Previewing the 2017 Tampa Bay Rays
We come to bury the 2016 Rays, not praise them. Despite a team that, on paper, looked to have an average or better player at every position, and across the rotation, they saw it all fall apart. That will happen when you win three games in a month as they did during their 3-24 stretch from June 16th to July 16th. You can chalk it up to a lack of depth, but I don’t know too many teams that could lose their top-five outfielders at the same time, and not have to play fodder like Jaff Decker and Mikie Mahtook.
The silver lining is that for the first time in a decade the Rays will be picking in the top-five, and will add a well-thought of prospect to an already stocked system full of guys that will make their debut in the next year of two. You can add in a plethora of average or better players with years and years of control, such as, Brad Miller, Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr., Jake Odorizzi and Blake Snell. Add it up, and you’ll find a promising team that is just starting to open up a second window of greatness.
This isn’t just a collection of average-ish players, however. The team boasts a triad of stars in Chris Archer, Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier who all profile as players poised to put up four or more wins this year. Lots of teams have three, or more, stars, but the Rays have some exceptional diversity with this group. You’ve got the ace pitcher that can get out lefties, righties, switch hitters and not hitters, and can do so deep into games when needed. There is the anchor at 3B that mashes lefties and holds his own against righties while providing solid defense. Then we get to the lefty that gets EVERYTHING in center field, and anywhere else, who also hits righties well enough.
While Base Runs saw the team around .500 last year, this is not a team without flaws. The bullpen looks shaky at the moment with more quantity than quality that still needs to be sorted out. The rotation is more promise than proven. The lineup looks poised to strike out A LOT. However, seeing the team focus on fixing the defensive issues last year at shortstop, and shoring up the depth in the outfield for when the worst happens, should go a long way to sneakily speed the team along in their quest to resume dominating the division. It feels like we’re a year away from something pretty magical, but health and a couple of key contributors finding another gear would go a long way.
Enough with the flowery nothings, and let’s get into the stuff that matters. Here are my wOBA projections for each player this year versus the average righty or lefty, which rely upon regressed platoon splits and projections from Steamer and ZiPS:
I think the Rays are going to have a fairly solid lineup most nights against righties with six or more bats profiling as average or (much) better, but they may struggle some with lefties as they are currently going to have two to three left-on-left matchups each time through the lineup. The front office seems fine with this, but it looks like a big trouble spot. I’d expect the team to go with good gloves over bad so guys like Brad Miller, Colby Rasmus, and his eventual successor, Mallex Smith, might see their overall lines dampened like a solitary paper towel placed on a puddle of piss.
Pitcher splits probably mean more for the relievers, but it also calls out how strong the reverse splits run for Jake Odorizzi. Jose De Leon is basically a clone from a repertoire standpoint, and in his brief stint last year he showed much of the same. This is a theme that runs rampant on the Rays as they so heavily favor the change up that sometimes you just want to see a sinker/slider guy, if only, to break up the rhythm. The hope is that Shawn Tolleson can be that guy, though being one of the few relievers with an option means he is practically a lock to start the season in Durham.
Let’s get an idea of how all this stuff plays out. These next charts use an old template from Sky Kalkman that I have updated for modern times. All praise be upon him for creating such an easy to use way to take an educated guess at a team’s win total.
Overall, I’ve got the Rays positional players accruing just over 22 WAR for the team, though for the 69th year in a row they’re going to struggle to get above average production from first base and designated hitter. Wilson Ramos brings the Rolaids, but it won’t be until August, if at all. I could see him getting a bunch of at bats at designated hitter, though that isn’t exactly ideal. Morrison and Weeks Jr. should form a fine platoon at 1B, but they’re really just keeping the seat warm until unheralded prospects Casey Gillaspie and/or Jake Bauers show that they are ready (clear super two).
Second base has more suitors than Rihanna, and some of them might even be good! Beckham will see some time there once Duffy comes off the disabled list hopefully in early May so until then he should be the most days shortstop. You already know the plan at third base as Evan Longoria will look to avoid giving too much back in what should be a year of downward regression from his incredible 2016. I’d expect more of the power to stick around than folks realize, but it will continue to come at a cost to the on base percentage.
The outfield is stocked with players that have identifiable strengths, but also some serious question marks. Corey Dickerson was more ok than good last year, though his defense was surprisingly pretty solid. Colby Rasmus will give you a decent first half before succumbing to injuries. I like his glove, and the fact that he can fill center field when needed, but he hits lefties even worst than Dickerson. Mallex Smith is a certified handcuff as another dynamic defender that won’t touch a lefty. The recently signed Peter Bourjos should be a defensive dynamo all over the outfield, but will give some back with the bat. Flipping over to the other corner you’ve got Steven Souza Jr. who has been an average or so ballplayer when healthy, but that has rarely been the case. I think the team will be able to use Rasmus over there to give Souza Jr. days off here and there that can help him stay out of the trainer’s room.
