Ever been to a Tampa Bay Rays home game at Tropicana Field? It's a complete and utter dump, the worst stadium in pro sports without question. It's part of the reason why the Rays don't draw flies. They averaged just 15,403 fans last year, last in the majors. It's also why ownership is looking for other stadium sites in the area. Good luck getting public funding for that, and you hear rumors this team might move in a few years to Montreal, which badly wants baseball back.
I mention the stadium issue because it's such a shame this team doesn't have more resources at its disposal because it's such a well-run franchise. The Rays lost one of the majors' best GMs last offseason in Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers, which opened a clause in the contract of Joe Maddon, probably the best manager in the majors. He took that opt out and landed with the Chicago Cubs.
Yet despite losing those two -- Tampa stayed in-house in replacing Friedman -- and another payroll that was among the lowest in the majors, and likely always will be, the Rays finished a very respectable 80-82. Manager Kevin Cash did a great job; the Tampa native has a lot of fans around baseball even though he had no managerial experience before last year. Cash was an ex-catcher in the majors and formerly the Indians' bullpen coach. The Rays like to think out of the box, and it usually works. Each of the previous four first-year managers with the Rays lost at least 99 games in his first full season. Maddon's first team was only 61-101.
The best way I can explain the 2016 Rays is that they are a lot like the Cleveland Indians. Tampa likely will struggle to hit, but if the Indians don't have the best rotation in the AL this season, the Rays might.
Tampa Bay opens the season April 3 at home against Toronto.
Rays 2016 Projected Lineup
The Rays said goodbye to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who had a really nice bounce-back season in 2015, and outfielder/catcher John Jaso, who was limited to only 185 at-bats last year due to injury but hit pretty well when in there.
As usual, the Rays were very quiet in free agency. Their big signing was getting former Orioles outfielder/first baseman/DH Steve Pearce on a one-year deal for a little under $5 million. Pearce, who is from nearby Lakeland, had a great 2014 season, hitting .293 with 21 homers and 49 RBIs in 102 games but fell off considerably last year, hitting .218 with 15 dingers and 40 RBIs in 92 games. Right now, Pearce doesn't have a starting spot but will get plenty of ABs backing up several spots.
Tampa also made two trades to boost the lineup, trading from its wealth of pitching. The Rays sent pitchers Nathan Karns and C.J. Riefenhauser and a minor league outfielder to Seattle for infielder/outfielder Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and pitcher Danny Farquhar. Morrison played in a career-high 146 games last season, hitting .225 with 17 homers. He should be the team's primary DH. The Rays are sticking Miller, a former top prospect, at shortstop. Miller hit .258 with 11 HRs and 46 RBIs in 2015.
The other deal was acquiring outfielder Corey Dickerson from Colorado for lefty reliever Jake McGee. Dickerson hit .304 last year with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 65 games. Good young hitter but certainly some inflated numbers in Coors Field. More on McGee in a minute.
The lineup will begin with center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who hit .263 with 10 HRs and 40 RBIs in 2015. Frankly, anything he does offensively is gravy. The guy is an absolute magician defensively and had the best defensive season in MLB history by one metric last year. His 42 defensive runs saved was the record for a statistic that has been around since 2003. Kiermaier also led all center fielders with 15 assists. Obviously he won a Gold Glove in his first full big-league season. Other teams were calling the Rays about him all winter.
Kiermaier will be followed by second baseman Logan Forsythe (.281, 17 HRs, 68 RBIs) and perhaps the only recognizable name on the roster to casual fans: third baseman Evan Longoria (.270, 21 HRs, 73 RBIs). Any team would love to have Longoria, who has gotten durable the past three seasons by playing at least 160 games in each. But he has underachieved a bit the past two.
The rest of the lineup: Dickerson in left, Morrison, first baseman James Loney (.280, 4 HRs, 32 RBIs, right fielder Steven Souza (.225, 16 HRs, 40 RBIs), catcher Rene Rivera/Curt Casali and Miller. The Rays gave up a lot to get Souza last offseason and they need him to stay in the lineup; he played 110 games last year. He has prodigious power potential.
The Rays were 25th in runs last year. Maybe this group can top out at 18th or so by adding Morrison, Miller and Dickerson. It's a deeper lineup now but still not a great one.
Rays 2016 Projected Rotation & Closer
This is where the Rays are going to win games, and with a lot of good young pitchers in the pipeline don't be surprised if one of these guys listed below is traded for a young bat at some point this season.
Well, All-Star Chris Archer (12-13, 3.23) isn't going to be traded unless the Rays get a monster return -- essentially, Archer is this team's Chris Sale: the one untouchable and the face of the franchise. Like Sale, Archer is also on a very team-friendly contract for the rest of this decade. Let's put it this way: the Dodgers could offer Corey Seager for Archer and I don't think the Rays would say yes.
Jake Odorizzi (9-9, 3.35), the last piece left from that James Shields to the Royals trade a few years ago, lefty Drew Smyly (5-2, 3.11), the key guy in the David Price trade at the 2014 deadline, Erasmo Ramirez (11-6, 3.75) and lefty Matt Moore (3-4, 5.43) finish up the rotation. Moore, as you can see, had his struggles last season after returning from Tommy John surgery but he has looked very good this spring. Remember how good he was in 2013?
The Rays were OK dealing McGee because they have an All-Star closer in Brad Boxberger, who led the American League with 41 saves in 2015 (also 4-10 with a 3.71 ERA, which isn't great). But Boxberger is going to miss at least eight weeks following abdominal surgery recently. So now it's likely closer by committee among Alex Colome, Xavier Cedeno, Farquhar, Steven Geltz and Ryan Webb. I still like that trade of McGee, however.
Rays Futures Odds
At BetOnline , Tampa Bay is +4500 to win its first World Series, +2200 for the AL pennant, +700 in the AL East and has an "over/under" wins total of 82, with the over a -125 favorite. Longoria is +10000 to lead the majors in homers and is given a total of 22.5. Archer is +1200 to win the AL Cy Young and has a wins total of 12.5. Odorizzi is +8000 for the Cy.
Rays 2016 Predictions
FanGraphs projects Tampa to finish 81-81 and fourth in the AL East, seven games behind Boston. ESPN's Buster Olney picks the Rays to win the division. I'm not going that far. But I will go over the wins total as well as over Archer's total and Longoria's. I can see a potential wild-card spot.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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