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Rays see positives in disappointing season

Brad Boxberger has struck out 41.9 percent of his batters, second most in the majors, to go with a 5-1, 1.92 record. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Brad Boxberger has struck out 41.9 percent of his batters, second most in the majors, to go with a 5-1, 1.92 record. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Sept. 9, 2014

NEW YORK — The pain is still too strong, the frustration too fresh to talk much yet about silver linings, consolation prizes and blessings in disguise or otherwise.

But from the disappointing mess of the 2014 season, the Rays have found some good.

Most notably, at the back end of the bullpen, where Brad Boxberger emerged and Jake McGee advanced based on the failures of Grant Balfour and others. In the outfield, where Kevin Kiermaier stepped in after Wil Myers' injury and forced his way into the lineup, and the plans. And in the rotation, where Jake Odorizzi moved up and Drew Smyly showed up after the David Price trade to restock the core foundation of future success.

To a lesser degree, outfielder Brandon Guyer, reliever Jeff Beliveau and catcher Curt Casali made strides as well.

"There's guys that have been given the opportunity and run with it," manager Joe Maddon said. "Yes, of course, in a sense it's reassuring. But we're so not used to playing in this kind of moment. We full well expected to be right in the thick of things."

But in an offseason that will start sooner than they expected, the Rays, when the time is right, can reflect on some 2014 success stories:

RHP Brad Boxberger

For a guy who didn't make the opening day roster and wasn't called up to stay until into May, Boxberger, acquired from San Diego, has had a heck of year.

He has worked his way into the highest leverage duty, setting up McGee, and occasionally closing behind him. He has struck out 41.9 percent of his batters, second most in the majors, to go with a 5-1, 1.92 record.

"What he's done this year, I totally believe is not a fluke," Maddon said. "I believe he's that good. And I believe he could be a closer in the future."

Boxberger had big-league time with the Padres in 2012-13, but not this kind of success. Part is due to improved command, part increased confidence, which grew with each chance he got.

"The goal is to be a high-leverage guy to help win games and be in the back end of the bullpen," Boxberger said. "Early on it was kind of back and forth with what I was doing. More recently it's been the higher leverage stuff, and being able to handle those situations and succeed in them is what's gotten me to where I am now."

LHP Jake McGee

The Rays already knew McGee was a really good reliever. What they didn't know was if he could be a really good reliever pitching in the ninth inning.

Now they do.

McGee's ability to step in made Balfour's inability to handle the closer's job he was signed for slightly less damaging, as he has converted 16 of 18 save opportunities.

McGee wasn't sure at first how he would handle the higher stakes, hoping his same basic approach would transfer.

"When I got the opportunity I feel like I kind of thrived in it a little bit, I really started to excel in it," he said. "I'd never done it before, so I didn't know. Just take the opportunity and get an out at a time. My big thing I always keep saying is that as long as I make my pitch, it doesn't matter which inning or which part of the game I'm in."

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OF Kevin Kiermaier

Coming into the season, Kiermaier was considered an elite-level defender who wasn't ready for the big leagues offensively. But when injuries to Guyer then Myers created the opportunity for regular midseason playing time, Kiermaier proved those reports half wrong.

Not only was he a top glove man, but he delivered at the plate, providing a needed spark to the offense. There were some standard rookie struggles, but the 31st-round pick clearly established himself as a major-leaguer.

"Kiermaier came up and made his mark, and now he knows he belongs here," Maddon said. "If it didn't break that way, you might just be seeing him now here. … The timing for him personally couldn't have been better."

RHP Jake Odorizzi

Jeremy Hellickson's January elbow surgery gave Odorizzi the chance to jump from Triple A and win the open spot in the Rays rotation. April injuries to Matt Moore and Alex Cobb allowed Odorizzi to stay there despite a rough start.

Odorizzi acknowledged that he was so focused on winning the job in spring training, it took him a while to make the necessary in-season adjustments. But once he did, he took off from there, posting a 9-8, 3.32 mark from May 3 on and leading the team with 10 wins.

"It was a combination of everything that could go wrong did go wrong," Odorizzi said. "After that first month things started getting better. I stayed true to what I was telling you guys, that I felt good but it just wasn't there. … I never really lost faith and I knew going forward if I kept on this path it would be good, and that's what led to me being here now."

LHP Drew Smyly

The unexpectedly rough start to the season not only knocked the Rays from any realistic shot at the playoffs but also cost them their best pitcher, as ace David Price was traded to Detroit on July 31.

While two minor-league infielders (Nick Franklin and Willy Adames) are expected to pay future dividends, Smyly more than filled Price's spot in the rotation, going 3-1, 1.70 in seven starts. (Price is 2-3, 4.10 for the Tigers.)

"It's hard to say, but we haven't missed a beat there performance wise," Maddon said.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.