Friday, February 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Expect Rays to be good again

Expect good. Expect fast. Expect talented.

Expect a little more offense. Expect a lot more defense. Expect a pitching staff deep enough to almost make you forget about James Shields.

Expect smart. Expect versatile. Expect 90 wins, again.

In the end, expect the playoffs. Why wouldn't you?

As an organization, this is where the Rays are. They have been good enough for long enough that no one seems to remember the alternative. After averaging 91.6 wins over the past five years, the question is no longer if they will be good. It is whether they will be good enough to reach the postseason or, as it is known around here, buy-a-ticket time.

Even now, even as the Rays start over when pitchers and catchers show up, we all ask the same question. Where will this lead? We all want a peek at the final chapter, just to see if the hero makes it that far. An article on the Sports Illustrated website, for instance, suggests the Rays are the second-best team in the American League. An article in the Baltimore Sun, however, suggests the Rays will battle for last.

So who is right? We'll see. First, there is stretching. And tossing. And a starting rotation trying to figure out how they will split up the 227 innings of work that Shields took with him to Kansas City.

Expect that to be a recurring theme over the next few weeks.

It is strange, but despite the success, there seems to be an undercurrent of skepticism with the Rays. After last year, when the team induced an American League record for teeth-gnashing, it's hard to do optimism. They were challenged by both the bat and the glove, and there were nights you would swear the batting order was on loan from Durham.

And so they finished third. Having the best starting pitcher in the league didn't change that. Having the best closer didn't change that. Having B.J. Upton and Wade Davis and Jeff Keppinger and Shields didn't change that.

So how can the Rays possibly match last season's 90 wins?

Well, they can be healthier. To put it bluntly, the main reason the Rays didn't reach the playoffs last year can be found in the back of Evan Longoria's leg. If he can play even 122 games, the second lowest-total of his career, the Rays can be much more dangerous.

Also, they can be more mature. Upton often lost focus, and he could be a vexing player to watch, but he's going to be harder to replace than most expect. Desmond Jennings has some work to do to measure up to Upton in centerfield.

While they are at it, they can be more efficient. For years, the Rays' defense was their most underrated strength. Last year, it slipped so far you would swear they were using Bucs cornerbacks in the infield. Newcomer Yunel Escobar should help with that. Longoria's return will be welcome, too.

Then there is newcomer Wil Myers, the crown jewel of the offseason, a prospect so highly regarded that you keep checking your watch to see if it's his time yet. The sooner Myers is ripe, the better.

If history tells us anything, however, is that the wait for Myers might be longer than you want. The Rays have always been maddening in their patience with prospects, whether that was Price or Longoria or Jennings. Who knows where Myers spends the Fourth of July.

Expect pitcher Matt Moore to be better. Expect the Rays to miss Keppinger more than they want to admit. Expect James Loney to hit better than .197 and strike out fewer than 182 times. Expect the catching to drive you crazy. Expect 160 lineups in 162 games.

Yes, there are some ifs for the Rays, as there are for all teams. Still, the Rays have done this before. In 2010 they lost Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano and Carlos Peña (the first time). Their bullpen was stripped.

And they won 91.

Here is something else. The AL East isn't the fierce beast it once was. The Yankees are old and on a budget. The Red Sox aren't rebuilt. For all the talk of how Toronto robbed the Marlins, don't forget that those players were in last place a season ago. The Orioles are very good, but they only finished three games better than the Rays last year.

So what should you expect?

Expect frustration. Expect heartache. Expect nights when the bats shrink the way they did.

That's who the Rays are, too. They are not an easy-way team.

In the end, however, expect them to be even more fun than the Hit Show.

Again.

Listen to Gary Shelton from 9 a.m. until noon on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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