The brain drain hit Tampa Bay this offseason, and it hit them hard. General Manager Andrew Friedman fell victim to the old “Dumptruck Full Of Money” gag and left to become President of Baseball Operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then, manager Joe Maddon left Tampa as well, exercising an opt-out clause in his contract that triggered if Friedman left the organization.

Now, Maddon is the manager of the Chicago Cubs. (not without some objection from Tampa, but so far tampering accusations have not been confirmed) Matt Silverman has taken over as general manager, and Kevin Cash steps in to take over as field manager. Silverman wasted little time on the job overturning a good part of the roster (mostly by trade, as the Rays had 0 free agents after last season), and taking a lower-key Oakland A’s approach to offseason transactions.

 

Nick Strangis, Nick Koss, and Simon Gutierrez break down the Tampa Bay Rays below.

 

Run Production – by Nick Strangis

From 2008 to 2013, the Rays proved that good things happen when teams walk a lot, run bases well, and hit for power. In spite of the sixth highest strikeout rate (19.9%) and seventh worst batting average (.252) in all of baseball, the Rays finished 8th in runs scored by leading baseball with a 9.8% walk rate, never finishing worse than 3rd in team walk rate, leading baseball in Fangraphs’ Ultimate Base Running stat, and hitting for an above average slugging percentage (.412).

That wasn’t the case in 2014, when the team’s walk-rate, base-running skills, and slugging percentage fell to earth. If the Ray’s offense is going to rebound in 2015, as PECOTA believes it will, they’ll need Evan Longoria to return to being the hitter he was during the first six years of his career, when he kept pace with potential hall of fame third basemen like Chipper Jones and Adrian Beltre. Longoria’s ability to hit inside pitching evaporated in 2014 leading in part to a disappearance in his power production. The Rays will also need new short stop Asdrubal Cabrera to rebound from the offensive slide that saw him go from emerging star in 2011 to just another weak-hitting middle infielder over the last two seasons. Cabrera’s BABIP slipped to a career low .272 in 2014, so some better luck could help him restore his credibility as an offensive threat this season.

Around Longoria and Cabrera , the Rays appear to have bet on hitters with recent break-out performances, like Renee Rivera and Kevin Kiermaier, or hitters projected to emerge in 2015, like Steven Souza. Last season, career journeyman catcher Rene Rivera hit for a 114 wRC+, after playing most of his games over the last decade in the minors. Kiermaier also generated quite the buzz, posting a 165 wRC+ in the first half of last season. Unfortunately for the Rays, he fizzled in the second half, falling to just a 77 wRC+. The Rays will need both players to maintain their break-out success if their offense is going to score enough runs to compete this season.

Rivera will pair with John Jaso, who maintained a 120 wRC+ for the second consecutive season, to form an enormous upgrade over the 55 wRC+ Rays catchers combined to post in 2014. Jaso returns to the Rays as a catcher with a track record of consistency, posting a .372 OBP over the last 3 seasons in Seattle and Oakland but his poor defensive skills behind the plate could slot him into a DH role.

Steven Souza could provide the greatest break-out opportunity for the Rays’ offense in 2015. Souza was a late bloomer in the Nationals’ minor league system, posting strong numbers starting with his 2nd time in A ball in 2012. He’s spent the last several seasons blocked by the excellent outfielders available to the Nationals, but he continued to rake in AAA in 2014, crushing pitchers to the tune of a 1.022 OPS. He faltered in his tiny call-up to the majors last season, but Baseball America believes in the 25 year-old’s potential enough to tag him as the 37th best prospect in baseball and PECOTA predicts he’ll post the 27th best true average in baseball in 2015.

If Nick Franklin is going to join the Rays on an everyday basis, he’ll also need a break-out year in 2015. Franklin’s inability to hit major league pitching in Seattle cost him a major league roster slot and ultimately made him trade bait last summer. Franklin’s career .811 OPS in the minors has translated to only a .647 OPS in parts of two seasons in the major leagues. The switch-hitting Franklin looks to have the inside track on the starting second base job over Logan Forsythe for now, though he could find himself as the large half of a platoon, and his success will be important to a compensate for the loss of super-star Ben Zobrist.

