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The Rays really aren't that far from contending again

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The Tampa Bay Rays are having a down season in 2016, but here's how they can rebound in 2017 and 2018.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays were thought to be a team that would be trading away plenty of assets at last week’s trade deadline, but in the end the players traded away were Matt Moore, Steve Pearce, and Brandon Guyer. Evan Longoria, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi all stayed – for now – with their potential exits possible for this winter. However, if the Rays keep the aforementioned players, they have quite the core around which to build, though there is little financial flexibility to make splashy moves.

Over the past three seasons, the Rays have spent a combined $212,120,930 on payroll, $37,660,738 less than the Dodgers' 2016 Opening Day payroll. There is no secret that the Rays are on a different scale when it comes to finances compared to the rest of the league, but that is a little perspective on just how rough it is. Here is the payroll for the last three seasons for Tampa, with all numbers obtained through Cot’s Contracts.

Year Payroll Difference from prior year %
2014 $77,085,054 - -
2015 $77,018,676 - $66,378 -0.09%
2016 $70,634,491* - $6,384,185 -8.00%

*projected number for end of season 2016

2017

Projected Payroll: $62,070,000

Free agents after 2016: Logan Morrison and Kevin Jepsen

Taking into account the guaranteed $25M in payroll already heading toward Longoria, Archer, and Logan Forsythe, I have arbitrarily calculated the arbitration and league minimum salaries they already have on the books for next season and have a total just north of $62M. This leaves the Rays with approximately five to ten million dollars to spend to further improve the team, especially first base, catcher, as well as bench and bullpen positions. Some potential names that fit Tampa’s budget are: Pedro Alvarez, Mitch Moreland, Kurt Suzuki, and Josh Thole.

Regarding first base, there is always the potential of having Brad Miller or Steven Souza Jr. learn first base over the winter and continue to give Tampa more options and get as much "thump" in the lineup as possible. Neither of those players has ever played first base at the major league level prior to Monday, when Miller played his first-ever game there.

Someday, Evan Longoria may need to move over to first base. He will be 31 at the start of 2017 and has dealt with injuries, but he's still an effective defender according to UZR. DRS sees him as a slight negative over the past few years, but it's likely that Longo is still at least an average defender.

Really, the goal is just to get the bats in the lineup in an arrangement that is palatable. If Miller can handle first base, an infield of Longoria, Duffy, Forsythe, and Miller will be solid.

As currently constructed the Rays will have a chance at the postseason next season. If the Rays get health and performance that meets their potential from Cobb, Archer, Odorizzi, Smyly, and Snell, as well further development from Duffy, Souza Jr, and Kevin Kiermaier, then the Rays can be a surprise team in 2017. They may (and probably will) go the route of trading Archer and/or Odorizzi to cut payroll as well as build for the future, but since they have such a young roster I think 2017 can be a year of contention for Tampa.

2018

Projected Payroll: $62,653,000

Free agents after 2017: Alex Cobb, Desmond Jennings, and Hank Conger

There will be a hole in the rotation and kind of in the outfield after 2017 with the losses of Cobb and Jennings. Before the 2018 season, Tampa will have tough choices to make as some of their players will become too expensive for their budget. Players such as Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez, and Alex Colome are a few examples. Before the 2018 season or at the 2017 trade deadline, if Colome continues to build on his 2016 success then he may be a player Tampa looks to ship out. (Trading him at the 2017 trade deadline is in the plans if Tampa is not in contention.)

Similar to 2017, the Rays will have approximately five to ten million dollars to spend if they continue on the current trend they are on over the past five seasons. How they act in 2018 will of course be dependent on how they act in 2017. If we assume Tampa keeps Longoria at third, Duffy at short, Forsythe at second, and signs a one year stop gap for first in 2017, then Brad Miller becomes expendable over the winter following the 2016 season. Also, Forsythe may be a name Tampa looks to move instead of Miller, but I think if they are headstrong on Duffy at short, then Miller can bring back more in return than Forsythe based on their age at this future state.

The biggest reason why Tampa would not make Longoria their long-term option at first base is Casey Gillaspie. Gillaspie is considered the future first basemen of the Rays and the ninth-best prospect in the Rays system, according to MLB.com.

As is the situation with many low payroll teams, there is a path to contention, but one where they cannot afford to be wrong on many players. The current young crop of players needs to reach their potential for Tampa to return to their winning ways of 2008-2013. Tampa has the players to contend for at least a wild card in 2017 and 2018, especially with the Yankees planning for the future and Toronto potentially losing Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Tampa Bay will be a playoff team in the next three years – they just need Matt Silverman and his staff to spend and build around this group wisely.

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Carl Triano is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Minor League Ball.