2014 Tampa Bay Rays: Looking Back, Moving Forward
By Robbie Knopf
The Tampa Bay Rays began the 2014 season as a favorite to win the World Series. They ended it with a 77-85 record and a fourth place finish in the AL East, a result far worse than anyone saw coming. The season was a true failure, the first of its kind for the Rays since 2007, and now their task is to ensure it does not happen again.
Here at Rays Colored Glasses, we are going to discuss each Rays player and each major storyline as part of our second annual “Looking Back, Moving Forward” series. The Rays have plenty of issues to contend with this offseason as they hope to get their team back on track, and we hope to discuss them all. Before we get to individual players, though, let’s start with a general overview of the team’s season.
How did 2014 get so bad for the Rays? The three overarching reasons were injuries, disappointing performances from their offensive stars, and a bullpen that could never find its rhythm.
The Rays lost Matt Moore for the year in April, and additional injuries to Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson forced the Rays to give 22 combined starts to Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos. While the Rays’ starting pitchers wound up putting very good numbers on the season, losing starters in a year where the offense was too often absent was a tough pill to swallow.
On the hitting side, the Rays saw Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Ryan Hanigan, Yunel Escobar, Desmond Jennings, David DeJesus, and Brandon Guyer all spend time on the disabled list. The injuries in the outfield worked out well for a time because Kevin Kiermaier came up and impressed while Guyer was solid with additional at-bats. The Rays also played well after Escobar got hurt. However, the same cannot be said of Hanigan’s injury, which forced Jose Molina into far more playing time than he deserved.
The bigger deal in regards to the bats, though, was the struggles of Evan Longoria and Myers. Longoria had a down year, managing just a 107 OPS+, and even a strong second half left him with just 26 doubles and 22 homers runs. If fans are going to be mad at Longoria, though, they should be furious at Myers, who hit to just a .222/.294/.320 line. While his wrist injury gives him some excuse, the bigger culprit was his weakness against pitches down and away, and that has to be fixed immediately.
Other position players who did not deliver satisfactory results were Escobar, Matt Joyce, and Logan Forsythe. Escobar hit decently enough (92 OPS+), but his defense at shortstop deteriorated significantly. Joyce, meanwhile, mustered just 9 home runs while Forsythe didn’t show up for the first half of the season.
In the bullpen, Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger had breakout seasons and should give the Rays a dynamic late-inning combination for the next few years. Unfortunately, aside from them and Jeff Beliveau, nearly everyone else simply did not cut it.
Grant Balfour was demoted from the closer job and needed a strong finish to get his ERA below 5.00 on the season. Joel Peralta was not much better at 4.41, struggling to a mystifying extent in high-leverage situations. At least for their sakes they were far better than Heath Bell and Josh Lueke, who combined for a 6.46 ERA before their respective designations for assignment. They also parted ways with Juan Carlos Oviedo, although his performance was more respectable while he was with the team.
The season was a disaster, but it certainly does not mean that all hope is lost. The Rays’ rotation was excellent from top to bottom and has a chance to be better next season even without David Price. Cobb looks like an ace, Chris Archer is not far behind, and Drew Smyly dominated after they acquired him in July. Jake Odorizzi gives them a formidable top four, and the Rays have the pitching depth to find a strong fifth starter for next season among their internal options.
In regards to the offense, Longoria and Myers can’t possibly be as bad as last year and the Rays have some pieces to work with around him. Zobrist was excellent while James Loney was solid if not spectacular after the Rays signed him to a three-year deal last offseason. The outfield looks like enough of a strength that Joyce or Jennings could be dealt. We also must acknowledge that Hanigan was fine when healthy–the Rays just need to find him a satisfactory tandem partner.
Finally, the relief corps was a train wreck in 2014, but one bad year does not negate the Rays’ previous success building bullpens. Balfour looked better at the end of the year, and pairing him with McGee, Boxberger, and Beliveau gives the Rays a starting point. From there, expect the internal options like Kirby Yates and Brandon Gomes to be supplemented with a few lost-cost signings. If the bullpen cam be anything like it was before, that would be a huge boost to this team.
2014 was a flawed season for the Rays, but their starting rotation remains a major strength while the other facets of their team look primed to improve next year. There is enough talent here for the Rays to get right back to contending in 2015 if Andrew Friedman plays his cards right.