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October 21, 2010

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Tampa Bay Rays

by Marc Normandin, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fade— whether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview of this season from Buster Olney, a take from Baseball Prospectus, a look toward a potential 2011 move courtesy of Rumor Central and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview. You can find all the teams on one page by going here.

Now, it's time to kiss the Tampa Bay Rays—the fourth playoff team to exit—goodbye.

The overview

For a team that accomplished what it did—Tampa Bay won perhaps the toughest division baseball has seen since it split into three per league, only Cliff Lee's presence got in the way of a real shot at a World Series title—the overriding feeling in the clubhouse after the season ended had to be regret.

Executives and scouts across baseball this season believed that in terms of pure talent, if not experience, Tampa Bay is one of the great collections the game has seen in recent years. And it could have led to more. Still, led by the brilliant David Price, the Rays will be back. But in what form? Changes loom. Price and the other Rays will not have Carl Crawford, who will become the most coveted free-agent position player next month. They will not have Rafael Soriano, who will become the most sought-after reliever, or Carlos Pena, who has been a crucial member of the Tampa Bay lineup, even amidst some obvious struggles. The Rays are slashing payroll— currently at a hair over $72 million—by about 25 percent. Because of that, there's a melancholy feeling surrounding the organization right now, which, while obviously tied to the disappointment of the recent series loss, overlooks one thing …

... the talent still there, and the talent is still emerging.

Top prospects Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson will climb into the majors next summer and have a real shot to fill the gaps in terms of what the Rays won't get out of Crawford and another starter if one is to depart, perhaps by trade. And even after years of promotions that have turned to gold at the major league level, after those two come up, the system still isn't bare. But the fact is the Tampa Bay front office—which has done an incredible job over the past six years— will have a very, very difficult time ever putting together a group with as much talent and depth as the Rays have had the past couple of years.—Buster Olney, ESPN Insider

Baseball Prospectus' take

What went right: Despite a .247 batting average that ranked 13th in the American League, the Rays had the No. 4 offense in the league (and No. 6 in the majors) in true average (TAv). Evan Longoria (.306 TAv) and Crawford (.301) led the charge, while B.J. Upton contributed on both sides of the ball as an above-average hitter for a center fielder who also owns one of the best gloves at the position. Rookie catcher John Jaso made everyone forget about the awfulness that was Dioner Navarro's 2009. Jaso was one of just three AL rookies with 400 or more plate appearances and finished with a .280 TAv. Price emerged as a front-line starter, and though the Cy Young talk is a bit premature, he turned the corner the Rays needed in order for him to lead their staff. Matt Joyce, Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez weren't full-time players, but the three combined for 5.8 wins above replacement player (WARP) in 965 plate appearances—these three symbolize the Rays' method of playing matchups and putting the best possible lineup out every night. Soriano and Joaquin Benoit combined for around nine wins over replacement and were one of the most effective one-two punches out of the bullpen in the game after being acquired over the winter.

What went wrong: James Shields was unlucky, but the results were poor regardless; despite a SIERA of 3.57, the long ball caused him to post an ERA of 5.18. The Rays had what was essentially a three-man bullpen all year long due to the injury to J.P. Howell—acquiring Chad Qualls at the trade deadline was a high-upside move, but it didn't pay off on a high-impact level as he was mediocre in a Rays uniform. The rotation began the year strong, but outside of Price none of the starters could be labeled as dominant—Wade Davis recovered from his struggles with homers, but 113 strikeouts in 168 innings was not what people had in mind after his 2009 teaser. The DH slot was an issue almost all season, as Pat Burrell and Hank Blalock failed to produce before the Rays finally settled on Dan Johnson for 140 plate appearances late in the season.

The key number: 14. Pitchers used by the Rays all season as they had an incredible stretch of health and effectiveness with their staff. The staff's biggest injury (Howell) occurred before a regular-season pitch was thrown.

What won't happen again: Crawford and Pena won't be in the lineup and Soriano won't be in the bullpen, as all three will depart via free agency with the Rays going into cost-cutting mode.—Marc Normandin, Baseball Prospectus

Rumor Central: 2011 options

Replacing free agents: Pena and Crawford can be replaced with a few smart moves and some player development. The club's farm system could produce some help, namely Jennings, and the depth of the Rays' organization could support a blockbuster trade by GM Andrew Friedman to acquire another bat or bullpen help—or both. Upton could be the subject of trade talks, as the Rays may not want to wait any longer for the 26-year-old to become a consistent performer. At least a dozen clubs figure to have interest in Upton should the Rays make him available, including the Atlanta Braves, who may be able to offer a big-league ready first baseman in Freddie Freeman as part of a package deal.

Still armed and dangerous: The Rays could stand pat with their pitching staff in protective mode, as clubs never feel like they have enough pitching. But it's also the organization's greatest strength and may be the Rays' best shot at filling some holes on their 25-man roster, including left field, first base, the bullpen and potentially catcher. To save some money, right-handers Shields and Matt Garza could be made available this winter, as both are eligible for salary arbitration. Hellickson showed he was ready to jump into the rotation and could be penciled into it heading into spring training, allowing the Rays to absorb the loss of either veteran. Friedman and skipper Joe Maddon may decide that one way to help their bullpen is to transition Jeff Niemann into a relief role, where he may profile best anyway. It'd be a bit surprising to many if the Rays didn't make a bold move or two this offseason, however, and unless it's Upton, it probably means a starting pitcher will be the centerpiece.—Jason Churchill, ESPN Insider

Organizational future

The Game 5 loss to the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series meant the end of Crawford's tenure with the Rays, as the outfielder leaves as the franchise's all-time leader in countless offensive categories. Entering the year, Jennings was seen as the surefire replacement for Crawford in 2011. While the job is still Jennings' to lose, after a so-so year at Triple-A Durham, plenty of questions remain. His .278/.362/.393 line is hardly one that screams future greatness, and the .198 batting average against lefties is cause for real concern. He's as fast as, if not faster than, Crawford, and with a patient approach his skill set will give Tampa Bay a more traditional leadoff man. Yet after looking like he could be just as productive as their departing All-Star, it appears more and more like the Rays will miss Crawford next year more than they initially anticipated.—Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

6 comments have been left for this article.

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GM for a Day: Clevelan... (10/21)

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