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2016 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays. 

By the Rays’ standards, their offseason was pretty exciting. With an Opening Day payroll projected to be just north of $60 million, the Rays made a couple of winter trades and some low-key free agent signings, incremental additions that could make headway on last year’s 80-82 record.

In November, the Rays sent Nate Karns, C.J. Riefenhauser, and minor leaguer Boog Powell to the Mariners for Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Danny Farquhar. Miller will open the season as the club’s starting shortstop, Morrison will start at first base (sometimes) or DH against right-handed pitching, and Farquhar is in the mix to close while Brad Boxberger is on the disabled list. Not a bad haul, though none of the three are household names.

Then, near the end of January, the Rays helped the Rockies thin out their surfeit of outfielders, acquiring Corey Dickerson and minor leaguer Kevin Padlo in exchange for Jake McGee and minor leaguer German Marquez. Dickerson isn’t a perfect player, as he has a severe platoon split and has performed much better at Coors Field than anywhere else, but he’s not yet 27 years old and still has room to grow.

The signings included Steve Pearce, who will share first base and DH duties with Morrison against left-handed pitching, and serve as outfield depth as well. The deal was relatively cheap, at one year and $4.75 million. The club also inked second baseman Logan Forsythe to a two-year, $10.25 million extension.

First baseman James Loney is now expendable with Morrison and Pearce in the fold. He’s owed $8 million, which the Rays would love to make someone else’s responsibility. For now, though, it appears he’ll be a part-time player.

The rest of the roster is pretty much the same. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier will look to reprise his role as baseball’s best defender at any position. He won a Gold Glove, with Baseball Reference crediting him with five Wins Above Replacement just on defense alone. Only Andrelton Simmons (5.4, 2013) has been better, unless you count two players from the early 1900’s which… I don’t know how one can figure out how good they were defensively.

The Rays really shine with their starting pitching. Chris Archer will have the honor of pitching on Opening Day after a terrific 2015 campaign in which he made 34 starts with a 3.23 ERA and a 252/66 K/BB ratio. Among qualified starting pitchers, only Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and Carlos Carrasco struck out hitters at a higher rate than Archer’s 29 percent.

Once you get past Archer, it doesn’t get any easier. Jake Odorizzi slots in at number two after posting a 3.35 ERA with a 150/46 K/BB ratio over 169 1/3 innings last year. In this era of pitching and defense, along with the recent historically-great performances of Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, and Zack Greinke, it’s easy to overlook a 3.35 ERA. But the league average last year was still 4.01 and Odorizzi’s ERA was still 23rd-best among qualified starters in baseball. Retrodictors like FIP and xFIP took away a bit of credit, painting him at 3.61 and 3.96 respectively, but he’s a pretty safe bet to put up another above-average season in 2016.

In the middle of the rotation, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore are question marks, but have the potential to put up quality seasons if they can stay healthy. When he wasn’t injured last year, Smyly made 12 starts, compiled a 3.11 ERA, and had a 77/20 K/BB ratio in 66 2/3 innings. Moore struggled in his 12 starts, showing a diminished ability to miss bats, but if he can recover it, he can certainly return to his 2013 form during which he earned an All-Star nomination. Erasmo Ramirez will handle the number five spot until Alex Cobb is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, which should be shortly after the All-Star break.

As mentioned, Brad Boxberger will begin the season on the disabled list. The right-hander, who led the league with 41 saves last year, underwent core muscle surgery earlier this month. That leaves Farquhar and Alex Colome fighting for the closer’s role. Colome made 13 starts and 30 relief appearances for the Rays last year, putting up a solid 3.94 ERA with an 88/31 K/BB ratio over 109 2/3 innings. Farquar struggled with the Mariners, showing diminished command and a reduced strikeout rate compared to a superb 2014 effort. As Farquhar has also been used for more than one inning in each of his last four spring outings, Colome appears to be the favorite to snag the role.

Talent-wise, it’s tough to see the Rays hanging with the Red Sox or Blue Jays all season, but they’ve done more with less in the past. The AL East is arguably the toughest division in baseball, so I think they’ll end up in fifth place with a relatively respectable record (for a fifth-place team, anyway).

Prediction: 78-84, fifth place in the AL East.

Kevin Kiermaier on Rays’ recent moves: “I am 100 percent frustrated and very upset.”

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On Sunday, we heard from former Ray and current Giants third baseman Evan Longoria. The Rays recently traded pitcher Jake Odorizzi to the Twins for a prospect and designated All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense outside of a cost-cutting perspective. Longoria said, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

Today, we’re hearing from a current Ray: center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who is set to enter his fifth full season with the club. Via Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Kiermaier said, “I am 100 percent frustrated and very upset with the moves. No beating around the bush. It’s one of those things that makes you scratch your head, you don’t know the reasoning why. And then you see the team’s explanation and still it’s just like, okay, well, so be it.”

Longoria — formerly the face of the franchise — was traded to the Giants in December and the Rays continued to subtract with their recent moves involving Odorizzi and Dickerson. Odorizzi has a career 3.83 ERA in what has been a solid, if unspectacular, career. Dickerson put up an All-Star season, posting an .815 OPS with 27 home runs in 150 games. Moving either player was not done to fix a positional log jam. In fact, with Odorizzi out of the picture, the Rays are planning to use a four-man starting rotation for the first six-plus weeks of the season, Topkin reported on Sunday. Dickerson’s ouster simply opens the door for Mallex Smith, who posted a .684 OPS last year, to start every day in the outfield.

The Rays got markedly worse after going 80-82 last season. They saved a few million bucks jettisoning Odorizzi and Dickerson. And Rays ownership still wants the public to foot most of the bill for their new stadium.

When it was just one small market team pinching pennies, it was fine. But now that more than half of the league has adopted penny-pinching principles popularized by Moneyball and Sabermetrics (with the Rays among the chief offenders), the game of baseball has become markedly less fan- and player-friendly. This offseason has been less about players signing contracts and changing teams in trades — which helps build excitement and intrigue for the coming year — and more about front offices doing math problems concerning the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold and other self-imposed monetary restraints. Fun. Kiermaier is right to be upset and he’s very likely not alone in feeling that way.