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Tampa Bay Rays 2016 Preview and Prediction

Chris Archer

Chris Archer

As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.

It was Connie Mack who, during the dead-ball era, estimated that pitching is 75 percent of baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays, mired in a dead-ball era of their own, have discredited that statement. If old Cornelius was correct, the American League team with the fourth-lowest ERA the past two years wouldn’t have lost 10 more games than it won. No matter how well the Rays sling the ball, it seems, they don’t strike it well enough to be anything more than a plucky annoyance to their foes. Coming off a winter of relative stasis, that’s likely to be their identity again in 2016.

Rotation

The Rays have the “problem” of too much starting pitching. After leading AL starters with a 3.63 ERA in 2015, they dealt Nate Karns who, at 27, was the oldest member of the rotation. Still, the cupboard remains stocked. On and off the diamond, charismatic Chris Archer is rivaling Evan Longoria as the face of the franchise. With more run support and without four beatings that elevated his ERA from 2.14 to 3.23, he might have won the Cy Young Award. Featuring a 95-mph fastball to set up a slider that David Price has called the best in the game, Archer was just the eighth pitcher of the modern era to strike out 250 batters yet be saddled with a losing record.

Drew Smyly missed more than 100 games (shoulder) but sparkled in September. Since arriving in the Price deal with Detroit, the southpaw is 8–3 with a 2.52 ERA. Jake Odorizzi’s 3.35 ERA was eighth-lowest in the AL, but his run support ranked 35th. Erasmo Ramirez is a change-up specialist whose .507 OPS off that pitch was the league’s lowest. After posting a 5.12 ERA for Seattle in 2013-14, he went 11–6, 3.75. If Matt Moore can advance his comeback from Tommy John surgery, he’ll round out the quintet. Although he’s no longer a flamethrowing ace-in-waiting, the 1.35 ERA of his final four starts was reassuring. Should this array of starters splinter, next up are potential phenom Blake Snell and the accomplished Alex Cobb, who could be the best of them all when he returns in midseason from Tommy John surgery.

Bullpen

In the Cracker Jack world of relief pitching, the Rays always seem to find a cool prize at the bottom of the box. The latest is Brad Boxberger, who led the circuit with 41 saves. The flip side is that he did the same with his 16 losses-plus-blown saves and six walk-off defeats. Though “Box” is far too generous with walks and gopher balls, the trade of dominating Jake McGee to Colorado for outfielder Corey Dickerson eliminated his only serious competition for the ninth inning. The sole other bullpenner with high-leverage experience is one-time closer Danny Farquhar, who was a nightmarish 1–8, 5.12 in Seattle last year. Filler-outers include Steve Geltz (2–6, 3.74 — although he retired 32 consecutive batters at one point), electric/erratic Alex Colome, quadruple-A types Matt Andriese and Andrew Bellatti, and lefty specialists Xavier Cedeno and Enny Romero.

Middle Infield

Logan Forsythe became a borderline star at second base and one of the game’s more underrated players. Tampa Bay’s MVP was first or second on the club in almost every key stat while doing sharp glovework. Only Ian Kinsler had a higher WAR (6.0 to 5.1) among keystoners. Landed in the Karns deal was Brad Miller to replace Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop. Despite his sketchy defensive stats, the Rays think he’ll be fine. There are fewer trepidations about offensive ceiling. The only AL shortstop (primary position) to match his 11 home runs, 13 steals and .402 slugging percentage was Houston’s Carlos Correa. Since almost all of Miller’s damage was done against righties, he might platoon with Tim Beckham (.462 slugging vs. lefthanders).

