Mariners, the Rays see Realmuto as one of the two or three best -- possibly the best -- at his position. If that means Zunino would get some at-bats at DH or someplace else, so be it.

Inbox: What will Zunino's role be in 2019?

The Rays believe they're good enough to get to the postseason even in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, and they're going to do whatever they have to do to position themselves for a run.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays