ST. PETERSBURG -- The conversation began more than a week ago, when principal owner Stu Sternberg declared the Rays' season a success before they even played the American League Wild Card Game against the Indians. It continued as Tampa Bay battled through Cleveland, struggled against Boston and packed up the clubhouse at Tropicana Field on Wednesday.
The Rays entered this season with two goals: make the playoffs, then win the World Series. They accomplished one of them.
So, was this season a success?
From one point of view, the answer is easy: Of course it was. The Rays won 92 games despite playing with a limited payroll in what they consider to be the toughest division in professional sports. They made it to the playoffs for the fourth time in six years. They won 90 games for the fourth straight year and the fifth time since 2008.
But inside Tampa Bay's clubhouse, the expectations were higher than another quick exit in the AL Division Series, their third since 2010. Eventually, they want to break through again, to get back to the World Series like when they turned it all around in 2008.
"We've been very, very fortunate to put together the kind of run that we have. It's just tough to come to grips with the fact that we have been there four times and haven't reached the ultimate goal," third baseman Evan Longoria said Wednesday. "But in retrospect, I think we're all happy with the opportunity that we've gotten in the past four years, to be able to say that we were counted among the eight or 10 [postseason teams] at the end of the year."
But at times this season, they thought they were capable of much more. That's what left a season most teams could only dream of with some degree of disappointment.
"Seeing the potential in our team and believing we're much better than where the season ended up, yeah, it's frustrating," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "We really thought that we could have virtually switched places with the Red Sox, not only in the playoffs but in the regular season, with the way things went."
So their goal next season, Zobrist said, must be to finish atop the AL East and do everything possible to set themselves up for the postseason run that's eluded them since 2008.
From there, as outfielder Matt Joyce said Wednesday, the playoffs are all about getting "a couple breaks to go your way and a couple big hits here and there." The Rays haven't been on the right end of either of those things since 2008, and they certainly weren't in this year's Division Series against the Red Sox.
"It's just the way the playoffs go. Our goal is to get to the playoffs," outfielder Sam Fuld said. "And then you assume that if you're good enough to get in the playoffs, you can go all the way."
At that point, the conversation changes from defining success into finding ways to get back over that hump. If the postseason really is just a crapshoot, as Fuld said, then perhaps there's nothing the Rays can do but keep pushing toward the playoffs and trying their luck. Eventually, if they make the playoffs enough times and have enough talent, they'll make another run, right?
"I don't know. That's the short answer. We can talk all day about if this would have been different and that would have been different, but I think when it came down to it, it's about executing in the postseason," Zobrist said. "Getting to the postseason is really hard, just to get there. That's about trying to be as consistent as possible through the course of 162 games. But then once you get in the postseason, it's anybody's game. If we were to get hot, then we could just as likely be moving on."
Or must something else be done? Some might wonder if the Rays have simply been shorthanded when they've reached the playoffs, whether they have enough firepower to blow past opponents with higher-priced players and bigger operating budgets. This time around, the Rays were held back by an offense that was too streaky, and the slumps always seemed to pop up when there was a Red Sox pitcher on the mound.
"We're missing probably a couple pieces, and they know where we are right now," setup man Joel Peralta said. "I'm pretty sure they will bring some guys to help us to accomplish that next year. I hope that we can get past the first round."
Granted, they've run into stiff opposition in each of their last three Division Series. Zobrist and several other Rays admitted after Tuesday night's Game 4 loss that this year's Red Sox simply had their number.
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman said the Rays "ended up where we thought we would," and manager Joe Maddon agreed.
"I kind of think we almost played to our potential," Maddon said. "Boston just outplayed us this year. You can't deny that. They were better than us this year. If we could've gotten by them, this could have gone pretty far, I think. But it just happens.
"We just have to be able to somehow figure our way through this first round and get a little bit deeper. ... But our guys have nothing to hang our heads about."
That perspective summarizes the difference between a season in which they accomplish all of their goals and a successful one. It's possible to be "successful" without winning the World Series. In the Rays' opinion, that's what happened this season.
But now, they'll focus on finishing next year without any questions about what success means for this club, with no conversations about taking pride in a season that ultimately ended with a disappointing loss.
"You keep trying to pound on the door on an annual basis to try to get the last game of the year and win it. And if you do, obviously that's the ultimate success. I don't even know if success comes in different levels," Maddon said. "For me, for us, yes, this has been a successful season to this point, no question about it. A lot to be proud of within the entire group. But our goal still is to play the last game of the baseball season this year and win it."