Tampa Bay will head into 2018 with solid pitching, handful of rising prospects
By Bill Chastain
ST. PETERSBURG -- Yes, the Rays ended the 2017 season on a high note, but no, the Rays do not deem 80 wins acceptable.
"If we begin to start accepting 80 [wins] or something that's not good enough, I don't know where we're going," Kevin Cash said.
The Rays manager made his comment at a season-ending press-conference Monday at Tropicana Field. Also on the podium were Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander, senior vice presidents of baseball operations. The pair allowed that the core group of the team that will return is strong, and better than it was heading into offseasons past. They also acknowledged that there's work to be done.
The Rays' 80-82 finish represented a 12-win improvement over 2016 and earned them a third-place finish in the American League East. However, they finished 13 games behind the first-place Red Sox and 11 behind the second-place Yankees. How much will the Rays have to do to bridge the gap before next season?
"Look, somehow, we have to figure out a way to start scoring more runs than our opponents," Neander said. "[The run differential over the past four years] is somewhere in the middle, being around zero or plus-or-minus, wherever you are, that's not the desired outcome. On the other hand, being in that zero territory, usually you're not far off from things coming together."
The starting pitching should again be strong, with Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi highlighting the group. Alex Cobb is expected to be elsewhere via free agency. The Rays' No. 1 prospect, right-hander Brent Honeywell, should be in the mix to win a rotation spot, and expect Jamie Schultz to arrive to bolster the bullpen.
"We're in a much stronger position moving forward than we have been," Neander said. "So while our Major League [roster] over the last four years has kind of been hovering somewhere in the middle, give or take ... what's coming up from underneath gives us optimism going forward."
But there will be a lot of turnover of the roster as usual, which Kiermaier noted following Saturday night's win over the Orioles.
"We are going to have a total different team next year compared to right now, that's the nature of the game," Kiermaier said. "For the guys who are going to be here, we have to do the little things right a lot more. That's how our team has always been built.
"We aren't going to go out and spend all the money on the big guys. We have to do the little things right a lot more than other teams out there, and that's just being honest and realistic with what we have going on here. That's fine with us."
Cash was recently asked why the Rays should be optimistic about next season, and he didn't miss a beat.
"The pitching, the young pitching," Cash said. "With the young pitching that we already have that's here and the young pitching that's really close, and that's starter and reliever.
"You know, we have a chance over this offseason, next spring, and early part of next year, to really get a group of young starters and young relievers. And there's going to be veterans mixed in there, no doubt, or guys with experience, but to really kind of learn together. Learn to win together at this level, and we think they're really quality pitchers."
The front office will soon begin meeting to discuss how they plan to approach improving next year's team. Will they go for more defense? More offense? Can they field a team that will strike out less?
"There are some dynamic clubs in this league that have not struck out a lot," Bloom said. "And that said, year in and year out, sometimes there are very good clubs that do. We feel the way this year went, we feel there were a couple of relatively small things that could have gone a little differently where we would have had a different outcome while having an offense with a lot of strikeouts.
"...We want to have complete players in every possible facet. And there's a lot of instances where it's really valuable to move the ball. And we want to develop players who are able to do that. ... But it's not our goal to turn our head away from good players who might not do that as well, but bring other strengths to the table."
No matter how the Rays spin it here in early October, not making the playoffs again is a bitter disappointment -- even if the prospects for improvement in 2018 look better.
"We have a lot to build off of," said Longoria after Sunday's game. "We're going to have pitching again. There's no victory when you are going home on the last day of the regular season. I kind of just want to chill out right now and take it all in. Start thinking in December about what I have to do and what we have to do as a group to be in the postseason again."
Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2004. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.