"Who are these guys?" is a question St. Petersburg residents and general baseball devotees will ask a lot about the Rays this spring.
Other teams might have switched players as frequently last offseason—the Padres, Athletics, and Braves deserve mention—but the Rays' turnover differed in that it included changes at the GM and manager positions. Directing heads Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon departed for bigger markets (and salaries) and were followed out the Trop's door by various well-known players, such as purported cornerstone Wil Myers and actual cornerstone Ben Zobrist. The Rays retooled to the extent that Nick Franklin, himself acquired last July via trade, could enter the season as the club's fifth-longest tenured starter.
But while fans should budget for programs (and the team for name tags), the lead-in question serves another meaning; one less concerned with the players' identities and more with the team's—in short, are the Rays as good as PECOTA's playoff projection suggests?
Oddmakers aren't alone in saying no, which isn't surprising. There are three ways to approach uncertainty: embrace the plausible upside; dread the plausible downside; or do neither and wait for the results. Many will wear the second outfit when it comes to the 2015 Rays, rationalizing that Matt Silverman and Kevin Cash could prove as competent as their predecessors, but are probable downgrades based on who they replaced. That skepticism carries over to the roster remade to Silverman and Cash's liking; sure, the rotation is bulletproof, yet the bullpen's outlook is murky and the lineup features too many unprovens to be confident about their chances.
Believe it or not, PECOTA itself agrees with that last part.
While the system appears infatuated with the Rays, a peek beneath its veil reveals certain reservations. Player and team projections serve as its milk and honey, but PECOTA produces various diagnostic tools that forecast the likelihood of players improving, breaking out, collapsing, or falling victim to attrition—defined as losing playing time due to poor play, injury, or managerial decision. The attrition bit is more relevant to the Rays than most teams, because three of their players boast likelihoods that rank in the 10 highest among projected starters. Predictably, the Rays as a whole have the majors' highest average attrition rate and the second-highest median rate (ahead of only the Diamondbacks). Basically, the diagnostics see the Rays as a team with a lot of volatility.
Don't take PECOTA's code for it, either. Let's address some of the lineup's question marks using the projection system and good old fashioned baseball sense.
- Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier would own the highest attrition rate in the class were it not for the Rangers Ryan Rua, who could enter the season in a non-starting capacity. Though his defensive tools provide him a big-league floor, his refinement in the field (his Annual comment compared his routes to "an unbridled stallion on rocky terrain") and at the plate (he struggled with lefties last season and tended to hit off his front foot) will determine whether his ceiling exceeds fourth-outfielder status. It's fitting then that PECOTA considers Juan Lagares and Peter Bourjos as two of his strongest comparables, since those serve as the proverbial forks in Kiermaier's career road.
- Seeing catcher Rene Rivera listed among the leaders in the attrition and collapse categories might surprise, given his banner 2014. But PECOTA has a long memory and Rivera a short history of offensive success, leading to a comparables list chocked full with reserves and emergency types. (Including Bobby Wilson, who, coincidentally, could serve as Rivera's backup.) Because Rivera employs an aggressive approach and a hitch in his swing, he's unlikely to contribute much offensively beyond occasional displays of pull-side power. That's okay with the Rays, seeing as how they're employing him for his mitt. Rivera is a high-quality receiver—that is, not just a framer, but someone who excels at handling a staff and blocking balls—complete with the ability to consistently post well-above-average pop times. In an ideal world, Rivera wouldn't be asked to start 100-plus times. The Rays don't live in an ideal world.
- Another catcher the Rays acquired this offseason, John Jaso, is a bigger attrition risk than PECOTA realizes. Though Jaso's days behind the plate should be over—or, at minimum, restricted to emergency duty—he's had consecutive seasons ended by concussions. There's no questioning Jaso's ability to hit right-handed pitching but, be it from a humanistic or projecting perspective, it's hard to be not concerned with his health.
- Generally Mr. Reliable for the Rays, Evan Longoria suffered through the worst season of his career in 2014. Nonetheless he finished with a .281 True Average and more than four Wins Above Replacement Player, and he won't turn 30 until later in the year, so concern about an early decline should be limited. Still, considering how much the Rays rely on Longoria, it's a situation worth monitoring.
- PECOTA knows Nick Franklin had a brutal 2014, it just doesn't seem to care. In fact, Franklin's projection (.255 TAv, 2.3 WARP) looks a lot like his solid rookie campaign in 2013 (.260, 2.5). Those with souls aren't so quick to absolve the last 12 months. Franklin often looked lost the plate, leading to a disconcerting amount of empty swings. It doesn't help that his hands continue to leak from the right side, limiting his value as a switch-hitter, nor that his defensive home for 2015 remains up in the air. The smart money is on Franklin platooning with Logan Forsythe at the keystone, which seems like a tolerable arrangement on paper. One thing is for certain about Franklin: he's no Ben Zobrist.
- Then there's Steven Souza, an increasingly polarizing figure. The good news for the Rays is pundits disagree more on his ranking relative to the rest of the league than in their evaluations of his game. Souza is large and wide with better-than-average speed, a good approach at the plate, and big raw power. Alas, Souza's bat path doesn't lend itself to equally big home run totals, meaning, as Keith Law has noted, he'll subside on doubles instead. Not to be outdone, PECOTA also has discordant views on Souza. His projected production ranks among the top 30 or so hitters in the game, however, his attrition rate is high thanks to a comparables list headed by an uninspiring bunch: Russ Canzler, Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Shealy, Khris Davis, and Nelson Cruz . . . from before his breakout. The truth is somewhere in between.
You can quibble here or there, but it doesn't take away from understanding why these Rays have inspired diverging opinions. Now let's circle back and apply those three ways to approach uncertainty to the Rays.
No. 1: Embrace the plausible upside
You look at these Rays and see similarities to recent iterations of the Athletics, Indians, and Pirates; each a small-market team that leaned on a superstar and milked the most from otherwise unheralded pieces through good coaching and creative usage. Factor in the Rays' other units, a quality rotation and seemingly solid defense outside of the middle infield, and there's legitimate sleeper potential here.
No. 2: Dread the plausible downside
You look at these Rays and see similarities to recent iterations of the Padres; another small-market team that surrounded a good third baseman with a bunch of solid, unspectacular pieces that never put it together despite good coaching and creative usage. Perhaps one of those turns into Yan Gomes, Josh Donaldson, or Josh Harrison, but let's be honest, identifying the new breakout is akin to guessing which antiquated rapper will be the next to join the home-renovation game—even if you're right, you deserved to be wrong. Playoffs? Please. The Rays had a better defense last season, when their unreliable offense and bullpen stranded them below .500, and when they weren't guided by a first-time manager.
No. 3 Do nothing and wait for the results
You look at these Rays and see similarities to most other non-elite teams. Variance is less of a blemish and more of a given. The important thing is to acknowledge it exists and understand why that's so. Even PECOTA, an algorithm, can buy into a team's competitive chances while admitting that risk exists. Who are these guys? You don't know yet. That's okay, nobody does.