Baseball is awash in money, with each team receiving a substantial bump in revenue thanks to new national television contracts that kick in for the upcoming season. With that in mind the Rays finally ventured into the free agent market, and even took on money in trades. So what did they get for all their free-spending ways? James Loney, Ryan Hanigan, and Heath Bell. I know, it might not seem like much, but given the revolving door* at first base they’ve had these last several years, this commitment to Loney is a big one (the biggest free agent contract in club history, no less). Let’s not forget last season’s late pickup of David DeJesus, who was signed to a three year deal as well. Add in Bell and Hanigan (acquired in Andrew Friedman’s long awaited first three team trade) and the Rays made shrewd moves to bolster key roster spots, all on the relative cheap. The new Rays are the same as the old Rays, eh?
*It’s worth noting that revolving door might have rejuvenating powers
Knowing the Rays, there are an awful lot of ways their lineup will shake out over the course of the season. The above represents a best guess as of their current roster and facing a right-handed batter (hence Joyce in the cleanup spot over Myers). The positions are also fluid, as Zobrist is a swiss-army knife, and many players will likely be cycled through the DH spot. There isn’t much outside of the usual intrigue here: Can Longoria stay healthy? Can Myers avoid a sophomore slump? Can Loney repeat his standout success from last season? Zobrist is steady, Jennings might not be what we once hoped, but he’s still useful (and still retains upside). Even the bottom of the lineup is functional for fantasy. Escobar has value in deeper leagues given the dearth of available shortstop talent and Hanigan will seek to reproduce his walk-heavy ways in the AL. Whether he can is to be determined, but if he does, he could be worthwhile in two catcher or deep leagues.
Don’t put too much stock in either of the names past Rodriguez here, as it’s likely the Rays seek out some veteran bench option in free agency or via trade. Molina can be ignored for fantasy purposes (at the plate, as his pitch framing is most certainly valuable when evaluating TB pitchers). Sean John Rodriguez gets decent run for a bench bat, and can fill in at multiple positions, which is always useful. Beyond that though, there’s not a lot of there there. No speed, little power, below-average batting average. Let’s see who they acquire before washing our hands of the Rays’ bench, but it might be prudent to get the soap and water ready.
Things could look quite different come the start of the season, but as of now, Price is still a Rays and leads a rotation with a ton of fantasy potential. Price’s injury last season and subsequent drop off in strikeouts might have people avoiding him as a fantasy ace, but that’s a bit premature. While the strikeouts did drop, so too did his walks. Additionally, he started throwing his fastball a lot more in ’13 and with more fastballs comes fewer missed bats. If he reverts back to his previous pitch mix, it’s reasonable to assume an uptick in strikeouts. Nothing is for sure of course, Price did lose velocity on his fastball if you’re looking for a reason to worry. That said, he’s still an elite pitcher and belongs atop fantasy rotations.
Cobb submitted his best season in ’13, thanks in part to a career-best BABIP. Don’t let that lead you to thinking a major regression is coming though. The BABIP wasn’t significantly better than prior seasons, and Cobb upped his strikeout percentage by over four percentage points while seeing his walk rate rise less than one percentage point. An extreme groundball pitcher, Cobb was a functional fantasy player while striking out around 18 percent of batters. If he can replicate his 23 percent from ’13 he’ll once again be an extremely valuable pitcher. Even with a bit of regression on that strikeout rate, if you expect something between his last two seasons with a little more emphasis on 2013, you’ll likely be rewarded. A couple things to watch for: Cobb has never eclipsed 150 innings at the major league level, and his FIP was substantially higher than his ERA. Don’t expect 200 innings of sub-3.00 ERA and you should be happy with your investment.
Hellickson finally had the regression that had been predicted and defied so many times over. All this while his strikeout rate trending upwards and his walk rate trending downwards. The culprit was BABIP, something he appeared to master his first few seasons in the majors. Nothing was markedly different about his profile though—he even saw a decrease in his HR:FB rate—except for a bizarre uptick in his bunt-hit percentage which went from 17 percent in 2011 to 11 percent in 2012 before ballooning to 33 percent last season. While the upside is limited, expect a return to the Hellickson we’ve known prior to 2013—or at least a reasonable facsimile.
In an effort to be brief (ha, I know), I’ll merely mention that the top two arms not mentioned are Jake Odorizzi and Enny Romero. Odorizzi is the more polished of the two but lacks a true strikeout pitch. Romero works with a little more stuff, but probably requires more minor league seasoning. Both are viable fantasy options if they’re getting starts, thanks to the Rays ability to win, play defense and both of their catchers sublime framing.
