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Division Preview: Can the Rays surprise us again?

It was a lost year in Tampa, but there are reasons to think they could bounce back.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays
A little bit of Colomé, a little bit of column B.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe now, but the Rays were a legitimate pick to win last year’s AL East. They instead finished dead last, and the casinos currently have them with by far the worst odds to win the division this year, at +1800 -- the Orioles are the second worst at a modest +750. But not all hope is lost.

Baseball Prospectus’ projected standings have the Rays finishing at 84-78, second in the East, six games behind the Red Sox, and tied for the second wild-card spot with the Rangers. With a rotation topped by Chris Archer, Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi, the Rays are a team you do not want to play in the playoffs, but can they get there? BPro expected them to contend last year, too, and the St. Petersburgers fell flat on their faces.

So do they have a chance? Let’s go through last season and see what we can divine.

The Good

As you might expect from a 68-94 season, there wasn’t a ton of good to go around. The best season on offense was put up by Evan Longoria, who set a career high with 36 homers after seeing a distinct drop in his power numbers over the previous two years. That his 19th-place MVP finish qualifies as *the* definitive positive aspect of Tampa’s season at the plate is… well, it’s not good for them, though it’s nice to know Longoria, unequivocally the best player in team history, has some bullets left to fire. So to speak.

Elsewhere on offense, Brad Miller finally did the damn thing, turning a near-decade’s worth of hype into a 30-homer season in his first season by the bay. His previous career high was 11, with Seattle. Acquiring Miller on the cheap only to watch him flourish is something of a classic Tampa move, but his breakout was the exception on a team that still hit a ton of homers, yes, but were matched by their opponents in that category step for step.

Outside of Steve Pearce, who was shipped to Baltimore for the stretch run after going .309/.388/.520 in limited action, that’s pretty much it for Tampa’s offense, which finished last in the AL East in runs scored and 24th overall. Everyone else was just fine-at-best, outside of the dongs.

On the mound, uh, Alex Cobb pitched again! That’s a good start, even if his results were pretty crappy over five starts. Still, he’s back from Tommy John. Chris Archer had a nice second half after and Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore acquitted themselves well over full- and half-seasons, respectively, as the latter was sent to the Giants, but the big name on the Rays’ staff last year was closer Álex Colomé. He notched 37 saves in 56.2 innings with a 1.91 ERA, but could only do so much on a team that didn’t get many save chances.

The Bad

Where should we start? How about with Archer, a Cy Young contender entering the season, who put up a 5.01 ERA during March and April, rebounded slightly in May for a nearly nice 4.18, but fell off again in June to the tune of 4.97. He wouldn’t get higher than 3.62 in any subsequent month, but the damage was already done.

But Archer wasn’t the only relative rotation flop. Drew Smyly put up his worst year in his full season for the first time since 2014, finishing with a 4.88 ERA over 175.1 IP, as home runs bit him, hard. For his efforts, he was traded to Seattle, where his longball problems might not be so acute; at the very least, the Sox won’t have him to kick around (or be owned by him) anymore.

The rest of the rotation was fairly meh, but the Rays’ limp bullpen does them no favors, especially in the power bullpen era. (See yesterday’s Orioles post for an example of how to do it right). Outside of Colomé, no one pitched well of note outside of Danny Farquhar (35.1 IP, 3.06 ERA, 46 K); even closer-ish guy Brad Boxberger pooped the bed (24.1 IP, 4.81 ERA, 22 K). Suffice to say the near-4 ERA Erasmo Ramírez and Xavier Cedeno don’t put the fear of god into hitters… and they’re the good options.

On offense, the Logan Morrison/Logan Forsythe (now gone)/Brandon Guyer/Steven Souza/Kevin Kiermeier quintet put up virtually identical ~.245/.320/.415 lines, with Corey Dickerson doing his platoon mashing act to meh effect, going .245/.293/.469 with 24 homers. Finally, as anyone who has heard him speak might expect, Carson Cistulli couldn’t muster any new enthusiasm behind the plate with his bat, despite eight homers.

On the bright side, I suppose, Kiermaier did all this while being one of the greatest fielders of all-time, but it hardly mitigates the damage of being part of a largely replacement-level lineup on the field.

The Year Ahead

There are reasons for Rays fans be optimistic, insofar as these fans truly exist. (Please @ me, Danny.) Things couldn’t get much worse than they did last year, and if Longoria and Miller come close to repeating their 2016 seasons and get any help whatsoever from the rest of the lineup, including new catcher Wilson Ramos or outfielder Colby Rasmus, the Rays stand to improve on offense. On top of it, their pitchers are quite good when they’re quite good, and if Archer, Cobb and Odorizzi can put together nice years -- and deep enough starts to get the game close to Colomé or new addition Shawn Tolleson -- the Rays’ rebound could be stark.

As I wrote at the top, there’s a huge disparity between where the betting public sees the Rays and where the numbers see them finishing, and not for the first time. Last year you would have lost your shirt in the bet, but scared money don’t make money -- you might want to pony up a second one. Tampa probably won’t win the AL East and likely won’t make the playoffs, but they’re stronger than they look.