The Tampa Bay Rays are an interesting bunch. A franchise-wide emphasis on sterling defense and a deep pool of elite pichers have allowed the Rays to keep up with the uber-rich "Joneses" the American League East, who can afford to construct power hitting rosters that make major league ballparks look like sandboxes.
And yet, this off-season, the Rays took a more rounded approach. For the first time in a decade, and for the first time under this team's ownership, the Rays prioritized adding offense and power to the lineup.
It should be interesting to see how the experiment plays out in the air-conditioned confines of Tropicana Field, but with a premium still placed on defense, the team seems better positioned now to make a post-season run than in any of the last five seasons.
Last year the Rays had a run differential of two -- 644 runs scored, 642 runs allowed. Late in the season, the team transitioned to an aggressive approach at the plate, which is how that mark became positive. This season they only got more aggressive. Not only will there be contact, now there will be power. Before they were sac flies. Now there will be dingers.
Not even a week after the World Series the Rays made their first splash.
Rays acquire SS Brad Miller, 1B Logan Morrison, RHRP Danny Farquhar for RHSP Nate Karns, two prospects
By acquiring out-of-favor SS Brad Miller, loud mouth 1B Logan Morrison, and former high leverage reliever RHP Danny Farquhar for starter Nate Karns, outfield prospect Herschel "Boog" Powell, and a depth reliever since traded, it was a vintage move by the Rays: trading from depth to satisfy immediate needs with unheralded pieces.
SS Adrrubal Cabrera and DH John Jaso had chosen free agency over staying in Tampa Bay, and at a minimum this deal satisfied both glaring gaps in the lineup.
Miller was without question the Rays choice to take over short, and after working with bench coach Tom Foley, he has found a new approach that should cut down on some of his errant throws.
Morrison, meanwhile, steps into Jaso's shoes with a less respected bat, but experience at what was a position of contention: first base. Loney was the favorite to hold down first base defense, but the Rays wanted a pull hitter with power in the line up, and Morrison won the brass over to steal away the starting spot.
It's easy to imagine a scenario in which LoMo is productive, particularly while touring the AL East stadiums, but he could have trouble being productive at home.
Logan Morrison -- Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Rays managed to strengthen their future pitching staff and mess with a division rival's plans by claiming Whitley, recovering from Tommy John surgery, after Yankees cut him from their 40-man roster. No doubt the Yankees had hopes of sneaking the injured pitcher through the waiver process, and the Rays snatched him up.
It's not an uncommon sight in baseball, for one team to prey on another's rehabbing player, but the Rays had much to gain in stealing a talented arm away from a division rival.
Whitley is a starter, and the Rays continue to view him as such, but he will not be available until August, around the same time former ace Alex Cobb makes his return from Tommy John. Finding room for him in the rotation could be difficult.
Widely recognized as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball, Hank Conger was acquired by the Rays from the Astros right before the Winter Meetings.
Conger was one of three Rays catchers in camp battling for a 25-man roster slot, and there were no clear winners for much of the Spring. Incumbent Curt Casali became the late favorite, and as the newest catcher in camp -- with an option left on his contract -- Conger could have found himself to be the odd man out.
The battle had been so close that the Rays were even considering carrying three catchers to start the season instead of 25th man Tim Beckham. Eventually, Conger was able to beat out Rene Rivera -- who had a very similar skill set, a revamped swing, and a year of experience with Rays pitchers -- for the second slot. You can read more about the battle here.
The would-be grey beard of the Rays bullpen has been well respected since he entered camp, and has the right stuff to be a LOOGY in 2016, a need after reliever Xavier Cedeno blossomed into a high leverage arm last season. He may not break camp with the team, but would be a significant piece of the bullpen puzzle.
Anticipated to be one of the most valuable signings of the off-season, the "Lakeland Launcher" chose his hometown team in Tampa Bay and should be able to help them improve their offense. Tampa Bay may need him most at first base, but plan to deploy him around the infield.
In keeping with Rays tradition, Pearce is capable of playing around the infield and in the outfield, and Cash will no doubt employ him in multiple roles, including DH. Departing from Rays (recent) tradition, however, Pearce has shown himself capable of hitting 20 or more home runs, even with somewhat limited at bats. His versatility and his power should lead to his getting significant playing time this year.
