The 2015 Tampa Bay Rays might feature one of the most dominant pitching staffs in all of baseball. While that is a major asset and will assuredly be the basis of many victories throughout the season, this team is left with a myriad of question marks on the offensive side after an extensive roster renovation.
The subtractions of several key players including Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, and Yunel Escobar from the squad will allow for a new set of faces to take on a more prominent role in this offense. This group appears to be reasonably diverse, although potentially deficient in a few pivotal areas. Here’s a look at a projected lineup complied by your’s truly:
- (R) Desmond Jennings – LF
- (L) John Jaso – DH
- (R) Evan Longoria – 3B
- (L) James Loney – 1B
- (R) Steven Souza – RF
- (R) Asdrubal Cabrera – 2B
- (S) Nick Franklin – SS
- (R) Rene Rivera – C
- (L) Kevin Kiermaier – CF
Incredibly enough, after dealing away all that talent during the off-season, this Rays’ lineup will feature several significant upgrades on offense, including at catcher, left field (assuming Souza sees regular starts there), designated hitter, and possibly even shortstop, depending on the development of Franklin and placement of Cabrera.
The concerns about consistency and the apparent lack of power are justifiable to a degree, but the Rays have proven on more than one occasion that it’s feasible to run an adequate offense without being among the league’s best in home run production. They need to get back to the basics. Even with potential limitations in a few aspects, there’s certainly several specific ways this team could immediately improve their offensive output, and they’re not particularly complicated.
It will be imperative for this team to utilize every one of it’s resources in an attempt to manufacture run production. That partially means taking advantage of the speedsters in the lineup to create havoc on the base-paths. Tampa Bay managed just 63 steals a year ago, the lowest total in franchise history. A case could be made, however, that the drastic recent drop-off in steals-per-season for this team has not been because of lack of desire, but because of talent restrictions.
Desmond Jennings was the only consistent base-stealing threat on the 2014 version of the Rays, even though he swiped just 15 bags in 123 games played. His lackluster .319 OBP assuredly has something to do with that, but Jennings seemed more hesitant than ever when he did reach base. That must change in a hurry, considering a large portion of his value hinges not only upon his ability to get on base, but also move himself into scoring position constantly.
Fortunately, the Rays should have more to work with this year. With Kevin Kiermaier and the recently acquired Steven Souza, Tampa Bay now has three exceedingly dangerous weapons in the base-stealing department. Kiermaier has exceptional speed and the potential to be a 25+ steal-per-year player, but his lack of experience has proven to be an extreme impediment.
In limited playing time last season, Kiermaier stole five bases but was caught four times. This is due to an underdeveloped sense of timing. However, it’s just a matter of time until he figures it out, and when he does, the Rays will have themselves one awfully versatile threat. The Rays will be relying on Souza to provide power, but the 25-year-old should also be extremely valuable on the base-paths. A popular breakout candidate, Souza impressed with 26 steals at Triple-A a year ago.
But the term creativity carries a deeper meaning in this case. An increase in steals will be a critical augmentation, but there’s another interesting tactical possibility the Rays should take into consideration: implementing the bunt. Perhaps not with much regularity, but a well-placed bunt can occasionally be an effective way to create prime scoring chances.
Specifically, I would like to see more of the aggressive safety squeeze play that sends the runner at third sprinting home as soon as the ball trickles off the bat. The Rays have run that play to perfection in recent years, although use of it has been surprisingly sporadic. Runs will be at a premium this year, and any method to add on a few more over the course of a season should be carefully contemplated.
Improve the Situational Hitting
Tampa Bay’s 2014 offense was beyond atrocious in clutch situations. The club left an astounding 1,193 runners on base over the course of their 162 game schedule, the highest total in Major League Baseball. The timely hits just didn’t come, and that culminated in numerous close, frustrating losses for a team that had legitimate championship aspirations at the beginning of the season.
This is an issue that absolutely must be resolved if the Rays hope to ameliorate their flawed offense. A rebound campaign from Evan Longoria would be a substantial help, but he can’t carry the load by himself. The clear-cut face of the franchise struggled through the worst offensive season of his career (.724 OPS; 107 wRC+) in 2014, largely because he consistently chased pitches out of the strike zone and raised his swinging strike percentage considerably.
Even though the advanced statistics highlighted his shortcomings a year ago, Longoria was astonishingly the only Ray to top the 70 RBI mark on the season. That’s one of many examples as to the immense ineptitude of that 2014 squad. The problem wasn’t necessarily getting runners on; it was the inability to come through in the clutch and bring those runners home.
That surely factored into management’s decision to overhaul much of the roster and radically reconstruct. With plenty of exciting new parts at Kevin Cash‘s disposal, there’s no doubt in my mind that this lineup has the capability to manufacture enough runs to flip a few of those close contests in their favor, but it’s unquestionably going to take a collective effort.
During his time in Tampa Bay, Joe Maddon preached patience. His offenses would live and die with their approach of working deep counts in an attempt to run the opposing pitcher out of the game early. While there is some validity to this method if used correctly, change could be progress for these Rays.
This change doesn’t have to be extreme. A few slight adjustments in approach could go a long way for this club and make them a little bit more dangerous. Particularly, it would be refreshing to see more instinctual aggressiveness, not just early in the count, but early in the game itself.
Scoring in the early innings on a regular basis can be a tremendous confidence lift for any offense, not to mention it’s demoralizing effects on the opponent. The Rays averaged just 1.61 runs over the first four innings of their 2014 contests, good for 27th in the Major Leagues.
Taking a hitter’s mentality into the box more regularly could be a solution to the problem. Strikeout rates might climb a bit, but this would still be a beneficial alteration if it results in more hard contact. Are these remarkably significant modifications? No, but they could be enough to keep this offense afloat over the course a grueling baseball schedule and open up the possibility for meaningful games in September.