When someone thinks of the American League East, they usually think about the Yankees. Then the Red Sox. Then, thanks to their recent success, they think of the Blue Jays. Then they move on with their day. Point is, the Tampa Bay Rays are generally an afterthought when baseball fans get together and discuss the upcoming season, and as a small market team that is around .500 every year, that’s understandable. In the past, the Rays have gotten by solely on the strength of their pitching. Consider this, since 2010 the Rays haven’t ranked lower than 5th in the American League in team ERA. Digging further, the Rays starters alone haven’t ranked lower than 3rd in that same period and actually ranked first last season with a 3.63 ERA.
With the pitching being so good, the Rays should be enjoying a fair bit of success, but in reality the team hasn’t won a playoff series since 2008 when they won the AL pennant. The Rays downfall has been an offense that ranked at or near the bottom of the Junior Circuit the last two years and has been no better than average in the years before that. All of that is about to change in 2016 though, because the Rays are about to make some noise and shake up the AL East.
The Rays problem with generating offensive production in years past has been due to a lack of offensive threats outside of Evan Longoria. Not counting the 2012 season, in which he played only 74 games, Longoria has led the team in home runs and RBIs in every year since 2011 and was second to only Carlos Pena in homers in 2010. Last season provided some hope though, as 2015 was the first year since 2012 that the Rays had at least four players hit at least 15 home runs. Down the stretch, the Rays offense showed signs of life, ranking as a top-ten offense in the American League during the last month of the season.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, the Rays can expect even more offensive improvement, as they made many acquisitions this offseason like the trade that brought in outfielder Corey Dickerson (24 homers in 2014) from Colorado and the signing of Steve Pearce (15 homers last season) from Baltimore. Improved health will also provide improvement for the team as Steven Souza (16 homers in 110 games) is expected to be available for a full slate of games, as is first baseman James Loney (104 games played last season).
Of course free agent signings and trades don’t always work out, and there’s no guarantee that Souza will improve from his 2015 rookie campaign. However, the Rays have an identity as a savvy team and manager Kevin Cash will have a lot of options to play with from game to game. For example, Corey Dickerson struggles against left-handed pitching.
Dickerson’s struggles against lefties would normally present a big problem, but with Pearce on board, the task of facing lefties becomes easier.
On sight, Pearce’s stats might not jump off the page but take a closer look at his OPS against lefties. An OPS of .824 is very good, and all of the sudden you have a lefty-righty platoon that can be deployed by Cash, making the offense more efficient.
Providing further evidence of a big upcoming season is the 2015 emergence of outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and second baseman Logan Forsythe. Kiermaier broke out as arguably the best defensive outfielder in the game last season, and Forsythe broke out at the plate, swatting 17 homers and driving in 68 runs. The emergence of these two gives the Rays more stars to place around Evan Longoria and the superb pitching staff.
The Blue Jays are, for the most part, bringing back the same team that won the AL East crown in 2015, and the Red Sox are much improved while the Yankees are always a threat, but the Rays have the talent and the coaching staff that can challenge the top powers both in the division and in the league as a whole.