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American League East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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The Rays have a few good pieces, but nothing definitive enough to give them much hope in the 2016 AL East division race.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After a few years of contention, the Rays have fallen into despair over the last several season. They were playoff contenders from 2008-2013, but in the last two years they have fallen by the wayside, and have lost a considerable amount of players to drop out of contention. They have traded off James Shields, David Price, Wade Davis, Wil Myers, Jeremy Hellickson, Ben Zobrist, and others over the span of their descent to end up with a team that can barely compete.

What they did last year:

In 2015, they ended up going 80–82, which ranked them fourth in the division in front of the embarrassing Boston Red Sox. They were a second place team through the end of June before the Yankees surpassed them and never looked back. New York would end up falling behind the surging Toronto Blue Jays, but the Rays never recovered, falling to .500 in the second half, and ultimately finishing second to last in the division.

The Rays were a team that got results from the most unlikely of places. Second baseman Logan Forsythe, who came over in a trade from the Padres, had a career-year when he hit .281/.359/.444 with 17 home runs in his age-28 season. Outfielder Brandon Guyer hit .265/.359/.413 in his first full year as a major league player, and they also received above-average offensive performances from Evan Longoria and Asdrubal Cabrera to solidify a lineup that scored the second-lowest runs in the American League.

Meanwhile, the pitchers were the saving grace of the squad when a majority of their starting rotation finished with an ERA under 4.00 on the year. Chris Archer led the way as their new ace, pitching over 200 innings and striking out 10.7 K/9. Others like Jake Odorizzi, Erasmo Ramirez, Nathan Karns, Alex Colome, and Drew Smyly, all maintained more-than-solid lines. Their rotation was definitely the bright spot of the 2015 squad, but beyond their handful of competent players, their talent level was sub-par.

Who they lost:

The Rays lost some of their best players in the offseason, as Asdrubal Cabrera and John Jaso left in free agency after the 2015 season. They also traded starting pitcher Nathan Karns, after his first full year with the team, and perennial reliable reliever Jake McGee. Those trades have certainly improved the team elsewhere, but the loss of those players will hurt the 2016 team.

Who they gained:

They gained plenty of talent in the offseason as well. In the deal that sent Nathan Karns, C.J. Riefenhauser. and Boog Powell to the Mariners, Tampa Bay acquired shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison, and right-handed reliever Danny Farquhar. Miller represents the second middle infielder the Rays have acquired from the Mariners over the last two years after trading for Nick Franklin at the 2014 trade deadline. Miller has not produced much with the bat in his major league career, but the hope is that a change of scenery will help the former top prospect regain some of his value. The addition of Morrison will also give the Rays an everyday designated hitter, and Farquhar will be the setup man behind closer Brad Boxberger.

They also made the deal that sent lefty Jake McGee and German Marquez to the Rockies for left fielder Corey Dickerson and third baseman Kevin Padlo. At the age of 27, Dickerson will be a young addition to the lineup with a potent bat, but has been criticized for his questionable defense in left field. As good as he has been overall, Dickerson has shown an inability to hit left-handed pitching, which is likely why Colorado made him expendable in the first place.

Beyond these two trade, the Rays also acquired pitch framing expert Hank Conger from the Astros. They have also signed Steve Pearce to play off the bench, and picked up former Yankees pitcher Chase Whitley as he continues to recover from Tommy john surgery.

Key players:

In 2016, much of their team relies on repeat performances and resurrections in order to avoid them falling into the basement of the American League East. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier has put up All-Star worthy numbers with elite defense over the last two seasons, and they're going to need that to continue. Logan Forsythe's breakout season needs to not be a fluke after his 4.1-WAR season. Chris Archer led the team with 5.3 WAR and provided his first 200+ inning season for the Rays this year. The team is not likely to fill in the numbers for any of these three, so if they fall off at all, the Rays will feel it overall.

Tampa Bay needs James Loney to go back to hitting like a competent first baseman. He's never been great offensively, but he's shown improvement with the bat since heading to the Rays, however, he has dramatically declined over the last two seasons and they need him to come back. While any team would be happy to have him at third base, the Rays need Evan Longoria to remain productive, even if he continues to lose his offensive value like he has over the last two seasons. He's been perfectly serviceable, but nothing like the icon he once was when he was still in his 20's. He should be fine in 2016, but his decline will be felt, especially if they get no one to fill in for what he no longer can do.

2016 Outlook:

Many believe the Rays will be competitive during the 2016 season, but I don't see it. They might stick around for a few months, but without elite talent to dominate the competition, the players they do have won't stand a chance. They don't have the pieces to carry the team into contention, and without a dominant bullpen, things won't go well for them over the long haul of the season. The American League East doesn't seem to have a clear favorite, but the Rays won't stop anyone in their tracks unless something completely unexpected happens. Archer, Longoria, and a few others will remain effective, but it remains to be seen whether anyone can step up and offer game-changing value for them.