ST. PETERSBURG -- Clearly, the Rays did not have the kind of season they envisioned in 2016.
After a strong second half to finish the 2015 season at 80-82, expectations were high when they broke camp in Port Charlotte, Fla., last spring. But most of the starters in the highly-touted rotation got off to slow starts, the hitting was feast or famine in the early going, and the defense took a nose dive. After that, injuries arrived. What followed was a last-place finish that nobody saw coming.
But the team finished strong, playing more like the team everyone expected to see in 2016. That more than anything gives Rays fans reason to hope.
Powered by a starting rotation that remains one of the best in the Major Leagues, the team is optimistic looking toward 2017. Combine that rotation with an improved defense led by Kevin Kiermaier in center and improved shortstop play by Matt Duffy, and it's easier to be hopeful about the coming season, which starts with Opening Day just five months away.
The revamped Yankees will visit Tropicana Field to open the season against the Rays. After beginning 2016 as a seasoned, veteran club, the Yankees finished with a roster replete with talented youngsters. The Yankees won 11 of their 19 meetings against the Rays last season and have the look of a team that will contend for the American League East title. Chris Archer will likely be the Rays' starter, and Masahiro Tanaka would seem to be the frontrunner to start for the Yankees.
OPENING DAY STARTER
Why Archer after he struggled to a Major League-worst 19-loss season in 2016? First, he has been the team's Opening Day starter for the past two seasons, and he still has some of the most electric stuff in baseball -- the kind of stuff familiar to No. 1 starters. Even though Alex Cobb should be back in the rotation now that he's recovered from Tommy John surgery, there's no reason to believe that the Rays will upset the applecart by bumping Archer in favor of Cobb.
This lineup is based on the assumption that Souza (hip surgery) and Duffy (Achilles surgery) return healthy. Also, versatile Nick Franklin could find himself in right field for the opener. Maile is listed as the starting catcher above, but when camp opens in February, the position is wide open. If no other catchers are brought on during the offseason, the contenders will be Maile, Curt Casali, and Bobby Wilson.