Surprise Season Candidates: Tampa Bay Rays

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays have not had a winning record in two years, and most people would consider them to be one of the most boring teams in baseball. But what people don't realize is that the Rays are one of the five youngest teams in baseball, best defensive teams in baseball, and have one of the best, and youngest starting rotations in baseball. In 2015, the Rays rotation had the 6th best E.R.A. (3.63), 10th most strikeouts (851), and were 4th in opponent batting average (.240). The Rays starting staff also did that without the help of Alex Cobb, who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery in August of 2016, and only 12 starts a piece from Drew Smyly and Matt Moore. The one thing that hurt their pitching staff in 2015 was that they were 23rd in innings pitched (914.2), and the bullpen was near the bottom of the league. The 2016 Rays rotation will get two huge shots in the arm with Matt Moore and Drew Smyly returning to health, and with 2015 breakouts Jake Ordorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez, they will quietly have a top five rotation. The 2016 rotation would project as follows:

1 Chris Archer. Archer has shown the league what he can do over the last three seasons, and continues to improve different areas of his game. The 27 year old ace went 12-13 with a 3.23 E.R.A. in 2015, striking out 252 across 212 innings.

2 Jake Odorizzi. Ordorizzi finally had his breakout in 2015 that the league had all been waiting for. The 25 year old right-hander went 9-9 with a 3.35 E.R.A. in 28 starts for the Rays in 2015, and the baseball world should look out for him to build on that in 2016

3 Drew Smyly. From 2012 to midway through the 2014 season, Smyly was primarily used as a reliever, and sometimes as a starter in Detroit. Since being traded to Tampa, Smyly has been masterful across 19 starts (3-1, 1.70 E.R.A., 7 starts in 2014. 5-2, 3.11 E.R.A., 12 starts in 2015), the problem for him has been health. Everything looks to be good heading into 2015, and Smyly will finally get that chance to show off his talents for a full season at the big league level.

4 Matt Moore. Prior to his 2014 Tommy John surgery, Matt Moore was establishing himself as one of the top left-handed starters in baseball. In 2013, Moore was 17-4 with a 3.29 E.R.A. in 27 starts, and in 2012 went 11-11 with a 3.81. After two 2014 starts, Moore was forced to have Tommy John surgery, and made a less than spectacular return in 2015. Moore was able to make 12 starts in 2015, and went 3-4 with a 5.43 E.R.A. in 63 innings. Moore did, however, finish out the year strong, going 1-1 in 5 September starts while sporting a 3.26 E.R.A., and in his one October start went six innings and gave up one run. The Rays will count on him to build on the late rebound, and return to form for them in 2016.

5 Erasmo Ramirez. In a seemingly small trade last winter, the Rays sent reliever Mike Montgomery to Seattle for righty Erasmo Ramirez. Ramirez wound up pitching in 34 games and starting 27, ending with an 11-6 record and a 3.75 E.R.A. At the bottom of the rotation, Ramirez solidifies one of the most overlooked, but most talented rotations in baseball in a big way.

In a division controlled by powerhouse offense, the Rays will have to rely on their pitching staff to keep them in the playoff hunt. While the Rays have a number of overlooked players, and young players poised to breakout, offense is not their strong point. But with Evan Longoria (Who is still quietly putting up All-Star numbers) leading the way, the Rays offense should have enough to support their strong rotation. The Rays may be a huge underdog, and probably viewed as a non-contendor by most, but I believe they have a legitimate chance to not only make the playoffs, but possibly even win the division. I admit, it is probably a push to say they could win the division, but with their already strong rotation and decent offense, something like the August return of Alex Cobb could really push them over the edge and help them pull off a huge upset.