Cash views season's rough stretch as merely a 'roadblock'
By Sam Blum
ST. PETERSBURG -- Kevin Cash likes to think of the Rays' struggles earlier this year as a "roadblock." That's the 3-24 midsummer stretch that dropped Tampa Bay out of playoff contention, a string of games unlike anything the franchise has experienced.
It's almost a dismissive term -- one the Rays' manager used the day after the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- for such a costly stretch. But in the context of where Tampa Bay is now and what its plans are for the future, that stretch is truly being viewed as a roadblock that is starting to open up.
Instead of blowing up their roster and chances of winning in 2017, the Rays used the Deadline to solidify an infield the club believes will show what it can do the rest of this season and be the cornerstone of a winning team in years to come.
"We're not far at all from being a very good team again," Cash said.
It was at the Deadline that the Rays added Matt Duffy as their everyday shortstop. Before injuring his Achilles in June, he'd played 188 straight games for the Giants, primarily as their starting third baseman. Duffy joined an infield manned by three-time All-Star Evan Longoria at third base, who is having one of the best seasons of his career. And on the right side of the infield is second baseman Logan Forsythe and first baseman Brad Miller, who have combined for 39 homers.
The Rays view each as a long-term piece at the position. Amid Tampa Bay's worst season since 2007, there's a core that will have a chance to show just how developed they are as the season wanes.
"We thought that we were a playoff-caliber club," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said. "And that talent still exists. …Projecting into next year, we should be a more talented club. [We] expect to compete again. Recharge and get refocused and go back after it next year."
With the addition of Duffy, Tampa Bay's infield defense is shored up. Miller was playing shortstop, but he had cost the Rays 15 runs at short this season, per FanGraphs -- the third-highest number of any position player in MLB. Miller has already shown he's more than capable of handling everyday duties at first base.
Miller wasn't pleased with being uprooted from the position he's played the majority of his career, but he accepted it. Over the past two months, he has hit 19 home runs, tied for the Major League lead over that stretch. The move to first base and Miller's move to the cleanup spot is to solidify him as part of Tampa Bay's long-term plans.
"Moving into next year, I think if we can keep this group together, we can be very strong," said Longoria, who has 27 home runs this year. "…I think we're looking pretty solid in the infield."
That 3-24 stretch will loom over this season as a perpetual "what could have been." The Rays have a -21 run differential, better than the Yankees, who are still fighting for a playoff spot. Tampa Bay's staff ERA in the second half is below 3.00, best in the American League. The club is 11-8 since all the losing subsided, and it would be above .500 on the season without that 3-24 stretch.
Those are all reasons to wonder what could have been. But the Rays also provide hope that the 2016 season really is just a "roadblock" to future success. This season's record might not be indicative of the club's capability. And that's what their front office is banking on.
And it all starts with the four pieces on the infield that are there to stay.
"We acquired Matt Duffy and put him in at short," Cash said. "And we're very confident that he's going to be our shortstop moving forward. We knew what what we have with [Longoria] and [Forsythe] at second and third. And Brad Miller, he's been very impressive, learning on the job."
Sam Blum is a reporter for MLB.com based in Tampa. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.