Rays' outlook adds up to middle of pack

Published April 2, 2016

tom jones' two cents

Call it what you want: analytics, sabermetrics, empirical analysis. It has become the cool backbone for predicting success in major-league baseball. But, ultimately, this isn't complicated stuff. In the end, you don't need an advanced degree from Harvard to know that there are three kinds of baseball teams. Really good ones. Really bad ones. And the rest that fall somewhere in between. • The 2016 Rays look to be one of those in-between teams. Not great. Not bad. Could go either way. But here's the problem when you're in baseball purgatory. A lot of things have to go right to be a really good team. And if anything goes wrong, being bad — or, at least mediocre — is likely. • So let's break it down and try to figure out what the Rays have in 2016.

What needs to go right

To win the East Division, or even make the playoffs in the competitive American League, almost everything needs to go right.

Let's start with health. Injuries crippled the pitching staff last season and took big chunks of the seasons from Desmond Jennings and Steven Souza Jr. This team won 80 games. Imagine how many it might have won if it hadn't filled the disabled list.

The key, as always with this team, is starting pitching. Ace Chris Archer is among the game's elite. Drew Smyly, when healthy, has been better than advertised since arriving two seasons ago from the Tigers in the David Price trade. Matt Moore looks fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and could be the best he has been since his 17-win season in 2013. Jake Odorizzi is a solid, dependable bulldog. The Rays will cobble together a fifth starter until Alex Cobb, once thought to be the best on the staff, returns later this summer. Plus, prospect Blake Snell is on the verge of being here.

There's no reason to believe this won't continue to be the strength of the team and one of the best rotations in baseball.

The bullpen remains a worry. Alex Colome needs to become an overnight closer until Brad Boxberger is back. Boxberger led the league in saves last season. But the Rays need him to look like he did in the first half, as opposed to the shaky closer he was in the second.

The biggest key, however, will be offense. The club needs new additions Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce, Brad Miller and Logan Morrison to add pop to a lineup that was next-to-last in the AL in runs last season. They need Evan Longoria to stop his career slide and improve on his power numbers (21 homers, 73 RBIs) from a season ago. They need Souza to cut down on his team-leading 144 strikeouts, while hitting better than .225 with 16 homers. He has tremendous power but needs to be consistent with it.

Speaking of defense, a key will be Miller at short. He must be better than he has been in the past.

So, if you're looking for a bow on this thing, the Rays need the starting pitching to be as great as always, the bullpen to be reliable, the offense to perk up and the defense to catch everything.

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What could go wrong

Let's start with the rotation. Chris Archer might be brilliant again and still finish 12-13 like he did last season. And he could still be the best of the bunch, even if everyone remains healthy.

The bullpen could be a mess with the loss of Jake McGee. The Rays already were searching for a reliable setup man, and that was before they lost Brad Boxberger for the first six weeks or so. We weren't even sure Alex Colome was ready for the eighth inning, and now he's supposed to be the ninth-inning closer?

Maybe Corey Dickerson won't hit outside of the mile-high air of Coors Field. Maybe Steve Pearce, who has played as many as 102 games in a season only once in nine years, can't stay off the DL. Maybe Logan Morrison is a 17-homer guy like last season and nothing more.

Brad Miller could be a wreck at shortstop. History suggests you just can't count on him there. His 14 errors were sixth most among AL shortstops, yet he played only 89 games there. This spring has only raised concerns about his defense.

Maybe Evan Longoria's power numbers will continue to dip. Maybe Steven Souza Jr. will never be able to hit a breaking pitch. Maybe Logan Forsythe, who had a terrific 2015 when he was Tampa Bay's most productive hitter, will turn out to be a one-season wonder. And would anybody be surprised if catching, the bane of the Rays' existence, remains a headache?

What will happen

Don't worry about the starting pitching. It's too good and too deep. Even an ill-timed injury (well, except to Chris Archer) wouldn't kill this staff, especially with 11-game winner Erasmo Ramirez ready to step back into the rotation. Do, however, worry about a bullpen that is now missing Brad Boxberger (for more than a month) and Jake McGee. Even with Boxberger, this was the team's biggest concern going into the spring, and the spring did nothing to calm the anxiety.

The offense should be better, but how much better? Brad Miller and, especially, Corey Dickerson look like hitters. But the problem is you can't rely on anyone else hitting for sure. Don't expect improved numbers from Evan Longoria or Steven Souza Jr. Don't expect Kevin Kiermaier to suddenly hit lefties. Don't expect Desmond Jennings to be more than the .249 career hitter he always has been. Logan Forsythe will be fine, and you might even see 10-15 homers out of C Curt Casali.

But this team still won't hit enough to overcome a shaky bullpen and defensive problems at shortstop.

In the end, the fancy analytical and sabermetric numbers can be crunched and studied, but the final number of victories is rather simple, if not spectacular.

78. That's how many games the Rays will win, good for a fourth-place finish.