Playing Pepper 2014: Tampa Bay Rays

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Tampa Bay Rays
92-71, second in the AL East, lost in the ALDS

Every year, it’s the same old story.  The Rays, with limited funds and a terrible stadium, still manage to rise to the top (or fairly near the top) of the division and play on into October.  Someday, you’d expect that trend to end and the Rays to settle to the bottom of the division.  That day still hasn’t come and isn’t likely to happen in 2014.  To talk about the Rays and their chances, we’ve got three great bloggers lined up:

Here’s what these guys had to say about the now-familiar Pepper questions.

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

DRB: What type of scale should an offseason be graded on? If Andrew Friedman had traded Jeremy Hellickson (before his elbow injury was discovered) as part of a three-way deal for Paul Goldschmidt and Oscar Taveras, that would have been an “A,” and if he had traded David Price for organizational soldiers, that would have been an F, but there’s a lot of room in between those two. Friedman made the Rays better this offseason, but he didn’t fleece anyone. Rather, he payed something close to market rate for good players. That’s not what we’re used to here in Tampa Bay, so I’ll give him a B, but unreasonable expectations are the only reason it’s not higher

People have been saying that the Rays are “all-in” this year and that’s simply not accurate, but ownership has reaffirmed their commitment to winning now, even if doing so will also help keep them competitive in the future. Consider the moves:

– Keep David Price for another year (he’ll be traded next offseason, not this one)
– Pick up the option on David DeJesus, and extend him to a multi-year deal
– Resign James Loney for three years
– Trade for all-around defensive catching wizard Ryan Hanigan and extend him to a multi-year deal
– Resign master pitch-framer Jose Molina for two years
– Sign closer Grant Balfour to a two-year deal
– Accept the unwieldy one-year contract of former closer Heath Bell
– Decline their team option but then immediately resign former closer Juan Carlos Oviedo for a lesser amount
– Trade a promising, young reliever in Alex Torres for a good bench player in Logan Forsythe, who fits their platoon needs
– Trade their third catcher, Jose Lobaton, along with two decent prospects, for Nathan Karns, an enticing starting pitcher prospect, who’s nearly major-league ready

The Rays were already a strong team with a talented core and a good playoff shot, and this offseason has positioned them well to take that shot, while potentially also helping them to stay competitive for the next few years.

RCG: This offseason left me with mixed feelings. The Rays had two doors they could go through: trading David Price or holding onto him. If they traded him for a bevy of prospects, they would still have a potential 90-win team and one that could improve on last year’s squad with continued progress from their young pitchers and Wil Myers. Or they could keep Price and become the AL favorite, but also risk a diminished prospect return or even the disaster scenario where he gets hurt. They chose the latter option, and while it greatly increases their chances for this season, it makes future years look bleaker.

The Rays made some nice moves, acquiring Ryan Hanigan and re-signing Grant Balfour. Extending David DeJesus, signing James Loney, and getting Bell along with Hanigan made not be the highest-upside moves, but all three could be nice pieces of the Rays’ 2014 effort. At the end of the day, though, the question is always going to be about the move they didn’t make. I’ll grade the offseason as an B+, but what ends up happening with Price will be just as important as the Rays’ performance as we evaluate it years from now.

XRS: If you asked me this question during the 2013 Winter Meetings, I’m not certain I would have graded the Rays favorably. After all, there were lingering concerns over David Price’s status with Tampa Bay, and the Rays hadn’t made any significant moves to fill holes in the bullpen and the right-hand side of the infield. Sure, Friedman and company made a good move by acquiring Heath Bell and Ryan Hanigan. Yet low we sat facing the prospect of having a rent-a-player at first, and no official closer. My how things have changed.

Since the 2013 Winter Meetings, the Rays locked James Loney into a three-year contract, signed utility infielder Jayson Nix to a minor league contract, avoided another round arbitration hearings with seven players (including David Price), acquired five players from the Padres — including Brad Boxberger and Logan Forsythe — in a seven player trade, and brought Grant Balfour back home to the other Bay Area. In short, the Rays went from mediocrity to pretty darn good, as it relates to their off-season moves.

Sure, the Rays didn’t sign a designated hitter. However, allow me to remind you that their last productive DH was Johnny Damon, who slashed .261 BA/.326 OBP/.418/.744 OPS in 2011. He wasn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, however, he didn’t fit the mold of what the Rays were looking out of that position. And lest we forget those who came before and after Damon — Pat Burrell and Luke Scott? Need I really say anything about them? The absence of an official DH gives the Rays flexibility. They’ll be able to give Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, Matt Joyce, David DeJesus and Ben Zobrist some time off their feet, while keeping their productive bats in the lineup on a fairly regular basis.

C70: So what does Wil Myers do for an encore?

DRB: Wil Myers will learn to field his position.

There’s a chance that we’ve already seen the best of Wil Myers at the plate. While he’s only 22 and should continue to develop his power and patience as he grows into the league, Myers’s .293 average was buoyed by an unsustainable .362 BABIP. That’s okay though, because hitting the cover off the ball isn’t all there is to baseball.

