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Tampa Bay Rays: Reflecting Upon the Future

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I can’t believe it’s over. I know that you loyal readers of Rays Colored Glasses noticed that I disappeared off the map, and even those of you who read this site less often may have realized as well. I am sorry about that. I wish that it wasn’t so sudden and that I could have said goodbye in a more timely fashion. Instead, here I am writing this today, over a month after my previous RCG piece and more than two weeks after the last piece that I edited. In any event, let me clarify that I am only leaving for good reasons, because of progress in my life rather than hardship.

Before we get to my actual last article (don’t worry–I am going to write about the Rays one more time and not just about myself), let me just thank all of you for the last four years. I joined Rays Colored Glasses in December of 2011 after I had begun covering the Rays in March of 2011 at a site called iSportsWeb.com, and I became editor of RCG in March of 2012. Rays Colored Glasses has been a huge part of my life since then, and it has been amazing to work with so many talented writers, have a community of people appreciate my work and interact with me, and simply to have an outlet to harness my passion for baseball and for the Rays.

It has been a thrill. Highlights included when we broke the news of Yunel Escobar’s extension on MLBTR, put in a crazy amount of effort to analyze every single Rays draft pick in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and worked together to understand both Wil Myers trades and the David Price deal. The RCG Mailbags were also a lot of fun to do, as were the pieces I did about Tampa minor league baseball history a while back. In any event, I am sure that much more exhilaration is ahead with Mat Germain as editor of this site and it helps me breathe easier as I move on knowing that RCG is in good hands.

For my “exit interview,” let’s go through the Tampa Bay Rays position by position one more time and get a feel for where this team stands and what we can expect moving forward.

Catcher

Do you know that we discussed the Rays acquiring Hank Conger as far back as October of 2013? In any event, they finally got him a few days ago and there is reason for moderate excitement. He has hit in two of the last three years and could form an interesting power-hitting catching tandem with Curt Casali.

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As with basically every Rays catcher ever, though, there are a few problems. Neither of them is very good at throwing out opposing basestealers, hence why Rene Rivera has been kept at least for now. The fact that Conger was acquired for so little also makes you wonder whether the Astros viewed his inability to throw out runners as a fatal flaw. In addition, Conger hasn’t made 300 plate appearances since 2012–he likely doesn’t have the durability to be a starting catcher even if he hits–while Casali’s power surge came out of nowhere as he hit 10 homers in 113 MLB plate appearances compared to just 13 in 556 PA’s between Double-A and Triple-A.

Overall, the offensive upside of Conger and Casali gives this catching corps a chance to be among the Rays’ best in their history (although that isn’t saying much). There is certainly risk and we’ll have to see how much the defensive issues sting, but there is reason for optimism, especially given how low the bar has been set the last few years. With Justin O’Conner‘s lack of offense in the minors clouding his future and the rest of the catching prospects much farther down in the system, the Rays need some stopgaps and it looks like they have them.

First Base/DH

James Loney isn’t that bad, but it is frustrating that he will make $9.67 million in the final season of his three-year contract and doesn’t provide power on a Rays team that needs as much of it as possible. The Rays have basically ended up in another David DeJesus-type situation where they would love to trade him but would have to eat money to do so. It would be surprising (albeit in a pleasant way) if the Rays did not keep him to hand him their starting first base job against right-handed pitching to begin the year and give him a chance to rebuild his value.

The difference between Loney for 2016 and DeJesus for 2015, though, is that the Rays could easily find Loney playing time. Their other first base/DH options include Logan Morrison, Richie Shaffer, and whoever isn’t playing the outfield that day among Steven Souza Jr., Mikie Mahtook, and Desmond Jennings. However, Shaffer could use more time at Triple-A to shorten his swing while Mahtook’s excellent hitting to end the year isn’t sustainable given his lack of plate discipline and issues in the minors against righty pitchers. It is dangerous for the Rays to ask them for too much, and having Loney is a nice way to hedge the team’s risk.

A word on Morrison: it is nice that he hit 17 home runs in 2015, and his overall numbers will look a lot better as long as he is kept far away from left-handed pitching. It will be tough for his overall production at the plate to match John Jaso‘s, but A) that will be a tough task for Jaso as well, and B) we could make the argument that power benefits the Rays more than on-base percentage given the construction of their team.

In regards to the future, Jake Bauers is interesting but doesn’t have a high ceiling while Shaffer and Casey Gillaspie come with plenty more risk but maybe a bit more to dream on. The biggest thing to remember with Bauers, though, is that even if he turns into James Loney and nothing more, James Loney making the MLB minimum salary for three years and affordable rates after that is still a quite valuable player.