Longoria and Pearce -- Photo Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Here's the big one.
Corey Dickerson is the great offensive weapon every team in baseball should want, and when the Rockies found their roster crowded in the outfield, they opted to deal one of the strongest power hitters in baseball for two high-heat arms, typifying a new organizational strategy for both front offices.
For the Rays it was a high price to pay, but the return could be something special. Dickerson has impressive range in the outfield and can run with reckless abandon, but the Rays may limit that to the base paths and deploy him as the full time DH. His arm strength is his only weakness, and Tampa Bay should return Desmond Jennings to full form in 2016.
Kevin Padlo was not the centerpiece of his trade, but he adds real value to it. He fits the mold of Rays prospect acquisitions, targeted for his ability to hit well in the low minors despite an age a couple years below his peers (much like Jake Bauers or Willy Adames). Remember his name.
The Rays spent all off-season considering outside help for the bullpen, and after the deal of Jake McGee it became a clear need. In signing this veteran, the Rays replace McGee's experience, but replace high heat with ground ball consistency. Webb should do well in front of the Rays defense.
The Rays have had some surprisingly competitive roster battles this Spring, and the result may be that the Rays attempt to hoard all players involved. One scenario has the Rays eschewing a 25th man and using three catchers to start the year, but either way should have the club rolling with a four man rotation to start the season.
It's not typical, nor will it last all season, but with a week to go the four man rotation is more than likely unless another trade occurs. Here is the projected 25-man roster, starting with position players:
James Loney was anticipated to retain his first base job, thanks to defense that the Rays seemed to value more highly than much of the market, in what would have been his fourth Opening Day with the club. He slimmed down this off-season to revitalize his offense, and the Rays still struggled to find a trade partner, so the club will have to find an eleventh hour solution -- be it a low selling price or outright release, forcing the club to cover his $8 million salary.
In his stead, you can expect Morrison and Pearce to share 1B in a platoon.
As for the 25th man, infielder Tim Beckham held that role in 2015 and would be expected to fulfill it again. It should be noted that without him on the roster, there is not a true back up at SS available to the Rays behind Brad Miller, although Forsythe or Pearce could fill that role in a pinch.
Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Once early April has passed and the Rays have a more consistent schedule, expect this bullpen to include righty Andrew Bellatti, who has one of the best sliders in baseball, as the Durham shuttle gets rolling from Triple-A. Eventually, the Rays will also have Jonny Venters and Neil Wagner, both recovering from Tommy John surgery, available for reinforcements.
It should be noted that for the month of April, the Rays will only need four starters, thanks to four off-days in the opening weeks. That makes presumptive 5th starter Erasmo Ramirez the temporary swing man. A transformed pitcher under coach Jim Hickey, the rubber man is able to take the mound any day and any time. He can start when necessary, as he did for nearly all of last season, or he can pitch in relief.
Once Ramirez goes back to starting, Matt Andriese likely gets the nod from Durham to take a long role in the bullpen. A long man is incredibly necessary. If this season resembles the last in any way, it is this:
Expect the Rays to cycle their depth throughout the year, in a very meaningful way.
After a season of trying a quick hook to limit starting pitchers from seeing batting orders a third time through, the Rays will tweak the strategy with a specific aim this season: Keeping relievers in the game for four outs or more. You can read all about this intentional, and possibly radical, strategy here:
A robust bullpen will be necessary for the Rays as they look to improve on last season's strategy of pulling starters somewhere around their third trip through the opposing batting line ups.
Not to be missed in all the reliever talk: this starting rotation is deadly.
Chris Archer is a true ace. Drew Smyly has pitched like a man on fire. Jake Odorizzi looks to be Cobb 2.0. Matt Moore has regained his confidence on the mound. All four have been brilliant all Spring, Knock on every piece of wood you can find.
Presuming good health for the left handed starters, and that Erasmo Ramirez can continue to be his second-half self, the Rays may rival for the best rotation in the American League, and that's before the return of Alex Cobb.
Ramirez's versatility will be on display in April, and will come in handy once Cobb and Whitley return, or when one of several quality starting prospects start banging down the door...
