Playing Pepper 2016: Tampa Bay Rays

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Tampa Bay Rays
80-82, fourth in the AL East
Last year’s Pepper

No Joe Maddon.  No David Price.  While that wasn’t “no problem” for the Rays in 2015, they did slip below .500 and never were really more than on the fringes of the AL East race.  A bit of upheaval during the transition was to be expected, of course, and now we’ll get to see if the path the Rays are on is heading upwards or downwards.

To help us know a little bit more about this squad, we’ve got two Rays bloggers going for us today.  Mat Germain currently writes for DRaysBay, the SB Nation site for Tampa Bay.  This is Mat’s first foray into Rays Pepper, though I believe he might have contributed to a Toronto one back in the day.  Find him on Twitter @MatGermain76.  Coming back for his third straight year is Anthony from X-Rays Spex.  You can follow him on Twitter @XRaysSpex.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

DRB: Outstanding, that’s what I think of the Rays offseason. Having said that, I’m not sure they’re done yet, so I reserve final judgement for later. There’s a good chance they’re going to work out another deal involving 1 more pitcher, and possibly Desmond Jennings and/or James Loney.

The Rays definitely did what they had to do by adding enough power throughout their lineup to project for more than 180 HR in 2016, a good leap from their 160s in 2015. In particular, the DH improvement and improved defensive ability of Brad Miller at SS over what Asdrubal Cabrera provided will help make the Rays a better team both offensively and defensively.

XRS: Even though the Tampa Bay Rays traded away a couple of key pieces (Nathan Karns and Jake McGee), they picked up Brad Miller ― a player that projects to be better than his predecessor, Asdrubal Cabrera ― a cache of sluggers in Steve Pearce, Logan Morrison and Corey Dickerson; as well as Danny Farquhar and David Carpenter, both of whom could make an impact out of the bullpen.

Could Matt Silverman have added a few more pieces? Sure, and there were trade whispers involving Tampa Bay and Chicago for Javier Baez. However, the PECOTA projection system likes the Rays as they are, and given that PECOTA is pretty accurate ― give or take six games ― I’ll take it.

C70: Will Chris Archer be in the conversation for the 2016 Cy Young Award?

DRB: He’s on track to put himself in the conversation, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of competition for the award, but if he’s not in the top 5 to 8 in the running for it, I’ll be shocked. He’s healthy, he’s focused, and he’s got one of the best middle of the field defense helping him out. Long story short, yes he will.

XRS: First, let me preface things by saying that online gambling site Bovada foresees David Price as the overall favorite to win the Cy Young Award with a 4/1 chance. Yet sitting just behind Price is his protege, Chris Archer, with a 6/1 chance of winning the highest pitching honor.

Archer is already known for an explosive upper-90s fastball and an elite slider. But he’s also been tinkered with another weapon ― an effective change-up.

In a recent Spring Training game against the Boston Red Sox, Archer admitted to focusing on his change-up, throwing it more frequently than normal, while using his slider just three times. Archer spoke about the reaction to his change-up by Boston’s A lineup, saying,

“That was one thing I was happy about, every batter I faced is probably going to be in their Opening Day lineup, so it was good to get positive feedback from that.

Worked on the changeup quite a bit (Friday). I know that I threw quality changeups when the scoreboard said slider, and it really was a changeup. And that happened probably four or five times because I only threw three total sliders. So I was really happy with that.

Sometimes you find small things that validate your work, and that’s it. Because those guys are supposed to be professionals at identifying pitches for the fans. If it has the same late action and depth as my slider, then mission accomplished.”

Rays pitching coach, Jim Hickey, also had a difficult time distinguishing that pitch from his slider from the viewpoint of the dugout.

Getting back to the question, ZiPS and Steamer both project Archer to take a step back in 2016. Here’s the thing about projections though, they should be viewed as a good starting point when looking at a player’s peripherals. That is, projections aren’t word as law, nor should they be viewed that way.

For Archer, there’s never been a concern about his stuff. Rather, the question has more to do with whether he can control his repertoire of pitches at the same time. If Archer can master both his change-up and lapse in control, he will have what it takes to put together a Cy Young Award caliber season.

C70: What’s the strength of this team?

DRB: Cohesiveness as a team that knows exactly where it stands and welcomes the challenge to be the David vs the Goliaths. Rays management have done an outstanding job of bringing in high makeup players that gel well together with Evan Longoria and Archer leading the way. If we’re talking one area of strength, the most obvious answer in the past has always been pitching, and it’s still the biggest strength, but the depth of the lineup may be better than it has been in a long time and may be the difference maker over the 2015 edition.

XRS: The team’s strength, hands down, is the starting rotation. Archer has become a true ace, Jake Odorizzi has been excellent when health concerns haven’t gotten in his way, and Erasmo Ramirez proved that he can be a solid, dependable hurler since coming over from Seattle in 2015.

Matt Moore and Drew Smyly missed a lot of time last season due to injuries. And while Moore posted some ugly numbers upon his return from the disabled list, he finished 2015 strongly and carried that momentum into Spring Training. His velocity is up too, which is a very good sign. Smyly was very good even when working around a shoulder problem. For him, it’s about staying healthy.

