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How steep is Rays' challenge to improve? Opinions vary

Rays starter Chris Archer, left, and manager Kevin Cash agree that improvement is needed.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Rays starter Chris Archer, left, and manager Kevin Cash agree that improvement is needed.

ARLINGTON, Texas — As this woeful season finally comes to an end today, with 94 and counting losses, Rays officials seem resolute in two not necessarily popular, and certainly not unanimous, opinions:

One, that as they look at the talent around their clubhouse, and compare it to the other last-place teams, they are truly not as bad as they played.

And two, that the necessary 20- to 25-game improvement to return to contender status next season is not that far away.

"I'm irritated as hell with what we're representing right now," manager Kevin Cash said. "But we're all very encouraged where we could be coming into next season."

That encouragement is requisite this time of year, but is it realistic?

"We're not close," veteran third baseman Evan Longoria said. "You know what I mean? If we were close, we would be closer to the top of the standings."

It seems fair for the Rays to think their talented rotation, even deeper and stronger with the return of Alex Cobb, won't collectively underperform for half a season again, which was their biggest downfall. And they have reason to feel good about having Alex Colome at the back end of their bullpen with a healthy Brad Boxberger as his second.

More assumptive is their confidence that they can turn the enhanced power of their lineup into increased run productivity. And that (presumably healthy) shortstop Matt Duffy will significantly improve their uncharacteristically sloppy defense, which also needs centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier to stay healthy, given how his 48-game injury absence led directly to the 3-24 skid that sunk their season.

As a result, they head into the offseason believing they don't need a major overhaul but just a handful of additions — a couple of bullpen arms, catching help and either a leftfielder or first baseman — along with improvements by several of their own players.

"All teams enter the offseason with a wish list, and we certainly have ours," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "But to win next year we will need some bounce-back seasons and some help from our system, too."

Is that enough?

Fans, media observers, evaluators in other organizations and even some of their own folks see a team in a third straight sub-.500 season; a flawed roster with no prized prospects set to make an impact; and the perennial self-imposed, attendance-driven payroll constraints, and they question if they can better enough,

"It feels like we're close," Longoria said. "But then you think about it and we're probably a little further away from being as deep and as talented as we need to be to ultimately go all the way.''

Starter Chris Archer agrees: "I think if we pitch a lot better, it'll give us a chance, but there are also some areas of need we need to address outside of this organization."

While always philosophically open to discussing big deals, the Rays' initial offseason agenda looks to be fairly focused: one or two proven bullpen additions (plus some inside help), a veteran but likely not frontline catcher, and one key defensively adroit position player to man either first base or leftfield (and ideally able to back up in center), with Corey Dickerson or Brad Miller then becoming the primary DH.

Given the, at best, mixed results of the past two offseasons since Silverman replaced Andrew Friedman as the head of baseball operations, there is certainly pressure to get these moves right, and perhaps to adjust the projection-based process that goes into the decisions, as Archer and Longoria have suggested.

Whether the Rays will tap into their seven-deep stable of starters to make a trade, swapping Archer or Jake Odorizzi (who might be a hot winter commodity) in a big deal, or Drew Smyly for something lesser, will be a primary topic of offseason speculation. Erasmo Ramirez is among others who could be dealt.

Just as important will be to get better from within, needing to see improvements from several returning players, led by rightfielder Steven Souza Jr., in performance and consistency.

The onus for that improvement falls on Cash and the staff, in instruction and lineup construction, and the front office to get players who know the nuances

"I think from a talent perspective we've got some good pieces, we just have some guys that I think need to make some improvements, whether it be playing the game the right way, not making so many mistakes, being consistent," Longoria said.

Adding to Silverman's task is the constraint of payroll. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has said it won't go up — this year's starting point was about $68 million — even with built-in raises and up to a dozen players eligible for pay-hiking arbitration, including Odorizzi, Miller, Dickerson and, pending the Super 2 service time cutoff, possibly Kiermaier.

"The challenge becomes steeper each year, especially as payroll gaps widen," Silverman said. "And it's that challenge which fuels our team and organization. The losing stings. It burns. It sticks with us all offseason, and it motivates us to work even harder to get back to our winning ways."

The key question? How far do they have to go.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com.

How steep is Rays' challenge to improve? Opinions vary 10/01/16 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2016 11:04pm]
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