Tampa Bay Rays: Projecting the 2018 starting lineup

Sep 15, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) is congratulated by right fielder Steven Souza Jr. (20) as he hits a home run during the fourteenth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays 2018 lineup will feature a few new faces mixed in with veterans. In 2017, the Rays featured a more potent offense than previous years, but it still wasn’t enough to compete with the slugging powerhouses that reside in the AL East. That must change if there are any hopes of cracking the postseason.

With the stunning trade of franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria, this team seems to be serious about rebuilding. Some young guys will receive an opportunity to shine in 2018. Do they take advantage? That’s what the Rays front office is betting on.

1) Kevin Kiermaier CF: The one mainstay in what will be a somewhat revamped lineup, Kiermaier is going to have to be better all around. Last season was sub-par at best, with the center fielder going through an extended slump offensively and defensively. Limited to 98 games due to injury, Kiermaier scored 56 runs and collected 39 RBIs in 2017. Thanks to a hot final month, he ended up sporting a respectable .276 average. Playing behind Longoria that was fine, but now he’ll have to step up to lead a relatively young team. If he goes down yet again, the Rays will likely turn to Mallex Smith, who has experience manning the outfields most crucial position.

2) Denard Span LF: A new face in a young clubhouse, Span brings stability to the left side of the outfield. He’s also an MLB journeyman, making him a good teacher to all the youthful faces the Rays have. Acquired from the San Francisco Giants in the Longoria trade, the versatile Span hit .272, scoring 73 runs and collecting 43 RBIs in nearly 500 plate appearances. He also poses a threat on the bases, with 12 stolen base attempts.

3) Steven Souza Jr. RF: Finally healthy, Souza broke out in 2017. He hit .239, with 78 runs scored and 78 RBIs. His 30 home runs were second on the Rays, eight behind the leader Logan Morrison. If Souza underperforms or misses time, expect prospect Jake Bauers to step up.

4) Corey Dickerson DH: With a year to get used to his new surroundings, Dickerson was one of baseball’s hottest hitters for the first half of 2017. That led to him being voted in as the American League’s starting designated hitter for the midsummer classic. Then the wheels fell off. He finished the year hitting .282 while striking out 152 times in 588 at-bats. The challenge in 2018 is simple: Pace yourself. Don’t burn yourself out early, as that can prove costly in the long run.

5) Wilson Ramos C: After missing the first half of 2017 recovering from offseason surgery, Ramos wasted little time making an impact. He hit .260 in 64 games (208 at-bats). That included 11 homers and 35 RBIs. If he can keep producing at that rate for a full season, the Rays might actually have a good catcher for the first time in god knows how long.

6) Brad Miller 1B: Underachieving for the most part, Miller is at a crossroads. He’s too good for Triple-A, yet still developing into a major league player. The Rays hold onto him because, well, he’s cheap. 2017 posed the challenge of overcoming injury. He did, but the stat line remained underwhelming. With a .201 average and 110 strikeouts in 338 at-bats, there’s plenty to be desired. 2018 comes with a new set of challenges. Due to the departures of Morrison and Lucas Duda, the staff will ask Miller to play first base. How he handles the move, coupled with his production, will play a large role in how much longer he’s in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform.

7) Matt Duffy 3B: This is where things get complicated. The Rays acquired Duffy from San Francisco at the 2016 trade deadline, but only saw a few games of action thanks to a heel injury. He underwent surgery to repair things early in the 2016 offseason. The hope was that he’d be ready for 2017 Spring Training. Unfortunately, after a few spring workouts he was shut down again. After a bunch of the “Hope, No Hope” carousel, he underwent a second surgery to remove a bone spur in that heel and is ready to actually make an impact with the Rays during 2018. Whether that happens or not is a mystery, one fans hope to see answered sooner rather than later. If something happens to Duffy, the Rays may find themselves in trouble thanks to the curious decision to trade Longoria.

8) Daniel Robertson 2B: A versatile infielder, the Rays are counting on Robertson taking that next step in 2018. He made the 2017 roster out of camp but struggled mightily, leading to a demotion to AAA Durham. Robertson has potential, something seen in spurts during his rookie campaign. His .206 batting average was slightly better than Miller, plus he accomplished it in 120 less at bats (218 to 338). Now, it’s about putting everything together.

9) Adeiny Hechavarria SS: With the Rays seeking a shortstop due to unforeseen circumstances early in 2017, they found Hechavarria. The former Miami Marlin made an impact in 77 games with the Tampa Bay Rays, hitting .257. More importantly, the plays he made defensively were spectacular for the most part. He saved runs, enabling the Rays to win a few games. He’ll need to continue playing superb defense, while also contributing offensively in 2018.

Looking towards the 2018 season, the Tampa Bay Rays have a chance to be better. Their lineup features plenty of average to good hitters, but the loss of Longoria may loom large in clutch situations. While unlikely, the Rays could end up in the postseason if the stars align perfectly.

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