ST. PETERSBURG — Looking appropriately pained in autopsying the miserable 94-loss season they presided over, the Rays' top two baseball men insisted Tuesday they were confident in and committed to significant improvement next season.
"We're motivated," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said.
"We're hellbent on getting this team back into contention."
To do so, to make the massive leap of improving by the 20-25 wins necessary to compete for a playoff spot, there is a lot that has to change.
But listening to Silverman and manager Kevin Cash talk for 30 minutes, they don't seem to be planning an overreactive overhaul as much as a series of supplementary moves, starting in the bullpen, to add to a base group they truly believe is good enough.
"It's tough to sit here and tell you guys that we feel good about things with a lot of our core players," Cash said. "But we honestly do."
In broad terms, they are banking on improving their pivotal run differential — a brutal minus-41 — by making their power-enhanced offense more productive while improving their defense and returning to elite-level pitching.
Also, by making fewer mistakes, from the front office to Cash and coaches to the players, all of whom were to blame for this year's mess.
"We have to play better baseball," Silverman said. "For us to win, we have to fire on all cylinders. That means in the front office, we have to make good personnel decisions, that means Kevin and the coaches have to manage the games properly, the players have to execute.
"We have to be clean. We have to do things better than we have done. We've worn this this year. We've seen a lot of the bad this year. It also helps us to identify that and be able to learn from it."
In other words, there is a lot that has to change.
It's obvious by how often they mentioned shortstop Matt Duffy how much they are counting on him to tighten up their defense, along with having centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier stay healthy. But that might be a tad more comforting if Duffy weren't coming off left foot surgery and had previously shown he could play short regularly in the majors, having been moved to third by the Giants in 2015.
With better defense, for which upgrades over Corey Dickerson in left or Brad Miller at first will also be explored, they believe their starting pitching will return to an elite level, confident that the improved second halves by Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and, at times, Drew Smyly, showed the anomalistic nature of the poor first.
There is something to that. In talking about Kiermaier's absence, Silverman said aloud Tuesday what others had whispered during the first half about the catchers and Miller at shortstop as well: that the weakened defense had stripped the starters of confidence and impacted their performance.
"They had to be a little more fine, they had to do more on their own as opposed to trusting the rest of the team," Silverman said. "There was a domino effect to that."
Offsetting any improvement, though, is the potential of trading from their seven-deep stash of starters, especially with a weak free-agent class driving the market — and Silverman acknowledged they have already gotten calls from other teams. Trading Archer or Odorizzi for anything less than big-league impact players won't help in the short term.
While they plan to improve the bullpen — though not all externally, which could mean counting again on unproven relievers — Silverman didn't sound as sure about bolstering the catching corps, saying they "will be looking under every rock" but noting how many other teams are in need and that they want room to "nurture" their in-house options.
Related, they need better depth overall, with the injury to Kiermaier again illustrative, as well as the extended absence of reliever Brad Boxberger. The return of free agent infielder Steve Pearce, currently recovering from elbow surgery, is one promising possibility.
And they seem to riskily be playing it both ways with the offense. They're counting on a repeat of the power show (which included career highs from several players) but, also, on being more productive — having ranked fourth in the league with a team-record 216 homers but only 14th with 672 runs and, not coincidentally, first with 1,482 strikeouts — in part just based on a natural evening out of hitting more homers with men on than solo (136) and by making fewer outs on the bases, which will be a spring focus.
Beyond the talent issues, there is the question of whether they have enough players who know how to win. A majors-worst 13-27 record in one-run games, including 3-15 on the road, would seem like a sign they don't.
Silverman said there was some encouragement in being close often, but acknowledged overall, "We have to make better player personnel decisions. We haven't brought in the type of players, or we haven't brought in the players who have been able to add those wins to this club and get us back to our winning ways."
As Silverman talked about how the losing "gnaws" at them, he insisted they can get past it.
With principal owner Stuart Sternberg saying the $68 million payroll won't increase and with up to a dozen players eligible for arbitration plus built-in raises for others, and with three AL East teams making the playoffs illustrative of the rugged competition, the challenge to snap the streak of losing seasons at three, much less returning to contention, will be steep.
No matter how hellbent they are.
• Silverman said they are confident Duffy and rightfielder Steven Souza Jr. (left hip surgery) will be ready for spring training, which opens Feb. 12.
• At least three players may participate in the World Baseball Classic, Archer (U.S.), closer Alex Colome (Dominican Republic) and reliever Danny Farquhar (Venezuela, where his mother was born).
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.