The 2015 Tampa Bay Rays had the same fundamental approach to team building, armed with a good amount of young talent, and enough stuff to be a contender until injuries and a 9-20 midseason stretch took them out of the running, finishing 80-82. You can consider that a moral victory for a franchise expected to fall hard after the Andrew Friedman-Joe Maddon management tandem left for greener pastures.
What do they need? Evan Longoria to go back to being a player worthy of MVP ballot attention, with an OBP north of .350 and slugging .500 or better. For that matter, how about breakthroughs from the young talent on hand, like seeing power lefties Matt Moore and Drew Smyly turn the corner and pitch full seasons? Some outfield help might sound like a good idea, but with Desmond Jennings and Steven Souza both bouncing back from injuries, their need there is less dire -- better to exploit opportunities if the market presents a bargain or two.
Beyond that, a massive expenditure on payroll is probably beyond their limited means, so if you’re going to ask what the Rays need, how about a massive injection of capital? Beyond that, how about a million fans? While we’re at it, how about a new stadium or a new market, because the Rays' home attendance in 2015 was an MLB-low 1.29 million, and has never reached 1.9 million -- a mark that, even if they matched it, would still be below MLB’s average.
Sure, blame the Rays' lousy venue, blame geography, blame the fans, but this is a franchise failing to exploit its earning potential in terms of fannies in the seats, cash taken in, or simply expansion of the audience in an entertainment industry. Nobody wins any prizes for being an intelligently run also-ran. That’s not on the Rays, not in isolation. It’s on the industry for tolerating this predicament. Franchises should be able to earn, not merely exist.
Guy on the rise: Right-hander Chris Archer is the easy choice, because he boosted his strikeout rate to almost 29 percent, generating significantly more swinging strikes with a simplified power mix of mid-90s heat, a plus slider and his changeup. Beyond that, you get into picking from among the historic season of center fielder Kevin Kiermaier on defense or Logan Forsythe's surprising breakout at the plate.
Prospect to anticipate: While Asdrubal Cabrera's departure leaves the team seemingly shortstop-less and left with only former first-rounder Tim Beckham and Mariners castoffs Nick Franklin and Brad Miller to fill in for him, they can anticipate the eventual arrival of prospect Daniel Robertson. A broken bone in his right hand sapped Robertson’s power and cost him half the year in 2015, but he still showed the patience and plate coverage to hit at Double-A.
Winter action plan: The deal with the Mariners secured another OBP guy for the Rays in Logan Morrison; you can probably expect him and Daniel Nava to play important roles in the corner outfield and DH mix, which reduces their need for action. The Rays can go about business as usual, playing out their portion of the schedule and beating most people's expectations by winning 75 games if everybody isn’t healthy, and maybe as many as 85 if everyone is healthy and they get bounce-back seasons from players such as Longoria, Jennings and Smyly. Could they leverage that into a dark-horse bid for a wild card? Sure. Might they shore up that bid by signing a difference-making bat or the right undervalued starting pitcher? Never say never.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.