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Know your enemy: Tampa Bay Rays

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The Tampa Bay Rays have their hands full in a tough American League East division. Do they have what it takes to compete or will it be another forgettable year in St. Petersburg?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Tampa Bay Rays were largely exactly what everyone expected them to be: a mediocre team lacking season altering talent that hovered around .500 but never really contended for anything more than third place. They finished with an 80-82 record--two games better than the last place Red Sox--which is as close as you can possibly get to their pythagorean record of 81-81. If you wanted one word to define the Tampa Bay Rays' 2015 season, unremarkable would be it.

Maybe that's not fair to the current roster of Rays. When you have to play 81 games in a dimly lit dungeon like Tropicana Field, it's inevitable that everything around you will be largely forgettable. Or it should be anyways.

That's not to say there weren't some truly special things going on in Florida last season. While they ranked in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of offence and pitching, their defence was among the best in the league. Of course, it helps when you have Kevin Kairmaer patrolling centre field, saving a league leading 42 runs last season.

But defence isn't sexy. It's not going to make me turn on my TV to watch a non-Rays/Jays game anytime soon and the stadium or players won't do that either. To be fair, it's not their fault for the lack of all-star players. They've done as much as humanly possible with a $67 million so it's quite remarkable they finished as well as they did.

If anything, 2015 will be remembered as the champion year of the AME (After Maddon Era) with former Jays' catcher Kevin Kash taking over as the manager of the club. In all, he seemed to do a fair job, despite doing quite poorly in the challenge department. Cash challenged the second most plays in 2015, but had only 32 per cent be overturned, well below the league average of 49 per cent. Of course, challenging plays makes up just a small fraction of manager's job with player relations and bullpen management taking on a more prominent, day-to-day role.

With four years left on his contract, and a Rays team that's largely the same, he's going to get the chance to mould these youngsters into a cash-friendly team ownership can only pray will compete.

Additions:

Major league free agent signings: Steven Pearce (1B/DH), Ryan Webb (RHP)

Minor League signings: Onasis Reyes (RHP), Stanly Sabino (LHP), Wilmer Dominguez (C), Jaime Arauz (RHP), Ender Cespedes (RHP), Tyler Sturdevant (RHP), Oliver Bautista (RHP), Yunior Martinez (OF), Alfredo Balbuena (SS), Dana Eveland (LHP), Kyle Roller (1B), Jose Roca (RHP), Robert Valera (C), Jhan Martinez (RHP), Jaff Decker (LHP), Justin Marks (LHP), Adam Wilk (LHP), Johamper Arrendoll (OF), Eddie Gambon (RHP), Brett Marshall (RHP), Dary Cordero (RHP), Adam Reifer (RHP), MAyo Acosta (C), Jeff Howell (RHP).

Picked up in a trade: Brad Miller (SS), Logan Morrison (1B), Danny Farquar (RHP), Corey Dickerson (OF), Kevin Padlo (3B), Hank Conger (C).

Subtractions:

Asdrubal Cabrera (SS), Jake McGee (LHP), German Marquez (RHP), Boog Powell (OF), C.J Riefenhauser (LHP), Nathan Karns (RHP)

Roster:

Catcher: Rene Rivera

In his first season since coming to the Rays, Rene Rivera was bad. In 110 games he slashed .178/.213/.275 to the tune of a despicable 33 wRC+. All that translated into being far below replacement level at -0.9 WAR, per Fangraphs. Rivera is known as a good framing catcher and has shown the ability to perform before (2014) so it's not out of the question he rebounds this season. Fangraphs' Steamer projection has him at 0.3 WAR in a much smaller sample size.

First Base: James Loney

Despite maintaining a relative respectable batting average in 2015, Loney watched nearly all of his remaining power evaporate while playing in the fewest games in his major league career. He managed to hit just four home runs while slashing .280/.322/.357. While still a respectable bat, he will need to bring more power to the table in 2016 if he wants to avoid being replaced by incomers Logan Morrison and Steven Pearce who both could manifest as upgrades over Loney.

Second Base: Logan Forsythe

Forsythe is coming off a career year where he slashed .281/.359/.444 with 17 home runs and a 4.1 WAR. His BABIP did inflate that slightly at .323 but his walk rate and overall power make him a strong candidate to be an exceptional player for the Rays again in 2016.

