Tampa Bay is 53-50 and facing the usual issues with payroll, attendance, and division difficulty. Should they go for it this season, parting with long-term assets for short-term help, or stay the course and keep the competitive window open for as long as possible? Our roundtable debates the pros and cons of each side, with a couple interruptions from the Rays making trades.

Matthew Trueblood: We should start, I guess, by noting that the Rays took their first step toward fixing a shaky bullpen over the weekend, adding Sergio Romo.

This roster really interests me. I think the first question we need to answer about them is: should they be looking to maximize a particular window, or remain competitive for as long as possible over the coming years? Is this going to be their best run at it, at least with the Longoria/Archer/Kiermaier core, or will that come in 2018 or 2019? I think you can make a case either way. I’m higher on their farm system than most (I think), but (again, I think) it’s above average no matter whom you ask. Still, will it be good enough to keep pace with Boston and New York (especially the latter) in a couple of years?

Craig Goldstein: As a Dodgers fan, I quibble with the notion that adding Romo resembles a step towards fixing a shaky bullpen.

Rob Mains: I agree with Matt: They’re in a really tough spot, playing in the same division as those two behemoths; does that mean your goal every year is the second Wild Card? But that’s always been the case. I think there’s an argument for going for it in 2017. The problem is exactly how they go for it. They’re not really in a position to trade away prospects for guys who get paid a lot; they’re last in the majors in attendance by over 100,000.

But they’re in a good position now, and they can plausibly claim that they should get better. Wilson Ramos is back and it looks as if they’re getting Kevin Kiermaier, Matt Andriese, and Xavier Cedeno next month; Cedeno could really help the bullpen. I don’t know that they need to do a lot, given that infusion, other than hope that the clock doesn’t strike midnight and Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza, and Logan Morrison turn back into pumpkins.

Goldstein: I think their best possible move is now off the table, as a guy who can hit like J.D. Martinez made the most sense as an impact bat acquirable for a relatively small cost. I know they tend not to invest in rentals given their situation, but getting a bat like that added to their lineup made a lot of sense in my eyes. I think the other question that’s raised by Matt up above is: Can you legitimately compete with a Longoria/Archer/Kiermaier core? I believe you can with a guy like Chris Archer, but Evan Longoria is about a league-average offensive presence right now, and while Kiermaier plays a golden center field, when FRAA values him closer to +12 (2016, 2014) rather than +30 (2015), he comes off as more of a very useful secondary type rather than a centerpiece to build around.

Mains: If the 2017 versions of Souza and Dickerson are for real, then yeah, I can believe in this core. Their seasons are outliers in terms of their careers, but not in terms of what we were promised.

Goldstein: I … guess. It depends on who you perceive as making the promises. Souza was a PECOTA projection engine darling, but was more of a potential regular/realistic second-division type from the prospect side of things

Meg Rowley: Can’t believe you don’t think Logan Morrison is the future.

Mains: Heh. Yeah, on pace for 4.4 WARP this year after generating 5.7 WARP combined over his prior 2,753 plate appearances. He turns 30 next month. Somebody’s probably going to give him six years and $75 million over the winter; I think we can safely assume it won’t be the Rays.

Bryan Grosnick: (If someone gives LoMo 6/$75M this offseason, I’ll buy a Rays hat and eat it.)

Mains: Bryan, you’re talking about a man who should’ve been in the Home Run Derby, for crying out loud.

Trueblood: Hey, how much are we buying Mallex Smith? Stick has played much more than I, for one, expected.

Goldstein: I’d buy as a second-division regular who can really tear up the basepaths and maybe plays a tick above second division in a crazy good defensive year. Admittedly though, the new offensive environment has thrown off my scale of those descriptions a little bit. He’s always been able to take a walk. Combine that with the defense and you get a pretty high baseline. I’d bet the hit tool is pretty high-variance though.

My question for this topic is: What are we really evaluating for the Rays? What’s the core question we’re seeking to answer?

