ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Rays say they believe they're headed in the right direction, despite finishing with a losing record and missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
The club's 80-82 finish in its third year under manager Kevin Cash represented a 12-game improvement over 2016 - the third-biggest jump in the AL behind Minnesota (26) and Houston (17) to earn postseason berths.
The Rays made the playoffs four times within a span of six seasons from 2008 to 2013. Cash feels they are well on their way to re-establishing themselves as solid contenders.
"We like where we're positioned from a player-development standpoint, more so than maybe three years ago," the manager said.
"We're starting to see these guys really mature as players and they're kind of knocking down the door at this point," Cash added. "Come spring training, it's going to be fun to get a closer look at some of these guys."
Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson and Adeiny Hechavarria are young players the figure be part of the team's plan for 2018, along with veterans Evan Longoria, Wilson Ramos and major league saves leader Alex Colome.
All-Star Chris Archer (10-12, 4.07 ERA) is coming off his third consecutive season with at least 200 innings pitched and well over 200 strikeouts, but the club's starting rotation likely will take a hit with Alex Cobb headed for free agency.
Cash is undaunted because fresh arms remain the franchise's strongest asset.
"We've got a chance during this offseason and the early part of next year to really get a group of young starters and young relievers" in place to blend with veterans and learn to win together at the major league level, Cash said.
Mathematically, the Rays technically remained in contention for a wild-card playoff berth until they were officially eliminated on Sept. 26.
Realistically, they were doomed long before that by inconsistent starting pitching and a sputtering offense that hit a club-record 228 homers but finished last in the AL - 25th in the majors overall - with 694 runs scored.
The team peaked at a season-best seven games over .500 on July 18 and were tied for the second wild-card spot with Seattle before slumping in mid-August.
"We had opportunities until fairly late in the year, and that's all you can ask for," Longoria said.
"Obviously you have to put some of the blame on yourself when it comes to just not going out and winning games," the third baseman added. "You love to be in that situation and have that opportunity, but the disappointment is there that we didn't capitalize."
Some things to know about the Rays:
For the second straight season, the Rays had four players hit at least 20 homers, with Logan Morrison leading the way with 38. Souza finished with 30, Dickerson hit 27 and Longoria wound up with 20 and a team-leading 86 RBIs. The team scored 48 percent of its runs via the homer, the third-highest percentage in the majors behind Toronto and Oakland.
The bullpen was a liability for much of the season. Although Colome became the first Tampa Bay pitcher to lead the majors in saves, Rays relievers combined for a 4.41 earned run average and .248 opponents' batting average before Aug. 1. The team addressed the woes by acquiring Steve Cishek, Sergio Romo and Dan Jennings shortly before the trade deadline. The trio went 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA, and the bullpen had second-best ERA in the majors (2.77) and limited opponents to a .214 batting average (third-best in the majors) over the final two months.
In addition to finishing last in the AL in runs scored, the Rays set a league record with 1,538 strikeouts, the third-highest total in major league history. They were shut out 11 times (tied for fifth in the league), including five times during an eight-game stretch in August, when the season began to unravel.
"I think we've got to do a better job of balancing the lineup with some on-base guys," Cash said.
"You've got to have those players that complement the big boppers. They hit the ball out of the ballpark, but with that come some strikeouts," the manager added. "Those contact guys, guys that can draw walks and get on base, will really complement the home runs."