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American League Two-a-Days: Tampa Bay Rays

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Tampa Bay Rays

2013 record: 92-71
2013 runs scored: 700
2013 runs against: 646
2013 pythag. record: 87-75

The 2013 Rays were a pretty balanced team, scoring and preventing runs at an above average rate.  Talent-wise, they probably should have missed the playoffs, but Manager Joe Maddon found an extra five wins on their schedule and Tampa Bay won a play-in game against the Texas Rangers to make the postseason.  They then went to Cleveland and won there in the wild card round, before dropping 3 of 4 to the eventual champion, Boston.

Thanks to the miraculous run Tampa made in 2011, this was not the most improbable playoff season in recent Rays history, but it’s clear that the Carl Crawford/James Shields/Evan Longoria Rays are a team of the past.

Who is having a good spring?

Catcher Jose Molina, expected to split the short end of a timeshare with Ryan Hanigan, has reached base 4 of 9 times this spring to date.  SS Yunel Escobar, OF Matt Joyce, and OF David DeJesus are crushing the ball.  OF Kevin Kiermaier has seven total bases and a stolen bag as he attempts to make the team as a defensive ace.  RHP Alex Cobb hasn’t given up a run in two starts.  And in the “small sample optimism is all we have” division, left handed former top prospect Mike Montgomery has allowed two baserunners in three spring innings.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Rays

The Rays aren’t the team you worry about this time of year.  A very good team was able to make some really minor upgrades in the offseason.  They retained DeJesus on a two year extension, they re-signed James Loney, they acquired Hanigan from the Reds, and everyone else was under team control anyway.  The Rays opted against dealing ace LHP David Price, with no deals to their liking out there.  Joe Maddon has more information to use this season.  He has RF Wil Myers for a full season.  The young offensive talent is a year older.  87 wins seems like the floor for this organization.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Rays

The young offensive talent is a year closer to free agency, and some urgency to sell off some of it for payroll flexibility will be present throughout the season, particularly if/when the team is struggling.  The Rays do not have a sustainable competitive advantage over other teams in the American League.  Everything the Rays do that makes them successful is methodology that every other team in the AL has access to if they ever want to enjoy the kind of success Tampa does.  If this were the NFL, people would have coined the “Rays way” and started to steal their trade secrets five years ago.

RHP Jeremy Hellickson struggled greatly last season and is out indefinitely with an elbow tear.  The back end of the Rays’ pitching rotation is not very good.  Price, Cobb, and Chris Archer are an excellent front three, but Matt Moore is still trying to take a step past a guy who is really just a no. 4 starter, and the fifth spot could go to Jake Odorizzi, acquired from Kansas City in the trade that swapped Shields and Myers.  Jeff Niemann should be back from Tommy John surgery around midseason.  These concerns are mitigated somewhat by the fact that Tampa does a good job developing young pitchers.  It’s clear how the Rays plan to fix the back end of their rotation: they have an asking price on Price that essentially replaces Price with a younger top-line SP (Taijuan Walker of the Mariners was their top target) and a second, ML-ready arm for the middle of the rotation.   The Rays are in trouble if no one meets that asking price in the next 365 days.  They’ll have to drop it.

Myers is, by himself, a perfectly adequate return for James Shields, and the Rays also managed to get salary relief (from the Royals!) in the big trade of last offseason, but it’s not clear what kind of value Odorizzi, Montgomery, or Patrick Leonard will bring to Tampa this season.  If Odorizzi is below replacement level as a starting pitcher, then the deal from Tampa’s perspective didn’t return as much as it could have.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Rays is 41.0, 4th in the American League.  Their 25.8 Batters WAR projection is 2nd in the AL. Their 15.2 Pitchers WAR projection is 7th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Rays to win 85 games, a 7 win decline from last season.  Evan Longoria is the Ray with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 6.1.  David Price is the pitcher with the best average projection at 4.5 WAR.

The Rays vs the rest of the AL East

The AL East is baseball’s strongest division in 2014.  The Rays and Red Sox are top seven teams, in the elite class of baseball teams, and the Yankees and Blue Jays are anticipated to be top-half teams.  The Orioles are probably the best team expected to finish in fifth this season.  The Blue Jays are a longshot contender, but the Red Sox and the Rays are the class of the AL East this year.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Tampa Bay Rays

It seems like the Rays have become a 90 win machine, and with that in mind, a team that looks a bit better than it did one year ago should be a fairly conservative choice to go 90-72 again, for a second place finish in the AL East, and probably a wild card.  The longer-term projection for the Rays suggests that this is a fairly pivotal year for the franchise.  Teams are going to start catching up to their defensive methodology and shifting as more information becomes available, and though the Rays have been pioneers in this regard, it is going to be tough for any team to consistently outperform it’s periphrials by as much as the Rays do on an annual basis.

Tampa also hasn’t drafted and developed talent nearly as well as they get credit for.  They’re maxed out in terms of payroll, and from a more human perspective, guys like GM Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon are going to move on eventually.  The constraints on the Rays organization are likely to accelerate that.  Other teams throwing crazy money at them might make it inevitable.  On some level, it’s incredibly impressive that the Rays have kept their core group together for this long.

But it needs to be said that the Rays between 2008-2010 were a more talented team in a conventional sense.  2014 should be the pinnacle year of the Rays’ second wave of talent, but this team isn’t quite the Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals, or Red Sox in terms of top to bottom organizational strength.  They are in the next tier with the Rangers, Tigers, Braves, and A’s.  If the Rays win just 90 games, that will be a job well done, but not done quite as well as some would have hoped.

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