Desmond Jennings, David DeJesus, and James Loney will provide some consistency on a team that appears to be in a state of flux. Jennings remains one of the Rays’ few base-stealing threats, something that’s been missing ever since speedsters like Melvin Upton, Jr., and Carl Crawford left town for big paychecks. In spite of the fact that Jennings has not lived up to his former top ten prospect hype, the 28 year-old remains a consistently above average hitter, according to wRC+. DeJesus will continue to fight the good fight against aging, as a freak hand fracture injury cost him the final month of a solid season at the plate in 2014. DeJesus demonstrated the kind of plate discipline the Rays front office has valued for years by walking in 11% of his plate appearances last season. Loney does not walk as much as his teammates but he does reliably provide a full season of above replacement level value with his bat.

PECOTA believes the Rays will hit enough to score more runs than they will allow in 2015, a ratio helped by an incredible pitching staff, but with the number of rebounds and break-outs that projection depends on, I would advise readers to be wary of its projections.

 

Run Prevention – by Nick Koss

What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?

The Rays have used a certain formula to consistently contend: develop young starting pitchers, enjoy the results and then trade them off before they become expensive free agents.  Even if Alex Cobb misses a month with forearm tightness, the rotation led by Chris Archer will have to produce the excellent results the rotation in Tampa Bay has become known for.  The good news: Matt Moore will return sometime in the middle of the season, which will be a boost for the rotation.  An underrated non-move on the pitching side: pitching coach Jim Hickey didn’t leave with Joe Maddon, and so should be ready with his clipboard of… stuff to help get the most out of the post- David Price rotation.

While starting pitching is the focus, don’t sleep on the fielding.  Superior pitch framer Jose Molina isn’t catching for Tampa Bay this year, but replacement Rene Rivera is very capable of continuing to help Tampa Bay pitchers steal strikes.  The Rays traded Ben Zobrist, who could play many positions capably, this offseason, but should boast a defense that can continue to help their pitchers turn balls into play into outs.

Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?

While Tampa Bay has recently boasted a deep 1-5 rotation, it did have David Price leading the way, so the rotation did have a clear front-middle-back.  However, it was far from a stars-scrubs approach as the back end was above average compared to their counterparts throughout the league.  Chris Archer and his 112 ERA+ (along with a FIP that was very close to his ERA) from 2014 will lead the rotation; he looks like he could prove that he is the next great Tampa Bay pitcher.  Injuries to the aforementioned Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly will make Tampa Bay rely on bottom of the rotation guys for the first part of the season.  Once they and Matt Moore return, the Rays’ rotation will start to look like the strong 1-5 rotation of Tampa Bay past.

Kevin Cash is in his first major league season as manager, so there isn’t any data to look at to see his tendencies when it comes to how deep he lets his starting pitchers go. But, with Hickey still around and a strong organization culture throughout, there shouldn’t be any major changes.  Last year, the only Tampa Bay pitchers to average more than 100 pitches per start were Price and Smyly (who was acquired midseason), with Archer and Odorizzi very close.   Fangraphs doesn’t project a 200-inning pitcher (Chris Archer is projected for 185 and threw 192 last year), so the bullpen will be called on quite often I imagine, especially in the early going.

The rotation features a mixture of pitchers who get more grounders (Cobb and Archer) and pitchers who get more fly balls (Smyly, Odorizzi).  The Trop plays to groundballs (artificial turf) slightly better than fly balls, but overall, it is a pitcher’s park, so having a balanced rotation isn’t an issue.  Something to keep an eye on: Chris Archer had only 6.9% of his fly balls end up in the seats after two seasons of around 11% (batted ball stats from FanGraphs).  A little regression could be possible in this regard.

Rotation:

Chris Archer

Alex Cobb

Drew Smyly

Jake Odorizzi

Nathan Karns/Matt Moore (once healthy)

When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?

