Armed with a strong starting rotation, staying healthy will be No. 1 key
By Richard Justice
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays can win the American League East, and it's not even that much of a stretch. Maybe all they need is a stretch of good luck. Or just average luck. They're due for some, too, after all the lousy breaks they've had.
Anyway, back to winning the AL East. Let's run down six reasons to believe in the Rays in 2016:
1. One of baseball's five best rotations starting with right-hander Chris Archer, who is going to win at least one Cy Young Award during his career. Behind him, the Rays have four solid starters in Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore and Erasmo Ramirez. Alex Cobb is on track to return from Tommy John surgery in the second half of this season.
"The rotation is talented, and the rotation is deep," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said.
Moore was the only Tampa Bay starter with an ERA above 3.75 last season. Now, he seems fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and lowered his spring ERA to 1.59 with 3 2/3 shutout innings against the Yankees on Saturday.
The problem has been keeping the best guys healthy. Last season, Tampa Bay's projected rotation started just 86 games (53 percent). This spring, so far, so good.
"If we can remain healthy, we'll take our chances because we have a lot of confidence in those guys," manager Kevin Cash said. "And we also have some depth behind them."
2. Good health. Baseball people are reluctant to speak about something as intangible as luck because it sounds like a copout. What if it's true? In this case, it is.
"If we're healthy, we're in a good shape," Silverman said.
At this time last season, Silverman was confident that he'd constructed a team that would win the AL East.
The Rays went 80-82 last season and missed a postseason berth by six games despite making 145 roster moves and 21 players accounting for 26 trips to the disabled list. At one point, 80 percent of the five starting pitchers was on the DL.
"It was frustrating because the talent was there," Silverman said. "With the injuries, especially the concentration of injuries, we never got to see what that club could do."
That's the rub. Even though Silverman focused his offseason on remaking an offense that was the second-lowest scoring in the AL last season, what he really needs is to catch a break. If that happens, the Rays should be in business.
3. Left fielder Desmond Jennings could finally be the offensive force he was once projected to be. He played just 28 games last season because of a left knee injury and has never played more than 139 in his five seasons. Now 29, Jennings is hitting .467 this spring and has a chance to be a difference-maker. There are more offensive options around him, but if Jennings emerges as an offensive force, he could change the entire lineup.
Cash has pieces to mix and match around the diamond. Silverman is hoping these changes don't come at the expense of Tampa Bay's usually airtight defense, but he had to make dramatic changes to his offense.
"When they did that this offseason, it really spoke to us," Archer said. "It told us, 'OK, they're in this to do more than just put a competitive product on the field.' They're in this to win. You can talk to any of the guys with the Royals and Blue Jays. When they made those big moves around the Trade Deadline, it energizes you. You know the front office is behind you. I felt the same way with our moves. The names aren't as big, but it's equal in the amount of need we addressed."
5. Star power. This matters, too. In tough times, teams lean on their stars. In Tampa Bay, that means that rotation, especially Archer, and third baseman Evan Longoria and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.
Do the Rays have questions? Yes, they do, especially in the bullpen where Cash is sorting through his best arms to figure out how to line 'em up in front of closer Brad Boxberger. But every other AL East team has questions, too.
"There's a belief in the clubhouse that we can compete with anyone in the division," Silverman said. "I believe it. Our front office believes it."
6. Tradition. The Rays have a cool thing going, and it began with owner Stuart Sternberg taking control of the franchise in 2005. He built a great organization one brick at a time, and after the '07 season, changed the name of the franchise from Devil Rays to Rays.
In eight seasons since, a franchise that had never had a winning season has the fourth-best record in baseball. Only the Yankees (five) have made more postseason appearances than the Rays (four) in that time.
Tampa Bay's rotation has a 3.78 ERA, tops in the AL and third overall in the Majors. That kind of winning breeds confidence.
"I don't know if that feeling has left here since my first day joining the team [in 2011]," Moore said. "It's been something we hang our hat on. I wouldn't say it's something we take for granted, but we know our strengths."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.