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10 Rays that Tampa Bay is depending on for improvement

An improved showing by Brad Boxberger can have the single most impact on the overall success of the team than anyone else in a Rays uniform. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
An improved showing by Brad Boxberger can have the single most impact on the overall success of the team than anyone else in a Rays uniform. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Mar. 4, 2017

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Brad Boxberger of 2014-15 was a major weapon for the Rays at the back of their bullpen. The Brad Boxberger of 2016, after spring training surgery and a first-day-back June oblique strain, was pretty much a major waste.

Which one they get this year could play a major role in determining which way their season goes.

Given a lack of clear upgrades to a bullpen that was arguably the most glaring problem in their 94-loss mess of a 2016 season, an improved showing by Boxberger can have the single most impact on the overall success of the team than anyone else in a Rays uniform.

If this year's Boxberger is close to the one who emerged with a record strikeout rate in 2014, or the one who led the American League with 41 saves in 2015 (albeit with 10 losses, six walkoff), the Rays would have a dominant complement to, and occasional replacement for, Alex Colome, who had a breakout season of his own last year, with the first 37 saves of his pro career.

How big could that be?

"Massive," manager Kevin Cash said Friday. "Not to put added pressure on Box — he had a lost year, not by his doing just injuries — but you look around the league, you see a lot of kind of those two-headed-monster bullpens, and Box and Colome at the back end would be huge for us. We need to get him to where he is comfortable and pitching in those big innings like we saw him in '15."

Having dropped about 20 pounds, Boxberger has looked sharp in sideline sessions, though he is being held of games — to limit his workload, Cash said — until next week.

Here are nine others who can help the Rays get better this season by being better:

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Corey Dickerson (10) in the cage for live batting practice during a Spring Training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 20, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Corey Dickerson (10) in the cage for live batting practice during a Spring Training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 20, 2017.

2. OF/DH Corey Dickerson: Done adjusting to AL East pitching, sea-level, the Trop, DH duty, etc., Dickerson needs to boost his on-base percentage (from .293), give away fewer at-bats and maximize his production, as one of only nine players to hit 24-plus homers and not exceed 70 RBIs. Slimmer but still strong after dropping 25 pounds, Dickerson would do well to pick up where he left off in a sizzling September. A reasonable goal is a .250-plus average, 30 homers, 100 RBIs.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Steven Souza Jr. (20) holds his 11 week old son, Micah, before the start of the game between the Philadelphia Phillies the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, March 1, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Steven Souza Jr. (20) holds his 11 week old son, Micah, before the start of the game between the Philadelphia Phillies the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, March 1, 2017.

3. OF Steven Souza Jr.: Consistency is the biggest, well, inconsistency, as Souza can look for a week like the multitalented impact player the Rays thought they were getting, then disappear for three weeks. Has to cut down on staggering strikeout totals (once every 2.94 plate appearances, 159 in 120 games), and stay healthy and thus on the field.

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WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

From left, Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Chase Whitley (47), starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi (23) and starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) warm up for the first full-squad Spring Training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

From left, Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Chase Whitley (47), starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi (23) and starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) warm up for the first full-squad Spring Training workout at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017.

4. RHP Alex Cobb: The numbers for his five-start September return from Tommy John were ugly — 1-2, 8.59, 1.773 WHIP (walks/hits per inning) — but irrelevant. Cobb comes into this season healthy, rested and convinced he is thisclose to refining the delivery and mechanics that allowed him over 2013-14 to go 21-12, 2.82, 1.143 WHIP. With free-agency looming and a midseason trade likely, a fast start will help the Rays win more now and/or get more for him later.

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer (22) walks to the dugout after the top of the first inning of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer (22) walks to the dugout after the top of the first inning of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

5. RHP Chris Archer: Some of the peripheral numbers weren't that different in last year's disappointing 9-19, 4.02 season than his 12-13, 3.23 All-Star performance the year before. But there is a lot he can be a lot better at, such as how he started the season (4.66 first-half ERA), began games (6.82 first-inning ERA), pitched vs. Boston (0-5, 5.86), etc.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Curt Casali (19) gets hugged in the dugout after his two run home run in the second inning of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Minnesota Twins at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Minnesota Twins 19-0.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Curt Casali (19) gets hugged in the dugout after his two run home run in the second inning of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Minnesota Twins at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The Tampa Bay Rays beat the Minnesota Twins 19-0.

6. C Curt Casali: Needs to adjust physically (more contact, fewer strikeouts) and mentally after offensive struggles (.186 average, .609 OPS) cost him the starting job last year. Regaining confidence at the plate, learning to separate and, per Cash, "managing himself" all would help. There is opportunity with free-agent signee Wilson Ramos (knee surgery) not expected back behind the plate until July at best.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer (22) talks with catcher Jesus Sucre after the top of the first inning of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer (22) talks with catcher Jesus Sucre after the top of the first inning of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.

6A. C Jesus Sucre: Acquired last month from Seattle, Sucre has a similar opportunity and challenge in showing more consistency offensively (career big-league .209 average, .522 OPS). A winter-ball change in mechanics suggested by Rays Triple-A hitting coach Ozzie Timmons could be a big help. His arm and pitch-receiving skills have already drawn raves.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) talks with reporters about the new rule changes agreed upon by MLB and the player's union before the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. on Wednesday, March 2, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) talks with reporters about the new rule changes agreed upon by MLB and the player's union before the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. on Wednesday, March 2, 2017.

8. Manager Kevin Cash: Entering his third season, Cash needs to do a better job handling the bullpen (in-game and overall usage), the running game (for and against) and the occasional "situations" that arise with players during the season.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) talks with a member of the coaching staff in the batting cage after wet weather cancelled on-field work at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) talks with a member of the coaching staff in the batting cage after wet weather cancelled on-field work at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

9. CF Kevin Kiermaier: With gold-standard defense, offense is the focus. Carrying over his late-season improvement in walk-rate, average, on-base percentage and willingness to play "small ball" to take advantage of his speed — coinciding with his move to second in the order — would all help.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey (48) makes a call to the bullpen during the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. on Wednesday, March 2, 2017. The Boston Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays 19-2.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey (48) makes a call to the bullpen during the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. on Wednesday, March 2, 2017. The Boston Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays 19-2.

10. Pitching coach Jim Hickey: Not that Hickey has to "coach" more or better coming off last season's 4.20 team ERA that was highest since 2009, but the Rays could use some of his old magic in rejuvenating a veteran reliever, as he did with Kyle Farnsworth, Fernando Rodney, Joaquin Benoit, etc. David Carpenter, Tommy Hunter, Shawn Tolleson are all in the waiting room.

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

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