The Rays and the Win Curve

"To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man" - William Shakespeare's Hamlet

Teams often experience mirages and misinterpretation when they determine whether they should buy more, sell more, or do a mixture of both at the conclusion of each season. Dayton Moore's ability to accurately analyze his team is abominable. Bill Bavasi dealt a king, a queen, and an entire chest board for an ace when his team had the talent level of a .500 team.  Why are some teams so horrible at it? Perspective looms large. Admitting failure or mediocrity is like painting a pink slip on your forehead. There are cases where teams simply have no idea when it comes to honest evaluation; these teams feature general managers like Ed Wade and Dayton Moore.

This inability can lead to a misunderstanding of placement along the win curve.  This is a simple concept to understand, so allow me to explain it in a brief manner. The win curve is a non-linear quantification of the relationship between x amount of wins and the revenue in which the team will receive for reaching that total. For teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, win number 81 is more important than win number 81 for the Rays or Royals. At the same time, win number 95 for the Rays may have a higher difference from win 92 than the distance between wins number 88 and 84. This is based on simple playoff probability. If 88 wins ever results in a division pennant in the AL East I would be thoroughly surprised.  

This is why the Rays giving Pat Burrell a two-year 16 million dollar deal made sense, but the Nationals signing Adam Dunn for two-years and 20 million is bewildering.  Even if you assume Adam Dunn is a win better than Pat Burrell -- thus making up the difference in salaries -- the Rays still stand to gain more going from 90 wins to 92 wins than the Nationals do from 70 to 72. You have one team that understands it's placement on the curve and one that doesn't. Or, at best, one team willing to admit its shortcomings while the other only thinks of its strengths.

That brings us to the 2010 Rays. We know they're in a pretty good position relative to the rest of the league. They have a good and young (therefore mostly cheap) team. This allows for some creative financing and transactions, but also for the comfort of still having a well-rounded group in case plans A-D fall through. The questions I'll attempt to answer today are:

How aggressive should they be in pursuing more wins?

How much money do they need to acquire these victories through free agency?

How many more wins are needed?

Let's start at the beginning.

How good were the 2009 Rays? Well, 84 wins good if you think results are the only thing that matters. And yes, I guess to an extent they do matter when you judge a team. Not because a win total is the say-all, end-all figure though. No, instead you can use that real-world number as a baseline of which to find whether the team was lucky, unlucky, or just right.

The quick and dirty evaluation method is looking at a team's Pythagorean Record. Invented by Bill James the Pythag Records are based off runs allowed and runs scored or in a single term: run differential. This is a bit flawed because as we all know runs scored/runs allowed are potentially skewed by luck as well. For its worth, Pythag had the Rays with 86 wins in 2009. A two win increase over their real world record.

Using WAR, the Rays collected 16.3 pitching wins and 34.1 batting + fielding wins. 34 + 16 = 50, add that to the 46 wins a replacement level team would project to win and the Rays were expected to win about 96 games. Meanwhile the Yankees were expected to win 103 games and while the Red Sox took 97. Even if each team played up to its WAR, the Rays would've been left on the outside looking in. Last year's club was only worth 95 expected wins while Boston was worth 105, so it took a little luck to win the division; just as it would've taken some luck this year.

We know two things moving forward into next season:

1) The Rays were better than their record suggests.

2) The Yankees are unlikely to win 103 games again.

We've addressed number one, how about number two. The Yankees WAR record has them at 103 wins, they won 103 games, why is it so far-fetched that they won't repeat? After all, they are rich and can upgrade wherever they please through the free agency process. So why? Because teams that win that many games almost always regress.

 Since 1950 there have been 21 teams that have won at least 103 games during a season in which the following season wasn't shortened because of labor disputes. Those teams saw an average drop of 10 victories in the proceeding season with a median of 8. That means set the win total needed to take home the 2010 division crown at about 95 victories.

With that in mind, let's look at the Rays roster and try to project the 2010 WAR:

 

Player WAR Pitcher WAR
Catcher 0 Shields 4
Pena 3 Garza 3
Zobrist 4 Niemann 2.5
Longoria 6 Price 2
Bartlett 2.5 Davis 1.5
Crawford 3.5 Bullpen
Upton 3.5 Howell 1
Joyce 2 Balfour 0.75
Burrell 1 Others 1
Bench
Catcher 0
Aybar 1
Rodriguez 0.5
Perez 0.5

 

A) Nobody is going to agree 100% with these napkin projections B) everyone should agree with A. Adjust those numbers as you see fit. I tried to stay conservative - hence why Zobrist is losing 5 WAR between seasons; it's unrealistic to expect that performance again - and why Wade Davis is projected as below average. All told, that adds up to 90 expected wins. We need about six more. On the free agent market that's going to run you 24-30 million and let's file spending that much under "unlikely" since that's about half the Rays payroll. Instead the Rays are going to be looking at a finite amount to spend on new talent that comes nowhere near 20-30 million. The trade market and low-budget signings - probably bullpen and depth orientated - are going to be needed.

Where can they upgrade? Depending on whether Gregg Zaun opts out of his deal or not, you can fill in both catching slots as in need of an upgrade. Frankly the reserve doesn't matter a heck of a lot because he's playing once a week barring injury and most teams don't have one suitable catcher and can't even fathom two. Having established the need to look on the trade market, we have to find potential matches, what do the Rays have to sell?

The Rays have a bunch of everything except for first base/DH types. Another napkin calculation, but you're looking at seven starter quality infielders on the 40-man roster and about five (or more, if you count Zobrist/Rodriguez) starter quality outfielders. That doesn't include Akinori Iwamura either. You can only play seven of those guys at any given point. They also have an abundance of young pitching, which is to say money's not an issue when you're rolling with black oil in your pocket.  

Which catchers are going to be available? Geovany Soto? Russell Martin? Chris Snyder? Chris Ianetta? I don't know (although I will add a name to the list tomorrow). What I do know is that no one catcher is going to make up six wins. (Okay, Joe Mauer. You got me. But I don't think trading Evan Longoria for Mauer is a good deal.) You're aiming at 2 wins really; from there you can add a better bench player or pen arm, whatever. Maybe you swap Pat Burrell for Milton Bradley just to get the free meal. There are literally a thousand different paths the Rays could take when it comes to a combination of moves.

The Rays are in a nice position on the win curve; now the chore is to push even higher.

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