Blake Snell -- Photo credit: Brian Blanco/Getty Images
Prospects to know
We need to talk about this Rays farm system. After two seasons in the lower half of organizational rankings, the Rays are back in more familiar territory with one of the game's better farm systems.
It's no surprise that the system is filled with top pitching prospects, as the Rays farm system is known to have fertile soil for strong arms. A quartet of pitching prospects in the upper minors giving them the depth they're traditionally known for: righties Jacob Faria, Taylor Guerrieri and Brent Honeywell, and lefty Blake Snell, the top prospect in the organization.
Honeywell is much anticipated but is a couple years behind, as of this writer's impression, but the other three arms, along side the electric fastball thrower RHP Jaime Schultz, will form a starting rotation for the Durham Bulls that could rival some major league sides.
Of those four, it's most likely that Snell sees the majors in 2016, but it won't be much longer for the others. Snell's 1.41 ERA in 2015 was the lowest in the minors in a decade (Justin Verlander posted a 1.29 mark in 2005), and he gets it done with a plus -- or better -- fastball, above-average breaking ball and change up and improving control.
in the minors, Tampa Bay isn't exactly hurting for bats, either, and that's after two outfielders were taken in the Rule 5 draft and expect to make the starting lineup for their respective major league clubs.
Infielder Richie Shaffer and outfielder Mikie Mahtook got a taste of the majors and showed some pop, and they should play roles for the team at some point in 2016, as should super utility prospect Taylor Motter, and still in development utility men Nick Franklin and Ryan Brett.
Elsewhere in the system, shortstop Willy Adames, acquired in the David Price trade two summers ago, will look to build on a solid 2015 season, as will first baseman Jake Bauers, acquired in last winter's three-team trade that sent Wil Myers to San Diego.
Bauers was able to reach Double A as a 19-year-old with a great plate approach and good feel for contact, and will be a significant player to watch in 2016, particularly if he can begin manning the outfield with consistency.
Story Lines to Follow
Here are some of the story lines we'll be watching this season:
Alex Colome -- Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Who will be the closer?
Brad Boxberger led the American League in saves AND losses for a reliever last season, going from a dynamic shut down reliever to a beleaguered yet successful closer. Now his start to the season will be sidelined by core-muscle surgery. Who will step up? The high heat of Alex Colome and the experience of Ryan Webb (who has 98 games finished without a save in his career) are early favorites.
James Loney was the presumed starter due his defense, but the Rays lost faith in his offense and are parting ways. Steve Pearce and Logan Morrison both warrant playing time as Loney's replacement, and how that shakes out will be intriguing. Baseball is an every day sport, and it's difficult to keep everyone sharp with limited playing time.
If the platoon experiment does not work, the Rays will have Richie Shaffer in the minors working on his first base defense, hoping to break into the major league roster as soon as possible.
Big Swingin' Corey Dickerson is here to hit, and hit with power. He's also faced with leaving Coors Field, where pitches behave differently, causing gross home and road splits for their players.
Fortunately, Dickerson has spent more of his life playing at or below sea level than he ever did in Colorado, so the Rays are hoping to transition is smooth.
Can Evan Longoria hit like his former self?
While his defense may have taken yet another step forward last season, Longoria saw his power decline significantly in 2015. Seemingly to make up for that, the Rays added Pearce, Morrison, and above all Dickerson to strength the line up, and Longo has been transitioned to the third spot in the order, at his request.
Line ups will change, but he should now be followed by Corey Dickerson in the clean up spot on a consistent basis. The hope is that he gets some pitches to hit and finds his stride again.
Will everyone stay healthy?
Beyond Boxberger, there are more more than ten players returning from significant injury on this Rays roster. If it all breaks right, as PECTOA thinks it might, then these Rays are AL East contenders, but it will take everyone's contributions. If players like Loney and Jennings cannot rebound, if Pearce and Dickerson have future injury concerns, if Cobb and Whitley and Venters and Wagner can't return, it will be another long season.
After sky high expectations in 2014, the team hit the reset button when front office personnel Andrew Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker left for the Dodgers, and when Joe Maddon followed through the open door. Then injuries brought everything tumbling down again in 2015.
The Rays have just as much injury risk this season, but a much heavier punch. Now all those hits just need to land.