Diving deep into Jonah Keri's best-seller looking for secret messages from the future--or, at least, ominous foreshadowing.
You'll recall Jonah Keri's The Extra 2% as a peppy history of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ growth out of their gross adolescence and into their handsome manhood as the Rays, but it ends with an omen:
The idea behind the extra 2% -- finding ways to gain that little, but essential, edge on the competition -- will always exist, in baseball as in business. It just won’t always belong to the Tampa Bay Rays.
And then you close the book. No, wait. There’s an epilogue:
The one thing right about the Rays right now is their rotation. Time to trade some of it?
I guess the good news in Tampa Bay is that, after drafting 13th or later in each of the last eight Junes, they’re looking at a top-five pick in 2017. Other than that, the news is grim. The AL East keeps getting tougher, really. The Red Sox will feel the pain of the penalties levied by MLB in the wake of their bonus-bundling bungle, but they still have a strong farm system (including close to the best single prospect in baseball) in support of a very talented team, and a whole bunch of money. The Yankees have been disciplined lately, though not as aggressive about rebuilding as some would prefer, and if they’re poorly positioned this year and next, they make up for it by being very well positioned for just about every foreseeable season thereafter. The Orioles keep surprising people, which, hey, that could end anytime, but we’re in Year Five of the at-least-respectable Dan Duquette Orioles Era. And then there are the Blue Jays, whose future is a bit uncertain but who have been downright dominant for long stretches over the past two years. When last the Rays snuck up on the division, they had two giants to slay. Maybe they helped cut those giants down to size, but they’re now facing twice as many serious opponents.
That’s not to say that competition is the Rays’ only problem. Their Opening Day payroll, just south of $67 million this year, has been essentially flat since 2009. In 2011, right before the current CBA took effect and made the Draft much harder to manipulate, the team had 10 of the first 60 Draft picks. To even approximate the aggressive use of those picks they envisioned, though, they had to cut their spending by nearly 40 percent from the previous year. The spike in national TV revenues over the last few years and the windfall the league just made by selling off a slice of MLB Advanced Media make the failure to raise payroll a tough one to explain, but if we assume ownership will continue to constrain the baseball operations element this way, then we can also assume it will be tough for the Rays to keep up with the rest of the league for a while—maybe until they’re in a more viable big-league environment.
Fielder for Kinsler was supposed to be the fix for both teams' surpluses, but the 2016 season has put the clubs' returns in stark relief.
Three offseasons ago—November 20, 2013 to be exact—Detroit and Texas made a rare one-for-one, star-for-star trade between contending teams, with the Tigers sending five-time All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder to the Rangers in exchange for three-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler. In addition to the obvious star power involved, this particular trade had some interesting money-related factors and featured the analytical juxtaposition of a traditional slugger with shiny RBI totals and negative defensive value being swapped for an up-the-middle defender with less of a bat and a far more varied all-around game.
Three-and-a-half years later the trade looks like a blowout victory for the Tigers, to the extent that they added one of the best all-around infielders in the league and saddled the Rangers with a bad player on an albatross contract that runs through 2020 at an annual salary of $24 million. All of which is much different than things appeared around this time last year when Fielder, not Kinsler, was chosen for the All-Star team on the strength of his .339/.403/.521 first half that seemed to be proof of a full recovery from the neck surgery that halted his first season in Texas after 42 games.
Fielder’s production fell off in the second half, as he hit .264/.348/.394, and this season he’s been arguably the worst everyday player in baseball. WARP sees him as producing the sixth-worst overall value, with all five of the lower-WARP players—A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Teixeira, Dioner Navarro, Ryan Howard, Chris Coghlan—playing part-time or sitting on the disabled list. Fielder has started 67 of 72 games for the Rangers, hitting .203/.273/.325 with his usual bad defense and poor baserunning, which is how he’s the lone big leaguer with more than 200 plate appearances and a WARP worse than -1.0. Dating back to last year’s All-Star break Fielder has hit a combined .235/.313/.356 in 140 games.
Yu Darvish returns in full force, the Royals stage an unlikely comeback, and the Mariners embarrass themselves on the basepaths in new and creative ways.
The Weekend Takeaway
It only took 659 days, but Yu Darvish is back where he belongs: striking out the league’s best hitters and taking names. The 29-year-old returned to the major-league stage on Saturday afternoon, where he pitched for the first time since August 9, 2014, in front of a sellout crowd in Arlington, Texas.
The same team that employed Willy Aybar, Josh Lueke and Josh Sale has also made a number of positive contributions to the cause--which is unusual for major-league baseball.
For Jake Odorizzi, Rays pitcher, husband, father, the decision to step up to fight domestic violence was so easy.
Sometimes it’s seemed, rather obviously, that there’s a code players follow about such things. Players will donate their time, money and voices to other causes in need of resources and attention. MLB has championed many causes that are woven into the fabric of the baseball experience, particularly research and funding to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That work has been admirable and helped improve many lives. But when it comes to relationship violence, well, we’re getting into a tricky area, aren’t we?
Many in baseball have been accused of domestic violence and sexual assault, and prior to this season the policy for punishing players for those actions was weak or absent. Players weren’t going to criticize teammates. The silence through the years has been stunning and shameful.
But when Odorizzi was presented with an opportunity two years ago, there was no code of silence he felt the need to adhere to.
He was motivated by the relationships that ground him, and he put into action the idea that fighting domestic violence isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue and it’s an issue for a family man. For him, it’s just as important for men to stand up for women who are suffering or who have suffered. And when he was approached to take the REAL (Relationship Equality & Anti-violence League) Promise at the University of South Florida, at the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, he was quickly on board.
“[The Promise] is typically designed toward men. Long story short, do the right thing,” Odorizzi said before a game last week. “Treat everyone with respect, and at no point should you raise a hand to a woman. It’s more in depth than 'be polite.' For many, even that’s hard to do. I don’t understand bringing yourself to hurting your wife or girlfriend or child’s mother. I believe everything I said.”
The Rays ace was back, for a night. Meanwhile: Noah Syndergaard, Taijuan Walker, Francisco Lindor, and more from Monday.
The Monday Takeaway Chris Archer woke up Monday with as many losses as he had starts, and the blame for most of them laid on the right-hander, a popular preseason Cy Young Award pick, considering his alarm clock rang with his ERA at 7.32. The strikeouts were there—29 of them in 19 1/3 innings—but they were joined by 11 walks, and 30 hits, and six home runs.
Outstanding arms from week three, including Strasburg, Jose Fernandez and Drew Smyly.
We're now three weeks into the baseball season, such that the relative quality of opponents is beginning to wash out as pitchers continue to tour the league, while emerging trends start to become more reality and less fluke. Let's take a look at a trio of starters who had multiple starts last week, and whose performances left an impression.
After a breakout 2015 season, the Rays' top prospect gets at least a spot start.
The Rays drafted Snell with the seventh of their 10 first-round picks that year, as a supplemental pick for the loss of Brad Hawpe. He will be the third member of that class to make it to the bigs (Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Goeddel being the other two). Snell didn’t get off to the greatest start in his pro career, as he struggled to throw strikes and prior to 2015 had a walk rate of 4.9 in 287 innings. But he did showcase a premium arsenal with a strikeout rate of 9.5. Things finally clicked for the tall lefty in 2015, as he lowered his walk rate to 3.6, improved his strikeout rate to 10.9, posted an ERA of 1.41, and finished with a masterful nine starts in Triple-A. All of this made Blake Snell our Top Prospect for the Rays for 2016, as well as 21st in our top 101
When he was drafted Snell was a raw, inconsistent lefty out of the Seattle area, flashing feel for pitching as well as a long projectable body to dream on. It took a while for the command and pitches to take a step forward, but he firmly blew down the door in 2015. His fastball is 92-94 and will touch 96 when he needs it, but the pitch plays to double-plus with plus movement that generates a lot of weak contact and awkward movement. His primary off-speed pitch is a slider with really hard downward tilt, and he is comfortable throwing away to LHH. (He's also comfortable burying the hopes and dreams of RHH.) His changeup flashes plus because of his arm speed and the offering's late drop, though the pitch is behind his others in terms of overall command as he struggles to leave the pitch up. He always had a feel to pitch but the numbers finally backed it up, as he showcases above-average control and average command of his arsenal. His long-term outlook has top-of-the-rotation stuff, but pitching in the big leagues is hard and it needs to be seen how his strike-throwing ways will do against big-league hitters.
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