Tampa Bay Rays 2018 season team preview: Mostly cloudy forecast

From an optics standpoint, the Tampa Bay Rays had one of the worst offseasons in baseball.

The Rays traded franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria for a light package, then later gave away 2017 All-Star Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi in apparent salary dumps for trifling returns. All the while, Tampa Bay made little effort to improve their roster through external means. Woof.

Nonetheless, projection systems think the Rays could be tolerable to decent: FanGraphs foresees 78 wins, PECOTA sayeth 83. Let's figure out why they're a tough team to peg.

The vitals

Oodles of uncertainty

Let's begin by focusing on the lineup, and one attribute in particular: reliability. The Rays are projected to trot out a starting nine that majors in missing time and/or playing poorly.

To wit, Kevin Kiermaier has appeared in more than 110 games once; Denard Span has averaged 111 games over the last three seasons. Matt Duffy hasn't partook in a big-league game since early September 2016. Wilson Ramos has played in fewer than 90 games in four of the last six seasons. Meanwhile, Carlos Gomez was horrendous with the Houston Astros before rebounding with the Texas Rangers over the past season and a half. Brad Miller's follow-up effort to his 30-homer 2016 was so poor he could've justifiably been non-tendered. Offseason addition C.J. Cron had to have a monster second half to finish with a 99 OPS+ overall.  That's seven of the Rays' projected most-day starters, leaving off just Adeiny Hechavarria and Mallex Smith -- neither of whom can hit.

Maybe the Rays hit the jackpot and all the health and performance risks have their finest seasons. But that seems far less likely than stretches where at least half the lineup is either hurt or slumping. That's no an ideal arrangement for a team who could boast the worst bench in baseball -- one that features Jesus Sucre, Daniel Robertson, and potentially Joey Wendle. As such, even the most optimistic person has to concede this could be a mess.

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C.J. Cron is one of numerous Rays with questionable outlooks. USATSI

More oodles of uncertainty

Ditto.

For those unaware, the Rays intend to try a four-man rotation for the entire season. It's really a "four-man" rotation, because the Rays won't be asking their starting pitchers to pitch every fourth day -- they'll still go every fifth day. So, who will start every fifth day? Good ol' Johnny Wholestaff. That's right, the Rays will be piecing together nine innings from their bullpen.

The upside here is the Rays could theoretically leverage their schedule to give Chris Archer, Snell, and Faria more starts -- at least if they're intent on maximizing their chances of winning. If they don't do that  -- and it's not clear they will -- the biggest gain is … uh, that the Rays will be avoiding the third-time-through penalty that teams and analysts treat like dogma during October? There's also seemingly some financial benefit to be taken into account: starters are more expensive, and closers are the only kinds of relievers who get paid through arbitration. Hey, if it doesn't save dollars it doesn't make sense in St. Pete.

The downside seems larger. The Rays have experimented with relief-heavy gameplans before, only to see their best arms wear down as the season progressed. Is a tag-team of random middle relievers working through the order once apiece really better than Matt Andriese or Anthony Banda or any of the Rays' other options working through twice? It wouldn't seem like it.

And boy, if it fails, a bullpen that doesn't look good to begin with could be living on Tulsa time. The Rays spent the winter shopping closer Alex Colome, yet found no return to their liking. The setup men figure to be Daniel Hudson (who has better stuff than his consecutive replacement-level seasons suggest) and Sergio Romo (who had 25 good showings with the Rays after being jettisoned by the Los Angeles Dodgers following 30 poor ones). Oy.

From there, the names are largely inconsequential -- in the sense that their talent levels are similar and that that's how they'll be treated by the front office. The Rays have some young pitchers who could develop into late-inning types: Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek, Jaime Schultz, and Diego Castillo all have big arms. But there's no telling how many times Tampa Bay will bounce them to and fro Triple-A in order to have enough fresh relievers to execute their plan.

On the bright side, Jonny Venters could see big-league action for the first time since 2012. Plus, the Rays saw Blake Snell finish last season strong, and Jacob Faria seems like he could be the latest in the James Shields/Alex Cobb mold -- that is an unheralded prospect who confounds the opposition with a good changeup, wits, and guts.

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Four-man rotation or not, Jacob Faria could be a good one. USATSI

Help is on the way

If there's a saving grace for these Rays, it's that they should soon begin to graduate some of their prospects from one of the better farm systems in baseball. Brent Honeywell's Tommy John surgery is a downer, but the Rays have a deep system. The catch is beyond Honeywell and shortstop Willy Adames, there aren't many prospects who profile as plausible stars.

That isn't to suggest first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers, outfielder Justin Williams, and infielder Christian Arroyo can't help the lineup -- just that they're more likely to be average (or thereabout) contributors. Considering the uncertain state of the Rays' starting nine, each will be a welcome addition.

On the pitching side, Banda figures to be the big in-season promotion. He was the key in the Steven Souza Jr. trade and has a chance to slot into the rotation before long. Banda is a three-pitch lefty with an above-average fastball and a pair of interesting, if inconsistent secondaries. Don't be shocked if the Rays get him to pitch up in the zone more while also tweaking his delivery so he's more on-line to the plate. Should all go well, Banda could slot in near the back of the rotation for the next few years.

Probable lineup

  1. DH Denard Span
  2. 3B Matt Duffy
  3. CF Kevin Kiermaier
  4. RF Carlos Gomez
  5. 2B Brad Miller
  6. C Wilson Ramos
  7. 1B C.J. Cron
  8. SS Adeiny Hechavarria
  9. LF Mallex Smith

Bench: C Jesus Sucre, UTL Daniel Robertson, INF Joey Wendle

Probable rotation

  1. RHP Chris Archer
  2. LHP Blake Snell
  3. RHP Jacob Faria
  4. RHP Nathan Eovaldi

Probable bullpen

Closer: RHP Alex Colome

Setup: RHP Daniel Hudson, RHP Sergio Romo

Middle/Long: RHP Andrew Kittredge, RHP Chaz Roe, LHP Dan Jennings, LHP Jose Alvarado, RHP Matt Andriese

CBS Sports Staff

R.J. Anderson joined CBS Sports in 2016. He previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus, where he contributed to five of the New York Times bestselling annuals. His work has also appeared in Newsweek and... Full Bio

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