Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.
Tampa Bay Rays PECOTA Projections:
Runs Scored: 710
Runs Allowed: 692
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .249/.308/.391 (.252)
Total WARP: 27.9 (13.9 pitching, 14.0 non-pitching)
Adam Sobsey: The first thing one has to do in considering the Rays’ upcoming season is to fight off cynicism. They decimated the roster, aren’t trying to be good in 2018, have their sights set on a new ballpark, and seem to be playing for 2027 or thereabouts. Any PECOTA breakouts (or collapses) will probably occur in conditions of competitive irrelevance. But I’m not a cynic, I’m just not, and if nothing else, one has to acknowledge that whatever the Rays are doing, they’re doing it thoroughly. That alone discourages us from saying they’re not worth our time and waiting for hockey season. So: Given how easy it is to say that everything the Rays did in the offseason was wrong, what did they do right?
R.J. Anderson: I’m more of a skeptic than a cynic. Still, I suppose it’s telling that my reaction was to ask “right by whose definition?” By ours? Not much, I don’t think. They salary-dumped the face of the franchise; they made a series of puzzling, cost-cutting trades; and they assembled a mediocre roster that features few sure things and fewer emotional attachments. Go Lightning.
Right by the Rays’ definition? I guess you can argue their indifference to outside perception is “right.” Tampa Bay has largely operated in a vacuum for the past decade-plus, because one of the “benefits” of having a small fan base is it doesn’t much make a difference if they’re happy or mad. The good results used to paper over whatever discomfort arose from trading the James Shieldses and David Prices of the world. The Rays no longer have that safety, but they’ve kept on keeping on, unconcerned by how silly they look to their fans, press, or other teams.
Is shamelessness a good thing for a baseball team to have? In some ways, sure. It lets you experiment without blushing when the lab tests go wrong. But it can easily be a bad thing, too. How do you know if your process is good if the results never show it? How do you know if your baseball operations department is homogeneous to the point where you’ve fallen victim to hivemind? How do you know if you’ve sampled too much of your own secret sauce? I don’t know, but I suspect it looks a little something like this iteration of the Rays.
What do you think?
Sobsey: A little bit of good timing: you had gotten me thinking that a team whose definition of “right” doesn’t have to be the same as anyone else’s, and whose need to win isn’t very important, might well be more aggressively avant-garde and go totally rogue. And just now, an article appears in the Tampa Bay Times reporting that the Rays will use a four-man rotation this season. Well, sort of: it’s actually still a five-count rotation in which the fifth “starter” is the bullpen. After Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi and his double-TJ elbow, Jacob Faria and his half-season of MLB experience, and Blake Snell (who got demoted to Triple-A last year), we’ll get a day of Matt Andriese/Austin Pruitt/Triple-A-guys.
Meanwhile, the Rays can use some of those same guys to pitch more innings in relief of the four horsemen and avoid the third-time-through-the-order penalty. Now, you could argue that this is tail-wagging-dog: the Rays don’t consider Andriese or Pruitt fifth starters, so rather than going out and getting one (because that would cost money), they’re half-conceding every fifth game. You might even speculate that this four-man rotation was not in the plans at all until top prospect Brent Honeywell went down with a torn UCL last month: In other words, just more cheapness at work.
But the process and approach are what interest me, especially because I’m in Durham. I’m curious to see firsthand the trickle-down effect of the four-man rotation on the Triple-A affiliate. There will be more recalls and options of arms, of course; but will Durham also adopt a three-to-four-inning-outing praxis in order to prep its pitchers for similar use in the majors? I’ve long waited for some MLB franchise to start radically rethinking the way it uses its farm system, which in the case of the Rays would be something valuable to consider, since just a fraction of the money saved on a multi-year deal for a veteran could bankroll a huge investment in the farm machinery. Maybe it takes radical change at the top to make that happen.
That brings a question to mind. Are there any general changes to farm system use you’d like to see teams make?
Anderson: Ah, yes. The premise of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller’s next book, right?
The standard answer here is about improved nutrition and, generally, treating minor-league players like valued employees. Interestingly, if the Rays embrace the shuttling―and they will―that beats against that current, since it’s hard on the pitchers who fly in to fly out and have their usual routines dashed. Nobody is going to cry for them―a night in the majors is better than four in the minors―but it won’t help with the increasing perception that they’re just warm bodies.
I don’t think I have an answer here that entails on-field strategy. Most of my thoughts are about off-the-field stuff. For instance, I’d want at least all my catchers and coaches to be bilingual. I might also incentivize learning Spanish by offering a bonus to any and every player who could pass a fluency test. Being able to communicate and bond with teammates is supposed to be an important part of the game, and making that extra effort shows commitment to being a good teammate and commitment to working hard to improve.
That’s kinda common sense-y, but I tend to believe small things like that can improve the ballplayer experience. You’re more familiar with the minors. What’s on your to-do-list for the day you’re named farm director?
