30 in 30: Tampa Bay Rays

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Patrick Semansky/AP

by: Ryan Waldis

Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each MLB team in reverse order of the 2016 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2017 season. With that said, let’s jump into today’s team preview, featuring the Tampa Bay Rays.

Sidenote: Click here to be taken to the “hub”, where you can access any of the thirty team previews as they become available. The hub will be updated daily.

Basic Information

Division: AL East

2016 Record: 68-94 (5th place, 25 GB)

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Although there weren’t any new hires, there were some shakeups in the Rays front office over the off-season. Erik Neander was promoted to the position of Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, earning the General Manager title as well. James Click was promoted to Vice President of Baseball Operations, earning the Assistant General Manager title. Chaim Bloom, who is not listed above, will work closely with Neander and Matthew Silverman after being promoted to Senior Vice President. Per Silverman, who will remain the President of Baseball Operations, “Going forward, the charge is the same with my focus shifting away from daily management and more toward our longer-term vision and priorities. When it comes to key decisions, we will all work closely together.” Neander and Bloom have both been with the Rays for over a decade, so they, “ideal partners to team up on the daily management of our department,” according to Silverman.

The only major change to the Tampa Bay coaching staff occurred early last September, when minor league hitting coordinator Chad Mottola replaced Derek Shelton, who had been the team’s hitting coach since 2010. It’s not too surprising that the organization decided to go in a different direction; the Rays were typically towards the bottom of the league in regards to offense during Shelton’s tenure. That’s not all on Shelton, but hitting coaches tend to be popular scapegoats on a coaching staff and, as Kevin Cash suggested, “it was time” for someone new to take over.

2016 Team Statistics

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The Rays relied too much on the long ball in 2016. Sure, they finished sixth in the category, but it seems to have come at the expense of the rest of their offense. They finished with a 98 wRC+, which indicates that despite all of the homers, Tampa Bay was a below-average offensive team. They finished with the third highest K% in the league (24.5%), and they were in the bottom third of the league in BB% (7.4%). That’s not typically a recipe for success.

The pitching staff didn’t always hold up their end of the bargain, either. The team finished with the second-lowest GB% in the league (41%), ahead of only the Angels. Coincidentally, the staff was also prone to giving up home runs; they posted a 13.1% HR/FB mark, which put them in the bottom half of the league. The team wasn’t terrible in the field, but they finished with a negative UZR (-6.4), which is actually kind of impressive when you consider that they have arguably the best fielder in the league in Kevin Kiermaier patrolling the outfield.

Now, injuries definitely played a part in all of this, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Rays were a very mediocre team in all aspects of the game last season.

2016 Player Statistics and Commentary (images via baseball-reference)

Batters

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Evan Longoria led the way for the Rays in 2016, posting his best offensive season since 2013. Longo seems like he’s been around forever, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’ll only be 31 this year. The lifetime Ray hasn’t made an All-Star team since 2010, but he’s still been one of the better third baseman in the AL over the past several seasons despite a slight regression in 2014 and 2015. The California native finished last season with a 123 wRC+ and led the team with 36 HR’s, a career-high for him. He’s not the defensive stud that he used to be, but at least Longoria proved that he can still be consistent with the stick.

Kevin Kiermaier has quickly become one of the most valuable members of the Rays. His performance at the plate leaves a bit to be desired, but the team will happily settle for league-average offensive production as long as KK continues to perform at an elite level in the field. He’s won a Gold Glove each of the past two seasons, and for good reason: he can do everything an outfielder is supposed to do at an extremely high level. Kiermaier finished 2016 with a 24.2 UZR/150, the fourth-highest mark among fielders who played at least 850 innings. He was also behind just Mookie Betts in DRS. It’s crazy to think that Kevin was a 31st round pick seven years ago.

Acquired from Colorado in exchange for Jake McGee and German Marquez, Corey Dickerson was one of the more intriguing players heading into 2016. He performed very well with Colorado, and there were some doubts that Dickerson’s offensive game wouldn’t translate well to Tampa Bay. Suffice it to say, some of those doubts were definitely valid, as Dickerson put together his worst season since his rookie campaign in 2013. The former Rockie struck out in 24.5% of his plate appearances, had the second-lowest ISO of his career, and finished with a BABIP under .300 for the first time ever. With the additions of two outfielders this off-season, Dickerson’s leash may not be as long as it once was.

If you’re going to post a -25.1 UZR/150 at SS, there’s not much margin for error at the dish. Luckily for Brad Miller, he had the best offensive season of his career following an off-season trade from Seattle. Better yet? The Rays let him play first base 39 times last year, where his defense is much more tolerable.

