Playing Pepper 2017: Tampa Bay Rays

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Tampa Bay Rays
68-94, fifth in AL East
Last year’s Pepper

For whatever reason, it seems like the Rays have slipped a bit from the collective consciousness of the baseball scene.  Whether it’s due to Joe Maddon moving on to some other team we don’t need to talk about or three straight sub-.500 years taking a bit of the bloom off the rose, Tampa Bay is now a bit of an afterthought, especially in what is a powerhouse AL East.

There’s still good things going on in Tampa, though, and we’ve got some bloggers here to prove it.  We’ve got a mix of Pepper veterans and a newcomer to talk about the Rays for 2017, so check out their stuff and read on!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Althea Pashman Rays Colored Glasses TBSportExaminer
Mat Germain D Rays Bay MatGermain76
Anthony Ateek X-Rays Spex XRaysSpex

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

RCG: So far, it looks to be an outstanding offseason, though they made numerous trades, and signed a few free agents, which included trading starter Drew Smyly and second baseman Logan Forsythe, the return will not only help in 2017 but for the future as well. So far, they have done just about everything they have needed to do – first landing a catcher in Wilson Ramos, adding a defensive centerfielder in Mallex Smith along with a power bat in Colby Rasmus. However, they are still looking for a right-handed bat/1B/DH type of player and another arm for the bullpen.  

A move that I wished they had done was trade Tim Beckham. Nothing against him personally, but the Rays have treated him since day one with respect and class as a person and player, and given him every opportunity – and so far he has done nothing in return. I hope that his time in the doghouse last fall was a wakeup call.

DRB: In a sense, it was a typical offseason for the Rays this offseason in that they dealt away some salary and acquired depth of talent in return. However, the feel this year has more of a “going for it” feel than in previous years. It may not seem like much, but the free agent signings of Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, Shawn Tolleson, and Nathan Eovaldi all point to buy low options that the Rays hope will break out and provide the kind of talent the Rays can’t normally afford on the FA market. Between them, we’ve got a gold-glove caliber C (for the first time in Rays history one that balances the bat and the glove), an outfielder who can man LF at a gold-glove caliber (combined with KK in CF it should have a major impact on pitchers), a potential setup man who has closing experience, and a potential late year pen addition that will certainly help the club in 2018.

They absolutely did what they needed to do. They not only added to their weak spots, but they got a potential middle to top of the order arm in Jose De Leon for a 2B that was going to be replaced by a cheaper option anyhow and had likely reached his peak in both performance and affordability for the Rays. They added a LHP that some believe will be the same kind of pitcher as the one he was acquired for (Drew Smyly) and also added speed and OF depth in Mallex Smith, something that was lacking in 2016 when they only managed 60 SB. The Rays needed to be able to win games in different ways than just the long ball (surprisingly in top 6 in both ISO and HRs last season), and that should help address it. Not only did they acquire those two great options that could help in 2017, but they also acquired a high ceiling SS/3B in Carlos Vargas that they wanted to grab in the international market but couldn’t due to a $300K restriction. Along with up-and-coming Adrian Rondon and Kevin Padlo, he’ll compete to eventually replace Evan Longoria in TB.

There are two moves they could have made that stand out to me over any other, and they’re tied together position wise. Logan Morrison was a huge disappointment in 2016 and is nowhere near the defensive player that Mitch Moreland is. With Moreland at 1B, the Rays would have added yet another GG caliber defender, and they likely would have received a better offensive performance, all for a small increase in costs (approx $3M). Take away the $2M they’re spending on Eovaldi’s healing period – during which they’ll receive nothing at all, and it’s a mere $1M difference. That was a big miss imo. As for Morrison, I would have rather the Rays use Miller at 1B and kept 2B a battle between Franklin and Beckham than to spend money on someone I view as a lesser option than Casey Gillaspie.

XRS: I would call it a decent offseason. The Rays made some good moves, like the acquisitions of Wilson Ramos and Colby Rasmus – which shore the defense behind the plate and in the outfield – as well as the re-inking of Logan Morrison. In kind, the addition of Mallex Smith, who is a Gold Glove caliber outfielder at all three spots, adds to the Rays superb outfield.

However, they lost fan favorite Logan Forsythe in the trade with the Dodgers for Jose De Leon, which set them back in certain terms. Tampa Bay could use another left-handed relief pitcher, an outfielder and/or bench depth, and someone who could increase the on base percentage numbers of this lineup.

