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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.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.