1. Rays

Rays have some reasons for optimism for 2016

Mikie Mahtook, high-fiving Brandon Guyer after a homer, is one of several rookies who got a long look this season.
Mikie Mahtook, high-fiving Brandon Guyer after a homer, is one of several rookies who got a long look this season.
Published Oct. 5, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Sunday's 12-3 bashing of the Blue Jays allowed the Rays to finish with consolation prizes of reaching 80 wins and avoiding last place in the American League East.

The bigger goal, of course, is getting to the playoffs. Thus, the larger question is how much they have to improve to get there.

"We do not think we're far at all," manager Kevin Cash said.

Amid the disappointment of a losing record in their first season under new management, the Rays have several legitimate reasons to be encouraged about 2016, such as:

• Experience factor: The benefit of the wave of injuries and inconsistent performances was the experience the young players — including a team-record 18 rookies — got, in terms of exposure (for first-timers such as Mikie Mahtook and Andrew Bellatti) and intensity (Curt Casali, Steve Geltz and Alex Colome among those who got bigger roles).

That should not only make the players better but allow Cash and the Rays front office to make better decisions about them. "We learned a lot about a lot of our guys," Cash said. "And that's a good thing."

• Swing club: After the front office and coaching staff agreed in late July to switch to a more aggressive offensive approach, specifically earlier in the count, the Rays were markedly more productive, averaging a run more per game.

Since Aug. 1 they hit .275 (third-best in the majors), including .274 with runners in scoring position (ninth best), and averaged 4.7 runs (eighth). Before then, they were hitting .239 (28th) and .226 with RISP (also 28th) and averaging 3.6 runs (and also 28th).

Overall, they finished at .252 (13th), .244 RISP (25th) and 3.98 (25th).

"That's something we have to carry over," Cash said. "Everybody pinpoints the lack of getting it done with runners in scoring position. Well, our thought is if we can continue that approach we've taken from the second half, those numbers will probably naturally improve. … We were a better club offensively when we kind of made the adjustment to the approach."

• Self-evaluation: Cash already had a list of areas to target for improvement, starting with his handling of the running game, as they ranked only 22nd with a steal success rate off 66.41 percent, and late/close game managing, as they were 26-30 in one-run games and 46-48 in a majors-most 94 decided by two runs or fewer.

Cash will be determined to improve and is open to changes to do so. Similarly, the front office led by Matt Silverman had shown a willingness to adapt and will benefit from a full offseason to do so, as well as to construct a roster more structured to their style of play.

• Well-armed: With Alex Cobb missing the season, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore extended chunks and Jake Odorizzi more than a month, the Rays got only 86 starts from their top five starters.

And, despite having to get 76 from their second tier, they still led the AL with a starters' ERA of 3.63.

Though Cobb will miss most of 2016 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, Moore, who was sharp over six strong innings again Sunday with his rebuilt elbow, and Smyly, who had shoulder issues, both finished strong and look to be back to top form.

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"Having the starting staff healthy is obviously the biggest concern," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "You add (Moore and Smyly) with a healthy Cobb and we might be popping champagne instead of going home today."

• Odds on: While Cash included improving his managing of games in extra innings on the to-do list, going 2-13 seems extraordinarily unlucky, so even a slight evening out based on the usual randomness of baseball would result in some improvement.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.