Then we get to center field where the best defender in the business sets up shop and runs anybody off his block before they can slang. He’s a better hitter than many realize, but he struggles with lefties, and will see a ton of them, as the glove is too good to play matchups. The Rasmus-Bourjos Janus figures to be the primary backup to the position. Lastly, we get to the designated hitter role where we are merely rehashing familiar names. I would expect other players to rotate through the position, but not with any sort of regularity. Let’s go from the hitters to the pitchers:
With the arms it’s all about quantity over quality. Other than Chris Archer, that is. Arch is one of the ten best pitchers in the game, and someone that every team wishes they had. He’s going to be good, and he should provide a ton of it. After that we start to swim in the sea of mediocrity. Odorizzi is the most established of the group that isn’t coming off two years of virtually zero production. Cobb is the established guy that is coming out of a two-year sleep cycle, and this wild card could go in any direction. Add in that this is his last year of team control, and the fact that the Rays haven’t let a single pitcher escape to free agency before being traded since Stu Sternberg transformed the culture, and it’s pretty easy to see Cobb not finishing the season with the club. Snell is a wild card of another sort as this untamed horse refuses the bridle. He’s got three legit plus pitches, but he will need to find a way to get more strikes to be an effective piece. He reminds an awful lot of Matt Moore’s first few years to this point.
The rest of the rotation will be comprised of swingmen types that the team would like to keep stretched out via multi-inning relief stints out of the bullpen when they’re not making starts. I could see all three of Andriese, Whitley and Ramirez slotting around in this hybrid role. It will allow the team to almost always have one in the rotation with the other two alternating between availability and rest. Erasmo Ramirez has shown that this role is very important, but also that you really need a second guy so that it is a little easier to manage the workload. Finally, Jose De Leon will make his Rays rotation debut this year, but it will take a bit of time until the team is comfortable sending him out there. He needs to continue to build up innings so that he can give a full season in the future, but he also needs to show that he can throw good strikes at the big league level. He’s pretty close to ready, but the Rays should do a good job applying that last coat of polish.
The bullpen is a definite area of weakness just as it was last year and the year before. Addition by subtraction can only go so far, but there are also some bright lights. Colome is a thoroughbred in every sense of the term. He can go 4+ outs when needed, back-to-back days (just not in the WBC), gets out lefties and righties alike, and basically does whatever is needed. They’ve got the relief ace. They’ve also got the lefty who is more than a LOOGY, in Xavier Cedeno, but you’d still like to see him managed in higher leverage.
We see the swingmen in there who should all be positive contributors, but then we get to some guys that are on shakier ground. Boxberger will start the season on the disabled list for the third year in a row, as he just cannot seem to get healthy. Diaz is a recent addition after he was cast off the Reds active roster, and the Rays should be happy to have him. Danny Farquhar was a similar player last year coming over in the Brad Miller deal, and once he gained confidence in his very good change up he became death to lefties. The fastball is just good enough for everything to work, but he’ll struggle when he fails to get ahead of batters.
Tolleson, Carpenter, and I’d add Tommy Hunter to the list, are all journeyman guys that the team can walk away from pretty easily. Tolleson is on the 40-man roster, and has an option so they’ll wait on him the longest. I’d be surprised if both Carpenter and Hunter make the club, though my money would be on one of them escaping the hangman. Lastly, we get to Jaime Schultz. Big arm on a little guy and the breaking ball is a beaut. His aspirations of being a starter may have to go on hold if the team gets desperate for somebody, anybody that can get batters out with consistency, and he certainly has the arsenal to do that. Add it all up and I see the pitchers combining for around 18.5 WAR.
At these team WAR levels the positional players and starters would both have firmly fit into the back of the top-10 teams in the game last year. The Bullpen is more middle of the pack. Continuing with Sky’s workbook we can translate this stuff into win probabilities:
Altogether, this system sees the Rays as around an 84-win team, and I’d agree with that number. They’ve got around a 36% chance at serious wild card contention, but becoming the favorite for that is only around 13%, and winning the division only looks like a 3% probability. The Rays will need to catch some breaks this year to be a contender; both within their camp, but also by having unfortunate events afflict their competition. Especially within the division, which once again looks like the toughest grind you’ll find.
Getting Norris should add in around a win more than they expected previously, and these are high enough leverage being where they are on the win curve that you should be getting quietly excited. I don’t see much hope for the bullpen other than your standard some guys pitch well more often than expected, but they have plenty of spaghetti to throw at the wall. For me, it will come down to how deep their starters can get into games. If they can have three starters consistently giving them six-plus innings then they can play all the matchups in the world in the other two starts each turn. Getting only two guys to go somewhat deep makes that harder, and only one makes it impossible. I think the offense will be mostly fine, but will stagnate at times when facing clumps of lefties. Ultimately, the team falls short of contention, sells some pieces off, ends up with a worse record than they deserve, but are well-positioned for when the sun comes up in 2018 upon a field of wild horses ready to stampede.
Lastly, here are my total playing time and WAR projections for this year with hitters in yellow and pitchers in blue: