Extreme Team Makeover

Last season, the Rays watched as Andrew Friedman and the team rebuilt the cherished 2010 bullpen with baited breath. This season, the team is once again rebuilding not only pieces of the bullpen but potentially half of the positions on the field. Needless to say, Rays fans are anxious.

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Yesterday, the Rays made a move of significance as Friedman acquired his white whale (h/t RJ) in Luke Scott, someone the team and a lot of people have long wanted, especially at the July trade deadline of 2010.

The team now has its primary Designated HItter for 2012 and potentially more but the first base situation remains unresolved unless you want to really look into the likes of Matt Joyce and Reid Brignac taking grounders at first base yesterday during winter instructional drills. As free agency winds down toward arbitration, is Friedman getting ready to tell the bus driver move that bus and reveal to us the extreme makeover of a team that won 91 games and made the post-season in 2011?

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Extreme Home Makeover redoes a house in a week's time, which is only bested by Ruben Amaro Jr's ability to sign a closer. The Rays, on the other hand, have an off-season that moves as slowly as the bus in that picture above would if a handful of you joined me trying to push it from that position.

It is a strategy that both frustrates anxious fans that want to see the team make improvements while also allowing the team to reap the benefits of playing the end game when players and agents realize they may have overplayed their hands and are now looking for good situation to play in. Either way, few teams have the luxury of resting on their laurels and everyone has room for improvements and makeovers to better themselves for the coming season.

For 2011, the shortcomings for the Rays were obvious. The team struggled to produce runs at home, had abysmal offensive production from shortstop, a mixture of both bad offense and defense from catching. Additionally, the bullpen is always in a constant state of flux as the team does not believe in long-term commitments for those roles.

Last season, the Rays' catchers struggled defensively as a unit. Kelly Shoppach was the best of the bunch behind the plate and his caught stealing numbers benefited from catching James Shields frequently . Yet, offense was a struggle for most of the season when he was forced outside of his comfort zone as a lefty-masher. John Jaso struggled mightily defensively for most of the season and regressed at the plate while Robinson Chirinos revealed his issues with footwork while throwing. The group's wRC+ last season was just 72 with a .274 wOBA, which was the fourth worst in the American League. Enter Jose Molina. His defensive chops have already been covered, but the remodeling of the position could still be ongoing. Molina has never had more than 297 plate appearances in a season and while Jose Lobaton had a good season in Durham, he still has just 39 plate appearances at the big league level. The amount of offensive renovation may not be much, but the defensive improvements behind the plate should be well-received.

The offensive issues at shortstop are well documents. The trio of Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, and Elliot Johnson combined to produce a wRC+ of 64 and a wOBA of .263 -- both worst in the American League. We also learned in November that the group made up for that by saving the most amount of runs in baseball from the position. The continued mentions of Ryan Theriot in rumors speak to potential remodeling of personnel, which comes on top of the frequent talk of providing Sean Rodriguez with a more prevalent role at the position in 2012. Rodriguez has earned the reputation as another lefty-masher but his struggles with both plate discipline and hitting right-handed pitching have held him back from a larger role and his OPS against right-handed pitching has declined each of his two seasons with the team. In 2010, he had a 0.12 BB/K ratio against righties but more than doubled that last season up to 0.30. That level is still rather low compared to his 0.74 rate against lefties but it is progress none the less. Rodriguez has also showed a two-year trend of improving walk rates in the latter two months of the season compared to earlier in the season.

SPLIT PA BB/K
1st 4 Months 629 0.23
Last 2 Months 411 0.44

There is little doubt that Rodriguez offers the most upside offensively of the trio, should all three return. However, the overall numbers against right-handed pitching are still well below average for the split but it appears the team is comfortable with the tipping point of his offensive upside over carrying Brignac's defensive prowess while absorbing his offensive struggles.

The bullpen has seen Andy Sonnanstine and Juan Cruz cleared out and replaced by Burke Badenhop and Fernando Rodney. In Badenhop, Maddon gets an extreme groundball pitcher to mix and match in late inning situations, something Adam Russell was not able to do when given the chance. Rodney comes in with a lot of risk as a pitcher that has struggled to throw strikes for most of his career, but Whelk showed us what the Rays are potentially looking at in replacing a known risk in Cruz with a perceived unknown risk in Rodney (he has more on that later today).

That brings us to yesterday. Yesterday, the DH room was renovated as Johnny Damon was cleared out and Luke Scott was installed in the role. Understandibly, Damon was not happy with it.

