Jones: Rays talk a big game; let's see if they play one

PORT CHARLOTTE — First day of spring and the Rays are talking playoffs.2 Days Ago1 Week Ago1 Day AgoJust like every other team in Major League Baseball.That's what the first day of spring is all about.High hopes. Big dreams. A full tank of optimism.That...

Jones: Rays talk a big game; let's see if they play one

PORT CHARLOTTE — First day of spring and the Rays are talking playoffs.

2 Days Ago

1 Week Ago

1 Day Ago

Just like every other team in Major League Baseball.

That's what the first day of spring is all about.

High hopes. Big dreams. A full tank of optimism.

That was the vibe Monday when the Rays opened spring training with a news conference. The Rays are undefeated in news conferences.

It's the actual games that have been a problem. At least, that was the case last season when they won 68 and finished in last place.

The Rays didn't see that coming. A year ago at this time in this exact same spot, the Rays talked October baseball and World Series and meaningful games in September.

Then the season tumbled over the cliff by the Fourth of July.

So don't color me excited about 2017 just because Monday's news conference sounded peachy.

Knowing how last season turned out, why should we believe anything we hear about this season? Why should anyone be optimistic? What really makes the Rays think they'll be any good?

"We're confident with what we've done this offseason,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "We're confident with the core guys that we had finishing the year. You look at what our strengths are.''

What, exactly, are those strengths?

Evan Longoria seems to have rediscovered his game. Brad Miller discovered he has serious power. And the majors discovered that the Rays have a standout closer in Alex Colome.

Maybe shortstop Matt Duffy will be just what the Rays need from that position, both offensively and defensively.

After that, the Rays run a little thin on strengths.

As far as the offseason, it's hard to get a handle on what the Rays accomplished. They've added some intriguing pieces who could really help. Guys like catcher Wilson Ramos, a couple of bullpen arms and, eventually, starting pitcher Jose De Leon.

But what this season ultimately will come down to is whether the pieces who were already here can perform better in 2017 than they did in 2016. It's really that simple.

Corey Dickerson. Steven Souza Jr. Logan Morrison. Even Kevin Kiermaier. They must get better.

"Just talking to them this offseason, there are a lot of guys in this clubhouse who take a lot of pride in not only their personal performance but the performance of the team,'' Cash said. "And I don't think anybody last year felt good about anything. And it has probably motivated some guys and it has driven them to work on some things that they needed to work on. And I think we're all going to hear that message once we start talking to the players when they come in.''

But the real key? The starting pitching. It's not rocket science. Baseball always is about starting pitching.

The thing is, for years, all we've talked about is how good the Rays starting pitching is. And last year, it wasn't good enough. You might even say it was a weakness.

That started with Chris Archer. The expected ace of the staff lost 19 games, and while wins and losses are far from the most important statistic for a pitcher, it's hard to ignore 19 losses.

The Rays are hoping Alex Cobb returns to top-of-the-rotation form and that Jake Odorizzi and Blake Snell continue to grow.

If all that happens, maybe — maybe — the Rays will have a shot.

"I think a lot of people would have agreed starting pitching was our strength coming into last year,'' Cash said. "We still feel the same way. It's unfortunate that we hit a little bump in the road and they all had happen at one time. It was a tough 25 days to overcome.''

Cash was referring to the horrid 3-19 stretch that doomed the Rays' season. Before the worst stretch in franchise history, the Rays were actually competitive at 31-32. So maybe they weren't far off after all.

Take that team. Clear out some of the dead wood, such as Desmond Jennings. Add Cobb, Duffy and, at some point, Ramos. Hope that Dickerson and Souza improve. Hope that Archer and Cobb pitch like Archer and Cobb can.

Add a little good luck and who knows?

"Just the continued maturity of some of these young players,'' Cash added, "and you complement them with veterans with a healthy Alex Cobb and Evan Longoria, there's a lot to be optimistic about.''

Sounds great.

Let's see if ends up actually looking great.

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