The 2016 Rays were a disaster, even by the measure of the franchise’s boom or bust track record. After being picked by PECOTA to be the projected division winner, they finished last in the AL East at 68-94 and were no closer than 6.5 games out of first after their first 50 games. However, things are looking up for this season’s team. Manager Kevin Cash will be looking for a big rebound and to compete in the division for a playoff spot.
As it always seems to be, the Rays pitching staff is the biggest strength going into a new season. Despite Chris Archer putting in his statistically worst season as a Ray (201.1 IP 9-19 W-L 4.02 ERA), he finished the year very strong, setting himself up for a promising breakout season in 2017. His Achilles heel during the season was the home run ball, as his 1.34 HR/9 rate was the worst of his career. The home run rate also seems like it could easily be an aberration, as he also posted the highest HR/fly ball rate of his career as well with a 16.2%. As was the case with his overall season though, the HR/9 rate dropped 0.3 points in the second half and his walk rate also dropped by over 2 batters per 9 innings.
While Archer is the highest profile pitcher in the rotation, the other members are no slouches themselves. Alex Cobb returned to make 5 starts at the end of the year after missing all of the 2015 season and the majority of the 2016 due to Tommy John surgery. Jake Odorizzi finished his third full season in the big leagues by throwing a career high in innings in 2016 with 187.2. Both pitchers were rumored as trade targets throughout the offseason, but neither ended up moving. Depending on how the first half goes for the Rays, one or both could end up in trade deadline deals.
Highly touted prospect Blake Snell made his MLB debut in 2016 with mixed results, such as a 9.91 K/9 while also having a 5.16 BB/9. Matt Andriese should fill the final spot in the rotation, but Jose De Leon, acquired in an offseason trade with the Dodgers for Logan Forsythe, could push for that job as the season goes on. De Leon is ranked as the preseason #33 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and made his MLB debut last year, starting 4 games for the Dodgers. If either Cobb or Odorizzi are dealt during the season, or if there are any injuries in the rotation, De Leon would seem to be the first man to be called up from AAA Durham.
On paper, the Rays have what seems to be a strong bullpen. The headliner of the group would be Alex Colome, who spent part of his spring training pitching for Team Dominican Republic in the WBC. Colome had a huge breakout year in 2016, leading to his first career All-Star game. In his first year as a full time member of the bullpen — after making 19 career starts in the three previous seasons including 13 in 2015 — Colome posted a 1.91 ERA with 37 saves and 11.3 K/9. Brad Boxberger could also be another big bullpen arm, if healthy. Boxberger pitched in only 24 innings in 2016 due to injuries, after throwing at least 63 in his first two seasons with the Rays. Unfortunately, the injury bug has found Boxberger again this spring, as he is almost guaranteed to not be healthy for opening day, as he has been dealing with a back strain. But if healthy, these two would ensure that almost any lead the Rays have going into the 8th inning of a game would result in a W.
Outside of the two big arms in the pen, there are several other effective guys that Kevin Cash has at his disposal. After being acquired early on in 2015, Xavier Cedeno spent the entire 2016 season as the main lefty reliever in the Rays bullpen. He was much more effective vs. LH batters, holding them at a .188 average compared to the .259 that he surrendered to RH batters. Erasmo Ramirez is the swingman/spot starter in the pen, throwing 90 innings and starting one game in 2016. Danny Farquhar will also throw a significant amount of inning for the Rays but, as noted on his player page on FanGraphs, “No pitcher has allowed a higher line drive rate than Farquhar since his debut,” which also leads to his relatively high career BABIP of .314.
The Rays also recently acquired another bullpen member who deserves his own paragraph based strictly off of his name. Jumbo Diaz — yes, Jumbo — was claimed off of waivers from the Reds in the spring and also spent part of spring training with new teammate Alex Colome pitching in relief for the Dominican WBC squad. At 315 lbs (!!!), Diaz both backs up his name and will provide another fairly reliable RH power arm for the Rays. Jumbo Diaz. I just wanted to type that again.
The natural thing to look at after starting with a team’s pitching would be their offense. However, the Rays have Kevin Kiermaier, so we are gonna talk defense. During the Rays’ stretch of success a few years back, they won games on pitching and defense. While this year’s team absolutely has the pitching part down, they have sacrificed some of that defense for a shot at scoring more runs. Matt Duffy is coming off of offseason heel surgery that also shut him down for the end of last season and all of the offseason and is still transitioning back to SS, where he played in college. While Duffy has played 2084 career innings in the majors, 1746.1 of those have come at 3rd base.
The Logan Forsythe trade opened up the 2nd base job and it seems poised to be filled by Brad Miller, last year’s opening day SS who lost his defensive job due to a .961 fielding percentage. Miller bounced around the diamond after losing his everyday SS job, playing SS, 2B, 1B and some OF due to the boost he brought offensively to the lineup. Evan Longoria will provide stellar defense at 3rd, and the corner OF positions will be manned by a combination of Colby Rasmus, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson, and Mallex Smith.
