Tampa Bay Rays (80-82), 3rd in AL East
Notable free agents: Alex Cobb, Logan Morrison, Tommy Hunter, Lucas Duda, Sergio Romo, Steve Cishek, Colby Rasmus
The Rays remained in postseason contention for much of the 2017 season, but given the vast mediocrity of the American League outside of the top four teams, it wasn’t incredibly difficult to do so. In the scheme of things, the Rays were nothing more than a .500 team in 2017, and will have to improve if they are to make any kind of noise in the always difficult AL East.
For Erik Neander and the Rays front office, now is not the time to think about their place in the division. There is way too much work to do.
With a long list of players hitting free agency, and more expecting raises in arbitration salary, the Rays could field a completely different team when the warmth of spring returns. Given the Rays’ conservative spending habits, that seems very likely.
However, the Rays went against their own grain this summer when they actually tried to acquire pieces at the deadline to make a playoff push (whoa!). Lucas Duda was brought over from New York and immediately starting launching dingers. They also went out and grabbed shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and reliever Dan Jennings. In the end, due to decreased production from Logan Morrison and under-performers in the front end of the rotation, the Rays faded out in the Wild Card hunt and now have plenty of decisions to make.
Despite the uncharacteristic moves at the deadline, it’s hard to imagine that will lead to an increase in offseason spending. The team hasn’t had a winning season in four years, but could very possibly open the 2018 season with their highest payroll in team history, given their large arbitration class and core players that are locked in for the long term (Evan Longoria, Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Archer). Now, could any of those names be traded if the Rays struggle next season? Hold that thought.
Back to the arbitration eligibles, names like Hechavarria, Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson and Alex Colome all figure to see an increase in salary next season. It’s hard to imagine they will all be on the Tampa Bay roster come April. They all present their own form of risk.
The Rays went into 2017 looking to pride themselves on solid defense and power hitting. Hechavarria definitely fits the first part of that plan, but fails miserably in the latter. Odrizzi and Colome both saw dips in production last season. Odorizzi struggled with staying healthy, so the Rays could elect to keep him, considering they are almost guaranteed to lose Alex Cobb to free agency, despite reports that the team will extend him a qualifying offer.
Colome led the league in saves (47) in 2017, but a dropoff in strikeout rate is probably a more telling statistic. Still, given the importance of bullpen arms, someone will pay for him. If the Rays want to stick to the plan and try to build a contender with their core of locked up talent led by Longoria, they will likely push to keep Colome given the bullpen arms like Cishek and Hunter that are probably leaving for free agency.
Dickerson is a tricky one to figure out. Like Morrison, his bat went cold in the second half, which could actually help the Rays keep him. They will likely need to retain some offensive firepower since Morrison is likely on his way out. His second half of the season was disappointing, but he still finished with 38 homers, which will be enough to get him paid.
Back to the starting rotation, where things actually seem in place despite Cobb’s inevitable departure. New pitching coach Kyle Snyder will have Archer, Blake Snell and Jacob Faria leading the rotation, with the final two spots being filled up by either Odorizzi, Nathan Eovaldi, Matt Andriese or top prospect Brent Honeywell, if he is deemed ready.
While there are options in the rotation, the Rays will need better a better season out of Archer, who was underwhelming for a second straight season. Whether his improvement is for the sake of the Rays’ chances in 2018 or his trade stock, he needs to be better.
If the Rays continue to stay on the wrong side of .500, it may be time to wave the white flag on the current plan and look to trade Archer. While he hasn’t looked like his usual self in recent years, he still is under 30 and has a long history of success. He could bring a decent load back in a midseason trade, where contending teams will be eager to add an extra rotation arm, like many did this season.
While there are plenty moves to be made, none will likely be a big splash. That’s not how the Rays do business. Cobb will likely be gone, but the Rays have other rotation options, and will be hoping on better performances from a number of starters. The biggest question marks currently hang over first base and the back end of the bullpen. Of course, the other question mark hangs over Tropicana Field, as players and fans wonder when the heck they’ll finally be out of there and into a new facility.