Shortstop: Brad Miller

Coming from the Seattle Mariners organization via trade over the offseason, Miller represents the ability to be a marginal player for the Rays at a respectable price (the Rays motto). In 144 games last season Miller hit .258/.329/.402 and while his defence slipped slightly, Steamer has him rebounding for a career year of 2.0 WAR this season.

Third Base: Evan Longoria

For quite some time, Longoria has been the face of the Rays' franchise. Although that face is aging, it hasn't departed yet. Longo has played in at least 160 games in each of the last three seasons, hitting .270/.328/.435 last season for a laudable 4.2 WAR. Although he will decline with age, don't expect that power and talent to evaporate before 2016.

Left Field: Corey Dickerson

Picked up in the offseason via trade, Dickerson is a young option for the Rays to employ that has shown the ability to hit for average over three seasons. Last season Dickerson hit .304/.333/.536 in 65 games and shows the ability to continue that skill if given more games again in 2016.

Centre Field: Kevin Kiermaier

While only an average bat--98 wRC+ in 2016--Kiermaier made a name for himself as one of the best centre fielders in the game over the past two seasons through exceptional defence. As said, he was worth a lofty 5.5 WAR last season saving a league leading 42 runs. Steamer has him declining in 2016, but to a still quite respectable 4.0 WAR.

Right Fielder: Steven Souza Jr.

Now in his second full season in the big leauges, Souza may finally be ready to take the next step. Last year Souza slashed .225/.318/.399 with 16 home runs. With a walk rate as high as 10.8 per cent last season, it's hard to imagine he doesn't continue to be slotted as any everyday player for the Rays this season.

Designated Hitter: Logan Morrison

Acquired in the offseason via trade, Morrison is looking to rebound on a year where he hit .225/.302/.383 with a 90 wRC+. While he may not be able to return to his 2014 self where he reached a career high 1.1 WAR, Morrison has the ability to become an asset in a Rays uniform with plus power and strong pitch recognition skills.

The Rotation:

For quite a while, the strong suit for the Tampa Bay Rays has been their young starting rotation. That trait won't change in 2016. Headlined by ace Chris Archer, the Rays have a strong supporting cast that includes Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez and Alex Cobb--who is expected back in August after having Tommy John surgery in 2015.

Archer is obviously the glue that holds this all-together. Archer seemed to be on his way to a CY Young last season, but came up short finishing with a still very respectable 3.23 ERA and 5.3 WAR. His strikeout rate increased to an nearly unhittable 10.70 per nine innings while breaking the 200 inning plateau for the first time in his career.

Odorizzi had a career year in 2015 as well, recording a 3.35 ERA and 2.9 WAR, but watched his colleague Matt Moore struggle returning from injury, putting up a 5.43 ERA over 63 innings.

The big thing for the Rays will be health in 2016. If Archer were to get hurt in any way for a considerable period of time, this season would undoubtedly be a write-off for the Rays. Given the annual need to use a wealth of pitchers in the rotation, the lack of depth may be the key story in a year of insignificance for the Rays organization.

Bullpen:

Brad Boxberger (RHP)

Danny Farquar (RHP)

Xavier Cedeno (LHP)

Alex Colome (RHP)

Steve Geltz (RHP)

Enny Romero (LHP)

Matt Andriese (RHP)

Andrew Bellatti (RHP)

Ryan Webb (RHP)

Despite recording 41 saves last season, closer Brad Boxberger was largely irrelevant as far as WAR is concerned last season, posting an exact replacement level WAR. The problem with the Rays 'pen is that it lacks any substantive names outside of Boxberger.

That said, the story for the Rays may not be holding leads in 2016, but instead keeping games close enough for contention deep in games.

Outlook:

In all likelihood, 2016 will be another unremarkable year where, even if everything were to go right, they will fall short of playoff contention. Right now, the American League East is far too strong for a team like the Rays to play up success for an entire season. The Blue Jays are as strong as they've ever been, Boston figures to rebound from a down season and the Yankees, while shifting their ideology to become younger, should continue to compete for the top position in the East. That leaves out Baltimore who has demonstrated the ability to compete over the last few years without massive funds.

That's not even mentioning that the Rays lack serious talent and depth around the field on their roster. The starting core will be marginal at best if it's able to remain healthy but things could go horribly awry if, or when, injuries occur and their lack of depth becomes a defining characteristic.

The Rays aren't a horrible team, but they aren't a contender. A reasonable estimate has them at around 70 wins and last place in the American League East. With their current roster makeup, and a dominant division, could you really expect anything else?