Corners

Either because he’s been left naked in an impotent order or (as some scouts suggest) his hands have slowed down and he can be busted inside, Longoria is in a two-year funk (.744 OPS). Last season, his 73 RBIs led the team, yet were only the 14th-most in the division. If he can’t return to 2008-13 mode (.870 OPS), the Rays’ attack is doomed to its sideways trend. The extended slump hasn’t disturbed Longo’s defense; his team-record .976 fielding percentage led AL third basemen. In comparison to the hot corner, though, the first base position is in a deep freeze. Tampa Bay’s embarrassing .629 OPS at that spot was the lowest in the majors by .073. The team has been trying to find a way to move on from four-home run man James Loney. If it does, either Steve Pearce (the Rays’ only semi-significant free agent signee) or the presumptive DH platoon of Logan Morrison and Richie Shaffer will take up the cause.

Outfield

In the olden days, Kevin Kiermaier would have been just another guy, but advanced defensive metrics have made him a legend. Even Luddites can understand the term “twice as high,” which is what his SABR Defensive Index of 29.2 was compared to any other AL player at any position. At the plate, the rocket-fast Kiermaier is neither asset nor liability. The Rays counted heavily on rookie right fielder Steven Souza Jr. to enflame the offense in 2015 but saw only a flicker of his five-tool capabilities. He went deep 16 times as a finger injury cost him two months, and he swung and missed at nearly a third of the pitches he saw. Left field will be an episode of “Last Man Standing.” The cast includes Desmond Jennings (who was sidelined 133 games by a knee injury), Dickerson, Pearce, Brandon Guyer and Mikie Mahtook. The Rays are in love with Dickerson even though he’s done just one thing well: hit right-handed pitching, and even that only at Coors Field.

Catching

Add Rene Rivera to the list of 2015 acquisitions who flopped at the plate. After a career year in San Diego, he made Jose Molina look like Mike Piazza by batting .178. He’ll time-share with Curt Casali and/or Hank Conger. The former went on a shocking tear of six homers in 17 at-bats at one point. The latter is a switch-hitter whose OPS against righties was an equally shocking .892.

DH/Bench

Also-rans in the overcrowded 1B/OF muddle will either be shopped or colonize a deep bench. Although Morrison was a chronic underperformer in Miami and Seattle, he’s had seasons of 23 and 17 homers. Shaffer is a former first-rounder with a too-long swing who nonetheless has cleared Double-A/Triple-A/MLB fences 45 times in the last two years. Pearce and Dickerson have had one big season each, Mahtook one big month. Forsythe, Miller and Beckham all can staff numerous positions.

Management

Despite being the youngest manager in the majors, Kevin Cash earned mostly positive reviews. He did, however, find himself defending his use of the bullpen. He summoned a new arm a startling 3.3 times per game and was credited with 72 “quick hooks” (as defined by Baseball Info Solutions)  — the most by any current manager in any season of their careers. Longtime team president Matt Silverman enters just his second season pulling the personnel strings. One bold move was his revision of the scouting hierarchy: In the past 20 years, only 17 non-pitcher Rays draft picks have played more than 100 games for them.

Final Analysis

Owner Stu Sternberg compares his plight to riding a three-speed bicycle when everyone else has tanks, but admits, “I don’t know how many (owners) would trade their last 10 years for mine.” His 11th is destined to go nowhere fast — unless spring moves turn up some heavy artillery to go with an inarguably impressive pitching rotation.

Prediction: 5TH AL East

Lineup

SS Brad Miller (L)

CF Kevin Kiermaier (L)

3B Evan Longoria (R)

1B Logan Morrison (L)

2B Logan Forsythe (R)

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DH Corey Dickerson (L)

RF Steven Souza Jr. (R)

LF Desmond Jennings (R)

C Rene Rivera (R)

Bench

C Curt Casali (R)

1B/OF Steve Pearce (R)

INF Tim Beckham (R)

OF Brandon Guyer (R)

OF Mikie Mahtook (R)

Rotation

RHP Chris Archer

LHP Drew Smyly

RHP Jake Odorizzi

RHP Erasmo Ramirez

LHP Matt Moore

Bullpen

RHP Brad Boxberger (Closer)

LHP Enny Romero

RHP Danny Farquhar

RHP Alex Colome

RHP Steve Geltz

LHP Xavier Cedeno