To say that the 2016 season was rough for the Tampa Bay Rays and their fans would be an understatement. The club’s 68-94 last place finish in the AL East was their worst in nearly a decade.
From 2008, the year that a talented, young Rays club won the franchise lone American League pennant, through 2013, Tampa Bay won 90 or more games in five of six seasons.
But it has now been three straight losing campaigns in west-central Florida. And most prognosticators had the team again finishing at the bottom of the standings.
But the Rays are off to an encouraging 9-9 start here in the early weeks of the 2017 season. It hasn’t been any one particular thing either.
Under third year manager Kevin Cash, there has been real improvement across all facets of the game. Those improvements added up to a winning record after the Rays swept the Detroit Tigers earlier this week for the first time since 2010. A loss last night to Houston dropped the club back to the .500 mark.
LONGO GETTING HELP ACROSS THE LINEUP
During their glory years, the most important player in the everyday lineup was third baseman Evan Longoria. Now a 31-year old veteran, Longo is still on board, and still a major offensive threat. The three-time AL All-Star has a half-dozen extra-base hits, including three home runs, and has driven in 10 runs.
Right fielder Steven Souza also has three homers. The 28-year old leads the club with 15 RBI and a .343/.429/.582 slash line.
The other two outfield positions feature speed to burn. In left field, Mallex Smith has taken over. The 24-year old was flipped back in January from the Atlanta Braves to the Seattle Mariners, who then shipped him to Tampa for lefty pitcher Drew Smyly.
Smith has gotten off solidly with a .273 average and .360 on-base percentage. He is second on the club with three stolen bases, but has missed the last eight games with a hamstring strain. He has been running lightly, and the club hopes to get him back soon.
Leading the Rays in swipes is Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who has four. The 27-year old is hitting .294 with a .385 OBP thus far in 2017.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the everyday lineup has been first baseman Logan Morrison. Once a highly rated prospect in the Marlins organization, Morrison has mostly disappointed over his first seven seasons.
But now in his second year in Tampa, the 29-year old is tied with DH Corey Dickerson for the team lead with four home runs. Morrison is also second on the team with a dozen RBI. For his part, Dickerson is hitting for a .317/.358/.603 slash.
RAYS PITCHING HAS ALSO BEEN STRONG
On the mound, 28-year old Chris Archer has stepped up to become a legitimate ace after helping lead the U.S. to a World Baseball Classic championship in March.
Archer is 2-0 with a 1.71 FIP and 117 ERA+ mark. Over his first four starts, Archer has allowed 25 hits in 25.1 innings with a 27/8 K:BB mark.
Alex Cobb appears to finally be all the way back from Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss the entire 2015 season and most of last year. Cobb has an 18/4 K:BB across his first 24 innings, and three of his four starts have been encouraging.
24-year old Blake Snell had a strong rookie campaign a year ago, and the lefty is off to another solid start. He has allowed just 12 hits over his first 16.1 innings across three starts.
Matt Andriese was supposed to be the big question mark in the rotation as the fifth starter. But thus far, the 27-year old has done his part. Andriese has a 14/5 K:BB in allowing 16 hits over 16 innings in his three starts.
Jake Odorizzi was supposed to be the breakout pitcher in the rotation. But the 27-year old is currently wrapping up a stint on the 10-day DL with a hamstring issue.
Odorizzi is due to throw a bullpen session on Saturday, and the Rays hope to have the talented right-hander back soon. he did get on the mound for three starts in which he allowed just 10 hits over 13 innings.
Alex Colome took over as the closer a year ago. The now 28-year old is off to a strong start as well. He has allowed just two hits over six innings thus far. He also has not walked a batter across his first half-dozen appearances, and has registered three saves.
The bullpen setting up Colome has been mostly effective as well. Erasmo Ramirez, Tommy Hunter, and Jumbo Diaz have led the way, with Ramirez stepping into the rotation to fill-in while Odorizzi recovers.
RETURNING PLAYERS COULD BOOST CLUB FURTHER
Management likes what it sees of the renewed fight in their ball club. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times recently quoted general manager Erik Neander:
“The makeup and chemistry is showing signs of being a real strength. There is a chip, an edge, a selflessness, a greater purpose behind how these guys compete together. … It’s an easy group to root for.”
Tampa should get better in the coming weeks. Odorizzi could be back on the mound and Smith back in the lineup soon. The Rays are also looking forward to the return of shortstop Matt Duffy, who had off-season surgery on his left heel. Duffy is slowly progressing, and should be back in May.
The Rays have fashioned their .500 start thanks largely to a strong home mark. The team is 8-3 at the sparsely populate Trop, while just 1-6 on the road. They’ll have to figure those road woes out in a hurry if they expect to stay competitive, as the club heads out on an eight-game road trip next week.
While it is way too early to get overly excited about the team possibly contending this season, the start has been fun. Tampa is showing that they can beat you a number of ways. Now it’s up to Cash and his players to keep things moving forward as the warm feelings of spring turn into a long, hot summer.