The heel team of the 2018 offseason was definitely going to be the Pittsburgh Pirates. In January, they traded the top pick in the 2011 draft, pitcher Gerrit Cole, because he was likely to get expensive. The return was underwhelming. A few days later, they sent the face of the franchise to San Francisco. Some have likened the departure of outfielder Andrew McCutchen to the Bay Area to Barry Bonds following the same path, but (1) Bonds left as a free agent, and (2) Bonds’ relationship with Pittsburgh was arms-length, while McCutchen is the most beloved player for the franchise since Willie Stargell. Then owner Bob Nutting whined that for the Pirates to break the cycle of develop and sell, “I think you’d have a fundamental redesign of the economics of baseball,” which is pretty much demonstrably false. Cheapskate owner, selling off key players to save money, a billionaire crying poverty…Even though the pirate in the team’s logo looks like a junior high social studies teacher in his Halloween getup, the Pirates were clearly playing the bad guys in a quiet offseason.

And then the Rays said, “Hold my beer.”

Or orange juice, perhaps.

 

What the hell

What are the Rays doing?

Here are the Rays’ top five 2017 hitters (using Baseball Prospectus’ True Average, which is scaled to an average of .260) and their 2018 role.

Player2017 TAv2018 Role
Logan Morrison.294Twins DH/1B
Steven Souza.287Diamondbacks OF
Corey Dickerson.284Pirates OF
Keven Kiermaier.279Tampa Bay Web Gem Producer
Evan Longoria.264Giants 3B

It’s not just that they’re gone. It’s how they exited. Longoria, the Andrew McCutchen of the franchise, was dealt, it appears, in part to avoid the vesting of his 5/10 benefits (ten years in the major, five with the same club, allowing him to reject trades). Dickerson was designated for assignment before he was traded to Pittsburgh. Souza was dealt for a couple middle-tier prospects and players to be named later. Morrison, who hit 38 homers last year, was a free agent; he’ll make $5.5 million before incentives this year. The team also let No. 2 starter Alex Cobb depart via free agency and traded No. 3 starter Jake Odorizzi for a low-tier infield prospect. What’s the common thread? Well, Longoria is guaranteed $86 million over the next five seasons, Odorizzi will get $6.3 million and Dickerson $5.95 million this year, Souza is arbitration eligible next year, and Morrison and Cobb were free agents. Gee, maybe this has something to do with money?

The defense, for those who choose to defend this franchise, is that the Rays front office is always playing five-dimensional chess while the rest of us are playing checkers. Well, maybe. But Andrew Friedman, the architect of the team’s four postseason appearances between 2008 and 2013, left the house after the 2014 season. The 2017 Rays were the first team in American League history to strike out over 1,500 times. They haven’t had a winning record since 2013. Yeah, their stadium situation sucks, but they’ve been last in the majors in attendance in five of the past six years (and were second to last in the sixth).

But still. Maybe the Rays aren’t playing five-dimensional chess after all.

 

Run Production

How do they score runs? Do they get contributions from many or a few players?

Well now, that’s a good question, since much of their 2017 run production will be playing in different uniforms in 2018. Put another way, only three regulars project to have a True Average in excess of the league average of .260, and they barely cross the bar: Center fielder Kiermaier at .263, 1B/DH C.J. Cron at .261, and 1B/2B Brad Miller at .261. Baseball Prospectus projects the team scoring 714 runs, the second-fewest in the American League.

The 2017 Rays were highly homer-dependent; with longballs accounting for 48% of their runs scored, the seventh-highest proportion in history. Morrison (38), Souza (30), Dickerson (27) and Longoria (20) were the team’s four top home run hitters, accounting for over half of the club’s longballs, so expect fewer runs but less reliance on dingers in 2018. (Note: That is not a good tradeoff.)

The infield is hard to figure out. At first, Miller, who was the team’s primary second baseman last year, and Cron, who came over from the Angels via trade, will probably form some sort of tandem. Miller hit 30 homers in a breakout 2016 but slumped to a .664 OPS in an injury-shortened 2017. Cron’s been a consistent .750-range OPS hitter in his career with minimal platoon splits. Miller, who’s recovering from a broken toe, looks to see a plurality of the action at second as well. Matt Duffy returns after missing the entire 2017 season with a heel injury and will probably be the primary third baseman. Christian Arroyo, who came over from the Giants in the Longoria deal, can play second, third, and short. The one sure infield holdover is shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. The penny-pinching Rays lost an arbitration case and will pay $5.9 million for a player with a career .636 OPS and whose next .700 OPS season will be his first. Highly-rated shortstop prospect Willy Adames could see action if things fail to firm up.