Second Base

Logan Forsythe was amazing last year, but unsurprisingly, there is reason for concern about whether he will regress. He absolutely destroyed left-handed pitching, slamming them to the tune of a .299/.373/.599 line, but it’s important to note that his OPS against right-handed pitching was a much more reasonable .728 and he needed a .330 BAbip to get there. Forsythe will keep mashing southpaws and that will make his overall numbers look solid and hopefully great, but what will the Rays do if he struggles mightily against righties like he had in each of his previous years in the majors?

The Rays do have some depth behind Forsythe, but Frosty is certainly the Rays’ best bet at another above-average situation at second base next year. Tim Beckham has some power while Nick Franklin has the talent to rebound, but neither of them is particularly exciting. For that, we can talk about Daniel Robertson and Ryan Brett, but both of them need to conquer Triple-A first. The Rays will be hoping for Forsythe to be at least passable against righties to keep the bench players on the bench and give the prospects time to develop. That seems reasonable enough.

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Shortstop

Brad Miller really can’t play the outfield–or at least he couldn’t in 2015–but he can actually play some shortstop. UZR has liked his work at the position over the years while DRS says he won’t be any worse than Asdrubal Cabrera. Combine that with league-average offense that is above-par at short, and the Rays have themselves a nice player. He may not hit lefties at all, something that will get Beckham and Franklin some playing time, but that will make his overall numbers look shinier and the situation may not last too long with Robertson on the way. Miller may not be a “shortstop of the future”-type player, but he is a more-than-reasonable stopgap that will stick around in a super-utility role.

Third Base

Many of my last few pieces were about Evan Longoria, and with good reason. He is the franchise icon, and the Rays need him to succeed. To summarize the thoughts that have been on my mind for a while, Longoria rebounded to an extent in 2015 and there will be no problem as long as he doesn’t decline again. If he maintains his current level of performance for the next four or five years, everything will be fine, and there is reason to believe that he has a second wind left in him beyond that. The Rays have to be a little bit nervous about Longoria, but they are certainly committed to him for the long-term at this point.

Outfield

Kevin Kiermaier was incredible in 2015. We know about his defense, and he improved his basestealing significantly in 2015 to help balance out his regression on offense. If he can keep hitting to any extent, he can be an excellent player.

Flanking Kiermaier are more question marks, but at least they are all talented. Steven Souza Jr. will hope to stay healthy and continue refining his plate approach to tap into his gaudy power. Desmond Jennings gets people less excited, but we are talking about a player who was an above-average starting outfielder in the major leagues for three and a half years. Assuming the Rays don’t get a good trade offer, he deserves another chance. Then there is Mahtook, who we discussed above, and the most reliable player of the group, strong bench guy Brandon Guyer.

Other than Taylor Motter, who profiles as more of a bench player (we can talk about that in the comments), the Rays’ outfield prospects are mostly players currently playing other positions like Shaffer and Brett. Luckily for the Rays, their current group of outfielders is young and relatively strong with Kiermaier leading the way and could take the next step if Souza can break through.

Starting Pitching

Do I even need to talk about this? Chris Archer is excellent, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly look like strong number two or three starters if healthy, Erasmo Ramirez is a strong back-of-the-rotation starter, and Matt Moore looked unhittable to end the year. And that is before we get to top prospect Blake Snell and the rehabbing Alex Cobb. This will be a really good rotation.

Bullpen

The Rays’ bullpen was hit-or-miss last year, but after two years of inconsistency, we have to believe that the team will finally figure things out. There are just too many talented arms here–Brad Boxberger, Jake McGee, Alex Colome, Xavier Cedeno, Steve Geltz, Enny Romero, Danny Farquhar, and Andrew Bellatti are eight before we get to any displaced starters. Boxberger had his issues, but remember that his down year wasn’t as bad as McGee’s 2013 and that much of his issues seemed to stem from a mental block against pitching in non-save situations. The Rays have to believe that things will work out for the relief corps in 2016.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays Top 50 Prospects: #31 Rene Pinto

Overall

To be competitive in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays simply need to replicate their 2015 performance (or come close to it) with two changes: 1) better bullpen work and 2) more luck with runners in scoring position. This won’t be a great team unless Longoria finds himself again while Souza breaks out, but it can be a good one that has the pitching staff to potentially go on a playoff run. If the Rays can solve their seemingly inexplicable problems, we have reason to believe that they can remain in the hunt for the Wild Card in 2016 and quite possibly the division. Coming years, meanwhile, look quite bright as well between the team’s young players and prospects.

Thank you so much for reading this piece and every one of mine that you have happened upon over the course of the last four years. I’ll stick around to answer any questions that you have in the comments, and feel free to tweet me @RobbieKnopf as well. I expect this to be the end of my writing at Rays Colored Glasses, but hopefully I can be a resource for Mat and keep contributing to this site at least in some subtle fashion. Farewell.

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