Tampa Bay Rays Season Preview: AL East Favorites?
The Rays are coming off of another typical Rays season, finishing second in the AL East, winning a play-in game and the AL Wild Card Game on back-to-back nights on the road, but losing in the ALDS to the eventual champion Boston Red Sox.
In the same way that Rene Descartes redefined the philosophical tradition, General Manager Andrew Friedman and Manager Joe Maddon continue to redefine the baseball tradition by winning with a low budget team. These men have continued to find innovative ways to give their club a competitive advantage over other teams with higher payrolls, keeping their window of contention wide open.
How do the Rays do it? Having a lot of high draft picks like David Price and Evan Longoria turn into superstars used to be the way, but winning leads to low draft picks, so the Rays are unable to simply draft the best players and develop them into superstars. Perhaps surprisingly, the Rays have had some very poor first round picks recently.
Recent first-round picks of the Rays include: Tim Beckham in 2008, LeVon Washington in 2009, Josh Sale and Justin O’Connor in 2010, Taylor Guerrieri, Mikie Mahtook, and Jake Hager in 2011, Richie Shaffer in 2012, and Nick Ciuffo and Ryne Stanek in 2013.
Beckham is by far the worst first-overall pick in recent years, Guerrieri recently had Tommy John surgery but has a bright future, and the rest have been busts. To be fair, it's too early to judge Stanek, Ciuffo, and Shaffer, but they are not currently top prospects.
Instead, the Rays have been finding success with reclamation projects like Fernando Rodney, James Loney, and Yunel Escobar and trading for or developing former top prospects such as Wil Myers, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, Jake McGee, Jeremy Hellickson, and Ben Zobrist. These eight players were either acquired via trade while they were still minor leaguers, or drafted outside the first round and developed by the Rays.
The Rays can't afford to spend money on high-priced players, meaning that they must continue to develop quality players and trade them for young, cheap, controllable ones. They have done this many times. Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and James Shields were all dealt for young talent that has allowed the Rays’ window of contention to remain open in the near future.
Let’s take a look at the 2014 squad in more detail.
Evan Longoria will continue to lead this offense, which will also be boosted by a full season of reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers. Myers is expected to produce roughly the same offensive value as Jay Bruce this season, with the Steamer projection system forecasting a .264/.334/.453 slash line from the sophomore slugger. He will be expected to produce roughly three wins above replacement this season.
Longoria is expected to do Longoria things, which could mean having an MVP-caliber season or spending an excessive amount of time on the disabled list, depending on your perspective as an optimist or pessimist. If he stays healthy, Longoria will remain one of the best players in the game not named Mike Trout.
Ben Zobrist may get to enjoy a season where he's not required to play a different position each day. With the outfield corners filled by Myers and David DeJesus, and Yunel Escobar at shortstop, Zobrist should spend most of the year at second base.
Wherever he plays, Zobrist will continue to provide great value. He has produced 17.5 WAR over the past three seasons, and though he is entering his age-33 season, one has every reason to believe that Zobrist will continue to produce at a high level in 2014.
Yunel Escobar and James Loney fill out the rest of the infield, and they'll look to repeat last season’s high-level performances. Escobar couples great defense at shortstop with league average offense, while Loney looks to prove that last season’s jump in BABIP was not an aberration. Fun fact: Escobar was fourth in WAR among qualified shortstops last season. He is no slouch.
Wil Myers is joined by David DeJesus and Desmond Jennings in the outfield. DeJesus is an average regular, nothing more and nothing less, while Jennings is a bit of an enigma. He is projected to hit 15 home runs and steal over 20 bases, but he does not hit for a particularly high average (think .250 with a .325 OBP), so he isn't necessarily an ideal fit for the leadoff spot. Place in the batting order aside, Jennings is an projected to be an above average regular who should post 3-4 WAR this season.
Matt Joyce is expected to be the primary designated hitter. Like Jennings, he has a low batting average but plenty of pop. Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe are projected to be the primary reserves and provide little thump but lots of versatility.
