Will Vragovic/The Tampa Bay Times via AP

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.

Sports teams do not “heal” cities or nations

Associated Press
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story today in which he talks to Cleon Jones, Ken Harrelson, Art Shamsky and others from the 1969 Mets about their Amazin’ World Series title run. The story is tied to the upcoming commemorations of the 50th anniversary of that phenomenally unexpected and improbable season.

And that’s fine as far as it goes, but as so often is the case with nostalgic remembrances, it goes too far:

They will gather together in New York later in June, rehashing stories from 50 years ago, reminiscing about the year they turned the baseball world upside down, becoming perhaps the most beloved team in history.

The 1969 Mets.

The team that helped revitalize a city in ruins and heal a nation in turmoil, showing the world you can turn the inconceivable to the improbable to the possible to the incredible, in a way only sports can possibly do.

Now would be a good time to remember that the city the Mets allegedly revitalized found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early-to-mid-70s and experienced urban decay and spiking crime rates for the next 20+ years. It would also be a good time to remember that the nation the Mets allegedly healed witnessed the Kent State shootings a few months later, among other bits of strife for the next, oh, 50 years and counting.

Yes, I am being flip and superficial here, but I do so simply to illustrate how flip and superficial “[Sports Team] healed [City/Nation]” narratives invariably are.

We see these sorts of things whenever a team from a down-on-its-luck place has a title run. Detroit. Cleveland. New Orleans. The idea is generally a broad-brush paint job in which the source of strife — poverty, crime, economic strife, natural disaster, terrorism, etc. —  is detailed with the local sports team’s subsequent title run cast as a spiritual balm. The words “heal” and “uplift” are pretty common in these stories. Back in 2002 I wrote about a classic of the genre, a documentary about the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who allegedly healed Detroit following he 1967 riots. Anyone familiar with Detroit from 1968-on may understand that the claims of healing asserted therein were . . . somewhat overstated.

Whatever the details, most of these narratives have the same sorts of flaws. At best they overstate the significance of sports in society, presuming that happiness among ticket-buying sports fans — who are usually better off than your average city resident who may be the one in need of healing — means broad-based happiness among the populace. More commonly they simply ignore the actual city or society beyond anything but its most superficial markers. The pattern:

  • Montage of the strife in whatever its form (bonus if it’s from the 1960s and you can re-use some existing “turbulent 60s” b-roll;
  • A chronicling of the sports team’s run; and
  • A declaration that everything was better after that.

It’s not even a matter of correlation and causation being confused. There’s very rarely ever any evidence presented that the sports made the underlying problems any better. All one usually gets from these things is a sense that, at least to the sports commentator/documentarian telling the story and to the people who closely followed the sports team, things were good. Unless, of course, I missed the part about how LeBron James solved Cleveland’s declining population problems and how the 2010 New Orleans Saints solved the ongoing mental, economic and medical trauma of those displaced by Katrina.

Which is not to say that sports mean nothing in this context. Sports success can certainly make a lot of people happy, even people hit hard by adversity, temporarily speaking. People only tangentially-connected to the strife in question may, also, decide that a sporting event “healed” a city. For example, if something bad happened in your city but didn’t affect you directly, you may believe that the trophy-hoisting put a nice bookend on the trauma that was more directly felt by others. And, of course, individuals directly connected with the sporting events in question, like Cleon Jones in the Mets piece, can experience a more lasting change in their lives as a result of this sort of success that they might see as general uplift.

That’s not the same thing as healing, though. Because while you or I can close that chapter on it all when the game is over, survivors of traumatic events and victims of systematic oppression or chronic strife cannot and do not do so that easily. There were people still hurting in Detroit after 1968, in New York (and the nation) after 1969, in New Orleans after the Saints won the Super Bowl, and in Cleveland after the Cavs won their title. The very best that can be said of sports triumph amid civic adversity is that it’s a pleasant, albeit temporary distraction. But not everyone had the luxury of enjoying that temporary distraction and a distraction is not the same thing as a cure.

Why do sports writers and commentators do this? I suppose it’s a function of people believing that the world in which they operate is, well, the world. The entertainment writer sees everything as a Hollywood story, the political writer sees everything as a Washington story and the sports writer sees everything as a sports story. It’s an understandable loss of perspective and we all fall prey to it sometimes.

It’d be better, though, if we spent more time appreciating that our perspective on the world is not the only one. I won’t speak for the entertainment or political people, and I won’t speak for the way in which any other person may prioritize the world as they observe it. But in my world — sports — I think it’d be better if we did not ascribe outsized significance to the beat we cover. Doing so asks far more of sports than sports is capable of delivering and erases the ongoing pain and suffering of people for whom sports is no sort of cure.