After struggling through years of hurt as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays between 1998 and 2007, Tampa Bay became simply the ‘Rays’ prior to the 2008 season, adopting the Tampa Bay Rays montra and their fortunes looked up ever since. 2016, however, brought the organization back to earth, finishing with their worst record since that stretch of nine straight losing seasons.
The team made a few small changes during the offseason, adding free agents Colby Rasmus and Rickie Weeks while the team also re-signed first baseman Logan Morrison. The most notable absence in 2017 will be second baseman Logan Forsythe, traded to the Dodgers in a January swap that brought promising right-hander Jose De Leon to Tampa. The Tampa Bay Rays now hope a boost in production from their lineup will lead to a better campaign during the months ahead.
1. Kevin Kiermaier, CF – Regarded more for his defensive prowess, Kiermaier will likely assume the leadoff duties from the departing Forsythe. Last year he hit .246 but had a very nice .331 on-base percentage thanks to his 40 walks. Kiermaier also stole 21 bases on 24 attempts, getting the majority of his at-bats hitting behind Forsythe.
Throughout his career, the 26-year-old has roughly 200 at-bats at the top of the lineup and while his .251 batting average in those situations is nothing to rave about, he does have an on-base percentage closer to .300 and should provide plenty of opportunities for those hitting behind him. The lefty swinger also had the second-highest OBP of any regular hitter, so he is the obvious candidate to get the first opportunity at the top.
2. Logan Morrison, 1B – The number two slot in the lineup has to be just about the most flexible of any. There are several different routes we could take and it really depends on who the Rays may be facing on a given day or what Kevin Cash prefers. We could go with a high on-base, high-power guy like Brad Miller, we could go with a speedy type like Steven Souza, or we could go with my personal preference: Logan Morrison.
Signed to a one-year, $2.5 million deal during the offseason; Morrison has typically offered a solid mix of good on-base abilities with some power. His numbers in 2016 almost typify that as he had a .319 OBP while hitting 18 doubles, 14 homers, and 43 RBIs. Last year he got the majority of his ABs lower down in the lineup, but with Kiermaier getting on base with plenty of speed leading off, I like Morrison’s ability to get on base and drive in runs in this slot.
3. Evan Longoria, 3B – If there was one spot of Tampa Bay’s lineup I’d be willing to bet my house on, it’s that Longoria will be hitting third. All but four of his at-bats last year came in this slot as he hit .273 with 41 doubles, 36 homers, and 98 RBIs in 160 games. Longoria hasn’ hit more than 40 doubles since his All-Star years of 2008 to 2010, and his .521 slugging percentage was the third-highest among all American League third basemen.
It’s also been a while since ‘Longo’ has had 100 RBIs, but 2017 may be the year. The 31-year-old hit .311 with runners in scoring position in 2016, and with the likes of Kiermaier, Morrison and Curt Casali getting on base with regularity, it seems possible another 100 RBI-season could be on the cards.
4. Brad Miller, 2B – Having previously struggled through three years in Seattle, Miller seemed to find a home in Tampa Bay last year as the 27-year-old put together a career year. His 30 home runs, 29 doubles, and 81 RBIs were all career-highs as the versatile middle infielder quickly established himself as an important part of the Rays lineup.
His second-half transition to the clean-up spot was reflective of just how reliant Tampa Bay had become on Miller, but the left-hander didn’t let the team down with his OPS of .830 nearly 100 points higher than what he produced prior to the All-Star break.
5. Corey Dickerson, DH – As he enters his second campaign with the Rays, Dickerson will be looking to improve on his production from last year. Though he did manage to hit a career-high 36 doubles as well as 24 homers and 70 runs batted in, the left-handers average was well his previous standards. Between 2013 and 2015, his batting average sat at .299 but that dropped more than 50 points lower in 2016.
Tampa Bay will continue to rely heavily on Dickerson to drive in runs and hit for plenty of power, but there’s no doubting that manager Kevin Cash would want to see the batting average go up and the strikeouts go down.
6. Matt Duffy, SS – Traded by the Giants at the deadline last year, Duffy begins his first full season as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. After playing a lot of third base in San Francisco, Duffy has since moved over to shortstop with the Rays since Evan Longoria is entrenched at the hot corner.
Offensively, Duffy hit .258 in a combined 91 games in 2016. He had 14 doubles and 28 RBIs in that span while also stealing eight bases. The right-hander has previously proven that he can be a consistent offensive force when given regular playing time, hitting 46 extra-base hits and 77 RBIs when he appeared in 149 games in 2015. That’s exactly the type of production Tampa Bay will hope to get out of Duffy this year.
7. Colby Rasmus, LF – Another new member of the Rays lineup, Rasmus spent the last two seasons plying his trade in Houston. He was perhaps a casualty of the Astros missing the playoffs last season as they looked to bring in a few veterans to lead their core of young players back to the top of the AL West. Rasmus meanwhile hit just .206 last year with only 10 doubles, 15 homers and 54 runs batted in.
Prior to 2016, the left-handed outfielder averaged 23 doubles, 22 home runs and 56 RBIs between 2013 and 2015. His .248 batting average was still a little below expectations, but an OPS of .791 was good enough considering he was in the lineup to crush the ball. The Rays will be hoping he can provide a bit of lower order pop to their lineup too.
8. Steven Souza, RF – Once a top prospect who was traded from Washington to Tampa Bay, Souza is yet to live up to expectations. In his second full season with the Rays last year, the 27-year-old put up fairly comparable numbers to those seen in 2015 though his average rose to .247 and his on-base percentage was barely better than .300.
Souza hit mostly in the middle of Tampa Bay’s lineup last year, but with Matt Duffy and Colby Rasmus both seemingly better all-around hitters, Souza may be limited to lower-order duties in 2017. Defensively, he continues to rate as a below-average corner outfielder. That suggests that Souza must lift his output at the plate if he wants to be a regular of the Rays lineup for years to come.
9. Curt Casali, C – Having been used sparingly in his first two MLB seasons, Casali finally started to get a little more game time last year as he played in 84 games for the Rays. Though his offensive numbers are hardly anything worth raving about, defensively Casali threw out 36 percent of runners and was rated highly by pitch framing metrics.
At the dish, he hit just .186 with 18 extra-base hits and 25 RBIs. That said, Casali was able to limit his strikeout rate and draw enough walks to present some value. While the 28-year-old will likely start the season as the everyday catcher, he may not finish in the same way. Tampa Bay signed free agent Wilson Ramos to a two-year deal during the offseason and after suffering an ACL injury in 2016, Ramos will likely be ready to resume catching duties some time in May.