Archer, Rays ready to leave disappointing season behind

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer during the first inning. AP Photo

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) — As the leader of a pitching staff that underperformed last season, Chris Archer relishes the challenge of helping the revamped Tampa Bay Rays re-emerge as playoff contenders.

The team opened spring training Tuesday with increased competition for jobs at a number of key positions, as well as expectations of improving on last year’s last-place finish in the AL East.

Archer acknowledged before the first workout for pitchers and catchers that the Rays are built to thrive on a strong starting rotation. He also stressed it will take more to make the transition from a club coming off its worst record in nearly a decade to a championship-caliber team.

“Obviously it’s more than just starting pitching. People are going to have to step up in the bullpen. We’re going to have to score more runs than we did last year because when we did pitch well we still struggled to win games,” Archer said.

“I’m taking full responsibility for what I can do, and everybody on the staff is taking responsibility for what they can do,” he added. “But I think it’s time for us to shift away from relying solely on starting pitching. You look at teams that win championships, they’re well-rounded. They can do everything.”

A year removed from being a first-time All-Star, Archer lost 19 games in 2016. He pitched better over the second half of the season, though, and the Rays are optimistic about the prospect of a healthy Alex Cobb making a difference in a slightly reconfigured rotation this year.

“We already know what we’re capable of if we’re healthy,” Archer said. “As long as we pitch like ourselves, we can contend with anybody.”

The Rays made several moves during the offseason aimed at improving the offense and defense, including signing free agents Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos and trading starting pitcher Drew Smyly and second baseman Logan Forsythe in separate deals that brought young outfielder Mallex Smith and pitching prospect Jose De Leon to Tampa Bay.

Rasmus and Smith will compete in camp for starting jobs in the outfield, while holdovers Brad Smith, Tim Beckham and Nick Franklin are among the candidates to be the regular second baseman.

“Last year our defense slipped a little bit. That’s another thing that’s made this organization so successful, Some of those things we couldn’t control,” manager Kevin Cash said, citing injuries that sidelined outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza Jr., for stretches of 2016. “But ultimately, we know we revolve around starting pitching. And we’re confident they don’t have to do anything more, just be the guys we know they’re capable of being.”

A third member of the projected starting rotation, right-hander Jake Odorizzi, won his salary arbitration case against the Rays, receiving a raise from $520,700 to $4.1 million for this year. The Rays offered $3.825 million.

“We worked really hard on the case and worked really hard the three or four seasons leading up to it. So I think it’s kind of a culmination of a lot of hard work over the years. … It’s good to get a win,” Odorizzi said.

Meanwhile, the Rays finalized a $2 million, one-year contract with injured pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, who will miss the 2017 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery performed last summer while he was with the New York Yankees. The deal includes a $2 million club option for 2018, plus an opportunity to earn up to $3.5 million in performance bonuses.

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