Then there’s LHP prospect Blake Snell waiting in the wings, and Alex Cobb should return midseason from his stint on the DL. Cobb could provide the club with a big boost in the second half of the season.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

DRB: I’ll hit on my four favourites: Steven Souza – he has another gear to hit and nobody’s expecting to see it despite glimpses that it’s there. I expect he’ll become one of the more prominent power hitters in the AL by season’s end. Miller – he had been targeted by the Rays for a long time and he’s a great addition to this team. With full playing time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a productive 20-25 season with a good line. Among the starters, Jake Odorizzi is the guy I expect to step forward. He’s been following the Archer plan and although I won’t predict he’ll match Archer’s 250+ strike outs, he could prove to match his others stats from 2015. And finally, on the relieving side of things, everyone’s looking to Alex Colome to fill in for Jake McGee since he left for Colorado, but I’m looking at Steve Geltz. He’s under rated and is just as effective vs LHB and RHB.

XRS: Out of the handful of players I could have chosen, I settled on Danny Farquhar. Why?

Farquhar became one of the best relievers in baseball back in 2013, but he’s been on a downhill trajectory since. His ability to generate swinging strikes has dropped, while his home run per nine innings (HR/9) percentage has steadily risen, culminating in a gaudy 1.59 HR/9 in 2015.

Then there is Farquhar’s velocity, which dipped from just over 96 mph in 2013, to just under 95 mph last season. He also started to rely more on his off-speed offerings, which aren’t of the same caliber as his cutter. Doom and gloom stuff, right?

Fret not, Jim Hickey has done yeoman’s work in “fixing” pitchers who’ve run astray in some capacity, and there’s the hope he can do the same with Farquhar.

ZiPS gives credence to that idea, projecting Farquhar to collect an improved 9.50 K9/2.97 BB9/0.92 HR9/3.66 ERA/3.45 FIP line in 78.7 innings of work.

Zach Sanders (FanGraphs) said it best,

“The Rays have done good work with relievers, so perhaps they can convince Farquhar to go back to what made him successful in the first place: working his cutter on both sides of the plate and spinning in the occasional offspeed pitch to keep hitters honest.”

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

DRB: It really depends on whether they hang on to Odorizzi, and if they trade him, who they get back in return. Everyone seems to believe the Rays have dozens of pitchers ready to pitch 200 innings, but such is not the case. Drew Smyly and Matt Moore were both limited in IP last year, and Smyly’s shoulder issues can’t be comforting. If we believe one of these two will be healthy, and that Snell could replace the other, that still leaves a strong rotation. But, if they deal Odorizzi, it puts pressure on their promoting someone like Jacob Faria or Taylor Guerrieri, the latter also being limited in IP for 2016. Neither guarantees effective work. That’s why I personally hope they retain Odorizzi and “go for it” using their pitching as a major strength for 2016. With this in mind and a much improved offensive team, for now, I’ll say they’re a 90 win team with a chance to finish 2nd or 3rd in the division depending on how well pitching holds up for the competition.

XRS: The PECOTA projection system estimates Tampa Bay to win 91 games, with a plus/minus of six. On the other hand, Tampa Bay was picked to finish 84-78 and in third place by Sports Illustrated. I think the team can, and should, win 91 games, and thus the AL East.

Then again, despite a strong roster, they will need some things to break in their favor to be a serious contender. With that in mind, I’ll also add a pragmatic W/L record of 88-74 — calculated by adding 91 and 84, dividing that sum by two, and rounding up to the nearest whole number…you know, totally scientific.

I listened to the radio broadcast of a Rays vs. Yankees Spring Training game recently, and Dave Wills (Rays Radio) summed my thoughts up well, saying something to the effect that computer projection systems like the team’s chances in 2016, while the humans at ESPN and Sports Illustrated instead favor the AL East stalwarts.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

DRB: There’s no team I enjoy the Rays beating more than the Yankees for obvious reason. The Yankees haven’t spent less than $197 million since 2008 and the Rays have never spent more than $78 million. Yet, the Rays have held their own against the Yankees over that span, they’re only 1 game below .500 against the Evil Empire. That’s impressive no matter how you slice and dice it. Better yet, since 2012, they’re 40 and 35 (.535 winning%) against them, making it one of the more impressive feats in professional sports if you ask me. Over that span, using year end numbers, the Yankees spent over $902 million, the Rays spent over $289 million (32%) and still clobbered them. It’s a Disney worthy movie if you ask me. Someone call Brad Pitt!

For 2016, it’s hard to tell how the Yankees will fare. Few expected Masahiro Tanaka‘s arm to hold up, yet it did, and Alex Rodriguez proved that he still could be juicing (I’ll never trust him). They have questions all over the outfield, whether injury, age, or performance related, but their pen could be the best in the majors. Packaging it all together and realizing that their front office is now dollars over winning centric, I’ll say the Rays will win the season’s series by a few game margin.

XRS: I love watching the Rays beat the Yankees and Red Sox, although I hate attending those games because of New York and Boston’s entitled fans. Both truly are as obnoxious as advertised.

The Rays went 7-12 against the Yankees last season, yet 10-9 against the Red Sox. Previous to that, Tampa Bay posted winning records (or broke even) with both in four of the last seven seasons. I cannot foresee any reason that they couldn’t post at least a .500 record against either team in 2016.

Appreciate Mat and Anthony spending a little time with us today.  Should be interesting to see how Tampa Bay holds up with more young talent coming!

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