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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.

This Day in Transaction History: The Kirk Nieuwenhuis orbit

Kirk Nieuwenhuis
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Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis had, on the surface, a forgettable 2015 season. Taking most of his cuts with the Mets, he finished the year with a .645 OPS over 141 plate appearances. Two things stood out during that campaign, though: he had an out-of-nowhere power surge in one game, and he started and ended the year with the Mets but sandwiched a stint with the Angels in there.

After striking out in a pinch-hit at-bat in the 10th inning of a May 18 game against the Cardinals, Nieuwenhuis owned a .257 OPS across 40 trips to the plate. Unsurprisingly, the Mets designated him for assignment. A little more than a week later, the Mets found a home for him, sending him to the Angels in exchange for cash considerations.

Nieuwenhuis would spend roughly two weeks with the Angels, batting .136 in 22 at-bats. The Angels designated him for assignment on June 10. And wouldn’t you know it, the Mets claimed Nieuwenhuis off waivers from the Angels several days later. The Mets had him report to Triple-A Las Vegas, spending about a month there before returning to the majors.

Nieuwenhuis had a great first game back, starting in left field. He drew two walks and hit a double in a 3-0 win over the Giants. He would go hitless in his next five plate appearances, spanning four games. On July 12, something magical happened. To date, Nieuwenhuis had zero home runs. Something got into his bat in this afternoon game at home against the D-Backs. He drilled a solo shot to the opposite field off of Rubby De La Rosa in the second inning, opening the scoring. In the third, with a runner on first base and the Mets leading 2-1, Nieuwenhuis swatted a De La Rosa fastball out to left-center field for his second homer of the day. Nieuwenhuis made it three, leading off the fifth against reliever Randall Delgado, this time pulling a breaking ball down the left field line.

Nieuwenhuis became, at the time, the 10th Met to have a three-homer game. As Gary Cohen noted in the below clip, he became the first to do it at home. Somehow, the first nine Mets — Jim Hickman, Dave Kingman, Claudell Washington, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Edgardo Alfonzo, José Reyes, Carlos Beltrán, and Ike Davis — all did it on the road. In the time since, Lucas Duda, Yoenis Céspedes (twice), and Robinson Canó have had three-homer games. Duda and Canó’s were at home.

In one afternoon, Nieuwenhuis went from zero to three homers on the season and raised his OPS 190 points. Later that month, he would bang out a four-hit, four-RBI game in a blowout of the Dodgers. It was only the second time in his career he had a four-hit game, and the third time he had a four-RBI game. However, after the game against the Dodgers, Nieuwenhuis would slump, batting .194 through the end of the season, spanning 41 plate appearances. He’d add one more homer to his ledger, a pinch-hit, go-ahead solo shot on September 8 against Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Nieuwenhuis went to the Brewers for the 2016 season, getting semi-regular playing time. He racked up 18 doubles and 13 homers with 44 RBI over 125 games, but finished with a subpar .709 OPS. In 2017, Nieuwenhuis got off to an abysmal start, holding a .473 OPS on April 20. The Brewers placed him on waivers, but he went unclaimed, so he ended up accepting an assignment to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He made it back to the majors just one more time on July 29, providing a pinch-hit single. That was the last time he played in the majors. Nieuwenhuis inked a minor league deal with the Mariners for the 2018 season, then played for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. He retired last July. Nieuwenhuis will always have July 12, 2015, though.