ST. PETERSBURG — While disappointed to be eliminated Thursday in Houston, the Rays are quite proud and pleased to get where they did this season, posting 96 wins to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, winning the wild-card game in Oakland, pushing the MLB-best Astros to five games in the American League Division Series.
But they are even more excited where they are headed, confident this year’s playoff appearance is just the start of something, maybe similar to the run they had of making the postseason four times from 2008-13.
“There’s so much to build on right now," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said after the 6-1 loss at Minute Maid Park. “The experience has been good and to know we basically control our own destiny going forward.
“We’ll have some work to do in the offseason, like we always do. And I’m always confident of us doing some really good stuff in the offseason. We’ll have less to do some other years because of all the work we’ve done to get to this point. I think given the group we have here and in the minors, we’re set up pretty good certainly for next season, and beyond that a little bit.
“In 2010, we lost a lot of guys (to free agency). There are other years with guys you have to think about that you have to move. We’re coming right into the sweet spot. … You don’t want it to end like this, but if it is, you couldn’t write a better script for how it looks for 2020 and ’21. You’ve got a good, sizable amount of players who will be a significant part of our championship team next year."
The Rays will have the choice, which is the “control our own destiny” part, to bring back pretty much the whole 2019 squad if they want to. And/or to target specific improvements, given the flexibility from winning as much as they did with a major-league-low payroll of around $63 million on opening day.
Only three players are free agents, catcher Travis d’Arnaud, outfielder Avisail Garcia and infielder Eric Sogard. Of nine eligible for arbitration, only three are projected to make more than a somewhat pedestrian $2.5 million — outfielder Tommy Pham ($8.6 million), catcher Mike Zunino $4.9 million) and infielder Matt Duffy ($2.9 million). Several key players are signed via multiyear deals: Charlie Morton, Kevin Kiermaier, Blake Snell and Brandon Lowe. There’s plenty of depth in the minors matriculating through what is tabbed the game’s best farm system.
And there are a whole bunch of young, talented, confident and now playoff-seasoned players, many of whom were homegrown or acquired in trade as prospects or young big-leaguers, expecting to do more and better.
“Of course we’re talking about that, telling everybody to come hungry next year, come healthy next year, because next year looks really, really bright for us," said shortstop Willy Adames. “The first year of everybody playing together and we went to the postseason, so that tells you that we have a lot of talent here, and the future looks really, really good."
Not only did they show they could play well, but they learned what it was like to play under pressure, with a series of key September showdowns, then rolling through three previous elimination games before faltering Thursday.
“I’m so proud of these guys," Kiermaier said. “This is a great taste for a lot of our guys of what’s to come in the future. We want everyone to remember what it’s like to take the field in the postseason. Hopefully that directs guys in the offseason, motivates them, and hopefully we’re back again next year. That’s what our goal is going to be. And next time we’re going to try to go further."
So how do they do that?
Of course, it’s too early to know, or even guess, what moves they should make, though colleague John Romano tried.
The Rays will need time to prioritize their own needs (such as a catcher, especially if d’Arnaud leaves; a right-handed power hitter; maybe a closer), to survey the market and to get a sense of the competition, with the Yankees still playing, the Red Sox cutting payroll while looking for a GM (with, shudder, ex-Rays boss Andrew Friedman’s name floated in a Boston Globe piece), etc.
But the Rays are starting from a good place, focusing much more on the now than on the future as they used to, tinkering to make a really good team better.
“We’re more equipped to compete with what we have right now," general manager Erik Neander said Friday at the Trop. “As thick as we are right now, I think we’re satisfied with the talent we have.
“But I think it’s kind of in our DNA and our mode of preparation that we have an offseason with months to play with and think about things, and we can’t help ourselves but to think about how to make the team better. That’s our job, and we’ll do that. We’ll be open to things. But we do like our starting position here going into the winter."
Better, where they think the finish line is, believing the future looks better than ever.
“We’re putting ourselves in the territory," Neander said, “where we expect to be one of the most competitive, one of the most talented teams going forward in the American League."
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.