It's Year 2 for manager Kevin Cash with Tampa Bay, and a handful of key acquisitions aimed at upgrading the Rays' offensive punch and depth have the club optimistic it can be even more competitive in the American League East this fall.
Many of the team's biggest questions involve sorting out that depth and making difficult decisions about players who could be pushed out as a result -- at first base, James Loney looks to be the odd man out after the Rays added Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce, but the Rays will be challenged to find a team willing to take on Loney's salary and may have to absorb some of that as part of a trade.
The outfield is even more overloaded -- the team has a strong nucleus in Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, with Steven Souza another everyday player. Newly acquired Corey Dickerson will get work at designated hitter and can help in the outfield, which means either veteran Desmond Jennings -- limited by knee problems throughout last season -- or speedy Brandon Guyer could be moved before the final roster is set.
The Rays lost a key part of their bullpen when former All-Star Jake McGee was traded to Colorado -- that solidifies right-hander Brad Boxberger as the team's closer, but leaves questions in getting to the ninth inning. Right-hander Steve Geltz could be back in a setup role, but newcomers like righties Ryan Webb and Danny Farquhar could take on key roles, with returning pitchers like lefties Xaver Cedeno and Enny Romero also in the mix.
Tampa Bay has one of baseball's best young prospects in lefty Blake Snell, but the Rays might keep him in the minors for the first few weeks of the season to keep his rights for an extra year before his arbitration clock starts. The starting rotation will have to hold off not only Snell but right-hander Alex Cobb, who could return after the All-Star break. One of those additions could shift a starter like righty Erasmo Ramirez, a pleasant surprise as a new starter last season, into a bullpen role.
Is Curt Casali ready to be the team's primary catcher? His jolt of power late in the season makes him the favorite heading into the season, with his power potential giving him the nod over veteran Rene Rivera, who had almost no offense in 2015 but is better defensively and in handling the Rays' pitching staff. Another option is Hank Conger, who has more of a bat than Rivera but struggled defensively last year, especially against opposing baserunners.
If nothing else, the Rays have to survive the season with much better luck against injuries than they had last season, with key pitchers missing major chunks of the season and offensive regulars sidelined as well.
"I feel like we're a better club this year," Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman said at spring training. "Last year, the injury bug really got us. But I look at the club this year and feel like the overall talent level is higher. The talent is there, and the belief is there within the clubhouse. It's just a matter of going out there and winning ballgames."
POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: The deepest position battle looks to be first base, where Loney returns as a starter but faces challenges from two solid bats acquired in the offseason in Morrison and Pearce.
The Rays must decide what to do with Loney, who could be traded for bullpen help -- Morrison hit a career-low .225 last season with Seattle but has shown power potential, like his 23 home runs in 2011 with the Marlins. Pearce, who hit .293 with Baltimore in 2014, saw that average drop to .218 last season, but he too has a power swing, with 21 home runs in 338 at-bats in 2014. Look for the two newcomers to split time at first, with Morrison in better position to rotate in as a corner outfielder as well.
ROOKIE WATCH: LHP Blake Snell, 23, was tabbed as Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season by many national outlets, going 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA and pitching at three levels, with three times as many strikeouts (163) as walks (53). The fiscal-minded Rays will likely hold off on his debut until late April, knowing it gives them another year before arbitration kicks in, but it would be a surprise if he isn't in the starting rotation by June. Erasmo Ramirez, surprisingly effective as an addition to the rotation last season, would be the top candidate to go to the bullpen should all the other starters stay healthy through Snell's arrival.
COMEBACK TRAIL: The Rays aren't likely to find much from their non-roster invitees this spring, but one to watch is LHP Dana Eveland, a 32-year-old who pitched at Triple-A for three teams last year with a combined 1.95 ERA. His career ERA is 5.27, however, last pitching with the Mets in 2014. For him to stick on the 25-man roster, he'll have to establish himself as a reliable lefty in the bullpen, beating out the likes of Xavier Cedeno or Enny Romero.
--RHP Chris Archer had dominating numbers last season, with 252 strikeouts and a 3.23 ERA, but he still managed just a 12-13 record for the year. Improved offensive behind him will help the win-loss record, and if he can stay healthy, he can solidify his position as one of the most effective pitchers in the American League -- he was a Cy Young candidate in the first half of last season and has taken on a leadership role in a talented starting rotation.
--RHP Brad Boxberger is undeniably the team's closer after stepping into that role last season when Jake McGee was sidelined by injuries. Used constantly in high-leverage situations, he had an impressive 41 saves, but also took 10 losses -- a ton for any reliever, let alone a closer -- and will have to work on being more consistent and lowering what was a 3.71 ERA.
--SS Brad Miller, acquired from the Mariners via trade, should step in as the everyday shortstop, with difficult shoes to fill after Asdrubal Cabrera's play in the field and at the plate last season. He's shown modest power -- 11 home runs in 497 at-bats last year -- and can hopefully improve on a .248 career batting average from his days in Seattle.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You guys are the last two pitchers here. You guys have zero service time. You got no right to be coming in after me, really. I get here super early. I wouldn't expect you to be here at 6:30, but 8:30?" -- Rays ace Chris Archer, to rookie pitchers Blake Snell and Jacob Faria, in front of reporters as the team prepared for a 9 a.m. meeting on the first day of spring training.