It wasn’t supposed to go like this in 2016 for the Tampa Bay Rays. They retooled their offense! Their pitching staff was strong! Their defense once again looked sturdy! But in a year where four of the five AL East teams are still in the hunt for the division title, one team has been off the mark all season – and that team was the Rays, who were last above .500 on May 20th.
Preseason Prediction: I’ll go out on a limb and say this – if the Rays get 200 innings from Archer, another 180 from two other starters, and at least 600 plate appearances from four of their nine offensive regulars, they’ll win the division. If they don’t, Tampa Bay won’t make the playoffs. It’s really that simple. (Joe Lucia, March 15)
What Went Right: Let’s fact check my terrible prediction from six months ago.
— Archer has made 30 starts and tossed 182 1/3 innings, so he’ll probably get to 200.
— Jake Odorizzi has made 30 starts and has thrown 172 2/3 innings, while Drew Smyly has notched 28 starts and 164 1/3 innings. Both will likely get to 180 innings.
— Evan Longoria is already at 620 plate appearances, though only Brad Miller and Logan Forsythe are above 500.
So, what the hell happened if all that went right?
Longoria had another good year at the dish, hitting .274/.321/.519 with 33 homers. Miller delivered in his first year with the Rays, hitting .247/.304/.489 with 28 dingers. Forsythe also continued his offensive production, putting together a .281/.351/.472 sash line with 19 homers. In limited play before being dealt back to the Orioles, Steve Pearce hit .309/.388/.520 with ten homers in just 60 games. As a team, Tampa Bay hit 201 homers, the fifth-most in baseball. The only bullpen regulars that had impressive seasons were Xavier Cedeno and Alex Colome, with Colome especially impressing in the closer’s role.
What Went Wrong: For all of the power the Rays offense had, they weren’t putting anyone on base to drive in – their .311 on-base percentage was the second-worst in the American League, ahead of just the Oakland Athletics. As is becoming the norm, Rays catchers did nothing at the plate – they hit .200/.268/.345, better than just the Pirates and Indians in all of baseball. Injuries also hit the offense hard – center fielder Kevin Kiermaier played in just 92 games, while Nick Franklin (remember Nick Franklin?!?) played in 53 while spending half the year at AAA and Desmond Jennings played 65 before getting released. Matt Duffy, the major league jewel of the Matt Moore trade, played in just 21 games after the deal before his season ended.
The top-end of the pitching staff racked up innings, but was incredibly homer-prone. Archer has a 4.05 ERA and 217 strikeouts, but has given up 26 home runs. Odorizzi has also allowed 26 dingers, striking out 152 and pitching to a 3.81 ERA. And then there’s Smyly, who has struck out 159…but has allowed a stunning 31 homers with a 4.98 ERA. The team’s bullpen was also disappointing – their 4.16 ERA was in the bottom ten in baseball, ahead of just the Twins and Rangers in the American League.
Most Surprising Player: In his first three years in baseball with the Mariners, Brad Miller hit a total of 29 homers in 1,243 plate appearances. This year, he’s one homer shy of matching that total…in just 542 plate appearances. However, despite that power surge, Miller’s on-base percentage has dropped to just .304, lower than two of his three years in Seattle, and his strikeout rate has risen to a hair under 25%. Miller’s defensive metrics, never strong in Seattle, have fallen off a cliff with the Rays, perhaps indicating his long-term future isn’t at shortstop. But 30 homer power is something this Rays offense really could use – or maybe trade for even more young talent, which has become the norm in recent years for Tampa Bay.
Most Disappointing Player: There are plenty of players we can talk about here, but given current events, let’s spend some time talking about Steven Souza Jr. Two winters ago, the Rays ended up with Souza (and a handful of other players not making much of an impact right now) in a three-team deal that saw Wil Myers go to the Padres and both Joe Ross and Trea Turner go to the Nationals.
In 117 games this year, Souza has hit .243/.300/.411 with 17 homers and six stolen bases. He’s 27. Myers was an NL All-Star for the Padres, and has slashed .258/.334/.455 with 24 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He’s 25. Ross has thrown 95 1/3 innings over 16 starts with the Nationals this year, pitching to a 3.49 ERA with 79 strikeouts. He’s 23. Finally, Turner has hit a stunning .340/.361/.537 with eight homers and 24 stolen bases in 57 games. He’s also 23.
So in short, the Rays got the oldest player of these four, and he’s also having the worst career of the four. But hey, at least they also got Jake Bauers, Travis Ott, Rene Rivera (who they already released), and Burch Smith (who hasn’t pitched since the trade)!
The Future: The Rays are, once again, at a crossroads. To trade young talent, or to not trade young talent? 2016 will be Tampa Bay’s third straight season under .500, coming after a spell of six straight above .500 seasons (four of which resulted in trips to the Postseason). The organization has just three free agents this winter, none of whom are crucial to their success – reliever Kevin Jepsen, first baseman Logan Morrison, and shortstop Alexei Ramirez (who was just signed this month after being released by the Padres). Next year, the club also only has three free agents – oft-injured starter Alex Cobb, and journeymen Dana Eveland and Bobby Wilson. So it’ll make sense if the Rays decide to retool their team once again and try to make one last run, but given the overall strength (and in the case of the Yankees and Red Sox, the youth) of the AL East, that may be a losing proposition for the organization in 2017.