As stated above, Kevin Cash is making his managerial debut this year, so the assumption is being made that he will use similar methods as Joe Maddon thanks to the advanced statistic friendly culture of the organization.  Last year, when Smash Mouth’s #1 fan Ben Lindbergh took a look at the rigidity of bullpen usage, Tampa Bay was the second most flexible team.  While Kevin Cash might be a little more rigid as he navigates his first season, I would expect Tampa to continue to among the most flexible in the league.

Grant Balfour will open as the team’s closer, a role he didn’t hold the entire season last year due to ineffectiveness. The guy who stepped up in the role, Jake McGee, is still recovering from offseason elbow surgery. Offseason pickups Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri will be expected to step up and become the latest reclamation project successes out of Tampa Bay.  Kevin Cash might be forced to play the matchup game early and often with a thin rotation early on, but Tampa Bay has historically been willing to play said matchup game.

Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?

The only team that shifted more than the Rays last season were the Astros, who shifted more than 50% more than the Rays.  With three of the top five batters in plate appearances against the shift last year (David Ortiz, Chris Davis and Brian McCann) playing in the AL East, Tampa figures again rank near the top of the league in shifts, a place that they have become accustomed to being.

Desmond Jennings had an error-free season in the outfield last season, clocking in at -1 fielding runs above average, with Fangraphs not a fan of his arm and ability to hold runners.  Kevin Kiermaier had an excellent debut season in the outfield, and will look to use his above average arm to patrol centerfield.  Steven Souza Jr. will look to start to turn in more great defensive plays like his no-hitter saving catch in game 162 for the Nationals last year.  Overall, the outfield is looking pretty good.

After being traded last year, Asdrubal Cabrera played mostly second base for the Nationals, and advanced metrics preferred his work there to shortstop.  The Rays will ask him to move back to short, and while his fielding work will probably be below average, his bat has historically been able to make up for it.  Other than that, Tampa Bay will again have a lineup with no gaping holes defensively, and any below average fielders will be expected to make up for it with their bats.

Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?

As mentioned in the beginning, pitch framer expert Jose Molina won’t be behind the dish this year, but Rene Rivera has been consistently near the top of the league in pitch framing, even if it’s not quite Molina-level.  Tampa Bay highly values defensive catchers and pitch framing, and it will be strong again in 2015. Rookie Curt Casali backs him up, after having done a serviceable job in limited time last year.

Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?

Other than the famous catwalks, Tampa Bay doesn’t have any drastic dimensions or features that prevent runs from being scored.  Tampa’s park factor shades towards the pitcher, but it isn’t as drastic as San Fran or San Diego.  It is important to note that the other teams in the AL East have park factors that shade toward offense, so games at the Trop should have fewer scores than other interdivisional games the Rays will play.

 

Baby Rays waiting in the wings – On the farm – by Simon Gutierrez

The bad news here is that Tampa’s farm system isn’t too highly regarded these days.  ESPN’s Keith Law ranks them 23rd in the major leagues.  That’s not great, but there’s some reason to believe that’s an overly pessimistic ranking, and that there could indeed be some help on the way for big league club. Or at least the guys over at draysbay seem to think so.  But then again, Dave Cameron casts some shade here at Fangraphs, also ranking them 23rd in future value.   So the internet isn’t crazy about the Rays’ farm system!

That said, there are some legitimate prospects waiting in the wings, even if they’re not the Top 50 or Top 100 prospect names people like to salivate over.  The immediate strength seems to be pitching, with some power arms either competing for the Rays’ final rotation spot this spring, or potentially working their way into a high-leverage bullpen slot.

Chief among these appears to be Alex Colome, a 6’2” righty who seems to be a lock to make the roster because he’s out of options.  He throws real hard, according to Kiley McDaniel, up to 97 mph in spots.

Via McDaniel:

He has a four pitch mix: 92-95 fastball that touches 97 mph, an above average changeup, solid average cutter/slider and average curveball that’s regressed a bit over the years from his primary off-speed pitch to a fourth pitch to change eye level.  If he doesn’t stick in the rotation before Moore returns (or Karns beats him), there’s a fit as a multi-inning reliever that can fill many roles and potentially be an 8th inning guy.