"There's some talk with them, some talk with other teams," he said. "Obviously, I love playing there, but for some reason they're looking for a DH and a first baseman. And I thought Kotchman and I were probably the two more consistent guys in the lineup last year. I know they want to upgrade the offense, but the offense is going to be fine as long as there's some production from the catching spot and shortstop.

"Those positions were hitting under .200 and obviously I think that's going to improve, and because of that, it's going to make the rest of the team improve. But Kotch and I keep hearing in the offseason that they want to get better there (DH and first)."

...

"You wonder why fans can't get involved with players,'' he said, "because they are here and gone.''

I covered 30 percent of the home schedule this past season so I was able to see a lot of the "clubhouse presence" that is often discussed but never qualified. Until then, it was something that I dismissed as a minimal factor because it was not something I could look at statistically to see how it affected the product on the field. We have all heard the 25 cabs for 25 players stories from other markets, but the Rays' clubhouse is unique because of both its mix of veterans, youth, and a manager who firmly believes in Laissez-Faire leadership. Damon has a certain gravitas to him in the clubhouse, but one moment in particular stood out to me over the course of the season, and that came when Alex Cobb was called up for his first start with the knowledge he was immediately being sent back to Durham.

After the media was done interview Cobb at his locker, Damon walked over and thanked Cobb for his efforts, told him he had the stuff to get it done at this level, and to go back down to Durham and keep doing what he was doing because the team was going to need him later that season. That is the type of story you hear from time to time or the kind of quote a manager will give the media in a post-game press conference, but to have an established vet like Damon take the time to come over and do that changed my outlook on clubhouse presence.

That story aside, Damon has every right to be frustrated with what happened but he also needs to realize that balling on a budget is different than the situations he has been in previously in Boston, New York, and Detroit. Those are places with the resources to sometimes pay for name value over production and keep fan favorites, even though those players are in obvious decline and become a detriment to the ball club. Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield are two names that immediately come to mind.

There is a safety net in consistency that comes with Damon as he has played in 140 or more games every season since seemingly the Reagan administration and has produced an above league average wOBA in 13 of the last 14 seasons. There is also a known risk of a player that is now 38 years old and has seen his numbers decline over the past three seasons. In Scott, we have a player the Rays have been long-rumored to covet and someone a large part of this site's readership wanted in both 2009 and 2010 before some of his off-the-field beliefs came to light.

On a numbers level, the two players are rather similar over the past three seasons. From 2009 to 2011, Damon had a .348 wOBA and a 114 wRC+ in three seasons of fulltime play. Scott, in just over two seasons of health, had a .359 wOBA and a 119 wRC+. If we look at OPS+ over that same time frame, we find that Scott's 122 OPS+ over the past three seasons is the seventh-highest for any left-handed hitter in baseball while Damon ranks 16th on that same list at 111. Using the 2012 projected value from BaseballProspectus' PECOTA system, Damon projects to a .262 TAv and one win above replacement player while Scott projects at a .282 TAv and 1.7 wins above replacement.

Fantasy baseball teams can be run with emotion, but there is no room for that kind of error on a team with slim profit margins. When the Rays see a chance to improve the team, they make it and in this case, they are getting four years younger at a position with similar offensive production over the past three seasons. The shoulder issue for Scott is a concern, but as Tommy Rancel mentioned yesterday, Dr. James Andrews did the surgery and Dr. Andrews is the team's medical director so a certain amount of trust has to be put into the medicals here as was the case when Joaquin Benoit was signed coming off major shoulder surgery.

The blueprint for the extreme roster makeover was well-represented graphically a few days ago by David Fung at Beyond the Boxscore.

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via David Fung @BeyondTheBoxscore (click to embiggen)

Using the historically aggressive Bill James projections, Fung showed the kind of growth the Rays could accomplish in a roster makeover. Catcher and now DH are both represented on that image. If you read through the comments Damon made last night, it seems likely that Casey Kotchman is going to suffer the same fate as the team looks to upgrade the offensive production from first base.

A team that was built on pitching, defense, and timely hitting achieved 91 wins and earned their way into the post-season with a little help along the way. Watching the 2008 Rays team make it to the World Series is a memory that no Rays fan will every forget.

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Most of the faces on that poster are gone, some could even come back. Each season, this team has undergone some form of renovations whether it was adding a $7M closer to spending less than that to revamp an entire bullpen, and to now upgrade the roster with more offensive talent at the expense of local kids done good. Baseball is a business and this team is run by people with strong business acumen who have done a damn good job of running a baseball team with limited resources year after year. The 2012 model of the Rays will look different from last year's model; whether it is better remains to be seen but the track record speaks for itself.

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