ST. PETERSBURG — Probably the most telling thing the Rays learned from the season was how disappointing it was to watch a playoff berth slip away in the second half, then have to watch the Twins and Yankees, teams they feel they can compete with, play Tuesday in the American League wild-card game.
"We had opportunities until fairly late in the year, and that's all you can ask for," veteran third baseman Evan Longoria said after Sunday's 6-0 win over the Orioles. "You obviously have to put some of the blame on yourself when it comes to performance and just not going out and winning games.
"Love to be in that (playoff) situation and have that opportunity. The disappointment is there that we didn't capitalize. … I felt like we had a pretty good group. We were just unsuccessful, and couldn't put together the runs when we needed to."
And there was plenty we learned about the Rays as they logged a fourth straight losing season at 80-82.
Such as …
• Home runs might be fun, but …
The Rays hit more homers this season than ever before, their 228 ranking sixth most in the AL (and the majors). But that didn't add up to much as they finished 14th in the league in runs, their 694 just one ahead of the Blue Jays.
One problem is 149 of those homers came with no one on base. Another is they didn't do much else to score runs, as 48 percent of their total came on round trippers. Related, they struck out an AL record 1,538 times. That's way too much all or nothing. (Of note: The AL East champion Red Sox hit the fewest homers in the league.)
What they need to mix in are some rally-makers, some hitters who make more contact, who find ways to get on base, who deliver a key single to extend an inning or cash in another run.
"I think we've learned throughout the course of the year, the home runs are great, but the balance and the complement of having those on-base guys, or home run hitters making more of a focal point of getting on base, would be more beneficial moving forward," manager Kevin Cash said.
• Having a better bullpen makes for a better team.
Think of how many games got away early in the season, when the Rays were turning to the likes of Jumbo Diaz and Danny Farquhar (in fairness, given injuries to Brad Boxberger and Xavier Cedeno) to try to get to closer Alex Colome.
And think of how much better they were in the second half with the deadline-deal additions of Steve Cishek, Dan Jennings and Sergio Romo, as well as the improvement by Tommy Hunter.
Through July 31, relievers were 19-25, had a 4.41 ERA and converted 35 of 54 saves.
From Aug. 1 on, they were 9-6, posted a 2.75 ERA and converted 18 of 21 saves.
That might mean devoting more money to add experienced relievers at the start of the season, but they can't wait until deep into the season again to make moves.
Also learned: That a good mix helps, and it's not all about high fastballs at high velocity. Adding Cishek, a sidearmer who gets ground balls to get out of innings, was a huge benefit. Having two different-style lefties in Jose Alvarado and Dan Jennings was also a boost. A variety of looks can be a big plus.
• Run prevention remains important.
As the Rays have tried to keep up with the offensive upswing around the league, they have sacrificed defense at some positions, getting away from the philosophy that served them so well. Consider that in their four playoff seasons, they had run differentials of +103, +153, +93 and +54. In the four seasons since, they have been -13, +2, -41 and this year -10. Also, they allowed 66 unearned runs, third most in the AL.
• The starting pitching has to be better.
Though Rays starters finished in the top five of the AL with a 4.08 ERA, there wasn't the dominance expected of their reputation. A part of the overall losing record for the team was the 52-51 mark by the starters, and Alex Cobb leading the way with 12 W's. Don't like pitcher wins? Well, consider that in the 91 games worked by their top three starters, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Cobb, the Rays were only 46-45.
• At some point you have to get hot.
The Rays kept waiting to get on a big winning streak, but they never put together more than four wins in a row.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.