The resident 1B who came over with Miller in that Mariners trade, Logan Morrison began his second stint in the state of Florida about as well as anyone could have hoped: at the end of April, LoMo was slashing a cool .100/.156/.133 with 25 K’s in just 64 PA’s. At times he shows flashes, but at 29-years-old, flashes don’t means as much as they used too. It’s sometimes hard to believe that he put together a solid rookie year with the Marlins in 2010.
Utility infielder Logan Forsythe quietly put together two consecutive solid seasons in Tampa Bay after a rough 2014. He became a reliable three to four-win player, and while his defense is exactly a huge selling point, Forsythe was a key cog of the Rays lineup. His biggest contribution, however, was fetching the Rays one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball this off-season, which will be discussed a bit later.

Remember that time the Rays technically had Trea Turner, and decided to trade him to Washington for Steven Souza? Souza’s main selling is his power, but that power doesn’t mean anything when the young outfielder is striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, as he did in 2016. Remember when I said Dickerson’s leash is probably a little shorter than it was at this time last year? Apply that to Souza as well. He’s running out of time.

Brandon Guyer made the most of his opportunities with the Rays, turning into a solid backup outfielder and inciting the Indians enough to make a move for him last year. Guyer even performed well enough in Cleveland to earn a spot on their playoff and World Series roster.
Coming off of a surprising 2015 campaign, there was some hope that Curt Casali finally tuned a corner from an offensive standpoint. Alas, that next step was never meant to be, and while he still provided value behind the plate, he experienced major regression at it.

Taking a look at the bench, Steve Pearce bounced back from a rough 2015 to post a 136 wRC+, albeit in limited time. He’s a guy you can count on to provide some nice value off the bench. A former top prospect, Desmond Jennings was never really able to put it all together, and posted a dismal .200/.281/.350 triple-slash in his final season with the organization that drafted him over ten years ago. Tim Beckham, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, is a competent fielder, but that’s where the positives end. He’s never really developed a good offensive approach, and at 27 years old, it’s probably fair to say he’ll never live up to the billing of being a number-one pick. Another former first round pick, Mikie Mahtook took a big step back in 2016 after a promising 2015 campaign.
Moving away from disappointments, Nick Franklin had one of the best seasons of his career, proving to the organization that he can be a reliable utility player. Finally, Matt Duffy performed well in limited plate appearances after a mid-season trade from San Francisco, and will enter 2017 with the opportunity to become a fixture in the Rays future plans. He won’t stick at short with top prospect Willy Adames waiting in the wings, but maybe he’ll end up replacing Longo at some point or another.

Pitchers

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There was a point in 2016 where seemingly nothing was going right for Chris Archer. Following an exceptional 2015 that had many thinking Cy Young, Archer had his worst season since his debut in 2012. Still, looking beneath the surface, there’s reason for hope that 2016 was a fluke and not the new norm. His ERA was slightly above four, but his FIP was 3.81 and his xFIP (3.41) was even better. The cause of Archer’s struggles? He had an unnaturally high HR/FB rate. His 16.2 percent mark–tied for the eighth highest in the league–was well above his career norm of 11.3. If he can find a way to contain the long ball, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll return to Cy Young form.

Fans have been waiting on Jake Odorizzi to break out, and while he may never reach ace status, he’s proven to be a more than reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter. He’s always held left-handed batters in check, but righties proved to be an issue for Odo last season, as they slashed .277/.327/.487 against the 27-year-old. If he can find a way to neutralize the success of right-handers, perhaps he takes a big step forward in 2017.

Letting up 32 homers isn’t a key to success, as Drew Smyly figured out. The southpaw let up a career-high amount of dingers in 2016, causing his ERA and xFIP to balloon. That his GB%–31.3– was nearly five percent lower than his career norm might have been a factor. His K% was right in line with what he’s produced throughout his career, though, and it’s probably safe to assume that most of Smyly’s statistics will regress to the mean this season.

Matt Moore performed well enough in his first full season since 2013 to garner interest from San Francisco, where he was sent in exchange for Duffy, Lucius Fox, and Michael Santos. He’ll always be at risk for injury, but it’s easy too see why he was considered one of the most talented pitchers on the Rays staff at one point.

A third round draft pick in 2011, Matt Andriese was used in a variety of roles in 2016 and looked solid in each of them. As a reliever, he held opponents to a .171/.198/.303 triple-slash line, striking out 19 while walking just three. He also held his own as a starter for at least the first few innings. He struggled mightily when facing opposing batters for a second and third time, as evidenced below:

1st time through the order: .261/.292/.366
2nd time through the order: .269/.310/.468
3rd time through the order: .343/.375/.535
He’ll probably start 2017 in the rotation, but with guys like Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell waiting in the minors, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him back in the bullpen at some point.

In 19 starts for Tampa Bay, highly touted prospect Blake Snell held his own, giving fans hope that he’ll take another step in his development in 2017. All Snellzilla did in his major league debut last May was throw five innings of two hit, one run ball while striking out six and walking just one. Things were up and down after that game, but there were several highlights once he was called up for good in June. Tossing six shutout innings in Colorado while allowing just one hit and striking out nine as well as holding the vaunted Blue Jays offense to just one run and two hits over six innings left fans excited for the years to come.

And then there’s Alex Cobb. The once emerging ace on Tampa Bay’s pitching staff, Alex Cobb missed close to two full seasons rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. His return in 2016 wasn’t anything to write home about, but his stats were highly inflated by his final two starts in which he let up a combined 15 runs in just 4.1 innings of work. The potential is still there, but as Cobb inches close to the big 3-0, it’s tough to think about what could have been, especially if he doesn’t bounce back.

Tampa’s bullpen wasn’t terrific by any means, but there were some bright spots. Alex Colome proved to be one of the best relievers in baseball, finishing with an ERA just under two and a FIP and xFIP of 2.92 and 2.75, respectively. He had a LOB% of 93, a nice groundball rate, and a K% of 31.4. There’s no reason to think Colome can’t keep it up.

Xavier Cedeno was also a pleasant surprise. Formerly a LOOGY in the ‘pen, Cedeno performed well against both lefties and righties in 2016. He’s not a stud relief pitcher by any means, but he’s now proven to be a solid middle relief guy, which is always useful on a pitching staff. Danny Farquhar‘s ERA looks nice on the surface, and the xFIP of 3.57 indicates that the former Mariner may have turned a corner after a rough 2015. Combine the aforementioned three with a now healthy Brad Boxberger, and you’re looking at a bullpen that isn’t half bad. There are certainly worse situations the team could be in.

Off-season Recap

Notable Acquisitions: C Wilson Ramos (two years/$12.5MM), OF Colby Rasmus (one year/$5MM), OF Mallex Smith (trade with Seattle), RHP Jose De Leon (trade with Los Angeles Dodgers), RHP Shawn Tolleson (one year/$1MM), RHP Nathan Eovaldi (one year/$2MM)

Notable Departures: 2B Logan Forsythe (trade with Los Angeles Dodgers), LHP Drew Smyly (trade with Seattle), OF Mikie Mahtook (trade with Detroit)

The Rays had a pretty active off-season, headlined by two major trades and multiple intriguing signings. The big trade is the one with the Dodgers, where Tampa Bay acquired one of the best pitching prospects in the league in De Leon in exchange for Forsythe. Projected by Baseball America to have a 60-grade fastball and changeup along with a 50-grade slider and slightly above average control, it will be interesting to see when the former Dodger prospect gets the call. Even if he lights it up over the first month or so in the minors, you’d have to imagine he wouldn’t get promoted until after the Super 2 date.

The other big trade involved Smith. Losing Smyly may hurt in the short-term, and the return might not have been the best, but it will be interesting to see what comes of Smith. He’s fast and solid in the field, and if he can improve his approach at the dish, he might turn out to be a valuable contributor for the Rays at some point down the road.

Moving to the free-agent signings, Ramos will miss time with an ACL injury he suffered last season, but if all goes according to plan he could be a sneaky-good pickup by the Rays front office, as he was on his way to a big payday if not for the aforementioned injury. He presents a clear offensive upgrade over what Tampa Bay has had to deal with at the catcher position for some time, and he’s also above-average behind the plate. As for Rasmus, it will be interesting to see if he can find a way to put it all together at the plate, something he’s rarely been able to do at the major league level. Tolleson fell apart in 2016 after pitching to an ERA below three each of the previous two seasons. Part of that was due to a back injury that he was supposedly pitching through. With an apparent clean bill of health, Tolleson should slot in as one of the Rays more reliable relief arms.

2017 Preview

Playing in one of the toughest divisions in baseball, it will be difficult for the Rays to compete for anything in 2017. Still, a .500 record isn’t out of the question if the following goals can be met:

  • Archer needs to prove that 2016 was a fluke. This rotation hinges on Archer’s success. If Archer bombs, not only will his trade value decrease, but the Rays might go down with him.
  • Odorizzi and Snell each have to take a big step forward. Snellzilla moreso than Odo, but both have to improve upon their performances last season if the Rays want a shot at 81 wins. Jake needs to figure out how to be more successful against right-handers, and Snell needs to figure out how to avoid the sophomore slump.
  • Cobb has to pitch a full season. From now until the end of time, Cobb will always be a major injury risk. The results don’t have to be spectacular–an ERA just over 4.00 would be acceptable–but Cobb has to prove that he can pitch from April through September again.
  • The corner outfielders need to be more consistent. It doesn’t matter who the corner OF’s end up being, but some duo of CDick/Souza/Rasmus/Franklin/Smith need to be better both at the plate and in the field than they were last season. Kiermaier can’t do everything.
  • The offense can’t rely solely on the long ball. Sure, they were one of the best teams in 2016 when it came to home runs, but at what cost? The offense as a whole was extremely unimpressive last season, and they’ll need to be more consistent and less reliant on hitting the ball out of the park to generate runs. Only time will tell if Mottola, the new hitting coach, will help the Rays achieve this goal.

The Tampa Bay Rays have a farm system full of intriguing, if not spectacular, prospects to go along with solid talent at the major league level. It might take a while until they’re ready to compete with Boston, New York, and Toronto, but the only place to go is up.

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