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.

Speaking of that 2011 Draft, though, let’s talk about what’s still going right in Tampa Bay, because what’s going right at the moment is starting pitching, and leveraging that might be the key to turning the franchise’s fortunes for the better. Of the 10 players the Rays selected, only four have reached the majors, and it seems a near certainty that no more than two will be of significant value. Blake Snell is one of the two. He’s only six starts into his career, and he’s only been average so far (100 cFIP), but there’s upside there, and enough polish to make Snell an acceptable heir to the line of homegrown Rays aces, from James Shields to David Price to Chris Archer. Archer is still there, too, of course, and despite the bloated ERA and the deep concerns so many have for him, DRA and cFIP (3.61, 91) believe he’s been an above-average starter. Those metrics are almost equally high on Jake Odorizzi (3.74 DRA, 99 cFIP), and even higher on Drew Smyly (3.50, 91), who arrived in the trades that sent Shields and Price, respectively, to fellow AL contenders. Then there’s Matt Moore, the guy we once ranked above both Mike Trout and Bryce Harper as the top overall prospect in baseball. Moore has given up 17 home runs in as many starts, and in a larger sense, he’s still looking for whatever real electricity he had before Tommy John surgery, but he’s still been average (3.97 DRA, 100 cFIP) and impressively durable.

The Rays control Snell through 2022, and he’s got at least two years of making the league minimum after this one. He’s a building block. The other four, though, might better serve the Rays as trade chips. It wouldn’t make sense to trade all of them, at least not too close together, and whichever the Rays value most highly, they can keep them the longest. That’s what they did with Price and Shields, keeping them much closer to their would-be walk years than they did Edwin Jackson and Matt Garza. With the trade deadline looming, though, and given that it’s clear a rebuild is in order for the Rays, and given the thin market for controllable starting pitchers, let’s try to identify the guys the team might view more like Garza and Jackson, and decide just what they’re worth.

It seems a strange time for the team to try to move Archer. The dissonance between his (surface-level) stats and his perceived talent level creates a tension that tends to impede trade negotiations. He’s also tied to one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball, making less than $3 million this year, and then $18.5 million over the next three, with two club options worth a total of $20 million after that. For a team for whom money is a major problem, Archer might have too much surplus value to let go.

On the other hand, that cost efficiency would appeal to other teams, too. The Cubs are spending roughly $172 million on payroll this year, nearly double what they laid out in 2014. It’s not clear, given their ongoing renovation costs, that they have a whole lot more to spend to improve the team this year. They certainly have the prospect firepower to land Archer, if they believe in him, and maybe the monetary fit is as important to them, in the moment, as it is to the Rays.

After this season, there are nothing but team options on the books for Moore—three of them, totaling $26 million. He’s a risk, on some level, but the strikeout and walk numbers he’s put up this season are the best of his career. If there are just some things to clean up around the edges, and the stuff is as sharp as Moore’s, that kind of money is a risk worth taking. Whereas Archer might be the least likely pitcher for the team to move, Moore feels like the most likely. He’s the one whose service time, salary, skills and development least suit the likely arc of the next five years for Tampa Bay.

The Rays’ entire starting staff seems to have been bitten by the home-run bug this season, and Smyly might have it the worst. He misses bats in the strike zone, though, can be lethal on lefties, and throws an increasingly devastating curveball. He’s under control for two years beyond this one, although not at specific terms, and if his shoulder holds up, he should be an above-average starter. That said, the guess here is that Smyly doesn’t fit the long-term plans in Tampa, specifically because he doesn’t provide cost certainty or have a clean medical record. He’s certainly the least valuable trade asset in the bunch, though still a valuable one in the right situation.

Like Moore, Odorizzi comes with the promise of three years of club control, but without any commitment beyond 2016. He’s not as high-upside as Moore. He doesn’t throw as hard, and doesn’t have the same devastating secondary offering (though his splitter can be awfully good). Odorizzi is also prone to racking up high pitch counts, sometimes even when he’s around the zone and otherwise pitching fine. If the Rays believe he can improve on that score, he’s well worth holding onto.


To me, Moore and Smyly are the ones to trade. While Archer could bring back the blockbuster haul that would make this month more fun than anyone dares dream, there just aren’t enough teams as much in need of an asset like Archer as the Rays to make it likely that they’ll get the offer for which they’ll wait. There’s still no reason Archer can’t be a central piece of the next winning Rays team. The same goes for Odorizzi, though there’s a bit less cause for optimism about him in the long run. Moore and Smyly don’t fit the Rays’ circumstances the same way. They should shop Evan Longoria at some point in the not-so-distant future, but if they can’t move him and his salary (prohibitive for this club, if the current salary constraints hold, even though Longoria has been great this season), getting a haul of cost-efficient positional talent (and maybe a spare arm or two for a bullpen that ranks 26th in DRA this year) could be a springboard into 2017, when that top-five draft pick can really accelerate the reload.

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I don't consider Chris Archer a homegrown Ray; he was drafted by the Indians and spent most of his minor league career in the Cubs organization.