Offseason Dreaming: The Blueprint
I feel that it is a good thing to take a little break from baseball after the season officially ends. Focus on other things, get some projects done, but inevitably the mind wanders back to the scintillating smells percolating from the hot stove over yonder. This is the time of year where whiteboards get erased, but it won’t be long before they’re filled with new opportunities and challenges. While 40-man rosters will start to round into shape soon in order to prepare for the Rule-V draft I get the impression that the biggest trades and free agent signings will not take place until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has been agreed upon following its termination on December first. This gives us ample time to speculate before ultimately being proven oh so very wrong on so many things.
It is beneficial to look at where the team currently stands in order to isolate weaknesses and strengths. Let’s start with the positional-side of things:
Using the current projected 25-man roster from Roster Resource, Steamer projections for wOBA, and my own estimates for plate appearances, baserunning and defense I see the Rays putting up around 20 WAR collectively. The Tigers put up that total this past year to rank 12th in MLB for positional player WAR. So we’re looking pretty middle of the pack, though there are definite high and lowlights. Let’s continue looking at the current situation before coming back to this. Here are the pitchers:
Again, Steamer projections are used for the ERA, but I have used my own judgements for the innings pitched. At 14.7 WAR for the starters this rotation would have placed 7th in 2016 just behind the Giants, and the bullpen at 5.4 WAR would have been 6th. While the projections from Steamer are conservative, I think that this method teeters towards the optimistic side since more than these 26 players will see action. Still, this is a nice way to look at this stuff at the macro level.
Add it all up and I see the Rays as around an 84 win team with equal likelihood of 74 and 94 wins. Plotting this as a normal distribution gives you something like this:
The green shaded area indicates where I think you have to be in order to feel good about making the playoffs in one capacity or another. Add those percentages up and you will find that the team as currently constituted has something like a 24% chance of making the postseason. That’s not great and is a good indicator that the team is going to need to find a way to add a couple more wins to this club if they want to be taken seriously as a contender.
If you took a few moments to pore over the first table you may have noticed a couple of weak spots. Namely, catcher, the outfield corners and designated hitter stand out as positions that profile as less than average. Catcher should be fairly obvious for anyone that is a fan of this team, and the issues with the corners and DH could potentially all be solved by just adding one more bat that can put in some work in left or right field from time to time. We’re closer than we are far. Of course, with the constraints of the 25-man roster you cannot make additions without subtractions. Totaling up each of the players time and production from above can help us separate the wheat from the chaff:
If you can upgrade one of the catchers then the other can be ready in AAA so that should be an obvious area to improve. Next, you’ll see at the bottom of the list that Tim Beckham, Mikie Mahtook and Richie Shaffer combine to provide around a third of a win despite getting more than a full seasons amount of plate appearances between them. For me, this is the greatest opportunity for improvement aside from catcher. While Tim Beckham is out of options the other two guys each have at least one so the team will not risk losing the player in order to get this upgrade. Mahtook and Shaffer fill the bill as far as skillset, in that, they are right-handed guys that should hit a little and can move around enough to accommodate the everyday guys. The team should be looking for a right-handed guy that can upgrade on either, or ideally, both of these guys.
Let’s start with catcher. I have been increasingly vocal about my desire to just solve this issue with money and not have to give up real talent to facilitate a trade. It seems that I’m not the only one who values his unconventional skillset as multiple teams appear to be chasing my unicorn. This likely prices him out of the Rays market, which is a damn shame. I’d be willing to go to three years and $30M dollars, but I’m afraid he’s going to go for more than that. If that is the case then we need to start looking at the trade market as nothing else in free agency presents so appealingly. I have already profiled Derek Norris, but I’d like to throw another name into the hat. Miguel Montero.
The Cubs have no need to trade Miggy Montero with the retirement of David Ross and the uncertain ability of Kyle Schwarber behind the plate. Willson Contreras is a fantastic young catcher, but they showed last year that they would like to avoid everyday wear and tear on the guy. In some sense Montero might be a luxury, and certainly one they can afford as he looks to be worth his rather sizeable contract in the last year of his deal. Therefore, the Rays are going to have to offer something sweet in return, especially so if they want the Cubs to eat some of that money.
