Baseball Prospectus Pre-Season Projection: 94-68, 3rd place
Current Record: 72-71, 3rd place
Third place seems safely correct, but the record? Not so much.
ESPN.com’s Buster Olney’s Take
What went wrong: The strong pitching that propelled the Rays into the World Series in 2008 cracked in 2009, with holes developing in the rotation and at closer; Tampa Bay went from having the third-best ERA in the majors in ’08 to 14th in the majors this year. Maybe it was because of the extra stress absorbed by the pitchers in ’08-and we’ve seen this type of effect on league champions year after year in this decade-or maybe it was a case of young pitchers going through development pains. But the Rays have to get more consistent work out of James Shields and Matt Garza next season.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: The Rays will inevitably weigh offers for Carl Crawford and decide whether they’ll get better value for the left fielder during the offseason or during next season. The Rays will probably keep Crawford into 2010, but he should keep his bags packed. General manager Andrew Friedman must figure out what to do with the talented B.J. Upton, whose struggles confounded Tampa Bay. There are some rival scouts who think Upton is a classic case of someone who needs a change of scenery; some believe he won’t improve his effort and flourish until he goes to another organization, where he might have a new level of accountability.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
When comparing a discrepancy between predicted and actual results, it’s important to remember that the PECOTA-projected record was based upon the individual player forecasts, and several Rays players fell well short of their projections. Upton was projected to hit .266/.365/.422 with solid defense in center field, and while he delivered on D, he’s mustered an ugly .236/.309/.364 line at the plate. Dioner Navarro was projected to produce a .253 EqA, but fell completely off the map (.209). Pat Burrell‘s .293 EqA projection automatically incorporated the growing pains that accompany senior circuit players headed to the tougher American League; even so, he has but a measly .259. Though Jason Bartlett (.317 actual EqA versus .241 projected) and Ben Zobrist (.316 versus .252 projected) have been tremendous surprises, their efforts alone could not counteract the ineffectiveness of that trio.
Unsurprisingly, the Rays’ offense proved volatile; as R.J. Anderson noted recently, they may be averaging 5.1 runs per game, but they scored fewer than five runs in a lower-than-average 61 percent of their games. On the mound, Shields has been his usual consistent self and Garza emerged as a future ace (if he isn’t already there), but Scott Kazmir battled injuries and ineffectiveness to the point that the Rays shipped him to the Angels. There were other disappointments in the rotation: Andy Sonnanstine looked lost, and if David Price delivered within the realm of reasonable expectations, he did not provide the type of breakout many expected after watching him pitch in last year’s playoffs. Worst of all, the bullpen that went from one of the best in the game to middle of the pack, if not worse.-Eric Seidman
Key Stat: 4.24
Last season, the Rays’ relief corps accrued a 15.48 WXRL as a group. This win expectancy-based counting stat adjusts for replacement level and the opposition’s quality, but it’s a cumulative tally-not a rate stat-and their current 4.24 mark has little chance at even halving last year’s total. The staff as a whole went from a 2008 ERA of 3.82 ERA (third in MLB) to a mediocre 4.35 mark. However, via QERA the Rays have gone from a 4.47 that ranked 13th in the game to a 4.51 that falls in at the 17th spot, ultimately suggesting that their pitchers’ controllable skills remained on target this season, but that Murphy’s Law reared its head with regards to stranding runners and performing well with runners on base, areas where pen performance is critical. Grant Balfour lost last year’s magic, Troy Percival was briefly disastrous before being put down, Joe Nelson and Brian Shouse were relative busts, and Jason Isringhausen and Chad Bradford could not stay healthy enough to contribute effectively.-Eric Seidman
Trades: As ESPN The Magazine‘s Buster Olney and ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark have noted, the Rays may sell high with Crawford and stay off the hook for his $10 million 2010 option and the free agency that follows. Possible trading partner: The Angels will lose Vladimir Guerrero‘s salary-and possibly Chone Figgins‘ speed.
Free Agency: The reliever market will be busy this winter. Tampa Bay will get one. Jose Valverde might be pricey, but what about Billy Wagner?
Depth Chart: The Rays’ rotation will be young in 2010. ESPN Insider Keith Law thinks former top draft pick Wade Davis might be in it. “He’s one of the top pitching prospects in the game, and why the Rays felt they could trade Scott Kazmir,” says Law. Davis could follow the path of David Price this year, with early rehearsals in the minors before joining the Show.
Who 2 Watch 4: Desmond Jennings, OF
Between Crawford’s contract and Upton’s continuing issues regarding performance and/or effort, don’t be surprised to see the Rays make a big splash this winter in order to make room for Jennings. The 23-year-old had a breakout year in 2007 but an injury-plagued 2008, but he returned to breakout territory by earning MVP honors in the Double-A Southern League and finishing the year hitting .318/.401/.487 across two levels with 11 home runs, 67 walks, and 52 stolen bases in 59 attempts. Scouts compare his athleticism to that of Crawford’s, but from the right side of the plate with less power and more walks.-Kevin Goldstein
Signed: 32 of 50
Spent: Just under $4 million
Hit: Luke Bailey, C (139th overall pick). Bailey’s spring Tommy John surgery dropped him 120 spots or more, but Tampa got him signed and got the discount, too. Bailey may be the most complete prep catcher in the class and his makeup and work ethic bode well for a full recovery.
Miss: LeVon Washington, 2B (30th). Drafting Washington without the willingness or ability to meet his price was a major risk. The club also failed to sign second-round SS Kenny Diekroger and spent nearly half of that $4 million on sixth- through 50th-round signings.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com
The Bottom Line
Fortunately, the Rays recognized they had little shot at contending to the bitter end and dealt Kazmir to the Angels. Most of the key contributors to last year’s pennant-winning team will return in 2010, with several top prospects potentially joining the big-league ranks, notably outfielders Jennings and Matt Joyce (the return in the Edwin Jackson deal), and infielders Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez (the major piece in the Kazmir trade). Price should be set from the get-go next time out, and Wade Davis may be able to hold down the job as the fifth starter. The money saved by dealing Kazmir allows Friedman to pursue bullpen help. Much went wrong for the Rays this season, but their future as a whole is very bright, and another forecast for 90 wins or more could very well be in the cards.-Eric Seidman, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .