Rays confident they can contend for playoffs

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer, left, throws a pitch during a spring training baseball workout in Port Charlotte, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/AP

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) The new-look Tampa Bay Rays begin spring training with the same `ol expectations of contending for a postseason berth despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.

The budget-minded club has the fourth-best record in the majors over the past eight seasons and has grown accustomed to going about their business in a particular way, especially among a talented group of starting pitchers that figures to be one of the keys to the team's prospects of playing deep into October.

So when two minor league prospects participating in their first major league camp showed up at the clubhouse later than Chris Archer felt they should for the first workout for pitchers and catchers on Sunday, the All-Star right-hander let Blake Snell and Jacob Faria know how he felt about their arrival time.

''I get here super early,'' Archer told the young pitchers, who were not late, but only arrived about a half-hour in advance of a scheduled team meeting. ''I wouldn't expect you to be here at 6:30, but 8:30?''

Part of the optimism the Rays have for rebounding from last year's 80-82, fourth-place finish in the AL East is based on the offseason acquisition of some hitters who will be counted on to upgrade an offense that ranked next to last in the AL in runs scored.

But the heart of the team remains starting pitching and defense, which have been essential to an impressive since 2008, when Tampa Bay made an improbable run to the World Series.

Over the past eight seasons, the Rays have won 707 games, fourth-most in the majors behind the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels.

Just as impressive, they've done it with an average opening day payroll of $62 million, compared the Yankees' $209 million, the Cardinals' $106 million and the Angels' $133 million.

This year's opening-day payroll figures to be around $70 million.

''Since 2008, we've come into camp thinking that our team can compete for the playoffs. We felt that way last year. We felt that way the year before, and we feel that way this year. The goal is to play meaningful games in September, and those September games translate into the playoffs,'' president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said.

''Our payroll is what it is. Fortunately for us, payroll doesn't dictate the standings. Computers don't dictate the standings, though sometimes we wish they would,'' Silverman said. ''But the guys in the clubhouse – they have the belief, they have the confidence, they have the talent to go out and compete in the East. We feel good about our chances, as good as we can coming into a season.''

Archer and the rest of a pitching rotation that has a chance to be one of the best in the AL is the biggest reason why.

Even with right-hander Alex Cobb likely to remain sidelined until at least July while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Rays figure to be competitive in the AL East. That is, if a projected rotation of Archer, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez can remain healthy, and Cobb returns as expected and pitches effectively.

Cobb missed all of 2015, while Moore (elbow) and Smyly (shoulder) were sidelined a sizeable chunk of the season with their injuries. Nevertheless, Tampa Bay starters led the AL in ERA (3.63) for the third time in five years.

Archer, a first time All-Star last summer, thinks this year's rotation is capable of being one of the best the team has ever had.

''It's not going to be easy. There's some things that all of us need to get better at, for sure,'' the 27-year-old right-hander said.

''Again, we have to prove it,'' Archer added. ''We were thinking the same thing last year, and I know ERA-wise it was good. But there's … definitely room for improvement.''

Silverman and second-year manager Kevin Cash agree.

The Rays acquired slugger Corey Dickerson, first baseman Logan Morrison, shortstop Brad Miller, infielder Steve Pearce and catcher Hank Conger to bolster the offense this winter. They also created competition for jobs in a retooled bullpen and expect to remain solid defensively.

'' The talent is there. The belief is there within the clubhouse,'' Silverman said. ''It's just a matter of going out and playing ball.''