Loaded with high-level starting pitching and defense, the Tampa Bay Rays are primed to play competitive baseball in 2017.
It’s hard to look at the 2017 team and make definite predictions. But we can always analyze on what it will take for the season to be a success.
Evan Longoria producing at career-average rate
Longoria entered 2016 with some question marks (drop in OBP and ISO) about his offensive production, but he dispelled them in one of the best seasons of his career. It wasn’t his best offensive year, but his numbers were much closer to his prime than in 2015. If Longo can continue to produce stat-lines similar to his prime in the upcoming years, it will certainly bode well for the team’s future - and certainly the team’s competitiveness this season.
OBP improveming across the board
The 2016 Rays ranked 27th in OBP (.307), 12th worst in wOBA (.315), and first (which is not good in this scenario) in solo home runs a season ago. If a few players can improve their OBP rates and K% percentage, that would be a nice boost to the Rays offense. The addition of 1B Richie Weeks (career OBP of .344) should definitely help in this category.
Rotation ranking in MLB Top 10 in ERA, K%, and HR/FB%.
Last years’ Rays starters ranked 11th best in ERA (4.26), 10th best in K% (22.8%), and 7th best in HR/FB% (12.4%). Three of their starters - Drew Smyly, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi - ranked in the top 15 in home runs allowed. Giving up fewer dingers would certainly be an area of improvement in 2017. Pitch command, better location, and more effective use of the changeup will be help reach that goal. Achieving a top 5 K% rate is certainly feasible with the rotation’s loaded arsenals, as is ranking top 10 in ERA. If the staff can pitch well consistently, the team should be in the thick of the playoff race come September.
Willy Adames, Brent Honeywell, Jake Bauers, Casey Gillaspie making progress. Don’t get hurt!
These stud prospects are the Rays’ future. The organization is counting on them to make steady progress throughout the season and there is every indication that they will do that, barring injury. If they can do that, their exceptional talent and first-rate character will take care of the rest.
One of Steven Souza/Corey Dickerson playing to his full potential - hitting .270/.400/.450 with 24 bombs and 75 RBI’s.
Souza and Dickerson more or less produced at league-average rates for their positions in 2016. We’ve been waiting on Souza to break out since he came over from Washington. Dickerson’s 2016 slash line of .245/.293/.469, while respectable, didn’t match his 2014-15 production. If one of these corner outfielders can find a way to put it together in 2017 - providing the Rays a steady bat in the heart of the order - that would go a long way to boost the team’s offensive production.
Kevin Kiermaier staying healthy and productive
Injuries limited Kiemaier to just 105 games and 872 1/3 defensive innings last season. He missed two months with multiple fractures in his left hand after an ill-fated diving catch attempt on May 21. The Rays - not coincidentally - posted a 14-35 record when he was sidelined.
If he can carry over his offensive production from 2016 (when healthy) to 2017, he may place himself as not only one of the most valuable defensive players, but one of the most valuable overall players in the MLB.
That being said, one thing appears quite clear heading into the 2017 season. A healthy KK will go a long way toward returning the Rays to contention.
Bullpen producing league-average results
The Rays relievers ranked 3rd worst in HR/9 (1.30) and T-2nd worst in HR/FB (14.4%), and most importantly 2nd worst in WAR (0.1)
With Brad Boxberger and Shawn Tolleson hurt heading into the 2017 season, the bullpen is still poses some major questions.
As vaakintola states in his 2017 Rays Bullpen Preview:
The Rays pen is somewhat in flux, and the Opening Day bullpen will almost definitely be different than what we will see in the middle of the season. Young power arms such as Gadea, Schultz, and flamethrower Ryne Stanek will get looks throughout the season, but as it stands the Rays bullpen should be better in 2017 than 2016, through addition and subtraction.
That being said, the Rays would gladly accept a league-average results from their bullpen in 2017. In order for that to happen, there will need to be many positives outside of Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno.
Brad Miller playing good defense
As stated previously at DRaysBay, Brad Miller had a long road to becoming a 30 home run masher without a defensive home.
This season, the Rays are relying on him to provide a steady glove at second base. The Rays didn’t feel confident in his delivery of the ball from shortstop to first base, so he had to again make another adjustment defensively.
Offensively, Miller is a known middle-of-the-order threat. If he can combine that stellar bat with good defense at second base, the Rays will be getting one of the more well-rounded players in the league.
Tim Beckham contributing
Beckham has been a backup infielder with the Rays for the last two years. Offensively, he trends to hit right far better than lefties giving the Rays a solid platoon guy up the middle. Defensively, he was above average at every infield position he played (42+ innings at every infield position in 2016) by UZR’s standards.
The biggest area of concern for Beckham, however, has not been his play on the field. It’s been his attitude and work ethic. Last years’ end-of-season demotion - due to mental lapses - more or less signaled that the former #1 overall to needs work harder, particularly on the mental side of the game.
Beckham came into Spring Training refreshed, refocused, and with a positive attitude. The results spoke for themselves, slashing .327/.400/.571 in 49 spring at-bats. With presumed Opening Day shortstop Matt Duffy's stalled heel rehab, Beckham could not seem more important to the Rays heading into the 2017 season.
1B platoon working
Because the Rays wanted Brad Miller at second base, they brought in super-utility man Rickie Weeks to platoon with Logan Morrison at first base. Considering his solid .284/.368/.642 line and superb .419 wOBA against southpaws in 2016, the 34-year old veteran could offer some serviceable production in his new role this coming season.
Morrison got off to a brutal start in 2016 with the Rays (no HR’s or RBIs in 29 games through May 16). But he turned things around, hitting .272 with the 14 homers, 43 RBIs and an .844 OPS.
The Rays are counting on Morrison and Weeks to produce in platoon roles. If it works, Matt Silverman may look like a genius.
Setting up team for 2018 when they’ll be primed to win 87 games. No late season injuries!
As JP noted in his Rays 2017 Season Preview:
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.
If just a few of the promising youngsters in the Rays system can meet expectations in 2017, the major-league squad will be primed to be in the playoff hunt in 2018. That being said, the worst thing that could happen would be a late-season injury that carries over to the 2018 season.
As Mat Germain states:
At the very least we have a very intriguing season to look forward to, and that’s not something that all MLB franchises can boast right now. As the PECOTA ratings show (84 wins for Rays), the Rays have a ton of potential this season, and if you’re a Rays fan, you can thank your relentless Front Office for that.
One thing that is always important to note heading into another season of Rays baseball:
The Rays are here to compete, always.
That’s just The Rays Way.