Trueblood: I think it is: What are they? Firstly, in terms of overall quality, are they a legitimate threat to the Red Sox for the division title? How much noise do we think they can realistically make in October? And then secondly, is this the window for them to go for it (Alex Cobb and Morrison are hitting free agency, Longoria is getting up there in age, Dickerson and Souza could just be having career-years, etc.) or should they be positioning themselves to be good for the next five years and letting the chips fall where they may for 2017?

Grosnick: I think the Rays never have the real luxury of mortgaging their future for the present because of how dicey their finances and attendance are. This isn’t exactly a team that can afford to do a Cubs/Astros-style teardown-and-rebuild because the support just might not be there for the rebuild portion. So I’d think that the Rays have to position themselves to be “good” for the next five, if those are the choices. We may be getting back to the Yanks-and-Sox East superpower days, but I also think it’s valuable for the team to have a puncher’s chance in a few of the next several years. I don’t think this team has that great of a shot this year unless they do something clever like add Verlander/Kinsler (whom they can’t afford) or a really high-ceiling “core” piece. This core is fun, but probably not enough, so they’ve got to keep rolling the dice and trying to get a breakout position player who can provide impact offense.

Trueblood: I … am suddenly suspecting I’m the high man in the company on Tampa Bay. Let me ask this: How much do you suppose they would add to that $70 million payroll, if the right opportunity came up? We should say, whatever his protestations, that Stu Sternberg has plenty to spend if he wants. Colby Rasmus‘ unexpected departure saved them some cash. With the stadium situation (maybe? sort of?) starting to bubble back toward the surface, there’s reason enough to try to build some goodwill with the community. On-field question of relevance: Cobb looks really good lately. Anyone particularly confident (or not) in him?

Goldstein: I don’t think Sternberg necessarily has as much as you imply, at least in terms of spendable cash. That ownership group really spent a vast majority of their acquired wealth when they bought the team. So while their assets have certainly grown, but it’s unclear to me how much of that is liquid.

Mains: Cobb is a free agent after this season. So I guess I believe in a salary drive? Regardless of Sternberg’s personal finances, are we assuming Tampa Bay is break even at best from operations? That could constrain payroll. But I’m with you, Matt—I like their outlook. Good core, not expensive.

Goldstein: Sure, but “not expensive” only matters insofar as the ability to spend on something at some point. And we have no idea if they can. Otherwise they’re necessarily not expensive, but that doesn’t really change the calculus.

Mains: Yeah, but that’s my point—with Ramos just back, and Cedeno and Kiermaier close, there’s a plausible argument for improvement with $0 marginal cost. So I don’t see a need to add a lot to stay in the Wild Card race. But yeah, that’s probably all they can aspire to. Bad luck to be in the division with two death stars.

Goldstein: Sure, I think they can stay in the WC race. And there are probably scenarios that put them in division contention, this year and the future, but I can’t see a case for sacrificing their prospects to make a big MLB addition given just how important cost control is to their competitive structure.

Mains: I 100 percent agree.

Goldstein: And my concern is that while those guys returning is a significant boost, there’s at least some measure of regression possible/likely for: Morrison, Tim Beckham, Souza, Mallex, and maybe Jacob Faria on the pitching side. Now, there’s upside to counter from Longoria, Blake Snell, etc. but their bench is about as deep as a goldfish bowl so any potential future injury thrusts … Jesus Sucre or Trevor Plouffe into legitimate playing time. Unless they’re actually willing to call up a Willy Adames (or a Brent Honeywell on the pitching side).

Mains: This is terribly relevant: Emma Baccellieri informs us that LoMo’s daughter is named Ily, short for “I love you.”

Goldstein: Dear God.

Trueblood: I’ll close with: this team is better than most people realize. I tend to believe in Cobb’s recent stretch of strong work. I certainly believe in Dickerson, Souza, and LoMo. If I were them, I would keep a very open mind about deals that might sting a little prospect-wise, but that could put them over the top.

This is partly about fading the Red Sox and Yankees. I think the former is poised for, not collapse, but an excruciatingly mediocre finish. New York, I think I’m possibly the low guy on, because I still see a lot of flaws there and I thought the White Sox Trio was a pretty uninspiring way to patch what aren’t even the most glaring holes on the roster. (Those are in the rotation.) To me, there’s an opening for Tampa Bay to surge to an unexpected but well earned division title, and if they get an opportunity to add Brad Hand, Justin Wilson, etc., or a right-handed stick in the outfield, I think they should do it. When those are the kinds of players you’re targeting, you obviously hope to avoid including anyone like Adames or Honeywell, but at this stage, I wouldn’t be telling teams up front that they’re untouchable or anything.