Myers made some high-profile fielding errors that while they aren’t meaningful or predictive on their own, were symptomatic of a general unease in the outfield. He used to be a catcher, and has only been playing rightfield for a couple years. He’s a fantastic athlete with the tools to improve, and by all accounts he has the right attitude. Even if the offensive numbers do take a step back this year, he’ll be a better player in 2014.

RCG: I know how talented Wil Myers is, but somewhere in the back of my head, his inconsistent plate discipline and struggles with breaking pitches make me continue to question how good he can be. The power is for real and his defense will make strides, but I’m expecting a streaky season and a regression in his average and OBP down to say .260 and .320. If he hits 30 homers and doesn’t give up too much in right field, he will still be a fine player, but he has adjustments to make before he can truly be a star.

XRS: Oh Wil “AL Rookie of the Year” Myers… The player who out performed the ballyhooed Yasiel Puig (considering a shorter stint in the majors in 2013) with half the fanfare, the player whose first major league homer was a grand slam in Yankee Stadium, and the player whose embarrassing error gave the Red Sox a decided advantage in game one of the 2013 ALDS — what can we expect out of you this year? Warts and all, Myers met most people’s expectations in 2013. With him in the lineup, the Rays were able to push their way into the postseason following a lackluster August.

Most projection sites find Myers regressing in 2014, presumably due to his hard time in making adjustments at the plate — especially on pitches on the outside corner, and inside (and lower) third of the plate.

However, those sites also project that Myers will be more patient at the plate. They find his K% falling anywhere from 1% to 2%, with an increase in his BB%. Regression happens, it’s inevitable. I don’t see him posting the .293 BA/.354 OBP/.478 SLG/.832 OPS he had the year prior. However, I don’t see him regressing to the .264 BA/.334 OPS/.453 SLG/.787 OPS hitter Steamer projects he’ll be. Over the span of his professional career, Myers has averaged somewhere in the ballpark of a .304 batting average, while hitting under .260 only once — in 2011 with the Royals Double-A affiliate, in 416 plate appearances. Unless there is a drastic change in his approach, or he’s unable to adjust to the pitchers — who will, undoubtedly, adjust to him — I really don’t see a reason for the drastic regression in production many have projected. Would I be content with a .286 BA/+.320 OBP/+.800 OPS/+25 HR slash line? Absolutely!

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

DRB: It’s all about the fifth rotation spot. Everything else is settled, but when Jeremy Hellickson had surgery to remove “loose bodies” in his throwing elbow (which will keep him out at the start of the season), he opened the door to a cadre of young prospects and one old-timer. The favorite is Jake Odorizzi (the other piece of loot from the James Shields trade last year), an all-around “pitcher” who’s polished beyond his years, but who lacks a transcendent out pitch. On his heels are Alex Colome and Enny Romero, two youngsters with the stuff to pitch at the front of a rotation but with questionable command, and in Romero’s case, almost no experience above double-A.

And then there’s Erik Bedard, who signed on a minor-league deal. He’ll be 35, and two-years removed from his last good year, but the Rays simply don’t rush prospects, ever. If they think Odorizzi, Colome, and Romero would benefit from more time in triple-A, then those three will start in triple-A, and it’ll be Bedard’s fort to hold down until Helly returns. And if the result is that someone’s service time clock get’s depressed, well, that’s a shame, isn’t it?

RCG: The bullpen battle has seen a new wrinkle with Juan Carlos Oviedo unlikely to be ready for the start of the season, and now there are potentially three spots up for grabs. Cesar Ramos looks like a shoe-in for one role, but there are several qualified candidates for the final two. Josh Lueke is out of options, but will the Rays decide his rocky big league results outweigh his still impressive arsenal? Mark Lowe impressed this spring, but is there any chance he could make the team out of spring training knowing that Oviedo’s return will require a corresponding move?

I will say it is going to come down to Brandon Gomes and Brad Boxberger for the final spot, with the winner competing with Lueke to stay in the big leagues once Oviedo comes back. Gomes and Boxberger are impressing with their cutter and changeup, respectively, and it would be much easier to option them back to the minors than to figure out what to do with Lowe if Lueke proves his worth. If the Rays designate Lueke for assignment, though, all bets are off.

XRS: Prior to the re-signing of Grant Balfour, and the news Jeremy Hellickson would be out until mid-May, it was easy to foresee battles between Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo for the closer spot, as well as Jeremy Hellickson and Jake Odorizzi for the fifth starter spot. Since Balfour was named as the closer, and the fifth spot has been all but locked up by Jake Odorizzi or Cesar Ramos, the focus now turns to who will get a bench/depth spot on the roster, who will fill the supporting roles in the ‘pen, and what to do with Hellickson once he returns.

Tampa Bay lost bench depth this off-season. First, they chose not to re-sign Kelly Johnson, then they non-tendered Sam Fuld — leaving open a couple of spots on the opening day roster. Granted, in the scheme of things, neither Johnson or Fuld represented consistent productivity in 2013. What they lacked at the plate however, they made up for in the field. Fuld was a capable outfielder, while Johnson was flexible, playing multiple positions. Logan Forsythe and Sean Rodriguez are all but set, leaving three players for the last spot — Brandon Guyer, Jayson Nix, and Wilson Betemit.

