BALTIMORE — We know what the Rays look like this year: a team that had enough talent but too many flaws, in construction and performance, and in the next few days will be officially eliminated from a wild-card race it had a chance to win but let slip away.
So that brings us to wondering and speculating what they will look like next year, pending what looks to be an offseason stacked with interesting and impactful decisions.
Some early thoughts:
FIRST BASE: Probably the biggest unknown as both Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda are headed off via free agency for riches elsewhere. (Sub question — who gets more?) The good news is that there is a deep free-agent field, and once leading man Eric Hosmer signs (Red Sox?), there will be a number of options, like Mitch Moreland or even Yonder Alonso, to sign as a stopgap until they deem Jake Bauers worthy — based on baseball readiness and contract implication — of a callup.
SECOND BASE: Given Brad Miller's stunning dropoff, you could say the Rays made one mistake in trading Logan Forsythe and making Miller the second baseman, then another in sticking with Miller and trading Tim Beckham, who would have been a good fallback even though he didn't want to play second. Will the Rays try again and bring back Miller, who will make more than $4 million via arbitration? Hmmm. But they're not just going to dump him, so maybe a trade — attaching him to a pitcher — makes the most sense. If so, they could turn to Matt Duffy — yes, the one who spent all season trying to work his way back from injury. Or find a veteran on the cheap. Or, less likely, go with one of the kids, Daniel Robertson or top prospect Willy Adames, though he'd be better at his natural shortstop spot.
SHORTSTOP: Coaches, fellow infielders and particularly pitchers rave daily about the dazzling defense played by Adeiny Hechavarria since he was acquired in late June, and he has made some adjustments to improve his offense as well. It will cost the Rays a bit to keep him, somewhere in the $6 million range via arbitration in his final year before free agency, but they've had to see enough to realize he's worth it. Otherwise, they could go back to trying Duffy. Can't see them just turning it over to Adames.
THIRD BASE: There is no reason to think the Rays will seek to trade Evan Longoria, who is considered the face of the franchise and has five years and $86 million (plus an option year) left on his second long-term deal to prove it. Plus he will be coming off a relatively down season, certainly compared to his 2016. But if the Rays were considering it, this would be the winter as he gains de facto no-trade rights in April when he reaches 10 years with the Rays.
CATCHER: The payoff in signing Wilson Ramos was to have him fully healthy for 2018, when he'll make $10.5 million and be playing for his next contract. They should feel good about what they've seen offensively, though his movement behind the plate needs some work. Jesus Sucre was a good backup this year and should be again next year.
OUTFIELD: They seem set with centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, in the second season of his six-year, $53.5 million deal, and rightfielder Steven Souza Jr., likely to make around $3 million in his first year of arbitration. But there is a fair question in left of whether to stick with Corey Dickerson, who played good but not great and hit poorly after taking over full time, or move him, either back to DH or to another team. And then whether they turn to Mallex Smith (or Cesar Puello) or go out and get someone (as they thought they did last year with Colby Rasmus), since there are no obvious options in the minors.
STARTING ROTATION: Tell me who doesn't get traded and I'll tell you who's in the rotation. There seems to be an assumption that Jake Odorizzi will be dealt, and they'll at least listen, as usual, on Chris Archer. And don't forget, Alex Cobb is leaving as a free agent. If they keep Archer, expect him to be joined by Blake Snell, Nate Eovaldi and Matt Andriese, with Jake Faria the likely leading candidate for the No. 5 spot. Top prospect Brent Honeywell — and his impatient fans — likely will have to wait longer, maybe coincidentally past the June Super Two cutoff. If Archer goes, then they could turn to Austin Pruitt or one of the young arms, if not Honeywell then Jose De Leon or Yonny Chirinos or Ryan Yarbrough.
BULLPEN: Similar to Archer, expect to hear chatter of the Rays listening on closer Alex Colome, who could push $4 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Even if they keep Colome as their anchor, expect the usual makeover, as Steve Cishek and Tommy Hunter are leaving as free agents and Sergio Romo probably is, too. Also, lefty Dan Jennings, who will surpass $2 million, hasn't impressed, and they have to decide on Xavier Cedeno, who missed most of the season. Figure at some point to see Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek, Pruitt, Andrew Kittredge and Chaz Roe, plus prospects Diego Castillo and Jaime Schultz, and some imports.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.