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A look ahead: The 2017 Tampa Bay Rays

When a season has been as disappointing as the 2016 Tampa Bay Rays season has – you start to think about the future, as a fan. You start to consider some exciting possibilities as well as some that you maybe don’t want to accept as inevitable realities. With a team like the Rays who have so much talent at all levels of their system starting with the lowest levels of the minor leagues all the way to the Major League roster, there is actually plenty to be excited about. The harsh realities are still out there, however. The way this team looks in early August 2016 is not how this team could look, at all, come April 2017. Rays fans could be looking at one of the biggest overhauls in team history heading into next season and that’s not to say it will all come from off-season trades or free agent signings, either.

The way this team looked on Opening Day this season isn’t quite how it looks today in early August. That’s not totally out of the ordinary in MLB. Plenty of teams go through transitions, call ups, and periods where dealing with injuries gives the team and fans a chance to see some of the prospects at the Major League level often earlier than expected. Such was the case this season with top prospect, LHP Blake Snell, as well as super UTIL man, Taylor Motter.

So how could the 2017 Rays look with the loaded farm system and current contract-friendly players they have in 2016?

Here’s how the lineup could look come Opening Day next year:

2B Logan Forsythe
CF Kevin Kiermaier
3B Evan Longoria
1B Brad Miller
DH Corey Dickerson
SS Matt Duffy
RF Steven Souza Jr
C Luke Maile
LF Mikie Mahtook

Bench: 1B/3B/DH Richie Shaffer, UTIL Nick Franklin, C Curt Casali, UTIL Taylor Motter

This lineup, obviously, is just based on in-house players at both the MLB and minor league levels. Off-season trades and/or free agent acquisitions will most likely tweak this a bit. I don’t foresee the Rays having the same type of off-season as last year when they brought in Morrison, Miller, and Dickerson. Speaking of Morrison, he’s been a bit of a disappointment considering how he began the year. He snapped out of his early season slump with a vengeance but then came back down to earth and is now on the DL. His defense is average at best and his $4.2M salary in 2016 can be used to bring back Miller and Dickerson for at least another year. With Matt Silverman already throwing 26-year old Miller’s name out there as a part of the team’s future – it’s likely he has a contract extension coming his way to stick around a while. As for Dickerson – he may get one more year to see if he can improve on this season and get that slash line back to where it was in Colorado. Miller will be transitioning to first base, despite being very vocal about not being a fan of the decision. However, he’s become a presence in the lineup that pitchers must account for which can only help Longoria as Miller’s moved into the cleanup spot during the Royals series and thrived.

The acquisition of Matt Duffy in the Matt Moore-to-San Fran trade signaled the inevitable end of Miller at short. Though Duffy is a natural third basemen, no one is dethroning Longo from that spot anytime soon so the decision was made to slot the 25-year old Duffy into the shortstop role where he isn’t a total stranger. Desmond Jennings days with the Rays are most likely numbered with plenty of OF depth in the system including utility players like Shaffer, Franklin, and Motter who can play the corner outfield positions as well as infield to spell the starters. The question is, can Franklin continue his vastly improved offensive work into next year and can Shaffer and Motter put more quality at bats together to prove they can be relied on to take up spots on this 25-man roster. I like Mahtook as the Opening Day starter in left field seeing as he’s a natural in the outfield and I believe can rebound from a very sub-par 2016 despite limited at bats and being hit with the injury bug.

The pitching staff could look very different. Chris Archer’s name was a very hot topic in the month of July this year as being the top arm coveted by multiple teams along with Moore. The Dodgers were pursuing him harder than anyone but a deal couldn’t be reached in time before the 4 PM deadline. While I don’t think Archer gets moved, a healthy Alex Cobb and the emergence of Matt Andriese could possibly push Archer out of the rotation that will assuredly feature lefties Blake Snell and Drew Smyly. I could see Jake Odorizzi traded before letting go of Archer who’s been the team’s ace the last two seasons and shown he can be as dominant as any righty in the game at times. It also helps that the Rays have control of him through the 2020 season and he’s only slated to make $4.9M next year, a salary that is seemingly well worth what he brings to not only the mound but the clubhouse as well. Cobb, who should be back in the rotation within the next week or two from Tommy John surgery rehab, is making $4M this season and will once again be eligible for arbitration in the off-season before his free agency year in 2018. I can’t see the Rays passing up an extension for Cobber, especially since missing so much time over the last two seasons may make such a contract easier to negotiate.

For my money, here’s the 2017 starting rotation for your Tampa Bay Rays:

RHP Alex Cobb
RHP Chris Archer
LHP Blake Snell
RHP Matt Andriese
LHP Drew Smyly

Blake Snell is a Cy Young winner in the making. He was the 2015 Minor League Player of the Year and he hasn’t disappointed in his couple of months at the Major League level, either. One day he’ll be the ace of this rotation but for now, Cobb and Archer will be at the top of what could very well be the most talented five arms they’ve put out there under pitching coach, Jim Hickey. Andriese was very good as a starter once he was called up this year and did even better out of the bullpen. Smyly was near unhittable in April, had a rough May/June, but has started to turn his season around since mid-July and can be as dominant as any lefty in the game when he’s on.

Erasmo Ramirez could stick around and fight for a spot in that rotation but he, too, was a topic of trade discussions this year so he could very well be moved in the off-season. I’ve heard rumblings that Jacob Faria isn’t far off from cracking an Opening Day rotation but I don’t see it happening next year barring a couple of these arms being traded and Faria blowing Kevin Cash and Jim Hickey away in Spring Training. If Erasmo is still here, I see him in the same role he’s been in since the start of this year. A very reliable long reliever/set up man for Alex Colome who has thrived in the closer’s role, becoming an All Star overnight. Seeing as Colome isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2018, the Rays are in a very good spot with him coming back as the closer next year and maybe even giving him a nice extension to avoid that arbitration headache. The rest of the bullpen is always up for questioning as it’s changed every year with one or two exceptions. Brad Boxberger could be back if he can remain healthy and prove valuable at the back end as a setup man but beyond that – it’s anyone’s guess.

Baseball is a funny sport and it’s only early August. A lot can happen in the last couple months of the 2016 season, especially once call ups are made in September. But right now, based on what I’ve seen on the field this year, this is what it very well could look like next April.

But as I’ve said before and what’s always seemed to hold true…

…baseball is a funny sport.

And yes, fans…Kevin Cash will return for a third year as skipper of your Tampa Bay Rays.

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