In the outfield, Kiermaier is a fixture in center. The corners will be the province of Denard Span, Carlos Gómez, and Mallex Smith. Span, another part of the Longoria trade, is 34 and a liability in the field. Gómez, 32, is coming off a season in which he had extreme reverse platoon (.852 OPS against righties, .645 against lefties) and home/road (.852 at Globe Life Park, .645 on the road) splits. Signed to a bargain one-year, $4 million contract, his defense isn’t what it used to be either. Smith, by contrast, is just 24 and a fine fielder but has displayed no pop in his bat (.360 slugging percentage in 497 MLB plate appearances).

In his first year back from a severe knee injury in 2016, catcher Wilson Ramos was below average at the plate.

 

Are the hitters notably aggressive or patient?

The Rays swung at 48.7% of the pitches they saw, the fourth-highest percentage in the majors. They made contact on 73.5% of their swings, the lowest percentage in the majors. This is how you wind up leading the league in strikeouts.

 

Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness?

Tropicana Field is a pitcher’s park. It’s slightly harder on lefties than righties. Kiermaier, Miller, Schimpf, Smith, and Span all bat left.

 

Run Prevention

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

OK, after beating up on Rays’ offense, let me say some nice things about the team’s run prevention. PECOTA projects this as the best defense in the league, and the team’s pitching staff, even without Odorizzi or Cobb, is strong.

The announced rotation is weird: A top four of Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Jacob Faria, and Nathan Eovaldi, followed by a tag-team when needed led by Matt Andriese. All project to be decent; Archer, the staff ace, is outstanding. The team received a huge blow when Brent Honeywell, the team’s top prospect and rated No. 11 overall by Baseball Prospectus, suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament shortly after pitchers and catchers reported and will be lost to Tommy John surgery. A few weeks later, Jose DeLeon, injury-riddled since the Rays acquired him before last season, suffered a similar fate. There are plenty of nits: Archer’s got only two strong pitches, Snell struggles with command, Faria doesn’t bring notable heat, Eovaldi’s coming off Tommy John surgery, Andriese has had health issues. But those are nits. This is a decent top quartet, and Andriese’s been OK when on the mound.

Manager Kevin Cash’s management of the rotation isn’t unusual. The Rays had 16 games in which the starter threw over 110 pitches, the fifth most in the league. Archer, one of only four pitchers in the majors with 190 or more innings pitched in each of the past four seasons, had six of them. Cobb had four and Odorizzi three, with two for Andriese and one for Snell. Having four starters a fifth spot devoted to once-through-the-order or so is unusual, but could be the model for what’s to come in an era of 12- to 13-man pitching staffs.

 

How do they run their bullpen?

Alex Colomé led the league with 47 saves. Six were longer than one inning. (Five had four outs, one had five.) That’s not a lot, but it was enough to lead the American League. Cash wasn’t an outside-the-box bullpen manager overall. He used his relievers mostly an inning at a time. The rest of the bullpen contains a lot of no-names and doesn’t get a lot of love, but Tampa Bay relievers were fourth in the AL in ERA, sixth in FIP, and second in DRA in 2017.

 

Does the team deploy a large number of shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players?

An early adopter of shifting, the Rays shifted 1,515 times in 2017, the second most in the league and third most in the majors. That represents a slight decline from 2016. They were slightly below average at turning double plays.

The infield has several players who can play multiple positions but don’t particularly excel at any one. It remains to be seen where they end up. Both Span and Gómez were center fielders earlier in their career. Preventing either of them from playing there again are two good reasons for Kiermaier to remain healthy.

 

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?

Ramos, coming back from his knee injury, was an average framer and below-average at both blocking pitches in the dirt and throwing. He’d graded out well in the past defensively, so we’ll find out this year whether the problems were rust or a genuine decline. Jesús Sucre, Ramos’s backup, is a decent framer and blocker, with an average-to-below-average arm. The difference between him and Ramos isn’t enough for him to spell Ramos for defensive reasons.

 

Managerial/Miscellaneous

Is the farm system well-stocked? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?

ESPN’s Keith Law ranks the Rays farm system seventh in the majors. Other than Honeywell (until he got hurt) and Adames, most Rays prospects are a year or two away from Tampa. That includes arguably the most intriguing players from last year’s draft, Brendan McKay, who’s trying stick as a left-handed pitcher and a 1B/DH. The team tilts a little more toward position players than pitchers among its top prospects.

It’s really hard envisioning a low-budget team like the Rays dealing minor leaguers unless it’s to fill a need for a championship-level club. That’s not the 2018 Rays.

 

Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign? What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)?

Management insists that the team isn’t going to deal any more veterans and that it intends to compete in the always challenging American League East. Color me skeptical.

 

What’s likely to happen? 

BP’s PECOTA projects the Rays winning 83 games, FanGraphs’ Steamer/ZIPs 77. The team is going to have a hard time scoring runs, and while the pitching staff’s solid, Honeywell’s injury robs them of depth. And the Archer trade rumors won’t die. 74-88.

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