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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The good news: it can’t get any worse. And I don’t mean that flippantly or as a means of laughing at their 2016 performance. Really, most of the things that could’ve gone wrong for the Rays last year did, from injuries to down years from guys they needed to perform to simple bad luck. Meaning that last year was probably near the bottom of their expectations and that, with merely some better luck and better health, the Rays will be a better team.

Chris Archer had a fantastic, All-Star year in 2015. Last year he was one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. The good news here is that a lot of that was a combination of bad luck and command issues, not a serious overall regression or any foreshadowing of injuries. He still struck out a ton of guys last season, but when he didn’t miss bats he missed the zone. There’s no reason to expect that Archer will repeat his 2016 performance. He’s too darn talented for that, and I would expect him to reassert his acelike status.

But it’s not all Archer. Indeed, beyond him the rotation is really solid with the potential to do some special things. It seems eons ago, but Alex Cobb posted two amazing seasons back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 before elbow injuries hit. He’s now back at full strength. Jake Odorizzi has been a solid presence in the rotation the past two seasons. Blake Snell is raw and wild, but has great stuff. It’s spring and we’re being optimistic, but if he makes at least a passing acquaintance with the zone in 2017 he could be a special pitcher.  Between injury stuff and the need for bouncebacks, a good story about the Rays rotation is all wishcasting to some degree, but there is a lot of talent in this group, and that’s a lot more than a lot of teams have to wish on.

The Rays lost a lot of close games and lost a lot of games late last year. See above about bad luck. That’s often a sign of bullpen trouble. And yes, the Rays’ 2016 pen had trouble. Closer Alex Colome was excellent, but everyone was else was pretty homer happy. Last year the former closer, Brad Boxberger suffered a bad abdominal injury in spring training and it basically derailed everything. He’s working his way back from a lat injury now, but the prognosis is a lot better for him to be at full power and effectiveness at least some point early in the season. Erasmo Ramirez has a hamstring issue, but he’ll likely be the long man. Danny Farquhar is solid. Xavier Cedeno falls into the “he’s better than he showed last year” pile. There’s hope here for better things and, of course, better luck, even if this is not a stellar group. Again, manager Kevin Cash has something to work with here, even if it’s not a lot.

On offense, Evan Longoria continued to be Evan Longoria last season and Brad Miller broke out with a big power year. That’s something else to build on. The issue for the Rays is getting on base. They were among the worst teams in baseball in this department last season and, looking up and down this roster, it’s hard to see where a bunch more walks and hits may come from. Having Kevin Kiermaier back for a full year will be key, and not just for his stellar defense, as he showed some offensive improvement when he did play last year.  If he builds on that he’s a borderline MVP candidate. Ultimately, though, there just aren’t enough weapons here.

I think the Rays are a lot more talented than last year’s 68-win team suggested. I don’t think, however, they underperformed that talent by, like, 20 games or anything, nor did they improve themselves in the offseason enough to make up that kind of gap. Heck, they hardly did much at all. As such, I think they’ll be better than they were in 2016, but I feel like they’re, at the very most, an 80-win team. And most teams don’t hit their best case projections like that.

Prediction: Fifth Place, American League East.

Major League Baseball considering expansion, radical realignment

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Tracy Ringolsby of Baseball America wrote yesterday about a “growing consensus” within baseball that expansion and realignment are inevitable. The likely expansion cities: Portland and Montreal. The 32-team league would then undergo a radical realignment that would also involve reducing the season from 162 to 156 games while expanding the playoffs to 12 teams.

To be clear, Ringolsby’s actual reporting here is limited to that “growing consensus” about expansion, and the most likely cities involved, not regarding the specific realignment or game reduction plan. That I take to be speculative — he refers to it as “one proposal” — though it seems like reasonable and informed speculation. The general idea is that, if you expand, you have to realign, and if you realign you have to change the playoff structure lest too many teams in any one division become also-rans. That, combined with the near impossibility of changing the early-April-to-late-October footprint of the season and the desire of players to have less arduous travel schedules and some extra time off, leads to the shorter season.

