Heading into 2017, the Tampa Bay Rays appear to be stuck between rebuilding and competing. They’ve made moves this winter aimed at competing in the short term, but they’ve also made moves aimed at adding young talent for the future. As a result, the Rays are one of the more difficult teams to predict heading into the season. On the heels of three straight losing seasons, what can be we expect from Tampa Bay in 2017?
Outside of the absence of Drew Smyly, who was traded to the Mariners earlier this offseason, Tampa Bay’s rotation will look a lot like it did at the end of last season. Despite trade rumors about both this winter, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi return to anchor Tampa Bay’s rotation. Archer is coming off a down year by his standards, but he’s more than capable of pitching like an ace in 2017. Odorizzi also continues to emerge as a frontline starter capable of giving the Rays a strong no. 2 starter behind Archer.
The rest of Tampa Bay’s rotation has tons of talent but few guarantees. Alex Cobb is a huge x-factor, as he struggled in five starts late last season in his return from Tommy John surgery. However, he was nothing short of outstanding throughout 2013 and 2014 before missing all of 2015. If he can return to his pre-surgery form, he could challenge Archer and Odorizzi as the team’s ace.
The Rays also have another potential frontline starter in Blake Snell. The 24-year old lefty posted a 3.54 ERA in 19 starts last season and has the ceiling of a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Rays also have plenty of rotation depth in the minors, with notable prospects like Brent Honeywell, Jose De Leon, Jacob Faria, Jamie Schultz, and others capable of pitching in the big leagues at some point this season.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen doesn’t appear to have quite as much depth as its rotation. Alex Colome pitched like one of the elite closers in the game last season, but the depth in front of him is questionable. The Rays will need Brad Boxberger to bounce back from a down season and become a reliable 8th inning setup man, something he’s capable of doing after accumulating 41 saves in 2015.
The trio of Xavier Cedeno, Danny Farquhar, and Erasmo Ramirez should be enough to give the Rays solid middle relief. But there’s no guarantee any of them can emerge as a competent late-inning reliever in the event Boxberger continues to struggle or in the event of injury to Colome, and so Tampa Bay’s bullpen is not quite as solid as it could be.
Offensively, the Rays have a lot of room for improvement, as they had the worst batting average in the American League last season. They will also have to make up for the absence of Logan Forsythe, who contributed 20 home runs last season but was traded to the Dodgers earlier in the offseason.
The Rays have made a few additions to their lineup, but there’s no guarantee any of them will pay off. Catcher Wilson Ramos won’t be available until midway through the season, and there’s still no guarantee he’ll be able to do anything but DH this season. Colby Rasmus offers some upside as the team’s primary left fielder, but he’s coming off the worst season of his career in 2016, so there’s no assurance he’s ready to bounce back. Finally, shortstop Matt Duffy has been slow to come back from offseason heel surgery, putting into question how much he’ll play and how productive he’ll be this season.
Once again, the Rays will be relying on players like Evan Longoria, Cory Dickerson, Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, and Steve Souza Jr. to carry the offense. Longoria had a renaissance last season, while Miller was a revelation with 30 home runs in 2016. However, the Rays will need more from Dickerson and Souza than they got last season. Those two, along with the newcomers like Rasmus are the x-factors that will determine whether or not the Rays can score enough runs to remain competitive in 2017.
The Rays won just 68 games last season, and on paper, they certainly appear to be better than that heading into the 2017 season. However, everything will have to fall into place perfectly for the Rays to remain in contention for a playoff spot late in the season.
Look for the Rays to finish 78-84 this season. Tampa Bay’s rotation has the talent to be one of the best and deepest rotations in baseball, and if Tampa’s starters perform up to their potential, the Rays will be an interesting team to watch. However, without a dominant bullpen or assurance that the offense will score runs on a consistent basis, this team still has a long way to go.