17. Tampa Bay Rays (16–17, plus-6, LT: 14)
General managers are always optimistic in spring training. But when I asked Rays co-GM Chaim Bloom in March for specifics, he didn’t hesitate. Of all the players on the roster, Bloom said, look for big things from Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza Jr.
Dickerson struggled to adjust to Tropicana Field and the American League, his post-Coors Field hangover ending with a .245/.293/.469 batting line. He’s bounced back in a big way this year, hitting .304/.350/.539. There’s some reason for skepticism, with most of his gains coming from a flukishly high .354 batting average balls in play—a nice 69-point jump from last year. Still, Dickerson is hitting more line drives and fewer popups this year. Meanwhile, Bloom’s first prediction looks pretty good.
His second one might be even better. Souza came over to the Rays after the 2014 season, in a deal that sent Wil Myers to San Diego (he blossomed into an All-Star) and Trea Turner to the Nats (he’s already one of the best all-around players in baseball at age 23). Souza’s first season in Tampa Bay was bad: He hit just .225/.318/.399, struck out in more than one-third of his plate appearances, played poor defense, got hurt, and played in just 110 games. His second season as a Ray was also bad: He hit just .247/.303/.409, struck out in more than one-third of his plate appearances, played poor defense, got hurt, and played in just 120 games.
He’s improved dramatically this season. Souza’s batting .284/.385/.457. He’s upped his walk rate to a career-high 13.2%, and sliced his strikeout rate to a more manageable 27.9%. Finally healthy, he’s played in all but two of Tampa Bay’s games. And while we should always be wary of small sample size analysis (especially with defense), Souza’s made bigger contributions so far this season with his glove than he ever has before.
With Myers and Turner thriving elsewhere, it’s still doubtful that three-way trade will ever fully pan out for Tampa Bay. But if Souza can keep up his current pace, that would still count as a giant leap for the Rays.