MLB Team Report - Tampa Bay Rays - INSIDE PITCH


The Tampa Bay Rays entered the 2014 season with World Series expectations, a franchise-record payroll and arguably their most complete team ever, on paper.

They packed up their bags at Tropicana Field on Monday and headed into the offseason with a lot of questions about what went wrong this season, but fewer about what the team will look like in 2015.

There likely will be some roster turnover before they report to Port Charlotte, Fla., for spring training. Owner Stu Sternberg has said the Rays will be cutting down on payroll in 2015, though a large part of that work was done already by trading David Price.

But it would seem the Rays are going to remain mostly intact after a disappointing 77-85 season in which most, if not all, of the players expected to lead them to the postseason dramatically underperformed.

"It's not good," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, entering into the final year of his contract with the Rays. "We don't like it at all. It's been an awkward year. We had a lot of really good things happen. The bad thing is we lost 85 games. There's been some wonderful individual performances. There's been a lot of growth with different players. But there are different things we need to iron out before next season."

The Rays learned a few things on the positive side this year. They recognized that outfielder Kevin Kiermaier will be a part of their future, that lefty Jake McGee is up to the task of being a big-league closer, that reliever Brad Boxberger is a devastating setup man, that their young pitching will continue to be their greatest strength even after trading away Price.

But they once again came up short offensively, scoring an American League-low 612 runs. That total was also the lowest mark in franchise history. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon has spoken at length all year about how the improvement in analytics, pitching and fielding has put offense in an almost inescapable hole throughout baseball. But it seems to have affected the Rays more than anyone else.

"That's probably a big part of why it's tough to score runs, but it's not stopping other teams," Rays outfielder Matt Joyce said. "I think there's some things that we definitely have to figure out. ... Obviously a lot of the season we struggled. It's hard to put your finger on one thing, and I think sometimes things don't always go your way. It's not to say the effort wasn't there."

For those anticipating any sort of shakeup, look for the Rays to retain their entire coaching staff next season. That includes Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton, often the subject of fan's criticism given the team's annual offensive struggles. And don't expect the Rays to change their philosophy that their team must be built around pitching and defense to be successful.

"I think you see the teams that get to the postseason are built on pitching and defense. It's our mantra, and it's the right mantra," Shelton said. "I think that's why (executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman) and Joe and our front office has built our team that way, because that's the way you're going to get there. Offense is a tough thing, especially with the way the game's going now. The analytics in the game, the shifts in the game, offensive players are at a disadvantage. We have to find a way to create runs, but it's always going to be a pitching and defense-based game."

In other words, expect more of the same from the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015 -- except, they're hoping, with different results.

"What we rely on heavily is all coming back next year, and then all of our hitters are going to be better, more prepared for the ups and downs of the season," Rays starter Chris Archer said. "We're going to come back strong as far as pitching is concerned, and our defense is going to be top-notch, as it always is. If we can stay healthy, we'd be fine."

-----------------------------------------------

MLB Team Report - Tampa Bay Rays - NOTES, QUOTES


TEAM MVP: This isn't an easy pick given the team's overall down year, but third baseman Evan Longoria managed to put up respectable numbers amid a disappointing offensive season for both him and the Rays as a whole. Longoria played in all 162 games, perhaps his most important accomplishment, and finished the year with 22 home runs and 91 RBIs. Utility man Ben Zobrist put together perhaps the Rays' most complete performance, batting .272/.354/.395 while playing strong defense at several positions and being at his best during Tampa Bay's hottest stretch; he was named the team MVP by the local Baseball Writers of America Association for his contributions. Left-hander Jake McGee emerged as a dominant closer, but it's tough to say the closer of a sub-.500 team was its most valuable player. Instead, that nod goes to Longoria for his run production despite a career-worst season at the plate. "For two months he struggled. I think it's a credit to him. He grinded through it," Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "A lot of guys aren't as mentally tough as he is, and he did a really good job with it."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: There's a strong argument for this to be RF Wil Myers, who followed up his American League Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013 with an injury-plagued, ugly 2014 season in which he hit .222/.294/.320 with six home runs and 35 RBIs in 87 games. But even that wasn't quite as disappointing as the year reliever Grant Balfour put together after coming back to Tampa Bay on a two-year, $12 million contract last offseason. The Rays are banking on Balfour bouncing back in 2015 after going 2-6 with a 4.91 ERA and pitching himself out of the closer role this year. He cost Tampa Bay several games early on in the year, eventually getting demoted to low-leverage work down the stretch.

TOP PROSPECT: The Rays' farm system is surprisingly thin on elite talent in the upper minor leagues, but they appear to have added a potential star in SS Willy Adames. Tampa Bay acquired Adames, who just turned 19, as part of the three-team deal in which David Price was shipped off to Detroit. As the youngest everyday player in the Midwest League, Adames hit .271/.353/.429 with 41 extra-base hits and 61 RBIs in 125 games for Class A West Michigan and Bowling Green. Adames is a long way from the majors -- again, he's only 19, and this was his first full season in the minors -- but he has more upside than anyone in the Rays' system and could be their shortstop of the future and could get to Tampa Bay by 2017.

PLAYER NOTES: