At long last, the start of the new baseball season is upon us. After a disappointing 94 loss 2016 campaign, and a fairly eventful offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays have upgraded their roster in hopes of competing again in the AL East.
The Rays traded away second baseman Logan Forsythe in exchange for pitching prospect Jose De Leon, who should be able to contribute in the rotation in the near future. They also dealt Drew Smyly to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Mallex Smith — a move that now, in hindsight, looks to be wise considering that Smyly is expected to miss 6-8 weeks of the season due to a flexor injury in his left shoulder. Smith should provide the Rays with Gold Glove caliber defense.
And where the Rays usually tend to stay quiet with respect to the free-agent market, Tampa Bay addressed its need for a quality backstop by signing free agent catchers Wilson Ramos and Derek Norris. The former provides a significant upgrade over the tandem of Curt Casali and Luke Maile, especially if Ramos can bounce back from the terrible knee injury which required offseason surgery.
They also signed veteran infielder Rickie Weeks, re-signed first baseman Logan Morrison, and inked a deal with outfielder Colby Rasmus, who once he comes off the DL, is projected to be a starting left fielder, pushing Corey Dickerson to the DH…although Dickerson did drop 25 pounds prior to Spring Training, and he did look good in the field over the last seven weeks.
Yet even with the offseason moves, there are lingering questions about Kevin Cash’s squad — the biggest being if there is a path for the Rays to contend in 2017? The simple answer is yes, but only if everything goes right.
The walking wounded
First off, injuries will be a factor early in the season. As mentioned above, Rasmus and Ramos are slated to start the season on the DL, as are shortstop Matt Duffy, and relievers Brad Boxberger and Shawn Tolleson.
— Rasmus isn’t expected to be on the DL for an extended amount of time, as he is scheduled to play for the Class-A Charlotte Stone Crabs when they open their season on Thursday, i.e. he should be back with the big league squad during the second week of the season.
— Ramos was placed on the 60-day DL, which will keep him out until at least June 1. The hope is for Norris and Sucre to hold down the fort in the interim.
— Duffy told the Tampa Bay Times his surgically repaired left heel was feeling “really good” and “normal” after four days of rest in a hard cast, following an MRI and doctor exam that showed no issues.
The Rays will slowly build Duffy up, with no set target date to start playing rehab games, or appear in a regular-season game.
Step one is complete. It feels good, Duffy said. Now Step two is strengthening it for a while and continuing to feel good.
— Boxberger is tentatively scheduled to resume his throwing program next week. If everything goes as planned, Boxberger is about three weeks away from slotting back into the bullpen.
— Tolleson will start the season on the 60-day disabled list because of a right flexor strain.
Tolleson initially had back issues during camp, which limited him to just five appearances. However, the shoulder injury surfaced during his last appearance on March 23rd.
Pitching and defense
The Rays backbone in 2017 will again be pitching, as well as the defenders behind the hurlers.
Chris Archer is the ace. Forget that he collected 19 losses a season ago. His win/loss record was more of an indictment of Tampa Bay’s offense and bad luck than it was his ability. Archer finished 2016 with an FIP of 3.81 (tied for 25th among starting pitchers), while he pitched over 200 innings for the second consecutive season.
Jake Odorizzi took a step back 2016, although still put together a solid season. For the second consecutive year, he finished with a sub 3.75 ERA, although his worrisome 1.40 HR/9 ratio ranked 12th among starters, while his FIP rose 70 points to a career high 4.31. In order for Odorizzi to be effective in 2017, he simply must keep the ball in the park.
Blake Snell be due a breakout season, yet neither he nor Matt Andriese looked particularly sharp in Spring Training. Be that as it may, Snell was impressive last year, posting 3.39 FIP over 19 starts.
Simply put, Snell and Adriese must pitch better. After a 2016 season fraught with concern over starters who couldn’t pitch deeply enough into games, there is a legitimate worry that Snell and Andriese could lead to bullpen overuse.
Alex Cobb was mediocre in his return from Tommy John surgery. He, however, was able to work on things — mainly mechanics — during spring Training. If he can get back to his 2014 form, the Rays could have a second ace.
Defensively, PECOTA (by way of FRAA) pegs Tampa Bay’s defense to save 27.0 runs above average — tied for fourth best in the AL. When compared with the other teams in the AL East, the Rays (tied with Toronto) led the others by a fairly negligible margin…unless you’re the Baltimore Orioles and are projected for a -4.3 FRAA.
Overall, the Rays are projected for a total WARp of 32.6 (12.1 pitching and 20.5 non-pitching) — second best in the AL East behind Boston (39.4).
Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier is fresh off another Gold Glove season. Should he and his fellow outfielders Dickerson, Rasmus, Smith, Peter Bourjos and Steven Souza Jr. stay healthy, they’ll save lots of runs in their respective positions.
Evan Longoria is sure-handed at third, Brad Miller looked very good at second this spring, and Logan Morrison is a known quantity at first. Can Tim Beckham flash the tools he was drafted for in Duffy’s absence, and can Weeks be a steady platoon option at first?
One thing is certain, with the addition of Daniel Robertson to the 25-man roster, the shortstop job is Beckham’s (in Duffy’s absence) until it isn’t.
The ‘pen could be decent in 2017. If Archer, Odorizzi and Cobb can regularly get through six innings, the relievers won’t be worked too hard.
The back end of the bullpen is one of the most underrated in baseball.
Alex Colome earned the closer job last season and notched 37 saves. His 1.92 ERA ranked among the best relief pitchers, while his 11.28 K/9 put him in the top 20 among relievers.
Xavier Cedeno will likely be the setup man as he struck out a little over a batter every inning last season, and doesn’t often allow solid contact.
Danny Farquhar, who also has experience pitching in high leverage situations, put together an excellent second half last year. As long as the right-hander maintains a good separation between his fastball and off-speed stuff, his changeup can be devastating.
The unknown quantities are Erasmo Ramirez, who may be due some regression; Tolleson, who might be a diamond in the rough, although we won’t know until he returns; Jumbo Diaz, who the team hopes will have bounce back season; newcomer Austin Pruitt and Brad Boxberger, who struggled last season, but was an All-Star closer in 2015.
Will the Rays have a potent offense? Probably not. Last season, Tampa Bay hit 216 long balls, yet the team finished in the bottom 10 in runs. They also struck out 24.5% of the time.
Still there is reason for hope.
Evan Longoria, the heart and soul of the lineup, mashed 36 homers last season. Miller is coming off a 30 home run season, and there is no reason to think he can’t hit 20-25 in 2017. With added playing time Souza should hit 20-25 homers, while Ramos hit 22 in 2016, and Rasmus 15. For better or for worse, the Rays will likely continue to rely on the long ball. But if they don’t improve their plate patience, it won’t matter too much. The latest incarnation of the Rays must score runs to pick up the pitching staff.
The Rays enter the 2017 season with the same philosophy as 2016, which did not work out too well. They will have enough pitching to succeed, with the difference between 84 wins (which PECOTA projects them to accrue) and 90 is a one-run game here and another there.
In short, it all comes down luck, and the ability to take advantage of the breaks that may come their way. Forget not, according to BaseRuns — which estimates the number of runs a team “should have” scored given their component offensive statistics, as well as the number of runs a hitter or pitcher creates or allows — the Rays should have been an 81-81 team. That is, the nerds upstairs think the team is on the brink of a postseason berth.