Guyer has the advantage in being out of options, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s had a solid spring defensively. In the end, he helps defensively given the Rays’ plans to use their fourth outfielder as the DH.

As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times wrote,

“Nix probably brings the most overall and has drawn Maddon’s praise for his professionalism. Betemit could help the most offensively, and is a switch-hitter, but reported to camp late after missing most of 2013 with injury.”

Picking Nix or Betemit would require a 40-man roster spot since both are on minor-league deals, making Rodriguez the de facto fifth outfielder.

The Rays added a significant amount of pitching depth in the off-season. The back end guys — Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Grant Balfour — are already set. It’s looking like Juan Carlos Oviedo is headed for the DL — thanks in part to the visa issues that kept him in the Dominican Republic — while Heath Bell, Cesar Ramos (depending on the fifth starter status) and Brandon Gomes will likely find themselves on the opening day roster. The need for an Alex Torres-like reliever is ever present. With Brandon Boxberger, a pitcher with similar stuff to Torres, headed to Durham, it’s looking like Josh Lueke will fill the empty spot in the ‘pen — at least for the time being.

A caveat: Josh Lueke is more or less the favorite because he is out of options, not because he’s made a strong case for himself in Port Charlotte. Lueke would more than likely be lost on waivers, or wouldn’t bring much in trade. In previous callups he has been unable to replicate great minor-league success, though the Rays may not be willing to give up on him just yet.

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

DRB: It’s Odorizzi, or no one. Unlike past years, there’s no cavalry set to arrive from Durham.

RCG: The impact rookie is Jake Odorizzi, who has already shown signs of exceeding expectations this spring with his newfound split-change. Odorizzi has always been missing that swing-and-miss secondary pitch, and now he just might have it. Already regarded as a mid-rotation candidate, Odorizzi’s new changeup could help him emerge as a solid back-end starter for the Rays immediately.

XRS: Simply put, Jake Odorizzi. Enny Romero could make a dent in things as well. In my opinion, it all depends on two things:

  • What happens when Hellickson returns.
  • Whether the rest of the rotation can stay healthy.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

DRB: The AL East may be the best division in baseball, but this is the best team the Rays have fielded since 2010 (and the second best ever). They’ll win 94 games, but that may only be good enough for the wild card.

RCG: The Rays won 92 games last year, and that despite a bizarre collapse from mid-August to mid-September. With an improved roster and hopefully better luck, they will finally ascend back to the front of the AL East in 2014 with a 96-win season, and it will be interesting to see what happens from there.

XRS: The Rays have averaged 91 wins per season since 2008, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t exceed the 90-win plateau in 2014. The pitching staff is strong, the infielders are the same, they acquired a strong catcher in Ryan Hanigan, and the bats in the lineup are solid — as long as Myers, Longo, Zobrist, Escobar, and DeJesus can maintain consistency and productivity.

The question then becomes, how do the other teams fare in the AL East? The Yankees spent a royal boat-load of money in the off-season, spending $503MM on acquisitions. But as Joe Giglio wrote in a piece for Bleacher Report,

“Unfortunately for their (Yankees) fans, it’s hard to take an honest look at the roster and peg them for 90-plus wins right now. If Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury, respectively, perform up to Cy Young and MVP standards, a different picture could emerge by October. For now, the team is only slightly better than the group that won 85 games last season.”

The other teams in the AL East had fairly quiet off-seasons — including the World Series champs. Both the Orioles and Blue Jays have have deep, powerful lineups. Yet, both teams are lacking a high impact starter or two. Then there’s the Red Sox — a team that retained the core nucleus of their 97 win squad. The question begs, should we expect another dominant season, or will we see a step back from excellence? I think we can expect another competitive season from those mouth breathers in Boston. However, it’s going to be a lot closer of a race in 2014. My prediction: the Rays and Red Sox at the top of the AL East for the second consecutive season.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

DRB: Jose Molina is known for two things: (1) being amazing at pitch-framing and (2) being fat and slow. But despite his second claim to fame, he does in fact have 17 career stolen bases, and all the ones I’ve witnessed have been glorious. And it’s not just about the stolen bases. This kept me smiling for at least a week.

RCG: I have always enjoyed Matt Moore. It’s still questionable he will ever live up to his ace potential, but the way he can leave hitters helpless when he keeps the ball anywhere around the zone is something to marvel at. David Price is an excellent pitcher, but his secondary pitches never came along the way that Moore’s have already. I will deal with the control issues as I continue to witness his flashes of dominance, and hopefully this year, those flashes will surface more and more often.

XRS: Without a doubt, Ben Zobrist. Alex Cobb, Yunel Escobar, and James Loney run a very close second.

Thanks to all of those that contributed to this.  I would expect there will be another great year of Rays baseball in 2014, as well as another year of talking about the Rays’ attendance!

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Last updated: 10/06/2022