The Rays will have a slightly new look behind the plate this season. Through a pair of trades, the Rays replaced former reserve Jose Lobaton with former Reds' catcher Ryan Hanigan, giving them two of the best defensive catchers in the league in Hanigan and incumbent Jose Molina. Neither backstop handles the bat particularly well, but Freidman and Co. believe that their value with the glove far outweighs their lack of value with the bat.
Defensively, the Rays figure to be among the best teams in the league. Hanigan and Molina form arguably the best defensive catching combo since the last time any two of the Molina brothers played on the same team. Their ability to block balls, throw out runners, and frame pitches will give the pitching staff another boost that could make them unreasonably good.
The infield of Loney, Zobrist, Escobar, and Longoria returns for a second season together and looks to repeat a campaign where all four were nominated for Gold Glove awards. Not much else needs to be said about this quartet except for, yeah, they are really good at defense and will be arguably the best defensive infield in the league again this year.
The outfield of DeJesus, Jennings, and Myers will be solid but unspectacular. Jennings was an elite outfielder in 2012, but advanced metrics pegged him as below average in 2013. Getting the defensive Jennings of 2012 back for the 2014 campaign will be a significant boost for the squad and give them solid up the middle defense.
DeJesus and Myers should remain slightly above average outfielders in 2014, although Red Sox fans may disagree with the later after his gaffe in the ALDS. It's safe to assume that the Rays will practice fly ball communications this spring.
Overall, this is an extremely talented defensive group, with really only one player, center fielder Desmond Jennings, as a risk to be below average defensively this season. The infield and catchers are definitely in the discussion for best in the league, while the outfield has a chance to be above average as well. This could be MLB’s best defensive team in 2014.
The Rays are not running out of quality young arms anytime soon. First it was David Price. Then it was Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer. This year, it will be Jake Odorizzi. The starting five for the Rays, with the exception of Price, are young, cost-controlled, and under team control for a long time. Tampa Bay’s starters are good and are not going away anytime soon.
Despite projections by just about every analyst that David Price would be traded this offseason, the staff ace remains in Tampa, at least for now. Price is expected to remain one of the elite pitchers in the game, giving the Rays 200 high-quality innings with an ERA in the high-twos or low-threes.
Following Price in the rotation will be Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer. The fifth spot is currently up for grabs between Jeremy Hellickson and Jake Odorizzi. Unless Hellickson can regain his ability to post a low ERA despite a high FIP, Odorizzi is the better option for the fifth slot. This competition also provides depth to the staff in the event that Price is traded or someone is injured.
Alex Cobb enjoyed a breakout season last year, posting a 2.76 ERA in 143.1 innings. His peripheral statistics suggest a bit of regression is likely, but Cobb should remain an above average starting pitcher worth approximately 2.5 to 3.0 WAR.
Former top prospect Matt Moore looks to repeat last year’s 17-4 record, but is (obviously) unlikely to do so. Moore strikes out almost a batter per inning, a great mark for a starting pitcher, but also walked over four batters per nine innings last season. He will have to improve his command to have a reasonable chance to repeat his tremendous record from last season. Even if he fails to do so and his velocity does not return, Moore should at the very least be a league average pitcher in 2014.
Chris Archer, the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year runner up, will also look to continue last season’s tremendous and perhaps unsustainable performance. The hard throwing righty compiled a 3.22 ERA last season, but his peripheral statistics suggest that a 4.00 ERA was more appropriate. For this reason, most projections peg Archer as a slightly below average starting pitcher for 2014, with an ERA of 4.00 and a WAR of roughly 1.5.
Hellickson was the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner, but he's regressed since his impressive debut. Never a strikeout pitcher, he has felt the effects of his tendency to pitch to contact through a steady increase in opponents BABIP.
From 2011 through 2013, “Hell Boy” has seen opponents BABIP rise from .223 in 2011 to .261 in 2012 to .307 this past season. His ERA over the same time frame has risen accordingly, from 2.95 in 2011 all the way to 5.17 in 2013. Hellickson has improved his K rate and his BB rate, but this improvement does not outweigh the regression from experiencing normalization in opponents BABIP.
Jake Odorizzi, the other big piece in the haul from Kansas City in the James Shields trade, will have a chance to nab the fifth slot from Hellickson. The young righty proved he could compete in the Majors in 29.2 innings last season, when he compiled a 3.94 ERA. While he will never become a superstar, Odorizzi ought to give the Rays six seasons of league average starting pitching, which is quite useful from a number five starter.
