ST. PETERSBURG — Now what?
The major-league trade deadline has come and gone. Once again, the Rays were sellers and not buyers. All that's left of this season is … what, exactly?
Another two months and another disappointing finish. Thanks for coming and drive safely.
"We expected to be competitive this past year, and we haven't been," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said. "We have talented players, but we haven't played well and we haven't won."
Yep, that about sums it up.
The pitching has been lousy. The offense has been hit and miss, although not nearly enough hit and way too much miss. The defense has been leaky. There have been the usual assortment of injuries, proving once again that the budget-crunching Rays can't afford even one little thing to go wrong. When a bunch of things go wrong, you get a 90-some-loss season.
Next season can't get here fast enough, right?
Well, not exactly.
"There is a lot of confidence with our organization and within our clubhouse that this is a group that we can win with," Silverman said, "and we're going to use these next couple of months to make sure that we're as prepared as we can be for 2017."
So that's the plan, to use what's left of 2016 to get started on 2017.
Yikes, where do they start?
Can new guy Matt Duffy play shortstop every day? Can good bat/bad fielder Brad Miller find a position to play? Can bad bat/good fielder Kevin Kiermaier find a spot in the batting order where he can be useful? Can Desmond Jennings find his career? Can Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. get theirs going?
That's just the start.
"There's no secret, we're going to try to win as many games as possible here these last two months, but we do have an opportunity to find some things out about individual players and our overall club," manager Kevin Cash said. "I think that with the direction that we're going, we're very confident and optimistic. (Even though) we hit a roadblock this year … we're not far at all from being a very good team again, and we're seeing that with the way we're pitching lately."
A-ha. There we have it. That's the key. Starting pitching.
None of that other stuff matters.
It doesn't matter if Duffy can play short. It doesn't matter if Miller can't catch a cold at whatever position they play him. It doesn't matter if Souza and Jennings never hit. It doesn't matter if the Rays never find a solution for the black hole otherwise known as "catcher."
If the Rays don't pitch better than they did this season, they don't have a chance.
They need Alex Cobb to come back from Tommy John surgery and be Alex Cobb again — the bulldog Alex Cobb, the top-of-the-rotation Alex Cobb.
They need Chris Archer to pitch better than he talks. They need Blake Snell to continue on his upward trend. They need Drew Smyly or Jake Odorizzi or Matt Andriese or Erasmo Ramirez to win a few more games than they lose.
That's it. That's all there is to it.
Sure, they need to hit, and the bullpen could use some tinkering and the defense has to be better.
But bad starting pitching is what led to a bad 2016, and good starting pitching is what would lead to a good 2017.
Then again, they just had a good pitcher in Matt Moore and had to trade him, just like the Rays have done with David Price and James Shields and Matt Garza, leaving fans frustrated.
"It is frustrating and it's understandable," Silverman said. "Our job is to put a winning product on the field and acquire players that fans can root for. It is bittersweet, but at the same time, without trades like this, Chris Archer is not on our club, Jake Odorizzi is not in our rotation, Matt Andriese is someone we don't have. Those are all guys we acquired by trade."
The fans aren't the only ones left frustrated when three big-league players are shipped out and only one current major-leaguer comes back. The rest of the returns are minor-league kids who may never play in a double-decker stadium.
"There was a lot of loss," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's one of those things. … It's tough when you bring young players in from other organizations. We hope they have what they say they have, and we hope in the near future we can get some contributions from them at the big-league level. But when you're in here and you see three guys like those three guys leave, sometimes it's tough to stomach.
Maybe if the Rays had played better, they wouldn't have been sellers on Monday.
"It is what it is," Longoria said. "We have the guys we have in here now."
Will those guys be good enough to win in 2017?
That's what 2016, at least what's left of it, will tell us.