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 2015 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays
The Big Question: Is the party over?
The party I refer to is the seven-season party in which the Rays were competitive. Or maybe just six, as they only won 77 games last year. But perceptions and expectations matter, right? People thought they’d contend last year. When the season started there was hope. This, in contrast, to the feeling Devil Rays fans had between 1998 and 2007. What I’m really asking is if, for the first time since the Rays took control of the AL East midway through the 2008 season, do their fans lack any basis of hope? Has the club that Andrew Friedman built and Joe Maddon managed ceased to be and are the Rays back out in the wilderness in which they roamed back when they had neon stingrays on their uniforms?
Hard to say. But we can say that the departure of Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman should not, in and of itself, cause Rays fans to despair. Kevin Cash is a rookie manager, but he comes from a good pedigree, having been mentored by Terry Francona for the past few years. Matt Silverman may not be a household name, but he served in the same front office as Friedman for quite a long time. It’s not like the wheel which rolled the Rays into contention is being totally rebuilt. In some ways it’s the same plan as before — look for bargains, trade a guy earlier rather than too late and hope that the pitching comes through — just with fresh faces implementing them. It’s not like they went out and hired Dusty Baker and Jim Hendry here.
But, on the talent side, well . . . it’s gonna be rough for the Rays to convince people, like they’ve convinced us so often in the past that, with a little luck, they can be in the thick of the AL East race. Even a generally down AL East. Their big offseason pickup: Asdrubal Cabrera, who will be a defensive liability at short. Second base looks like the witness protection program. They upgraded at DH with John Jaso, and he’ll be a positive contributor if he doesn’t have to catch. They lost Ben Zobrist who was probably their best offensive performer last year. This from a team which already had the worst offense in the American League.
Good outfield defense, some live bullpen arms and a shot at a good rotation (see below) is nice, but it’s not enough. The Rays look to be in the middle of a transition period, and shouldn’t be expected to contend.
What else is going on?
- Offense is the real question here, but are there answers? Eh, maybe. I mean, it’s not hopeless. Evan Longoria hit a mere .253/.320/.404 last season. He’s better than that. Desmond Jennings has long been thought to have the potential to be an offensive star. He’s 28 now and hopes for sustained stardom are probably gone, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him have one or two spike years around now. A big x-factor is Steven Souza, who has raked in the minors in the past. Jaso can hit. James Loney has come back to life and died again a few times in his career. It’s not a lot to build on outside of Longoria — and it may be wishcasting to even hope for half of that stuff to break right — but I suppose it’s not nothing.
- The rotation could be a strength, at least if you’re an optimist. Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi figure to be a solid rotation at some point this season, but it’s nowhere near a lock that they’ll all be together at once at any time. Moore, of course, is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and could be back by July. But Cobb and Smyly have had health problems this spring. Alex Colome is supposed to be there until Moore arrives, but his spring has been interrupted with pneumonia. Unlike in the past where the Rays had a “next-man-up” feel to their starting pitching, there isn’t a ton of depth to make up for injured starters anymore.
- I mentioned Jaso catching above. He’s not likely to do a lot of that due to the pickup of Rene Rivera. Rivera has had only 673 plate appearances across six seasons as he backed up in San Diego, Minnesota and Seattle while shutting to and from the minors. He’s been knocking around forever, but he’s supposed to be an amazing defensive catcher, though. And he even hit a decent amount last year in San Diego, where he saw his most consistent playing time as a big leaguer. Could be an interesting dude.
- The bullpen should be serviceable. The closer and setup men, some of whom may be interchangeable if Kevin Cash wants to play the hot hand, look to be Jake McGee, Grant Balfour, Brad Boxberger and Kevin Jepsen. McGee had elbow surgery this offseason and will hopefully return in the season’s first month. Jim Miller and Ernesto Frieri are knocking around. Each are projects who pitched well once but then sort of melted down. The Rays could try to rehab and flip them. Heck, they may be flipping a lot. I bet Asdrubal Cabrera is on the block by June. Like I said: team in transition.
Prediction: I can envision a path to the division title for every team in the AL East except for the Tampa Bay Rays. They are rebuilding in their own particular Tampa Bay Rays way in which the Rays are always kinda rebuilding, but there are far fewer usable parts here. I think that amounts to Fifth Place, American League East.