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Analysis: Rays need to get radical before season slips away

From left, Rays outfielders Corey Dickerson, Mikie Mahtook and Steven Souza Jr. celebrate after Saturday’s victory over the Twins. Tampa Bay remains mired in last place in the American League East at 24-30.
From left, Rays outfielders Corey Dickerson, Mikie Mahtook and Steven Souza Jr. celebrate after Saturday’s victory over the Twins. Tampa Bay remains mired in last place in the American League East at 24-30.
Published Jun. 5, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS — The music was up and the laughter loud again in the Rays clubhouse after Saturday's 7-4 rain-interrupted victory further distanced their horrid stretch of losing five straight and 11 of 13.

But two wins over the even-more-woeful Twins shouldn't obscure the flaws and issues that have put the Rays in this position one-third through their schedule, 24-30 and last in the American League East, eight games back of the first-place Red Sox.

Here are five things they could do to fix the team before this season slips away:

Move on from Desmond Jennings

After (once again) being projected as a key part of the lineup, Jennings has (once again) disappointed.

But this is about more than poor performance and a supposed impact player being reduced — even with starting centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier out — to a defensive replacement and pinch-runner.

Jennings' disinterested and lackadaisical play has become glaring and has to be addressed, with the negative energy extending to the clubhouse.

After tendering him a contract that pays him $3.3 million, and after not dumping him in the spring, the team has to do something. If not cut him loose (given the investment and another year of control), then at least take advantage of his remaining option and deliver the wakeup call of a demotion to Triple A.

Bring up left-hander Blake Snell

Inconsistency from the starters has been an ongoing issue, and the primary reason they are where they are. Consider that the core four members of the rotation, touted as one of the baseball's best, are 9-20 with a 4.56 ERA.

Snell, 23, showed in an April cameo he is ready, and he would add a dynamic dimension. As the Rays slide safely past the Super 2 arbitration "deadline" this week (meaning no risk of him gaining enough service time for an extra year of arb eligibility), there is no reason to keep Snell biding his time at Triple-A Durham, where he is 2-4, 3.51.

The question will be how to make room. One option would be to shift right-hander Matt Andriese to the bullpen, which is again shorthanded after Brad Boxberger's aborted return. Another is to bump (or send down) left-hander Matt Moore, though that would make it tougher if the team wants to trade him rather than pick between a $7 million option or $2.5 million buyout.

Get a frontline catcher

In what has been an ongoing problem since the glory days of Toby Hall and Dioner Navarro's 2008 All-Star half-season, the Rays have a problem behind the plate.

Curt Casali might continue to develop, but he is not there yet, and he is 27. Hank Conger's deficiencies, throwing and hitting, have been obvious. And the Rays don't have any good choices in their system, with neither J.P. Arencibia nor Luke Maile playing particularly well at Durham and nothing below.

Instead, they need to go outside. The Brewers will demand a hefty haul for Jonathan Lucroy, but why not trade a top prospect or two — given how few seem to pan out anyway — to help the big-league team for this year and next?

If that tab is truly too high, look elsewhere. To various degrees, they could do better with Derek Norris (Padres), old buddy Stephen Vogt (A's), ageless A.J. Pierzynski (Braves), maybe even Carlos Ruiz (Phillies). Or there's this guy with the Mets, Rene Rivera.

Get back to being defensive

The Rays knew there would be some dropoff in defense as they made somewhat of a philosophical shift to add offense this season.

Ground zero seems to be at shortstop.

Brad Miller, in a way, has been exactly as expected. After a slow start, he has turned out to be a good offensive player, with 19 extra-base hits, and a not-so-good defensive player.

On Saturday he made his eighth error, second most among AL mates, while ranking last with minus-9 defensive runs saved and second worst in several zone-based metrics.

Taking his bat out of the lineup definitely would hurt, but putting in a better glove might really help. Maybe that's Taylor Motter from the current group. Or, to get really radical, one of their sure-handed prospects, 22-year-old Daniel Robertson (hitting .262 at Durham) or 20-year-old Willy Adames (.283 at Double-A Montgomery).

Get on the same page

In the past two weeks, Casali has said the starters need to have more of a "bulldog mentality"; right-hander Chris Archer, that they need to play with passion and heart and gut instinct; third baseman Evan Longoria, that they were making too many mental mistakes; TV analyst Brian Anderson, that there was a glaring lack of leadership, to which players disagreed; and Moore, that the starters have "more in the tank" and can go deeper in games.

Manager Kevin Cash has talked to the group and individuals. Maybe it's time for the players to take more accountability, for Archer or Longoria or another of their leaders to have them sit face to face, say what they need to say, then move forward together, playing as a team. Kind of like the Royals do so well.

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

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