C70: Evan Longoria seemed to have a bit of a bounce-back year last season. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 31. What are the expectations for him this year?

RCG: Longo had an outstanding 2016 and there is no reason why 2017 will be any different. Kiermaier (#2) and Miller (#4) will likely sandwich Longo (#3), plus doubles hitter Matt Duffy and Steven Souza Jr. in the 5th and 6th hole adds plenty of protection.

DRB: In truth, I’m a massive supporter of Longoria and he has been playing through injuries of late, something that hurt his performances. Just
as with Adrian Beltre in Texas, he’s the rock of the infield and deserves more credit than he’s received for managing the highest WAR rating among 3B (47.1 to Beltre’s 46.1) since he broke into MLB in 2008. As to what to expect in 2017, he apparently was upset about the loss of Logan Forsythe, but we believe that once he sees Willy Adames play, he’ll understand why the move was made. I expect that if healthy, a similar season to 2016 should be expected with a chance to improve on the number of runs driven in as he gets more support in the lineup late in the season from Ramos, Adames, and possibly Casey Gillaspie.

XRS: Regression happens, and Longoria will likely regress from last season’s campaign. How much will he regress is the question.

The ZiPS projection system has Longoria slashing .266 BA/.318 OBB/.485 SLG/.803 OPS/.336 wOBA/113 wRC+ with 30 homers, 79 runs, 88 RBI and a 3.5 fWAR – down from last season, yet not terrible by any stretch of the imagination. ZiPS also projects a 12% drop in ISO (from .248 to .219), however, his exit velocity and improved launch angle suggests that might be a tad pessimistic.

C70: What kind of job competition will go on during spring training?

RCG: The biggest competition during spring training will be for second base if the Rays decide to fill the position internally, which will come between Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham. However, I have a feeling the Rays will move Brad Miller, because of his athleticism over to second as they make way for their right-handed bat/1B/DH.

DRB: That was a major focus of the front office this offseason. In 2016, for example, there was no player pushing Steven Souza or Corey Dickerson for playing time. Their jobs were fairly secure. The front office wanted to create a competitive environment, so they brought in Rasmus and Smith, giving them 4 outfielders fighting for 2 spots. The same can be said in the infield, where both Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham will get to fight it out with Brad Miller for the 2B position, while Morrison and Dickerson fight it out with those players for the DH role when not on the field. Then we have MLB ready players like Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames ready to step in when needed. But by far, the biggest battle for the Rays in 2017 is the fight for the 5th spot in the rotation. I recently wrote a piece noting how deep the Rays rotation is and how many MLB ready arms they have to use. It’s incredible, really, particularly when contrasted to the shallow rotations in Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore.

XRS: There is competition at the catching position with three players – Curt Casali, Luke Maile and Jesus Sucre – vying for two roster spots. This, of course, is while the Rays await the return of Wilson Ramos, who is recovering from knee surgery.

On the infield, with Matt Duffy’s slow recovery from offseason heel surgery, INF Daniel Robertson — who’s looked better at the plate, and in the field, since the start of Spring Training — could make the team as a utility infielder behind Tim Beckham, given their newfound need for a right-handed bat. That, however, depends on whether the Rays add a right-handed hitting outfielder. Robertson is also competing against Michael McKenry and Nick Franklin for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

As for the bullpen, Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno are certainties, as are Brad Boxberger, Shawn Tolleson and Erasmo Ramirez. Beyond that, Danny Farquhar, Ryan Garton, Ryne Stanek and Jose Alvarado are battling for spots.

There have been trade rumors swirling around Ramirez, which would open a roster spot, while Boxberger is expected to start the season on the DL, which will open another.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

RCG: Matt Duffy – I truly believe that if he stays healthy the Rays will see the Duffy of 2015 when he came in 2nd for the NL Rookie of the year, batting .295 with 12 home runs and 77 RBIs. These numbers are match-able.

DRB: It’s funny, we just had that discussion recently and the truth is that the Rays are extremely dangerous because so many of their players could break out. Souza, for example, was on pace for a career year and 30+ HR before he sustained a hip injury. Look at his stats the first two months of 2016, and it tells the tale. Both Franklin and Beckham finished the year on a tear and will be asked to do more this season, and Corey Dickerson finished the year with a .323/.356/.594 line through his last 100 PA. There’s a lot to look forward to at the plate.

XRS: That’s a tough question, but I have to go with Mallex Smith if only for the amount of work he puts into perfecting the art of bunting.

