2016 Tampa Bay Rays: In need of offense and support

On deck: The Rays had Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2015; too bad it’s not the position player they so desperately need for their everyday lineup. Still, it’s not a good thing to have Blake Snell, a pitcher who dominated on three levels last year — a 1.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts and 84 hits allowed in 134 innings — but a great thing. Snell is the first pitcher so honored by Baseball America since the Rays’ Jeremy Hellickson and it’s a safe bet a healthy Snell will have a better career. He likely won’t start for the Rays after giving up seven hits, four walks and three runs in 4.2 innings in spring training — it took most of a month for that to happen last year — but he should be up at the first sign of injury, after the arbitration cutoff.

2015 Stat: Chris Archer fanned 252 batters last year, setting a Rays record for a single season. Scott Kazmir, with 239 in 2007, held the previous record. Archer’s 10.92 strikeouts per nine innings also set a Rays record; the previous best was Kazmir’s 10.41 in 2007. Archer was fourth in MLB in both categories (behind Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale) and second in the AL (behind Sale).

What he said: Rays manager Kevin Cash on Matt Moore pitching in an intrasquad game: “The good thing was, Matt Moore was outstanding (Sunday) on the back fields.” What he meant: “We thought the best way to prepare him to pitch at home was to have him pitch in a game where no one was watching.”

Outlook: Commissioner Rob Manfred announced this week he would attend the Rays’ opener on Sunday, probably because it’s the easiest place to get good seats on short notice.

There’s space for Manfred even though Tropicana Field will be sold out, maybe for the last time this season. The Rays were last in attendance in 2015, drawing just 1.28 million fans, many of whom were there to root for the Yankees or Red Sox. In another division, the Rays might not have topped one million fans.

(The last major-league team to draw so few paying customers was the 2006 Marlins, who attracted (?) just 1.16 million. And the last major-league franchise not to draw one million fans was Les Expos in their final season in Montreal. They drew just 749,000.)

Rays fans haven’t been coming much since they were awarded a team, but you could hardly blame them last season. On days Archer didn’t pitch, the team could hardly have been more nondescript. No one hit more than Evan Longoria’s 21 homers. No one stole more than Kevin Keirmaier’s 18 bases. No one’s average topped Logan Forsythe’s .281.

The Rays’ most exciting offensive weapon was often the hit by pitch, which allowed Brandon Guyer to reach base 24 times — leading the AL — and Forsythe 14 more. You can just picture the between-innings conversation amongst breathless Rays fans: “Ready for two more beers?” “Not this inning. Guyer’s coming up, and he might get plunked.”

The Rays won 80 games, lost 82 and were in first place as late as June 27 before they lost seven games in a row and 11 out of 12, scoring 34 runs in the losses. Runs were often as scarce as fans.

Lindsey Graham joked that, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” If you did it at the Trop, nobody would convict you because there might not be any witnesses.

(A fan showed up at a Rays game last weekend in Bradenton and plunked a couple of bottles at the team. It sounded frightening and no doubt was, but fortunately no one was hurt and the fan, protesting the Rays’ visit to Cuba, was apprehended without further incident. It may be the most passionate any fan is at a Rays game this year).

The Rays were 25th in runs scored in MLB and 14th in the AL last year; only the White Sox scored fewer in the AL, and the Rays had the satisfaction of knowing they spent far less money to produce their inefficiency.

But it’s the second consecutive year a top-13 pitching staff was undone by a bottom of the order lineup. The Rays’ main attempt to improve it this year was to yank Corey Dickerson out of Coors Field, where’s he’s been about 400 points of OPS better than on the road. What could go wrong?

It still might not be worse than last season’s attempted infusion of offense, which brought in outfielder Steven Souza (.225, .717 OPS, 144 strikeouts) and  catcher Rene Rivera, who was the major-league’s worst offensive semi-regular, batting .178 striking out 86 times and producing, with the help of 11 walks, a .489 OPS.

You really have to wonder what 11 pitchers were thinking.

The Rays also added from the Mariners Brad Miller to play shortstop in place of departed free agent Asdrubal Cabrera, and Logan Morrison, who had a .685 OPS, to DH, because collecting the rejects of a 76-win team is bound to help. At least Morrison, who was known to tweet more than he hit in Seattle, will have plenty of time in between at-bats.

That probably won’t help enough, although if lefty Matt Moore (5.43 ERA in ’15) pitches as he did before his Tommy John surgery (17-4, 3.29) and Snell pitches like Moore, the Rays might have starting pitching good enough to win the division.

If not, it’s another year of the Rays not spending money to improve their offense because they didn’t draw fans, who didn’t want to watch a bad offense the previous year. It’s hard to determine who’s more at fault.

Team Song: Roy Orbison: Only the Lonely

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