Following an incredible stretch of six straight winning seasons from 2008-2013 for the erstwhile laughingstock of the American League, the Rays have descended into mediocrity over the last two years. In 2015, a solid starting rotation was undermined by unimpressive offensive production. Unfortunately, making the playoffs in the American League East requires a more balanced roster than what Tampa ran out there last year.
The Rays have made moves to address the issues with their offense. They have turned over three of the nine positions in their everyday lineup in an effort to put more runs on the board. With a handful of young players on the verge of entering the traditional prime years, and a few veterans that may have a rebound in them, the Rays can at least hope for improved offensive production at seven or eight positions this year. Here we will take a look at a couple players that should give Rays fans cause for optimism in 2016.
Top Candidate: Steven Souza. Acquired by the Rays as the centerpiece of the Wil Myers trade last off season, Souza came from the Washington system with big expectations. Coming off of a monster season at Triple A where he hit .350/.432/.590 for 180 wRC+ in 2014, Souza's stock was high last winter. With the potential for five average-or-better tools, he was expected to provide upside similar to that of Myers while enabling the Rays to collect a couple of other interesting prospects as well.
Souza's introduction to the Major League level was solid if unspectacular. He finished the season with a .225/.318/.399 line good for 103 wRC+. His primary issue was a far worse-than-expected 33.8% strikeout rate. His inability to consistently put the bat on the ball cut into every aspect of his production. He suffered a fracture in his left hand after being hit by a pitch on August 1 causing him to miss 35 games before returning in mid September to finish out the year.
In his limited second half sample, it appeared Souza was beginning to adjust to the Major League level. His strikeout rate dropped from 35% in the first half to 30% in the second and his walk rate improved 1.4% in the process. Souza made it through the upper minors with much more reasonable control of the strike zone. If he can continue to adjust to the way big league pitchers are attacking him, even a modest decrease in strikeouts should pay big dividends. The upside here is a well above average offensive player with good secondary skills, and 20/20 potential.
Dare to Dream: Brad Miller. In many ways, Miller is this off season's version of Souza as Tampa once again acquired a player with solid potential before he had a chance to breakout at the Major League level. A former second round pick of the Mariners out of Clemson back in 2011, Miller rocketed through the Seattle system as a polished college player should. After 219 minor league games that resulted in a .334/.409/.516 line, Miller was in the Majors for good by the middle of 2013. A versatile defensive player, Miller has played six positions in his young Major League career. He has spent the bulk of his time at shortstop where he projects to be the everyday man in Tampa.
Like Souza, 2016 will be Miller's age-26 season. Unlike Souza, Miller has 1243 career plate appearances under his belt at the Major League level. Miller was a solid offensive player in Seattle with a career line of .248/.313/.394 good for 99 wRC+ in a tough hitters' park. While Tropicana Field is no hitters' haven, it should represent an improved offensive environment for Miller overall. Miller could prove to be the classic change-of-scenery candidate. A clear shot at playing time at his natural position in a new organization and a better hitting environment present Miller with his best shot yet at delivering on the promise of his prospect status. With a well-rounded offensive skill set and solid defense at short, Rays fans can #daretodream that their organization has found an above average starting shortstop.
Rookie Watch: Blake Snell. It has been a steady climb through the system for the system's top prospect. The 52nd overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Shorewood High School in Washington, Snell has spent time at every level of Tampa's organization. Following a strong 2014 season in which he combined for a 3.20 ERA, 9.3 K/9, and 4.4 BB/9 over 115.1 innings between both of Tampa's Class A affiliates, John gave Snell a Grade B- in his pre-season list last off season. After Snell quickly reached-- and shredded-- Double A on the way to an impressive nine game stint at Triple A Durham, John upgraded him to "at least a B+" in his August review of the system.
Snell has the potential to be a rare left-handed power pitcher. He features a fastball that sits 92-94 while touching 97, and both a slider and change that received plus grades from some sources. His impressive raw stuff combined with an improving command profile allowed Snell to dismantle the upper minors last season. Between the top three levels of Tampa's system, Snell tossed 134 innings with a 1.41 ERA, 10.9 K/9, and 3.6 BB/9.
Tampa has a solid core of young starting pitchers already in the fold. The likelihood is that Snell returns to Durham to begin 2016. He is in position to be the preferred option should injury or ineffectiveness strike one of the more established pitchers. Given his talent, and an opportunity, Snell could be in the rotation for good once he gets his shot.
Final Notes: Former 1st round, Richie Shaffer appears to have gotten his career back on track last season. Given his ability to play the four corners and provide a right-handed complement to veterans James Loney and Logan Morrison, he seems to have a great shot at earning a roster spot this spring. His 20+ home run potential from the right side fits well on this team.
Flame-throwing left-hander Enny Romero simultaneously washed out as a starter and staked his claim to a bullpen role last season. His ugly 5.10 ERA in the Majors was in large part due to a .400 BABIP. His peripherals are much better with a 2.80 FIP based on 9.3 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9. His mid 90s fastball and nasty slider have him in position to have a bullpen breakout in 2016.