Examining the team's MLB season ahead.
Back in the day, the Devil made them do it. But what possessed the 2016 version of the Rays to lose more games than in any year since the name truncation was an unholy amalgam of shoddy fundamentals, slapdash base running, leaky defense and patchy pitching. On paper, little has changed. That means either the Rays believe enough in their players to regard last year as an aberration, or their scarcity of resources make an upgrade impossible. They do have reason to believe in the starting rotation, which alone can make them respectable. As for the rest of it, Baseball Ops president Matt Silverman admitted to the Tampa Bay Times, “We don’t and we can’t and we won’t, as people say, ‘go all in.’ That means you’re trading your future.” So for the present, that translates to another season in purgatory.
Chris Archer threatened to join Nolan Ryan as the only pitcher ever to lead the AL in both defeats and strikeouts thanks to the gopher ball and meager support. A 3.11 ERA in his last 11 starts prompted manager Kevin Cash to predict that “a very elite pitcher” would emerge in 2017. Jake Odorizzi’s weapons lack the sex appeal of Archer’s 95-mph fastball and elite slider, and he’s an extreme flyball pitcher who needs too many pitches to take care of business. If and when Alex Cobb can survive a full season (something the 29-year-old has yet to do), he has the pitching goods and clubhouse cachet to be the leader of the staff. Since posting a 2.82 ERA in 2013-14, he’s been rehabbing an elbow. Although hyped lefty Blake Snell has yet to forge even a passing acquaintance with the strike zone, his raw stuff has not been overrated. And with Drew Smyly traded to Seattle, the Rays hope they acquired one of their building blocks for the future in right-hander Jose De Leon. The 24-year-old came over from the Dodgers in the deal for second baseman Logan Forsythe and despite his struggles (6.35 ERA in four starts) in his first taste of the majors, he has ace potential.
The good news was that the 2016 Rays were the second team in history to get a home run from six different shortstops in one season. That was also the bad news. With Brad Miller’s defense no longer tenable, Cash shuffled bodies until pitcher Matt Moore was dealt to the Giants for long-term solution Matt Duffy. The 2015 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up (as a third baseman) grappled with a bum heel all year, but surgery has repaired the problem. Duffy is now a core player with a bat that plays well for the position and an unassailable glove. With the trade of Forsythe, Miller could be moved back to second base, provided his defense improves. Other internal options at second include Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham.
Prior to the Forsythe trade, Tampa Bay was planning on putting Miller at first to take advantage of his power, which resulted in a surprising jump from 164th in the majors in 2015 in home runs to 31st last season. Of his 30 home runs, 22 were at The Trop. That’s not an aberration; he can spin on a ball and go hard oppo with equal facility. But if his defense holds up at second, he will play there, which then opens up a hole at first base. The Rays signed Logan Morrison to a one-year deal in early February and could decide to look elsewhere with several free agents still looking for jobs at the start of spring training. Evan Longoria was another player whose subtle adjustments paid off. He reversed his recent decline by becoming the first AL third baseman ever to amass at least 80 extra-base hits and commit fewer than 10 errors. The franchise cornerstone, however, wasn’t too pleased with the Forsythe trade, saying he was “surprised and upset” at the move.
As sound as the infield is, the guys behind them are, collectively, substandard. “Collectively” because Kevin Kiermaier is bedrock. “Nobody’s gonna play center field like KK,” lauds Cash, who calls it a “privilege” to watch him. “It’s very tough to quantify what he does for us.” He could start with a 12.8 WAR in 2015-16 that was 52 percent higher than any other Ray or the 68 Defensive Runs Saved since 2014 that top the position by 28 or the team’s 14–34 record when he was out with a broken hand last year. The corners are, in the kindest word possible, “problematic.” Athletic-but-unproductive right fielder Steven Souza Jr. rocked a swing-and-miss percentage of 32.9. Left fielder Corey Dickerson has power, but he’s an out-making machine who must be platooned and is defensively suited for DH. Colby Rasmus was signed to a one-year, $5 million deal. He can play all three outfield positions and is a left-handed bat with power (five straight seasons with 15 or more home runs), but the average (.206 in 2016) leaves plenty to be desired. Tampa also acquired speedster Mallex Smith in the Smyly trade with Seattle. Smith played 72 games for Atlanta (he was traded by the Braves to the Mariners before being traded again to the Rays) before a thumb injury basically ended his season. Even though he hit just. 238 and was caught stealing a third of the time (16-for-24), he has the potential to be an asset on both the base paths and in the outfield, if he can win a spot on the 25-man roster.
When the Rays got priced out (as usual) of first-choice free agent Jason Castro, they signed Wilson Ramos, who is coming off an All-Star/Silver Slugger season. He was affordable only because he’s also coming off major knee surgery and may miss the first couple months of his two-year pact. The stopgaps are Curt Casali and Luke Maile. The former rakes for distance but with infrequent contact; the latter has a defensive edge but can’t hit a lick. Tampa also acquired former Mariner Jesus Sucre, but he will have to earn his spot on the roster in spring training.
The versatility of the bench compensates for its shallowness.The aforementioned Franklin was a one-time blue-chip shortstop prospect who now dabbles at most every position. He’s not the optimal DH, but he’s the best on board barring a belated pick up or until Ramos can ease back into catching. Rookie Daniel Robertson and doghouse denizen Beckham oil up all the infield mitts as well. The Rays hope 2014 No. 1 pick Casey Gillaspie breaks a streak of drafting bats that never develop. He might be an option in a platoon at first base and/or challenge Franklin. Tampa also signed Rickie Weeks to a minor league contract to add to the competition in spring training.
The soft underbelly of the strategy of trading established assets for prospect packages is that those deals yield exactly that — packages, not impact players, although it remains to be seen with the De Leon acquisition. That, in concert with poor drafts and trade miscalculations, has made for a star-power deficit that has eroded results. With an eye toward addressing those insufficiencies, the front office was reorganized this winter to make Erik Neander the Rays’ first traditional GM since 1995. Owner Stu Sternberg has termed Cash “a long, long-term guy.”
This is a crossroads season. Can the shuffled management team exhume the cash-strapped franchise’s record of innovation and success, or was that a proprietary product of the predecessing Andrew Friedman/Joe Maddon dream team all along? To approach its potential this season, the team must unearth two more offensive hammers — an unlikely scenario even if any of the arm-for-bat trade opportunities it was seeking deep into the winter reaches fruition. Still, insists Silverman, “There’s a lot to be optimistic about as we look towards 2017, and it begins with our starting pitching.” Unfortunately, it may also end there.