These five starters, with the conservative projections I have given, feature one superstar (Price), one above average starting pitcher (Cobb), two league-average pitchers (Moore and Odorizzi), and one slightly below average pitcher (Archer). This is the baseline for this group, the minimum expectation for them.
Would anyone be surprised to see Price win the Cy Young Award, Cobb enjoy an elite season, Moore and Archer live up to their prospect pedigrees as above average starters, and Odorizzi provide league average starting pitching from the five slot? This is a completely reasonable and somewhat likely scenario. Although I have suggested that some regression from this group is likely, it would be foolish to bet against them.
Friedman has shook up the Rays bullpen a bit this offseason, replacing former closer Fernando Rodney and his lucky plantain with former A’s closer Grant Balfour and his rage. This is a somewhat lateral move as the two pitchers are fairly similar in effectiveness, but fans will now be forced to wear their hats straight and scream at themselves a lot during save opportunities.
The two prominent setup men, righty Joel Peralta and lefty Jake McGee, both return to the pen where they will be expected to get big outs in big situations. Peralta lacks premium velocity mixes his fastball, curveball, and splitter well, while McGee gets outs by overpowering the opposition with a well-located 96 MPH fastball from the left side.
Trade acquisition Heath Bell will join the Rays’ pen this season after being involved in the three-team deal also including Ryan Hanigan. Bell will be looking to put the past two years behind him and revert to his days with the Padres when he was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. Would anyone be surprised if he was able to do just that? Not me. The Rays thrive on reclamation projects like Bell (remember when everyone laughed at the Rays for signing Fernando Rodney and allowing him to close games?), and I would be surprised if he does not experience a rebound year.
Lefty reliever Alex Torres was dealt to the Padres in the deal that brought Logan Forsythe to Tampa Bay, but Juan Ovideo (formerly Leo Nunez) and Cesar Ramos return to this strong pen. That brings the total to six, with the final spot likely to go to Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, or Mark Lowe. The Rays’ pen could also benefit from impact seasons from a few rookies, specifically lefty Enny Romero and righty Alex Colome. Both young arms work in the mid-90’s and have plus stuff but command issues. If they can harness their command, these kids can give the revamped Rays’ pen a huge midseason boost.
The top three prospects in the Rays’ system, according to Baseball Prospectus, are pitchers that figure to contribute this season. Romero, the top prospect, and Colome, the third-ranked prospect, are likely to contribute to the pen while second ranked Odorizzi should join the rotation.
Right-handers Jesse Hahn and Taylor Guerrieri are the other two pitchers on the top 10 list. Hahn has a future as an average starter, while Guerrieri has more upside. He does, however, carry a lot more risk. The latter will miss the entirety of the 2014 campaign due to Tommy John surgery, but could have the highest upside of any pitcher in this system. These pitchers will not debut until 2015 at the earliest (likely later for Guerrieri), but should be next in their long line of effective homegrown starters.
Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee are the two position player prospects likely to contribute this year, but barring injuries, both will do so in reserve roles. Neither prospect offers much at the plate, but both are good defensive players, especially Kiermaier, whose defense is valued so highly that he was trusted to make his major league debut in center field during the ninth inning of a one game playoff against the Texas Rangers this past season.
Key Player: First Baseman James Loney
Resigning first baseman James Loney to a three-year, $21-million contract was the biggest move off the offseason for the Rays, who are betting that he can repeat his breakout 2013 campaign in his age-29 season.
When breakout seasons for older players occur, the million dollar question always is “Can we expect this type of performance in the future or is this an aberration?” The answer to this question lies in the cause of the uptick in performance. Was it simply good fortune on balls in play, or did the player improve in some capacity?
Loney did experience some good fortune with balls in play falling for hits, as his .326 BABIP was significantly higher than his career .308 mark and .269 mark in 2012. However, while BABIP is usually the cause of a fluke, in this case it is the effect of a legitimate improvement.
That legitimate improvement is an increase in line drive percentage. Over the past three seasons, Loney has raised his LD rate from 22.4% to 24.7% to 29.8% in 2013. Since line drives have the highest chance of falling for hits, it makes sense that Loney would have a higher BABIP and consequently a higher batting average.
