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Are Rays sacrificing defense for offense?

The Rays have attempted to bolster their offense with additions such as Corey Dickerson, pictured, while jettisoning defensive-minded players such as James Loney and Rene Rivera. Manager Kevin Cash says the idea is to be more balanced, a change that ace Chris Archer is happy about.
Published Apr. 1, 2016

PORT CHARLOTTE — In bringing in and keeping Hank Conger, Corey Dickerson, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce, the Rays made a concerted effort to improve their offense.

But did they also make a significant change in philosophy?

The key to any success the Rays have had, specifically in their run of making the playoffs four times in six years, has been based on dominant pitching and dazzling defense.

But the net result of adding those bats was trading two key pitchers, high-end reliever Jake McGee and Nathan Karns from their starting depth, then this week ditching two slick fielders, catcher Rene Rivera and first baseman James Loney.

Baseball operations president Matt Silverman said there was no change in thinking, no plan to "stray" from their pitching/defense/run prevention mantra, just "adjustments" to take advantage of opportunities. In other words, they feel the new players are good enough defenders and more productive hitters, so there is a net gain.

Specifically that Miller, after a shaky start, has looked good at short, that Morrison and Pearce are smoother than you might think at first, and that Conger is a Molina-esque — which is to say top-notch — pitch-framer and smart game-caller. (Dickerson will be used primarily as a DH, but he has looked fine in the outfield.)

But to All-Star ace Chris Archer, it seems there was at least a shift in philosophy.

And it was welcomed.

"The Rays franchise has been extremely successful since 2008 … but we haven't accomplished the overall goal. We haven't won a World Series. How do we do that? We have to change something slightly," Archer said.

"I think Matt Silverman and his gang, (assistants) Chaim (Bloom), Erik (Neander), James Click, all of them, they're really saying, 'Okay, we're tired of being a 90-win team. We're tired of that being our goal.' And it looks like, it's give and take. …

"You have to have balance. You have to have balance. We learned for the last eight years that just being pitching heavy is probably not the way to do it. You've got to have defense. You've got to have pitching — the teams that win get high-level pitching, starting and relief. But you've got to have offense, too."

Manager Kevin Cash said the idea was to be more balanced, not shift from what worked:

"I don't think we think that at all actually. We've still got to catch the ball when the games start, so we'll see. But going into it, we feel very confident.

"We know that James Loney was a very good defender and does a really nice job of maybe cleaning up some errant throws in the infield. Rene Rivera definitely controls the running game maybe as good as any catcher in baseball.

"But we've got to balance not just those things but also the fit on the club. That's the approach we took."

Elsewhere in the clubhouse, there was some sense of loss, particularly with Loney, whose deft handiwork saved many a run.

"On the defensive aspect, the guys we have in place for this year, I don't think it's going to suffer too much," second baseman Logan Forsythe said. "These guys have been busting their tails all spring. … It's known that we take pride in our defense and our pitching. And with the offense, I think we're just trying to bring it all together."

That's not automatic either, as all of the hitters the Rays have brought in come with something of a "yeah, but" as each is either coming off an injury, or a down year, or a lost job.

But for the Rays, who without Loney (whom they will pay $8 million if released) and injured Alex Cobb ($4 million) and Brad Boxberger ($519,200), will be playing with about a $52 million team on the field, that's the best they can do. Their acquisitions usually come with asterisks.

Third baseman Evan Longoria said he likes the new mix, that they're in "a really, really good spot overall." He noted a different philosophical shift, that once the Rays decided they were better off with Morrison and Pearce at first, they were willing to eat potentially all of Loney's money rather than keeping him just because they had to pay him.

"From that respect," he said, "it's made me very excited that we're kind of out of the gate giving ourselves the best chance to have success."

Now it's just a matter of seeing if they catch on.

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

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