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After off-season full of change, expect bridge year for Rays in 2015

With Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman gone, the Rays will be trying to navigate some major changes with a weakened roster, clubhouse and front office.

This week, is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 22: the Tampa Bay Rays.

2014 Record and Finish: 77–85 (.475), fourth place in AL East (18th overall)

2015 Projected Record and Finish: 74–88 (.457), fifth place in AL East (22nd overall)

The Case For

Sports Illustrated's 2015 MLB season preview rankings

The small-budget Rays have a new manager and a new front office boss, but they did well to replace Joe Maddon (now managing the Cubs) and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman (Dodgers) with Kevin Cash and Matt Silverman. Although he's a rookie manager, Cash learned under one of the game's best in Terry Francona, for whom he spent two years as the Indians' bench coach. And Silverman spent nine years as team president in Tampa Bay before ascending to his current role, so that transition has been smooth and suggests the team is in good hands for the future. 

On the field, once lefthander Matt Moore returns in late May or early June from Tommy John surgery, the Rays will have one of the best rotations in the American League, and the bullpen is above average. The defense is excellent in the outfield (Desmond Jennings in left, Kevin Kiermaier in center and Steven Souza Jr. in right), at the infield corners (James Loney at first base and Evan Longoria at third) and at catcher, where Rene Rivera is one of the best pitch framers in the game.

The Case Against

Friedman and Maddon led the Tampa Bay to four postseasons in a six-year stretch from 2008-13, but they've left their old team in a tough spot. The Rays finished under .500 last year, the first time that's happened since the franchise dropped the “Devil" from its name after the '07 season. After years of drafting players like Longoria, Carl Crawford and David Price with high picks, it has only selected one All-Star since 2008: Moore. There is hope for the future—shortstops Willy Adames, acquired from the Tigers in last July's Price deal, and Adrian Rondon, an amateur free-agent signing, are highly regarded—but it’s a few years off, and the current team is light on offense needs help defensively at shortstop and second base. It’s a bridge year.

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X-Factor: Desmond Jennings

It seems odd to call the most overrated player on the team (see below) the X-factor, but Jennings has a chance to shed that label with a good year at the plate. The Rays will likely move him down in the lineup from leadoff to fifth or sixth to lessen the pressure on him, but they are still expecting big things from him, and he’s begun to show signs that it might happen with a strong spring training. Jennings has always been a good defender, but the team is still waiting for his offense to develop. In his three full seasons he's hit .248 and averaged 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases. If he can bump that up to, say, .270 with 20 home runs and keep the same number of stolen bases in this, his age-28 season, Tampa Bay has a chance to contend in a weak division.

Number to Know: 23.4%

That's the strikeout percentage for Rays pitchers last year, which tied them with Cleveland's for the highest in baseball. (League average was 20.3%.) Price’s 27.4% will be tough to replace, but a healthy Moore (career: 22.8%) and a full season of Drew Smyly (23.0%) should help. It’s an especially important skill for a team with defensive question marks in the middle of the infield: likely second baseman Nick Franklin is only slightly above average, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has lost a step.

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Scout's Take

Most Overrated: Desmond Jennings

“He’s got power, he’s got speed, he’s athletic, but he hasn’t lived up to his ability. He has to be a better hitter. He doesn’t walk at all—he’s always been aggressive early in the count—and hitting breaking balls is still an issue for him.”

Most Underrated: Jake McGee

“I don’t think most people know about him and how good he is. They gave him a chance to close and he jumped on it. He’s a big strong guy with wide shoulders; he’s got some presence out there. He’s got tremendous stuff, easy plus velocity. He doesn’t have great secondary stuff, but he’s doing okay with what he’s got. He comes right at you with the fastball, and [hitters] don’t get good swings on it.”