Wednesday, 4 a.m.
Will you begrudge a man his optimism?
Will you hold his confidence against him?
Matt Silverman, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, sits in the front of room and proclaims the core of his team to be a good one. There are talented players, he dares to say. His team will be better, he is bold enough to proclaim.
It is the end-of-the-season press conference, long after the death of the 2016 Rays. They lost 94 games. They finished 25 games out. They were the second worst team in the majors, and well in the AL East cellar.
So do you grab Silverman by the lapels and shake? Do you yell that this flawed roster needs to be dismantled on the spot? Do you slowly shake your head when he talks not about all the things this team could not do, but what it could?
The core is good, Silverman said.
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“We're incredibly disappointed,” Silverman said. “The season went south so early, and we were never able to crawl back into relevance. That feeling, it gnaws at us. It gnaws at Stu (Sternberg). It gnaws at Brian Auld. It gnaws at the players. We don't want that to happen again.
“It's a talented club, and there were several bright spots. But in finishing 25 games back, there weren't enough bright spots. We're hellbent on getting this team back in contention. We have several players in-house, but we're going to need some new players, too. "The core is intact, the core is talented, and if you listen to the players talk, if you listen to Kevin and the coaches, they will tell you, too. There is still a lot of confidence, there is still a lot of optimism within our clubhouse, and that bodes well for next year.”
Yeah, yeah. You might expect this message from a team that finished, say, five games out. Not one that was eliminated by the all-star break. Not one that struggled for the first half of the year with its starting pitching, with its bullpen, with its defense, with its baserunning.
Still, there is confidence. The team has so many holes, and so much ground to make up. Knowing the Rays' budget, there is only so many players you can move for only so many others.
"We know we underperformed. Millions of fans across Tampa Bay are upset. We're upset. This is not the performance we expect and not the type of club we want to put on the field.
"But there were bright spots. When we make those hard decisions, and we try to figure out which way to go, we have to make sure we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are good players on this club. There is a lot of talent to this club. If we have too much of a knee-jerk reaction, we might do more damage than good.”
Is there? Chris Archer finished 9-19, a team record for losses. But manager Kevin Cash says that in the second half, it was the same old Archer. “He gave up 10 more home runs than the year before,” Cash said. “Except for that, his stats were about the same. It's like Jim Hickey said: Inopportune walks and the ball leaving the park.”
The Rays think they have a find in Brad Miller, who ended up at first base and with 30 home runs.
Second baseman Logan Forsythe is a good fielder, Silverman said.
Cash longs to see Matt Duffy healthy and playing short.
Evan Longoria had a fine year.
Kevin Keirmaier's only problem was that he was hurt. The team thinks it has nice pieces in Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr.
So there we go. The team needs better catching, and Silverman said the team “will look under every rock.” But he also said the organization had young catchers it likes.
Really? Are the Rays looking at a set lineup? With the possible exception of returning Corey Dickerson to designated hitter and finding a new left fielder, it sounds like it.
Silverman also said the team was “seven or eight” starting pitchers deep, and that other teams have already started to call. He admitted the team needed more talent in the bullpen.
But can the Rays really contend with this lineup, or did they prove this year they could not? Silverman has confidence. So does Cash. Do you? Do you fear that Miller doesn't repeat his 30-home run season? That Alex Colome isn't as good as a closer? That Evan Longoria doesn't match his excellent season?
Cash said that next year, he thinks the Rays will hit more home runs with men on base. It wasn't true this year; the Rays hit 216, and 136 came with the bases empty. The team ran itself into too many outs on the basepaths. Too many balls weren't fielded, normally a strength of the team. There were times the Rays batters seemed to swing at every pitch as if they were trying to make the ball bleed instead of mixing in a single.
"We have to play better baseball,'' Silverman said. "For us to win, we have to fire on all cylinders. That means in the front office we have to make good personnel decisions, that means Kevin and the coaches have to manage the games properly, the players have to execute. We have to be clean.
"We have to do things better than we have done. We've worn this this year. We've seen a lot of the bad this year. It also helps us to identify that and be able to learn from it.''
Let's be frank. The Rays weren't very good this year. Not many people will predict they'll be a lot better next year.
But what price is optimism? Let's face it, the Rays can't afford to bring in the headliner free agents. They'll make a deal, maybe two. But it won't be for a star. So why not be confident? It doesn't cost anything.
As for the rest of us, it's a little harder. Yeah, the Rays should be better on defense with a full season of Duffy and Miller in the infield. A healthy Kiermaier will help.
Still, expectations will be meager. When a team finishes so solidly in last place, the world is going to expect they'll be right there again. Confidence won't drive in a run from second, will it?
This year, the Rays didn't do enough of the little things to avoid the embarrassment.
Will they next year?