This does not mean that Loney is a lock to repeat his 2013 campaign. Instead, it means that his 2013 campaign was good because he got better at hitting baseballs and was not merely a product of good fortune.
If Loney is indeed able to repeat his 2013 campaign, it will give the Rays’ offense a significant boost. While Myers and Longoria will be expected to provide most of the thump in the order, having effective complimentary pieces like Loney makes the lineup much deeper, and it provides opposing pitchers with minimal easy outs. As it stands, the only relatively easy outs in the projected 2014 Rays’ lineup are the catchers Hanigan and Molina.
Expectations will be high in Tampa Bay again this year, especially as staff ace David Price returns for what could be his final season or half season with the club. The lack of a trade involving Price could mean that opposing General Managers are no longer knocking at the Rays’ door offering top prospects like Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, or it could mean that the front office is trying to go all in to win this season.
If the latter is true, they have done well in picking a good time to do so.
The rotation is talented and deep. The bullpen experienced some turnover, but could be even better this year, especially once Romero and Colome are promoted. The offense continues to improve, and the projected lineup featuring Longoria, Myers, Jennings, Zobrist, Loney, Joyce, DeJesus, Escobar, and Hanigan should be capable of scoring a substantial amount of runs.
Couple this with an effective defense that was fourth in the league in UZR and an infield where all four starters were nominated for Gold Gloves last season, and the Rays are going to be a tough team to beat.
Just how good can this Rays team be? It's still far too early to tell, but Tampa Bay is my pick to win the AL East in 2014.
The AL East will be a tough division again this year, as the Yankees spent a substantial amount of money in the offseason and the Red Sox are coming off of a championship season, but I believe the Rays will outlast both of them.
The Sox will pose the biggest challenge to Maddon’s club, but they got worse over the offseason. The Sox downgraded at catcher, center field, and the left side of the infield, where Will Middlebrooks figures to get another shot at starting due to the departure of Stephen Drew.
That is three key positions of downgrading and no obvious upgrade, unless Edward Mujica and Chris Capuano count as significant upgrades. The Sox beat out the Rays by six games last year, but I believe the combination of a downgraded Sox roster and an upgraded Rays roster will allow the Rays to pass the Sox and win the division this year. The boost of Ryan Hanigan, Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, and full seasons from Wil Myers and Chris Archer may not sound like a tremendous upgrade, but the Rays only need to improve by a few games to pass the Sox.
The Yankees spent lots of money this offseason, but their improvements may not be enough to top either Tampa Bay or Boston. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann are nice upgrades over Curtis Granderson and a collection of replacement level catchers, but the Yankees infield remains a huge question mark. Mark Teixeira is coming off of wrist surgery, Brian Roberts is older and a lot worse than Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter is coming off of an injury ridden season where he was worth -0.6 WAR, and Kelly Johnson is, well, Kelly Johnson. These guys scare no one.
Masahiro Tanaka could be a huge boost to the rotation but could also become the next Kei Igawa or Hideki Irabu. Ok, probably not, but he certainly will not be the next Yu Darvish either.
The bottom line with the Yankees is that, to beat out Tampa Bay, they will need most of their aging, declining stars to return to peak form. Jeter, Teixeira, and C.C. Sabathia are the keys, but contributions from Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez would be useful as well. Simply put, I do not think that the Yankees have the talent to overtake the Rays.
One would be foolish to write off the Orioles or Jays, but these teams have more ground to make up than any of the others and the Rays are projected to finish ahead of each of them.
Billy Beane famously said, “My stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Does Andrew Friedman’s stuff work in the playoffs? It hasn't so far. Will it work this year? The playoffs are a bit of a crapshoot based on luck and who plays well in a small sample size, but the Rays could buck the trend of making the playoffs but failing to win this year.
It's pure guesswork to say what will happen in the playoffs, but the Rays are as talented as any team in the league. I don't know if I can pick a favorite for the AL Pennant this early, but the Rays are definitely in consideration. They will contend and do not be surprised if this is the year that Andrew Friedman's club finally is able to win the World Series.