If you are a big Tampa Bay Rays fan, then you likely recall the dismal start to 2014. There were a lot of injuries to the pitching staff and the offense struggled to find its grove. The Rays have significantly altered their team this in hopes of changing things for the better. Going into the final few days before Opening Day next Monday, here are five critical things the Rays will need to address in order to get off to a good start and eventually be in the mix for a playoff berth.
#1 – Injuries: Much like 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays are coming into the season with several critical players injured. Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly are both out with tendinitis, Cobb in his right forearm and Smyly in his left shoulder, and expected to come back between mid-April and early May. Cobb was expected to be the team’s Opening Day starter while Smyly was dominant after the team acquired him, and the Rays need them to return as soon as possible.
Other players on the disabled list include Jake McGee and Alex Colome, both of whom should also return by early May, and Matt Moore, who looks to come back around June after Tommy John Surgery. Finally, there is Nick Franklin, who was going to be the Rays’ starting second baseman until an oblique injury took him out. He could return sometime in May, although that is less clear than the others.
When the Rays get all of these players back, they will have a vastly improved rotation, another dominant late-inning arm, and a better situation in their infield. However, they need to make sure everyone is 100% healthy when they come back and find a way to stay afloat while they are out, bringing us to our next point.
#2 – Current Rotation: With all of these injuries, certain pitchers will need to step up for the Rays. Chris Archer certainly has the talent to lead and Jake Odorizzi has shown improvement from last season. Nate Karns and Matt Andriese, meanwhile, seized the opportunities presented to them by the injuries to earn two more starting roles. Karns’ fastball-curveball combination has looked electric this spring while Andriese has been better than expected.
The Rays completed their temporary rotation when they traded Mike Montgomery to the Seattle Mariners for Erasmo Ramirez. Ramirez may not have ever shined as a Mariner, but he provides much needed experience and depth to the rotation. Perhaps the change of scenery and the tutelage of Jim Hickey will benefit him and the Rays.
#3 – Offense: A lot of the most recognizable players on the Rays–such as Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, and Matt Joyce–aren’t on the team anymore. Their replacements, specifically players like Asdrubal Cabrera, Steven Souza, and eventually Franklin, feature plenty of talent, but on a Rays team that needs all of the runs it can get, they are under plenty of pressure.
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Luckily for the Rays, they do have a few familiar faces to lead. Evan Longoria had a down year in 2014, and the team needs him to come back in a big way in 2015. They have reason to be optimistic as the mechanical issues in his swing are gone and he has looked good this spring. James Loney will join him as a reliable if not impressive sidekick and Desmond Jennings will be another player to watch. The Rays have continued to wait for his breakout, and if not now after a spectacular exhibition season, it may never come.
#4 – Baserunning: After years of being among the best basestealing teams in baseball, the Rays slipped to tied for 20th in stolen bases in 2013 and just tied for 25th last season. With the Rays offense having enough uncertianty by itself, they have to change that immediately. They are showing signs that they can do that as they are tied for 7th in stolen bases this spring.
The Rays no longer have elite basestealers like Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton (yes, I know he’s Melvin now), but they have several players with the ability to divide the attention of opposing pitchers. Jennings is the one player with the ability to steal 30, and expect others like Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer to increase their output as well. Steven Souza also stole at least 28 bases the last two years in the minor leagues, and it will be interesting to see what he can do this season.
#5 – Manager Kevin Cash: Few would question how beneficial Joe Maddon was to the Rays organization. He had an unorthodox style that many Rays players seemed drawn to and managed to get the most out of his roster. Kevin Cash replaced him, and he has no interest in being a placeholder for the next long-term manager of the Rays.
Cash has received great reviews for his communication skills, but the thing about managers is that you never know how good they are until the games begin. Cash will be challenged right out of the gate thanks to all of the injuries and it will be fascinating to see how he reacts. If the Rays find their way to an AL East title, we will be able to say that Kevin Cash was a significant contributor.
The Tampa Bay Rays face plenty of questions, but they have talent to answer them on their way to an impressive season. The Rays were certainly hoping for better health entering Opening Day, but they understand the situation that they are in and are ready to do what it takes to get past it.