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Wait 'Til Next Year: Punchless Rays take unexpected step backward

Expected to contend per usual in 2014, the Rays instead took a big step backward in a worrying season for Tampa Bay.

While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.

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Current Record: 75-81 (.481, fourth in the AL East)

Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 19

Rays ace Alex Cobb leads list of second-half breakout players

What went right in 2014: By going 37-19 from June 11 to Aug. 15, the Rays became just the fourth team ever to fall 18 games below .500 and claw their way back to even, joining the 1899 Louisville Colonels, 2004 Devil Rays and 2006 Marlins. Their rotation has been strong despite injuries and trades, putting together the league's second-lowest ERA (3.45) and second-highest strikeout rate (8.5 per nine). Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and the since-traded David Price gave the strongest performances, and perpetual prospect Jake Odorizzi overcame a terrible April (6.85 ERA) to establish himself at the major league level by putting up a 3.50 ERA with 9.5 K/9 since. Price's replacement was also stellar: Drew Smyly, acquired from the Tigers, pitched to a microscopic 1.70 ERA in seven starts before being shut down in early September.

Relievers Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee have also enjoyed breakout seasons, with the former becoming the rare reliever to top 100 strikeouts in a season and the latter establishing himself as a closer, saving 18 games and pitching to a 1.79 FIP as well as a 1.92 ERA. In all, the team's 3.80 runs per game allowed ranks fourth in the league.

On the position player side, Ben Zobrist (.269/.353/.393, 4.6 Wins Above Replacement) put together another strong season while making at least 16 starts at four different positions. Rookie outfielder Kevin Kiermaier turned in highlight reel defense (+14 Defensive Runs Saved), batting a respectable .262/.314/.445 en route to 3.3 WAR, and Desmond Jennings (.244/.319/.378) has put together another three-win season on a near-minimum salary.

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What went wrong in 2014: As that short list of positives implies, a whole lot has gone wrong for the Rays. After six straight years in contention in the AL East despite their low payrolls — a span that's seen them top 90 wins five times and make four playoff appearances — this year's team slipped below .500 on April 23 and spent just that one historically significant day (Aug. 15) at .500 before receding again. In all, July (17-6) has been the Rays' only month above .500, and outside of that 37-19 stretch, they've gone 38-62, which looks a whole lot more like their 2006 (61-101, .377) than their 2013 (92-71, .537).

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Even after adjusting for ballpark, the team's offense has been subpar, posting a 96 OPS+, the league’s sixth-lowest mark, and averaging just 3.83 runs per game, the league's second-lowest rate. Kiermaier's .445 slugging percentage represents the team high, with David DeJesus (.252/.354/.419), Evan Longoria (.252/.320/.406, career lows across the board) and Sean Rodriguez (.206/.255/.430) the only others to top .400 in substantial playing time. Longoria (2.8 WAR) was the only other player beyond Zobrist, Kiermaier and Jennings to be worth more than two wins.

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Expected to put up big numbers in his first full major league season, reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers instead missed 81 games due to a right wrist fracture and has hit .220/.296/.321 with bad defense en route to -1.1 WAR. Trademates James Shields and Wade Davis, meanwhile, have helped pitch the Royals to the brink of their first postseason appearance in 29 years. Jose Molina has offset elite pitch framing (+19.3 runs, third in the majors) by hitting an unfathomable .178/.232/.187 en route to -1.9 WAR. James Loney — whose three-year, $21 million deal represented Tampa's largest of the winter — saw his bat turn back into a wet noodle, hitting .289/.336/.382 en route to 1.4 WAR. Remember, kids: Lefty first basemen with sweet swings but little power do in fact grow on trees, and you don't need to commit to them once they get pricey.

On the pitching side, Matt Moore made just two starts before needing Tommy John surgery. Moore's injury hit particularly hard, given the absences of Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson due to injuries and the early-season struggles of Odorizzi, Price and even Archer, plus the predictable mediocrity of Erik Bedard and the drug suspension of Alex Colome. All told, the rotation was rocked for a 4.51 ERA during an 11-16 April. Hellickson, meanwhile, returned from an elbow injury but has managed just 12 starts with a 3.96 ERA and 4.04 FIP, well off his 2011-12 form.

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The bullpen has been no great shakes either, bracketing four months of solid performances with a 4.25 ERA in April and a 4.48 mark in September. Heath Bell pitched to a Boeing-esque 7.27 ERA in 17 1/3 innings at a cost of $5.5 million before being released on May 10. Grant Balfour pitched his way out of closer duty by mid-June and has put up a 5.10 ERA and -0.8 WAR in the first year of a two-year, $12 million deal. Sex offenderJosh Lueke was given another 25 appearances despite a 5.64 ERA. Mainstays McGee, Cesar Ramos and Joel Peralta have been knocked around for a combined 7.32 ERA this month.

Overall outlook: With Price gone and the farm system hit hard by graduations, poor drafting and drug suspensions — they didn’t place a single prospect on the Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus midseason Top 50 lists — it feels as though an era of great baseball in Tampa Bay has passed.

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​Is it time to dial down our expectations of the Rays going forward, even in a wide-open AL East? Their offense is short of high-upside performers, particularly if the 28-year-old Longoria's performance (a 106 OPS+, down from 131 career) represents the start of a decline phase instead of an aberration. With another year of poor attendance (17,858 per game, down 4.2 percent from last year and their lowest mark since 2007) and no momentum on the new stadium front, it's not as though their finances are changing anytime soon.

That said, with Archer, Moore, Cobb, Smyly, Odorizzi and Hellickson all under club control through at least 2016, their young, inexpensive rotation should provide a foundation for respectability, Longoria's club-friendly deal — his salary won’t reach even $15 million until 2020 — makes him a valuable asset going forward, and likewise for the low-salaried Zobrist, Jennings, Kiermaier, Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce. Plus, it's too early to write off the 23-year-old Myers, and with Price gone, there's no looming free agent crisis. Given the absence of a division powerhouse and the right moves this winter, the Rays could be back in contention next year.