We saw plenty of rumors last offseason that the Cubs were willing to deal with the uncertain future of Alex Cobb as long as they had him in hand. I’d revisit those talks. Cobb did nothing at the end of 2016 to lend confidence that he could again be the shining star he once was, but that is how these things typically go with Tommy John recovery. The Cubs would be betting on him once again being a 2-3 WAR pitcher for them at a very nice cost of $4M, which lends to around $15M in surplus value. Add in the risk and I would be fine with the Rays shipping Cobb to the Cubs for Montero and $7M. While this is a short term fix it solves the biggest problem for the Rays and gives them a natural platoon partner at catcher for Curt Casali
That leaves us with finding two guys for the OF/DH portion of the program. My first choice for the outfield spot would be Rajai Davis. He is not an ideal option with the stick, but he has hit lefties at an above average clip for his career. Additionally, he brings a ton of value to the team on the bases and is a good defender in left field that tends to get exposed in center field if he has to play there for more than a pinch. Still, that should be all that he would need to provide. After his two year, $10M contract with the Tigers ended he received a little over $5M last year from the Indians. I’d be comfortable giving him $6M for this year.
By going a bit of glove over stick with Davis you can focus purely on the bat for this last guy. I think that Steve Pearce makes a ton of sense for this role as he can move around the field including some time at first base, but showed last year that he doesn’t suffer from many adverse effects of being the designated hitter. I think you can get him for $5M.
Lastly, the bullpen was a sight for sore eyes last year. Removing Steve Geltz and Dana Eveland is the very definition of addition by subtraction, but we need to go further. With Colome relegated to the late innings the team’s best right-handed relievers lean heavily on the change up lending to neutral or even reverse splits. I’m specifically talking about Brad Boxberger, Danny Farquhar and Erasmo Ramirez. The team could use a righty that can get righties even if it comes at the detriment of getting hit by lefties. To that end I would target Sergio Romo. I’d also look to get his former platoon partner with the Giants Javier Lopez to give the team another lefty that can get lefties and allow Xavier Cedeno to be used in more of a floater role than as a situational guy. Let’s update these sheets with these additions and subtraction.
On the position player side I have added close to four wins with both Mahtook and Shaffer going to AAA until they are needed. Maile would do the same, but I have included him here because catchers gonna catch something. The team would have everyday guys at most positions with left field and catcher being the obvious platoon positions and first base less so. I think this gives the team a good group of hitters and fielders with plenty of depth waiting in the event of an injury.
On the pitching side the totals haven’t moved a whole lot. Andriese moves into the rotation to take the departed Cobb’s spot, but the team still has two guys in Erasmo Ramirez and Chase Whitley that can go multiple innings if needed, and still make the occasional spot start. The bullpen seems to feature guys that are better suited for the roles that will be required of them with Enny Romero being the odd man out. One potential hazard is that only Andriese and Whitley have options, though they provide similar production for a similar role so it is possible the team could ride one hard, send him down, and call up the other or even someone else to let the Durham shuttle roll.
Overall, you can see that the team would be around two wins worse than average at hitting, but more than make up for it with their defense and baserunning. This is now around an 88-win team on paper, which was a reasonable goal.
Looking at our bell curve the team has basically doubled their playoff probability to close to 50%.
This has come at a slight cost increase as payroll now pushes to around $80M. Spending that amount last year would have moved the Rays from the 30th highest payroll to the 28th highest. Yipee. I know the team doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, but when you’re firmly in a close to playoff position on the win curve they should be doing their best to have a higher payroll than dead last in the league.
I really want to see the team move Jake Odorizzi, but it would be a tough pill to swallow to try to replace both his innings, but also his production during that time. I think the team can meet most of their needs on the free agent marketplace provided they are willing to offer reasonable deals to mid-tier players. Any Odorizzi trade makes superfluous a signing of Davis and/or Pearce and there would be some cost savings to come with it, but even in this market I’m hesitant to leave the team with a bigger hole than they need. Wow me with an offer that replaces some of Jake’s contributions while getting a whole lot for the future and I can begin to be swayed.