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

RCG: I truly believe that the Rays will have a chance for the post-season in 2017 especially if they remain healthy and get solid pitching performances from Archer, Odorizzi, Snell, Cobb and De Leon and as well, a repeat season of offensive production from Longoria, Miller plus further development from Steven Souza. New hitting Chad Mottola has his work cut out, but he has done wonders and fans should see a remarkable difference in the hitters approach under his direction. Where will the Rays finish… third place at 89-73 behind the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.

DRB: As we already saw this offseason with Eduardo Rodriguez‘ knee issues and Chris Tillman receiving a PRP shot in the shoulder, pitching is a fragile thing and depth will be required. It’s not an if, it’s a when. So, with that in mind, the improvement I expect to see at the plate, the major improvement expected from Ramos and Adames, and the pending addition of Jose De Leon as the 5th starter, I expect the Rays to be above .500 this year. How far will depend on how the other teams in the AL East hold up. If either David Price or Chris Sale were to falter, for instance, it significantly changes the landscape. For now, as a wild shot, I’ll but the Rays at 86 wins with a chance to win 90 if the lack of depth on their AL East rivals impacts them. Overall, they should be in the fight for a wild card.

XRS: If only I could see into a crystal ball. Instead, I will defer to analytics and computers.

Bouncing back from a 68 win season is no easy task, yet the PECOTA projection system likes the Rays’ off-season moves and is forecasting Tampa Bay as the sixth best team in the American League, and second best team in the AL East with a mean average of 84 wins to 78 losses. A lot of things will have to go right for the Rays to end the season as contenders.

An interesting side to the projection, PECOTA pegs Tampa Bay’s defense to save 27.0 fielding runs above average (FRAA) — tied for fourth best in the AL. When compared with the other teams in the AL East, the Rays (tied with Toronto) the others by a fairly negligible margin…unless you’re the Baltimore Orioles and are projected for a -4.3 FRAA.

Overall, the Rays are projected for a total WAR of 32.6 (12.1 pitching and 20.5 non-pitching) — second best in the AL East behind Boston (39.4).

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Ray and why?

RCB: My favorite Ray is Rocco Baldelli and you ask why? To see a player with such athleticism and baseball abilities have his career cut short due to a debilitating muscular disorder (Mitochondrial Channelopathy) at age 29, and never give up hope that it ain’t over, till it’s over is remarkable. He learned to overcome his baseball struggles as a hitter and quickly rose through the Rays organization and if not for Mitochondrial Channelopathy, which is a cell disorder that causes muscle fatigue, a promising career that would have turned into something really special.

DRB: Evan Longoria, and it’s not even close. The character is off the charts, the performances is above all others at the hot corner since he’s been in MLB, and to me he’s the first clear cut HOF player the Rays will send into Cooperstown unless things get seriously derailed between now and the time he hangs up the spikes. Just to put it into perspective, with 4 more seasons at 25+ HR and 3 more seasons at 20+ HRs, he’ll be above 400 HRs. Only 28 players in the HOF have more than 400 HRs. He sits at 806 RBI and if we avg his next 7 years at 75 RBI, he reaches 1325 which puts him in the vicinity of recent inductees Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez and well above the AVG HOFer which is 1221. Longoria has a .834 OPS so far, which puts him ahead of guys like Paul Molitor, Barry Larkin, and Andrew Dawson and ties him with Roberto Clemente. And finally, with an average of 150 hits through the next 7 seasons and a few more at 100, he’ll exceed 2500 hits, which puts him ahead of the average HOFer and in the range of Frank Thomas. In short, he should be everyone’s favourite Rays player ever, because he’s been the absolute best and has been nothing but determined to win throughout his tenure in TB.

XRS: Hands down, Ben Zobrist. The former Ray, in my opinion, exemplifies what it means to be a solid ball player and an all-around good human being. And while he may be regressing – growing older has an effect on all of us – Zobrist still works hard and his reputation precedes him.

I met BenZo a few years back when I taught at a different elementary school. A student had won a promotional contest in which his class got the opportunity to meet him. Knowing my love of the Rays, the school’s community coordinator went out of her way to let me meet Zobrist privately. And while it was like talking to Springsteen, in that I geeked out really hard, Zobrist’s character and everyman demeanor shined through and put me at ease. Being the nerd that I am, I will always cherish the baseball he autographed for me.

My thanks to these gentlemen and lady for their thoughts on the Rays.  It’ll be interesting to see if they can bounce back into the heart of that tough divisional race!

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