The details of the plan:

  • The American and National Leagues would be disposed of, with MLB putting all 32 teams into four, eight-team, regionally-based divisions: East, North, Midwest, West. This is designed to (a) maintain regional and traditional rivalries while (b) cutting way back on cross-time zone travel. Both New York teams and Boston are in the “North,” both Chicago teams and St. Louis are in the “Midwest,” etc. Texas and Houston are in the “Midwest” too, but we’ll let the Texans get mad about that later.
  • The playoffs would feature a LOT of play-in games. Specifically, Ringolsby would have the four division winners go to the Division Series, where they would play the winner of four different Wild Card games, the participants in which would come from the eight non-division winners with the best records, regardless of which division they came from.
  • The schedule would go back to 156 games, giving every team an off-day every week. Between that and the more compact, almost all single-time-zone divisions, the travel schedules would be far less taxing, with shorter flights and more flights which could leave the day after a night game as opposed to directly after a night game, causing teams to arrive in the next city in the wee hours of the morning.

Thoughts:

  • Obviously this would piss off the purists.  The elimination of the traditional leagues, the shorter season, a (slightly) altered standard for records and milestones, and a doubling of one-and-done playoff series would make a lot of fans dizzy. On the one hand, I could argue that baseball has NEVER been as pure and unchanging as people like to pretend it is so maybe people shouldn’t get too bent out of shape over this, but it’s simply unavoidable that this would rattle a lot of baseball fans, and not just the ones hopelessly stuck in the past. Baseball should not be slavishly devoted to its history, but it needs to recognize that its history is a selling point and an important touchstone for many, many fans.
  • Ringolsby’s specific realignment idea is kind of fun, but will inevitably lead to some winners and losers. For example, many traditional rivalries or regional rivalries would be maintained — Chicago and St. Louis and Boston and New York would remain division rivals — but other, less-sexy but very real rivalries would be disposed of. The Mets, for example, would have no old NL rivals in their division. There will also be some teams which get screwed logistically. Here, all of Minnesota’s division rivals would be Eastern Time Zone teams, so all of its road games would be played in a different time zone. You could fix that somehow, but someone else would likely be inconvenienced. There isn’t a perfect way to do it. As such, implementation could be pretty messy, with some owners opposing it, possibly vehemently.
  • The playoff idea would make for a lot of drama with four play-in games, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable model. Yes, division winners would all be guaranteed a five-game playoff series, but having two-thirds of all of the playoff teams subjected to a random one-and-done game as opposed to the current four of ten would inevitably lead to calls for longer Wild Card series. And it would likely, over time, diminish the cachet of the Wild Card itself. Now most people think of Wild Card teams as having made the playoffs, With this plan, I suspect fewer people will think of it that way as opposed to some sort of weird, non-quite-the-playoffs limbo, thus hurting late season interest among fans of non-division winners.
  • A 156-game season wouldn’t be the end of the world. We had a 154-game season for a little over half a century total and a 162 game season for 56 seasons so far. Changing it might cause people to get grumpy about records and milestones, but other changes in the game, be it pitcher usage patterns or juiced baseballs or integration or night games or any number of other things have already changed the context in such a way that such standards were never as set-in-stone as people tend to believe. At the same time, extra off days might very well improve the caliber of play as players are more rested and therefore sharper.

In the end, it’s important to recognize that Ringolsby’s article is, in all likelihood, a trial balloon leaked by Major League Baseball, so don’t take any one aspect of it too seriously, even if we should all take the idea of some radical shift involving expansion and realignment in the not-too-distant future seriously.

Why? Money mostly. There are huge financial incentives for baseball to do this. Part of this involves the cost-savings which would result from better scheduling and less travel that Ringolsby mentions. A much greater incentive would come from the franchise fees the owners of the two new teams would pay the 30 current owners in order to be allowed into the MLB fraternity.  In the last round of expansion, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays owners paid $150 million each for their teams. Given that franchises have gone up in value by a factor of ten twenty, it’s not inconceivable that new owners in Montreal and Portland would have to fork over well north of a billion dollars each to enter the league. That’s a check for $66 million written to each owner in exchange for simply voting “yes” at some meeting in Scottsdale on some fine December afternoon.

So, while there may be no uncertainly on the “how” of it all, the very fact of expansion and subsequent realignment seems inevitable. Now is a good time for us to start thinking about how the details of it all would work.