The Rays return to the Trop on Tuesday for their final six games then head into an offseason that can't be as tumultuous (right?) as the last one, when executive VP Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon left, along with nearly a dozen players who had key roles.
As the Rays look ahead after wrapping up this season out of the playoffs and probably under .500, they seem to have the bulk of their team in place for next season, albeit with a few holes — likely most prominently at shortstop, DH and maybe in the outfield — to be filled.
"Quite a bit of heavy lifting was done last offseason," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "We are excited about the club that can return in 2016 as well as the talent within the organization. It's impossible to predict how any offseason will unfold, but we are well-positioned for the active dialogue that will take place."
Here is a position-by-position look at how they appear as of now for 2016:
The Rays have 1B James Loney back, at an $8 million salary that would be second highest on the team, after a season in which he was on the DL twice and has hit .278 with only four homers, 32 RBIs and a .680 OPS. Unless they don't. Trading Loney, even if they have to eat some of the money, could be a key move to making the lineup more athletic and powerful, opening a spot for rookie slugger Richie Shaffer, probably paired with a lefty hitter to be acquired.
Logan Forsythe took full advantage of an unexpected opportunity for increased playing time and established himself as the starter, combining steady offense with slick fielding. He's still somewhat affordable in 2016 at a salary of around $3.5M in the second of his three years of arbitration eligibility. These are the Rays, though, so you do wonder if they would consider a tempting sell-high deal.
Seemingly the biggest hole to fill, with the growing assumption that Asdrubal Cabrera leaves for the multiyear deal he seeks. The talk is to stay in-house, which means the top options are Tim Beckham and Nick Franklin. Further reaches are prospects Daniel Robertson, who played this season at Double A at age 21, and Triple-A All-Star utilityman Taylor Motter, who will play short in winter ball. Or maybe they plan that way but find a January deal similar to what they had with Cabrera, taking in a veteran on a one-year contract, with Ian Desmond (of Sarasota) and Jimmy Rollins among free agents who may not find much else on the market.
After a season that won't end up looking as bad as it appeared to be headed, Evan Longoria returns at age 30, making $11.5M with six more years plus an option remaining for another $107M.
The Rays liked what they saw from Curt Casali in 38 games behind and at the plate (especially the 10 HRs in 101 at-bats) a lot. Apparently that's enough to consider him the starter going into 2016. He'd need to be paired with a stronger defensive catcher as the backup, which may make Rene Rivera (making around $1.5M), who had been the starter, a better fit than J.P. Arencibia (also potentially around $1.5M) despite his impressive September power show, or rookie call-up Luke Maile. And there's always that veteran — maybe a lefty hitter? — to be brought to camp on a non-roster deal to make it interesting.
In theory, the Rays are set with Desmond Jennings — remember him? — in left, golden boy Kevin Kiermaier in center and Steven Souza Jr. in right, an athletic trio with power and promise. Add Brandon Guyer, and his lefty-killer bat, as their No. 4 and, preferably, a left-handed hitting No. 5 TBA (rather than Mikie Mahtook). But that assumes Jennings — who played only 28 games this season and likely will get a slight raise to around $3.5M — is healthy, which has proved to be an issue. Their best bet may be to plan with him and without, making sure they are comfortable with a Guyer/TBA platoon in left and Mahtook as the primary backup.
Incumbent John Jaso is a free agent, though he has interest in coming back and isn't coming off much of a season — .282, four HRs, 21 RBIs, .823 OPS in 65 games, missing more than three months with injury. The bigger question is whether the Rays would want him back (at $4M to $5M a year) or — stop us if you've heard this before — would be better off seeking more of an impact bat to boost their power.
Getting LHPs Matt Moore and Drew Smyly back pitching well this year means even more for next. Now the Rays can feel pretty good about a top four of RHP Chris Archer ($2.75M), RHP Jake Odorizzi (pre-arb), Moore ($5M) and Smyly (~$4M) while picking from among RHPs Nathan Karns, Erasmo Ramirez and Matt Andriese and top LHP prospect Blake Snell to fill it out. (RHP Alex Cobb, who also gets around $4M, is expected back from Tommy John surgery in late August/September.) The wave of injuries this past spring/season was a great reminder of how a team can't have enough starting pitching. But … the depth the Rays have also enables them to trade a starter, as they have frequently done, to fill other needs. That would seem likely again this winter, though with Smyly and Moore coming off injuries and Karns being shut down due to forearm tightness, their marketable inventory may be limited.
Assuming all parties are happy, the back end of the pen could look pretty much the same, with LHP Jake McGee (raised to around $5M) and RHP Brad Boxberger (still a pre-arb bargain at around $530,000) again sharing, or even splitting, closing duties. But if presented with an intriguing package, they could be tempted to trade one. Otherwise, the rest of the pen should also look similar, with RHPs Alex Colome and Steve Geltz and LHPs Xavier Cedeno and Enny Romero (who will be out of options and thus on the team). If Ramirez isn't in the rotation, he could be a good fit in the pen. So, too, could RHP Andrew Bellatti.
Manager Kevin Cash has received rave reviews from his bosses for his rookie season, the first of a five-year deal. All coaches except 1B Rocco Baldelli are signed for at least next season, and all are expected back.
• Whether the Braves' proposal to build a spring complex on the Toytown site eventually helps or hurts the Rays' efforts to get a stadium built may be debatable. But there is no doubt the Rays were right to be upset that they didn't get a heads up from the Braves or the Pinellas County folks. It was convenient for the Rays that MLB's statement made the pitch for "the support of local political and business leaders."
• While filling holes on the big-league team, the Rays also have to manage their 40-man roster, with four players (LHP Jeff Beliveau, RHP Alex Cobb, LHP Grayson Garvin, RHP Burch Smith) to be reinstated from the 60-day DL and three prospects, RHP Taylor Guerrieri, INF/OF Taylor Motter and LHP Blake Snell, among those to be added.
• Among those who left the Rays after last season, Joe Maddon (Cubs), Andrew Friedman and Joel Peralta (Dodgers), Sean Rodriguez (Pirates) and Ben Zobrist (Royals) all are headed to the postseason.
There is talk of moving the 2016 season opener with Toronto up from Monday, April 4, to Sunday afternoon as the first game of an all-day ESPN event. … Former Rays OF Quinton McCracken, building an impressive front office resume as farm director in Houston, was the other finalist for the Red Sox GM job. … The Tampa Bay BBWAA will present its annual awards Friday at the Clutch Hitters luncheon banquet. … No Rays rookies — not RHP Alex Colome, RHP Nathan Karns nor OF Steven Souza Jr. — made MLB.com's list of 25 first-year players with the brightest futures. … Bad draw for Sun Sports, missing the Archer-Felix, Archer-Verlander and Archer-Price starts this season. … The formula was complicated, but fangraphs.com ranks the Rays as now having the game's best farm system based on organizational depth. … Commissioner Rob Manfred told Dan Patrick on the radio that after the "stadium issues" facing a couple of franchises are resolved, expansion "will be on the table" and he talked up Mexico.