But, as it happens, Colome reported late to camp because of Visa issues, and is now battling pneumonia, so he’s no lock to make the rotation out of Spring Training.

Next on the list is Nate Karns, who McDaniel reports to throw anywhere from 91-95 mph comfortably, spiking up to 97 mph on occasion.  Acquired from the Nationals, he seems almost a lock to make the rotation, due in large part to a lack of other options.  So the Rays immediate prospect help is so immediate they’re probably going to start the season with the big league club.

Behind them is Enny Romero, a big lefty (6’3”, 210) with a mid-90s fastball, what McDaniel considers a plus slider, average changeup, and shaky command. He was just optioned to AAA, but he seems to profile as a potential wipeout lefty that could be a difference maker in the Rays pen, if he can keep his walks down and locate his pitches a little better.

The bulk of the Rays’ talent in the minors, though, is a little farther away, with their top prospects, SS Willy Adames and C Justin O’Connor so far not making it past Low A and AA, respectively.

Adames gets good reviews for his maturity, energy, and charisma.  He hit .271/.353/.429 in A ball in 2014, and in McDaniel’s eyes, has the potential to put up similar numbers in the big leagues, with 15 homers.  But he’s at least a couple years away.

As for O’Connor, he hit .282/.321/.486 in 340 at bats in high-A last year, with 10 HR, but fell off to .263/.298/.388 after his promotion to AA.  It stands to reason he’ll spend the year he’ll spend a full year at AA before moving up, and the guys at MLB.com anticipate a 2016 arrival, with O’Connor thinking 2017 is more likely.

Speaking of MLB.com, they rank new arrival Daniel Robertson as the Rays’ #2 prospect, and the guys at minorleagueball appear to be on the same page.  Acquired from the A’s in the Zobrist trade, Robertson is listed as a shortstop, but some scouts think he’ll have to move off the position.  His bat seems legit, though, as he hit 37 doubles and 15 HR in High-A, with a .310/.402/.471 line and a 132 wRC+.  This was in the hitter-friendly CAL league, so you have to take that with a grain of salt, but the power and plate discipline played at every other level so far, so there’s something to dream on, especially if he can stick at short.  The Rays generally don’t rush position prospects, so it seems reasonable to thing Robertson will spend most of 2015 getting reps in AA, with the big leagues likely in late 2016 or early 2017.

There are other interesting names on the farm, such as 1B Casey Gillaspie, RHP Brent Honeywell, and former first-rounder Taylor Guerrierii (recently returned from TJ surgery), but they’re all a good distance down the road, too.

 

Misc – Brandon Lee

Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away?

Sure, why not, they’re probably trying to win. The players they traded away this winter will all be replaced by someone fairly comparable, with the exception of Zobrist. He’s a pretty significant loss, though, as it’s definitely not easy to replace 4 wins, and no single player acquired is being penciled in to replace that output. PECOTA retains a favorable outlook for the Rays, and the AL East has some possibility for fluctuation. It would be hard for the team to make any expensive additions, since they are the Tampa Bay Rays after wall, but if they’re within striking distance at all, expect Silverman to try and make additions around the margins.

What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.

Boston and Toronto are improved over last year (though the loss of Stroman certainly hurts the Jays), and while the Orioles are trending downward and might take a step back after losing Markakis and Cruz (plus some unfavorable projections from PECOTA), they still won 96 games in 2014. Tampa looks to be better than the Yankees, but that doesn’t necessarily make the Rays better than they were in 2014, and it certainly put them into playoff contention, and Yankees might be looking at a last place finish for the first time since 1990. Some classic Rays streakiness at the right time could get them in the Wild Card picture — they could’ve used a streak after sitting at .500 and 5 games out of the 2nd Wild Card on August 15, 2014, but alas it wasn’t meant to be. Without some unforeseen breakouts, they’re probably not a division winner. 4th place, 77 wins.

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