This bullpen is something of a beautiful mess. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Despite the Rays’ continually innovative strategies, a traditional closer is something they’ve used quite frequently. In this sense, someone like Heath Bell might make sense. They are spending a pretty penny on him (especially for them), but a word of caution: Bell has an option that will vest for 2015 if he finishes 55 games in 2014, so there is a good chance he doesn’t see a full season in the closer role, in Tampa, or both. Bell is worth adding speculatively, but don’t pay too much knowing that there’s little chance that the Rays allow that option to vest.
Peralta and McGee are both worthwhile in leagues that value holds and either has a shot at closing, though neither have done it with much consistency before. Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) is something of a darkhorse, as he has experience and he re-signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason despite still working his way back from injury. The injury is the biggest question here, and if Bell isn’t closing, I think Oviedo works his way into the job.
Less of a darkhorse and more of a longshot is Torres. Lefty closers aren’t nearly as common, so that’s working against him (as it is with McGee), but Torres’ true value to Tampa comes in his ability to spot start and go multiple innings. Taking that flexibility away by putting Torres in the closers role doesn’t seem like something the Rays seem likely to do. He merits mention anyway as a possible starting option should injury or ineffectiveness strike though, and his stuff plays at the back of a bullpen.
One last name not on the roster: Alex Colome. He’s already made his major league debut, and while he’s been starting in the minors, many believe his long-term home is in the bullpen.
Closer: Bell vs. Oviedo (vs. McGee vs. Peralta)
Bell and Oviedo get the edge here thanks to experience more than results. Would it be too punny to term Bell the heavy favorite? Too late. It seems likely he logs substantial time as the Rays closer, if only to boost his trade value. As mentioned above, it’s hard to see Tampa letting his option vest only to be on the hook for $9M in 2015. For that reason I think Oviedo sees time, though whether it’s at the beginning or end of the season is hard to predict. Given the variance in reliever performance to begin with, reading the tea leaves is probably not too worthwhile here. Either get both or avoid the situation altogether.
Player to Target: Chris Archer, SP
Archer is the real prize in this rotation, in my opinion. While his FIP would say that he easily outperformed his peripherals, the talent is there for Archer to take a step forward and prove that he’s no fluke. Archer’s 19 percent strikeout rate pales in comparison to his minor league rates. While it’s fair to scale those back thanks to the level of competition at the major league level, Archer’s stuff is X(XX) rated (two plus-plus pitches), and the strikeouts should follow. While he created quite a buzz mid-season, the doldrums of the offseason can force some owners to forget how someone looked rather than what they did. Archer looked good as a rookie, but that won’t matter to those who are looking at statistics only. They’ll see a 4.00+ FIP with solid but not great strikeout rates. He has the talent to change all of that though, and while it may require a leap of faith, the leap isn’t all that big in this case. Throw in a healthy ground-ball rate and a good shot at 200 innings and Archer looks like a low 2/high 3 in fantasy rotations.
Player to Avoid: Matt Moore, SP
Consider me among those still addicted to Moore’s potential. Moore’s profile suggests that of a player who will be overdrafted (again) thanks to a superficially high win total. Winning 17 games (while throwing only 150 innings) will get you all sorts of fantasy attention, especially when paired with elite strikeout ability (emphasis ability, not production). The issue of course, is that Moore can’t go deep into games. Without a good bullpen and serious luck, Moore isn’t going to come close to sniffing 17 wins even with substantial improvements. He walked almost 12 percent of the batters he faced, a rate that just cannot sustain the 3.29 ERA he posted. Moore has proved adept at tightrope walking his way out of jams that he’s created, but at some point the numbers will catch up to him. Unless he can find the zone more often, he’ll continue to be overdrafted. While suckers like me are still hopeful for a breakout, you should be willing to forego the risk (and yes, the upside), unless the value is too good to be true.
Deep Sleeper: Alex Torres, SP
For a guy who produced a 1.71 ERA (2.32 FIP) in 58 innings last season, Torres sure doesn’t get talked about much. Long and stuff and short on control, Torres didn’t quite struggle as a starter, but couldn’t quite hack it either. Now in the bullpen, he’s beginning to reign in his bat missing arsenal, walking just under nine percent last year, which, while still above the norm is considerably better than the double digit walk rates he produced as a starter in the minors. This improvement comes while maintaining an impressive 27 percent strikeout rate (over a strikeout per inning). Torres’ miniscule HR:FB rate (two percent) is where much of the credit goes for his impressive ERA (and FIP), and while it’s unlikely that he can replicate his success in limiting the long ball, his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark isn’t pure luck. While the Rays’ rotation is loaded with talent and they have arms to spare at the upper minors, if Torres does get another chance at a rotation spot, I advise picking him up. There will be some attrition to his rate stats, but it’s possible the gains he’s made on the command front will hold. Earl Weaver was always a proponent of breaking pitchers in as relievers before transitioning them back to starting, and perhaps the lessons imparted by relieving—go after hitters, trust your stuff—are ones that Torres required. If he gets a chance to start (or close) he’s worth the waiver wire pick it’ll cost to grab him.