The Rays were a tough team to watch last year. How many times did Chris Archer pitch his heart out in a game only to lose 3-1? The next day’s box score was just as disheartening. Too many runners left on base, left in scoring position and left on third with less than two out. Two or three key hits would have made the difference but they just weren’t there.
You could blame some of it on injuries. Solid hitters like James Loney and John Jaso spent good part of the season on the disabled list. However, the real issue is that too many good hitters were stuck in long slumps and never produced the kind of numbers that were expected of them. Will this trend change in 2016? A lot depends on whether the hitters spot their flaws and adjust. Let’s take a look at some of the players and how they need to adjust their game.
Surprisingly, the biggest disappointment of the 2015 season was Evan Longoria. It was not that his overall numbers were so terrible but rather that so much was expected of him. Longo was the guy that was supposed to carry the team through the tough stretches. He had done it before. In 2009, Longoria hit 33 home runs, drove in 113 RBIs and had a .281/.364/.526 slash line. In 2015, he hit 21 home runs, drove in 73 runs and had a .270/.328/.435 slash line. In six short years, he had gone from a potent offensive weapon to a guy who looked ridiculous swinging at low outside sliders.
So what happened to Longoria? Pundits will give you any one of a half dozen reasons for his slide. Personally, I think Longoria was just trying too hard. The opposing pitcher looked down the Rays lineup and determined that no one else besides Longoria was going to beat him. Longoria looked at the Rays lineup and determined the same thing, overcompensated and swung at a bad pitch. He needs to get back to waiting for his pitch, swing a level bat and hit line drives. The power and the RBIs will follow.
The second biggest disappointment was Steven Souza Jr.. After seemingly swinging and missing with Wil Meyers, it looked like the Rays had a winner with Souza. In 2014 he had a monster AAA season highlighted by a .346 batting average, 25 home runs and 75 RBIs in 346 at bats. Described by scouts as a patient line drive hitter with raw power, he looked like the real deal. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate to his rookie season. The once patient Souza seemed to swing at any and every pitch thrown his way leading to 144 strikeouts in 373 at bats.
The good news is that when he hit the ball, it went a long way and was on his way to a 25 plus home run season when he hurt his wrist. Souza may never hit for average but he can still turn out to be an everyday player and a legitimate power threat. However, he must learn to quiet down at the plate and be more patient. Much like Longoria, a bunch of line drive doubles will lead to home runs. A little time watching his AAA batting tapes wouldn’t hurt either.
Help may also be on the way in the form of a healthy James Loney. A lot off people don’t like Loney’s offensive game but I’m a fan. Prior to 2015, he had driven in 65-90 RBIs and had a batting overage between .265 and .330 in eight out of nine seasons. He has a career .338 obp. The Rays could use eight more hitters with those numbers. He is a solid line drive hitter. He certainly is not a power guy like Chris Davis but those kind of power hitters sign nine figure contracts and the Rays don’t have that kind of money. If Loney is healthy, you plug him into the three or six spot in the batting order and he will get on base and drive in runs.
And then there is Rene Rivera. The Rays thought they might have caught lightning in a bottle after Rivera’s decent 2014 season with San Diego but it was just not to be. Rivera had a 2015 slash line of .178/.213/.373 and struck out 86 time times in 298 at bats. He was almost an automatic out before he stepped to the plate. Sadly, this is one case where I don’t see much hope for a turnaround. The Rays will have hope that Curt Casali’s offensive output in his brief stint in majors (10 home runs in 100 at bats) was not a fluke or that newly acquired Hank Conger can supply some offense.
You simply don’t win games without driving in more runs than the other team. Last season Evan Longoria led the team with 73 RBIs followed by Logan Forsythe with 68 and Astrubal Cabrera with 58. No one else drove in more than forty. The talent is there to do better. Hopefully, if you combine a revived Longoria, an improved Souza, a healthy Loney, a repeat season by Forsythe and the addition of newcomers Logan Morrison, Steve Pearce and Corey Dickerson, many of those 3-1 loses will turn into 5-3 wins.