Sobsey: More good (by which I mean very, very bad) timing: Just hours after your last reply, news broke that Jose De Leon also needs Tommy John surgery. This is all starting to seem like pretty terrible cosmic retribution for the Rays’ karma: It’s okay to trade Jake Odorizzi because we have Honeywell … okay Honeywell needs TJ but it’s okay because we have plenty of Triple-A arms so we can have a four-man rotation … okay now one of those is out but it’s okay because … ? Seems like the Rays better put this show on the road soon before all the clowns in their Volkswagen get run over.
Not to use a preview of Tampa Bay as a pretext to talk about overhauling the minor leagues (although, on the other hand …), but the news about De Leon does tie into some ideas about player development on the farm. We can look at this through the four-man-rotation portal. If the idea is to have more arms pitching fewer innings more often—bullpens full of swingmen, not just in Tampa Bay but maybe all over MLB in the future—then the minors could develop arms appropriately starting in Single-A. How to attack a lineup once through the order; how to develop an arsenal appropriate to a 40-to-70-pitch outing; how to find a velocity gear somewhere between max heat and seven-inning-pacing; how to shed the old notion that a bullpen’s job is just to relieve a starter, and rethink a pitching staff more democratically (i.e., kill the win): the minors would train pitchers in these physical and mental skills. And perhaps (to bring this back to De Leon) the UCL epidemic might recede a bit, too.
I’d like to see a minor-league season with fewer games in it. Baby steps have been taken, reducing it from 144 games to 140 over the last two seasons, but I wonder if something like 120 couldn’t work better. There would be more days for drills, instructional one-on-one sessions, and frankly extra rest. The minor-league season is grueling, even with four games shaved off. Why burn up these assets if you’re going to need them in the majors (not to mention add minor-league miles to their bodies)? It’s especially germane at Triple-A, where a third of the players are basically the MLB taxi squad. Too often, guys get called up when they’re already overused, or the second- or third-best reliever gets the call simply because a better one isn’t fresh.
Also, in pure minor-league terms, a shorter schedule could conclude before September 1 roster expansion (speaking of conventions ripe for overhaul). That way, the minor leagues wouldn’t go into their postseasons with rosters ravaged by call-ups. Or maybe the minor leagues don’t even need a postseason.
If we’re saying the Rays are basically punting this season, let’s look ahead. If the competitive window is currently shut, how can they reopen it again, and how long will it take? Are the answers as simple as: a) spend more money; and b) nine years, when their house arrest at the Trop finally ends? Or are there foxier, faster routes?
Anderson: The funny thing is PECOTA―the house wine―has the Rays at 83 wins, or enough to qualify for the postseason. Yet nobody (the Rays included) seems inclined to trust that figure.
Spending more money would be helpful―they reportedly received $50 million in revenue sharing; another $50 million from the BAMtech sale; and are closing in on a television deal reportedly worth another $80 million per year―but whether they feel the same way is to be determined. As such, time and luck are their best pals for the journey ahead.
Theoretically, the window should begin to open over the next 12-18 months. The Rays will graduate a number of prospects from one of the better farm systems in baseball. The catch is that their strength is more depth than impact. Willy Adames should be good, but he’s not Ronald Acuna. Honeywell, Lord willing, could be the only other Role 6 (or better) talent this farm system produces in the short term. That doesn’t mean their goose is cooked, it just means that they aren’t likely to welcome a franchise-altering superstar to the mix―there’s no Evan Longoria walking through the door, basically.
Since the Rays don’t like trading prospects for veterans and won’t spend, they’re going to have to find some impact elsewhere―that or they’re going to field a roster comprised largely of average-ish players. Teams built that way can compete, but it’s a tougher climb―especially in a division with the Yankees, Red Sox, and eventually the Blue Jays―who, by the way, all have both impact youngsters and money to blow. Are the Rays going to make the postseason before 2020? I’d be inclined to say no, and more inclined to have them in that 75-85-win range. I guess that’s true of most teams, however.
Sobsey: The pitching projections are good, as usual, but Tampa Bay is projected for the lowest on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the American League, and the fourth-lowest True Average. The best FRAA, though. So what has to happen for the Rays to win their projected 83 games and squeak into the postseason? Does Kevin Kiermaier have to catch every ball hit in the air or something?
Anderson: I’m focusing on the postseason part more than the 83-win projection part. At minimum, Kiermaier has to stay healthy, and Snell and Faria have to be legitimate above-average starters. You can also throw in that the bullpen has to way overachieve and the lineup has to have most/all the question marks (Denard Span, Brad Miller, C.J. Cron, Wilson Ramos, Matt Duffy) avoid injury and cratering. Oh, and the kids probably have to hit the ground running, especially Adames. That we can list so many things reveals why it’s hard to take the projection seriously―it feels like there are bigger error bars here than with most teams.