ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The goal of playing meaningful games in September and beyond remains the same for the cost-conscious Tampa Bay Rays, who feel a busy offseason has improved their chances of contending for a postseason berth.
Escaping the basement in the AL East won’t be easy, especially after trading left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly and lead-off man Logan Forsythe, however general manager Erick Neander likes the way the roster is shaping up heading into spring training.
The Rays think they not only still have a chance to field one of the better rotations in the league, but have strengthened the offense and defense, too, while operating within a limited budget.
The lingering question is whether they’ve done enough after 25 games out of first place, while missing the playoffs for the third straight year last season.
Catcher Wilson Ramos and outfielder Colby Rasmus, both coming off injuries, were signed in free agency.
Many of the other offseason moves, including obtaining young outfielder Mallex Smith in a deal that sent Smyly to Seattle and acquiring pitching prospect Jose De Leon in a trade that moved Forsythe to the Dodgers, are as much about the future as trying to compete short-term in a division where Tampa Bay is chasing the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles and Yankees.
“I think we are still focused on being competitive,” Neander said after finalizing the deal that shipped Forsythe, who settled into the lead-off spot and hit .264 with 20 homers and 52 RBIs last season. “Just how we go about doing that, it’s going to have to be in a little bit of a different way.”
Some other things to know about the Rays:
Ramos, recovering from knee surgery that’ll keep him out of the lineup beyond opening day, was an All-Star with the Nationals last season and is being counted on to revert to his pre-injury form. Rasmus is coming off surgery, too, and will get an opportunity to become the regular left fielder, and right-hander Shawn Tolleson was signed to help a bullpen that struggled last season.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
The 24-year-old De Leon likely will begin the season in the minors, however the Rays don’t believe he’s far away from being ready to help them on the major-league level. “The way we have him evaluated, and his proximity to the big leagues, it was an opportunity we felt we couldn’t pass up as an organization,” Neander said.
Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier and third baseman Evan Longoria anchor what the Rays hope will be an improved defense with Rasmus and Smith joining the outfield. The pitching rotation is deep, too, with right-handers Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb penciled in, along with lefty Blake Snell. Right-handers Matt Andriese or Erasmo Ramirez could wind up in the fifth spot.
The middle of the infield is a question mark, with Brad Miller likely moving from first base to second after spending most of last season at shortstop. Closer Alex Colome was an All-Star in 2016, but shoring up the rest of the bullpen remains a priority entering camp. It will be a big help if Tolleson can revert to his form of two years ago, when he had 35 saves for Texas.
The Rays, who made the playoffs four times in six seasons from 2008 to 2013, are coming off their worst finish (68-94) since 2007 — the last year the team was called the Devil Rays. They’ve missed the playoffs three straight years and will need a lot of things go right to have a chance to break that trend. Starting pitching figures to set the tone again, with Archer trying to regain his 2015 All-Star form after losing 19 games last season and Cobb continuing his comeback from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him most of the past two seasons.