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Rays' future as depressing as Rays' present

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 9: Manager Joe Maddon #70 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on from the dugout during the top of the seventh inning of a game against the Cleveland Indians on May 9, 2014 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) 477582995
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 9: Manager Joe Maddon #70 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on from the dugout during the top of the seventh inning of a game against the Cleveland Indians on May 9, 2014 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) 477582995
Published Sep. 17, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

And so the saddest summer of them all has come to this: In their own park, the Rays have been turned into extras.

They sit on the fringes of the moment, out of the spotlight, applauding another team's star. Tuesday night, it was Yankees legend Derek Jeter who absorbed all of the night's energy, but in some ways, this is where the Rays have been for all of 2014, well out of the picture, far from the things that matter.

It has been a dark season, a quiet season, a thousand miles from the games that count. The Rays were a team of underachievers, a team that entered next year in June. They were not relevant. They were not interesting. They did not matter.

And now, if you glance into the future, you may be depressed to discover this:

They may not matter next year, either.

More than anything else, this may be the harshest thing you might consider about this do-nothing season. Egad, it just may continue.

Even if you have a reasonable amount of hope, how do you see things getting significantly better? With a bigger payroll? That won't happen. With a prime free agent or two? They aren't coming. With a phenom from the minor leagues? Where? With a bounceback season? By who?

Put it this way: If you had to pick a finish for these Rays next year, what would it be? Third? Fourth? Fifth? What else is reasonable?

The infield will be the same, roughly. The outfield will be the same, roughly. The catching will be the same, roughly. The lack of speed will be the same. The lack of power will be the same.

So where does this team get better? And how? And do you really see them contending?

"Absolutely," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "We contended in the second half. That 1-14 stretch (from May 26 to June 10) absolutely messed us up.

"We not only shot ourselves in the foot, we hit ourselves in the thigh, in the bicep, maybe in our neck. We shot ourselves all over the place to put our team in the hole. We just made it impossible. Nothing wanted to work. We were the gang that couldn't shoot straight for a while."

As you know, Maddon is the eternal optimist. He lives under blue skies, and the glass is always 48 percent full. You even had to wrest this dead season from his fingers.

To the rest of us, however, the season to come doesn't look as if it will include confetti, either. The Red Sox? Oh, they'll buy some more stars. The Yankees? Who's available? But the Rays have already talked about cutting expenses for next year. It's a lot to ask that a team get better and get cheaper at the same time.

How do you see the Rays getting better? In short, you have to hope the pitching (second in the American League in ERA) repeats itself. You have to hope that Wil Myers is the player he looked like as a rookie instead of this year. You have to hope Evan Longoria's power numbers improve. You have to hope that a lot of .260 hitters turn into .270 hitters. You have to hope a lot of bad seasons turn into good ones.

Yeah, it's a difficult trick to pull off. This Rays team is 25th in the league in runs per game, 19th in batting average and 24th in slugging percentage.

"I just want to believe it'll be more offensive," Maddon said. "Whether it's with the guys who are here or potential acquisitions. Having a full season out of Wil Myers should help a lot. Longo getting off to a more consistent start should help a lot, even though he's playing well right now. Desmond Jennings, we're missing him for a large part of this moment, too."

Still, will any of that alter the standings significantly? Oh, the pitching could be good. No question about that. But David Price, traded six weeks ago, still leads this team in wins. Between Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, the team has to develop a true ace. In the bullpen, both Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger have to be as good as they have been this year.

"I would take exactly what the starting pitching has done all over again," Maddon said. "I think the bullpen can be as good. I think Boxy can be even better. Jake? He's a metronome, man. And look for Grant Balfour to rebound. He's throwing the ball a lot better now."

Maddon sees through the haze. Of course he does. Next year, he sees someone catching fumbled grounders, and someone else getting a hit with a man on base, and blown leads turn into saves.

Next year, he sees the team winning the games that got away. Of course he does.

And if not next year, well, maybe the year after.