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Rays Season Preview: The rebuild is here, what is the outlook for 2018 and beyond?

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The Rays are rebuilding, and it’s something we’ve never seen before.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Against everything the Rays have stood for since they came under new ownership in November of 2005, Tampa Bay has entered a rebuilding phase.

This may come as a surprise to an outside observer, a middle-of-the-pack baseball team going into a rebuild should not be notable. The Rays have not been particularly good or interesting for several years and, in truth, only have two 80-win seasons in the last four; however, burning it down is a new look on the west coast of Florida, and the way in which the Rays have done so has been excruciating.

Read More: We hate the Rays rebuild just as much as you do

In a slow off-season burn, the Rays have departed from Alex Cobb (who declined a qualifying offer), traded the face of the franchise Evan Longoria, humiliatingly DFA’d All-Star DH Corey Dickerson, sold high on Team MVP Steven Souza Jr, sent former closer Brad Boxberger packing, and sold low on starter Jake Odorizzi, all in the name of saving money and clearing room for the upcoming prospects. And worst of all, few if any of the moves have been heralded as successes by outside observers.

Whether the hot stove would cooperate or not was a problem for most teams this off-season, but the Rays were not good enough to compete, so they found a way to make 2018 about the next generation.

Notably, the Rays rebuild should not be mistaken for those in Miami or Chicago or Houston or Atlanta. The Rays will have their highest payroll ever in 2018 (projected to be $77 million) and they continue to spend approximately 56% of the revenue they take in on their players (an important metric of good faith in baseball circles), in line with the major league average.

The Rays remain a small market team not because of the size of their fan base, but the size of their revenue streams. And because of that small market status, the Rays importantly held on to their two most valuable trade chips in prominent starting pitcher Chris Archer and the best outfield defender in baseball Kevin Kiermaier.

In attempts to stay competitive in the AL East, the team also made savvy moves for 1B C.J. Cron, OF Carlos Gomez, and various, near-ready prospects, bolstering one of the better farm systems in baseball.

The Rays also took on some veteran contracts to complete their rebuild, acquiring the expiring contracts of OF Denard Span and RP Daniel Hudson, useful role players in need of a bounce back season to be considered anything other than dead weight.

Tampa Bay will have a tall order competing with Boston (who the Rays will play 13 times in the first eight weeks) and New York (where there be giants). Still, a return to the “old Rays way” of young pitching and superior defense should give them a fighting chance.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays continue building around Kevin Kiermaier, arguably the best outfield defender in baseball
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Another change in the Rays Way

In stripping away much of the 2017 Rays roster, Tampa Bay has also removed its low contact, high strikeout approach on offense, while simultaneously eschewing pitchers who struggled with fastballs left up in the zone. If the Rays are going to roll in Fenway and the Bronx, they have to be built for more than Tropicana Field. That requires more contact hitting on offense, less praying for K’s on pitches above the zone, and generally more respectable defense.

Crazily enough, the Rays should still have some major league veterans to help get that done: Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria appears to be elite in his footwork and throws. World Series winning 3B Matt Duffy has found health and mental fortitude. 1B C.J. Cron has found consistent at bats to show off his power stroke. Kiermaier will be flanked by big names in Span and Gomez, and Wilson Ramos returns behind the dish. On the hill the Rays welcome 3-time World Series winning closer RP Sergio Romo and 100-mph hurler SP Nathan Eovaldi into the fold.

