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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.

Bruce Maxwell first MLB player to kneel during National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.

Alex Wilson broke his leg on a 103-MPH comebacker

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This one is brutal. Tigers’ right-handed reliever Alex Wilson was diagnosed with a broken leg after taking a blistering 103.8-MPH line drive off of his right leg during Saturday’s game against the Twins. According to the Detroit News’ Chris McCosky, it’s a non-displaced fibular fracture, but will still warrant an extended recovery period and signal the end of Wilson’s season.

Wilson replaced Drew VerHagen to start the eighth inning and worked a full count against Joe Mauer. Mauer roped an 93.3-MPH fastball back up the middle, where it struck the pitcher on his right calf. While Mauer took first base, Wilson got to his feet and tried to toss a warm-up pitch, but was in too much pain to continue and had to be helped off the field.

Even in a season that isn’t going anywhere in particular, this isn’t how you want it to end. The Tigers have yet to announce a recovery timetable for the 30-year-old reliever, but he won’t return to the mound until 2018. He exited Saturday’s outing with a 4.35 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 6.3 SO/9 over 60 innings.

The Tigers currently trail the Twins 10-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning.