BASEBALL 2016: Revamped Rays like prospects of playoff berth
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Rays look at themselves and marvel at the possibilities.
From a pitching rotation that has the potential to be one of the best in the American League to an improved offense bolstered through trades and some modest spending in free agency, the Rays feel they have everything it takes to reach the playoffs after finishing with losing records the past two years.
Many of the faces have changed, but not the expectations within a franchise that earned four postseason berths within a span of six seasons from 2008 to 2013.
That's because pitching and defense have driven the Rays during the best of times, and still figures to be crucial to the team's chances of rebounding from an 80-82, fourth-place finish in the AL East.
''Last year, the injury bug really got us, especially when we had three of our starting pitchers out,'' president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said. ''We had a real tough time getting through that. But I look at the club this year and feel like the overall talent level is higher.''
All-Star Chris Archer heads a formidable group of young starting pitchers that have had good springs and are eager to fulfill their promise.
''Sky's the limit. We've just need to stay healthy. That's the key,'' said left-hander Drew Smyly, limited to 12 starts last season because of a shoulder injury that kept him on the disabled list for a total of 105 games. ''I think if we're all healthy, pitching the way we're capable of, good things will happen.''
Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison, Steve Pearce, Brad Miller and Hank Conger were brought in this winter to add power to a lineup that was last in the AL in runs scored in 2015.
Second-year manager Kevin Cash is excited about the prospects of the offense being much better.
''We've got more thump at the top, and then we've got some speed looking more toward the back end of the lineup,'' Cash said.
Some things to know about the Rays, who over the past eight seasons have won more games than any team in the majors except the Yankees, Cardinals and Angels:
FOR STARTERS: Tampa Bay will begin the season with a four-man rotation of Archer, Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore. A fifth starter, likely Erasmo Ramirez - an 11-game winner last year, won't be needed on a regular basis until early or mid-May. Things could get real interesting if Alex Cobb, who missed all of season following Tommy John surgery, returns as expected and is able to pitch effectively, too.
BULLPEN QUESTIONS: Veteran Jake McGee was traded this winter and 2015 AL saves leader Brad Boxberger was injured during spring training and won't return before May, meaning the Rays open without an experienced closer. Alex Colome will get a chance to fill the role after making the transition from starter to reliever last season. ''We've got a lot of confidence, and he provided it for us,'' with his performance a year ago, Cash said.
JENNINGS FACTOR: The Rays are counting on Dickerson, Morrison, Pearce, Miller and Conger to help the offense. Silverman and Cash are optimistic, too, that a healthy Desmond Jennings in left field can make a difference, too, after missing a big chunk of the past two seasons because of injuries. ''He's incredibly talented,'' Silverman said. ''When he's on the field, he has the chance to be the best player on the field.''
KEEPING IT CLOSE: Has not been good enough. One of the reasons the Rays finished two games below .500 last season and missed the playoffs for the second straight year was an inability to win tight games. They were involved in a major league-high 94 games decided by two or fewer runs, going 46-48. The team lost a franchise-record 30 times by one run.
LEADOFF MAN: After exploring several possibilities this spring, Cash has settled on 2B Logan Forsythe at top of the batting order. He hit .281 with 17 homers and 68 RBI's in 153 games last season and has a new contract that could be worth more than $20 million over the next three years. ''It was tough because Logan had so much success last year hitting in the five hole and then fourth against lefties. But we like the way Logan has approached it,'' Cash said. ''The biggest reason is it allows one of our best hitters to get 75 more at-bats on the year. We want him up as much as possible, and this is the best way to do that.''