Without a spreadsheet in front of you, you’d be excused for thinking these were household names, and they were, but some not since 2015:

Rays 2018 veterans

Player The last time they were good Reason they ended up with the Rays
Player The last time they were good Reason they ended up with the Rays
Wilson Ramos, C 2016 - 3.4 WAR, 124 wRC+ Blew out ACL, signed two-year rehab deal with TB
C.J. Cron, 1B 2016: -1.6 WAR, 114 wRC+ Forced out by Shohei Ohtani, acquired by trade
Matt Duffy, 3B 2015 - 4.7 WAR, 113 wRC+ Significant foot injuries, acquired by trade
Adeiny Hechavarria, SS 2015 - 3.1 WAR, 89 wRC+ Marlins salary dump, acquired by trade
Denard Span, LF 2015 - 3.0 WAR pace, 120 wRC+ Negative value in center field, acquired by trade
Carlos Gomez, RF 2017 - 2.3 WAR, 110 wRC+ Often injured, hit poorly 2015-2016, signed for $4 mil
Brad Miller, DH 2016 - 2.0 WAR, 111 wRC+ Lost roster battle in Seattle, acquired by trade

At how many positions can the Rays reassemble humpty dumpty? If there’s a year to find out, it’s during a rebuild, where any veterans not working out can be easily supplanted by prospects who need to be promoted in 2018 either way.

If any position should incur an injury or falter, the Rays have one of the best farm systems in baseball ready to answer the call, featuring SS Willy Adames, INF Christian Arroyo, 1B/OF Jake Bauers, SP Anthony Banda, three relievers pumping triple digits, and enough arms in Triple-A to field a second major league bullpen.

And the Rays will compliment all of those previously-great names with a few homegrown players as well. Closer Alex Colome, a 2016 All-Star who led all of major league baseball in saves last season, was surprisingly not traded. Starters Blake Snell and Jake Faria held their own in the AL East last season and hope to continue that form. Utility infielder Daniel Robertson has an open door to claiming second base for his own. Kevin Kiermaier has a longterm deal keeping him in center field.

Read More: The Opening Day roster is almost complete

The Rays seem to be without question marks for 2018, and the roster is pliable enough to make room for prospects whenever they are ready too.

In the meantime, Tampa Bay will give their roster a whirl this Spring and see what happens. If it’s falling apart in the summer, the Rays will trade away what they can and introduce the kids. But maybe, just maybe, it all works in their favor too.

The future is bright in Tampa Bay

After years of bad drafting and a reliance on trades, the Rays may finally be piecing together a competent, young roster again, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Rays prospect Willy Adames (middle) with utility prospect Andrew Velazquez and starter Chris Archer
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Beginning in 2019, the Rays should have Top-100 prospects Adames, Arroyo, Bauers, and a slew of minor league pitchers integrated into the starting roster (Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough, among others).

The Rays have so many qualified pitching prospects that they may go the entire 2018 season without a fifth starter just to give all the kids a chance. And the introduction of kids will be dramatically lowering the cost for a Rays roster that already has only $30 million in commitments after this season (and save $8 million if they decline Denard Span’s option).

Two of the Rays top pitching prospects, Brent Honeywell (the No. 15 ranked prospect in baseball) and Jose De Leon (previously No. 33), have succumbed to Tommy John surgery this Spring, but so deep is the Rays well of starters that the plan of a four-man rotation remains. It will be called a “bullpen day,” but what it will really be is a season long audition for the bigs; a rotating door of starters.

Meanwhile, the Rays will also finally have a new television deal, worth $1.2 billion over the next fifteen years, kicking in for the 2019 season. The Rays will have much of that revenue aimed at a new ballpark in Downtown Tampa, which the team announced as their preferred location in early 2018, but there should be something like $50 million available for the Rays to spend on their major league roster next year.

Betting on the Rays to spend on the free agent market is an unlikely proposition, but those funds could be wisely invested into longterm extensions for their young core.

But will the Rays compete in 2018?

The Rays might have a cadre of prospects ready to debut this season, but nearly all prospects take time to hit their stride. This is why the Rays will field a roster full of veterans in 2018 and see if they will hit.

If they all do, the Rays will compete. If only some do, the productive ones can be traded and the non-productive ones will be shown the door. It was never destined to be a popular strategy, but this is how the Rays avoided fully tanking in 2018.

Tampa Bay must prioritize building its young core. Who survives the rebuild, and whether the Rays will be good, is still unknown.

Read More: Alternate Reality: What if the Rays were not rebuilding?