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Rays 2017 Season Preview: The Rays rebuild is nearly complete

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Meet the changing face of the Tampa Bay Rays

World Series: Tampa Bay Rays v Philadelphia Phillies, Game 4
A photo of Evan Longoria, smiling before Game 4 of the 2008 World Series
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Five years ago the Rays were coming off the euphoria of a crazy September 2011 that involved the single most exciting night of baseball that I have ever personally experienced: Game 162.

It wasn’t all about the Red Sox collapse. It was about the heart of the Tampa Bay Rays, and their ability to be challenging for the playoffs in the first place.

The “Rays Way” Revisited

In 2011, the Rays won 91 games, and won 90+ for the third time in the previous four years. Evan Longoria had established himself as a superstar and the undisputed face of the Tampa Bay Rays, and wasn’t alone as he had stars to support him in David Price and Ben Zobrist. The Rays talent was coalescing through the success of James Shields and B.J. Upton. Star prospect Desmond Jennings came up in the second half of 2011 and looked like he could be the answer for the loss of Carl Crawford from the previous off season.

Although the Rays had two more winning seasons, with 90- and 92-win seasons and a Wild Card appearance in 2013, the 2008 - 2011 period represented the peak of the Rays improbable run from bottom feeders to stardom.

As a low revenue team the Rays are dependent on the farm system in filling in the holes when they lose players to free agency or have to move players due for financial reasons. Over the past five years the farm just hasn’t been productive enough to keep the Rays winning 90+ games a year like they did in all but one season between 2008-2013. There is but one exception.

Tampa Bay Rays v Texas Rangers
Kiermaier in his element
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Kevin Kiermaier is a once in a generation talent on defense who has become an excellent wingman to Evan Longoria. Along with ever budding baseball star Chris Archer, these three players have become the heart of the Rays roster, but the front office has only been able to build around them with players more average than above average to date, taking bets on position players coming off injuries, and working trades for under the radar role players. In other words, the Rays have been stalling, trading nearly every one of their veterans as they approached free agency in an attempt to bring in the next wave of talent from outside the organization, with Longoria the sole exception.

But now it seems that approach may finally be working in their favor.

There have been growing pains as they have tried to keep the machine turning in the Rays’ constant attempt to stay competitive in the AL East, but as a result, the team is younger now than it was five years ago, and is ready to promote their acquired talent.

Many of the prospects were acquired via trade such as Willy Adames, Jose De Leon, and Jake Bauers, while other prospects like Casey Gillaspie and Brent Honeywell may finally offer the Rays some draft successes. All five players are on Baseball America’s Top-100 for 2017, and all but Honeywell will start the 2017 season at Triple-A.

The Rays rebuild is nearly complete.

The next wave is coming — here’s who you need to know:

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
The front office’s trades and amateur talent acquisitions haven’t paid off yet, but the future looks bright when you consider the upper levels of the farm.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Willy Adames is the stud prospect you dream about. He plays an up the middle position with a promising bat, and has every intangible you could wish for in a future star. He just spent his age-20 season playing in Double-A Montgomery, and is slotted to start the season in Triple-A Durham, but could see himself in the Rays middle infield by mid-summer. His bat and his solid if not spectacular glove at shortstop could be a key building block to the next great Rays run.

Jose De Leon received a cup of coffee last September with the Dodgers, and struggled in his four starts, but absolutely cruised through some tough hitting environments in AA and AAA, and recently performed well for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He was acquired by the Rays anyway in a one-for-one trade of veteran second baseman Logan Forsythe, and will start the season in Durham. His biggest issue over the short term will be building up innings as he hasn’t thrown more than 114.1 in a season as a professional. He will likely be the first starter called up when needed this season.

Jake Bauers has had a brilliant spring. Not yet old enough to be on the Rays 40-man roster, he’s been a revelation this off-season. If the 21-year old continues to hit the cover off the ball, he’ll receive a call and the Rays will do what they can to get his bat in the lineup, whether that’s at first base or in the corner outfield.

Casey Gillaspie was the 2013 first-round pick of the Rays, the best college hitter available in his draft. The only time he hasn’t hit well in the minors in the Arizona Fall League after returning from a broken hamate bone. Last season he seemed to have put the injury behind him as he hit .284/.388/.479 with a 152 wRC+ split between AA and AAA. He is the Rays best hope for a traditional middle of the order power bat, but will have to hit to stick, as he’s limited to first base defensively.

Brent Honeywell is mostly known for a screwball that was taught to him by his father, who had learned the pitch from his cousin and former Cy Young winner Mike Marshall. Honeywell is much more than a guy who throws a novelty pitch, however. His fastball, coming in around the mid to upper 90s, and his plus change up, give him the tools to be a top of the rotation pitcher without the screwball.

Projecting future success

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays
Longoria and Archer
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t have a crystal ball so it’s hard to see what the Rays will look like over the next five years, but they have collected enough talent to inspire optimism.

The Rays have four key major leaguers who are under team control for the 2022 season: Evan Longoria, Chris Archer, lefty Blake Snell, and now Kevin Kiermaier, who signed a long term extension this spring. With the rest of the roster clear, the Rays have the ability to surround proven major leaguers with exciting young talent once again.

Much will depend on the development and successful transition from the minors to the majors of the group mentioned above, as well as for some high upside teenagers in the farm. After all, nothing will magically change that will afford the Rays the ability to fill in significant holes via free agent acquisitions.

In the mean time, the front office has made their trades and drafted the next wave of talent. Now the prospects need to produce.

Evan Longoria congratulates Jake Bauers after his fourth home run of the spring
@RaysBaseball

For the Rays, things stay the same through change. The only constant has been Evan Longoria, and he can be the stabilizing force for the foreseeable future as the wizened leader of the clubhouse, guiding the Rays back to success.

If just a few of the promising youngsters in the Rays system can meet expectations then perhaps the Rays star third baseman will have a few chances to get back to the World Series while he’s still in his prime.