However, Kevin Kiermaier is on his own level as a defensive CF in the MLB. He makes defense fun to watch by making plays that not many others can. Check out these two charts from Baseball Savant:
Kiermaier let a routine play fall for a hit exactly 0 times last year. He also had multiple catches rated as 4 or 5 stars. As my final note on his defense, he had a 3.8 WAR last year while hitting .246. His 3.8 WAR on FanGraphs ranked 51st in the league. Of those 51 players, his .246 BA was the lowest. The next lowest BA was Edwin Encarnacion, who also hit 30 more HRs than Kiermaier. Injuries forced Kiermaier into playing just 105 games in 2016, which was also the lowest of the 51 players who had higher WARs than him by at least 24 games. By saying all of this, what I’m trying to get across is that Kiermaier is really insanely good on defense, which the Rays rewarded him for this spring with a shiny new 6-year $53.4 million deal.
OK, now we can talk offense. This is just about all you need to know about last year’s decision by the Rays to sacrifice some defense to gain more power on offense: no MLB team has ever hit as many HRs as the 2016 Rays (216) and lost so many games (94). Although they did increase their team HR total by 49 over 2015, it did not seem to pay off. There were, however, some bright spots in 2016 and plenty of reason to be optimistic about the Rays offense in 2016.
Evan Longoria, much like the team as a whole, hit a career high 36 HRs in 2016. He did post a career-low walk rate, which hindered his OBP for the season. All things considered, the Rays would be more than happy for Longoria to repeat his 2016 offensive output. Brad Miller had his MLB breakout season in 2016 while having a season similar to Longoria’s. With a previous career high of 11 HRs in a season, Miller exploded to hit an even 30 on the year. Much like Longoria though, he did it with a low walk rate. Unlike Longoria, Miller hit under .250 for the year and, coupled with that low walk rate, limited his OBP. Corey Dickerson spent his first career season outside of the hitter’s Mecca that is Coors Field in Denver with mixed results. He did struggle in the first half, but he rebounded nicely in the second with a batting average 30 points higher than in the first. He also tied his career high with 24 HRs. The Rays are counting on Dickerson in 2017 to build on his stronger second half and his continued adjustment to playing in the AL as primarily a DH.
The Rays also made two significant offensive additions in the offseason in Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos. However, in classic Rays moves, both are coming off of seasons that left their former clubs with some major question marks about them, but for different reasons. Rasmus struggled offensively in 2016, hitting 10 fewer HRs and dropping 32 points in batting average compared to his monster 2015 season. He did continue to play above-average OF defense in 2016, which led to a 1.4 FanGraphs WAR. The Rays gave him a buy-low deal in the offseason, hoping that he can bounce back closer to his 2015 form and play the majority of the innings in LF.
Wilson Ramos came from the Nationals with a different set of questions surrounding him. After slashing .307/.354/.496 with 22 HRs, all career highs, in 131 games while playing the demanding catcher spot, Ramos tore his ACL in September, forcing him out of the Nationals lineup for the playoffs and turning his potentially large free agency payday into a 2-year deal with the Rays. The Rays are hoping that Ramos can return to the majors in May as the DH and then start catching games later on in the year. In the meantime, the Rays will look to Luke Maile and Curt Casali to cover the catcher spot until Ramos is healthy enough to return.
While the Rays might not have the same level of prospects as they’ve produced in the past, there are still some very interesting players to keep an eye on in AA Montgomery (whose “Biscuits” nickname is one of the top in the minors), and AAA Durham.
Besides the aforementioned De Leon, the Bulls will also likely have righty Brent Honeywell in their rotation. Besides being the Rays’ #2 prospect and higher rated than De Leon, Honeywell might be best known for throwing a screwball, and not just as a gimmick. In fact, it tends to be his highest rated pitch.
As for hitters, the Rays’ #1 prospect, and #21 in the MLB, is SS Willy Adames. Adames was acquired in the trade that sent David Price to the Tigers in 2014 and has made great strides since then, including hitting .274 in his All-Star 2016 season for Montgomery. The Rays also have another hitting prospect at #4 in their system who was acquired via trade, this time in the deal that sent Wil Myers to the Padres. A corner OF/1B, Jake Bauers is only 21 and has played more than a full season at the AA level. He has also impressed the Rays this spring by showing some very impressive power, leading the team with 4 HRs and 11 RBIs while hitting .353 through March 22nd.
Prediction/What Is Success?
So what exactly would success be for the 2017 Tampa Bay Rays? I think that if the pitching staff produces like it’s capable of and the offense continues to produce, the Rays are a very legit contender to make the Wild Card game. The free agency additions to the lineup seem to point to the Rays front office thinking the same thing. If Archer can produce up to his potential, Alex Cobb bounces back to form after missing most of the last two seasons, and the rest of the rotation continues to improve, the Rays should have the pitching to get it done as well.
Having said that, I’m a believer in the Rays. I think they go 85-77, finish second in the AL East and play in the Wild Card game, making their first postseason appearance since 2013.Next post: 2017 Season Preview Series: The Detroit Tigers’ (Final?) Countdown
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