The 2016 Tampa Bay Rays Defense Could Become The Best Ever
The Tampa Bay Rays have always prided themselves on putting together a team full of advanced defenders. Look no further than last year- all four of their starting infielders were nominated for a gold glove award. This offseason they once again prioritized defense by retaining James Loney and David DeJesus as well as acquiring Ryan Hanigan. The Rays have a pretty darn good defense right now, but in 2016 they might just be able to put together the best defensive team in history.
Three-fourths of the current Tampa Bay Rays infield are guaranteed to be around in 2016 barring trade. The exception is Ben Zobrist, currently poised to be a free agent after the 2015 season, although he is a candidate for a contract extension. Even without Zobrist, 3B Evan Longoria, SS Yunel Escobar, and 1B James Loney will all remain among the best defenders in the game at their respective positions. As far as second base, the Rays have a couple of different options coming up through their minor league system that could take over second base by 2016. Hak-Ju Lee is in Triple-A as a shortstop, but with Escobar under control through 2016 with a team option for 2017, his best way to the big leagues may be at second. He already plays plus defense at short thanks to great range and a strong arm and would be a perennial gold glove candidate there as an everyday player, so by moving him to second his defense would play up even more. If he doesn’t start he would be a utility infielder, where his defense would still add plenty to club. Ryan Brett is another prospect coming up through the system that could take over the second base job in 2016, and he has above-average defensive potential as well. Even if Lee becomes the second baseman, Brett will provide plenty of defense off of the bench. Despite the possibility that they lose Zobrist, the infield defense could be even better in 2016.
Where the Rays are really going to improve in 2016 is with their outfield defense. Kevin Kiermaier is currently playing in Triple-A, where he silencing anyone that has doubts over his bat. If he is not the best defensive outfielder in the minor leagues, he is really close, and should be ready to take over the Rays’ everyday centerfield job in 2015 at the latest. He is the type of player that could win multiple gold gloves in his career, and will be a huge addition to the Rays outfield defense. Not only that, but it would also allow Desmond Jennings to slide from center field back to left field, where defensive metrics have liked him much better in his career. Jennings is one of the best defensive left fielders in the game, but when moving to center his defense is only a tick above average, so having Kiermaier around would be an advantage to Jennings. Wil Myers is controllable beyond 2016 in right field, but he could be moved to DH to accommodate a better defensive outfielder. Andrew Toles is no guarantee to reach the big leagues, but if he does his plus speed would make him a more than capable defender. His arm strength is nothing special, and the Rays could elect to put him in left and Jennings in right because of it, but wherever he plays he is going to be well above-average because of his speed. The Rays also have two other strong defenders in Joey Rickard and Mikie Mahtook that will be making a play for a backup role in 2016. Overall, the outfield defense in 2016 could be very scary if Kiermaier and Toles pan out.
At catcher, the Rays will also be more than capable defensively. Ryan Hanigan is controllable through 2016 and has a team option for 2017. He is arguably the best defensive catcher in baseball, and has lead the league in caught stealing percentage each of the last three years. Hanigan is also superior at preventing passed balls and pitching framing. Behind him, Curt Casali will likely be ready for a big league role in 2016. He has solid receiving skills, blocks pitches well, and had decent arm strength, and if everything pans out should be an above-average defensive catcher in the future to be a nice backup to Hanigan. Catcher is yet another position the Rays will be set at defensively in 2016.
When you look over all of these names, it is crazy just how good the Rays defense could be in 2016 if their prospects pan out, though that is no certainty. Their defense in the outfield will be vastly improved, and their infield and catching could receive boosts as well. Their defense off of the bench across the board should also be improved by 2016. Thanks to a great job by the front office, the Tampa Bay Rays defense in 2016 could be among the best that baseball has ever seen.