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September 15, 2011

Future Shock

Eye on the Prize... Eventually

by Kevin Goldstein

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When we collectively flipped the calendars two weeks ago, it looked like we were in line for the most boring September—at least in terms of playoff races—in recent memory. A couple key injuries here, a couple of sweeps there, and all of a sudden, there's a glimmer of hope for some late-season drama.

One place where such drama exists is the American League wild-card race, as the Red Sox' roster suddenly resembles a M*A*S*H unit while the Rays have gotten hot, sweeping the Red Sox over the weekend. The teams are also set to match up for a four-game set at Fenway beginning on Thursday. Boston remains the overwhelming statistical favorite—being up four with 15 to play is a sizable mountain—but one is forced to wonder what the standings would look like if the Rays spent more time this year focusing on the present as opposed to the future.

You probably have that guy in your fantasy league. The one who is always drafting and trading for all of the hottest names in the prospect world and talking about how good his team is going to be three years from now. Jump to those three years later and he's still trading for prospects, and still talking about the future. The Rays have had one of the better minor-league systems for years now, and their future is bright, but just like that fantasy player, they took their eye off the ball, and it's going to cost them a playoff slot.

Outfielder Desmond Jennings, who has added a dynamic presence to the top of the lineup, has been one of the keys to the Rays' recent run. Of course, he was fully capable of providing big-league value on Opening Day, but there was the service time issue, the need to get that extra year down the road, so the team opened the season with Sam Fuld as an everyday outfielder. Fuld was a career minor leaguer in his late 20s who nobody saw as anything more than a fifth outfielder. But he was nothing short of magical during the first three weeks of the season, hitting .350/.411/.525 in his first 21 games while making diving catches and being an all-around great guy. He has returned to being Sam Fuld again, hitting .204/.277/.305 in 253 wasted plate appearances. Just think, what if Jennings got those plate appearances... what do the standings look like now?

Then there is left-hander Matt Moore. When it was announced on Sunday night that he would be joining the big-league team, Rays fans were excited. That is more than understandable, as he's arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. Still, the only reason he is up is because of some health issues in the bullpen. On any other major-league team, he'd likely have already been in the majors. Andy Sonnastine made four starts for the Rays this year, and Tampa Bay lost all four games as he allowed 16 runs in 18 1/3 innings. Coming back from labrum surgery, J.P. Howell has put up a 6.44 ERA in 42 games, including giving up a crucial go-ahead home run to Matt Wieters last night. Give either those four starts, or those 42 relief appearances to Matt Moore... what do the standings look like now?

Trading to improve the team during the season? The Rays almost act like that's a federal offense. They made no deadline deals this year, were barely even the subject of rumors, and even last year their one big pickup was Chad Qualls. Even in their magical 2008 season, they did nothing to improve the team other than bringing on Chad Bradford in August. Tampa's ability to stick to whatever the master plan here is admirable, but at the same time, the lack of flexibility has to hurt. Yes, the team might have lost some prospects in the process, but who knows what that extra arm or bat might have done for the Rays in October three years ago, and if they found a more reasonable shortstop or catcher this July, or another power arm for their inexperienced bullpen... what do the standings look like now?

But let's not shroud ourselves solely in speculation; there are numbers to back up the case. Rays left fielders pre-Jennings combined to produce 2.14 wins according to Baseball Prospectus' measurements. Replacing 400 of those at-bats with Jennings' pro-rated production, and the team picks up 1.6 additional wins. It's fair to say that Jennings isn't really a player with an OPS somewhere around 900, but it's nearly impossible to say that this move did not cost the team at least one win. As for Moore, even a conservative PECOTA projection would have him worth 0.3 wins in innings that Sonnanstine started, and while that might not seem like much, Sonnanstine's horrible starts were worth -0.6 wins, so there's another full win swinging in the right direction, while if Moore replaces Howell's innings, the end result is also right around one full win. One win for Jennings, one win for Moore, and one win theoretically for an actual trade in July, and the Rays head into this weekend's series nearly even with the Red Sox, as opposed to needing a sweep or close to it to keep things close.

The Rays are a smart and well-run team, and a model for others on how to not only survive with their budgetary limitations, but to flourish. Still, playoff opportunities don't come every year, especially in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox, and the Rays have seemingly refused to capitalize on them, none more so than this year to feed an over-arching desire to remain competitive long-term. There is being competitive and there is winning championships, and by focusing entirely on the former, the Rays are potentially costing themselves the latter.

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

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