As we work towards Opening Day, John Pielli will be previewing each team based on past performance, offseason moves, minor league system, and overall outlook for 2015. Today: the Tampa Bay Rays.
The 2014 Tampa Bay Rays were 36-49 entering the month of July. They had their best month, going 17-6 in July when once again, the organization quit on them. The Rays traded their best pitcher, not just in 2014, but in the history of the franchise, David Price, to the Detroit Tigers for a return that was less than market value. Getting LHP Drew Smyly and SS Nick Franklin was nowhere near enough of a return for a franchise pitcher with another season of club control. The team managed to finish the season by playing 6 games under .500 and a lot of that had to be credited to manager Joe Maddon.
Whether the situation with getting a new stadium is the biggest deal or whether the lack of revenue and interest in winning coming from ownership is more of a big deal than it gets credit for, the Rays seem to not have the resources to be on the same field as their competition. Their recent run of success, which included six straight winning seasons (before last year) and a World Series appearance in 2008 may be the best stretch of baseball we will see from this team in a long time. See, the Rays were rewarded for the bad baseball we saw from the team’s first decade. To get back on that level, history says they will have to lose for a little while again.
The man who was credited with changing the fortune of the Tampa Bay farm system was Andrew Friedman. Friedman likely saw the writing on the wall when he accepted his job with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The same can be said about manager Maddon, who left to take over behind the bench of the Chicago Cubs. Cleveland Indians bullpen coach Kevin Cash takes over as manager. The Rays offseason picked up where the regular season left off, as they dealt 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for John Jaso and two minor leaguers. They then dealt Wil Myers to the Padres, picking up OF Steven Souza from the Nationals in the process. They then traded OF Matt Joyce to the Angels for RHP Kevin Jepsen. The Rays also dealt RHP Jeremy Hellickson to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a couple of minor leaguers. Free agent wise, the Rays signed Asdrubal Cabrera to play SS and RHP Ernesto Frieri to fill out a spot in the bullpen.
In spite of all the trades, pitching remains the team’s strength. Alex Cobb (10-9, 2.87 in 27 starts) is by far the team’s ace. In all probability, he will be the next one dealt after he breaks out in 2015 (assuming he stays healthy). Smyly (9-10, 3.24 in 28 games, 25 starts) was 3-1, 1.70 in his 7 starts with the Rays. Chris Archer (10-9, 3.33 in 32 starts) allows for the team to still have three above average starting pitchers. RHP Jake Odorizzi (11-13, 4.13, 31 starts) and Nate Karns (2 starts in 2014) will round out the rotation. LHP Matt Moore (2 starts in 2014 after winning 17 games in 2013) will return to the rotation in June or July. Alex Colome (2-0, 2.66, 5 games, 3 starts in 2014) will also battle for a spot in the starting rotation.
The bullpen is led by LHP Jake McGee (5-2, 17 saves, 1.89 in 73 games) and RHP Grant Balfour, who had a down 2014 after signing a free agent contract with the Rays last off season. Balfour saw his ERA rise almost 2.5 a game to 4.91 and had his lowest strikeout per 9 IP rate of his career. Cesar Ramos was traded to the Angels and Joel Peralta to Friedman’s Dodgers so the importance of guys like Brad Boxberger (5-2, 2.37, 53 games), Jepsen (0-2, 2.63, 74 games for the Angels) and Frieri (1-4, 7.38 in 48 games for Angels and Pirates) will be magnified. Boxberger seemed comfortable in his new role, as did Jepsen, but Frieri didn’t seem to have a clue in 2014.
While there is a chance the Rays pitching staff can hold itself together, the offense is unlikely to. Evan Longoria (.253, 22, 91, playing all 162 games) is the franchise player and will need some others to step up and help. Longoria hopefully can get his average up but he will be pitched around unless somebody can hit behind him. James Loney (.290, 9, 69) could be that guy, but he tapered off after a great start to last season. Souza batted 3-for-23 in 2014 but made an incredible catch to save Jordan Zimmermann‘s no hitter to end the season. He did hit .350 in AAA last season, finishing with 18 HR and 75 RBI. Desmond Jennings (.244, 10, 36, 15 SB) has to step his game up. He was hurt last year but struck out 108 times in 123 games. Kevin Kiermaier (.263, 10, 35), David DeJesus (.248, 6, 19) and Brandon Guyer (.266, 3, 26) will all vie for the other starting OF spot. Jaso (.264, 9, 30) and Rene Rivera (.252, 11, 44) will do the catching with Jaso also sharing some DH time with DeJesus.
The middle infield for the Rays has a chance to be good. Cabrera (.241, 14, 61 for Cleveland and Washington) will be at SS and Logan Forsythe (.223, 6, 26) is the leading candidate to play 2B. Franklin (13-for-81 with Seattle and Tampa Bay), should get a chance to play everyday if he can earn the job. Former number one overall draft pick Tim Beckham may be ready to make his debut this season. Daniel Robertson (acquired from the Athletics in one of the many trades) looks like he may be the best of the talent in the middle infield. He may not be ready to play in the big leagues this season though. Here is the lineup I would go with: Jennings CF, Jaso DH, Longoria 3B, Loney 1B, Souza LF, Cabrera SS, Rivera C, Franklin 2B, Kiermaier/Guyer RF.
PECOTA, used by Baseball Prospectus, states a handful of well thought out reason why the Rays can win 86 games this season. That is a 7 1/2 game increase over the Las Vegas over/ unders (78 1/2). I understand the point of run prevention, but do not think it will help a team that does not score runs. PECOTA vastly overstated the amount of runs the Rays will score this season. Additionally, another thing PECOTA fails to do is respect the competition level of the other teams in the AL East. The Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles and even Yankees can all have distinct advantages over Tampa Bay this season. The Rays have to win over 50 % of their 72 division games to have a shot at 86 wins. I do not see the chance of that happening. They are also expecting a lot out of Souza and Franklin, neither of whom have proven anything at the major league level. I like the pitching and defense, but this team will score fewer runs than any team in MLB, mark my words. And though Kevin Cash may be a good MLB manager down the road, the team will miss Maddon’s presence on that bench. So, here it is… The 2015 Tampa Bays will finish with a 69-93 record, last place in the AL East and worst record in the entire American League.