The next fifty-three games will decide whether the Tampa Bay Rays will go to the playoffs. It will also play a large part in dictating which players will be in Port Charlotte for spring training in 2016. Some will be free agents over the winter and be able to chart their own destiny while others will have their future decided by the Rays. Let’s take a look at six of the current players who are “on the bubble” and see what might determine their fate.
John Jaso: Jaso came over from Oakland in the Ben Zobrist deal and was seen as a DH with a solid left-handed bat. He injured his wrist after just one plate appearance and was on the DL until July, but he has come back as a strong hitter against right-handed pitching. Jaso is a free agent after this season and the Rays would probably love to have him back. However, he has not played in 100 games in any of the last three years and is a serious injury risk. Whether he returns will depend upon what he is looking for in free agency and what the market offers.
Asdrubal Cabrera: Cabrera was signed to a one-year, $7.5 million contract prior to the 2015 season. The Rays hoped that he would turn out to be a short-term substitute for Zobrist in the middle infield. He has exceeded expectations as a shortstop defensively, and after a slow start, he has pushed his slash line up to .249/.301/.399. With no big league shortstop on the horizon for 2016, the Rays would probably like to have him back on a similar contract, although Cabrera might get more if he keeps hitting well.
Joey Butler: Butler was signed to a 2015 minor league contract and seen as Triple-A depth for the season. Then Jennings went down, Butler was called up, and for some 150 at-bats, he hit over .300 and was arguably the best hitter on the Rays. Then the league figured him out and he has gone 11 for his last 72. His 2016 fate will be determined by whether he can at least hit left-handed pitching for the rest of the year and/or whether the Rays need a roster spot for a prospect.
Rene Rivera: Do the hitting-impaired Rays think they can go through another season with a catcher that is an automatic out? Nobody’s going to argue with the quality of Rivera’s defense, but the fact that he is hitting below the Mendoza line yet still strikes out nearly 30% of the time is a serious issue. With the Rays’ catching prospects a ways away, the Rays will look for a catcher that can hit. However, they probably won’t find anybody they can afford and will go into the 2016 season hoping Rivera can get closer to his 2014 slash line of .252/.319/.432. At least Curt Casali has played well.
Desmond Jennings: We all know the Desmond Jennings story. He was seen as a great athlete with speed, power, and defense who was supposed to be the second coming of Carl Crawford. He hasn’t been able to decide whether he was a speedy on-base guy or a middle-of-the-order hitter and hasn’t done either one very well. He started 2015 slowly and then went down with a serious knee injury. He’s due back from rehab shortly and this may be his last chance to prove himself. With Kevin Kiermaier established in center field and Jennings due at least a modest pay increase from his $3.1 million salary, the Rays may decide to look elsewhere in 2016.
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Drew Smyly: When Smyly came over as part of the 2014 David Price deal, he looked like a steal. In seven starts with the Rays, he had a 3-1 record and a 1.70 ERA. Then, after returning from a DL stint at the end of April, he delivered three strong starts before going down with a torn labrum in his shoulder. He elected rehab over surgery and was out for four months. He’s about to come back to the Rays’ rotation and everybody will be watching to see how he performs at the big league level. Unless he stumbles badly he will probably be back with the Rays next year. However, he has a history of injuries and will make over around $3 million in arbitration next year. Between that and the Rays’ pitching depth, nothing is for certain.
Others could certainly be in the roster shuffle. If you make more than $5 million and are not named Evan Longoria, you are always under the microscope, so James Loney might be moved for the right deal. Brandon Gomes and Grady Sizemore will probably be let go to open up roster spots while others like Matt Moore and Daniel Nava need to rebound from injuries and poor performance to make their way into the Rays’ plans. No matter what happens, you can count on a number of new faces in Spring Training 2016–hopefully some of them will bring solid bats with them.