March 20, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Tampa Bay Rays
Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
Ask a cabbie or a bartender what marked the fall of the Roman Empire, and they’ll tell you with a knowing smile. The Goths. They sacked Rome in 410, and that was basically it. There was decline before that, sure, and chaos after it, but yeah, man. King Alaric. The Visigoths. Crossing the Danube and stuff. Ask a scholar, though, and you’ll get a much longer, more circumspect reply. Patrick Wyman spends most of the first episode of his The Fall of Rome podcast merely explaining the impossibility of nailing down exactly when the empire met its end.
For years before the Goths rose up against the Romans, they lived as tenant farmers, refugees, and mercenaries, sometimes within the borders of the Empire itself, and sometimes just beyond it in their own ancestral homelands. There were periods of cooperation and of tension between Rome and the Visigoths, and there were periods during which there was cooperation despite extremely heightened tension. After the Sack of Rome, too, the Empire didn’t evaporate. As many as 70 years afterward, there were citizens of the Empire who still believed themselves to be living subject to both its authority and its protection.
Funnily, though, the more time you spend with it the more you realize that the people with the 30,000-foot view have it mostly right. A wealth of granular information about the real way of life for Rome and its citizenry might be important if your goal is to tell meaningful stories about the Empire itself, or to draw lessons about the development of Western civilization during and after that era, but if all you want to know is the inflection point, the place where history changed direction, the best answer is the easy, obvious, ubiquitous one.
So shall it be, in years to come, for baseball historians trying to mark the end of the Joe Maddon-Andrew Friedman Rays. That team made the playoffs four times in six years, with winning records in all six seasons from 2008-2013. When Friedman and Maddon split after 2014, things changed. They changed, maybe, more than we realized. They changed permanently and irrevocably. Yes, the run of winning seasons came to an end before either man left town. And yes, many of the key members of Friedman’s brain trust (plus important field staff, like pitching coach Jim Hickey) remain, but Friedman and Maddon really were the heartbeat of that operation, and without them everything must be done a few degrees differently.
That doesn’t mean things need to be done worse. Manager Kevin Cash is on board with the renegade front office’s devotion to the notion of minimizing the times-through-the-order penalty for pitchers. Tampa Bay hitters have been on the cutting edge of the league-wide shift toward more aggressiveness early in the count, with the idea being that the modern game is won or lost with power and that waiting out today’s pitchers only makes a club vulnerable to lots of two-strike counts and lots of strikeouts. The chance to let an even newer, even less inside-baseball crew make the decisions has allowed the club to keep up with some elements of the ongoing saber renaissance, and to get out in front of others.
They’ve made bold and fun moves, like the addition of Corey Dickerson, the swapping out of Matt Moore for Matt Duffy, and trading Drew Smyly for Mallex Smith. They’re putting together a team that really might get right back into the thick of the AL East for years to come, with a stronger farm system than Friedman was able to maintain during his years of drafting low (and lacking resources with which to secure top amateur talent). Still, history will never lose sight of the line of demarcation.
Maddon has won 200 regular-season games and a World Series ring in two seasons with the Cubs. Friedman has won consecutive division titles with the Dodgers and (with plenty of resources, now) has proved that he can win and assemble an elite farm system at the same time. The Rays have floundered, with two straight losing seasons and a bit of an identity crisis. Evan Longoria can still hit, but he’s over 30 now, making star money on a team that can’t afford to pay for stars, and no longer seems to have a turn back toward superstardom in him. No one on the pitching staff seems to be safe, from either injury or trade. There’s a silhouette with a question mark for a nose where the face of the franchise should be.
Happily, though, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s nose is shaped a little bit like that question mark. If the fall of 2014 marked the clear end of the historic First Rays Dynasty, then 2017 might mark the very start of a new one. Kiermaier agreed to a six-year deal worth just north of $50 million this week, cementing his status as the Longoria to Erik Neander’s Friedman and Cash’s Maddon. It’s a nice fit, too. Longoria was drafted third overall, out of CSU Long Beach. He’s extremely driven, but everything has come naturally and many things have come easily. So it was for Friedman and so (to a lesser extent, and certainly in a different way) it has been for Maddon.
Not for the new crew. Kiermaier is a cold-weather kid drafted in the 31st round out of a junior college in central Illinois better known (until now) for basketball. Cash was undrafted out of college. Neander went to Virginia Tech, then went to work for Baseball Info Solutions before getting a foot in the door in Tampa Bay. (That qualifies as rags to riches in today’s MLB front offices: a white guy who only attended a well-respected state university.) There’s no sense of indomitable prodigiousness, no imperiousness to the New Rays. They’re still extremely talented, relatively blessed, and fiercely competitive. They just don’t have the mystique of the guys whose places they’ve taken.
Kiermaier is the linchpin of this team. The Rays were 48-54 when he started last season, compared to 20-40 when he didn’t. The pitching staff has promise, depth, youth, and, in Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome, and others, plenty of guys who have already proved themselves. However, there are a lot of guys who will allow opponents to hit the ball in the air. When they do, it will be up to Kiermaier and Smith (because Dickerson, Colby Rasmus, and Steven Souza aren’t going to be much help) to get there and make plays.
The offense has some late bloomers still hoping to find the adjustment that will finally unlock their full potential, but a solid core of above-average hitters who don’t need to progress in order to help the cause. The Rays could be really good as soon as this year, given healthy seasons for Kiermaier, Longoria, and Archer. One way or another, though, the identity of the team is changing. Trading Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers for Jose De Leon helped crystallize the matter. The current front office loved and respected Friedman, and faithfully executed his grand plans, but they had their own ideas too.
They’re willing to take a little less defense at second base in order to fit another strong stick into the lineup, so long as the tradeoff nets them a great arm with which they can work for the long term. De Leon is just that. They’re also going to continue emphasizing hitting for power and taking an aggressive approach at the plate, rather than grinding out every at-bat the way Maddon and Friedman prefered. Dickerson is perfect proof of that, but Rasmus—signed as a free agent, so you know they love him—might be an even more stark example. It could be another season stained by injury and inconsistency, but 2017 will be the year when we finally get a clear sense of the character of the New Rays.