Even small-market teams have to be willing to capitalize as fully as possible on a contention window. I think someone mentioned, above, the idea that teams in Tampa’s logistical position can’t afford the kind of total bottoming out that tends to follow such a push, but I’d point out: they’re already dead last in attendance. Do you really think that if they’re bad for two or three years, two or three years from now, it’ll create an Expos-level fan extinction event? If so, then the problems afoot run so deep that maybe we need to have a totally different conversation. But the balance of available information makes me think they’d be fine. The real constraint on this team is their stadium, and I don’t think they can (or should, anyway) just play it safe while they wait for that situation to resolve itself.

Goldstein: I’d agree the Yankees’ move didn’t address their most glaring hole, so there’s room for competition here. I also would agree that not bottoming out isn’t a huge factor, given that even when successful they’re hardly relevant in terms of attendance. I do think that the hill to climb is a bit tougher than Matt does, though, and for that reason would be pretty measured in any acquisition (as I write this the Rays just traded Casey Gillaspie for Dan Jennings). I know in many worlds half-measures are looked down upon, but this situation strikes me as one that might call for it.

Mains: And now they just traded minor-league reliever Drew Smith to the Mets for first baseman Lucas Duda.

Goldstein: The Rays are trying to mess with our analysis.

Mains: I like this take:

Goldstein: That’s fine by me. I think it ties in with half-measures. Duda was a good get for that price.

Trueblood: Agreed. Good set of moves so far. I think there’s one more move in the offing, but if this is all they do, it’s not bad at all.

Grosnick: I think these two deals are good ones, but don’t move the needle past another win or so. They’re not hurting their future to make them, so it’s kind of a win-win. (But I still don’t think they make it past a Wild Card play-in game, if that.)

Thank you for reading

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Good discussion. If Price is really hurt, I agree with the guy who thinks the Red Sox are poised to collapse. They don't have the feared hitter that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were anymore. They can be pitched to for a change. NY absolutely needed to address their bullpen so I'll respectfully disagree with that writer. That 10-22 stretch was all about the bullpen. They could have easily gone 16-16 and if they had they'd be in first place. No one is arguing they don't need starting pitching, but short of that the deal with Chicago will be very helpful in terms of winning the division. They sit a half game back and are likely to come away with an experienced second tier pitcher better than Luis Cessa. They've got nice depth and, at full strength, a nice offense. Are they ready to win? Probably not. Tampa has as good a shot at the division as any of them in my opinion. When you look around at the Wildcard candidates I have to believe KC finds it's way in and I like NY's chances if they fail at the division. Is that something to strive for? In Tampa's case absolutely. In NY's case, no if it costs them a real jewel from the farm. It would be a great feather in Tampa's cap to play KC in the Wildcard game considering they were predicted for last. They probably wouldn't advance, but considering they've been abandoned by their own fans, a GM and a manager they have a lot to be proud of. I say they go for it. Just my worthless two cents. Appreciate the article.
Thanks for reading and contributing your worth-much-more-than-two-cents comments. I'd note with pride that PECOTA didn't peg the Rays for last! My sentiment's with small markets, so yeah, it'd be great to see them in October.
The one thing that strikes me with this team is its vulnerability to lefties. Kiermaier, Dickerson, Morrison, Miller are all lefties, all are relatively free-swingers and all have historically had struggles with lefty pitchers. So what do they do, the trade for another free-swinging lefty with a platoon split in Duda.

If I were a Rays fan, I would've greatly preferred an acquisition like Duvall if you're simply looking to fill a DH role...he would've given the team a bit more balance. Sure, it would've cost more, but I think it might've filled a greater need on this roster.

I think that's a great point (and part of why I thought JD Martinez made so much sense). I hadn't considered Duvall, and while Duvall has his flaws, he does fit as some right-handed thump.